Firebrand


Featured Image by Oouna: https://www.oouna.com/ https://www.furaffinity.net/user/oouna/

© 2019 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: size difference, large breasts, curvy, muscle, furry, femdom, maledom, first time, biting, scratching, light bondage, sweat, humanoid insect, blowjob, oral, vaginal, alien genitals, long tongue, kissing, massage, handjob, masturbation, solo female, girl on girl, romance, deepthroat, creampie.

CHAPTER 1: STRONG HAND

The cold water ran over Moralez’s prosthetic fingers as he held them beneath the flow of the faucet, turning them over, flexing them as the liquid poured across the tread-like pads that helped them grip objects. He could feel the chill on the black polymer that encased the machinery and electronics within, as if it was his own skin, the sensation perfectly mimicking that of the limb that he had left behind on Kruger III.

He brought his toothbrush to his mouth, peering at his grizzled face in the mirror as he leaned over the bathroom sink. His tanned skin was a patchwork of healed scars, and the same was true all over his body. People often told him that he looked like he had been through a blender or a meat grinder, but he had no interest in corrective surgery. The doctors on the station could have him looking as fresh and as smooth as a newborn in an afternoon, and the UNN would pay for it. He was a veteran, after all. But each of those scars told a story, each one of them had been earned. Some men wore their medals on their chests, others wore them on their skin.

He touched the rubbery pads of his fingers against his cheek, feeling the stubble beneath them, and wondering if it would be worth shaving before heading out. Making himself presentable for official functions beyond wearing a clean uniform was a little pointless. He shifted his weight, the gel layer that cushioned his prosthetic leg where it met what was left of his thigh chafing a little. Maybe he’d get Kurtz to take a look at it when he had some time off, the engineer always knew what minute tweaks and adjustments to make.

In total, Moralez had lost three limbs during his military career. Both of his arms had been blown off by a grenade that had gone off at an inopportune time, and the leg had been severed by the twenty-millimeter cannon of a gunship. All in all, it had been a pretty shitty tour. Rehabilitation had been one of the hardest things that he had ever done, but now he was back on his feet, fully operational.

Kaisha leaned in through the bathroom door as he spat out a mouthful of mint-flavored toothpaste, glancing at his reflection as she buttoned up her lab coat, her ice-blue eyes meeting his. At eight feet tall, she might have needed to duck in order to fit through a normal-sized door, but this was her apartment. It was Moralez who had to stand on a crate to reach her oversized sink, as everything was scaled up to accommodate her species. Co-habitation had been a bit of a problem at first, but it was easier for him to climb up onto an oversized couch than it was for her to sit on an undersized one. Besides, he couldn’t complain about the extra living space. His old quarters would have fit into hers thrice over.

She was a Polar, to be exact, a race that hailed from the frozen ice cap of her homeworld. A coat of thick, downy fur covered her body from head to toe, its snow-white color broken up by natural camouflage that resembled dark coffee stains. Her layer of insulating fat gave her a soft, voluptuous figure, the weight settling attractively in all of the places that might entice a man. Her abundant chest strained against the fabric of her lab coat, the subtle paunch of her belly protruding over her waistline, her rear filling out her skirt. She stood on a pair of digitigrade legs, her paw-like feet tipped with black claws, a long tail like a feather duster waving back and forth behind her. Her face was human enough to be familiar, save for the flat brow, and the pink, feline nose.

I might have to work late tonight,” she warned, pulling down her black skirt a little where it was riding up her round thighs. “One of my patients has been having issues with his prosthetic eyes, he says that they won’t focus properly, but Kurtz and I can’t find any issues with the lenses. It might be psychosomatic, or maybe a problem with the neural link. They can be finicky like that.”

It was Kaisha who had seen Moralez through his difficult rehabilitation, and at the end of the process, they had become much more than doctor and patient. Her expertise when it came to healing maimed soldiers was unparalleled, her natural Polar intuitiveness and compassion making her the ideal person to guide the damaged on their road to recovery.

You’ll figure it out,” he replied, the electric motors in his hands whirring as he cupped them beneath the water. He brought them to his mouth, rinsing as his alien partner watched, the round ears that protruded from her slate-grey hair flicking idly. “You always do.”

Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she chuckled. “Today is your big day, right? You told me something about lots of ambassadors showing up all at once?”

Yeah, there’s a big Coalition meeting happening,” he replied as he hopped down off his crate. While his arms were modeled to closely mimic their organic counterparts in both form and function, the leg was little more than a skeletal frame, molded polymer housings concealing motors and batteries. His foot was a stylized, curved piece of carbon fiber that was flexible and springy, able to absorb impacts and push back realistically when he walked. It was little more than a skid, but it did the job admirably, affording him enough sensation to feel the cool tiles on the bathroom floor.

The Coalition security council is meeting today to discuss admitting some new members to the alliance,” he continued as he reached for a towel. “The Araxie joined not long ago, and now we have the Valbarans and the Jarilo colony making bids to join. Nobody really knows much about the Valbarans, they live right out on the edge of Coalition space, and they’ve never been as far as the station before. It will have taken their delegates about six months to get down here. I’m curious to see what they look like in person.”

And contact with them was an accident?” Kaisha asked.

Yeah, that’s what I was told. A long-range patrol that was out scouting for Bugs stumbled across them and helped them defend their planet against a hive fleet. One in a million kind of thing, the right place at the right time. The way I heard it, if the jump carrier hadn’t turned up when it did, they might have missed Valbara completely. Their entire civilization would have been Bug chow.”

And the Jarilo colony?” Kaisha asked, her tone becoming a touch less playful. She knew his history well enough, she knew how many years of his life he had dedicated to warding off the encroaching insectoids, how many friends and colleagues he had seen slain by their Drone foot soldiers. His injuries had been incurred during the campaign to free the Kruger system from their clutches, he had very nearly given his life in the endeavor.

The Betelgeusian hive fleets could appear anywhere, at any moment, exiting superlight and attacking whatever habitable worlds lay in their path. Their ruthless life cycle demanded endless expansion, forcing the fleets to either found new colonies or to attack one another like starving rats. They were as pitiless and as aggressive towards one another as they were to the inhabitants of the planets that they sought to claim, thinking nothing of genocide, and having no discernible rules of engagement. Every encounter with them was a bitter battle to the death.

They haven’t told me jack about them,” he replied, Kaisha stepping out of his way as he exited the bathroom with his towel slung over his shoulder. “You’d think that the Admiralty would want their security chief to be properly informed, but it’s all very hush-hush. Hard to tell if it’s classified stuff, or if they just don’t want word getting out that they’re even considering the application. All I know is that one of their representatives will be arriving and that I need to keep the guy from getting lynched. I pity whoever drew the short straw on that one, lord knows the Bugs can’t speak for themselves. Literally...”

Friendly and Betelgeusian are not words that one hears together frequently,” Kaisha added. She leaned against the door frame and crossed her arms, watching as he moved over to their massive bed and began to pull on his uniform.

Of course, they can’t keep a whole fleet quiet,” he said as he zipped up his blue coveralls. “Some of the people who came back from Jarilo talked, but it’s hard to say how much of that talk is true, and how much is just hearsay. Some of it sounded downright ridiculous, like colonists coexisting with the Bugs on the planet. Doesn’t matter how Earth-like it is, or how cheap the real estate, ain’t no way anyone would willingly set up shop anywhere near a known Bug colony.”

She marched over to him and straightened his collar, interrupting his spiel as he gazed up at her, his face scarcely at chest height to the towering alien. Her hands were large enough to encompass his head like a cantaloupe, her thick fingers tipped with fleshy pads, not unlike his own rubbery grip surfaces. Each digit ended in a wicked, black claw, curved and sharp like the talon of a predatory bird. She was careful, gentle, however. She could cradle a baby in those hands, and he wouldn’t spare a thought for its safety.

He reached up and ran his prosthetic fingers through the fur on the back of her hand, finding it fluffy and silky, its texture calming his nerves. Kaisha cupped his cheek in her palm and leaned down to plant a lingering kiss on his forehead.

You’ll know the truth soon enough,” she said, pulling away and releasing him from her grasp. “Now, I mustn’t dawdle. If I’m back later than you, fetch me something to eat, alright?”

Sure thing,” he said, watching as she turned towards the door to their apartment. How did the old saying go? ‘I hate to see you go, but I love to watch you leave.’ She paused at the door, looking back over her shoulder to catch him gazing longingly at her shapely rear through the clinging fabric of her skirt. She was as wily as ever, always seeming to know what he was thinking.

Get me a longburger from Kofe’s shop, and I’ll do that thing you like when I get home,” she added with a sly smile. He gave her a mock salute, and she stepped out onto the torus.

***

Moralez weaved through the throngs of people that clogged the station’s walkways, his brain filtering out the roar of muddled conversations through habit, like the sound of the surf or the pattering of rain on a roof. There were humans in both civilian and military garb, the blue uniforms of Navy personnel and the yellow overalls of engineers identifying them. The aliens stood head and shoulders above their smaller counterparts, the crowds parting to let them pass.

The reptilian Krell were easily visible due to their long, crocodile-like snouts, and the layers of spinach-green scutes that armored their hunched bodies. At around fifteen feet from their noses to their long, dragging tails, they were the largest species in the Coalition by far. They were much friendlier than their imposing appearance would suggest, almost to a fault. They were nude, save for the poncho-like uniforms that they wore, having no external genitalia to cover up. As amphibious creatures, they spent much of their free time swimming in the station’s pool, or warming themselves beneath heat lamps in their specially-designed barracks. When it came to combat, they made fearsome warriors. Their natural durability and their protective instincts had seen many a Marine whisked from the brink of certain death, and they could also carry heavy weaponry that was too large for any human to wield, making them somewhat akin to walking pillboxes.

There were a few errant packs of Borealans, too, moving in tightly-knit groups of half a dozen or more. They were similar in appearance to Kaisha, save for their more sparse fur and their muscular physiques. They hailed from the equatorial region of the planet, where it was far hotter than at the poles, and so they lacked the thick fur and insulating blubber of their Northern counterparts. Their penchant for violence and their physical prowess made them ideal shock troopers, but Moralez had also found them to be loyal, dependable soldiers. He had become more familiar with their savage, pack-based culture than he would have liked, but the majority of them were able to suppress their more confrontational impulses through socialization and training.

The torus extended in both directions, its subtle curvature only noticeable in the distance, where it arched out of view beneath the painted ceiling. The mural was made to resemble a blue sky with fluffy, white clouds, the large lamps that were spaced out at intervals approximating the heat and light of a sun. Everything about the Pinwheel, as it was colloquially known, was designed to trick the mind. The hull of the station to either side of the street was lined with the sculpted facades of buildings, and the walkway was decorated with planters that housed all manner of trees and shrubs. There was even an artificial breeze, everything that a weary sailor might need to get all of the benefits of shore leave without actually having to ship down to a planet. It was almost enough to trick one into believing that they were on a city street, rather than inside a giant, rotating habitat in deep space. Almost...

Moralez was moving through the tourist quarter as he made his way to the military quarter where he worked. There was something that he needed to pick up before he reported in for duty today. Over time, the Naval base had become as much a hub for transportation and tourism as it was a military installation, and so the Admiralty had allowed civilians to open stores and businesses in a designated quadrant. There were restaurants, bars, clothing outlets. Pretty much anything that a traveler or an off-duty Marine might need.

There were a few hey Chief’s and morning Sir’s as he threaded through the crowds. As the station’s security chief, he was acquainted with most of the facility's permanent residents, and his singular appearance made him easy to pick out in a crowd.

He arrived at a small store with a colorful awning, its imitation brickwork carved from the station’s white hull material. The windows that looked out onto the street displayed all manner of strange artifacts. There were ornate bowls, primitive rifle stocks, and trinkets that had been engraved with beautiful and complex reliefs. There were hunting scenes featuring alien animals, intricate floral arrangements, and geometric patterns of impressive complexity.

The bell on the door rang as he opened it, stepping inside the cramped store to see shelves lined with similarly artistic creations. It was narrow enough that two men would have had difficulty standing side by side, and a Krell wouldn’t have been able to fit inside at all. The ceiling was maybe eight feet high, giving the room a squashed feeling, like it was being crushed between the two adjacent buildings. The Pinwheel had a finite amount of living space, and so people had to make do with whatever they could get.

At the far end of the narrow room was a faux-wood counter, and behind it was a door, from which emerged a somewhat flustered Borealan. She had red hair and smooth, pale skin on her face. She wasn’t wearing the blue uniform of a Shock Trooper, but rather civilian clothes, a tank top and a pair of shorts that suggested her work area might be rather hot and cramped.

She wiped her brow on the back of her furry hand, her orange coat extending to her elbows, where it tapered into clean skin to make it look as though she was wearing fluffy elbow gloves. He knew that the same would be true of her legs, where the fur would end at her knees. She took up position behind the counter, her long, striped tail flicking back and forth as she fixed her round ears on him.

Security Chief,” she began, “welcome!”

Hello, Zhari,” he replied, admiring one of the decorative plates as he made his way over to her. “Is it ready? I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a hurry today.”

Of course,” she replied, bowing her head in a sign of deference. “Please wait here, I shall fetch it for you.”

With that, she scurried away to the back room, leaving the door ajar. Zhari was one of the few Equatorials on the station who had taken up a trade, rather than serving as an auxiliary in the Navy. She had a knack for engraving and damascening, which was a traditional practice for the aliens, and her services had become quite popular with some of the Marines recently. It was a melding of human and alien cultures that always put a smile on his face, the same way that some of the feline aliens were starting to appear with elaborate tattoos.

She reemerged a moment later, holding a handgun in her furry paws. She passed it to him over the counter, waiting with bated breath as he began to examine it. The weapon was huge by human standards, yet not large enough to be wielded comfortably by a Borealan or a Krell. His prosthetic hand molded around the familiar contours as though it had been made for him, because it had. The XMH, or X-Species Modular Handgun, was the sidearm variant of the standard-issue rifle that was used by the Coalition. It fired a tungsten slug from a receiver that functioned like a railgun, which was then captured and accelerated by magnetic coils in the barrel.

Moralez’s prosthetics gave him greater strength and stability than that of their organic counterparts. He had been able to modify his sidearm to be larger, heavier, and harder-hitting than any that an intact human could comfortably wield. The barrel was longer than average, packed with dense coils that accelerated the projectile to impressive velocities, the servos in his arm the only thing keeping the recoil remotely manageable. It was a real hand-cannon.

The matte black of the polymer grip was now overlaid with white enamel, inlaid with a golden Marine Corps logo. The receiver and part of the barrel’s housing were damascened, a process by which precious metals were carefully hammered into the underlying material to create intricate patterns and scenes that almost resembled the tapestries of ancient times. Golden floral designs and creeping vines twisted around the barrel, leading into a hunting scene on the receiver, the trees of a forest parting to reveal a human with his rifle shouldered. The detail was incredible, almost microscopic, accented with silver where appropriate.

Phenomenal work, Zhari,” he muttered as he turned the weapon over in his hands.

You honor me, Security Chief,” she replied with another bow of her head.

He drew a magazine from the pouch on his belt, slotting it into the well, then stowed the weapon in its holster. Officers were permitted to carry loaded weapons on the station, and the battery was currently switched off, which served as the handgun’s safety.

Maybe I’ll pop off one of my arms and have you decorate that one of these days,” he said, flexing his fingers.

You jest, Security Chief, but I would not turn down the challenge.”

I don’t doubt it,” he chuckled, turning towards the door.

***

The sea of casual clothes gave way to an ocean of blue and yellow as Moralez arrived in the Naval quarter, where the barracks, armory, and other military facilities were housed. Formations of Marines jogged past him, wearing their black combat armor, on their way to drills or deployments. The massive hangar doors broke up the more spartan and functional structures in the hull of the torus, leading out into cavernous bays that could accommodate vessels as large as frigates. These were not even the biggest, the Pinwheel was one of the few installations that had dry docks for servicing jump carriers and battleships outside of the orbital shipyards where they were originally constructed.

The tablet computer in his pocket was already blowing up with alerts as he arrived at the security building, stepping through the automatic doors and into the lobby. It was decorated with the same matte white that was seen throughout most of the station, a few ferns in planters breaking up the monotony here and there. He greeted the two secretaries who were sitting behind monitors at their desk, then continued on his way, passing by waiting rooms and the employee lounge. The torus was far deeper than it looked from the street, and the buildings could extend quite a distance into its hull.

Moralez didn’t really think of himself as a cop, as much as the building resembled a police station, and as evocative as his title was. He was responsible for keeping the station secure and ensuring the safety of the people on it. He deployed teams of MPs to break up bar fights and to drag the offending personnel to the brig, he dealt with organizing the station’s defenses during an enemy attack, and he was entrusted with keeping everything running smoothly.

His job was akin to balancing spinning plates. The Pinwheel was in a perpetual state of carefully moderated chaos, it was as large as a small town, with tens of thousands of people passing through in a given week. Soldiers, aliens, civilians. He was responsible for every person who set foot here, and every ship that docked.

It was early in the morning, but he could see that the workday had already begun. There was an especially surly Borealan sitting on a chair that was far too small for him in one of the waiting rooms. He was of the Equatorial variety, his smooth skin a dark shade of caramel, his fur a sandy blonde where it was visible beneath his Navy jumpsuit. His furry hands were concealed beneath a pair of specialized manacles that almost resembled a child’s mittens, linked together by a sturdy chain, preventing him from making use of his claws. The room was being guarded by two MPs who were wearing white helmets and sashes on top of their black armor. Judging by the way that his nose was running and his puffy eyes were streaming tears, he had recently been maced.

What have we got here?” Moralez asked, stopping by the door to get a look at the alien.

Drunk and disorderly, Chief,” one of the MPs replied from beneath his full-faced helmet. “Once we’re done processing him, we’ll throw him in the drunk tank until Raz can come down and pick him up.”

The alien’s ears flattened against his straw-colored hair at that, and he gazed down at the floor dejectedly. Raz was the unofficial Matriarch of the station, the most respected among the Equatorials, and the highest-ranked in their pack structure. She trained the newcomers, tempered them so that they could interact with humans, taught them how to suppress and redirect their more savage proclivities. Moralez had quickly discovered that having her pay troublemakers a visit was a far more effective form of punishment than any pay dock or suspension that he could mete out.

Very good,” he replied, “I’ll be in my office if you need anything.”

His office was at the far end of the hall, and he entered through the sliding door, flopping down into a chair in front of a bank of monitors. The room was sparsely furnished, but he found that the cramped space helped focus him. This was his control center, the readouts displaying information on the station and its operations. He fished his tablet out of his pocket and began to scroll through his alerts. It was mostly mundane stuff, but there was one alert requesting that he put a call through to the Admiral as soon as he arrived at work. There was always at least one of them on the station at any time, and they were the highest authority in the Navy.

He wasted no time, tapping into the vidphone on his desk and fiddling with his collar for a moment. Before long, a man wearing a pristine, white uniform appeared on his monitor from the waist up. The Admiral’s breast was adorned with colored ribbons and UNN insignias, his matching cap sporting the organization's logo emblazoned in gold above the rim, a globe contained within a wreath. He was an older man, his clean-shaven face weatherbeaten, his blue eyes cold and intense beneath a pair of bushy brows.

You asked to see me, Admiral?” Moralez asked.

Good morning, Chief Moralez,” the Admiral replied curtly. “Our timetable has been moved up, some of the ambassadors will be arriving a few hours earlier than anticipated. I don’t think I need to tell you that I expect this security council meeting to go off without a hitch. I don’t want so much as a road bump, you understand me? We have potentially valuable new allies petitioning for entry into the Coalition, and we need to show them that we run a tight operation, that we’re as competent as they’ve been led to believe. Appearances are everything.”

Yes, Sir,” Moralez replied. “I’ve already made arrangements to see to the security needs and accommodations of the ambassadors.”

There’s something else,” the Admiral continued, his tone becoming somewhat dour. “You were informed that a representative of the Jarilo colony would be attending the conference, is that correct?”

Yes, Sir. Although I have to say, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I assumed that we’d be needing some extra security, so I saw to that already.”

I’m afraid that we may need some...special accommodations for this delegate,” he continued. Moralez cocked an eyebrow, it almost sounded as though the Admiral was reluctant to give him any more information.

How so, Sir?”

You were told that the ambassador would be representing the Betelgeusian hive on Jarilo, but not that the ambassador hailed from that same hive.”

A...Bug ambassador, Sir?” Moralez asked in disbelief. “You want to bring Bugs onto the station?”

Watch your tone, Chief,” he snapped. “It was not my decision alone, and it was not made lightly.”

Of course, Sir, I apologize. It just...caught me a little off-guard is all.”

In all fairness, I reacted the same way when the idea was proposed,” he continued. “There will be no Betelgeusian entourage, a single Bug will be traveling to the station under heavy guard, and it will sit in on the security council meeting in order to plead its case. It will be staying on the station for the duration of the proceedings, likely several days. When it arrives on the station, it will be transferred over to the custody of your security team, and you will henceforth be responsible for its safety. Keep the damned thing out of sight of the general population where possible, we don’t want to start a panic.”

Yes, Sir. If we need to move it around, we can access the maintenance tunnels and keep it off the torus. I’ll put it in one of the vacant apartments under armed guard, get my guys to keep an eye on it.”

I’ve read through your service record, Chief,” the Admiral said as he shifted his weight in front of the camera. He must be standing. “You’re surely aware of the animosity that many in the Coalition feel towards the Betelgeusians?”

That’s an understatement, Sir. Practically everyone on the station has lost a friend or a colleague to them.”

Indeed. Nothing can happen to this ambassador, is that understood? Allying ourselves with a Betelgeusian hive might sound insane, but it represents a significant security interest for the Coalition, not to mention lasting peace on Jarilo. If we can gain access to their technologies and the inner workings of their hives, then that knowledge can be applied to better exterminating their cousins.”

If I may ask, Admiral, what’s the situation on Jarilo? I’ve heard rumors, but I don’t know what to believe. Any information that you can give me might help me do my job better.”

The Admiral paused to consider for a moment, his wrinkled brow furrowing.

Very well, I suppose there’s no reason to refuse your request this late into the game. Jarilo is a remarkably Earth-like planet that was recently discovered by survey vessels, a veritable Garden of Eden. The surveyors also picked up signs of Bug activity, and so a fleet led by the UNN Thermopylae was quickly dispatched to claim it. They arrived before the Bugs had landed all of their troops and before the orbital defenses had been deployed, and were able to destroy three hive ships in the ensuing engagement. This starved the Betelgeusians of the resources and manpower that they required to establish a self-sufficient colony, so I’m told. There were a series of ground battles in which the enemy exhausted the remainder of their resources, and when they reached a stage where their defeat was inevitable, they surrendered unconditionally.”

They surrendered, Sir?” Moralez repeated in disbelief. “Will all due respect, I’ve seen Drones that had been cut clean in half by anti-personnel mines drag their bodies across the battlefield in an attempt to reach our lines, I can’t imagine that a hive would ever surrender. I’m not sure they’re even sentient, they’re just mindless insects. Besides, how would they communicate that surrender? They lack vocal cords, and they have no written language. They only communicate through pheromones.”

As you may know, Betelgeusian hives war amongst themselves as much as they war with us,” the Admiral explained. “I am told that, in rare circumstances, a hive may overcome another without actually destroying it utterly. In such a scenario, the defeated hive offers itself to the victor in the form of genetic material. If they fought well, then their genes might be of benefit to the conquering hive, and can thus be incorporated. This ensures the survival of their lineage.”

So that’s what happened on Jarilo?” Moralez mused, scratching his stubbly chin with his prosthetic fingers. “The Bugs were put in a position where they were exhausted of resources, and then gave up, expecting us to assimilate them?”

I suppose they’re getting what they wanted if they’re petitioning to join the Coalition,” the Admiral added. “In a way, we’ll be assimilating them into our own hive if we deem them to be of use to us. As for how they communicated their surrender, that’s...a little more complicated. This information is on a need-to-know basis, so I don’t want you repeating it. They took a Marine captive, one Sergeant Walker, and performed some kind of invasive medical procedure on him that gave him the ability to sense their pheromones. Over the days that he was kept in their hive, he learned to speak their language, if you can call it that. He delivered their surrender, and acted as a mediator in the aftermath.”

A turncoat, Sir?” Moralez asked suspiciously. “How can they be sure of where his loyalties lie if the Bugs were fiddling around in his head?”

No, at least that’s what the UNNI shrinks reported. His loyalties were certainly split, but they judged him to be of sound mind, despite the alien sense organ that the buggers had wired into his brain. Walker won’t be serving as the ambassador, however. The hive has birthed a new caste dedicated to the diplomatic role, a Diplo-bug, if you will. I am assured that this...creature, has the ability and the authority to speak on behalf of its people.”

And you want me to prevent the first Borealan that sees it from swiping its head clean off its shoulders?” Moralez asked, leaning back in his chair. The Admiral nodded in reply. “Understood, Sir. I’ll have a team guarding it twenty-four seven, people I trust. I have a couple of guys in mind who fit the bill. One more thing, Sir, if I may?”

Go on,” the Admiral urged with a nod.

There aren’t...colonists living on Jarilo, are there?”

Well, we certainly wouldn’t cede such a valuable planet to the Bugs, regardless of how friendly they proved to be. Jarilo is ours, and it’s currently undergoing colonization. The Bug hive exists there with our permission, and the people living there are quite safe. If the fleet stationed in orbit hears so much as a peep from our guests, they’re prepared to bring the boot down, as it were.”

That sets me a little more at ease, Sir.”

Very good, Security Chief. The first ambassador will be arriving at oh-nine-hundred hours. And, Chief? Do give the Valbaran delegation a bit of a show. They’ve never visited the station before, and first impressions count.”

***

This is flight control,” a female voice rang out over the comms channel, Moralez interrupting his work to turn his attention to one of his monitors. “The Elysian vessel has exited superlight in proximity to the station, Sir,” the operator announced. “Shall I patch the external camera feed into your terminal?”

Roger that, flight control, I’d like eyes on them. Get a tug out there and guide the Elysians in, I wouldn’t trust them to drive a forklift, never mind what appears to be a...frigate? What the...”

The feed from one of the cameras that was mounted on the station’s exterior displayed in a window on his screen, and he watched as the angular vessel righted itself after its jump, the innumerable thrusters that were spaced out along its hull flaring with jets of blue hydrogen flame. It had once been a UNN railgun frigate, that much was obvious by its one hundred and fifty-meter profile, its armored plating arranged to provide a low radar cross-section. There were dome-like structures along its length that would open up to reveal the railgun batteries beneath, the windows along the subtly raised bridge near the aft catching the light from the system’s star. The large main engines were located at the aft, currently out of view. But where once it would have been painted with a black stealth coating made from radar-absorbent materials, it now sported a garish red and gold, decorated with traditional Elysian hunting scenes that flowed across its hull like a tapestry. The aliens had apparently chosen flair over practicality. It was an older model, a junker by modern standards, but its owners might not know or care. Borealis was somewhat of a backwater, they had only recently begun manufacturing black powder weapons by the time the UNN had made contact with them, and the Patriarch who ruled Elysia liked his toys. The territory had been assembling a somewhat less than regulation fleet as of late, mostly sourced from disreputable used starship dealers. The UNN had it on good authority that the dealers were selling on many of the ships that they had been contracted to scrap.

Yes, Sir,” the woman in the station’s control center replied. “I can have them towed into bay seventeen, but wouldn’t it be prudent to have them send a shuttle over instead?”

No, I want our techs to look her over when she lands,” Moralez replied. “I’ll sleep better if I can be sure that the ambassador will make it back home without the damned thing falling apart.”

Roger that, Sir. I’ll contact engineering and have them dispatch a team to inspect the vessel.”

Just make sure that they arrive maybe an hour after the ship lands, we wouldn’t want to inadvertently insult the ambassador. I’m on my way to bay seventeen, let the Admiral know that our guests have begun to arrive.”

***

The cavernous hangar bay reminded Moralez of an underground cave, but made from silver metal and white hull material rather than uneven rock, the echoing of his footsteps only adding to that illusion. The ceiling must have been sixty feet above his head, and the distance between the flickering force field that kept the atmosphere in and the back wall must have been a good six hundred feet. There were elevated catwalks on the walls, engineers in their yellow jumpsuits walking back and forth along them, and embedded in the ceiling above were bright lamps spaced at intervals that lit the whole space in a pale glow.

Beyond the thin barrier of energy, he could see the velvet darkness of space, the stars seeming to rotate past sluggishly as the habitat spun to simulate gravity. Navy vessels had AG fields that generated artificial gravity, but the torus was simply too large for such conveniences. They had to rely on the power of physics alone.

This bay was mostly empty save for a solitary dropship that was currently refueling, a team of engineers milling about the vessel, glancing at tablet computers as they ran checks. There was a snaking pipe that emerged from a panel in the floor, hooking up beneath the small craft’s wing.

The centerpiece was the Elysian frigate, which was now docked and sitting idle on the deck. The seven thousand ton starship was resting on a set of a dozen landing skids, the hydraulic cables that hung from the shadowy recesses in its underbelly, and the massive compression disks that were built into the struts giving some idea as to how they were able to support its immense mass. These vessels could fly in atmosphere, and even make landfall if absolutely necessary, but it was best avoided where possible. Judging by the presence of what looked like sand clinging to the struts, it appeared that the Elysians thought differently.

The tapestry-like reliefs on the hull were even more impressive up close, the thing was a veritable Sistine Chapel. It was a little like the damascene work that Zhari had done on his sidearm, but on a far larger scale. The regal, crimson undercoat was overlaid with intricate designs in shining gold, depicting scenes of hunting and warfare from their territory’s history. There were Borealan figures wielding rifles as they engaged in combat and sport, depictions of alien animals that he didn’t recognize, and elaborate representations of the planet’s dense jungles. Everything had a somewhat odd perspective, giving it a Medieval vibe. It was a shame that the heat of reentry had stripped some of the artwork from the nose and belly of the craft, the Elysian craftsmen must not have accounted for that.

The landing ramp was already lowered, situated near the aft section, below the elevated bridge. A pair of giant, shining hydraulic pistons stood to either side of it like metal pillars, the interior too dark to be seen beneath the shadow of the vessel. Moralez waved his companions forward. He was joined by a dignitary who had been sent to greet the ambassadors, and they were flanked by two Borealan Shock Troopers who were clad in black combat armor, their feline faces obscured beneath their opaque visors. They were not here for backup, but rather to make the Elysian ambassador more at home. They were his countrymen, hailing from Elysia, and they should help to put him more at ease. The Elysians always appreciated a show of force.

A large figure lumbered down the ramp, his regal outfit giving him away as the ambassador. He was a head taller than the two Shock Troopers, with broad shoulders and rust-colored fur that was patterned with faded stripes. He was wearing what looked like a blend between a suit of armor and billowy fabric, extensively decorated with the same reds and golds that adorned his ship. His tunic was made from flowing, crimson material that was secured about his waist with a leather belt that sported a golden buckle, along with a pair of knee-length shorts in the same style. Sewn into the fabric of his tunic was another hunting scene, the golden threads woven into a depiction of alien figures chasing down unidentifiable animals.

Upon his shoulders were two large pauldrons, the heavy metal colored red with gold trim. They were strapped to him with more leather belts that formed a cross pattern over his barrel chest, adorned with golden studs and badges that resembled medals. His claws were sheathed in ornate thimbles, attached to rings on his thick fingers via delicate chains. Upon his back was a cape that trailed on the ramp behind him, the fur shifting hue with an odd iridescence as he moved. It looked like some kind of fur, almost like an oil slick in the way that it refracted the light.

He was not descending alone, however. To his right was another Borealan, this one a female. Her entire body was covered in a sleek, shiny layer of jet-black fur, thinner and slicker than the thick fluff of a Polar. She was a little shorter than her counterpart, her build far slimmer than his muscled frame, giving her the appearance of a gymnast rather than a bodybuilder. Unlike the Elysian, her attire was startlingly human. She wore a two-piece suit, its black color giving the impression that it was blending with her fur, complete with a jacket and a neat skirt. It gave her the air of a high-powered executive, although her lack of shoes somewhat diminished the effect. He couldn’t help but notice her impressive bust. She was well-endowed, even for a Borealan.

Moralez finally recognized her as Ambassador Zuki, the delegate for the Araxie territory. He hadn’t been informed that the two would be traveling together. He had read her dossier, as he had done for all of the visitors who would be placed under his protection, but she was rather enigmatic. Her people were the newest addition to the Coalition, they had joined recently enough that there were no Araxie soldiers serving in the Navy yet. This was the first time that he had seen one in person.

Ambassadors Elysiedde, Zuki, welcome to Fort Hamilton,” the dignitary said as they approached from beneath the looming frigate. He was wearing a white uniform not dissimilar from that of a UNN officer’s formal attire, but without the exuberance of medals and ribbons. “I regret that the presiding Admiral is currently indisposed, but he will be attending the council meeting to represent the UNN as planned. My name is Secretary Stevens, and I will be seeing to your needs for the duration of your stay here. Accompanying me is Security Chief Moralez, who will be responsible for your safety.”

It is good to be back,” Elysiedde said jovially, his booming voice carrying through the hangar. He sucked in a breath of air, inflating his chest and planting his hands on his hips as he appraised his surroundings. “The Pinwheel is as impressive as ever. I am sure that this security council meeting will be just as productive as the last. My Lord Patriarch sends his greetings, my uncle hopes that the flagship of our burgeoning fleet will impress.”

Indeed it does,” Stevens replied, raising his eyes to its ornate hull. “I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before.”

Chief Moralez, Secretary Stevens,” the second Borealan said, stepping forward and extending a hand in greeting to each man in turn. Moralez took it, noting that her fur was just as silky as it looked, and wondering what she made of his prosthetics. “I don’t believe that we’ve been formally introduced, Chief, but your reputation precedes you. My name is Zuki, I am representing the Araxie territory.”

Nice to meet you, Ambassador,” he replied. She had a firm handshake, confident, and she appeared to be more attuned to human customs than her counterpart.

We weren’t expecting you to arrive with the Elysian delegation,” Stevens added, “I trust that relations are continuing to improve?”

I could have charted a Courser to the station, like our Rask colleague,” she replied. “But the Patriarch was kind enough to offer me passage aboard his flagship, and I thought that we might use the time to discuss that very subject. I’m happy to say that Araxie and Elysia are becoming firm friends, we have signed many new trade and security treaties since we were last here.”

I’m pleased to hear that,” Stevens replied, gesturing for the ambassadors to follow him. “This way, if you would. I’ll show you to your suites in the residential quarter.”

They made their way across the hangar, the Elysian ambassador beginning to chat with the Shock Troopers in their native language of hisses and growls. After a minute or two, the Araxie ambassador seemed to grow curious, her furry ears pivoting in his direction.

What are you scheming about, Torza?” Zuki asked jokingly. The stocky Equatorial gave her a toothy grin in response. The two seemed to be on first-name terms.

I merely inquire as to the nature of the Security Chief’s injuries, they intrigue me.”

Really, Torza,” Zuki scolded. “It’s hardly polite.”

I mean no offense,” he added hurriedly. “In my culture, injuries earned in battle are to be displayed with pride. Such severe wounds would have seen even an Elysian Ranger rendered invalid, but this human still performs his duties, and he holds a prestigious title at that.”

It’s quite alright,” Moralez replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, the electric motors whirring. “I did indeed lose my limbs in battle, but the story probably isn’t as heroic as you’re imagining. I lost the arms to a grenade that went off too soon, and I lost the leg to friendly fire. The gunship was trying to take out a Betelgeusian Warrior that was nearby at the time.”

Then you faced a Warrior and lived to tell of it?” Torza said, obviously impressed by the tale all the same. “Perhaps it is a better story than you think, Chief of Security.”

What of your crew, Ambassador Elysiedde?” Stevens asked. “Will they be staying on the flagship, or will they be coming aboard? It wouldn’t be difficult to secure guest visas for them if they would like to explore the station and make use of the facilities, as long as they remain in the tourist quarter.”

Yes, a little shore leave might do them good,” he replied. “I will have them come aboard when the necessary arrangements have been made.”

They emerged onto the torus through a smaller opening that was built into the sixty-foot-high hangar door, Stevens leading the ambassadors downspin towards the residential quarter as the two Troopers followed. Moralez said a brief goodbye to the Borealans, then headed back in the direction of the security building. On the way, he received a call from the flight control operator again, pausing and putting a finger to his earpiece as he tried to hear her over the roar of the crowd.

Security Chief, we have another incoming vessel. A UNN Courser inbound from Borealis has just left superlight, and they’ll be dispatching a shuttle with the Rask ambassador aboard shortly. Where would you like me to send them?”

Have her sent to hangar seventeen,” Moralez replied, “might as well get them all in one place.”

Would you like me to contact Secretary Stevens or another member of the diplomatic staff and have them meet you there?”

No,” Moralez said, “I doubt that the honorable Rask delegate would much appreciate a formal reception. I’ll handle it myself.”

***

The shuttle matched velocity with the rotation of the habitat, its thrusters shooting jets of flame as it slowly glided towards the thin force field of the hangar, the energy barrier allowing the solid object to pass through it. It was another ocean-grey Navy vessel, a troop carrier designed to ferry personnel to and fro. It had a pair of stubby wings for gliding in atmosphere, and a cockpit situated high on the stunted nose for maximum visibility. The thrusters on its underside flared with blue fire as the inertia caught it, its wheeled landing gear descending as it hovered just above the deck, before touching down with a clunk. The vessel bounced as the gear absorbed the impact, and then the whine of the engines began to wind down.

The troop ramp at the rear of the dropship descended with a pneumatic hiss, and another large, feline figure stepped out. She rounded the vessel, which was facing the far wall, and began to stalk over to Moralez once she noticed him standing alone on the deck. She spared a glance at the Elysian frigate, wrinkling her nose at it.

Unlike Torza’s light complexion, this one’s skin was dusky, and her hair looked as though it had been bleached blonde by the sun. Her fur was the same color, devoid of any patterning where it was visible on her hands, her lower legs, and her whipping tail.

Her clothing was all tight leather in shades of jet black and dark brown, her pants leaving little to the imagination as they strained against her muscular thighs and rump, creaking as she walked. If it wasn’t for the obvious stitching that held them together, he might have assumed that they had been painted onto her. They ended just above the heel joints of her digitigrade legs, giving way to her sandy fur. There were belts and holsters hanging around her waist that housed an arsenal of knives and unwieldy, primitive revolvers, but the guards would certainly relieve her of them before allowing her to set foot on the central hub. Even then, disarming her was somewhat of a futile gesture. Borealans were never unarmed, their claws were like meat hooks.

Her leather jacket was a little looser, resembling something that a biker would wear. It was thick enough that it might actually provide some measure of protection from claws or blades, lined with thick padding that reminded him of a stab vest. It seemed to be handmade, but that wasn't a dig against its quality. The fine leather was adorned with golden studs and badges, decorative patterns were pressed into the material, and there were patches sewn into it. None of the Borealans seemed to like wearing shoes, but she did have fingerless, leather gloves that left her curved claws exposed. The knuckles were studded with silver metal, likely for making her punches more lethal.

Vice Admiral Korbaz,” Moralez began, the alien looking him up and down disdainfully with her yellow eyes. “Welcome back to Fort Hamilton.”

I recognize you, tin man,” she replied. “We have met before.”

Yes, we met briefly the last time that you were on the station. There was an issue with you relinquishing your weapons before entering a secure area if memory serves. My name is Chief Moralez, and I’m responsible for station security.”

Indeed. I recognize your metal flesh.”

Why is it always the prosthetics that people remember?” he asked, his tone dry and sarcastic. “What about my pretty face?” he added, gesturing to his grizzled visage.

Using humor to diffuse tension,” Korbaz sneered, “how very...human.”

He waved for her to follow him, the two beginning to walk back towards the exit to the torus.

Were you not accompanied by an entourage, Ambassador?” Moralez asked. “I have to say, it’s unusual to see a lone Rask without the company of their pack.”

Any Rask on the station will recognize my rank and make themselves available to me if I require it,” she replied. “I have no need to travel with a pack.”

Very well. Would you like me to show you to your suite?”

No,” she replied gruffly, “I know my way around this station well enough.”

Are we going to have any problems this time, Vice Admiral, or are you going to make an effort to abide by our rules? Your countrymen don’t seem to have as many issues remembering our regulations as you do. You should realize that diplomatic immunity only goes so far, I have strict orders from the Admiralty to make sure that nothing disrupts this council meeting.”

Those who have undergone your training, no doubt,” she grumbled.

You know all too well why Borealans must complete their integration training before serving in mixed units,” he replied.

There are those among us who believe that your integration training is a form of brainwashing, that it strips those who undergo it of what makes them Borealan. It renders them docile...malleable,” she sneered.

I’m aware that some members of the Rask hierarchy believe that only the strongest and most vicious should lead, and that your people are uniquely qualified. I certainly won’t dispute the latter. But this is the Coalition, Vice Admiral, not a Borealan pack. The organization treats all of its members equally. We have no ruler, no Alpha.”

That is what you tell yourselves, perhaps,” she added as they approached the door. “But we are not blind to the way that things work out here. We have a creature on the homeworld, a pack animal known as the Archeox that is loyal to those with the strength to lead it. This is a trait that we both share, making them easy to domesticate. Several of them together can bring down a Borealan, and we deploy them in battle against our enemies.”

We have a similar animal on Earth know as a dog,” Moralez replied.

They are too simple to realize that their blind loyalty is often rewarded with death. We see this relationship in the Coalition, also.”

How so?” Moralez asked, pausing politely to let her pass through the door before him.

The humans have a chain around the necks of the Borealan people,” she continued as they walked out onto the habitat, the artificial breeze catching her blonde hair. “You send them into battle in much the same way, rewarding their loyalty with death. But the Brokers...they have a chain around your necks, human. It has not escaped our attention that there are never any Brokers on the station, none in your armies, and none of their ships in your fleets. I may be the only Rask who has ever laid eyes on one.”

They provide material support for the war effort, rather than ground troops,” Moralez explained.” Funding, raw materials, technology. That kind of thing. I can only assume that they’re not suited to combat roles.”

And do you not feed your war dogs well until the time has come to sacrifice them?”

I’m curious, Vice Admiral, why would your Matriarch send someone so outspokenly critical of the Coalition to represent her interests?”

Perhaps because, like you, I am not afraid to speak my mind. I appreciate that you do not talk down to me as your fawning politicians do, Security Chief. You have a certain...brashness about you.” She reached out and ran her padded fingers across his scarred cheek, her sharp claws getting dangerously close. Moralez didn’t react, meeting her gaze unflinchingly, staring up into her amber eyes as she peered back at him with her feline pupils. “What if I were to put a chain around your neck, and take you as my consort?”

Others have tried,” he warned, taking her wrist in his hand and pulling it away. He increased his grip strength, her eyes widening in alarm. “It didn’t end well for them.”

Her expression morphed into a wry smile, and he released her from his grasp, the ambassador rubbing her wrist and flexing her fingers as she looked him up and down with a new appreciation.

A pity. With strength like yours, you might even be able to keep up with me.”

Unfortunately, I’m spoken for,” he replied sternly.

Yes, I surmised as much. A Polar,” she said, turning her feline nose up at him. “I can smell her cloying scent on you.”

I like you, Korbaz,” Moralez said as he crossed his arms over his chest. “We always have such frank discussions. Just behave yourself while you’re on my station, and we’ll get along just fine, alright?”

One would think that you didn’t trust me, Security Chief,” she replied with a toothy grin that exposed her sharp teeth. “My people are accustomed to being put under unjust scrutiny.”

Guilty as charged,” he replied. “Now, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to contact me or any of the ambassadorial staff on the station. I hope that your stay will be an...uneventful one.”

See you around, tin man,” she said as she wandered off into the crowd. Moralez waited until she was out of earshot before loosing a relieved sigh. He put a finger to his earpiece, pulling out his tablet computer and putting a call through to flight control.

Flight control, this is the Security Chief. Please let the Admiral know that the Rask delegate has arrived on the station. Who have we got next?”

Roger that, Chief. You have a little time before the Broker vessel is slated to arrive. If you’d like to have them redirected to hangar seventeen again, I’ll inform Secretary Stevens and have him meet you there.”

Sounds good,” Moralez replied, “keep me informed.”

It was probably time to get in touch with the security team that he had in mind for the Diplo-bug. He set off in the direction of the recreation center, not needing to call ahead to know where they would be.

CHAPTER 2: JOKERS WILD

Call,” Harry said, taking a conservative sip from a glass of brandy as his alien companion looked down at the cards that he was holding. It was almost impossible to tell when a Krell was bluffing, their reptilian features were so hard to read, their scaly faces nigh expressionless. The creature was hunched over the round table opposite him, his eight-foot frame meaning that he had to practically double over to get level with it. He was sitting on a stool from the bar, equipped with a sturdy spring that would sink the occupant down level with the counter, designed to accommodate the various species that frequented the establishment. His long, oar-like tail trailed along the floor a good distance behind him, making up almost half of the alien’s body length. It was thick and heavy, packed with fat reserves and muscle for swimming.

A cloud of grey cigarette smoke lingered in the air above them, the fans that hung from the ceiling creating swirling patterns as they spun, their lamps casting a yellow glow that created dark shadows to give everything a dingy vibe. They were surrounded by booths and tables, many of which were occupied by their fellow Navy personnel, puffing on e-cigars and drinking their ration of alcohol as they chatted or played games. The bar was off to their right, made from the same faux-wood as the tables and paneling, the glittering bottles that lined the shelves behind it reflecting the light. The flashing neon of arcade cabinets added a touch of color the space, and a low murmur of conversation provided a constant background noise. There were few places on the station where Harry felt more at ease, he always relished the time between deployments.

Hang on,” he grumbled, running his fingers through his blonde hair in exasperation as he looked down at his hand. “How can I have Four of a Kind if you have a Royal Flush? I’ve got all four Kings.”

The Krell began to laugh, a low, huffing sound that was felt as much as it was heard. The giant reptile lay his cards on the table, spreading them out with his seven-fingered hand.

What the...why are there two King of Clubs? You always cheat, you walking handbag. How are you doin’ that? You don’t even have sleeves!”

His companion continued to chuckle in his alien way, Harry reaching over and plucking the extra card from the table. Some people dismissed the Krell as being slow, or unintelligent, due to their sluggish mannerisms and their easygoing nature. They concerned themselves only with basking beneath the heat lamps in their barracks, and clogging the lanes in the Pinwheel’s Olympic pool, following what orders they were given without question. Those who took the time to get to know them better soon discovered that they were just as sharp as any other species. The perception of them as being anything less was mostly a result of their plodding metabolisms, and the way that their longevity altered their perception of time. The Krell rarely did anything with any urgency, unless it pertained to combat. While they wouldn’t hurt a fly under normal circumstances, if someone threatened their charges, they would fly into a frenzy and tear the aggressor limb from limb.

Right, let’s try again,” Harry complained as he scooped up the cards and began to shuffle the deck. “And this time, I’m going to deal.”

The Krell turned his snout towards the door, loosing a low trilling sound that he used to greet someone that he recognized. He couldn’t reproduce human speech, at least not without a translator, but he understood it just fine.

Harry swiveled in his seat to see the Chief approaching, the man raising an e-cigar to his lips with his prosthetic hand as he neared their table.

What’s up, Chief?” Harry asked. “You got time off? I’m trying to get a fair Poker game out of Blackjack if you want to buy in.”

What’s on the table?” the Chief asked, taking a draw from his cigar. “Finally, I’ve wanted a smoke all damned day. Kaisha won’t let me do it in the apartment, says it stings her nose.”

We’re just playin’ for today’s tab,” Harry replied, shuffling the cards. “Blackjack doesn’t drink much, but he doesn’t stand much chance of losing either, so it evens out.”

The Krell rumbled in agreement, the low resonance making the glass of brandy vibrate.

Unfortunately, I’m here on business,” Moralez replied. Harry made to stand to attention, he hadn’t realized that the Chief was on duty, but a prosthetic hand on his shoulder stayed him. “At ease, Harry. I’ve got an assignment that I think you two will be well suited for. Follow me over to one of the booths at the back, I don’t want to be overheard.”

Aye, Chief. Come on, BJ.”

There was a creak as the Krell rose from his stool, his tail dragging on the floor behind him as the trio made their way over to an unoccupied booth. Harry and Moralez slid into the padded benches, while Blackjack stood beside their table, blocking the view of the room with his bulk.

Moralez paused to take another puff from his cigar, Harry listening intently as he began to speak.

The Admiralty has informed me that we have a very unusual VIP coming in today to sit in on the Coalition security council meeting.”

Unusual how, Sir?” Harry asked.

Before I tell you that, you need to know two things,” he said as he leaned across the table conspiratorially. “The first is that you must not repeat what I tell you here to anyone, is that understood?”

Of course, Sir.”

The second,” he continued after another brief draw from his cigar, “is that this is a voluntary assignment. Due to its unusual nature, I won’t order you to do it. If you don’t feel up to the task, I won’t fault you for turning it down.”

Well damn, Chief, are you gonna tell us what it is?”

What do you know about Jarilo?” Moralez asked.

Jarilo?” Harry mused, glancing at Blackjack. “It’s a colony planet, the Navy recently cleared it of Bugs. I know a few people who served on the Thermopylae during the campaign, it was a pretty clean op from what I heard. They caught the roaches with their pants down.”

They didn’t clear the planet of Bugs,” Moralez said, the glow from his e-cigar lighting up his grizzled face in the gloom of the booth. “The hive that was dug in there surrendered, and the Navy accepted...”

I...don’t understand, Chief,” Harry stammered. He glanced at BJ again, as if seeking reassurance, but the Krell remained expressionless as he listened intently to their conversation. “How can a Bug hive surrender?”

That’s a long story, but the gist of this thing is that the hive is sending an ambassador to the station, and the Admiral has tasked me with making certain that nothing happens to them while they’re here. I need bodyguards to stay with them for the duration of their visit, someone reliable, someone I can trust. You two fit the bill. You’re a smart kid, Harry, and a good Marine. I know that you can handle yourself and that you’ll make the right decisions in a pinch. Blackjack is a Krell, enough said,” he added as he gestured to the reptile with his cigar.

That’s high praise, Chief,” Harry replied. “I guess if anyone found out that this guy was working with the Bugs, there’d be a big-ass target on his back. Ain’t nobody on the station who hasn’t lost someone to the roaches, present company included.”

It’s a little more complicated than that,” Moralez continued, exhaling a cloud of smoke to join the haze that hung in the air. “The ambassador is a Bug.”

Harry’s demeanor changed, a frown darkening his face.

Sir, with all due respect, we’re letting Bugs on the station now? I joined up to kill roaches, I cut my teeth repelling Bug boarding parties, and now we’re giving ‘em free tours?”

I reacted the same way when they told me,” Moralez said, “but that’s what the Admiralty wants. They think that they can get something out of this, maybe an edge over the other hives, and it’s not our place to question their orders. I’m going to need you to babysit this thing at all times and keep it out of view of the public. I have some ideas on that front, but we can talk about the details later. Are you in, or are you out?”

If you think it needs doin’, then we’ll do it,” Harry replied with a shrug. “Blackjack, you wanna weigh in on this, or not?” The giant alien merely rumbled, his low voice making their teeth chatter. “He says he’s in,” Harry explained.

I know I’m asking a lot,” Moralez continued. “I know that if this gets out, then you might face some backlash from the other Marines.”

The old soap in a sock treatment?” Harry replied with a grin. “Nah, don’t pay it any mind, Chief. I’ve done my time on the front, I’ve killed my share of buggers. Everyone who’s served with me knows it, and I don’t much care about the opinions of those who haven’t.”

Moralez reached across the table, offering his polymer hand to Harry, who shook it.

Glad to hear it, Marine. I’ll pull some strings, make sure that you and Blackjack are compensated appropriately. I can probably convince the bean-counters that this qualifies as both overtime and hazard pay.”

Much obliged, Sir.”

I’ll let you know where and when,” the Chief continued as he rose from his seat. “Until then, I have to get back to my duties. I didn’t realize that I’d be working as a greeter when I accepted the position of Security Chief.”

***

Moralez found himself in the hangar once again, standing beside Secretary Stevens as they awaited their next visitor. The shuttle that had ferried the Rask delegate to the station had left, but the gaudy Elysian frigate still occupied much of the space. The vessel was surrounded by a team of yellow-clad engineers now, and he found himself wondering what they made of it.

So...what do you think the Brokers are?” Stevens asked, breaking the silence. “Are they autonomous drones, are they controlled remotely, or do you think that there’s a creature inside that suit?”

Hard to guess,” Moralez replied, “I’ve only seen them once or twice. I’d think that a suit would be less clunky if anything.”

Yes, they never visit the station unless absolutely necessary. I wasn’t on call during the last council meeting, so this will be my first interaction with one. I’ve seen pictures, but that’s about it.”

Here they come,” Moralez said, gesturing beyond the wavering barrier of energy. As they watched, a silvery glint came into view, gradually growing until its shape came into better focus. It looked to Moralez like a cigar that had been wrapped in tin foil, made from shining, silver metal that reflected the unfiltered sunlight of the system’s star like a beacon. It was completely featureless. There were no visible engines, no windows, no bridge. He couldn’t make out the telltale puffs or gas or jets of flame from thrusters, it simply seemed to glide effortlessly through space, under no visible forms of propulsion.

The object slid through the hangar’s force field, hovering silently above the deck. Where the shuttle had needed to compensate for the bay’s gravity, the Broker vessel seemed untouched, merely floating down to the floor as though it was no heavier than a feather.

It did not deploy landing gear. Instead, it came to a stop just above the deck, as if it was resting on an invisible cushion. It slowly rotated on a dime to put itself side-on to its captivated audience, an indent appearing in the chrome finish at its flared midsection, as though an unseen blade was scoring the metal. The indent opened like a wound, the metal parting, somehow flexible. A ramp descended from the orifice, seeming to grow out of the silver material, stopping when it came into contact with the deck.

Stevens and Moralez craned their necks in an attempt to get a look inside the mysterious vessel, but the interior was too shadowy for them to make out anything of substance. From the darkness emerged two creatures.

The first looked like a refrigerator perched atop a pair of robotic legs, standing around eight feet tall. Its bulky, square body was a shade of matte white, while its mechanical components were the same shining silver as the hull of its vessel. It was featureless, save for a litany of sensors and lenses that protruded from the forward face, cameras and scopes of varying sizes seeming to zoom and focus independently of one another as they scrutinized the two humans. Protruding from the sides of the chassis were four segmented arms made from chrome metal, flexible like tentacles. Each one was tipped with some kind of grasping claw or strange attachment, the appendages hanging frozen in the air in unnatural positions while at rest. It was supported on two skeletal limbs made up of silver rods and pistons, exposed machinery visible in the spaces between the protective covering. It had backwards-facing knees, like a giant chicken, with cup-shaped feet.

The Broker marched down the ramp, waiting patiently for its companion to join it.

The second figure was an especially large Krell, his skull alone must have been five or six feet long, and he bordered on twenty feet from his nose to the tip of his dragging tail. The reptiles never stopped growing, and their lifespans seemed indefinite from a human perspective. The longer they lived, the larger they grew, and the darker their complexion became. This individual was sheathed in a layer of hard, thick scutes and overlapping scales like medieval armor, a dark green in color that faded to a lighter beige on his leathery underbelly.

He wore a poncho made from dark leather that was sparsely decorated with geometric patterns, reminding Moralez of tribal cave paintings, and his green scales were covered in some kind of colorful dye. There were multicolored handprints and alien sigils staining the smoother scales of his underside, as though other Krell had been fingerpainting on him, almost like tattoos. Hanging about his neck was a mass of rope necklaces and pendants that were piled on top of each other, there must have been a hundred of them. They were decorated with seashells, colorful beads, and carved pieces of wood. If their weight caused him any discomfort, he didn’t show it.

Upon his thick wrist was a device that resembled the onboard computers that were a component of Marine armor, with a built-in touch panel that was lit up with an orange glow. It clearly wasn’t of Krell origin, and it looked quite out of place.

The two aliens were so diametrically opposed. One was the very embodiment of advanced technology, while the other was a primitive, yet it was not unusual or unexpected for them to arrive together. The alliance between the Brokers and the Krell predated the UNN’s entry into the Coalition by several hundred years, and they had a very close relationship. The Krell were not capable of space flight under their own power, their soldiers were delivered to the station on Broker vessels as needed, and returned in the same manner once their duties to the Coalition were fulfilled. The Krell seemed to have absolutely no interest in industrializing their society or obtaining any modern amenities. They did what was required of them as part of their commitment to the alliance, and no more.

Honorable council members,” Stevens began with a bow, “welcome to Fort Hamilton.” Moralez hesitated for a moment, then mimicked the bow, the Broker watching them with its unnerving number of electronic eyes. They hadn’t bowed for the Borealans, perhaps Stevens had prepared different greetings for the different races.

The Krell reached down and began to tap at the device on his wrist, then responded with a low, guttural rumbling that Moralez could feel in his bones. It was almost sub-sonic, so powerful that it seemed to vibrate the very air around them, echoing throughout the hangar like a church organ in a cathedral. After a moment, a halting, synthesized voice was emitted from the device. It was translating his alien speech.

Greetings to those within our great circle,” it said. “We have come to parliament to take part in deliberation. The Elders pay tribute.”

We welcome you into our circle, wise Elder Rasheth,” Stevens replied in a formal tone. The alien lumbered over to him, his size and sheer mass even more apparent as he neared the comparatively tiny human. The Krell leaned down to press his scaly forehead against Stevens’, his crocodile-like snout long enough that it reached the man’s knees, packed with jutting teeth. It was a kind of Krell Eskimo kiss, their equivalent of a handshake, perhaps. Moralez was relieved when the alien didn’t expect the same greeting from him.

The Broker remained at the foot of the ramp, seemingly unwilling to stray too far from its strange ship. From somewhere on its robotic body came a tinny voice, far more advanced than the translator that the Krell was using, but still somewhat synthetic.

I will remain on my vessel until my presence is required,” it said.

As you wish, councilman,” Stevens replied. “Please don’t hesitate to contact the ambassadorial staff if you should need anything.”

With that, the robotic creature turned around and made its way back up the ramp. The wound in the hull healed up, the ramp receding into the body of the craft, leaving it as featureless as when it had arrived. Not too friendly, these Brokers…

Come, Elder. Allow me to show you to your suite,” Stevens said as he guided the lumbering Krell across the hangar. “We have prepared a basking pool and a heat lamp for you.”

Moralez stayed to examine the Broker vessel from a distance for a minute, wanting to get closer, but worrying that it might be a breach of protocol. Their technology truly was amazing, to the point that he couldn’t even make sense of it. A shame that they didn’t see fit to share it with everybody else…

A call came through on his earpiece, and he put his finger to it, the familiar voice of the flight control operator coming through.

I’m sorry to disturb you, Security Chief, but we have an unknown vessel on approach.”

Unknown?” he repeated.

The configuration appears to be that of a UNN Courser, but it has no transponder, and it’s refusing to identify itself.”

Can you pipe an image through to my tablet?” Moralez asked, pulling the device from his pocket.

One moment,” she replied. “There, you should have it.”

The external cameras that were mounted on the hull of the torus showed what looked like a Courser at first glance. The vessel was shaped like a giant cotton swab, with a needle-nosed cockpit section at the front that was connected via a skeletal frame to the engine and reactor section at the back. They were designed to be the perfect balance between mass and power capacity, able to perform long-range superlight jumps that outpaced vessels many times their size. They were most often used for ferrying VIPs, and for delivering important messages where conventional communications were not available.

This one differed from the usual configuration, however. Its sleek hull was encased in layers of armor plating, the angular surfaces painted with a black stealth coating, throwing off that careful balance of mass and speed. Where there should have been naked beams that resembled the jib of a construction crane, there were instead what looked like missile pods, along with a few jutting railgun batteries. The vessel certainly generated enough juice to power them, but that wasn’t the point.

And you’re not picking up a transponder signal?” Moralez asked, watching the vessel’s thrusters flare as it made small course corrections. All UNN ships had a transponder that broadcast identifying signals upon receiving a query from a friendly vessel, used mostly in IFF systems as a way to track friendlies.

Negative, Chief. They transmitted what seem to be correct Navy codes upon request, but they won’t comply with our requests for identification. They won’t give us a name or a serial number. Protocol states that I should let them through, but it’s highly irregular. I thought it best to let you know.”

I’m going to get the Admiral on the horn, keep an eye on it. If its weapons go hot, or it begins to accelerate towards the station, I want you to scramble a Beewolf squadron to intercept. Warn any ships in the vicinity that we have a potential problem.”

Roger that, Sir,” she replied. Moralez put in a call to the Admiral, waiting impatiently for a few moments before it went through.

Yes, Security Chief. What is it?” the Admiral asked, a touch of irritation in his voice. “I’m very busy right now.”

Sorry to disturb you, Admiral, but we have an unknown vessel on approach that has no transponder and is refusing to identify. I’ve told flight control to be ready to launch interceptors if it activates its weapons systems. It appears to be a UNN Courser with some unusual modifications.”

That’s one of ours, Security Chief, we’ve been expecting it. Tell flight control to cooperate fully.”

Sir?” Moralez asked, confused. “As the Security Chief of this station, and considering how many VIPs we currently have aboard, I’m going to need a little more information than that.”

Are you making demands of me, Security Chief?” the Admiral replied.

No, Sir, not at all. But this is unusual, to say the least, and I need to know who’s on my station if I’m going to do my job properly. Is this vessel delivering the asset that we discussed?”

No,” the Admiral replied sternly. “That ship is on a classified mission and has no obligation to identify itself to flight control. It has the correct codes, and I’m telling you that it’s expected, what more reassurance do you need?”

Very well, Admiral,” Moralez replied as he attempted to disguise the frustration that was creeping into his voice. “If you’re certain that it doesn’t pose any kind of security risk, then I’ll have flight control let it through.”

He took another glance at the ominous vessel that was being displayed on his tablet, then put his call through to flight control.

***

Moralez walked along the lines of Marines, his prosthetic hands clasped behind his back. The men were lined up to either side of him, creating a kind of small avenue in the hangar, a red carpet laid out between them. He still found it hard to believe that when the Admiral had asked them to roll out the red carpet for the Valbarans, he had meant it literally.

They were wearing their signature black combat armor, the ceramic plates overlaid on top of their Navy-blue uniforms, their faces obscured behind the reflective visors. In their hands were clasped XMRs, the modular railguns that were favored by the Coalition. They were unloaded, but no less impressive. The men were at ease right now, but once the delegation landed, they would snap to attention and put on a show. The Valbarans had never visited the station before, they had come a very long way, and the Admiral wanted to make a lasting impression.

There were also a dozen Borealan shock troopers dressed in similar armor standing behind them, wielding long, bayoneted rifles that looked as much like spears as firearms. Their fuzzy ears protruded from the tops of their helmets, and their tails trailed behind them, the varied colors and patterns of their coats standing out against the matte black. Finally, there were two Krell flanking the twin rows at the end of the carpet, clad in the armored ponchos that served as their battle dress. Each one was clasping a golden flagpole from which hung a ceremonial flag, blue in color with gold trim. Woven into the fabric was the UNN logo, a globe of Earth surrounded by a wreath, all in white. The flags were hanging limp, as there was no breeze in the bay, but they were no less impressive.

Each species was a member of the Coalition, but this was a UNN installation, and the aliens were serving as auxiliaries. They had no Coalition flags to fly.

The silvery Broker vessel and the ornate Elysian frigate were off to their right. The engineers seemed to have finished their inspection of the gaudy flagship, and the cigar-like Broker craft remained as unknowable as ever, its featureless hull reflecting the harsh lighting of the hangar like a mirror.

Moralez walked back up to the top of the carpet, standing beside Stevens as they awaited the newcomers.

I’ll be glad when this is over, my feet are killing me,” Stevens complained under his breath. He raised a gloved hand to loosen his tight collar, then resisted the urge, clasping them neatly behind his back instead. “One more delegation to go...”

The Secretary clearly didn’t know that there was still another ambassador yet to arrive, the representative from Jarilo, but he might not be privy to that information.

They’re coming,” Moralez said as he received an alert from flight control. He lifted his tablet, Stevens scooting closer to get a look at the screen as the station’s cameras zoomed in on the alien vessel.

Its white hull was long and spindly, seemingly made up of modular, cylindrical segments that were joined together. At the bow was something that resembled a bridge, with rows of windows that looked out into space, and to the stern was a bulky engine module. Situated at the vessel’s center of mass was a rotating torus that was joined to one of the segments via spokes, not unlike that of the Pinwheel space station itself. It was creating centrifugal force to simulate gravity, which suggested that the species had not developed AG fields yet. The crew must live in that spinning module while they weren’t at their posts. It was armed with railgun batteries, however. They seemed to be of UNN design, retrofitted, perhaps. The whole thing was about three hundred meters long, twice as long as the docked frigate, but nowhere near as large as a jump carrier.

As they watched, an object detached from one of the segments and began to move towards the station. It appeared that they didn’t have hangars on their carriers either, the craft had been docked externally, clinging to its mothership like a flea to a dog.

Alright people, you know what to do,” Moralez said as he stowed his tablet. “Let’s give the Valbarans a reception that will impress.”

They stood to attention, Stevens and Moralez watching as the Valbaran lander slowly came into view. It matched speed with the station’s rotation, maneuvering carefully towards the force field. It was roughly twenty meters from its rounded nose to its twin tail fins, the stubby, swept wings that protruded from its streamlined hull suggesting that it was capable of atmospheric flight. It almost looked like one of the primitive spaceplanes from Earth’s distant past, a little larger and more unwieldy than a UNN dropship, more akin to a cargo lander. It was layered with heat tiles that were painted with ocean camouflage in shades of grey and blue, blackened by reentry on the nose and belly. Moralez could see figures moving behind the blister-like cockpit, but he couldn’t make out much detail.

Along the flanks of the vessel were a series of light panels, almost as though the aliens had bolted LCD monitors to the exterior of their hull. They flashed in colorful, mesmerizing patterns, like a neon sign or an animated advertisement. Waves of purples and blues ran from the nose to the tail, shifting hue towards greens and yellows, almost like mood lighting. Whether they were trying to communicate something, or just putting on a show, Moralez couldn’t be sure.

As it passed through the barrier of energy, orange jets of flame belched from the thrusters on its underside, the vessel lowering itself towards the deck as it fought against gravity. It wasn’t very graceful, and it wasn’t suited to VTOL, that much was obvious. It deployed a set of wheeled landing gear that absorbed the impact as it touched down, rolling for a few feet before it came to a stop, the roar of the engines fading as it powered down.

There was a loud hiss as a landing ramp at the rear of the vessel began to slowly descend on a pair of heavy, hydraulic cylinders. It was facing towards the force field, and so Moralez couldn’t see inside the compartment. When it reached the deck, a procession of strange creatures descended, rounding the idle vessel and heading towards them.

They were wearing form-fitting flight suits, too light to be armored in any significant way, the material rubbery and flexible. Their garments shared the same patterning as their vessel, camouflaged with splotches of grey and ocean-blue, but that wasn’t the only similarity. Just like the color panels on their vessel’s hull, they had flexible panels on their forearms. It must be some form of communication unique to their species. He could make out what looked like insulated cabling for the internal electronics running along their limbs, almost like veins visible beneath skin. Their helmets had an opaque visor, not unlike those used by the Marines, the aliens seeming to have somewhat of a snout. From behind their heads dangled two thick cables, like a pair of braids, long enough to reach the small of their back. These too came equipped with the strange, light-emitting panels. They looked as though they should be connected to some kind of oxygen tank, but they were hanging loose.

The aliens were around four or five feet tall, their body plan basically humanoid, with two digitigrade legs that were long and powerfully built in proportion to their relatively small and short torsos. Their small hands had only two fingers and a thumb, and their boots seemed to have two toes. Their long, thick tails were held off the deck as though they were being used for balance, the aliens walking with a bobbing gait that reminded Moralez of a chicken.

There were four of the aliens in all, and they slowed as they neared the foot of the carpet, glancing at the imposing Marines and Borealans that towered over them. The personnel were doing a great job, standing as still as statues with their rifles resting over one shoulder. The visitors were fascinated by the hangar, it must seem even larger to them, and they paused to admire the other vessels that were occupying the space.

Stevens started to walk down the red carpet, and Moralez followed, the lead alien beginning to remove its helmet as they neared. It disconnected at the neck with a hiss of escaping gas, their suits must be rated for vacuum, revealing the face beneath. The Valbaran’s skin was a mosaic of fine, smooth scales, a muted green in color. The skull was rounded, with a pronounced snout, a pair of fleshy tendrils protruding from the back of the head. It flexed them as though it was glad to be free of the helmet, they seemed to be prehensile.

There was a flash of color, Moralez having to resist the urge to take a step back in alarm, the two tentacle-like appendages erupting into a feathered headdress. They stood out straight to either side of its head and split open, revealing a mass of colorful plumes within that puffed up like the tail of a peacock, creating a vibrant display. He felt as if he had suddenly been transported into the midst of a Brazilian Carnivale. The feathers were layered, those on top shifting to reveal those beneath, exposing different hues and creating patterns similar to those that he had seen on the colored panels of their spacecraft.

That explained the purpose of those panels, they must be a substitute for the feather displays when the creatures were forced to don their suits, or when they were otherwise unable to signal each other naturally.

The lead Valbaran peered back at them with eyes that were a striking shade of violet, fixing its reptilian pupils on them intensely. Stevens cleared his throat, the aliens turning their attention to him.

Welcome, Ambassadors, to Fort Hamilton. Thank you for coming all this way, we hope that you will find the accommodations that we have prepared for you to be suitable. My name is Secretary Stevens, and I’ll be seeing to your needs during your stay. If you should require anything that has not been provided, or if you have any questions, please let me know. This is Security Chief Moralez, he will be responsible for your safety while you’re on the station.”

My name is Netza'cui'atl,” the alien replied, its feathers flashing a shade of regal red. “I hold the title of Ensi, along with my flock. We have come to treat with your Coalition in the name of the Val’ba’ra’nay.”

Ensi must be some kind of official title, Stevens probably knew what it meant. They spoke very good English, but their voices were tinny and musical, a flanging effect making it sound as though two distinct people were speaking at once. It reminded Moralez of a parrot or some kind of songbird that was mimicking human speech.

Please follow me, Ensi,” Stevens said. “I’ll show you to your suite.” The bird-like aliens bobbed along behind him as he led them across the hangar, the other thee removing their helmets and shaking out their feathers, Moralez sticking close. There was no word of their final, mystery ambassador arriving yet, and he didn’t have much to do until then. He was curious about these new aliens, and he wanted to see how they reacted to the Pinwheel.

When they stepped out onto the torus, the Valbarans paused, their heads swiveling on their flexible necks as they took in the sights. They admired the curved, painted ceiling, and the veritable orchard of trees and shrubs that broke up the matte white of the hull. They seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of pedestrians, their violet eyes tracking passing Krell, and peering intently at the colorful garb of the civilians. Their ornate feathers flashed yellow, alarming some of the passers-by.

Moralez soon realized that they might have a problem. The Valbarans were tiny, they were liable to get trampled if they went unnoticed in the crowd. He called over two of the Marines, instructing them to escort the visitors and to make sure that they had enough breathing room.

This facility is...amazing,” the Ensi gasped. What had been her name? Something complicated and hard to pronounce. Netza would do, or he’d just refer to the alien as Ensi. “You have simulated a natural environment, one that I assume resembles that of Earth. The Val’ba’ra’nay Airforce has similar orbital stations, albeit far inferior in scale and complexity. Tell me, why must the habitat spin if the Earth’nay have gravity generators?”

Our AG fields don’t have the coverage for a structure this large,” Moralez explained, the creature turning its eyes to him. “We spin the torus to simulate gravity through inertia instead.”

You speak very good English, Ensi,” Stevens added.

Thank you,” she replied, a ripple of pink spreading through her yellow headdress. “We have had many dealings with the UNN over the last few months, our city played host to the Coalition fleet that made contact with our planet. There were many opportunities to learn and to interact with your people.”

We are fascinated by this installation,” another of them added, “may we explore a while?”

Of course!” Stevens replied, “I would be happy to give you the tour.”

I think I’ll tag along too,” Moralez said. “At least until I get called away.”

They began to walk downspin in the direction of the tourist quarter, the aliens pausing to inspect flowering plants, and to ogle the sculpted facades that lined the walkway. They communicated with one another in quick bursts of high-pitched, chirping speech, so fast that it almost sounded like a recorded conversation that had been sped up. They seemed as fascinated by the flora on the station as they were by the engineering, Moralez had to keep in mind that these plants were also alien to them.

We see that the Earth’nay are also lovers of nature,” one of them said, Moralez nodding in response. Nay must be a suffix, like Earthling. “We are reassured by this. The Val’ba’ra’nay live in perpetual balance with the ecology that surrounds and sustains us, we seek to take only what we need, making as little impact as possible. Our cities are built to blend seamlessly with our environment, and we see much the same philosophy employed here. Our peoples even appear to favor the same colors for our architecture,” she added with a flutter of green.

Though the lack of purple foliage is odd,” another added. “It seems that the plant species of Earth photosynthesize in only a narrow spectrum. Note the yellow tint of the artificial sunlight.”

He wasn’t about to tell the aliens that humans varied in their respect for nature, and in their treatment of it. Some colony worlds were veritable gardens of Eden, while others were industrial hellholes. Earth itself was still recovering from an environmental catastrophe that had been caused, in part, by human activities.

The pedestrians seemed as interested in the Valbarans as the Valbarans were in them. People stopped to stare at the diminutive reptiles, the Borealans swiveling their furry ears to track them, and the Krell turning their snouts in their direction. As accustomed as the station’s population was to seeing aliens, these were entirely new. Moralez had to admit that it was nice to encounter a species that didn’t tower over him. The Marines were doing a good job of creating a safe perimeter around the Ensi and her flock, waving away those who came too close, and encouraging the throngs of curious onlookers to disperse.

There are so many different species,” the Ensi muttered, “all working in concert. This is the Galactic community that we had hoped for, the one that we seek to become a part of.”

It’s not perfect,” Moralez warned, Stevens shooting him a look that said shut up. “We have our disagreements, our conflicts, but we’ve always been able to find common ground.”

Look at that one!” another of the aliens exclaimed, pointing at a passing Polar and emitting a flurry of yellow feathers. It was a little difficult to tell the Valbarans apart, the only difference between them seemed to be subtle changes in their skin tone.

The Polar paused, glancing down at the little aliens. She was a Goliath from their perspective, near twice their height. She took a step closer, one of the Marines moving to intercept, but Moralez waved him back. The Borealan crouched before the Valbarans as they crowded around to get a closer look, cocking her head curiously, the locks of her silvery hair falling over her shoulders.

She wasn’t wearing a Navy uniform, Polars rarely served in combat roles, and she wasn’t an engineer or a doctor either. She was wearing civilian clothes in the Borealan style that were suitably billowy and revealing, both because the temperature on the station was generally higher than her kind liked, and because they were all too aware of their natural charms. The flowing, gossamer fabric revealed just enough to titillate while being dense enough in the right areas to preserve her modesty. Moralez suddenly found himself pining for the warmth of Kaisha’s embrace.

What do we have here?” she asked, her tone warm and friendly.

My name is Cuetz'hte'otl, Ensi of the Val’ba’ra’nay,” the alien replied with another flurry of blood red from her ornate headdress. “My flock is here in an ambassadorial capacity, representing our people’s interests.”

Odd. Moralez had assumed that the one who called herself Netza held the title of Ensi, and that the rest were her entourage, like a Borealan Alpha and their pack. Instead, it seemed as though all four of the aliens shared the same rank and title. How did that work?

What beautiful feathers you have,” the Polar mused, “what are they for?”

Our feather displays signal to members of our flock, and convey our emotional state,” another replied.

And this is your flock?” the Polar asked, glancing at the other Valbarans.

Regrettably, we had to leave two members behind to manage the city from which we hail,” Netza replied with a flurry of blue that might indicate sadness. “We are separated across light-years of space, but this is the burden that we must bear as Ensi.”

I too have left my pack behind to be here,” the Polar replied sympathetically, “but know that you will be reunited in time. Think about how happy that will make you feel when the moment arrives, and press onward.”

Wise counsel,” Cuetz said with a flush of red plumes. “Might I ask what you are, furred one?”

Why, I’m a Polar Borealan,” she replied with a wide smile. “My people hail from the frozen ice cap of our planet.”

A Borealis’nay, but with regional adaptations,” Netza mused. “Not dissimilar from our own Northern cousins with their covering of insulating proto-feathers.”

Your fur is so thick,” Cuetz added, “may I touch it?”

Of course,” the Polar replied with a chuckle, reaching out a hand. It was an odd request to make of a stranger, but the Valbarans might have different ideas of personal space.

Cuetz removed her glove, detaching it from a seal at the wrist, then placed her hand in the Polar’s open palm. The green of her scales was soon lost in the forest of white fur, her three-fingered, clawed hand vanishing into the Polar’s dense coat. Moralez knew from experience how fluffy and silky it must feel, their fur was akin to the most expensive Mink that money could buy.

Cuetz seemed fascinated, running her fingers through the fine hairs, stroking the Polar like one might pet a cat. Her hand was so tiny in comparison, the Polar’s fingers as thick around as her wrist. She explored the fleshy, pink pads that protruded from the fur, and the black claws on the tips of her fingers. The Polar showed no signs of irritation, but then again, they were tactile creatures.

How curious you are,” the Polar purred, her blue eyes meeting Cuetz’s gaze. “If you should need a guide during your stay on the station, someone to help you...navigate the finer points of alien cultures, I would be happy to make myself available.”

Perhaps, if our duties allow us the time,” Cuetz replied with a flurry of pink that almost resembled a blush.

Alright, let’s keep moving,” Moralez said as he waved the aliens forward. The Polar gave him a knowing smile and then vanished into the crowd once more, Cuetz glancing over her shoulder at the alien as she watched her leave.

Might I ask, Security Chief,” Netza began as she bobbed along beside him. “What is the nature of your limbs?”

He had wondered when that question would arise, they certainly were inquisitive creatures.

I was wounded in battle,” he replied, “and my limbs were replaced with prosthetics. They’re made from lightweight polymers, driven by electrical motors. They’re wired directly into my nervous system so that they can interpret the signals from my brain with a high degree of accuracy, and so that they can send sensory information back.”

Amazing,” she mused, “Earth’nay medical technology is more advanced than we had realized. To what degree would you say that your sense of touch is reproduced? Can you feel pain?”

Almost one hundred percent,” he said, flexing his fingers with an electrical whir. “The system isn’t programmed to reproduce pain, no, but I suppose that it could be. My foot is a little different, it’s not designed to be a perfect replica of the original, and so the sensation is more diffuse. I usually describe it as feeling like one big toe.”

So it is as though you were never injured?” she asked.

No, I wouldn’t say that. The prosthetics provide a good substitute, and they allow me to live a full life, but they aren’t quite the same. There are subtle things that you miss, small details that you overlook until they’re gone. The feeling of tendons moving beneath the skin, the warmth of living flesh, the pulse of a heartbeat. I have no fingernails, so I had to change the way that I scratch my nose, and I can’t snap my fingers anymore. I can’t plug my ears, I can’t clap, I have to be more conscious of how I grip objects. Just little everyday things like that. Still, it’s a damn sight better than a wooden hook.”

We must bring this technology back with us so that we might heal our own wounded in the same manner.”

Do you have many amputees on Valbara?” Moralez asked.

Amputee?” she wondered for a moment. “Ah, like amputate, I see. No, but we may in the future. The Galaxy is a violent place, and if our Commandos are to serve alongside your Marines and Linebreakers, then we must expect casualties.” “You’re remarkably pragmatic about it,” he replied, “most leaders want to avoid war at all costs.”

Conflict is not always avoidable, sadly. The Val’ba’ra’nay are a peaceful people, but again and again, we find that we are forced to defend ourselves. We must adapt, we must become stronger, more aggressive. What we are right now...is not enough to ensure our survival.”

The purpose of the Coalition is to take some of the load off,” Moralez said as he watched one of the Marines ward off a curious pack of Equatorials. “We all share the weight.”

I have personally borne witness to this sharing of the weight,” she replied with a flurry of red. “A Coalition fleet saved my homeworld from a Betelgeusian invasion. Without them, my people would surely have been exterminated to the last flock, as we saw on Ker’gue’la. We had been shoring our defenses for decades, but it was not enough.”

What’s Kerguela?” Moralez asked.

In a way, it is almost refreshing to encounter someone who is not burdened by the tragedy of Ker’gue’la,” she said with a flurry of blue plumes. “It was our first and last colony planet. When we discovered superlight technology, we located a habitable world in a neighboring system and began the process of colonization. We built cities, relocated flocks, it was quickly becoming a mirror of our home.”

Then the Bugs arrived,” Moralez muttered.

Indeed,” the Ensi replied with another flush of purple. Was that sadness? “We could not stand against them, and we were forced to abandon the planet. The casualties were...severe.”

Our first contact went much the same way,” Moralez added. “We call it the Betelgeuse incident. A colony ship carrying forty thousand civilians arrived at their new home in the Betelgeuse system to find that it was already claimed. The Bugs didn’t ask questions, they simply destroyed the vessel with no warning. All hands were lost.”

Yes, I have read of this incident in the files that your fleet shared with us,” she replied. “It is from that event that the Betelgeusians earned their name, is it not?”

That’s right,” he said with a nod. “Nobody knows where they originated from, could be the other side of the Galaxy for all we know. The buggers get around.”

Buggers, roaches, critters,” Netza mused. “You have many names for them.”

Don’t the Valbarans have any slurs for the Bugs?” Moralez asked. “Pretty sure they’ve earned a few.”

We do,” she chuckled, her feathery headdress flashing yellow. “We cultivate an insect species for their protein, and we refer to the Betelgeusians as such in times of stress. I fear that a human would not be able to pronounce it.”

***

They arrived at the suite that had been prepared for the Valbaran delegation, one of the row house-like structures that lined the hull to either side of the torus in the residential quarter. This part of the station was where civilians, officers, and visitors to the facility lived. There were permanent residences in the form of apartments, and temporary residences that served the role of hotels.

Stevens led the group up to a large door at the front of one of the structures, eight feet tall and half as wide, the sculpted hull material that surrounded it made up to look like stone. He scanned a card in a reader that was built into the frame, and the panel slid aside, the opening gaping before the comically undersized aliens. They walked over the threshold with their odd, bobbing gait as Moralez and Stevens following after them, the two Marines taking up guard positions to either side of the door.

It was a Borealan apartment, an exact copy of the one that Moralez shared with Kaisha. It would have been large by human standards, but to the diminutive aliens, it was like they had been shrunken down to the size of house cats. The kitchen counters were taller than they were, and the couch was like a king-sized bed, one that they would have needed to scale like mountaineers.

He knew that there had been no mixup, however. Living space on the station was extremely limited, there were few such residences to go around, considering the population size. The human apartments were always packed, but the Borealan ones were often left empty. When Borealis had joined the Coalition, a large influx of tourists had been expected, and so more accommodations had been built in preparation. That influx never materialized, and the majority of Equatorial Borealans lived in the barracks, leaving many of these cavernous apartments unused. Recently, the UNN had begun converting many of them into human apartments, but there were still plenty left. Most tourists didn’t complain, a room was a room, but the Valbarans were going to have a hard time even reaching the sink.

We have provided you with one of the larger living areas on the station,” Stevens began, trying to frame it in a more positive light. Moralez had to stifle a laugh, the secretary was talking like a used car salesman. “We’ve had some furniture printed based on your dimensions,” he continued, leading them into the living area proper. Around a glass coffee table were what looked like six miniature director’s chairs, or maybe square stools, with no back support. The aliens were obviously expected to use the Borealan-sized coffee table as though it were a dining table.

It is our understanding that your people prefer to sleep in large rooms lined with mattresses,” Stevens continued, “I think that you will find the bed well-suited to your needs. We’ve also installed a bathtub that should serve as a pool for bathing.”

Thank you, Secretary,” Cuetz replied as she appraised the room. “These accommodations should be suitable.”

Stevens was startled as one of the aliens leapt up onto the back of the oversized couch, scaling a distance of maybe six feet in a single bound. She perched atop the faux-leather like a bird sitting on a power line, her tail outstretched for balance, surveying the room from her new vantage point. The rest of the flock soon joined her, they seemed to like being in high places. Perhaps the apartment was better suited to their needs than he had initially assumed.

We’ll let you get settled in,” Stevens said, “please let me know when you’d like to begin your tour. I can think of a few areas of the station that might be of interest.”

Just make sure the two Marines stay with you,” Moralez warned. “Don’t leave the building without them. It’s not that you’re in any danger,” he added, not wanting to alarm them. “But you are...rather small, and we don’t want you getting trampled or lost. It’s a very big station, full of very big people who aren’t accustomed to having you here.”

We will do as you ask, Security Chief,” Cuetz replied from atop the armrest.

I’ll put my guys on rotation,” Moralez added, “make sure we always have someone on guard.”

He heard a beep, and put his finger to his ear, listening as a call from the Admiral came through.

Excuse me,” he said, turning to the door. “Duty calls...”

CHAPTER 3: QUEEN OF HEARTS

Moralez marched through the winding service tunnels that made up the guts of the station, feeling the chill of the metal grates beneath his prosthetic foot, protruding pipes and exposed wiring snaking along the walls and ceiling. It was a dingy maze, sparsely lit by the yellow glow of the dirty lightbulbs that were spaced out at irregular intervals, a far cry from the carefully tended habitat that existed just a few meters beyond. It was like walking through the veins of a giant, mechanical creature, the plumbing and wiring carrying the lifeblood that the facility required to operate. Behind the sculpted facades were miles of these passages, interconnected like an ant farm, granting access to all of the station’s myriad systems. Even Moralez didn’t travel these tunnels very often, they were mostly used by the engineers who kept the Pinwheel spinning, and they were off-limits to the general population. One needed a key code to access the maintenance areas at all, and woe betide anyone who came in here without a map.

Behind him was a procession of six Marines in their black body armor, PDW variants of the XMR clasped in their hands. Moralez was wearing one of the ceramic chest pieces too, the material blending with the black polymer of his prosthetics, his handgun on his hip. He wasn’t going to take any chances with the Jarilo ambassador. Regardless of whether its intentions were friendly or not, it was still a Bug.

Harry and Blackjack were taking up the rear. Harry was clad in the same black combat armor as the other Marines, but he had kept his helmet’s opaque visor open, while Blackjack was wearing an armored poncho that was lined with Kevlar and ceramic plates. The Krell barely fit in the tunnel. He was tall enough, and his shoulders were broad enough, that he very nearly filled the passage like a cork in a bottle.

The Admiral had closed off one of the smaller hangars where the transfer would be taking place, and had ordered Moralez and his security detail to make their way there and back unseen. They were to keep the ambassador out of view of the public as much as possible, which meant no leisurely walks along the torus. Moralez felt more like he was transporting a prisoner than guarding a diplomat. Were they going to put a bag over its head too?

Remember, this assignment is classified,” Moralez said as they arrived at the access door to the hangar. “If any of you are here, it’s because I know you, and I trust you to do your duty. This is a matter of Coalition security, if word of this gets out prematurely, then it could really fuck things up. I don’t think the other ambassadors even know what’s going on.”

He brought up the wrist-mounted computer that was strapped about his forearm, usually a component of Marine body armor, and pulled up his list of access codes on the holographic display. He tapped the correct sequence into a numeric keypad, and the door slid open with a whoosh, harsh light flooding in from the other side.

He stepped out into a hangar that was much like the others, albeit a little smaller in scale, more suited to shuttles and gunships than frigates. He was surprised to see that the shutter had closed over the force field like a garage door, sealing the bay off from space. The Admiral wasn’t messing around, nobody was getting in or out of here without permission. There were no engineers on the catwalks, no vessels refueling, no cargo being carted to and fro. There was only a single dropship resting on the deck, flanked by two figures.

One of them was a Polar, her portly body crammed into a nondescript jumpsuit commonly worn by civilian spaceship crews, the long hair that he was accustomed to seeing on her kind tied up in a convenient bob. The second was a dark-haired human wearing civilian clothes. He had a long, grey coat that reached down past his knees, and he was wearing some kind of wrap-around visor that obscured his eyes from view. His outfit was not unusual, but there was something off about him. Moralez could tell at a glance that he was no civilian. These might be contractors of some kind.

The man didn’t stand to attention as they approached, he merely leaned against the hull of the dropship with his hands stowed in the pockets of his coat. The Polar’s blue eyes tracked them, but it was hard to tell where her companion was looking. The Marines fanned out into a line behind Moralez, Harry and Blackjack stepping forward.

The boys in blue have arrived,” the stranger said, his lips curling into a smile. “You must be the Security Chief that we’ve been waiting for. You didn’t need to bring a whole platoon, y’know. She’s quite cooperative.”

And...you are?” Moralez asked suspiciously.

No concern of yours,” he replied cryptically. He stood up straight and began to walk around the side of the idle dropship, passing beneath its wing, gesturing for Moralez to follow with a tilt of his head. Moralez glanced at Harry, who shrugged, then made his way over to the ship.

The stranger hit the switch that would open the landing ramp with a gloved hand, stepping aside as it began to lower, the whir of the motors and the hiss of escaping gas echoing in the hangar. Moralez had to resist the urge to place a hand on his holster as he peered into the darkness of the troop bay, not knowing what manner of insectoid monstrosity was about to come crawling out.

The first thing that he saw was a glint of white, and then the creature emerged from the shadows, stepping daintily down the ramp.

Even at a glance, he got the impression that the thing was female. It looked like the Bugs that he had fought on the battlefield, basically humanoid in appearance, with four arms and two digitigrade legs. The Betelgeusian Drones that made up the fighting force of the hive fleets were around five feet tall, encased in an armored carapace, sporting a horn resembling an antler or a tree branch that sprouted from their foreheads like that of a beetle. This one was similar, yet different.

The thick, durable shells of the Drones came in a variety of colors. There were reds, oranges, greens, and blues. This one’s carapace looked like it had been made from mother of pearl, its glossy, white surface sparkling with a beautiful iridescence when it caught the light. The vibrant pearlescence brought out subtle hues of pink, blue, and sometimes a hint of ocean-green when she moved.

The most striking difference was the face. The Drones wore helmets that blended seamlessly with their carapace, sporting a pair of glowing visors that gave the impression that they had compound eyes. This caste had no such helmet. Instead, a pair of large, expressive eyes stared back at him. They were almost mammalian in appearance, the sclera a vibrant pink in color, the way that her dark pupils met his gaze conveying an awareness that he was not accustomed to seeing from her kind. Her head was rounded, a pair of small, red lips occupying the space where the grotesque mandibles would have been on a Drone. They looked painted on, and he found himself wondering if they could even move. Her features reminded him of a china doll that had been shattered, then glued back together, her face made up of segments of chitin that were only obvious when one looked closely.

She still retained the horn that was common across all Betelgeusian castes, but as it rose from her forehead, the thick stem branched out into two swooping projections. They were ornate, symmetrical, giving the impression that she was wearing a tiara or a crown. From her head sprouted four feathery antennae, changing in hue from a deep charcoal near their roots, to a snow-white at their tips. Two of them stood erect atop her head, while the latter hung down her back, almost like a pair of long braids.

Around her neck was a large, fluffy ring of fur, like an Elizabethan ruff made from the fuzz that one might find on a moth. It was white in color, the individual hairs sparkling with an odd iridescence at their limits as they reflected the light.

There was more flesh visible here than was common for Bugs. They tended to layer on protective battle armor that was made to be indistinguishable from their natural defenses, leaving a scant few slivers of their underlying tissue visible between the cracks and joints. This one was also armored, albeit far more sparsely. The large joints between the sections of exoskeleton that made up her arms and legs were exposed, as were her three-fingered hands, revealing flesh in a shade of dark pink that bordered on wine. Her round thighs were only armored on the outside, leaving their inner surfaces exposed.

It was impossible to tell where her carapace ended, and where the synthetic armor began, but her torso was concealed beneath what looked like an armored corset made from chitin. It was the same waxy pearl color as the rest of her body, segmented to allow a greater range of motion, pinching her waist to give it a distinct hourglass shape. Two structures that resembled insect wings added to that effect, flaring outwards from her hips like a skirt, the gossamer material that protruded from beneath their protective coverings somewhat translucent. More of the downy fluff was visible beneath them, patches of it clinging to her outer thighs and hips. There were two larger wings that emerged from behind her, hanging low, giving the impression that she was wearing a gossamer gown. There was a vaguely triangular lip that came down between her thighs, almost like a rigid loincloth, preserving whatever modesty she might have.

The upper pair of arms sported shoulder pads that emerged from beneath the ring of thick fur around her neck, and just below it was a pair of fleshy mounds that were being pushed up by her corset. They looked like breasts, the comparison was unavoidable, pressing together to create cleavage.

There was more of the fluffy fur around her ankle joints, her powerfully built legs tapering into a pair of dainty, two-toed feet. They almost looked like the hooves of a deer, seeming too small to support her, giving her a graceful and measured gait.

She was uncanny, reminding Moralez of stick insects, and the predatory mantises that had evolved to mimic the appearance of orchids. If a praying mantis had been tasked with masquerading as a human, it might have looked something like this. Still, those sympathetic eyes burned through his apprehension, drawing him in.

Am I to be handed off to this gentleman?” she asked, glancing at the man in the long coat. Her lips did indeed move, though not quite enough to match her speech. Her voice was somehow soothing, feminine, her grasp of English impeccable. Moralez swore that he heard a hint of a British accent. Her lower pair of arms rested about her hips, her fingers interlocking, while the upper pair hung idle at her sides. He had never seen a Bug’s arms at rest before, they had always been swinging daggers or aiming plasma rifles.

Yeah,” the visored man replied, nodding to Moralez. “This is the Security Chief, he’s going to be responsible for you from now on.”

She turned those strange eyes back to him, the two feathery antennae that protruded upwards from her head seeming to wave in a breeze that only she could feel. Much like her furry ruff, they reminded him of a moth.

There is no need for concern, Security Chief,” she said. “My mission here is a peaceful one.”

Moralez still couldn’t get over that voice, it was so out of place coming from her. He wasn’t sure how to address the thing, should he treat her like he would any other ambassador? There was nothing to be gained by being rude, in any case. Better to err on the side of protocol.

This way, please,” he said as he gestured to the line of soldiers. She made her way over to them without complaint, her hoof-like toes tapping on the deck, the transparent wings trailing behind her. She kept her lower pair of hands clasped in front of her, the upper pair swinging in a very human manner as she walked. She paused briefly to look up at Blackjack, then the formation of Marines closed ranks around her, her five-foot frame obscured from view.

Will you be staying on the station?” Moralez asked, directing his question towards the stranger.

We’ll stick around a little while, make sure everything goes smoothly,” he replied. He slipped his hands back into his pockets and leaned against the shuttle’s hull again, seeming more bored by their interaction than anything.

I’d like for you and your companion to identify yourselves,” Moralez continued. “Part of my job is knowing who comes and goes on my facility. If you’re UNN, then you should be able to provide your service numbers upon request.”

I never said that we were UNN,” the man replied with a smirk, “and we’re not required to identify ourselves. If you have a problem with that, then speak to the Admiral. You don’t have jurisdiction over us.”

His tone wasn’t confrontational, he had the air of someone who recognized that arguing was a waste of his time. If he wasn’t in the Navy, and he was under no suspicion of any crime, then Moralez couldn’t compel him to do much of anything. The man knew that all too well, judging by his aloofness.

It sounds to me like you’ve had similar conversations before,” Moralez muttered. “I’d bet that you could quote the regs if you needed to, couldn’t you?”

Security Chief,” the Polar began, making her way around the nose of the parked vessel. She had a Russian accent, more pronounced than most. Her tone was warm and diplomatic, but Moralez lived with a Polar, he had learned to recognize when they were laying on the charm. “We have our instructions, and you have yours. Let us not butt heads, we are all working towards the same goal here.” Moralez met her gaze for a moment, then turned back towards his men.

I don’t get on well with people who keep secrets,” he said, leading the procession towards the access door from which they had entered. “You’ll find that a difficult proposition on the Pinwheel.”

***

They marched through the service tunnels in silence, keeping the Bug under guard, the passageways just wide enough that two Marines could flank it. Harry took up the rear, wanting to keep an eye on the thing, and the Chief seemed to have the same idea.

What do you make of her?” Moralez asked, the sound of his footsteps alternating between the polymer of his prosthetic and the rubber of his boot. He kept his voice low, not wanting to be overheard by their guest.

Her?” Harry repeated, confused.

Yeah, look at her,” Moralez added with a gesture of his hand.

She did indeed have several choice female qualities that set her apart from the other Bugs that Harry had seen. He had a good view of her rear from this angle, which was completely unarmored beneath her skirt-like wings, the two ample globes of flesh rolling as she walked on her dainty feet. The flesh was a deep pink in color that bordered on red, but it wasn’t raw. There was some kind of skin over it, smooth and shiny, catching the light as she moved.

Yeah, I guess it does look like a female,” Harry muttered.

Too much like a female,” Moralez grumbled. “You and me, we’ve done our share of fighting, we’ve probably killed enough Bugs between us to make a hive. You ever seen anything remotely like this before?”

Can’t say that I have,” Harry replied. “Drones are pretty uniform, and while there are some more unusual castes, they all share the same basic features. I mean, this one does too. It has the legs, the four arms, the horn. But...I get what you’re saying, Chief. Something about it looks too...human.”

How are you feeling about your assignment?” Moralez added. “Are you and Blackjack still up to the task?”

You can count on us, Chief.”

Good, because there’s something else that I want you to do for me,” he whispered. “Keep an eye on the thing, and report back to me. I want to know everything that she does, everything that she says, make a note of anything out of the ordinary. I want to find out as much about this thing as possible.”

Got it, Chief. Where are we keeping her?”

These tunnels run throughout the entire station,” Moralez said, waving a prosthetic hand at the mess of pipes and wires that cluttered the ceiling. “It’s a long walk, but we can get to the residential quarter from here and come out directly into one of the apartments. We’ll stick her in there, keep her under guard. I’ll have guys that I trust on rotation at the door, and I want you and BJ sticking to her like glue at all times. Don’t let her out of your sight, even for a moment.”

Roger.”

***

The maintenance panel came away from the wall, opening a doorway into one of the upscale apartments. The exposed metal and wiring gave way to matte white walls and faux-wood flooring, the naked bulbs of the tunnels replaced by soft, interior lighting. Harry followed a couple of the Marines through, checking the open-plan space, ensuring that it was safe to bring in the Bug. When he gave the all-clear, she stepped cautiously into the room, the warm glow of the lamps that were built into the ceiling reflecting off her pearl-like carapace.

Moralez came through after her, brushing himself off, Blackjack squeezing through the narrow opening with considerable difficulty. He had to turn sideways and crouch down, popping out into the apartment like a cork from a champagne bottle. After a few moments, the apartment was packed with Marines, they looked so out of place in this domestic environment.

Harry hadn’t ever had a reason to visit this part of the station before, and he’d never seen the interior of one of these residences. It looked like an apartment that one might find on Earth or one of the more developed colony planets, tastefully decorated. There was a properly furnished kitchen in the open-plan space, complete with cupboards, counters, and a dining table. The living area had a couch and a coffee table, and there was a large monitor mounted on the far wall. He couldn’t see the bedroom or the bathroom, they were walled off, but they were probably just as fancy. It sure beat the barracks, where all you got was a cot and a locker. Or in Blackjack’s case, a locker and a bowl-shaped hole in the ground. The Krell preferred to sleep in recesses that were lined with cushions.

For the first time since her arrival, Moralez turned to address the Bug directly. She was standing in the middle of the laminated wood floor beside the kitchen, looking nonplussed as she kept her hands neatly clasped in front of her corset-like torso armor.

These will be your accommodations during your stay on the station,” he said, the alien’s antennae twitching as she listened. “You are not to leave this area alone under any circumstances. All exits will be locked and guarded at all times, there is no way in or out. This is Sergeant Hayes,” he added, gesturing to Harry. “He will remain here, along with a Krell guard. They will be responsible for your safety. If you have any questions or concerns, if you need anything that has not been provided to you, you are to go through the Sergeant. Do you understand?”

Perfectly, Security Chief,” she replied. Her voice was feminine, almost girlish, and she had what sounded to Harry like an English accent. The Bugs that he was familiar with didn’t even have vocal cords, so he couldn’t begin to guess how she was producing the sounds. Her small, red lips moved, but not enough to match her speech.

Good,” Moralez said, looking a little lost for words. He was probably still trying to decide how to address her, and what level of respect to afford her. She might be a Bug, but she was also a dignitary. The only certainty was that she wasn’t what anyone had been expecting.

I would like to express my gratitude for the level of comfort that you have afforded me, Security Chief,” she continued. She kept her lower pair of hands clasped as she gestured to her surroundings with the upper pair. “These accommodations are spacious and lavish.”

As opposed to throwing my roach ass in a cell, she neglected to add, but her meaning was obvious enough.

Yes, well,” Moralez replied uncomfortably. “We house all of our visiting dignitaries in similar suites. The Coalition recognizes and appreciates your willingness to...begin diplomatic proceedings, and our intention is not to make you a prisoner here. But you must understand that, due to the relationship between our peoples being somewhat...” There was a long silence as the Chief tried to find the right word, being polite to the critter made him look like he was trying to perform superlight calculations in his head. “...strained,” he finally added, “there is some danger of reprisals if we give you free run of the station.”

I understand, of course,” she said with a deferential bow of her horned head. “There is no apology I can give that would make amends for your treatment at the hands of our cousins, but know that we share no allegiance with them. Each hive acts alone, entirely independent of the rest, often coming into conflict in much the same way. My Queen now recognizes that cooperation, not conflict, is in the colony’s best interests. I am here to negotiate the terms of that relationship.”

Indeed,” Moralez said, looking like he would rather be anywhere else. “Well, we’ll leave you to get settled in. You won’t be permitted to use any of the station’s computer equipment, so we’ll have someone send for you when the council meeting is ready to begin. Harry, Blackjack?”

Harry returned his nod, the Chief leading his men to the door, Blackjack turning his long snout to watch them as they stepped out onto the torus. The door slid shut with a whoosh, granting Harry a brief glimpse at a few leafy trees, and the two Marines who had been posted as guards.

He turned to see the Bug staring at him with her large, pink eyes. The three of them were alone in the apartment now. He shifted his weight, feeling as uncomfortable as the Chief had looked.

So...what should I call you?” Harry asked.

Ambassador would be customary, Sergeant,” she replied. “But my father calls me Holly.”

Holly?” he repeated skeptically. “I wasn’t aware that Bugs had fathers.”

It’s short for Hollyhock, in reference to my coloration,” she added. “He is an avid naturalist.”

Alright,” Harry muttered, glancing at Blackjack. The big lizard was as cool as ever, just standing there, watching their interaction with his yellow eyes.

As the Chief said, I’m Sergeant Hayes, and this is Blackjack. He’s a Krell, so he doesn’t talk much, but he’s about the best bodyguard on the station. We’ll be staying with you to make sure that nothing happens to you while you’re here.”

Tell me, Sergeant Hayes,” she said as she walked over to the dining table. She reached out with her lower pair of arms, lifting a potted plant and turning it over as she examined it, touching a fleshy finger against one of the yellow flowers experimentally. “Is there such hatred for my kind that I cannot even step outside for fear of an angry mob?”

It’s a little more complicated than that,” Harry began, struggling to explain the unusual situation. “Right now, nobody knows that you’re on the station. Well, the higher-ups do, but not the general population. I don’t think the other ambassadors do either. I don’t have the clearance to know for sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say that the Admiralty wants to wait and see how the meeting goes before they announce anything.”

Then, in the event that our application to the Coalition is rejected, they can deny ever having considered it in order to avoid outrage. I see. It is a logical standpoint for someone in their position.”

Yeah, probably,” he continued. “A lot of people on the station hold a grudge against the Betelgeusians, that’s an understatement. The Coalition’s primary mission is to fight Bugs, pretty much everyone stationed here has lost friends in the war, some have lost a whole lot more. It wouldn’t be a good idea for you to go outside, even under heavy guard. We wouldn’t be able to guarantee your safety.”

Do you feel that their anger is justified?” the ambassador asked, setting the flower pot back down on the table.

Listen,” he sighed, “we’re here because the Chief trusts us to do our jobs. Whatever’s going on with you, and the colony, and the Admiralty...that’s all above my pay grade. I’m here to make sure that you get to and from the security council meeting safely, my opinions don’t factor into it.”

Then at least I have been granted an impartial guardian,” she said, running a finger along the kitchen counter as she walked beside it. She paused to examine a coffee machine, her antennae waving in the air, Harry watching her curiously.

She found the microwave, and opened the door, examining the numeric keypad and turning the rotating plate within. When she was done with that, she reached up to the cupboards, opening one of them and sifting through the food items therein.

What are you doing?” Harry asked, taking a seat on the armrest of the couch as he watched her.

Exploring,” she replied.

Have you never seen a kitchen before?”

Not like this. I’ve seen my father cook, but that is all.”

He removed his helmet and shook out his hair, placing it on the couch. It didn’t look like he’d be needing it any time soon, and having BJ nearby was better protection than any helmet could provide.

What do you eat?” Harry asked. “The same stuff we do?”

To an extent,” she replied, not elaborating further as she withdrew a can of coffee grounds from the cupboard and shook it. She felt around the lid, figuring out how it worked in no time, lifting it off and peering inside. The way that she used her hands to investigate her surroundings reminded him of a video that he had seen on the station’s intranet of an octopus figuring out how to uncork of a bottle to get at a sardine.

That’s coffee,” he explained, “I don’t think you’ll like it.”

I can read the label,” she replied, setting it back down and closing the cupboard door. “The Chief of Security forbade me from using any of the computers, I assume because he does not wish for me to communicate illicitly, or to learn more about the UNN than is deemed appropriate. Does that include the large monitor on the wall over there?”

Yeah,” Harry said with a nod.

Would it be permissible for you to select files for me to watch, as long as I do not operate the controls myself?”

The Chief said no computers,” Harry replied, crossing his arms.

Very well,” she sighed, sounding somewhat deflated. “May I explore the other rooms in the suite?”

Yeah, but keep the doors open,” he said, “I don’t want you doing any...weird Bug stuff.”

I have no means of communicating with anyone outside of this building if that is what worries you,” she said, planting her lower pair of hands on her wide hips.

And you probably wouldn’t tell me if you did,” Harry added. “Besides, don’t Betelgeusians have a hive mind or something?”

Social insects are not psychic,” she said, a touch of irritation creeping into her voice. “We communicate through pheromone signals.”

But you can talk, and you can hear me?”

I can speak because I was created for the purpose of interacting with humans. All of my kind can hear, we sense vibrations through our exoskeletons.”

Alright, but still, keep the doors open.”

As you wish,” she conceded, walking over to the bathroom door. She slid it open and poked her head inside, her feathery antennae twitching. Harry rose from his seat, making sure that he could see what she was doing. She was playing with the faucets, letting the water run over her hands, and then he heard the flush of a toilet.

What is this for?” she asked, stepping inside the glass shower cubicle and reaching up to examine the showerhead. She was so tactile, always touching everything.

Don’t play with those dials unless you want to get wet,” he warned. “It’s a shower, we use it for bathing. Do Betelgeusians not take showers?”

I take issue with you referring to me in that manner,” she replied, emerging from the bathroom and closing the door behind her.

What?” he asked, “Betelgeusian?”

Yes. I am not from the Betelgeuse star system, nor is it the birthplace of my species. I am from Jarilo, and our original homeworld is a mystery. Bug, at least, is descriptive.”

I don’t think rebranding is going to do you much good at this point,” he chuckled. “What would you have me call you instead? A Jarilian? Jarilese?”

Perhaps Jarilan?” she suggested. “I have given it considerable thought.”

I’ll just call you Ambassador, how about that?”

She made her way over to the bedroom, emerging a few moments later, her pink eyes scanning the room. She seemed nervous, like she was trying to occupy herself while she waited for the meeting. Could Bugs get nervous?

Just sit down and be quiet,” Harry muttered, gesturing to the couch. “Makes my job easier. They’ll send for you when they’re ready.”

She shot him a displeased glance, then made her way over to the couch, sitting on the leftmost side. She clasped her lower pair of hands neatly in her lap, crossing the upper pair over her chest piece. He was amused to see her cross her legs, which only seemed possible due to the lack of carapace on her inner thighs, one of her two-toed feet bobbing in the air impatiently. She was sitting on the gossamer wings that hung behind her like long coattails, which didn’t seem to cause her any discomfort, and the two antennae that came down from the back of her head like pigtails were just long enough to brush the faux-leather.

Harry set his helmet down on the coffee table, then took a seat opposite her, the couch wide enough to seat three. He wasn’t about to cozy up to the thing. Blackjack lay down on the strip of wood flooring that separated the kitchen area from the living space, stretching out like a giant dog and closing his eyes. So much for guard duty, he must not think that the Bug posed any threat.

After maybe fifteen minutes of silence, the boredom began to eat at him, and he decided to engage the alien in conversation.

You keep mentioning your father,” he said, the Bug turning her head to look at him from across the couch. “Why do I get the impression that he wasn’t a Betelgeusian? Sorry, a Jarilan,” he added somewhat sarcastically.

You would be correct,” she replied. “My father raised me, he taught me to speak, instructed me in the ways of your people so that I might better fulfill my purpose. We spent a great deal of time together wandering the forests of Jarilo, searching for new organisms to catalog. He is a lover of nature,” she added with a fond smile. Her face was made from rigid chitin, and so it was the interlocking plates around her mouth that shifted to create the effect, rather than muscles in her cheeks. “He has made it his life’s work to name its flora and fauna. The majority of the planet’s surface has been colonized by a dominant species of tree, not unlike the genera Sequoia of Earth’s Pacific Northwest.”

You know a lot about Earth?” he asked.

It is a subject that fascinates me, my father speaks of it often. I would dearly like to visit the planet of his birth one day.”

That’s optimistic,” Harry scoffed, “we usually do our best to keep Bugs off Earth. So did your father adopt you? Was he a human colonist?”

He was a UNN Marine,” she replied, “but fate had something else in store for him. He now spends most of his time in the colony.”

The human colony?” Harry asked warily.

No, our colony, of course.” “He lives in a Bug hive? How?”

I should explain,” she continued. “While the man that I call my father is not my biological father as you would understand it, I do carry his DNA. I am, in a sense, his offspring. He has always treated me as though that were the case, which I appreciate very much.”

How does something like that come about?” Harry asked warily, not knowing if her answer was going to make him lose his breakfast.

When a hive is defeated, the victor will sometimes absorb the loser into their ranks, assuming that they are deemed valuable. In this manner, their genome and their unique adaptations become a part of the victor’s genetic library, and the losing hive’s bloodline need not be entirely extinguished. When the Coalition defeated my mother, the Queen, she made a plea of surrender with the expectation that her hive would be assimilated in the same way. Having never encountered humans before, she had no reason to believe that your people did things any differently. It took some time for her intent to be communicated successfully due to the language barrier, but she was eventually able to incorporate human DNA into subsequent generations of her offspring. In doing so, they would instinctively see humans as members of their own hive, and they would be subservient to my father in the manner that such a surrender requires.”

So your dad is like...the Bug King?”

In a manner of speaking, yes.”

And how did she obtain his DNA?”

He mated with her,” she replied, cocking her head as Harry grimaced. “Why does that idea displease you so, Sergeant Hayes? How else would he transfer his species’ genetic material?”

So…let me get this straight. All of the Bugs that were born since, along with you, are half-human?”

No,” she said, shaking her head. It was an oddly human gesture coming from such an alien creature, the motion making her antennae bob in the air. “The Queen merely selected the elements of his genetic code that were deemed beneficial and incorporated them into the genomes of subsequent castes. Think of it like transferring a few lines of code from one program to another. I have the most human genes of any caste so far, as my mission required many special adaptations.”

Well, that explains why you’re so...uncanny,” Harry said as he looked her up and down.

I was designed with a very specific goal in mind,” she continued, punctuating her explanation with gestures from her upper pair of hands. “Interacting with humans. That required vocal cords, a speech center for my brain, and associated social capabilities. Recognizing faces, understanding gestures, these are not simply concepts that can be taught. They all require their own hardware, so to speak, areas of the brain whose role is to process and interpret them. A natural Bug only communicates through pheromones, chemical markers. They also have a very acute sense of touch, and good eyesight, especially where colors are concerned. Any attributes beyond that are sourced from human genetic material.”

And the way you look,” he continued. “Was that also by design, or was it a byproduct?”

It would not do to be too forthcoming,” she replied, uncrossing and then recrossing her legs. “A lady must keep some secrets, after all.”

Harry sank back into the couch, crossing his arms as he mulled over what he had been told.

You talk like you were manufactured,” he said, glancing over at his iridescent ward. “Like a robot or something.”

It is my understanding that my people’s knowledge of genetic engineering far exceeds that of the Coalition,” she replied. “It is one of the many gifts that we hope to offer you.”

Must be weird to be made with a single goal in mind,” he muttered. “Means you can’t choose what you want to be.”

On the contrary, I find it comforting,” she replied confidently. “I do not mean this in a derogative way, Sergeant, but humans are born without a purpose. They come into the world not knowing what they are, or what they're going to become. That is not the case for my people. We are created for a predetermined purpose, and from the moment we are aware, we know what we're supposed to do. We have an irresistible impulse to dig tunnels, or to guard the colony, it’s literally written into our genes.”

And what’s written into your genes?” he asked suspiciously.

To make peace, to learn, to interact.”

But you have more autonomy than the other critters...sorry, Bugs, right? Do you have free will, or are you just running on a program, like a biological machine?”

The question of free will is more a philosophical one than a genetic one,” she replied, her confidence faltering a little. Had he struck a nerve? “But yes, by necessity, I have more autonomy than my sisters. I must operate far from the colony, without the counsel of my Queen.”

So your sisters are less intelligent than you?”

I would call it single-mindedness,” she replied. This line of questioning seemed to be irritating her a little now, but Harry didn’t let up, he wanted to see how she would react. “Contrary to what some might believe, my people are deeply social and emotional creatures. That they are hyperspecialized does not make them stupid. Take your friend, for instance, the Krell,” she said as she gestured to the dozing reptile. “Does his sluggish nature and lack of language skills make him unintelligent? No.”

What do you know of the Krell?” Harry asked, impressed by her insight.

My father taught me about them, he served alongside several during his Navy career. I must get to know all of the Coalition’s members if I am to perform my duties.”

And what’s the plan?” Harry asked. “What happens if you get what you want at the meeting?”

Then the Jarilo colony becomes an equal partner in the Coalition, and our survival is ensured,” she replied. “We desire only the right to exist, a right that all other species enjoy.”

But that isn’t a right that the Bugs respect,” Harry scoffed. “I’m on my second three-year tour in the Navy, and we’ve been at war with the Betelgeusians for going on thirty years now. I’ve seen some shit. The Bugs don’t respect anyone else’s rights, they don’t follow any rules of engagement, they just kill whatever they find by whatever means are most expedient. You see that helmet over there?” he added, gesturing to the helmet that was sitting on the coffee table. “It has a built-in rebreather because the Bugs like to hit us with chemical weapons that melt our mucous membranes and make us drown in our own liquefied organs. Plasma weapons were banned in UNN space for being inhumane until the Bugs started using them against us. I’ve seen partially dismembered Drones get up and keep coming at our lines like zombies. How do you make peace with that?”

Even after everything that I have told you, you still see me as just a Betelgeusian?” the ambassador asked. The antennae on her head drooped, she seemed deflated. “Perhaps my task will be more difficult than I had anticipated...”

Harry felt a pang of remorse, but quickly suppressed it. She obviously believed what she was saying, he didn’t get the impression that she was trying to deceive him, but she was still a Bug. He didn’t owe her the benefit of the doubt.

CHAPTER 4: RAISING THE STAKES

The pieces were all on the board, and the game was about to begin. The delegates had been given enough time to settle in, and the Admiral had given the green light for the security council meeting to begin. This was the most challenging part of Moralez’s job, coordinating with so many different departments and security teams to ensure that everyone got where they needed to be without incident.

Not including the Admiral himself, who would be attending on behalf of the UNN, there were seven different delegations who all needed to be escorted to the central hub. Moving the Bug ambassador was going to be the most difficult of all. What was he supposed to do, throw a bedsheet over her? The central hub of the Pinwheel was where all of the control systems for the station were located, along with the Admiral’s quarters. It was a high-security area that was only accessible via the long spokes that joined it to the torus, so there were no maintenance tunnels to move her through in secret.

He looked down at the monitor on his wrist as a call from the Admiral came through, tapping at the holographic display and patching it through to his earpiece.

Security Chief,” the Admiral began. He sounded especially testy today, and Moralez didn’t want to get on his bad side. “Give me some good news.”

Yes, Admiral. All of the delegates, save for the Betelgeusian, are being escorted from their suites to spoke number six by my security teams. We had a little trouble finding Vice Admiral Korbaz, she was killing time with some of her countrymen down at the recreation center, but I’m having her brought upspin now. When they arrive, I’ll be personally escorting them to the conference room.”

Good,” the Admiral replied, “and the Bug?”

There are no service tunnels that lead onto the hub, as you know, Admiral. I was thinking of having her brought down to one of the smaller hangars and then transferring her to the hub via shuttle. There are emergency docking bays that can accommodate small craft on the hub, but I’d need your permission, and probably some kind of clearance to make that happen.”

I’ll see to it that you have whatever you need,” the Admiral replied. “Make sure that you’re able to coordinate with your team, I’ve decided that I want the Betelgeusian ambassador brought in only after the Valbaran application has been voted on. I want them to be able to have their say in the matter.”

You believe that the Valbaran application will be accepted, Sir?” Moralez asked.

I see no reason to believe otherwise,” he replied. “Have your men transfer the Bug by shuttle, and then have them wait in one of the empty offices nearby. They need to be ready to bring her in on my signal.”

Sir, do you really think it’s wise to keep the ambassadors in the dark on this issue? I can’t imagine that Korbaz is going to react very positively, and we don’t know much about the Valbarans, save for the fact that they’ve suffered at the hands of the Bugs.”

Your job is not to comment on political matters, Security Chief,” the Admiral replied tersely. “Just make sure that everyone gets here in one piece.”

My apologies, Admiral,” Moralez replied. “I’ll see that it gets done.”

He closed the connection, then loosed a sigh that he had been holding in. Just his luck that the only Admiral on the station right now was a hardass, his job would be a whole lot easier if Admiral Murray were around. He tapped at his wrist again, and Harry quickly answered.

What’s up, Chief?”

How’s our guest, Harry?” he asked.

She’s safe and sound. Cooperative, if a little surly.”

Good, stand by for orders. The Admiral wants her brought down to one of the hangars via the service tunnels and then transferred to the hub by shuttle, where you’ll wait to be called into the conference room. I’ll be able to give you more details soon, but be ready to move. Let me know if you need more Marines.”

Roger that, Chief. Just say the word.”

***

The Chief closed the connection, and Harry rose from the couch, retrieving his helmet from the coffee table and slotting it back over his head. Blackjack opened one eye lazily and begrudgingly climbed to his feet, his long snout opening wide in a yawn to expose the rows of jagged teeth that lined his maw.

We’ll be moving soon,” he said to the ambassador, who was still sitting across from him. After their initial conversation had taken a sour turn, they had mostly sat in silence for the next couple of hours, counting down the minutes until they could move things along. He couldn’t help but imagine that she had used to the time to reassess her approach at the meeting, she had seemed taken aback by his unwillingness to accept her attempts to set herself apart from her species at large.

Very good,” she said, remaining seated with her long legs crossed.

Just waitin’ on the Chief to tell us where to go.”

Sergeant Hayes,” she began, Harry pausing to glance at her from beneath the open visor of his helmet. “Concerning our discussion earlier...I did not mean to upset you. If I have behaved inappropriately, then I apologize for that. Interacting with humans other than my father is still new to me, and now I fear that I am not as versed in human social norms as I had initially thought.”

Damn it, she just had to go and turn it around on him, didn’t she? Harry sighed, reaching up to scratch his stubbly chin as she peered at him expectantly with her large, pink eyes.

The last thing I want to do is throw you off before you go into that meeting,” he said, the alien batting her lashes at him. “I get it, I do. You’re here to make sure that your people have a future, and that’s my job too. You do it by trying to get your point across, and I do it down the barrel of a gun, but we’re both in the same business. When we’re lying in bed at night, we both worry about the same things.”

She nodded, her antennae bobbing in the air.

I’ll be twenty-five soon,” he continued, “and I’ve spent the last seven years of my life fighting Bugs. It’s hard for me to give you a clean slate, as much as you insist that you’re different from the rest. All the shit I’ve seen...I can’t just snap my fingers and have it all go away, y’know? I dunno,” he added with a shrug, beginning to pace on the carpet beside the couch. “I’m not good at this kind of thing. Just know that it ain’t personal, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

That seemed to perk her up somewhat, and it made him feel a little better too. Blackjack emitted an appreciative rumbling sound that made Harry’s teeth chatter, the ambassador’s eyes darting to him in alarm. The Krell seemed pleased that they had made up.

Oh, it’s like that?” he replied, turning to his companion. “What do you know, you big green goon?”

The ambassador put a hand to her lips, stifling a giggle as she glanced between the two of them.

There was an alert as the Chief sent a message to the computer on his wrist, Harry lifting it up and tapping at the touch panel.

Alright, we have our orders. We’re to proceed to hangar seventeen and board a waiting shuttle that will take us to the control hub. I’ve been sent access codes and a map of the service tunnels. Fuck me, it’s like a maze in there...”

I may be able to help with navigation,” the ambassador volunteered, “I have a good sense of direction. My home was a similar maze of tunnels, after all.”

Harry made his way over to the back of the room, where the panel that led into the service tunnels was still removed, leaning against the wall beside the opening. He pulled up the access code and tapped it in, the door that lay behind it opening with a whoosh.

This way, Ambassador,” he said as he gestured to the gloom that lay beyond.

***

Honorable Ambassadors, if I could please have your attention,” Moralez shouted over the roar of the torus. They were standing just outside spoke six, the passageway sectioned off behind a large pressure door, black and yellow warning stripes painted around its frame. It was large enough to let a Krell or perhaps a cart loaded with supplies pass through unhindered. It would seal shut in the event of an emergency, either to prevent the atmosphere from escaping or to prevent boarders from reaching the hub. A pair of security guards in black body armor were standing to either side of it, their XMRs slung across their chests.

The six delegations were standing nearby, a semi-circle of Marines forming a perimeter to keep the crowds at bay. There was the Elysian ambassador in his ornate, red armor, the Araxie in her two-piece suit standing beside him. The Valbarans numbered four, and they were standing at the front of the pack, their heads swiveling curiously as they took in the strange sights and fluttered their colorful feathers. The Krell Elder in his tribal garb stood beside the Broker at the rear, who had finally seen fit to leave the refuge of his strange vessel, while Korbaz stood apart from everyone else.

Those of you who have visited the station before are already familiar with this process,” the Chief continued. “But for those who are new to the Pinwheel, I will explain what is about to happen. The security council meeting will be taking place on the control hub, which is a secure area of the station. The only way to and from the hub are the long spokes that connect to the torus, where we are right now. Before you can be allowed to set foot on the hub, you will be required to submit to a screening process. This is routine, they’ll just check you for concealed weapons and listening devices.”

They lined up in single file, the Araxie ambassador at the head, the two Marines beginning to pat her down. She had an unusual number of pockets on the inside of her jacket, Moralez watching in amazement as what looked like an entire tool belt’s worth of items were placed into one of the plastic trays that were sitting on a nearby table. A vial of what might be salt, an MRE packet, a flameless ration heater, a small tablet computer, a keyring, a lighter. He couldn’t imagine what use she might have for such odd trinkets. When they were done searching her, one of the Marines produced a handheld scanner, waving it over her briefly.

You’re clear,” he said, Ambassador Zuki standing to one side as the next person in line stepped forward.

Torza raised his arms obediently as the two guards began to pat him down, his heavy pauldrons clanking. There really wasn’t any practical way that he could conceal anything, his clothing was thin and billowy beneath his armor plating, and he didn’t have an abundance of pockets.

Next in line was the Krell, whose clothing was similarly spartan. The only things in the pockets of his leather poncho were odd charms and fetishes carved from wood and decorated with colorful feathers, which he was allowed to keep. After running the scanner over his abundance of necklaces and pendants briefly, he was cleared to enter the hub.

The Valbarans were patted down two by two, they were wearing their skin-tight, camouflaged jumpsuits. The Marines had to kneel to reach their legs due to their short stature. There were some issues during the scanning phase that held the process up for a little while. Electrical wiring ran through the suits like blood vessels, and they had onboard computers that powered the augmented reality HUDs on their helmets, along with the color panels that mimicked their feather displays. The system was putting out too much electromagnetic interference to be allowed onto the hub. Fortunately, the suits had replaceable batteries, which meant that they could also be removed, powering them down completely. A quick scan later, and they were cleared to pass.

When the Broker walked up to the pair of guards on its mechanical legs, they simply waved it through without performing any checks. As the Chief of Security, Moralez knew that it was station policy, but he didn’t know why. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the Broker’s listening devices, cameras, and electronics were inseparable from its body. It couldn’t function without them. Or maybe it was due to the influence that its kind exerted over the alliance.

The last in line was Korbaz, and Moralez wandered a little closer, anticipating some kind of trouble. The Vice Admiral always seemed to make every interaction more difficult than it needed to be.

The braver of the two Marines stepped forward, approaching the towering feline. He reached out towards her leather jacket and was met with a low, rumbling growl that would have been enough to set the hairs on Moralez’s arms on end if he still had any.

Vice Admiral,” he sighed, the Rask turning to peer at him with her yellow eyes as the Marine backed off. “Are you really going to hold everyone else up? You had no problem submitting to a pat-down the last time you were on the station, even if you had some issues handing over your weapons.”

If your Marines are not brave enough to do their duties, then perhaps you will take their place, Security Chief?”

Moralez knew that toothy grin, this was another one of her games. He shrugged, and drew closer, knowing that it was best to just give her what she wanted so that they could move things along.

At least my arms are designed to be detached at the shoulder,” he muttered, beginning to run his hands along her sleeves as she held them out for him. Almost immediately, he located something suspicious, rolling up the leather to reveal the sandy fur on her forearm. There was a leather belt just beneath her elbow, and attached to it was a sheath that held a blade. It was small by Borealan standards, but still about the size of a combat knife to him. He drew it from its scabbard and tossed it into one of the trays.

You could just tell me what you have,” he complained, the Rask chuckling under her breath.

There would be no sport in that, Security Chief.”

He checked her other arm, then moved down to her torso. Her jacket was open, and so he reached inside and ran his rubber fingertips over the inner lining. There was another concealed knife, this one even larger, the blade sporting a cruel gut hook. He also found a revolver on a shoulder holster that was slung beneath her arm, withdrawing the crude weapon from its pouch. Rask revolvers were large and crudely machined, but they made even the most powerful conventional handguns look like toys. He placed it in the tray along with her other weapons.

He skirted her ample chest, the ambassador seeming to take pleasure in his discomfort, and then ran his hands down her torso. Beneath her leather jacket, she wore a tight-fitting tank top, her chiseled abdominal muscles visible even beneath the grey fabric. He ran his fingers over them as he moved down to her waist, finding them as hard as stone, her taut muscles flexing as he brushed them.

Her shirt stopped a few inches above her belt, her pants sitting low on her wide hips, exposing the caramel skin of her toned midriff. Moralez turned his eyes to her utility belt, from which dozens of pouches and holsters were hanging. He withdrew another massive revolver, placing it in the tray with a heavy thud, taking care to be gentle with the thing lest it go off prematurely. The Rask did not strike him as a people who valued safety. There were more varied knives, a pair of brass knuckles that doubled as push-blades, and what looked like a folding machete. He was suspicious of her belt buckle, finding that it was detachable upon closer inspection, that too hiding a concealed blade.

Are you patting me down, or attempting to disrobe me?” she asked with a smirk.

He opened the clasp on one of the larger pouches and pulled out a tightly-wound length of rope, giving her a questioning look as he placed it with her haul.

One never knows when a rope might come in handy,” she said, her tone sly. “Climbing, mooring...restraining.”

Moralez moved down to her thighs, her leather pants so tight that they creaked when she shifted her weight, the dimples of her muscle visible through the black material. He ran his hands down to her ankles, where the garment ended, then moved back up. He wasn’t about to let her take advantage of his human sensibilities to smuggle something past the guards, and so he didn’t hesitate to feel up her inner thighs, brushing her crotch as briefly as he dared.

Korbaz wet her lips conspicuously as he ran his hands around to her rump, her cheeks just as round and as firm as they had looked. He had to press closer to her, barely able to reach, the scent of leather and exertion filling his nose. He felt something odd, glancing up at her as she peered down at him over the mounds of her breasts with her feline pupils.

Is that a gun in your pants, Vice Admiral, or are you just happy to see me?”

Why don’t you reach inside and find out?” she replied, Moralez loosing an exasperated sigh. She had probably been planning this from the moment that he had turned down her advances the day prior, the Equatorials were nothing if not persistent.

He slipped his polymer fingers beneath her waistband, the leather so tight that he had little choice but to come into contact with her skin. It was as smooth as glass, the muscle beneath flexing at his touch, his digits sinking deep into her yielding flesh. As tough as she was, she was surprisingly soft. If she was wearing underwear, then he couldn’t feel any.

His fingertips brushed cold steel, and he closed his hand around the object, struggling to withdraw another pistol. It looked like a breech-loading handgun, with a single round in the chamber, a weapon of last resort perhaps. He dropped it in the tray, then held out a hand to one of the Marines, the man passing him the scanner. After doing a few passes with the device, it was clear that she didn’t have any concealed electronics, and he waved her forward. She waltzed past him, her tail brushing his thigh on the way past, Moralez shooting her a look that said in your dreams.

Alright, looks like we’re finally ready to go,” he proclaimed as the gaggle of aliens looked on. “Your belongings will be returned to you once you leave the hub. Now, please follow me as we proceed along the spoke.”

Moralez gestured to the two Marines, and they took up position to either side of the pressure door, scanning their access cards in two identical readers. There was a mechanical grinding sound as the two halves of the door began to part, exposing a hallway beyond that was carpeted in UNN blue, the walls and ceiling made from white hull material. One of the Valbarans emitted a flash of yellow feathers, her eyes wide as she peered through the opening.

What is that?” she trilled, cocking her head in confusion.

After a few feet, the passageway curved upwards at a ninety-degree angle, creating what looked like a ramp. From there, it continued on vertically, rising high into the air and out of view from their perspective.

This is where things get a little weird,” Moralez said, waving them forward. “As some of you may know, the habitat is spun to create inertia, which simulates gravity. In the same way that when you spin a bucket full of water, the water stays in the bucket, your feet stay rooted to the deck. The hub is at the center of the torus, however. That puts it directly above our heads relative to where we’re standing. It’s spinning too slowly to generate any significant inertia of its own, so we use an AG field to generate artificial gravity there instead, but that creates a problem.”

They reached the beginning of the gentle ramp, Moralez glancing up to see the corridor extending high into the air above him, like looking up through the center of a hollow cooling tower. Even though this had become routine to him, the sight was still enough to give him a twinge of vertigo.

To get from the torus to the hub, we must transition from inertial gravity to the AG field, and we have to walk up this ramp so that we’ll be level with it.”

Moralez took the lead, his inner ear going haywire as he began to walk up the wall from the perspective of the onlookers. After a moment, he found himself standing in the carpeted passageway, his stomach settling as he turned to look back at the delegates.

Your brain is going to tell you that everything you’re doing is wrong, but just keep your eyes on the floor and keep walking. Close them if you have to, it helps.”

All of the ambassadors save for the Valbarans had done this before, but some of them still had their issues. There was a lot of staring intently at the carpet, and a few stumbles, but everyone managed to get to the other side of the ramp.

The four Valbarans looked on apprehensively, glancing at one another as if seeking reassurance. After a moment, the one that Moralez recognized as Ensi Cuetz took two of the others by the hand, the fourth apparently confident enough to walk on her own as they approached the curve in the deck. There was plenty of fluttering, the shades of blue and purple conveying their displeasure. They inched along until finally, they found themselves on the far side. “Such odd geometry,” one of them muttered, peering back over her shoulder as two of the Marines that were accompanying them made their way up the bend.

If we’re all ready to continue,” Moralez said, getting their attention. “Please follow me.”

The long hallway stretched out a good distance ahead of them, the pressure door that led into the hub barely in sight. There were windows spaced out at intervals along the walls, a view of the station's hull and the starfield beyond visible through the reinforced glass, the frost crystals that clung to the outside of the panes creating beautiful patterns. The stars were bright and cold against the blackness of space, slowly rotating as the station spun, the system's sun casting the outer hull in harsh light and deep shadow. With no atmospheric haze and no points of reference, it was hard to gauge the real scale of the station, the donut-shaped habitat curving up and out of view like a horizon. This was one of the few places on the station where one could see the structure of the facility, as there were no windows on the habitat, it shattered the illusion that the designers had been trying to sell.

There were several holdups as the delegates stopped to take in the view. The Valbarans were especially fascinated, as it was all new to them. Eventually, they arrived at the far end of the walkway, the pressure door opening automatically to grant them access to the hub.

This area of the station was very different from the open spaces and the lavish decorations of the torus. It had more in common with an office building, or a traditional spacecraft, more cramped and with fewer amenities. It was a maze of branching corridors that all looked alike, the numbers that were stenciled onto the doors the only real way to navigate. The ceiling was just high enough that the Krell ambassador’s head brushed it, and the corridors just wide enough that two Borealans could have passed each other unhindered. The walls were whitewashed, and the carpet was the same Navy blue as the one in the spoke, a few ferns in planters adding a little greenery to the otherwise spartan and functional surroundings.

As they made their way down the winding corridors, the only other people that they encountered were engineers in their yellow overalls, or clerks scurrying between the different departments with tablet computers or boxes of data storage drives clutched in their arms. One such engineer was staring intently at the screen of his tablet as he rounded a corner, marching straight past the procession of delegates as though he hadn’t even seen them. He turned towards one of the many numbered doors, and in doing so, walked straight into Korbaz.

His face sank into one of her breasts through the thin fabric of her tank top, the man’s head almost seeming to bounce back, his tablet computer falling to the floor. There was a scuffle, the Rask hissing and spitting, the hapless engineer becoming tangled in her abundance of belts as she tried to push him away. Touching an Equatorial without solicitation was a grave offense in their culture, it was taken as a challenge to their dominance, one that must be met with immediate reprisal.

The engineer managed to free himself, and the other ambassadors retreated to a safe distance as Korbaz took a step towards him, backing him up against the far wall. She pressed closer, emitting a low, menacing growl.

She faltered as Moralez strode up behind her and gripped her wrist, preparing to twist her arm and subdue her. Her yellow eyes darted between him and her prey, and then she slowly backed away, her intimidating growling subsiding.

What did I tell you about behaving on my station, Vice Admiral?” Moralez warned. “If you can’t restrain yourself, then I’ll have you removed from the hub.”

A simple mistake,” she grumbled, reigning in her wild proclivities. “The human surprised me is all. You should be more mindful, little one,” she added as the pale-faced engineer stooped to retrieve his tablet. “Such carelessness is a sure way to earn yourself an ugly scar...or a night of passion that you might not survive.”

He scurried off down the hallway, not quite breaking into a run, Korbaz watching him like a hungry wolf. Moralez released her arm, the two Marines who were escorting them moving their hands away from their rifles, the ambassador giving him a wry smile.

You do know how to handle me, Security Chief.”

Keep moving,” he grumbled.

When they reached their destination, they stepped through one of the numbered doors, and into a spacious conference room. It was illuminated by light panels that were embedded in the ceiling, carpeted again in UNN blue, decorative plants occupying the corners of the room to add a little flair. This space was a little more upscale, with faux-wood paneling that broke up the matte white of the walls. In the center of the room was a large, mahogany table, which was surrounded by chairs that came in odd shapes and sizes. There were accommodations for each species, the seating specially tailored to their unique needs, as well as an empty place where the Broker would probably stand. Robotic legs didn’t get tired, after all. He knew from personal experience.

The Admiral was already waiting for them, scrolling through something on a tablet computer with a gloved hand. His white uniform was as crisp as ever, the gold of the UNN logo above the brim of his cap and the ornate medals that adorned his chest glinting under the room’s soft lighting. He rose from his seat to greet them, setting his tablet down on the table, Moralez stepping to one side and ordering his Marines to stand guard outside the door. He stood by the wall with his polymer hands clasped behind his back, watching as the Admiral introduced himself.

My name is Admiral Vos, I’ll be attending the council meeting on behalf of the UN, the legislative body that governs Earth and her colonies. If you’d all like to take a seat around the table, we can begin the proceedings. I’m sure that you all know why we’re here, but I’ll state it again for the record. The UNN Rorke and her support fleet recently made contact with the planet Valbara during a long-range patrol, and their government has made a formal request to join the Coalition. The honorable Ensi have traveled here to make their case,” he said with a gesture to the Valbarans. “The purpose of this meeting will be to determine whether that application will be accepted. Each council member gets one vote, with a majority required to pass the motion.”

The ambassadors took up their respective places around the table, the varied designs of the seating resulting in everyone being more or less level. They were loaded with large springs, much like those that were used in the bar stools at the recreation center, sinking the occupant down based on their weight. The three Borealans had reinforced chairs with a cutout for their tails, while the Krell had something that resembled more of a padded bench with no back support, the Valbarans sitting on four raised stools that looked like booster seats. The Broker stood on its mechanical legs, as Moralez had suspected, its array of cameras and sensors moving disconcertingly as they shifted focus. It was hard to tell where the thing was looking, and the answer might be everywhere.

Now that everyone is seated,” the Admiral said, “the Ensi may begin their presentation.”

Moralez noted that the little aliens hadn’t brought any tablet computers or documents with them, and their onboard computers had been deactivated before entering the hub. Surely they didn’t have all of the necessary information about their civilization committed to memory?

Netza started to speak, the ambassadors turning their eyes, and their telescopic lenses, on her.

My name is Netza'cui'atl,” she began, her headdress flushing a regal red as she introduced herself. “I am one of six Ensi who preside over the city of Yilgarn, along with my flock,” she added as she gestured to the aliens who were seated to either side of her. “We were chosen to represent our people because we have interacted with the Coalition extensively, both during the battle for Val’ba’ra, and during the ensuing months that the fleet has spent in orbit. As of right now, the Rorke and her support fleet are still helping to protect the planet and its people from possible attacks while the damage is repaired and our defenses are shored.”

She hopped up onto the table and made her way to the center, the Admiral recoiling in alarm. Perhaps this was customary during meetings on their home planet, and nobody complained. It was actually rather convenient, they didn’t have to turn their heads to look at her.

The history of my planet is one of a peaceful people plagued by external conflict,” she continued, turning on the spot to address each delegate in turn. “Our homeworld is a paradise that overflows with an abundance of natural beauty, from rolling plains to towering mountain ranges, from deep oceans to fertile jungles. Over the eons, we have learned to integrate our society and our technology with our environment. We take only what we need, and we make our lives as sustainable as possible, riding the current of nature rather than fighting against it. With no competition for resources or living space, the concept of war grew foreign to us. The Val’ba’ra’nay are now a unified people, and there has been no internal conflict for many decades.”

The peaceful, green hue of her headdress took on a more violent red, as though her feathers were reflecting the mood of her story.

But when we left our planet to venture out among the stars, war was once again foisted upon us. We discovered a planet that mirrored our own in a nearby system, and we named it Ker’gue’la. The colonization effort began immediately, and before long, there were thriving cities all over its surface. We sought to bring that philosophy of peaceful coexistence with us into the cosmos, but alas, it was not to be. From the depths of uncharted space came a new form of life, a new enemy. They could not be reasoned with, they could not be placated, and we had no way to halt their advance.”

Now her blood-red plumes took on shades of sorrowful purple.

The entire colony and almost all of its inhabitants were exterminated. Those who escaped spoke of devastation on a scale that was incomprehensible, of a ruthlessness and an indifference to suffering that made them question whether the attackers were even thinking creatures. In the wake of this tragedy, we began to prepare. If the enemy had come to Ker’gue’la, then what was stopping them from following us back to our home? We waited for thirty rotations, building our armies, developing our weapons and technology. An entire generation was raised in uncertainty, never knowing when the attack would come.”

The ambassadors were transfixed, the Ensi was certainly putting on a theatrical show for them. Her mastery of the English language was impeccable, and he noted that her accent seemed to vary from American to English at times, almost as though she was mimicking the speech of multiple people.

Then, the day that we had all feared arrived. At the edge of our solar system, one of our remote sensors was tripped, and all evidence pointed towards the arrival of a second hive fleet. We tracked them through the Oort cloud at the limits of our star’s gravity well, engaging in a deadly game of cat and mouse among the asteroids.”

Her ornate feathers took on a more hopeful, yellow hue as she continued.

But the hive fleet was not alone. During a patrol, one of our fighter squadrons came across a battle in progress. Spacecraft of unknown configuration and origin were engaging the enemy. Wary of provoking another hostile species, we kept our interference to a minimum. But these were not more marauding aliens, it was a Coalition fleet,” she said with a proud flurry of red. “We made peaceful contact, and you offered us your protection, expecting nothing in return. When the hive fleet invaded Val’ba’ra, overwhelming our carriers and our orbital platforms, it was the Coalition that rallied the defense. You shed your blood for us, fought and died alongside us, struggled for the sake of Val’ba’ra as though it was your own sacred soil.”

The Ensi was becoming emotional now, the colorful feather patterns growing irregular, her tinny voice starting to crack. She turned to face the Admiral, her plumes taking on another shade of blazing red in what Moralez could only assume was some kind of salute.

We come not only seeking an alliance, but to repay a debt of honor. We offer our ships to bolster your fleets, our Commandos to serve alongside your troops, and whatever else you may require of us. The Val’ba’ra’nay are at your service.”

Here here!” the Elysian ambassador bellowed, rising to his feet and slamming his furry fist down on the table. He seemed to have been moved by her speech, his amber eyes full of fire, his sharp teeth bared in a wide grin. “You already have my vote.”

Please save your comments until after the presentation,” the Admiral muttered. “A rousing speech, Ensi,” he continued as he turned back to Netza. “Your candor is appreciated, but what exactly are you offering?”

We have seventeen ships of the line,” Cuetz replied, hopping up onto the table and taking Netza’s place as her counterpart sat back down. “Their modular nature means that they can be configured as carriers that can deploy dropships and fighter wings, retrofitted with railguns to make them into gunships, or they can be used as point defense platforms using their laser batteries. Our shipyards are already constructing more. They are jump-capable, and are roughly the equivalent of your frigate class.”

Yes, we have more detailed specifications that were transmitted by Captain Fielding of the Rorke,” the Admiral said as he glanced down at his tablet. “I have to say, having a Coalition member who is able to contribute ships to our fleets would be a welcome addition.”

We have thirty thousand Commandos ready to ship out at a moment’s notice,” she added. “Our troops are already training with UNN equipment, and are becoming proficient with the XMR platform. We can also provide support personnel, pilots, engineers.”

Yes, we are aware of your species’ accelerated learning capacity,” Admiral Vos replied, referencing his tablet computer again. “Training spaceship crews and engineering teams is time-consuming, and the other members of the Coalition are not often in a position to contribute in those areas. Members are required to commit five percent of their GDP to defense spending, and I don’t think that you’ll have any issues in that area.”

We are interested in opening trade routes to Valbara,” the Broker interjected, its many cameras and sensors moving independently of one another in a way that made Moralez decidedly uneasy. Its tinny, synthetic voice seemed to be coming from some manner of speaker that was out of view. “The great distances involved will incur additional upfront costs, but we believe that the potential for profit is large enough to justify the initial expenditure. The Valbarans have many unique technologies and cultural artifacts that could be returned to Coalition space, and we have much to offer in return.”

We are especially interested in Coalition medical technology and computer systems,” another of the Ensi replied, one whose name Moralez didn’t know.

And the UNN is very interested in finding applications for your laser technology,” the Admiral added, one of the Broker’s many cameras swiveling in his direction. “It’s inferior to our railgun systems for direct combat applications, but it could be used in range-finding and point defense.”

Indeed, we have much to discuss,” Netza said. “As there are four of us, perhaps we can speed things along by discussing several areas of interest at once?”

That’s not something we usually do,” the Admiral mused, “but I don’t see why not.”

***

Moralez watched as the Valbarans mingled with the council members, holding four conversations at once. Each Ensi seemed to have committed a specific subject to memory, such as military or economic matters. They had apparently considered art and culture important enough to devote a lot of time to it, something that interested both the Broker and Ambassador Rasheth of the Krell for very different reasons. Rasheth’s interest seemed to be entirely based on his own curiosity, while the Broker was more concerned with importing media and cultural oddities. The chorus of simulated and mimicked voices was quite distracting.

Admiral Vos and Ambassador Elysiedde spoke with Cuetz at length about their military capabilities. From what snippets Moralez could catch, they sounded far closer to humanity in terms of technology and tactics than any of the other species. It was all well and good to use Borealan packs as Shock Troopers, or to train Krell to carry heavy weaponry and to act as living armor, but working with another professional fighting force would be a breath of fresh air. Captain Fielding’s after-action report from the battle of Valbara extolled their effectiveness, especially as ground troops. The creatures were small and unassuming, but apparently far faster and stronger than they appeared, able to coordinate with their teams in a way that made them fight as though they were a single entity.

Ambassador Zuki of the Araxie was more interested in their culture and their society, quizzing an Ensi who called herself Cotl about their strange, alien cities at length. The Valbaran was able to paint a vivid picture of how their people lived, and more importantly, their attitudes towards aliens. What they described sounded a little too much like a utopia for Moralez, too regimented, too restrictive. Although he couldn’t deny that her descriptions made him want to spend his shore leave there, the whole planet sounded like a tropical resort. A nice place to visit, but he wouldn’t want to live there...

Korbaz was her usual surly self, sitting apart and not really participating in the discussions very much. Again, Moralez found himself wondering why she was even here.

They spent a couple of hours talking, which was actually rather fast for a council meeting, but none the less made Moralez wish that both of his legs were prosthetic. The Admiral had requested that he personally stand guard, his clearance was high enough that he could be trusted not to disseminate any classified or sensitive information. He also needed to bring in the Bug when the time came.

It was hard to judge how everyone would react, and violence was a distinct possibility from some of the less predictable ambassadors. He couldn’t wait to get Blackjack in here, the Krell would be able to halt any hostilities before they began, and he’d avoid hurting anyone in the process.

When they were finally finished, the Admiral called the vote, the Valbarans returning to their respective seats around the table and waiting impatiently.

I think we’ve all heard enough to come to a decision,” he said, glancing around the table as he steepled his fingers. “To reiterate for our prospective members, each council member gets one vote, and a majority is required to pass the motion.”

He paused to take a draw from a bottle of water that an aide had brought in during the session. Despite its relatively short length, two hours and change was still a long time to be sitting still, and even the more stoic of the ambassadors was starting to get restless.

All in favor of admitting the Valbarans to the Coalition?” he asked, returning his plastic bottle to the table. “You may vote yes, no, or abstain if you so choose.”

He gestured to Elysiedde with a gloved hand, moving clockwise around the circular table.

I vote yes on behalf of my Lord Patriarch,” he announced proudly, puffing out his barrel chest. “Elysia values strong allies, and these Valbarans are a tenacious people. Despite their stature, they fight like Borealans, and we would be honored to call them our packmates.”

The Valbaran delegates seemed pleased, their feathers flashing in shades of yellow and orange. Next was Ambassador Rasheth, the Krell reaching down to tap at the bulky translator on his wrist, the abundance of charms and pendants that hung from his neck clattering together as he moved.

I vote in the name of the Elders,” he said, the deep resonance of his native language seeming to make the very deck beneath their feet vibrate. It sounded like someone trying to speak through a tuba. There was a brief delay, and then his translator kicked in, the device interpreting his speech somewhat crudely. “Like reflections in a lake, we see much of our soul in these little sisters. They do not erect barriers between themselves and nature, they do not stem the flow. They seek friendship with open arms, free of suspicion, their bellies open and vulnerable. We welcome all who seek protection into our great circle,” he added with a dramatic wave of his scaly arm. “The vote that I cast is yes.”

Everyone turned their eyes to the Araxie, the alien’s velvety, black fur shining under the room’s warm lighting. Her outfit was so appropriate for the occasion, yet so out of place on her, only making her seem even more alien to Moralez.

Ambassadors,” she began, turning her head towards the Valbarans and smiling warmly. “My people were only recently admitted to the Coalition. It happened in a room much like this one, in much the same way, and with many of the same fine people present. We too were faced with an external threat to our security,” she added, Korbaz scoffing from across the table. Zuki spared her a glance, then continued. “The Coalition offered us their help, knowing that our primitive territory could give them little in return, and now we prosper because of it. The Araxie have never forgotten that generosity, and I would be remiss not to extend that same hand of friendship towards you. I vote in favor of the motion.”

The feather displays from the Valbarans grew even more vibrant, flashing in shades of lemon yellow, the aliens whispering to one another excitedly in their fast-paced language. They already had three votes, and they only needed one more for a majority. There was almost no chance of the Broker or the Admiral voting against them.

The Broker was next, seated to their left, or rather standing on its skeletal legs. Its sensors and cameras swiveled as they tracked the council members, its mood impossible to discern. What was it thinking right now? Was it thinking at all? It could be communicating with the other Brokers in ways that the UNN couldn’t even detect, or it might be piloted by an entire room of aliens who were sitting light-years away, holding a conference of their own.

The potential for trade makes this decision an easy one,” it said in its synthesized voice, “and growing the alliance makes each member safer. The Brokers vote in support of the motion.”

That was it, they were in. Moralez smiled as he watched the Valbarans bob in their seats, their feathers going crazy, but it wasn’t over yet. Even if they had enough votes to pass the motion, the council still had to hear from the last two ambassadors. Everyone would get their say, regardless of the outcome.

Korbaz was sitting with her arms crossed, her amber eyes switching between the different council members. Moralez wondered if she was going to vote against them just to be a pain in the ass, he wouldn’t put it past her.

Not that the Rask vote ever counts for much,” she muttered, “but I must concur with my Elysian counterpart.”

Moralez almost fell over, Korbaz was actually agreeing with Elysiedde. Hell had finally frozen over, and squadrons of pigs were soaring over the base in formation.

This is a military alliance,” she continued, “we need warriors and ships if we are to keep our enemies at bay. My Matriarch welcomes those who are willing to shoulder that burden, to throw themselves into the fires of combat without complaint. As small as these...Valbarans are, they are eager, and they have much to offer. I see no reason to turn away a willing ally.”

Last was Vos, and Moralez could already guess how he was going to vote.

Then it’s unanimous,” the Admiral said with a clap of his gloved hands. “I vote in favor, of course. The motion is passed. Effective immediately, the planet Valbara is to be made the seventh member of the Coalition. The next steps will be to establish a permanent embassy and to ship some Valbaran personnel to Fort Hamilton for integration training, though it sounds like you already have a head start on that front. Since there is already a Coalition fleet in orbit around Valbara, everything should go smoothly.”

Your generosity continues to humble us,” Netza said, all four of the aliens bowing their heads and flashing a feathery salute in deep crimson. “Thank you all for your consideration. This is the Galactic community that our ancestors dreamed of joining when they gazed up at the stars, one born of cooperation and friendship. We will defend it with the same zeal that your own soldiers displayed during the war for our homeworld.”

A satisfying outcome,” Elysiedde said jovially. “You should return to Borealis with me, ambassadors, on the flagship of our fleet. We would give you a taste of Elysian hospitality, a banquet in your honor! I promise you that you have never seen such a variety of meat dishes and exotic sauces, the best that the planet has to offer.”

We have not even set foot outside of the council chambers, and already you seek to bribe our new allies with treats?” Korbaz muttered, shooting daggers at him. He shrugged his massive shoulders, returning her angry stare with a toothy grin.

Dining and politics go hand in hand in Elysia, Ambassador. Perhaps a juicy steak dripping with fish oil would lighten your mood. There is ample room on the flagship for more passengers.”

There is one more matter that needs to be discussed before we adjourn,” Admiral Vos said, all eyes turning to him. Moralez felt a knot growing in his stomach. It was finally time for the Admiral to show his hand.

Let me apologize in advance for being secretive about this,” he continued, glancing about the table as the ambassadors looked on in confusion. “But I didn’t want it to influence the outcome of the Valbaran vote in any way, and I wanted the Valbarans to be able to have their say too, as this concerns them as much as the rest of us. Now that they have been made full members, they will be able to cast their vote on the matter.”

Are you going to keep teasing us like kittens with a string?” Korbaz complained. “Out with it already.”

The Admiral nodded across the room at Moralez, who put a finger to his earpiece, giving Harry the order to bring her in. He folded his prosthetic arms across his chest, waiting, hoping that the Admiral was going about this the right way.

Know that the safety of this station and its inhabitants is our utmost priority,” the Admiral added, “and that all possible precautions have been taken. The subject has been under Marine guard during its entire stay, and we would not be presenting it at this meeting without the certainty that it is completely harmless.”

Are you bringing in a wild Archeox?” Korbaz scoffed, glancing at the door curiously.

Sir?” Moralez asked, gesturing to the door. “They’ve arrived.”

Proceed,” Vos replied, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers again. Moralez had rarely seen him so worried, his brow was furrowed in a frown, his jaw clenched. The Chief walked over to the door, feeling the eyes of the ambassadors on his back as he opened it, Harry and Blackjack stepping through. Harry’s visor was down, perhaps he wanted a little anonymity in this case, and Blackjack was in full combat gear too.

An iridescent glint of pink and white caught the light as the Betelgeusain ambassador walked into the room on her dainty feet, her long, feathery antennae and her gossamer gown seeming to float in the air behind her. She looked about the room with her pink eyes, both pairs of hands clasped neatly in front of her, and then the silence was broken by an angry hiss.

What is the meaning of this!?” Korbaz bellowed, dragging her hooked claws across the mahogany table and leaving deep furrows in the wood. The Valbarans were flashing shades of shocked yellow and dismayed blue, Elysiedde’s cat-like nose wrinkling like a snarling tiger. The Krell and the Araxie were more neutral, certainly shocked, but not reacting so strongly. The Broker’s many lenses were fixed on the Bug, it was impossible to ascertain its mood, or whether it had known in advance about the Bug’s presence on the station.

Calm yourself, Vice Admiral,” Vos muttered. Korbaz looked about ready to flip the table and start turning people into mincemeat. “You have my assurances that all possible precautions have been taken.”

Why is that thing in our council chambers, rather than lying on a dissection table?” Elysiedde snarled. He was more restrained than Korbaz but obviously just as disturbed, his massive hands clenched into tight fists. The Admiral gestured to the Bug, and she bowed her head deferentially, then began to speak.

Honorable council members,” she began, every eye in the room turning on her.

It speaks?” Elysiedde wondered aloud, his fascination distracting him from his anger.

I apologize for any distress that my sudden appearance might have caused you, but it was thought best that my presence on this station remain a secret until I could make my case before you. I have traveled here to serve as an ambassador for my people, to represent the Jarilo colony. My mission is one of peace, of cooperation, of mending.”

Ambassador?” Korbaz snarled, her furious gaze darting between the Bug and the Admiral. “Explain this!”

During the battle for the planet Jarilo, my colony was defeated,” the Bug continued. “We surrendered after being pushed to the brink of extinction, and the Coalition granted us their mercy. For many months now, the colony has been in a state of limbo, its fate uncertain. We had no rights, no status, there was no precedent for what had occurred on Jarilo. Now, I come before you with a plea, that my people be permitted to join your Coalition.”

Bugs do not surrender,” Elysiedde snarled, “is this some kind of ruse?”

I should kill you where you stand for this insult,” Korbaz growled, rising to her feet and leaning across the table. “You desecrate the graves of every Rask warrior who has given their lives in service to their Matriarch, and to this Coalition.”

There is much that you do not understand about my people,” the ambassador replied. If she was afraid, she was remarkably composed. “There is also much that we can offer you. This opportunity would never have been extended to us otherwise.”

How is it that you can talk?” Zuki asked, the Araxie looking the alien up and down. She seemed more inquisitive than her Borealan counterparts, but it was unlikely that any of her people had been sent into battle against the Bugs yet, she had perhaps the most neutral opinion of them of anyone attending the meeting. “It was my understanding that Betelgeusians only communicated through pheromones?”

I realize that my mere presence here may be offensive to those of you who have suffered at the hands of my species,” she replied, her eyes turning to the carpet. “But no apology that I could give would make up for that. If you would grant me just a few minutes of your time, I can explain everything.”

Korbaz looked about ready to pop, and Moralez inched a little closer to her, but her curiosity seemed to get the better of her. She sat back down, drumming her claws on the now scarred table, her round ears flat against her head. The Valbarans remained quiet, huddling together protectively, no doubt wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

Speak,” Rasheth said, his rumbling voice seeming to jolt some of the other ambassadors out of their stupor. “And we will listen.”

***

Of course you would try to distance yourself from the insect hordes who have wreaked bloody havoc across the Galaxy,” Elysiedde snarled. “You tell us that you are not like the others, that your hives do not cooperate, that you face the very same threat as civilized peoples from marauding Bug fleets. What a tangled yarn you spin.”

I do not lie to you, honorable Ambassador,” she replied with a low bow of her head. She was standing a good distance away from the table, coming closer to the Rask delegate might be unwise. “I speak the truth. Betelgeusians are as much a danger to one another as to alien races. If a hive fleet jumped into orbit around Jarilo tomorrow, they would not make a distinction between the human and Jarilan colonists.”

Jarilan,” he scoffed, “as though a change of name will distract us from your telltale appearance.”

We have no affiliation with those that you refer to as Betelgeusians,” she replied, “they are not our kin.” “And I have no affiliation with the Rask,” he added, gesturing across the table at Korbaz. “Yet we are both Borealans.”

Some more than others, perhaps,” the Rask muttered in response.

What has stopped other hives that the Coalition has encountered from surrendering in the same way?” Zuki asked, “what made your hive special?”

As I understand it, our hive ships were destroyed at a crucial stage of our deployment. We were left with neither the manpower nor the resources to establish a sure foothold.”

So you admit that you would have continued to murder the Coalition forces on Jarilo if you were able,” Korbaz spat, turning her attention to Admiral Vos. “You see? They admit that they would strike against us the moment that they have the strength. You would invite a traitor into our midst, and then allow them to build their forces with impunity? Why not furnish them with weapons and ships while you’re at it? Perhaps we should save them the trouble and just slit our own throats!”

No,” the Bug said, remaining calm and diplomatic despite her obvious frustration. “In the eyes of our Queen, we have been assimilated. We are now a part of your Coalition genetically, our people recognize yours as members of the same hive by instinct. We only seek to make it official.”

On Ker’gue’la, entire flocks were slaughtered,” Cuetz added with a flurry of angry red. “Infants were killed in their incubators, and now you expect mercy? Your kind is rotten at its core, soulless. There is no compassion, no empathy, no guilt. How can we trust you?”

I must reiterate,” the Bug continued, turning her pink eyes to the Ensi. “My people have nothing in common with those that destroyed your colony and invaded your homeworld, and those actions fill me with the same disgust that you feel.”

Moralez glanced around the table, it looked like the ambassador was losing the crowd. Harry was standing near the Bug, keeping his eyes on the Valbarans, while Blackjack remained at her side like a giant guard dog. There wasn’t much chance of anything happening to her with a Krell on the job, but the hatred in the air was palpable, Moralez felt like he could have cut it with a knife.

We do not come empty-handed,” the Bug continued, spreading her four arms. “We have much to offer you. Biological and technological secrets developed over eons and passed down to us by our distant ancestors, knowledge that will help you defeat hostile hives more effectively. With our help, your vessels could heal hull breaches as though they were wounds, our knowledge of genetics could cure your every ailment, and strengthen your warriors. If you seek military power, then we could provide you with millions of devoted soldiers tailored to your every need, unwavering, willing to march into the jaws of death if you so commanded.”

We should consider this carefully,” the Admiral warned, “we didn’t agree to bring the ambassador here because we wanted to be good Samaritans. They have things that we need. Taking Bugs alive has always been a problem, we can’t communicate with them, their biological computer systems are nonsense to us. Their ships die in captivity before we can learn anything useful about them, for God’s sake. The Jarilans can just give us what we need, and that knowledge can then be applied to all other hives that we encounter.”

The potential for technological advancement is great,” the Broker added, the claw-like attachments on its tubular arms flexing. “This opportunity will likely never present itself again, the circumstances are unique. Information is the most valuable currency of all.”

You can’t be seriously considering this,” Netza muttered. “We came here seeking allies to help us fight these creatures, and now we find that we may be forced to live alongside them? Perhaps coming here was a mistake...”

Rasheth seemed to have something to add, his rumbling voice making Moralez’s teeth chatter.

Many Krell perish in wars against insects, more than we have words for, as many as there are stars. Though our lives are long enough to witness a seed sprout, and a tree wither, few remember a time before. We grieve for those who have left our circle, we mourn, but a circle cannot close. It remains open, as is its nature, as must we. The Krell will never seek out war.”

It was a fairly neutral response, but it sounded as though Rasheth might be onboard. That was three votes, maybe. The Bugs had a chance.

Without warning, everything went black. There was a chorus of alarmed murmurs, and then a second or two later, Moralez felt his feet leave the deck. The gravity had been shut off too, the main power must have gone out.

There was a sound like a thunderclap, Moralez stumbling in the pitch darkness, bringing his hands to his ears. It was like someone had hit a gong with a sledgehammer right beside his head. He couldn’t see anything, he couldn’t hear anything, he couldn’t tell where he was or what was happening.

The lights in the room flickered back on after only a few moments, and he fell back to the floor with a thud, the impact knocking the air out of his lungs. His ears still ringing, he struggled to right himself, slowly coming to his senses. He was met with a scene of chaos.

The ambassadors had scattered about the room, Blackjack was hunched in one corner, while Harry and the Bug were nowhere to be seen. There was a fist-sized hole in the floor where the Betelgeusian ambassador had been standing only moments before, the blue carpet around the breach charred and blackened. Moralez was already moving. He checked beneath the table, finding the Araxie ambassador lurking beneath it like a frightened housecat, the fur on her tail puffed up and her ears flat against her head. The Admiral had lost his footing in the microgravity and was struggling to his feet, stooping to retrieve his white cap.

Korbaz was standing with her claws outstretched, her pupils dilated into dark circles as she glared about the room, perhaps expecting an adversary to show themselves. The Elysian delegate was brushing himself off, looking around in confusion, while the Broker had retracted its long arms into its chassis like a turtle. Its sensors were going crazy, and there was an odd shimmering in the air around it, almost like he was viewing it through misted glass. Could that be some kind of personal shield?

The Valbarans were clinging to their chairs like spider monkeys, their dexterous tails wrapped around the supports for purchase, their feathers going haywire. The Krell ambassador was in one piece, and it was probably the first time that Moralez had ever seen one alarmed before. Everyone was accounted for, except…

Harry!” Moralez yelled.

From the corner of the room, Blackjack began to stir. He drew away from the wall, turning to reveal two figures that were clutched tightly in his scaly arms. Moralez exhaled a sigh of relief as he saw the Bug’s pearly, iridescent carapace, the ambassador cradled safely in one of his massive limbs. In the other was Harry, the Marine squirming and kicking.

Put me down, you oversized Iguana!” he complained. Blackjack complied, dropping him unceremoniously to the carpet, Harry straightening his helmet as he rose to his feet. The Krell gently placed the Betelgeusian ambassador back on the deck, and she gave him a grateful nod, standing there with her hands neatly clasped in front of her chitinous skirt as though nothing had happened. She looked more composed than anyone else in the room.

Moralez turned to the wall behind him, seeing an identical hole as the one in the floor, this one seeping a steady stream of beige-colored foam that was already hardening. It leaked down the wall like blood from a wound, droplets of it sticking to the carpet. Something had breached the station’s hull, the foam had been deployed automatically to prevent decompression and to extinguish any fires.

A moment later, what seemed like an entire platoon of Marines came pouring into the room, ferrying the various ambassadors away as they had been ordered to do during an emergency. Moralez considered telling them to stop, he needed to get his head around what had just occurred, but thought better of it. The safety of the delegates was his top priority.

They cleared out the room remarkably quickly, Harry and Blackjack following suit as they guided the Betelgeusian ambassador into the hallway beyond, hurrying her out of view. Moralez was left standing in the empty room, Admiral Vos glaring at him from across the table.

My quarters. Now.”

***

The Admiral paced behind his desk, the dark, varnished wood reflecting the mellow lighting of his office. It was elegant, and finely crafted, the panels and carved feet framed with gold trim. There was a computer terminal sitting on top of it, along with a small disk that projected a holographic image of the Earth, rotating slowly as it shimmered with a ghostly, blue light. The carpet beneath Moralez’s feet was the customary Navy blue, and the walls were covered with wooden paneling, the Admiral’s various accolades and awards hanging from them in glass picture frames. There were mahogany shelves to his right that were overflowing with leather-bound books, and he could see a scale model of a jump carrier, the plaque on its stand illegible from where he was sitting. It was all very lavish, it was almost enough to make him think that he was in some high-flying executive’s office back on Earth.

Leaning against the far wall behind the Admiral was someone who looked entirely out of place. The man wore the jet-black armor of a UNN Marine, but it was far from standard issue. There was a bulky chest rig hanging across the ceramic plating on his torso, the same black as his armor, covered in an abundance of velcro pouches and holsters. Moralez recognized spare magazines for an XMR, a grenade belt, a holster for a plasma receiver. There were cables from unknown electronics trailing from some of the pouches to his helmet, and the silver glint of a carabiner stood out against his dark battle dress. There was extra armor plating that hung down between his legs, and half a dozen zip-tie handcuffs were attached to a loop of fabric on his belt. On his right thigh was a large handgun that rivaled Moralez’s own in size, and up by the strap on his left shoulder was what looked like a Bowie knife that was sheathed in a leather scabbard. There were small personal touches on everything that he was wearing, it was all highly modified. Moralez recognized an experienced soldier when he saw one.

His helmet was similarly unconventional, with hardpoints on the forehead and the right ear for attachments, the latter of which was occupied by some manner of scope or sensor. The opaque visor was decorated with a gaudy, stylized skull decal in faded white. It looked as though it should have obscured his vision, but Moralez knew that when the visor was closed, those helmets would display a feed from the embedded cameras.

That was not the most noteworthy aspect of his appearance, however. He was a quadruple amputee. His battle dress was cut off at the sleeves and at the thighs, revealing the black, polymer housing of his prosthetics. They were very advanced, the arms much like Moralez’s own, while the legs were more filled out. He had opted for the same functional skids in lieu of replica feet, they were actually superior to their organic counterparts in some ways, but the calves and thighs were encased in a bulky housing that gave them a more natural silhouette.

He must be special forces of some sort, black ops, likely a passenger of the mysterious Courser that had refused to provide identification to flight control.

What the fuck just happened?” Vos finally said, slamming his gloved hands down on his desk as he glowered across it at the Chief. “I asked you to do one thing, Security Chief, and you dropped the fucking ball.”

Sir, if I could just-”

You promised me no fuckups! Do you have any idea how much we had riding on that meeting? What kind of message does this send to the other species? That we can’t even maintain order on our largest station? That we can’t ensure their protection? If we can’t keep a bunch of pampered politicians safe, then why would they trust us to protect their planets?”

Admiral, I’ll get my best people on the case,” Moralez insisted. “We’ll figure out who did this, and how. Whatever they were trying to do was aimed at the Bug ambassador, it chewed a hole right through the deck where she was standing. I saw foam leaking from the entry point, which means that someone must have fired some kind of projectile through the hull. We need to lock the station down, recall all outgoing vessels. Whoever did this must still be nearby.”

The Admiral began to pace again, his eyes unfocused, his hands clasped tightly behind his back.

This should never have been allowed to happen in the first place,” he grumbled with a shake of his head. “Your job is to oversee all security operations on this station, which makes you personally responsible for anything that goes wrong.”

With all due respect, Sir,” Moralez began. “If it hadn’t been for the Krell that I assigned to guard the ambassador, there would be Bug paste all over the conference room right now. My people did their jobs, they excelled. The second that those lights went out, my guys moved the ambassador to safety, and out of the path of whatever that was.”

The Bug should never have been in danger to begin with,” the Admiral shot back, “and insubordination is the last thing you need to be giving me right now.”

Then I’ll give you solutions, Sir,” Moralez replied.

You’d better,” the Admiral said ominously. “This is your mess, Security Chief, and I’m going to give you one chance to clean it up.”

The stranger who had been leaning against the wall at the back of the room walked over to stand beside the desk, the subtle whir of the electric motors in his prosthetic legs immediately familiar to Moralez. He stood next to the Admiral, his thumbs hooked into his belt, the distasteful skull decal on his helmet turning to the Chief as he scrutinized him from behind his dark visor.

We give you a lot of leeway when it comes to running Fort Hamilton, Moralez,” Vos continued. “There are some in the Admiralty who don’t agree with your methods, your hands-off approach, but Murray and his sycophants can’t protect you now. I’m the acting Admiral.” He gestured to the armored stranger, keeping his eyes fixed on Moralez. “This is Lieutenant Commander Murphy, he leads one of the Navy’s Special Warfare and Advanced Recon teams. I brought them in because I was afraid that something like this might happen. I’m giving you seventy-two hours to bring me a culprit, and if you come back to me empty-handed, I’ll have Murphy and his men take over. They’ll turn this station upside-down.”

Moralez glanced at Murphy, looking him up and down again. The Navy had several special operations teams, and those were only the ones that were public knowledge. They were tasked with missions and assignments that the Marine corps couldn’t handle, often clandestine work. That explained his odd appearance and his unconventional gear.

This station is a bloody disgrace,” Murphy muttered, the speakers in his helmet giving his voice a hollow quality. He had a thick accent, Australian, or maybe Kiwi. “You run this place like it’s a bloody holiday resort, you can’t walk ten feet without runnin’ into a gaggle of clueless tourists, or a pack of stray cats. Fort Hamilton is a Naval base, Security Chief, and that’s its name. Not the Pinwheel. Do you even know who’s on the station right now? How can you possibly vet and screen all the bloody civvies and aliens who come through here? You might think it’s all sunshine and fuckin’ rainbows, everyone holdin’ hands and singing Kumbaya, but all I see is chaos. If you screw up again, and I think you will, then me and the boys are gonna have this station in ship-shape in no time. This UNN base should be run like a UNN base, and this is exactly what happens when you let idealists with a soft touch take charge,” he added with a shake of his head.

If you have a problem with how I run this station, then that’s your prerogative,” Moralez replied tersely. “But this is still my station, and until such a time as I am relieved of my duties, you’re under my jurisdiction. I don’t care what team you lead, you can call yourself the King of the Fairies for all I care. But I’m the Chief of Security, and you will answer to my MPs.”

I’m not the one flauntin’ regs and bendin’ the rules, mate,” Murphy replied. “I know the chain of command, I’m just givin’ you fair warning. There won’t be any more civilians treatin’ this place like a daycare center, no more slaps on the paw for cats who step out of line, no more preferential treatment for your friends. Count on that.”

The Admiral interrupted their argument, clearing his throat to get Moralez’s attention.

If you two are quite finished, there’s one more thing. I’m not giving you free rein over this investigation, Moralez, I’m assigning two UNNI agents to accompany you. Their job is to assist you in your endeavor and to ensure that the reports that I receive are accurate. I want to know where you are and what you’re doing.”

You’re sending Ninnies to babysit me, Admiral?” Moralez complained. “How am I supposed to do my job with those spooks breathing down my neck?”

That’s not my problem,” Vos replied. “If you want a second chance, then those are the terms. Take it or leave it.”

Moralez rose to his feet, standing to attention as the Admiral and his crony looked on.

Understood, Admiral.”

You’re dismissed,” he replied. “I assume that your first stop will be the conference room? I’ll have the two agents meet you there.”

Be seein’ you,” Murphy added, and Moralez couldn’t help but imagine that he was grinning behind that tasteless decal.

CHAPTER 5: TOP PAIR

Moralez marched along the corridor, feeling the rough texture of the carpet beneath his prosthetic foot. He stopped to lean against one of the whitewashed walls once he was out of view of the Admiral’s quarters, running his hands over his scarred face. He held one of them up, watching as a slight, involuntary tremor made the polymer fingers twitch. He clenched and unclenched his fist, willing the shaking to stop.

Damn it, how long had it been since his emotions had interfered with his prosthetics like this? The Admiral had it out for him, that much was obvious. Vos had always been a hardass, and it sounded like he had been one of the few Admirals who had opposed Moralez’s appointment as Security Chief. The incident in the conference room was just the opportunity that he had been waiting for, and he didn’t care that it was out of Moralez’s control, or that he had followed regulations to the letter. An excuse to oust him had just been dropped into his lap, and he wasn’t going to just ignore it.

Murphy was a real piece of work. Moralez had never known a good Marine who felt it necessary to make a show of being intimidating, the skull decal and the Bowie knife were little more than props, a costume. Moralez had served with a lot of people during his career, and he had learned to be wary of those who were too eager to kill, who built a persona around it. Joining up because you wanted to fight Bugs was one thing, but that decal wasn’t for their benefit.

He began to walk again, turning his thoughts to his job. Now wasn’t the time to concern himself with Vos and Murphy, he only had three days to figure out who had attempted to kill the ambassador, and how.

The hallways of the hub had been cleared of everyone except Marines, the extra security patrolling with their PDW XMR variants. The atmosphere was tense, they probably hadn’t been told much about what had happened. Speaking of which, where was Harry?

Moralez tapped at the touch screen on his wrist, Harry’s voice coming through on his earpiece.

Was wondering when I’d get a call from you, Chief.”

Harry,” Moralez replied, “what’s the sitrep on your end?”

The Bug ambassador is in one piece, if a little shaken. We brought her back to the apartment on the torus, figured that would be safer than staying on the hub. We’ll keep her out of trouble.”

Good thinking. The Admiral just got done chewing me out, I’ve got seventy-two hours to get to the bottom of this.”

That’s bullshit, Chief,” Harry muttered. “We don’t even know what happened yet, let alone if it was preventable.”

Well, that’s not the way Admiral Vos sees it,” Moralez sighed. “Anyway, I just wanted to check up on you. I’ll no doubt be coming down there at some point.”

Roger that, Chief. Best of luck.”

Moralez continued on until he reached the door to the conference room, which was being guarded by two MPs with white helmets. One of them opened the door for him, and he stepped inside, finding that there were already two people disturbing the crime scene. These must be the two UNNI agents that the Admiral had mentioned. Naval Intelligence wasn’t exactly the most popular branch of the service, they were generally treated with mistrust and suspicion, their real motives always hidden. It was their job to expose corruption, to go under deep cover in enemy territory, and to act as a kind of Inquisition that some in the Navy saw as a betrayal of their comrades. Moralez was none too thrilled to have two of them on his station, let alone shadowing him during his investigation.

Why are you disturbing my crime scene?” Moralez demanded, the two figures turning to face him. It was the Polar in the boiler suit and the guy with the smart mouth who he had met in the hangar, the ones who had delivered the Bug ambassador. It made more sense now, Ninnies were the perfect choice for transporting controversial VIPs, keeping secrets was what they did best.

The man with the long, grey coat and the wrap-around visor grinned, his hands still buried in his pockets.

The Sheriff is in town! How’s your day been, Chief? Not great, from what I hear.”

The Admiral has appointed us to aid you in your investigation,” the Polar explained, giving her partner a disapproving glance. “We didn’t want to wait around for you to arrive.”

I’m Agent Boyd,” the man continued, “and this is Agent Lorza. We’re not disturbing your crime scene, we’re running scans.”

Then fill me in,” Moralez said, walking over to examine the charred hole in the carpet.

Well, it’s pretty obvious that some kind of hypervelocity projectile came through that wall,” Boyd said, one of his hands leaving his pocket as he gestured to the entry hole. It was completely sealed with fire-retardant foam now, the substance had hardened into what looked like a lump of beige-colored chewing gum. “We did a scan of the structural integrity, and checked camera feeds from outside of the hub, and we’ve confirmed that the projectile wasn’t fired from a nearby room. We know which direction it came from due to the spread of vaporized hull material. Whatever this was, it had enough energy that it punched through a dozen layers of hull without slowing down, shredding anything that it came into contact with at the molecular level. There was no shrapnel because the metal had pretty much been turned into plasma.”

Is there any footage of the projectile hitting the hub?” Moralez asked, Boyd shaking his head.

Nope. The power shut off, and the cameras along with it.”

Have you contacted engineering about that?” Moralez added.

Da, we did,” Lorza replied as she planted her furry hands on her wide hips. She was just as voluptuous as Kaisha, her furry body barely contained by the jumpsuit. “Engineering reported that the station’s main power grid experienced a sudden surge, and then shut itself down automatically, switching over to a backup. This resulted in the few seconds of power loss that you experienced.”

Moralez walked over to the entry hole, skirting around the droplets of foam that had hardened on the carpet. The metal surrounding it looked slagged, as though a blowtorch had been run across it.

They probably cut the power to cover their tracks,” he muttered, reaching out and prodding at the foam. It was as hard as a rock. “They must have had a contact on the station who could cause a surge when the time was right. They shut off the power, everyone gets disoriented, and then the shooter fires. There’s no footage left behind, no sensor data.”

This was pretty surgical,” Boyd added, “whoever did this took measures to mitigate collateral damage.”

How so?” Moralez asked, turning to face him.

If they had dialed down the power just a little, it wouldn’t have vaporized the hull. Instead, it would have filled the room with superheated shrapnel, like firing off a giant shotgun. Everyone attending the conference would have been eviscerated. The shooter knew exactly how much grunt they needed, and they were interested in the Betelgeusian specifically. If they had been willing to kill all of the ambassadors, then they would no doubt have succeeded. They don’t see the Coalition itself as their enemy.”

Alright,” Moralez mused, scratching his stubbly chin with the rubbery pads on his polymer fingers as he often did when lost in thought. “It was fired from outside the station, and there’s no way that even the largest man-portable railgun could have done this kind of damage. We need to enter this data into a computer and have it calculate an exact trajectory, find out from precisely what angle the projectile was fired relative to the station. Then, we can plot its course back to its point of origin, and have flight control check whether there were any ships in that area at the time of the attack.”

Something else bothers me,” Lorza added, Moralez turning his attention to her. “There are no cameras in this room, no windows, and the shooter fired through the hull of the station. He could not possibly have seen what was going on inside. We can only conclude that someone attending the council meeting must have been feeding information to someone outside, predatel, a spy. How else would they have known exactly where the Betelgeusian ambassador was standing, and where to aim? As my colleague pointed out, this attack was precise.”

But there’s no way to communicate with anyone outside of this room when a meeting is in session,” Moralez insisted. “The ambassadors were searched for listening devices and electronics before being admitted to the hub.”

How thorough are the scans?” Boyd asked, “do they account for sub-dermal implants and RF shielded bugs?”

Yeah, there’s no way that anything slipped through. We even disabled the electronics in the suits of the Valbaran delegates. The only person in the room who had a functional computer at the time was me, and the only ones who didn’t go through the usual scanning process were the Bug and her guards. They arrived here by shuttle. I sincerely doubt that she would try to vaporize herself with a railgun, and I assigned two people who I trust implicitly to protect her. Hell, Blackjack wouldn’t have moved to protect her if he’d been in on it.”

So we have a list of suspects,” Boyd said, returning his hands to his pockets. He seemed to be viewing something on his visor, though Moralez couldn’t see what it was. “The Elysian, the Rask, the Araxie, the Valbarans, the Broker, the Krell, and your guards.”

My guys didn’t have anything to do with it,” Moralez replied, his brow furrowing. “I just told you that.”

You might think that,” Boyd muttered, “but I don’t know them. I don’t know you, either, so I can’t say if you’re a good judge of character or not. Me, I know a liar when I see one.”

There were two other suspects that fit the bill, too. Admiral Vos had not gone through the screening process before setting foot on the hub, not that Moralez knew of, and he had no idea how Murphy had arrived. He wasn’t about to express his concerns to the two UNNI agents, however. They were working for Vos, and he had no idea how close their relationship was. If they were indeed reporting his every move to the Admiral, then he didn’t want them to reveal his suspicions.

Have you scanned the room for listening devices?” Moralez asked, changing the subject. “It’s possible that someone planted a bug in the conference room prior to the delegates arriving on the hub.”

Yeah, that was the first thing we did,” Boyd replied. “We couldn’t find anything.”

Then there’s nothing more that we can do here,” Moralez muttered as he glanced around the empty conference room. “Did you lock down the station? I don’t want any of the delegates leaving until this is resolved, and I don’t want any ships docking or jumping out of the system.” “Naturally,” the Polar replied, giving him the same look that Kaisha did when he asked her a stupid question.

This isn’t our first rodeo, Sheriff,” Boyd added. Moralez resisted the urge to respond in kind, the man was really starting to grate on his nerves.

Then we need to start interviewing the delegates,” the Chief continued. “But before we can do that, we have to figure out exactly how this was carried out. We need the serial number of the ship that fired on the station, the names of its crew members, and we need to determine how they were contacted from within this room.”

Konechno, then the next stop is flight control,” Lorza said. “After you, Chief.”

***

The flight control room was situated on the central hub, and so it wasn’t much of a walk. They soon arrived at the correct door, which opened for them automatically, the trio emerging into a large space that was packed with computer consoles. There were dozens of people sitting at desks, swiping at holographic readouts, and talking on headsets. Despite the fact that the room was deep within the interior of the hub, Moralez was shocked to see a field of stars. It was as though the hull of the station was transparent, giving the flight controllers a view out into space, the white hull of the station’s torus standing out starkly against the black backdrop. There were ships milling about like bees around a hive, lazily drifting along, the sun reflecting off them like beacons. Upon closer inspection, the four walls were lined with monitors from the blue carpet to the ceiling, displaying an external view of the station to give the impression that the occupants were in a control tower at a spaceport.

They spared no expense when they built this place,” Boyd muttered, “I could do with a couple of these monitors for my rec room back home.”

The trio were approached by a woman who was wearing a jacket and a knee-length skirt in Navy blue, her curly hair tied back in a neat bun. She was wearing a headset with a cup over one ear and a microphone that came down in front of her mouth, identifying her as one of the flight control operators.

We meet at last, Security Chief,” she said as she extended a hand in greeting. Moralez took it, and they shook. There was something familiar about her, he recognized her voice.

You’re flight control,” he said, the woman putting a hand to her lips to suppress a chuckle.

My name is Gomez, but yes, you’d know me as flight control.”

Sorry, Miss Gomez,” he added sheepishly. “We’ve never been formally introduced.” “This way, please,” she said as she led them over to one of the many desks. It was much like the one that Moralez had in his office, equipped with three holographic displays that wrapped around the user in a rough semi-circle.

We received the data that you sent us,” she began, reaching out to swipe at one of the orange-tinted holograms. “And we used the computer to plot a trajectory based on the damage to the hull.”

She pulled up a computer simulation that depicted the station as a simple, textureless box surrounded by a ring, a bright green line drawing a trail through the hub. It projected out into space, skimming the torus itself.

The green line is an estimate of the path that the projectile traveled. The ship that fired the shot must have been somewhere along this line,” she added as she traced it with her finger.

Can you give us a list of the ships that were in the right place at the right time?” Moralez asked as his two companions looked on.

That’s the problem, Security Chief,” she said as she turned back to face him. “There are no ships that meet the criteria. We double and triple-checked, but the computer had no results for us. There are no flight paths that intersect with this trajectory.”

What about ships that had no recorded flight path?” Boyd asked.

It’s virtually impossible to approach the station undetected,” Gomez replied. “I suppose it’s possible that someone fired on the hub from extreme range, out at the edge of the system, perhaps.”

Not likely,” Boyd replied, shaking his head. “Not with the precision that was involved.”

So if it was not fired from a ship, then how?” Lorza asked. “Miss Gomez, can you...zoom in on this picture? Where the line grazes the ring.”

Gomez did as she asked, pinching her fingers and bringing the view closer. Moralez and Boyd leaned in to get a better look, hovering over her shoulders. The trajectory came incredibly close to the hull, but it was a little difficult to get a real idea of exactly how close using such simple geometry.

How accurate is this simulation?” Boyd asked.

Reasonably accurate,” Gomez replied, looking back over her shoulder at him. “We’re not a forensics lab, after all.” “I know what you two are thinking,” Moralez said, turning to glance up at the Polar. “The trajectory comes close enough to the hull that someone could have fired the shot from the outside of the torus. It’s ballsy, that’s for sure. They’d only have a small window of opportunity to make that kind of shot, like threading a needle from a quarter mile away.”

Not an impossible shot,” Boyd said with a shrug, his hands in his pockets again.

Oh, and I suppose you think that you could pull it off?” Lorza scoffed.

You’ve seen me shoot, furball, you know what I can do. But no, this isn’t a question of marksmanship, the shooter wouldn’t even have been able to see his target. This was all math, pure and simple. To make a shot like that, he must have run the numbers, calculated everything down to the millimeter. I know what I would have done if I’d been tasked with carrying out this kind of hit.”

Is that something you do often?” Moralez muttered, shooting him a sideways glance.

I plead the fifth, officer,” Boyd replied with a smirk. “Even if the shooter hadn’t known what room the ambassador was going to be in, the distance between the hub and the torus means that he’d only need to make tiny adjustments. He could set up his rifle on a tripod and then just wait for the right moment. Whoever was feeding him information would have had to be precise, though. Telling him that his target was over by the wall, or standing by the table wouldn’t have been enough. He’d need to know her exact position in a three-dimensional space. Remember, at these ranges, being off by a centimeter means missing your target by a clear foot.”

Nobody was whispering into a hidden microphone, then?” Moralez asked.

Not likely. I don’t think a camera feed would do it either.”

Some kind of spatial scanner?” Lorza suggested. “Radar, or maybe a laser outside of the visible spectrum?”

He needed a three-dimensional representation of that room in real-time, I don’t see how else that could be accomplished,” Boyd replied with a nod of his head.

Sensors, cameras, scanners. Moralez couldn’t help but picture the Broker ambassador in his mind’s eye, those unsettling lenses shifting and zooming incessantly. That was another suspect who had not gone through the usual screening process before being admitted to the hub. Would it even have mattered? If the sensors were a component of its body or its suit, then what could they have done to remove them?

We need to get out there and investigate,” Moralez said, Boyd and Lorza glancing at each other before turning their eyes back to him. Or that least that was what he assumed. With that opaque visor, it was hard to tell what Boyd was looking at, like he was wearing a pair of dark sunglasses.

What do you mean?” Boyd asked. “You want to go out onto the hull?”

The shooter might have left evidence behind, something that we can use to identify him, or what kind of weapon he used.”

You can’t be serious,” Boyd replied, his usual self-assuredness faltering a little. Lorza reached down and patted him on the head with her massive hand, the agent hunching over in irritation. They certainly seemed to have a close relationship, perhaps they served together often.

There there, malish,” she said with a mocking smile. Moralez didn’t recognize the world, but it sounded Russian to his ears. “You can hold my hand if you get frightened.”

Thank you, Miss Gomez,” Moralez said with a nod to the flight controller. She returned the gesture, then sat back down in her chair, resuming her work.

***

What your Security Chief said was true,” the Bug muttered, sitting on the couch with both pairs of arms crossed over her chest protectively. “This station is not a safe place for me to be.”

She seemed to have been somewhat shaken by the assassination attempt, and Harry could certainly sympathize. If it hadn’t been for Blackjack’s lightning-fast reactions and his Krell protective instincts, the ambassador would have been obliterated. Seeing a Bug fear for its own life was something entirely alien to him, the Drones that he had fought in the field had never shown any inkling of self-preservation. They sometimes withdrew from battle, but that was a tactical move, not motivated by a fear of their own mortality.

You’ll be alright,” Harry said, the Bug glancing up at him as he sat on the armrest across from her. “Me and BJ will keep you safe, that’s our job. We’ve done pretty well so far, wouldn’t you agree? You ain’t dead yet.”

You will forgive me if I am not encouraged,” she muttered, returning her gaze to the floor.

Are you...afraid?” Harry asked.

I am unsure,” she replied. “I have felt apprehension before, I have worried about the outcome of my mission here. But what I feel now is...different.”

Fear is a pretty natural response to almost being killed.”

If I am killed, then I will not be able to fulfill my purpose, which would put the Jarilo colony in jeopardy. That is a reasonable source of anxiety. Yet...the idea of no longer existing fills me with a deeper sense of dread that I find...difficult to articulate.”

Almost sounds to me like you’re feelin’ guilty for worryin’ about your own skin,” Harry suggested, the Bug glancing up at him again.

But if I am killed, I will be replaced,” she replied as though it should be obvious. “My own survival is not necessary outside of accomplishing my task. Logically, I should be averse to death on that basis alone.”

Every living thing wants to stay alive,” Harry said, sliding off the armrest and onto the couch cushion. “But I guess your kind considers the survival of the hive as being more important than the life of individual Bugs, right?”

It could be described that way, yes.”

So you’re worryin’ about your own survival, and you think that makes you selfish?”

She nodded in response.

I don’t know anything about Bug value systems, but we don’t think that way. It’s perfectly normal to fear death. Any society that expects you to be so selfless is kind of fucked up in my opinion.”

That’s not very diplomatic of you,” she muttered.

Well, it’s true,” he said with a shrug. “You said you were made to be more autonomous than other Bugs so that you could operate far from the hive, right? You have some human DNA in you. Maybe you’re more like us than you think.”

She held one of her hands up to her face, flexing her fleshy fingers as though considering that possibility.

Listen, Ambassador,” Harry continued. ‘Fuck it, I’m not callin’ you that, it’s a mouthful. Listen, Holly. I’m a Marine, I deal with death all the time, it’s an occupational hazard. Most of the time, it’s completely out of my control. If I’m servin’ on a carrier and it goes into battle, I don’t know what’s goin’ on. I can’t see what’s happenin’ outside, I don’t know if a plasma round is going to burn through the hull and melt me like a popsicle, or if I’m going to be blasted into space and freeze...like another popsicle. Alright, popsicles aside, what I’m sayin’ is that I’m helpless in those situations. But the people who are responsible for my safety know what they’re doin’, they were put there for a reason. I have to trust them to do their jobs so that I can do mine. Worryin’ about it doesn’t help anyone, doesn’t change anythin’, it’s just wasted energy.”

Although your metaphor is a little clumsy,” Holly began, “I believe that you’re asking me to have faith in you, and not to worry about what might happen.”

Yeah, that’s the gist of it. You worryin’ about someone blasting you through the hull isn’t productive, you can’t do anythin’ about it. Let me and BJ worry about that, that’s why we’re here.”

While I appreciate your advice,” she said, crossing her arms again. “It’s easier said than done.”

There’s a lot of waitin’ in the Navy,” Harry continued, planting his boots on the glass coffee table and crossing his legs as he leaned back into the cushions. “Shit, these couches are comfy. So much nicer than the bunks in the barracks. Where was I? Oh yeah. When we’re waitin’ for a drop, we find ways to distract ourselves, take our minds off things.”

How do you do that?” she asked, the drooping antennae on her head perking up a little.

Games, conversation, movies. Sometimes sex if the opportunity arises.”

Well we’re not doing that,” she muttered.

No offense, but I prefer my women with their skeletons on the inside,” Harry replied. “I’d suggest a card game, but that fucker over there will cheat,” he added, gesturing to Blackjack. The reptile was laid out on the wood flooring again, and he opened one eye lazily, loosing a rumble in response. “Yeah, you do,” Harry shot back. “Compulsively.”

Holly finally smiled, apparently amused by their interactions.

How did you two meet?” she asked, “you seem to be good friends.”

We met at integration training,” Harry replied. “When recruits arrive on the station, they throw everyone into a co-ed barracks, two people per room. They scramble up all the species so that everyone has an alien roommate, and I got saddled with this guy.”

And that teaches you to cooperate?”

That’s the idea.”

But how did you overcome the communication problems?” Holly asked, her antennae twitching in a way that might indicate curiosity. “It was my understanding that the Krell cannot speak without the assistance of a translator?”

They can’t speak English, no, but there are other ways to communicate. Gestures, body language, context. You won’t have a deep conversation about philosophy with a Krell, but you can get the gist of what he’s tryin’ to say.”

Can I...touch him?” Holly asked hesitantly.

What, you want to pet him? Sure, he won’t mind.”

She slid off the couch and walked around the far side of the coffee table, moving over to where Blackjack was stretched out. He opened a yellow eye to watch her, but he didn’t react. Holly was a foot shorter than the average person, and so the Krell probably looked even larger to her. He was about sixteen feet long, and his armored back rose high enough off the floor that it was at chest-height to her. She reached out with one of her four hands, hesitating for a moment before running her fingers across some of his bony scutes.

He’s so rough,” she said, tracing the contours of his layered scales. She withdrew her hand abruptly, skipping back a few steps as Blackjack emitted a low, resonating rumble. He rolled over onto his back with a thud, making the glass in the coffee table vibrate.

Don’t be scared,” Harry urged, leaning across the armrest to watch. “He wants you to rub his belly.”

She glanced back over her shoulder at Harry for reassurance, and then edged a little closer, reaching out with one of her lower hands and brushing his beige underbelly with her fingers. Soon, all four of her hands were sliding across his stomach, her feathery antennae waving in the air.

It’s so smooth, and soft,” she giggled as she explored the fine mosaic of scales. Unlike his thick, armored hide, BJ’s belly was flush and chubby. His eyes were closed again, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

I think he likes you,” Harry chuckled. “You’re makin’ the Krell look bad, you know,” he added as Blackjack’s purple tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth. “She’s gonna think you’re a race of giant lapdogs.”

He is magnificent,” she chuckled. “And thank you, Blackjack, for saving my life in the conference room. If it was not for your quick thinking, I would surely have died.”

I don’t know about quick thinking,” Harry added sarcastically, “but certainly quick moving. Dude is like a scaly torpedo when he actually has to get off his ass and do somethin’ for a change.”

Blackjack emitted another low-frequency call in response, and Holly turned to Harry again.

What did he say?”

He’s happy that you’re happy,” Harry explained.

She took a step back, and BJ rolled onto his belly again, resuming his nap.

You’re all so different,” she mused, watching the slow rise and fall of his massive torso. “You have so little in common, yet you all get along, you’re able to live together.”

We have more in common than you might assume,” Harry said, leaning back into the plush couch again.

We just want a chance at being a part of this,” Holly muttered, watching as the Krell slept. “That’s all we ask for, the same consideration that was afforded to everyone else. Yet someone on this station is so opposed to the very possibility of allying with us that they would kill to prevent it.”

The Chief will find out who’s behind it,” Harry replied confidently, “you’ll see. Nothin’ gets past that guy.”

And...you will protect me until then?” she asked, turning to peer at him with those pink eyes.

That’s my job.”

***

If it’s going to stop people from blowing holes in my damned station, then I’ll give you all the help that I can,” Miller said as he led the trio through the crowds of pedestrians on the torus. He was a surly man with unkempt, red hair that seemed to mirror his mood, a permanent scowl etched onto his face. He wore the usual yellow overalls of an engineer, stained with smears of black oil and what looked like green engine coolant in places.

Have you been out onto the hull of the station before?” Moralez asked, the engineer leading them off the walkway and into an alley between two structures. The walls to either side of them were covered in exposed machinery and piping, just wide enough that Lorza could pass. The further they ventured from the bustling crowds, the more difficulty the light from the sunlamps had reaching them, and the dingier their surroundings became. At the end of the alley was one of the access doors that led into the station’s service tunnels, Miller pausing to enter a code into a nearby keypad.

Yeah, I’ve done maintenance on the hull a few times. Are you guys all certified for spacewalks? Don’t expect me to hold your hand out there, I’ll be too busy looking out for myself.”

That’s encouraging,” Boyd muttered.

Being flung from the hull of a spinning space station isn’t that big of a deal,” Miller replied as he led them into the winding passageways. “As long as there’s a ship nearby that can match your velocity in order to pick you up before your air runs out, and assuming that you don’t crash into anything. Ever seen a bug hit your windshield on the freeway? Add a few hundred meters per second to the equation, and you’ll get the idea.”

Delightful engineer you’ve found for us, Chief,” Boyd added as he followed behind them. Lorza was taking up the rear, having to duck in places to avoid hitting her head on the jutting pipes.

He knows his stuff,” Moralez replied, “he came highly recommended.”

Damn right I know my stuff,” Miller grumbled as they rounded another corner, “I know that fixing the damage to the hub is going to take a team of engineers working double shifts a week and change. I swear, sometimes I can’t help but think that you people believe this whole facility runs on magic. Every time you poke a hole in the hull, someone has to go outside and patch it up. Someone has to reroute severed electrical cables and ruptured ventilation systems, someone has to refill the foam dispensers. And does anyone care? Nope, you don’t pay it any mind.”

We didn’t shoot a hole in the hull,” Boyd explained, “we’re trying to catch the person who did.”

It’s all the same to me,” the engineer replied grumpily, referencing his tablet computer as they came to a fork in the tunnel. “Take a left here, and we’ll come out near enough to the section of the hull that you wanted to take a look at.” As they proceeded down the dark passageway, Miller stopped them suddenly, Moralez almost walking into him.

What the hell is this?” he muttered, crouching to examine something. Moralez peered over his shoulder, seeing that he was inspecting a large, insulated pipe that was trailing along the deck. It was long enough to vanish from view in both directions, as thick around as a man’s thigh, encased in some kind of yellow rubber. “This isn’t supposed to be here...”

What is it?” Boyd asked, Moralez stepping aside to let the curious agent pass him.

This is a jumper cable,” Miller explained, sliding his hands beneath the thick tube and lifting it off the floor with some difficulty. It looked heavy.

Oh, it’s just a jumper cable,” Boyd said sarcastically. “We all know what those do.”

They’re for bridging sections of the station that have lost power,” Miller replied, apparently too preoccupied with this new conundrum to come up with a snide retort. “It’s basically a really heavy-duty extension cable for power transmission. If one section experiences an outage, then we can run one of these from the nearest working outlet and deliver electricity directly, bypassing any damaged areas.”

So what’s it doing here?” Moralez asked.

If it goes where I think it goes, then I may have some idea,” Miller muttered as he glanced along the length of the cable.

Wasn’t there a power surge shortly before the attack?” Lorza asked, Miller beginning to follow the cable. The engineer didn’t answer her, his attention was focused like a laser beam. He led them through the labyrinth of dingy tunnels, and Moralez soon realized that the cable was going to the same place that they were. Before long, they arrived at another door with a numeric keypad, this one jammed open by the cable as it trailed through into the room beyond.

Bastard’s jammed,’ Miller muttered as he hooked his fingers around the door and tried to pull it aside. He attempted to access the keypad in the frame next, cursing under his breath. “We’re going to need a cutting team down here.”

Perhaps I might be of assistance?” Lorza asked, Miller glancing up at the Polar. He shrugged, then gestured to the door, as if to say be my guest. Lorza made her way up to the door, then cracked her knuckles, reaching her furry fingers into the gap. There was a worrying grinding sound as the machinery fought against her, the alien’s biceps straining beneath her form-fitting jumpsuit. She changed her position, placing one hand on the door and the other on the frame, pulling them apart with a bestial grunt. The door finally gave, sliding into its recess in the wall, opening the way for them.

Guess we don’t need a cutting team,” Miller muttered, stepping inside. Moralez followed after him, and they emerged into what must be an airlock. The room was large enough to accommodate maybe half a dozen people, and the walls to either side of them were lined with hanging space suits. They were little more than flimsy, yellow pressure suits with a hood-like helmet, not exactly military grade. These must be the suits that the engineering teams used when they went out onto the hull to perform maintenance. The cable ended here, coiled up in a massive loop, the metal connector clamp on the far end visible. There was still a good hundred feet of cable here, maybe more.

To the front of the room was a two-stage airlock. The engineers would step inside and seal the inner door, then the atmosphere would be vented before the outer door opened, ensuring that they didn’t get blown out into space.

Yep, here’s the other end,” Miller said as he gave the steel connector a tap with his boot. “I think it’s safe to say that your shooter was leeching power from the station.”

Makes sense,” Moralez added, “I was wondering what kind of portable power supply would provide enough juice to punch through the hub like that. He wasn’t carrying any batteries at all, he hooked the weapon up to the station’s grid directly.”

There was a surge just before he fired, which caused the system to switch over to the backup,” Miller confirmed with a nod of his head. “That’s why the power went out for a few seconds. He must have run the rest of this cable out onto the hull with him.”

Did he really draw enough power to cause an outage on the whole station?” Moralez asked.

No, very unlikely. The system will have detected an unexpected surge and then switched to the backup as a precautionary measure. It was still enough to trip the system, though.”

But how did he get the cable outside?” Boyd wondered. “He would have had to jam all three of these doors open to get it through, right? Wouldn’t that have depressurized the rest of the tunnels?”

Miller thought for a moment, running his fingers through his red hair as he stared at the cable.

I need to check something...”

He made his way over to the inner pressure door and raised his tablet computer, opening a flap on one side and pulling out a ribbon cable. He connected it to a port on the console beside the airlock, the screen flashing with a diagnostic symbol. The engineer tapped at the screen for a minute or two and then shook his head in exasperation.

I see what they did. So, in the case that one of these airlock doors malfunctions and won’t close, a force field will activate to prevent decompression. It’s just like the ones on the hangars but scaled down. All he had to do was jam the inner door open with the cable, and that would register as a malfunction that would trip the field. Now, when a malfunction happens, the system is supposed to send out an alert so that we can get a team down here ASAP to correct the problem. That never happened, because according to the logs, he severed this console’s connection to the station’s intranet. It’s receiving packets, but it’s not sending any.”

So he disables the alarm and jams the door, then he can just run the cable out through the field without risking decompression,” Boyd said with an impressed nod. “Smart.”

He knew what he was doing, this wasn’t a spur of the moment thing,” Moralez added.

Or they,” Lorza said, “we have not yet determined how many people were involved.”

Alright, mystery solved,” Miller said as he began to pull one of the yellow space suits down from its place on the wall. “Are we doing this, or not?”

I think I’d feel safer taping a garbage bag over my head and holding my breath,” Boyd complained as Miller passed him a suit, examining it disdainfully.

This is what we got,” Miller replied, tossing another to Moralez. “You should have brought a suit of Marine armor with you if you wanted something more high-tech. Not my fault you didn’t plan ahead.”

I didn’t know you’d be giving us glorified hazmat suits,” the agent grumbled as he began to shed his long coat. Moralez was surprised to see that Boyd was wearing some kind of environment suit beneath it, grey-blue in color, covered in wires and tubing. There were pouches and pockets, electronics, who knew what else.

Are you planning on going to a rave once we’re done here?” Miller asked in a mocking tone that made Lorza cover her mouth to stifle a laugh.

This is a UNNI environment suit,” Boyd explained as he kicked off his boots. “It’s a little above your pay grade, grease monkey.”

It’s probably not a good idea to belittle the professions of the people who are responsible for your safety,” Miller warned. “For all you know, I might have given you the boots with the screwy magnets.”

Wait, what?” Boyd muttered as he narrowed his eyes at the engineer.

Don’t I get a suit?” Lorza asked, watching the three men as they geared up.

Sorry, we don’t have a suit big enough for a Polar,” Miller said with a shrug. “You’ll have to wait here until we get back.”

The gloves and helmets were integrated into the suits, the latter of which was little more than a yellow hood with a flexible, plastic faceplate. Miller ran a brief check for leaks, and ensured that the oxygen tanks on their backs were full, then gestured to a blocky device that was situated on the collar beneath his faceplate. He switched it on, and Moralez did the same, a hiss of static coming through after a moment of fumbling through the unwieldy glove.

Check, check,” the engineer said. “Everybody receiving?”

Loud and not especially clear,” Boyd replied. “I think my tablet has a better mic than this.”

Alright, follow me,” Miller continued as he paused to tap at the console beside the inner door. It opened with a whoosh, Boyd turning to wave to Lorza, as she could no longer hear him. They stepped into the airlock, the inner door sealing behind them, the rushing air tugging at their suits as the atmosphere vented. After a moment, all that Moralez could hear was his own breathing from within his helmet, there was no longer any medium for sound to travel through. The outer door opened to a field of stars, bright points of light shining against the blackness, rotating slowly past as the station spun.

Okay, stay close,” Miller warned as his voice crackled over the radio. “Don’t spread out too far, we want to stay within grabbing distance in case someone trips. You’ve both done this before, no doubt, but I’ll remind you anyway. Keep one boot on the hull at all times, pretend like you’re walking on thin ice, and try not to look up unless you enjoy vertigo and drowning in your own vomit. You need to try and convince your brain that the curvature of the hull is the horizon.”

I know, I know,” Boyd grumbled.

Hey Boyd,” Miller added, “try to favor your left boot...” Due to the position of the airlock relative to the torus, there was a curved ramp that would bring them level with the station’s hull. The rotation of the torus meant that the hub was directly above them, and open space was below, the hangars and airlocks positioned on the top and bottom of the habitat. The transition was yet another feature of the station that played havoc with the human brain, seeming to defy the laws of physics.

I swear, this station is so fucky,” Boyd complained as he followed them down the ramp. “What’s with all the Escher painting shit?”

If you want to build something as incredible as the Pinwheel, then you need to come up with creative solutions to these kinds of problems,” Miller replied as they neared the end of the curving ramp. “You have to transition from vertical to horizontal, from AG fields to inertial gravity, you have to figure out how to get power and water where it’s needed. If you think this is crazy, you should see the pumping system that we use to get water from the torus to the hub.”

Moralez made sure to keep one boot on the deck at all times as Miller had instructed, his eyes firmly fixed on the ramp beneath his feet. They had transitioned from the inertial gravity that was created by the spin of the station to simple magnetic boots now, but the torus was still rotating with them standing on the side of it like they were rappelling down the sheer face of a skyscraper. He could feel the tug of inertia as it threatened to sweep him off the hull and throw him into space, the boots just enough to keep him latched on.

For the first time, he dared to look up, and he immediately narrowed his eyes against the glare. With no atmosphere to filter it, the light of the system’s star was sharp and harsh, casting the blackest shadows that Moralez had ever seen. They were always in motion due to the slow rotation, every jutting piece of metal and every greeble creating an effect like a sundial being played back at exaggerated speed. The lack of atmospheric haze made it difficult to judge distance, his eyes simply weren’t evolved to see the world this way, his brain unable to process it. The curving horizon of the hull might have been ten meters away, or ten kilometers, there was no way to be sure. Just looking at it made him feel dizzy.

This way,” Miller panted over the radio. Moving around in this unconventional fashion required an unexpected amount of effort. “Judging by the length of the jumper cable, he couldn’t have had a range of more than a hundred feet or so. I don’t know what you expect to find, but keep an eye out.”

The ground beneath their feet was made up of massive, armored plates the size of tennis courts, matte white in color. Here and there were strange details and exposed machinery that Moralez couldn’t make sense of, but which no doubt served important functions. What he did recognize were the hill-like structures that projected up from the torus at intervals, hatches that contained the station’s defensive railgun batteries that would open to reveal the massive cannons on their flexible arms. There were also dishes in the distance, for communication, or perhaps radar. It all created a kind of surreal topography, an alien landscape made from white metal.

Can you see anything that’s not supposed to be here, grease monkey?” Boyd asked.

Just you two so far,” Miller replied.

What are we even looking for?” Moralez added, carefully stepping between two armored panels. “What kind of evidence might the shooter have left behind?”

I’m hoping he left some kind of bipod or brace,” Boyd said, breathing heavily as he followed close behind. “Whatever he used, I can’t imagine he fired it from the shoulder, both for recoil and for stability reasons. To make a shot like that, you want some kind of stable firing position. Ideally, you’d go prone with a bipod, but he couldn’t have done that here. There’s no gravity. I’m betting he attached some kind of bipod to the hull, maybe welded, or bolted it into place. That’d make it a pain in the ass to remove in a hurry.”

He certainly had a good view from here,” Moralez muttered, glancing to his right. The hull sloped out of sight, giving way to the spokes, which trailed off into the distance. The hub looked so far away, but it was hard to judge. It was a tough shot, that was for sure.

We should probably split up,” Boyd suggested. “Covering a hundred-foot radius is going to take all day if we stick this close together.”

You’re welcome to go off on your own if you’re confident that you won’t lose your footing,” Miller replied, “I won’t be there to catch you.”

What are you, my mother?”

No, if I was your mother, I’d dress you better.”

There’s no need,” Moralez interrupted, pointing ahead of them. There was something jutting from one of the armored plates that didn’t look like it was part of the station. They slowly made their way over to it, the impact of his magnets snapping to the hull vibrating up Moralez’s legs with each step. It felt strange wearing a boot over his prosthetic again, but it worked well enough.

Yep, look at this,” Boyd said as he stopped in front of the object. He began to kneel, then thought better of it, bending at the waist instead as he examined what looked like a three-legged platform made from yellow tubing. “It’s a jury-rigged tripod, and it’s in exactly the right place. The shooter would have attached the rifle to this flexible gimbal here.”

That looks like it was sourced from surveyor equipment,” Miller added, “you’d usually attach an automatic level on top of it. They’re used mostly in building projects planetside.”

I was expecting a simple bipod of the kind we use on XMRs,” Boyd muttered as he ran his gloved hands over the top of the tripod. “But this makes more sense. It’s at about shoulder-height, he would have needed to fire it from a standing position so that his magnetic boots could find purchase. Looks like he welded the feet to the hull.”

The gimbal is melted,” Moralez added, “look at it. It slagged, and then cooled.”

The weapon must have generated a lot of heat,” Boyd said with a nod. “He ran a lot of juice through that thing. That confirms our theory, then. Now we just need to figure out what kind of weapon was used, and where it was sourced from. Gotta admit, I was kind of hoping he was in enough of a hurry to leave it behind.”

If you’re imagining someone sneaking it onto the station in a guitar case, I run a tighter ship than that,” Moralez replied.

You’re suggesting it was sourced on the station then?”

Maybe. I know a guy who will be able to tell us if any of the station’s weapons or components are missing, and he probably knows more about the XMR platform than anyone alive.”

If you two don’t mind,” Miller interjected, “I think I’d rather have this conversation inside the station...”

Lead the way,” Moralez said, gesturing in the direction of the airlock.

***

I...would like to ask for your advice,” Holly said, Harry glancing up from the video that he was watching on his tablet.

What kind of advice?” he asked, shifting his weight on the couch as she stood before him with her two pairs of hands neatly clasped.

When I was in the conference room, attempting to make my case before the delegates, I was able to sway three of them. The human Admiral and the one that you call the Broker seemed as though they would be voting in favor of my application, and I believe that the Krell delegate’s neutral response indicated that he would be joining them. If I am correct, then I already have three of the four votes required to pass the motion. All I need now is one more vote, but I am faced with a conundrum.”

And what conundrum is that?” Harry asked, setting his tablet down on the armrest beside him.

I have been trained extensively in human social interaction and customs, I was designed to communicate with your kind, yet I know comparatively little about the other species. I wanted to ask if you would be willing to help me in my endeavor to learn more about them so that I might know how best to focus my future efforts. If only one of them can be swayed, then I will have fulfilled my purpose here.”

I dunno...” Harry muttered, shaking his head. “I promised to protect you, but helpin’ you to get the vote that you need? I don’t even know if...” “You still doubt my intent,” she sighed, more of a statement than a question. “Even after everything that I have told you.”

Listen, I don’t want to get involved in the politics of all this. It’s not up to me to decide if you should be admitted to the Coalition or not, I don’t want that responsibility. I’m just a guy, I’m not qualified to judge anyone.”

And yet, you are uniquely positioned to help me,” Holly replied. “I do not have the option of going to someone else. Is inaction not a form of action in itself? If you do nothing, and I fail, are you not equally as culpable as you would be if you had helped me succeed?”

Harry grumbled under his breath, crossing his arms.

Are you tryin’ to pull some reverse psychology on me?”

I ask only that you provide me with resources so that I might learn about alien customs myself,” she added, “access to a database or library of some kind.”

Chief says no computers,” Harry replied stubbornly.

Even if you were supervising me to ensure that I only accessed the relevant data?”

I have my orders.”

And are you required to follow them so rigidly? Do you believe that your Security Chief does not trust you to make your own decisions, and to interpret his wishes? What is it about me that so offends you, Sergeant? What can I do to prove to you that my intentions are honorable?”

It’s not you,” he replied. “For what it’s worth, you’re the nicest Bug I ever met. It’s your Queen.”

I do not understand,” Holly muttered, her antennae twitching. “Has my Queen not made her intentions clear by sending me here to speak for her?”

The way you explained it to me, the Queen changed her strategy for purely logical reasons, yeah? She knew that she couldn’t win, and so she switched things up. Bam, friendly hive.”

That is correct,” Holly replied with a nod.

But don’t you see that it isn’t enough?” Harry continued, perching on the edge of the couch cushion as the discussion became more heated. “I don’t care that she changed her strategy, I care why she changed it. The way you talk about it, it’s like hittin’ a switch on a robot. She has no understandin’ of right and wrong, she’s just doing whatever is required to survive, which in this case is cooperatin’ with the Coalition. She would just as soon kill us all without a shred of remorse if her analytical brain determined that to be the best course of action.”

I...do not understand,” Holly said, the segmented plates on her forehead shifting to imitate a frown. “Why does it matter how the decision to make peace was reached? The outcome is the same.”

This is what I’m saying,” Harry continued, gesturing to her. “You say that you regret the war and that you abhor violence, but you can’t seem to grasp why what your hive was doing was so wrong. If you haven’t learned anythin’, then how can we trust you not to just flip that switch again as soon as it’s deemed preferable to peace?”

But I can assure you with utmost certainty that the Queen will not turn on you,” Holly insisted. “In her mind, she is already joined to your hive, your blood runs through her brood’s veins. This application is only a formality. To attack you, would be to attack herself.”

But does she feel regret for the Marines that she killed?” Harry continued. “Does she feel remorse, guilt, does she have the empathy to understand the pain that she inflicted? If not, then I don’t know that I can support you.”

Do you feel remorse for the Betelgeusians that you have killed?” Holly asked.

Come on,” Harry complained, rolling his eyes at her. “You can’t just change the subject.”

You kill my kind with impunity, do you feel regret for the pain that you inflict?”

That’s different, we’re fightin’ a defensive war, we don’t have a choice.”

But now you are presented with a choice, are you not?”

I don’t see much of a choice,” he replied.

The choice is to genocide a people, or not to. To allow them to grow and change, or not to. My colony has been introduced to a new way of living, and we are willing to change everything that we are in order to survive, down to our very DNA. But we need time. Do we not deserve at least the opportunity to prove ourselves?”

Not if it puts the Coalition in danger,” Harry replied, as stubborn as ever. “Before you came along, the Bugs had never shown any signs of being anythin’ more than thoughtless insects, animals driven by base instincts.”

That assumption would be wrong,” Holly replied. “My people are sapient, we experience emotions, we have social lives. We may do it...differently, our two species experience the world in very different ways, but we are not animals. Perhaps it would make you uncomfortable to have to recognize that you too have been killing people, and not pests?”

I’ve probably killed hundreds of Bugs with my own hands,” Harry said, “and I don’t feel a shred of remorse. I’ve assisted in eradicatin’ half a dozen fleets down to the last Drone.”

And I understand why you had to do that,” Holly insisted, “but it isn’t necessary in this case. Doesn’t the mere fact that you’re talking to me right now, that we can interact without murdering one another, prove that something is different now?”

Harry was lost in thought for a moment, Holly looking on expectantly, her antennae twitching.

I suppose it means somethin’.”

My Queen wishes to make more castes like myself, more Jarilans that can interact with the Coalition. We wouldn’t be providing you with mindless hordes of Drones to throw against your enemies, but rather comrades, capable of friendship. There are other roles that we can fill, too, perhaps ones that never even crossed your minds. They would be more like you, more like...me.”

He met her gaze for a moment, Holly blinking her expressive, pink eyes at him as she waited for his reply.

I won’t lie to you and claim that my Queen is fully conscious of her wrongdoing,” Holly continued. “But she can learn, we can change. In your culture, are criminals not rehabilitated before being released back into society?”

I’m probably gonna regret this,” Harry sighed. “Alright, I’ll help you. But I’m only lettin’ you access the public database, nothing that requires any security clearance, okay?”

Holly nodded enthusiastically, her fluffy antennae bobbing in the air.

What species did you want to learn about?” Harry asked, picking up his tablet. Holly slid onto the couch beside him, leaning close so that she could see the small screen. His first instinct was to recoil as her antennae tickled his nose, the skirt-like structure that was made from chitin and gossamer wings pressing up against his hip, but he hesitated. He had expected her pearly carapace to be tough and rigid, but it was actually fairly flexible, more like soft plastic than hard armor. Her smell was...odd. Like her namesake, it was flowery, perfumed. Something about it drew him in, and he had to make a conscious effort to dispel the strange impulse that had come over him.

This is like the computer that my father used,” she said, reaching out to touch the screen with one of her fleshy fingers. The exposed areas of her body that were not encased in chitin were a deep pink that bordered on red, the flesh encased in a layer of shiny skin, almost like it had been wrapped in a clear film. It was hard to judge if her skin was really transparent, or if its color just gave that impression. Did she have bones in there, or was it just meat? Harry was under the impression that insects couldn’t move without an exoskeleton to anchor their muscles to.

I would like to learn about the Araxie first,” she said, Harry having to lean over a little so that the iridescent ruff of fur around her neck didn’t brush against his cheek. “Their ambassador seemed more reasonable than the other Borealans.”

Alright,” Harry muttered, scrolling to their entry in the database.

***

Moralez kicked off the heavy, magnetic boot, placing his prosthetic limb back on the deck. He was glad to be free of it, he hadn’t worn a shoe on that foot since he had lost his original leg. Miller and Boyd were nearby, shedding their yellow space suits, Boyd almost falling over as he hopped on one leg. Lorza grew frustrated with him, marching over and lifting him off the floor by the collar, like a mother cat scruffing a kitten. She helped him pull the offending leg off, then set him back down, his cheeks flushing beneath his wrap-around visor.

I can do it myself,” he grumbled. “Lay off, you walking carpet.”

What, am I embarrassing you in front of the other children, malish?

Moralez watched them interact, a smirk spreading across his scarred face. He knew enough about Polars to smell the sexual tension coming off the pair like a bad cologne.

If you don’t need me anymore, I’m going home,” Miller said as he glanced at the two agents. “It’s getting late, and they sure as shit aren’t going to pay me overtime for this.”

Is it that late already?” Moralez asked. “I guess it’s been a long day.”

It’s gone ten PM Earth-standard,” Boyd confirmed, holding a finger up to the side of his visor. “I know they only gave you three days to solve the case, Sheriff, but you aren’t going to be much use if you don’t get your beauty sleep.”

I suppose you’re right,” he replied begrudgingly. “I’ll contact you in the morning, I’m not wasting a single minute that I don’t have to.”

Whatever you say, Chief,” Boyd replied as he slung his coat over his shoulders. “As for me, I’m gonna go check out these suites that you guys are so proud of. I’m expecting a Jacuzzi and a minibar.”

CHAPTER 6: SQUEEZE PLAY

You’re back late,” Kaisha said, Moralez stepping in through the automatic door to their apartment. She was sitting on the oversized couch, a tablet computer in her clawed hand, the lights dimmed. Her lab coat had been replaced with a more casual sweater, she must have been home for a good couple of hours. It looked like she had been reading while she waited for him to return. “I heard about what happened,” she continued, setting the tablet down on the coffee table. “Are you alright?”

I’m fine,” he replied, making his way over and sitting down on the armrest beside her. “But my career might not be. Admiral Vos was furious, he’s blaming me for what happened, and he’s given me seventy-two hours to sort everything out. If I can’t bring him the culprit in time, he’s going to send in some sketchy SWAR guys to clean shop. It’s gonna be bad.”

SWAR?” Kaisha asked.

Special Operations types. I met one of them, something about him just...rubs me the wrong way. I don’t doubt his combat abilities, but I doubt his professionalism, he doesn’t have the demeanor of a Marine. He’s an amputee, like me, quadruple.”

Quadruple?” Kaisha asked, raising an eyebrow. “That’s pretty rare.”

Looks like he’s made the most of a bad situation, his prosthetics were clearly geared for combat.”

Kaisha’s ice-blue eyes wandered down to his hand, narrowing as she noticed the tremor in his fingers. He quickly clenched his fist, then moved it out of view. She was smarter than that, almost knocking him off-balance as she reached out and gripped his wrist in her furry hand, holding his prosthetic up as she examined it.

Your tremor is back?” she asked, her brow furrowing with concern.

It’s fine,” he grumbled, trying to snatch it back and failing. “I’m just stressed out, you know how strong emotions interfere with the signals.”

I thought you were past this,” she replied with a shake of her head.

I just need to relax for a while, clear my head,” he muttered as she released his hand from her grasp. “Come on, don’t look at me like that...I’m fine, really.”

Well...you didn’t bring me a longburger back, but I guess I can do the thing.”

Yeah?” Moralez asked, perking up a little at that.

She sat up and patted her furry thigh in invitation, her black skirt riding high on her legs, the impact sending a ripple through her layer of soft fat. Moralez hopped down off the armrest and made his way over to her, Kaisha lifting him once he was range and planting him in her lap. She was like a giant, living armchair. Her thighs were as soft as down pillows beneath him, and her breasts cradled his head through the fabric of her sweater, the paunch of her belly acting as lumbar support.

He began to unfasten his uniform with the rubber grips on his fingers, opening it down to his belt, shrugging it off to expose his naked torso. His tanned skin was a patchwork of old scars, some better healed than others, the knitted flesh crisscrossing his body. He was still in good shape despite his situation, he made a point of keeping up a strict exercise regimen. It was all too easy for amputees to let their situation get the better of them.

He slouched forward as he felt Kaisha’s hands on his back, the varied sensations tickling him. She had fur that was thick and silky, fleshy pads that felt like marshmallows, and hooked claws that pricked him. He shivered as she ran her talons from his neck to the base of his spine, light enough that he could feel them without breaking the skin. It sent a wave of tingling sensation washing over him, heightening his senses.

You need to relax,” she whispered, “doctor’s orders.”

He felt the pads on her thumbs at the base of his neck, her thick fingers draping over his shoulders, long enough that her black claws reached his chest. She began to make slow circles, pressing deep into his flesh, easing out the knots in his taut muscles. He sighed, a familiar warmth washing over him, her light grip around his neck further enhancing his sensitivity. She began to crawl lower, moving down his spine as she massaged him, Moralez letting the pleasant sensations carry him as his head slowly sagged until his chin met his chest. All of the day’s tension seemed to be melting out of him as she kneaded his muscles like fresh dough, the stress evaporating at the touch of Kaisha’s skilled hands.

This is some physical therapy I can get behind,” he muttered, closing his eyes as she roamed down to his shoulder blades.

You really are stressed,” she marveled, Moralez jerking as she drove a padded finger into an especially stubborn knot. She quickly gave up, not able to press too deeply due to her deadly claws, switching to the heel of her hand instead. It was like getting a massage through an expensive fur coat, a wonderful ache permeating his body.

I’d write you a slip for some time off, but I doubt that you’d accept it,” she added. “You can’t run this whole station on your own, you know. You’re supposed to cede some responsibility to the people under your command, people that you trust. I don’t perform every surgery myself.”

I know, I know,” he mumbled. “Vos wants me out, he’s given me a task that he knows is unreasonable. It’s designed to stress me out, to throw me off-kilter.”

Then you have to show him that he can’t get to you,” Kaisha replied.

But he is getting to me,” he said, Kaisha teasing him with her sharp claws again.

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that you have to show it. Think, what would a Polar do?”

Misdirect, put on a stoic front, find a way to get him to believe what you want him to believe.”

I have taught you well,” she chuckled, her hands reaching the base of his spine. She pressed deep, Moralez arching his back as a wave of sweet pleasure washed over him. “When you meet Vos again, act confident, even if that’s not what you’re feeling. Make him think that you know more than you’re letting on, turn it right back around and put him on edge, make him doubt himself.”

He flinched as one of her furry hands snuck around to his belly, her talons pricking his skin. She began to unfasten his belt, Moralez leaning back to rest his head against the cushion of her ample chest. Her soft lips brushed his ear, her warm breath blowing his hair, her voice low and sultry as she whispered to him.

You don’t need to know anything, you don’t have to be confident, you just have to convince Vos. Do that, and it might as well be true...”

He flinched as she freed his member, watching from over his shoulder as it bobbed in the air, throbbing in time with the beating of his heart. She crawled her fingers down to it, slowly tracing one of his pulsing veins with the pointed tip of her claw, smiling as he twitched.

Truth is often relative,” she continued, pausing to circle his glans with one of her padded fingers. “It matters more that people act as though something is true. If it actually is or not is rarely important. Given enough time, you can bluff your way into shaping the truth, make your deceptions real.”

Her fist closed around his shaft, burying him in downy, fluffy fur. Her hand was so warm, her insulated coat like fine silk as the strands began to glide up and down his length in a leisurely pumping motion.

Now, you need to relax,” she added, pausing to nibble at his ear with her sharp teeth. “I have other, more effective methods to relieve stress and to put you to sleep.”

Her grip grew a little tighter, her pace increasing, her free arm wrapping around him to pull him tight against her bust. Her flesh yielded through her sweater like wet clay, pouring over his shoulders, cradling his head like a travel pillow. Her long, sinuous tongue escaped her lips to probe his ear, his eyelids fluttering as her skilled fingers slid up and down his shaft. She was so good with her hands, they were those of a surgeon, gentle and precise. They could perform delicate surgery to reconnect severed nerves, and they could do things that would make his toes curl, at least what toes he had left…

Relax,” she whispered, sucking his ear into her mouth and chewing on it softly. “You’ve been building up stress all day, like a bomb about to explode. Let me ease it out of you.”

Are you saying that as my doctor, or as my lover?” he muttered.

I will admit to a...conflict of interest,” she purred, making him shiver with an especially hard squeeze. Her hand was large enough to encompass his manhood entirely, her velvet fur irresistible, and he found himself beginning to thrust into her warm palm. She cooed softly, delighting in his reaction, letting him set the pace as she held maddeningly still. She wet her thumb and forefinger with his leaking pre, circling his tender head with the fleshy pads, searing pleasure crawling its way up his spine.

I’d really work you over if we had the time,” she muttered, “call it a full physical. But I suppose that you’d rather be up early tomorrow. A pity.” Her puffy lips touched his neck, his member surging between her fingers as she began to lick and mouth, leaving sucking kisses and gentle bites that made points of light dance before his eyes. “Perhaps it can help to motivate you. When this is all over, I’ll write you a slip, and we can spend a whole day making up for lost time. How about it?”

I can get behind that,” he sighed, Kaisha chuckling by his ear.

I’m sure you will...”

She released him for a moment, leaving him wanting, his member jumping in the air as she brought her hand up to her mouth. She extended a clear foot of her pink, tapered tongue, licking her palm wetly. She left a smear of thick, clear saliva, the gooey fluid matting her fur. When she returned her hand to his shaft, her silky coat was warm and slimy, her bubbling drool making it slippery. She drenched his skin in her slaver, the wet hair creating an unusual and alluring sensation, lurid sounds emanating from her fist as she resumed her pumping.

You’re putting out so many pheromones,” she muttered, burying her feline nose in the nape of his neck and taking in a lungful of his scent. “You smell so good when you get like this...”

She added a twist to the motion, her warm, wet fur spiraling around his shaft. Moralez couldn’t do much more than lie there and try to endure it, letting his head sink back into her heaving bosom. He reached down and delved his prosthetic fingers into the meat of her round thigh, sinking them into her doughy flesh up to the second joint, admiring the delicate texture of her coat. If one were to wrap an oil barrel in memory foam, it might feel something like this. Her thighs were as thick around as his torso. How he longed to slide between them, but that wasn’t in the cards today.

You get so grabby when you’re close,” she whispered.

These arms were expensive,” he replied, “I’m making the most of them.”

Kaisha giggled, planting a lingering kiss on his shoulder, her stroking growing ever faster.

You’re nearly there,” she added gleefully, “I can feel it in the way you’re fucking my hand. Come on, let it all out.”

Her hold on him tightened, the soft pads on her furry fingers massaging his glans, the silky hairs brushing his balls as he matched her pace with his thrusting. The throbs of pleasure became more frequent, an all too familiar euphoria overcoming him. Sensing that he was on the brink, she squeezed, kneading his shaft like a farmer milking a cow. Every light brush of her wet, slimy fur against his glans made him buck, the stroking of her fingers captivating him.

Fill my palm,” she whispered, pausing to kiss his neck again.

A sudden jolt of ecstasy rocked him, followed by a flood of soothing, satisfying bliss as a rope of his emission joined her slick saliva. Kaisha continued to rub, easing out more, squeezing him into her palm like a tube of toothpaste. Every thick wad was chased by a rush of pleasure, a tingling sensation spreading through his body, warming him from within. She held him tightly with her free arm as he bucked and writhed, his abdominal muscles tensing with the effort, his erection throbbing in her grasp. His fluids blended with hers, adding a fresh warmth to her already sodden hand, the gleeful Polar using his own semen as a lubricant. It felt like he was fucking a handful of warm jelly.

She kept it up until he had given her every last drop, Moralez melting into her bust as though she had sapped the strength from his muscles, his eyelids drooping. She held onto him until his slimy, pulsing member ceased its twitching, finally releasing it as his erection began to recede.

Doesn’t that feel better?” she cooed, holding up her hand and watching as the pearly globs of his essence drooped from her thick fingers in a sagging web.

Mhmm,” he mumbled, lost in the comfort of his afterglow. She let him stay that way for a while, resting in her cushy lap, the rhythmic rise and fall of her ample chest lulling him to sleep. It was only when she noticed that his eyes were closed that she roused him, giving him a gentle nudge.

Off to bed with you. Before you ask, no, I’m not coming. We’ll never get to sleep if I do, and you have more pressing matters to concern yourself with right now.”

Yes, Doctor,” he grumbled as he rose to his feet unsteadily. She leaned forward to plant a kiss on his forehead, then grabbed him by the shoulder, turning him in the direction of the bedroom and giving him an encouraging tap on the butt. He stumbled off, Kaisha watching him with a smirk as he vanished through the automatic door.

***

Damn, I didn’t realize how late it was,” Harry said as he set his tablet computer down on the coffee table. Holly was sat close beside him, perhaps a little too close, shuffling away from him a little as her attention was diverted. They had been engrossed in the database for at least a couple of hours, and Holly had been able to go over the details of the alien races whose ambassadors she had yet to sway.

The Rask was probably a lost cause, they were notoriously stubborn creatures, but the Elysian might be convinced with the right approach. The Araxie seemed like a good bet, they had no history with the Betelgeusians, there were no grudges between the two species. The Valbarans were much like the Rask, there wasn’t much hope of swaying them, not when what information about their history that was on file centered around their various wars against the Bugs. He had been present in the conference room to see their reaction to Holly’s proposal, and he had to admit, it seemed as though they’d rather quit in protest than vote the Jarilans into the Coalition.

Thank you,” Holly muttered, “for your help. What I learned here might save my people.”

It’s the least I could do,” he replied with a shrug, “literally...”

It’s alright,” she added, batting those pink eyes at him. “I do not expect you to take a side, you made it clear that you did not want to become politically involved, and I respect that. But you gave me the help that I asked for, and so I cannot fault you.”

We should probably get some sleep,” he said, rising to his feet. “You know where the bedroom is?”

Yes,” she replied.

Do you...sleep on beds? I don’t suppose it matters. You take the bed, I’ll take the couch. Me and Blackjack will take turns on watch.”

My father slept in a bunk,” she replied, “I usually slept in a pile with whatever other members of my hive were present.”

There were other Bugs with your father?” Harry asked.

Of course. They obeyed him as though he was their Queen. When he traveled the forests of Jarilo, he was usually accompanied by a team of Drones who would see to his protection from the local fauna, and by a handful of Workers who would carry his equipment and help him to perform his studies. And me, of course.”

Bug Sherpas?” Harry asked, the mental image of a Worker carrying a rucksack making him chuckle. “So Bugs sleep in piles?”

Yes, do you find that unusual?”

Not especially, no. The Krell do the same when they’re basking in their pools beneath the heat lamps in their barracks, and most of the Borealans like to sleep in a big pile. I guess you could say that we humans are unusual for preferrin’ to sleep alone.”

Blackjack rolled over onto his back, loosing a sleepy rumble. He was spread out in his usual place on the wood floor.

I suppose I’m takin’ first watch,” Harry grumbled, Holly sparing him a smile before heading off into the bedroom and closing the sliding door behind her.

***

You seem chipper today,” Boyd muttered, shooting Moralez a sideways glance from beneath his visor as they weaved through the crowds in the military quarter. There were fewer tourists here, mostly columns of armored Marines and packs of Borealans moving to and from their assignments. The sculpted facades and colorful awnings had given way to more spartan and functional architecture, mostly troop barracks and administration buildings, huge pressure doors that led into the hangars spaced between them at intervals.

The benefits of a good night’s sleep,” Moralez replied with a grin.

So who’s this guy you’re taking us to?” the surly agent continued, “and what makes you think that he knows more about railguns than me?”

Stan is in charge of the armory,” Moralez said as he dodged around a passing Krell, the alien clutching a large ammo crate in its scaly hands that a human would have needed a forklift to move. “He’ll be able to tell us if anyone has been sneaking into the storerooms and stealing parts. He knows more about XMRs than anyone, he can probably guess what kind of weapon was used.”

At least we don’t have to find our own contacts on this assignment,” Lorza added.

I keep meaning to ask you,” Moralez continued, “what does that visor do?”

It’s a wearable computer,” Boyd replied, tapping at the wrap-around visor with a gloved finger. “It doubles as an augmented reality display, and a combat HUD if I get into trouble. It’s pretty inconspicuous, doesn’t raise as many questions as wearing a helmet.”

Doesn’t Agent Lorza get one too?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at the Polar as she followed behind them.

I don’t need to augment my senses,” she replied. “I can see, smell, and hear better than you.”

I suppose you two must make a pretty good team,” Moralez said, “you seem to have very compatible skillsets.”

How do you mean?” Boyd asked skeptically.

You’re obviously into technology and weapons, while Lorza seems to be a typical Polar, good at manipulation and social maneuvering. I’ll bet Polars make great spies, as long as they’re in a setting where they don’t stand out too much. Like on the Pinwheel, for example. They’re pretty good at getting what they want and making you think that it was all your idea.”

What do you know of Polars?” Boyd asked.

Oh, he has a very intimate knowledge of Polars,” Lorza interjected before he had a chance to answer. She pointed to her pink nose with her black claw, giving Moralez a toothy smile. “I didn’t want to out you before it came up in conversation, Chief, but your girlfriend has pretty good taste in shampoos.”

Well, I appreciate your discretion,” he replied. “Although it’s not much of a secret. I work with a lot of Borealans, and the nose always knows, as they say. Ah, we’re here.”

They turned off the street and made their way into a matte white building that protruded from the hull. As they proceeded deeper into the facility, the unmistakable crack of railgun fire became more audible, and they eventually emerged into a firing range. To their left were dozens of booths, most of them occupied by Marines who were training with their rifles, firing at paper targets down-range. The far wall was padded with layers of thick material to prevent the slugs from penetrating into the station’s guts, the tungsten projectiles turning into showers of molten sparks as they impacted it.

To their right was a wall lined with weapon racks, which housed XMR configurations of all conceivable sizes and uses, from scout rifles to light machineguns. There was a man in a blue uniform who was hunched over a table nearby, engrossed in the disassembly of one of the weapons, its component parts strewn about his work surface. Moralez called to him, his voice struggling to carry over the din of gunfire, and the man’s head snapped up. He made his way over to the trio, extending a hand to Moralez.

Hey Chief, what brings you down here?” he yelled.

I’m on official business,” he replied, Lorza flattening her ears against her head. “Is there somewhere quieter that we can talk?”

Stanley nodded, gesturing for them to follow him. He led them into a storeroom at the back of the building, where there were more racks of weapons, crates containing ammo and spare parts stacked high against the walls. He closed the door, muffling the noise enough that they could talk without raising their voices.

So, what can I do for you, Chief?”

I suppose that you heard about what happened on the hub?” Moralez asked.

Yeah, though they didn’t tell us much. I just know that there was an assassination attempt on one of the ambassadors, that’s the word on the grapevine.”

That’s right. I can’t tell you who was targeted just yet, it’s classified, but we’re pretty close to figuring out how they pulled it off. We have reason to believe that someone fired either a railgun or a high-powered plasma weapon from the hull of the torus. The damage to the hub was indicative of a very high-velocity projectile, but it wasn’t designed to kill everyone in the room. It was very precise, with just enough power to vaporize the hull rather than turning it into shrapnel. We found a modified tripod welded to the outside of the station that provided a clear line of sight, and we’re pretty sure that the shooter jacked into the station’s grid to power it. What we need to figure out now is exactly what kind of weapon was used, and how they got it onto the station.”

Stanley scratched his chin, beginning to pace as the trio looked on.

That’s certainly an...unusual method,” he muttered. “Do you have anything else to go on?”

No, that’s all we got right now,” Boyd replied.

I think a railgun is a safe bet,” Stan continued. “Plasma weapons work by using magnetic fields to shape and contain superheated gas, and while that’s going to hit with about the same force as a railgun slug, you’re going to be shedding energy pretty quickly over the kinds of ranges that we’re talking about. A railgun, on the other hand, uses magnets to accelerate a tungsten slug. It has a low enough melting point not to just turn to sludge on its way through the hull, and it won’t shed any energy or velocity as it travels through a vacuum.”

So what kind of railgun could make that shot?” Boyd asked. “The largest models I know of are those big anti-tank rifles that require a two-man team to operate. Could one of those do it?”

Maybe,” Stanley replied, sounding unconvinced. “You couldn’t just hook one of those up to the station’s grid and expect it to work, though. They need specific power delivery systems, or they’ll either fail to reach the correct velocity or explode in your hands. No, it must have been a custom job.”

He walked over to the back of the storeroom and reached up, pulling a long, heavy barrel from one of the racks. It was almost as long as he was tall, the black polymer lined with tightly-packed, copper-colored rings. He hauled it over to a nearby crate and dropped it down, grunting with the effort.

This is the largest barrel that we carry,” he said, wiping his brow with his sleeve as the trio crowded around to get a closer look. “This is a sixty-five incher, designed for maximum stopping power. It’s mostly used for anti-material purposes, for destroying enemy armor and disabling light spacecraft. The slug is fired from the magnetic rails in the receiver, and then is picked up by these coils, accelerating it to the desired velocity. It’s as much a coilgun as a railgun, really. The shooter would have needed to use something like this to get through so many layers of the hull, and then also maintain enough velocity that he didn’t fill the room with molten metal. If you put enough juice through something like this, it could theoretically do the job.”

But you could barely carry it, and that is merely the barrel,” Lorza mused. “Can we be sure of the shooter’s species?”

The tripod was at human height,” Boyd replied, “and there were only human-sized pressure suits in that airlock. I suppose a Borealan could’ve brought their own pressure suit, maybe a suit of Shock Trooper armor that’s rated for vacuum, but it doesn’t seem likely. A cat in full gear fucking around in the service tunnels would raise too many questions if they were caught.”

It’s heavy,” Moralez added with a nod, “but consider this. He could have wheeled the parts, or even the fully assembled rifle, through the service tunnels on a cart or something. He would have had to lug it through the airlock, but once he was outside, it would have weighed nothing. There’s no gravity out on the hull.”

They would have needed some kind of targeting system too,” Stanley continued, “a smart scope. Nobody could have made that shot by eye, it would have to be done with computer assistance.”

Do you carry those too?” Moralez asked.

We do,” Stanley replied, “and I know what you’re going to ask me next. No, I haven’t noticed any missing inventory. Everything in here has a serial number, down to triggers and batteries. We log what comes in and out very carefully. Lots of people have access to the armory, but smuggling out any parts is practically impossible, let alone enough to build a functioning weapon.”

Can you be certain of that?” Moralez asked. “If it didn’t come from the armory, then that means my security staff dropped the ball. Call it petty pride, but we run a tight ship too.”

I’ll double-check it for you,” Stanley said with a nod. He made his way over to a nearby terminal that was built into a wall between two weapon racks, tapping at the touch screen for a few moments before waving Moralez over. “As you can see, we’re not showing any missing inventory. Everything is accounted for.”

Damn,” Moralez muttered under his breath. “Well, thanks for the help, Stan. I guess the only option left is that it was somehow smuggled through security. Admiral Vos isn’t going to like this...”

Let me know if I can be of any more help,” Stanley replied, Moralez giving him a somber nod before heading back towards the exit. The two agents shared a glance, then followed after him.

As they emerged onto the torus once more, leaving the din of the firing range behind them, Moralez put a finger to his ear and placed a call.

Yes, this is the Chief. I want men checking every waste disposal system on the station for objects that are made from polymers and alloys that correspond to an XMR weapons system. The perp may have ditched the gun. It’s possible that he disassembled the rifle and scattered the pieces throughout the different quarters, so make sure to be thorough.”

He could just as easily have tossed it into space before returning through the airlock,” Boyd added.

Check the immediate vicinity of the station for small objects and debris too,” Moralez added, “and don’t waste any time. The longer we wait, the more chance there is of the evidence being destroyed or lost. Chief Moralez out.”

So you’re gonna have your deputies sift through every garbage can on the station?” Boyd asked, Moralez turning to give him a scowl. “Looks like your good mood has soured, Sheriff. What do we do until the results come back? It’s gonna take ‘em a while.”

Now, we can begin our interviews,” he replied. “We now know how the attack was carried out, and we have some idea of the weapon that was used. Whoever did this couldn’t have fired that rifle blind, he had to be able to see inside that room, which means that one of the people who attended the conference was feeding him information.”

So...you couldn’t stop someone from smuggling a listening device onto the hub,” Boyd began, “and you couldn’t stop someone from bringing a weapon onto the station? I have to admit, it’s seeming more and more like Vos has some genuine grievances with the way that you run things around here.”

Moralez was about to reply with a cutting remark, but Lorza beat him to the punch.

Enough of this, malish,” she grumbled. “The Chief is troubled enough without your prodding and poking.”

I’m just saying,” Boyd continued, but Lorza seemed to have had enough. She brought her furry hand to her mouth, extending her pink tongue, matting her furry palm with a sheen of saliva. Before Boyd could react, she planted her hand in his dark hair with a wet splat, a shiver crawling down his spine. She pulled her hand away, linked to his head by a strand of her drool, his hair now damp and messy.

I said enough, malish.”

One of these days I’m going to lock you on the wrong side of an airlock,” he grumbled, his lack of surprise suggesting that this wasn’t the first time that she had subjected him to the Borealan equivalent of a wet willy.

Moralez suppressed a smirk, shooting Lorza an appreciative glance.

Alright,” he said, “who should we start with?”

We need to interrogate everyone who was in that room,” Boyd replied, trying and failing to straighten his hair. He wiped his hand on his long coat, grimacing with disgust as Lorza looked on with a satisfied expression.

I prefer the term interview,” Moralez replied, crossing his prosthetic arms. “And when you say everyone...”

I mean everyone. The Krell, the Araxie, the Elysian, the Rask, the Valbarans, your two security guards.”

Wait, my guards aren’t suspects,” Moralez complained. “And you didn’t include everyone. What about Admiral Vos and the Broker? They were both in the room, and neither one of them submitted to a standard check before being admitted to the hub.”

Do you suspect the Admiral?” Boyd asked, Lorza narrowing her eyes. Moralez tried to take a leaf out of Kaisha’s book, not hesitating as he gave a swift and confident reply.

I didn’t say that, but you said everyone.”

He had to keep in mind that although Boyd and Lorza had been assigned to assist him, they were not on his side. They were here to observe him as much as to help him, reporting his every move back to Vos. There was no telling how close their relationship was. If the Admiral really was involved in the plot, and he got wind that Moralez was investigating him, he could have the Chief removed from the case with a snap of his fingers.

It wouldn’t be the first time that an Admiral had succumbed to corruption. Moralez was reminded of his encounter with Rawling, an Admiral who had been allied with organized criminals, running a black market out of the very station itself. He had been dealt with swiftly and decisively, but Vos was no petty smuggler. The man had connections to UNNI, SWAR, and who knew what other secret services and special operations divisions.

The Admiral said that we are not to bother the Broker delegate,” Lorza added.

Yeah, the walking fridge is off-limits,” Boyd confirmed with a nod.

This is my investigation,” Moralez snapped, “I will not allow it to be hampered in any way. The Admiral dictating who we may and may not interview is completely unacceptable, and I’ll go over his head if I have to. He’s not the only one with connections.” “I’ll be sure to let him know,” Boyd replied ominously.

You do that...”

There is also the issue of diplomatic immunity,” Lorza added, Moralez switching his attention to her. “Even if we were able to identify which delegate was involved in the attempt on the ambassador’s life, we would have little recourse when it came to prosecuting them. We may be able to detain them for a short while, but once their government got wind of it and asserted their diplomatic rights, the UNN would be compelled to release them under the Vienna Convention.”

If that’s the case, then why hasn’t the culprit simply fled the station?” Moralez asked.

Because fleeing would be tantamount to a confession,” Lorza replied. “I believe that they will wait, and hope that we do not succeed in unraveling this tangled thread.” “You’re assuming that if we uncovered the truth, any government would assert those rights,” Boyd added. “It might be state-sponsored, but if not, they’d drop their delegate like a live grenade.”

You both make good points,” Moralez mused, watching as Boyd patted gingerly at his wet hair again. “But we won’t know more until we’ve completed the interviews. I suppose we should tackle the most obvious suspects first, and deal with any...disagreements as we come to them.”

As you said, it’s your investigation,” Boyd replied with a deference that was far from genuine. “Lead the way.”

***

So what do you eat?” Harry asked, digging into a bowl of cereal. He had found a box in one of the kitchen cupboards, and there was milk in the fridge. It probably wasn’t the real stuff, even the ambassadors weren’t quite that pampered. But it tasted close enough, and the chilled liquid felt pleasant on his tongue.

My nutritional requirements are not dissimilar from yours,” Holly replied, standing beside the kitchen table as she watched him bring another spoonful to his mouth. “What about Blackjack?” she added, glancing at the sleeping Krell. “Is he not hungry?”

Krell only eat about once every few months when they’re not burnin’ calories fighting,” Harry said over a mouthful of crunchy cereal. “Their metabolisms are really slow, BJ won’t get hungry for weeks yet.”

And that is the key to their long lifespans?” Holly mused, watching the reptile sleep as her antennae bobbed in the air. “An uncommonly low metabolic rate.”

I guess,” Harry said with a shrug.

What is that white fluid?” she asked, gesturing to his bowl.

That’s milk,” Harry explained. “It comes from a cow. Well, it would come from a cow if we weren’t light-years too far out to get fresh produce delivered to us. This is some kind of synthetic substitute.”

Is it good?”

You can try some if you like, it’s nothin’ special.”

She sat down at the table to his right and waited patiently, Harry quickly realizing that she had no idea where the milk was, or how to prepare it. If you could call pouring a bowl of milk preparing anything. He set his spoon down and rose to his feet, walking over to the fridge and opening the door, fishing for the carton. He retrieved a glass from a nearby shelf and poured some, placing the cup on the table in front of her. Harry had been curious about how she ate for some time now, and he was about to get his answer.

Holly’s dainty, doll-like mouth opened as the pearly, chitinous plates that made up her face shifted. As he had suspected, those painted lips had only been for show. He watched as what might pass for her lower jaw descended, her face split almost cheek to cheek, revealing flesh beneath her carapace that was a striking blue in color. It reminded him of Blackjack’s tongue. The reptiles had blue mucous membranes due to the hemocyanin in their blood, and it seemed as though Holly might share that feature. It almost looked like she had a beak, the interlocking plates shaped like a rough W. From within, a long, flexible protrusion emerged. Her mouth was open just wide enough to let the tongue-like, tapered organ pass. It just kept coming until at least a foot of it was visible, suspended in the air like a tentacle, its slick surface the same off-blue color as the inside of her mouth. It slowly descended towards the glass of milk, dipping into the liquid. He noticed that there was a hole on one end, it was a hollow tube. It must be a proboscis of sorts.

She began to drink, he could see the muscles in the fleshy tube rippling, like she was sucking through a giant straw made of meat. There was nothing unusual about it from her perspective, but when she glanced over at Harry, she must have noticed his expression of surprise and displeasure.

My apologies,” she said, “you must find me strange.”

She spoke as though her throat wasn’t obstructed in the slightest. Whatever organ produced her speech, it didn’t seem to be connected to this feeding tube in any way. It was a little unnerving, like watching a ventriloquist drink a glass of water while throwing their voice.

It’s...not what I was expecting,” he admitted. “Can you taste through that thing?”

Yes,” she replied, “though I am not sure how our senses might differ. My people mostly feed on a concentrate of nutrients and vitamins. It resembles honey in taste and texture, so my father tells me, I have never tasted honey for myself. It is all that we require.”

Sounds convenient,” he mumbled, watching as the milk vanished into her proboscis. Within a minute, she had emptied the glass, the prehensile organ probing the bottom of the cup for stray droplets. It sucked back up into her head as abruptly as it had come, her face returning to its familiar configuration, the plates that made up her jaw sealing shut.

I can probably get honey for you if you want some,” he added. “In fact, there’s probably all kinds of shit in here. This suite was furnished for ambassadors, so it’s fully stocked. Let’s see...” He rose from his seat at the kitchen table, Holly turning in her chair to watch him as he investigated one of the cupboards. After rummaging for a moment, he withdrew a can of coffee beans and a packet of hot chocolate.

Can you only drink liquids?” he asked, “no solid foods?”

As I said, I consume only the nutrient paste that is produced by our Repletes, save for an occasional drink of water. My father has shared fruit juices with me on occasion, components of his Navy ration packets. I enjoyed them, but they were inferior to the paste in terms of their nutritional value.” “So Bugs don’t eat for fun? Gotcha.” He juggled some of the packets, examining the labels. “On second thought, I’d better not give you coffee. There’s no telling if your body would be able to handle it. Cocoa should be fine, though.”

He set the kettle to boil, then made his way to the fridge, withdrawing a carton of orange juice. He opened the cap and poured a glass for Holly, watching as her doll-like face split open to reveal her insectoid drinking tube once again. The sight was no less unnerving, but at least he was prepared for it this time…

She plunged the organ into the orange liquid, taking a tentative suck. The flexible tube of muscle withdrew shortly afterwards, Holly recoiling.

It is acidic!” she complained.

Yeah, I take it you don’t like that flavor?”

No,” she replied, “though the sugar content is pleasant.”

In that case, I’m sure you’ll like this,” he said as he moved over to the counter. The kettle had boiled, and so he tore open a packet of cocoa, pouring it into a mug and filling it with warm milk. He stirred it with a spoon for a moment, then placed it in front of Holly, the Bug watching as a wisp of steam escaped from it.

Don’t drink it yet,” he warned. “It’s hot, let it cool down a little first.”

Why did you heat it if it should be consumed cool?” she asked.

Do you know how to make hot chocolate? No? Then just wait a minute.”

They waited for a few more moments, and then Harry dipped the tip of his finger into the cocoa.

Alright, it’s cool enough to drink now,” he said as he sucked his digit clean.

Holly’s prehensile proboscis snaked forth tentatively, testing the drink, as though she was afraid of being burned. As soon as she took her first sip, her eyes widened, her furry antennae twitching.

It is good!” she exclaimed, Harry watching the fleshy tube pulsate as she drank. “The taste is sweet, and yet bitter. The warmth reminds me of fresh nutrient paste, straight from the Replete.”

Harry sat down beside her, watching with a smile as she slowly drained the mug. A human would sip at their beverage, then take a pause, but the Bug drank continuously until it was all gone. When she was done, she turned her attention back to him.

I would like to make another request of you, if I may,” she began. “I have spent much time thinking about how I might sway some of the remaining ambassadors, but I fear that emotion will rule over reason if I attempt to make my case at the next council meeting. If such a meeting will indeed be scheduled to resolve the matter, as I have no doubt it will. They need time to consider my application, and most importantly, to cool their tempers.”

So, what are you suggestin’?” Harry asked.

I wish to meet with them face to face. Specifically, I wish to meet with the Araxie and Valbaran ambassadors.”

The Chief says we can’t leave the suite,” Harry replied simply, Holly’s antennae twitching with what might be irritation.

Sergeant...I appreciate your concern for my safety, and I mean you no disrespect, but how can I be expected to perform my duties as a diplomat if I am unable to even meet with my counterparts? Will staying confined to this apartment protect me from a foe that can shoot clean through the hull? You could move me through the tunnels in secret, as you did before. There would be no reason to reveal my presence here to anyone else.”

Until the Chief figures out who tried to kill you, we’re stayin’ here,” Harry replied sternly. “It’s too dangerous, there are too many variables. You’re as safe as you’re gonna get right now. Listen, I’m not thrilled about being cooped up in here either, but you should trust the Chief. He knows what he’s doing.”

You do not understand, Sergeant,” she continued. She was becoming agitated, her antennae waving, her pink eyes fixed on him intently. “My life is of no value if I do not accomplish my task. Sitting here, doing nothing...I might as well be dead.”

Whoa,” he exclaimed, his brow furrowing with concern. “What kind of talk is that? What’s gotten into you? It’s just a job, chill out. There will be time for that later, you’re not failin’ by postponin’ a few meetings.”

It is not just a job,” she replied tersely, “it is the reason that I was created. We are not like you humans, we do not delight in leisure, in the pointless wasting of time. We exist to perform specific functions, and any effort expended outside of those tasks is wasted.”

I know that’s not true,” Harry scoffed. “I saw how much you enjoyed that hot chocolate, and pettin’ BJ yesterday, what did that have to do with your mission? You’re interested in things outside of your duties, I’ve seen it. What do you hope to accomplish by denyin’ that? Me, you, and BJ are the only ones here. Does lettin’ us see that you’re not completely consumed by your work embarrass you or somethin’? We’re not Bugs if you hadn’t noticed.”

I...” she hesitated, turning her eyes down to the empty mug as her antennae drooped. “This place is full of...distractions. I feel as though my purpose is becoming less clear, each hour that I spend idle leaves me less...focused. I desire only to continue my work.”

Harry sighed, watching the dejected Bug as she leaned on the table. She looked miserable now. Maybe there was something that he could do to cheer her up, even if he couldn’t give her what she was asking.

Well,” he began, “you can’t leave this suite. I won’t budge on that. We can’t bring the delegates here, either, one of ‘em might decide to finish the job. But...maybe there’s another way that you can meet with them face to face.”

How?” she asked, her feathery antennae returning their upright position as she peered across the table at him expectantly.

Video conference,” he replied.

What is that?”

They’ll appear on your monitor, and you’ll appear on theirs, then you can have a conversation in real-time. It’s like you’re sittin’ in front of them, only you’re not.”

Alright!” she said excitedly, but Harry held up a hand to stay her.

Hang on, I have to make some calls first. There’s no guarantee that they’ll want to listen to you, but I’ll make what arrangements I can.”

You always seem to come through for me, Sergeant Hayes,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Just doin’ my job,” he replied.

No, it is more than that. You make an effort to understand me, to help me, despite our disagreements. Your dislike of my people is obvious, and I suspect that your feelings concerning my application are ambivalent at best, yet I appreciate you all the more because of it. Charity has less value if it is easy and convenient. This is precisely the attitude that I had hoped to find here, it is what my father always told me that the Coalition embodies.”

You’re easier to get along with than some,” he said with a grin. “I’ll go see to those calls. Let me know if you want any more hot chocolate.”

CHAPTER 7: ROYAL FLUSH

Why do you suspect Elysiedde?” Moralez asked as he walked between Boyd and Lorza, the trio heading towards the recreation center. “Elysians don’t really do the whole assassination thing, they’re all about honor and tackling their problems head-on. They’d probably call the practice cowardly if anything.”

What people say in public and what they do in private are rarely congruent,” Boyd replied. “Even a warrior culture will abandon their honor and duty if it means accomplishing an important enough goal.”

But the Elysians are some of our staunchest allies,” Moralez continued, “I doubt very much that they would put that relationship in jeopardy.”

They’ve also lost thousands of troops to the Betelgeusians. Perhaps their concept of honor demands retribution, did you consider that? How did he respond when the Bug entered the conference room on the hub?”

Angry, surprised,” Moralez replied with a shrug. “The same reaction that everyone else had, pretty much.”

I think you will find that much of what the Elysians profess to believe in is merely bluster,” Lorza said, slowing her loping stride to match pace with the shorter humans. “Theirs is a culture of posturing and grandstanding, khvastovstvo, their social status very much relies upon it. Theirs is also a feudal kingdom, one of court intrigue, and careful political maneuvering.”

What’s the dossier on this guy?” Boyd asked her.

He is the nephew of Patriarch Elysiedde, a decorated soldier who served in the Royal Guard before being appointed to the role of ambassador. How much of that decoration was due to nepotism, rather than personal achievement, it is hard to say. He is certainly less qualified for the role than some of the other choices that must have been available to the Patriarch, but he no doubt wanted someone close to him in the position. We should assume that the ambassador will report anything that he hears to the Patriarch, so try to be a little more delicate than usual when it comes to discussing matters of state.”

The Elysians are nothing if not proud,” Moralez added. “Accusing the ambassador of wrongdoing directly, or trying to provoke a reaction out of him would be the wrong move. I’m looking at you, Agent Boyd.”

I can be tactful when the situation calls for it,” he replied, feigning indignation.

They arrived at the recreation center, the aroma of cigarette smoke stinging their noses as the automatic door closed behind them. The bar was mostly vacant, and the majority of the tables were empty. It was early in the day, and so there weren’t too many personnel off-duty.

Torza Elysiedde was easy to spot in his ruby-red armor, his mane of orange hair giving him away. He was sitting with another Elysian, a female, the table piled high with meat dishes. It appeared that the ambassador was sharing a banquet with a friend. As they approached, Moralez recognized her. It was Raz, an old friend of his, and the ambassador’s cousin. She was the unofficial Matriarch of the station, she had written the proverbial book on integration training, and she tutored the new Borealan arrivals. She had helped Moralez out during his rehabilitation, and the two had become quite close.

Her round ears lifted from her short-cropped hair as they approached, a smile cracking her face. Just like her cousin, she was tall for a Borealan, over eight feet. Their family came from good stock. She wore a Navy-blue uniform that did a poor job of concealing her muscular figure, and her porcelain skin was covered with a smattering of pink scars where it wasn’t coated in rust-colored, striped fur.

Robocop!” she exclaimed, waving him over with one of her clawed hands. “Come, join us.”

Robocop?” Boyd whispered with a smirk, Moralez shushing him. Raz certainly didn’t lack in the personality department, and her quirks sometimes got her into trouble, but they were on good enough terms that he let her nicknames slide.

Ambassador Elysiedde,” Moralez said as he approached their table, “Raz.”

Who are your friends, Chief?” Raz asked as she eyed his companions. Her feline pupils lingered on Lorza for a moment before switching back to Boyd, her grin taking on a mischievous quality.

These are agents Boyd and Lorza of the UNNI,” he explained, gesturing to them with a polymer hand. “They’ve been assigned to assist me in my investigation.”

Ninnies, eh? Stan told me about what happened on the hub,” she replied, crossing her arms and leaning back in her seat. “How’s it coming?”

We’re making progress. It’s fortunate that you’re here, Raz. I was going to track you down and ask you if you’d heard any whisperings that might have escaped my attention...”

Raz had a lot of connections in the Borealan community on the station, both Polar and Equatorial. She was friends with all of the aliens that Moralez knew, including Kaisha, and she was generally the first to know of any rumors that were doing the rounds.

Nothing yet, but I’ll be sure to let you know if anything interesting crops up. So, what brings you down to our little dive, Chief?”

We have business with the ambassador,” Moralez replied. “We wondered if we could take up a little of your time?” he asked, turning to Elysiedde. “It’s about the assassination attempt.”

I was wondering when you might arrive,” the ambassador replied. Moralez watched as he hooked what looked like a juicy piece of steak with his curved claws, bringing it to his mouth and taking a generous bite. There was a tall stack of them, along with a dozen plates that were all piled high with exotic meats and dishes. When he was done chewing, he used his prehensile tongue to lick his fingers, cleaning his fur with its feline barbs. Borealans had no use for cutlery, it wasn’t a part of their culture. “I have complied with your government’s request to remain on this station because it suits me, and perhaps to take advantage of its facilities,” he added as he took another wet bite. “There are far worse places to be confined.”

And we appreciate your cooperation, of course,” Moralez replied. “May we sit?”

By all means,” he replied, the trio pulling up chairs from neighboring tables. Lorza eyed the food hungrily, Polars never passed up a free meal. Hopefully, she wouldn’t embarrass them by asking for table scraps…

Raz,” Moralez began, “Admiral Vos has tasked me with keeping the identity of the ambassador who was targeted in the assassination attempt a secret. But, since it’s you, I’m assuming that-”

I know about the Bug,” she replied smugly, leaning across the table to whisper to him.

Can I expect your discretion? This is one rumor that I would prefer didn’t spread too far.”

Your wish is my command,” she replied with a dramatic wave of her hand, “I know when I’m being asked to keep my big mouth shut. Now, do you want me to leave so that you boys can discuss your official business, or can I stay and assist? I’d like to support cousin Torza in his hour of need,” she added, shooting Elysiedde a smirk.

You might as well stay,” Moralez replied, “perhaps you can provide us with a little more context.”

If you asked me to remain on the station,” Elysiedde interjected, his deep voice echoing through the room. “Then you haven’t found your culprit yet, am I right?”

That is correct, Ambassador,” Moralez replied. “We’re still investigating.”

And am I to assume that you have come here to accuse me of this transgression?”

That’s certainly not how we would put it,” Moralez added hastily, glancing to Raz in search of support. “You are not a suspect as such, we simply want to interview every person who attended the meeting in turn in order to get a better picture of what happened.”

You were first on our list, as the representative of the Coalition’s most important ally,” Lorza added. That seemed to please the ambassador, and he nodded approvingly as he took another large bite of steak. Moralez wanted to warn her not to patronize Elysiedde too much with Raz in the room, but he had no way to do so without it being obvious. She might pick up on it, even if her cousin didn’t.

Then ask your questions, Security Chief. I will cooperate.”

Agent Boyd, if you would go over the details of the case,” Moralez suggested.

Very well,” Boyd replied, “here are the facts as we know them so far. During the security council meeting, a modified railgun weapon was fired from the outer hull of the torus, narrowly missing the Bug ambassador in the hub. Whoever pulled the trigger would have had no way of seeing inside the room, which suggests that someone in that meeting was feeding them information, most likely in the form of some kind of scanner or transmitter that they had smuggled past the security check. That means that one of the ambassadors was likely working with the assassin.”

Then I am expected to defend my honor?” Elysiedde asked, stabbing his claws into a hunk of meat in a way that came across as more than a little threatening. “I should warn you, Security Chief, my people do not take baseless accusations lightly.”

Moralez glanced at Raz, giving her a silent plea for help. It was more than a little fortunate that she was here, she was the foremost expert on human-Borealan relations, and she might be uniquely positioned to calm her cousin if the interrogation should take a sour turn.

Hear them out, cousin,” she said as she reached over to give him a hearty pat on the back that would probably have broken a human’s spine. “I’m sure they mean you no disrespect, they want only to see this coward thwarted. Do we not share in that desire?” “We do,” he said with a nod, turning his yellow eyes to Moralez as he selected another choice cut. He withdrew a small vial from a pouch on his belt, uncorking it and sprinkling some of the contents onto the meat to season it. “Proceed with your questions, but I advise you to word them...politely.”

Your record states that you served as a Royal Guard back on Borealis,” Boyd began, “why don’t you start by telling us what that entails?”

The duty of a Royal Guard is to ensure the safety of the Patriarch and his realm,” Torza replied. “Much like your UNN, the Elysian military has many different branches. We have the general Army, the Ranger volunteer corps, mounted vehicle divisions, a burgeoning Navy. The Royal Guards are the most focused on defense and bodyguard duty, they have a symbolic significance to our people.”

So you never served as a Shock Trooper in the Coalition?” Boyd asked.

No,” he replied, “I was made an ambassador when Elysia joined the alliance. I have served my nation in that capacity ever since.”

Yet you are a decorated soldier,” Lorza added, “in what campaigns did you serve?”

In the modern era, before Elysia made contact with aliens, we fought against nomadic tribes and Rask raiding parties that attacked from the desert. There have been no large wars in living memory, not since the original conquest of the lakes, in which the boundaries of the Borealan territories were cemented.” “Forgive me,” Boyd added, “but you don’t strike me as an especially peaceful people.”

And you would be correct, Agent,” Raz replied, joining in on their discussion. “The Borealan territories center around the great lakes of our planet, giant oases ringed by jungle bands that break up hundreds of miles of desert. Our ancestors were nomads who waged wars to take control of the lakes, but once those territories were established, the large distances between them made conflict impractical. Trekking across the desert to invade neighboring territories is a big fat waste of time.”

Then you have no personal vendetta against the Bugs?” Boyd asked. “You’ve never faced them in combat?”

What are your opinions of the Betelgeusians?” Moralez asked, phrasing the question a little differently. “I’m interested to hear the perspective of a soldier who has no personal experience with them. Such a thing is increasingly rare these days.”

They are an enemy of Elysia,” Torza replied, “that alone is enough to warrant my hatred. That said,” he continued, holding up a piece of dripping meat in his claws and examining it as he was lost in thought for a moment. “I believe that they serve a useful purpose. Without conflict, our warriors grow weak, complacent. This way, they can go to war and gain invaluable experience, all without a direct threat to Elysia. They fight for glory and for duty rather than for survival, taking part in battles that are fought untold miles from their homes, and I would have it no other way. A professional military with modern training and ample experience is an invaluable asset to any state.”

That’s a more...pragmatic reply than I was expecting,” Moralez muttered, glancing at Boyd and raising an eyebrow. The ambassador might be a little boorish at times, but he knew more about warfare than anyone gave him credit for. Perhaps his appointment to the position wasn’t entirely a result of nepotism.

Don’t you worry about what might happen if a Bug fleet jumped into Borealan orbit?” Boyd asked. “Borealis is right on the edge of Coalition space, it’s under considerable threat.”

That is none of my concern,” he replied, occupying himself with another mouthful of unidentifiable meat. “Borealis has no fleet,” he continued, talking with his mouth full as he chewed noisily. “Elysia has but a handful of ships, they could not stand against a hive fleet. But that is why there is a substantial UNN presence in orbit. We provide you with Shock Troopers for your armies, and you guard our skies. It would fall upon your people to ward off an invading fleet, not mine.”

Guess he’s got us there,” Boyd muttered, nudging Moralez with his elbow.

Raz,” Lorza added, getting the attention of the red-headed woman. “What is the attitude towards the Betelgeusians amongst the Elysian soldiers on the station?”

Honestly, they’re more concerned about the worsening relations with the Rask territory than with any theoretical Bug invasion of the homeworld,” she replied with a shrug. “Call it short-sighted, but the more immediate and tangible problems will always take precedent.”

But many of them have lost friends and packmates to the insects?” Lorza continued.

Honor requires that such deaths be avenged,” Raz admitted with a nod of her head, “but that tends to happen pretty quickly. If you’re facing a horde of Bugs and one of your buddies catches a plasma bolt to the face, you can fire into the crowd with your eyes closed and kill ten of ‘em before his body has hit the ground. There’s no shame in dying in battle, it’s an aspiration more than a fear. No, I don’t think you’ll find the motivation that you seek amongst my people, Agent.” She reached out and swiped a cut of meat from her cousin’s plate, smirking at his growling. “We’re just...not all that torn up about it.”

There will be another council meeting soon, Ambassador,” Moralez said. “Likely sometime in the following days. Would it be appropriate to ask how you will be voting?”

If you expect me to vote in favor of the insects in an attempt to clear my name, I will not,” Elysiedde declared as he wiped the juice from his lips with the back of his hand. “Truth be told, I have not decided yet. There are many factors to consider. If you must have an answer, then I would say that my attitude towards their kind is...unfavorable. Now, if you will excuse me, I must regale my cousin with tales of her littermate’s exploits. She has been away from home for a very long time.”

That was their cue to leave, and Moralez wasn’t sure if they could get anything more out of the ambassador. He stood, and the two agents followed suit.

Thank you for your time, Ambassador, Raz. We’ll leave you to your meal.”

See you around, Robocop,” Raz replied with a wink.

The trio made for the exit, Boyd sighing in exasperation once they were back on the torus, mingling with the crowd.

Well, that wasn’t much of an interview,” he complained. “Lorza, you pick up on anything? Think he was lying or holding something back?”

The impression I get from the ambassador is that he is honest to a fault,” she grumbled, crossing her arms beneath her ample chest as her round ears flicked with irritation. “He says always what is on his mind, and how others react is of little concern. He is like an open book...whose pages are smeared with condiments. I doubt that he could lie successfully if he tried.”

It sounds to me like the Elysians are pretty relaxed about the whole thing,” Moralez added, “I don’t think we can establish a solid motive here. He’s never personally fought the Bugs, his government doesn’t seem to see them as an immediate threat, and his countrymen seem to view the whole war as just one big training exercise.”

Makes you wonder just what they think they’re training for,” Boyd muttered.

Borealis has never been invaded,” Lorza said, “they have never faced an external threat. Their conflicts happen between territories, not between planets. The auxiliaries that they provide as part of their commitment to the Coalition travel light-years from home, and fight their battles on far-off planets that couldn’t even be seen from their homelands with a telescope. It is not hard to understand how they might see regional problems as being more pressing. It is foolish, no doubt, but understandable.” “God forbid a hive fleet should ever make landfall on Borealis,” Moralez added with a shake of his head. “Can you imagine the chaos? The Rask wouldn’t want any Elysians to set foot in their territory, the Araxie would refuse to work with the Rask, and we’re not even in formal contact with half of the other territories. Trying to organize them would be a logistical nightmare.”

Maybe we should put all of our support behind a favored territory and help them to overthrow the rest,” Boyd suggested with a decidedly sinister smile. “Make sure we pick a winner who does as they’re told.”

Yes, I’m sure installing puppet governments is the solution,” Moralez replied with a disapproving frown. “You’re UNNI through and through, aren’t you?”

What can I say? They pay us to think outside of the box.”

Let’s keep you securely inside the box while you’re on my station, how about that?”

Come,” Lorza interrupted, giving Boyd an encouraging push with her furry hand. “We must interview the next ambassador, the Security Chief has no time for petty arguments.”

Alright, alright,” Boyd grumbled. “Don’t get your tail in a twist.”

***

How do I look?” Holly asked, standing before the monitor that was mounted on the wall in the living room. Harry had moved the furniture out of the way to clear some space for the conference, and with a little encouragement, Blackjack had shuffled away to continue his nap out of view.

Very ambassadorial,” he replied. “Are you ready? The Araxie delegate should be comin’ online any minute now.”

She nodded, then reached up towards one of her antennae with an upper hand, running her fingers through the fine hairs like a cat cleaning its whiskers. The standby symbol on the monitor changed to an animation of a wireless signal, Holly looking to Harry for reassurance.

It’s startin’,” he warned, stepping clear so that the camera didn’t pick him up. The screen flickered, and then the face of the Araxie ambassador appeared. Her coat of velvety, black fur reflected the light to give her a distinct shine, her eyes a striking shade of emerald green. Unlike the pink of her Borealan cousins, her nose and lips were the same charcoal color as her fur, and her hair was cropped into a neat bob. She was shown from the chest up, her black, two-piece suit matching the color of her fur save for the white collar. It was a perfect fit, perhaps tailored, giving her an air of class and formality that many of her counterparts lacked due to their strange choice of alien attire. She radiated confidence, reminding Harry of a business executive, or some kind of CEO. He wasn’t usually one for chasing tails, but her poise was enough to make him reconsider.

Ambassador Zuki,” Holly began with a bow of her head, “thank you for agreeing to speak with me.”

That is my job, after all,” the Araxie replied with a smile. “You never gave us a name when you appeared in the conference room so abruptly. What would you have me call you?”

Ambassador will suffice,” Holly replied.

As you wish, Ambassador. I can guess as to the purpose of this call, you hope to earn my favor before the next council meeting, you want to gain my vote.”

You would be correct,” Holly admitted, Zuki cocking her head curiously as she listened. “I am not here to play games or to maneuver my way into a more favorable position. I am not negotiating a trade deal in which I can seek higher profits, or the minutia of a treaty, I come before you seeking only to ensure the survival of my people. With most species, their right to exist is assumed, it is their default state. The Jarilans differ in that we descend from a race who have been dehumanized, viewed as pests, undesirables. We do not consider ourselves victims, we understand why this is the case. All I ask is the opportunity to prove that we are different, to demonstrate our value to the Coalition.”

And what value is that?” Zuki asked. “I know why you have chosen to direct your efforts towards swaying me. My people have no history with yours, we bear no grudges, we have not yet fought one another. I am an obvious choice for securing your winning vote.”

My intention is not to deceive you,” Holly replied, her confidence faltering a little. “What you say is true, you may be my best chance to secure a majority vote. But it is not charity that I ask of you, only your fair consideration. The Jarilo colony has much to offer the Coalition. Our knowledge of genetics far exceeds that of any other member species, we possess biomechanical technology that has no equivalent, and our manpower will become impressive given enough time.”

Weapons and soldiers might tempt the more...aggressive members of the Coalition,” Zuki said with a wry smile, “but we Araxie have different interests. We are what you might call a developing territory, we are in the process of industrializing.”

Then you are uniquely positioned to benefit from what we can offer,” Holly insisted. “Your first spacecraft could be cultivated in Jarilan shipyards, tailored to your every need, living craft that need little maintenance. Your people could benefit from our genetic technologies, making them stronger and longer-lived, more resistant to illness. We could build cities and factories for you with armies of Workers who need no rest.”

You offer much, Ambassador, yet you ask little in return. I know enough about your people to recognize that this present...vulnerability...is only temporary. Sooner than many of us can comprehend, your hive will once again be at full strength, and with that comes the possibility that it will return to an aggressive state. I cannot help but suspect that your promise of lavish gifts is only a ploy designed to buy you time. What guarantees can you give me?”

Holly was lost in thought, her furry antennae waving, her eyes darting back and forth as the gears in her head turned. Harry was beginning to doubt whether she had an answer. The Araxie was right, there was no guarantee that she could give, she was asking for trust from a position of absolute weakness. She was currently in I’ll pay you back, I swear territory, and Ambassador Zuki was holding all of the cards. Harry watched as her pink eyes returned to the monitor, her lower pair of fists clenching.

There is currently a UNN war fleet in orbit above Jarilo,” she began. “It has enough firepower to reduce the valley in which my colony was founded to cinders. That same valley is surrounded on all sides by fortified UNN outposts that have been tasked with containing us should we prove troublesome. My people are locked in a cage with a gun squarely pointed at their heads. If your trust is too much to ask, then perhaps the knowledge that we can be utterly eradicated with a single order will be enough to assuage your concerns.”

Zuki’s confident smile faltered a little, she didn’t appear to like the way that Holly’s proposal sounded.

Tell me, Ambassador,” she replied. “Do you believe that the Workers that you offered to provide would be able to coordinate with Valbaran architects to construct ecologically sound cities and manufacturing centers in the Araxie territory? We are facing problems attempting to modernize while also preserving our way of life and the jungles that surround us. Proposals by the UNN and the Brokers have been...less than satisfactory.”

Gladly,” Holly replied, almost failing to conceal her relief. “It is my understanding that the Valbarans excel at designing urban centers that blend seamlessly with the nature around them. I am confident that Jarilan Workers could accelerate the construction process by several orders of magnitude, perhaps even completing projects in months, rather than years.”

And if the Araxie were to pledge their support for your application,” Zuki continued, “am I to assume that the Jarilans would prioritize said projects?”

I’m sure that my Queen would see it as an opportunity to express her gratitude,” Holly said, picking up on the ambassador’s sly tone. She really was attuned to the subtleties of social interaction.

Good,” the Araxie replied, her confident smile returning. “You have given me much to consider, Ambassador. I cannot give you an answer immediately, but consider the Araxie...interested.”

Holly bowed her head low, her dangling antennae brushing the carpet.

Thank you for your consideration, Ambassador Zuki. We will not forget this.”

Zuki gave her a gentle nod, then closed the connection, the feed cutting out. Holly seemed to deflate, her four arms hanging limply at her sides now that she didn’t have to keep up appearances.

That went better than I expected,” Harry said, walking over to stand beside her. She glanced up at him, a head shorter than the six-foot human, the plates that made up her face arranging into a smile that he was finding less and less objectionable the more time that he spent with her.

It is not certain yet, but Ambassador Zuki sounds like she intends to vote in our favor. She is certainly wily, I expect that if she supports us, she will expect some form of rebate or discount on the construction projects in exchange. It is a price that we are more than willing to pay if we are buying our survival.”

What do Bugs charge for construction jobs?” Harry wondered aloud.

I do not know,” she chuckled, covering her mouth with a dainty hand in a way that mimicked the human gesture exactly. “I do not believe that a Bug has ever charged anyone for anything before. We will have to learn more so as not to be taken advantage of in the future.”

Do you still want to talk to the Valbarans?” he asked.

Yes,” she replied. “There is a chance that the Araxie ambassador will change her mind, however remote. I should attempt to secure as many votes as possible.”

The Valbarans seemed a little more...agitated when you arrived,” Harry added, “what’s your approach?”

The Araxie has given me some ideas,” she replied. She reached up and began to clean her antennae with her upper arms, like someone stroking their beard while deep in thought. “I have something to offer them that I believe they want dearly. It remains to be seen if their hatred will overpower their desire.”

Then I’ll make the call,” Harry said with a nod. “Want a hot chocolate to calm your nerves, or would that detract from your statesmanship?”

I would like a hot chocolate,” she replied with a smile.

***

I’m tellin’ you, Vos isn’t going to like this,” Boyd complained as he hurried to match pace with Moralez. He was marching along with purpose, the bustling crowds of Navy personnel in the military quarter parting before him as though they could somehow sense his determination.

I don’t care what Admiral Vos does and does not like,” he snarled, making a beeline for one of the massive hangar doors that towered over the walkway. “I will conduct this investigation as I see fit. If he wants to obstruct me, then he’s free to do that, but I’ll go to the Admiralty if I have to. It’s one thing to discipline me for what happened on the hub, but it’s quite another to actively prevent me from carrying out my duties. There’s no way that he can sell that to the other Admirals.”

Perhaps we could interview the Krell, or the Araxie ambassador instead?” Lorza asked. She was always the more diplomatic of the two.

No point,” Moralez muttered. “The Krell wouldn’t do this, and I don’t think that the Araxie would either. They don’t have the motive, the means, or the connections to pull something like this off.”

Shouldn’t we at least be thorough?” Boyd asked, but Moralez silenced him with a wave of his prosthetic hand.

We interview the Broker. Nobody is above suspicion, nobody is exempt from the legal process.”

Actually, he has diplomatic immunity,” Boyd warned. “So he is exempt from the legal process, that’s literally what that means. Lorza, help me out here, you walking carpet.”

The Polar gave him a shrug, even she couldn’t think of a way to deter the Chief.

They entered through a smaller door, emerging into the cavernous hangar. Far to their right was the gaudy Elysian frigate, its red hull decorated with ornate, golden murals. To their left was the odd Valbaran spaceplane with its colored lighting strips, and between them was the Broker vessel. The cigar-shaped spacecraft still seemed to float on a cushion of air, its silver hull completely featureless. There wasn’t even a subtle indent where Moralez knew the entrance to be.

Last chance to reconsider this before we all get written up,” Boyd grumbled, but Moralez ignored him. He strode closer to the vessel, his prosthetic foot tapping against the deck, coming to a stop beside it. The air beneath it was somewhat disturbed, it looked like a heat haze on baking asphalt. Whatever forced was holding the thing aloft, it had some visible impact on the world around it.

He held up one of his prosthetic hands, feeling an odd tingling sensation in his synthetic nerves. It was a feeling that he had almost forgotten, reminding him of sleeping on his arm funny and waking to find it numb. Pins and needles, that was the name. Something about the ship was interfering with his robotics, it might be emitting an electromagnetic field of some kind. It was such an odd sensation, like suddenly developing a sixth sense, Moralez experimenting as he waved his hands around.

I don’t think it opens for interpretive dance,” Boyd complained. “If you’re gonna do it, then get on with it.”

I’m going to,” the Chief snapped, glaring back over his shoulder. He cleared his throat, clasping his tingling hands behind his back. “Ambassador!” he said, raising his voice so that it echoed through the empty hangar. “My name is Security Chief Moralez, and these are Agents Boyd and Lorza of Naval Intelligence. I was wondering if you’d be kind enough to grant us a few minutes of your time? I would have called ahead to arrange a meeting, but I couldn’t find any way to reach you.”

They waited in silence, the seconds ticking by until Moralez started to feel a little silly. He glanced back at Boyd, who shrugged, Lorza watching the cigar-shaped vessel warily.

It really would help our investigation immensely,” the Chief continued, feeling like he was talking to a wall. “It’s about the attempted assassination on the hub.”

He waited a moment longer, and then the eerie silence was broken by a low, resonating hum. The silvery skin of the vessel began to shift, opening like an organic orifice, a landing ramp extruding from the hull as though the malleable material was being sculpted by invisible hands. It touched the deck, then from within the darkness emerged a white shape, the Broker standing on its skeletal legs at the top of the ramp. It peered down at them, scrutinizing them with its array of strange sensory apparatus, silent and unknowable.

This summons is highly irregular,” it stated in its tinny, synthesized voice. “State your business.”

Moralez quickly overcame his amazement at the fact that simply shouting at the Broker vessel had worked, standing up straight and trying to put on an air of formality.

Thank you for your time, Ambassador. We wondered if we could discuss what happened on the hub? We’d like to hear your perspective, as you were present at the time of the attack.”

The robotic creature hesitated for a few moments, its lenses focusing on the trio, and then it began to descend the ramp. It stopped at the bottom, not deigning to set foot on the deck, but close enough now that they could have a polite conversation.

Very well, I will hear your queries.”

Half of him hadn’t even been expecting to get this audience, and now that he had it, he needed to tread very carefully. Vos would be angry enough that he had spoken to the Broker, let alone if the interview went badly.

We couldn’t help but notice that your...chassis, is equipped with a great deal of sensory equipment,” Moralez began. “Is there anything that you picked up during the incident that our sensors might have missed, or that might not be obvious to us? Anything outside of the visible spectrum, any wireless signals being transmitted from inside the room? We have reason to believe that one of the ambassadors was transmitting data illicitly.”

Your communication systems are a soup of poorly encrypted radio transmissions and unshielded electromagnetic interference,” the alien replied, Moralez unsure of which camera to focus on. “These signals saturate the station, making their origin difficult to ascertain.”

I see...” he muttered. “And what about you, Ambassador? My understanding is that you are not required to submit to security screenings before visiting the hub due to the nature of your suit, it would be rather futile. Are you able to send and receive messages from within the conference room?”

The capabilities of Broker technology are not subject to UNN scrutiny,” the alien replied, Moralez frowning as its shining lenses focused on him. “This line of questioning is not permitted.”

He crossed his arms, considering his next move as the implacable creature watched him.

Ambassador, I’m trying to be polite about this so as not to cause an incident, but you are presently a suspect in an ongoing investigation. While you are present on this UNN facility, you will submit to UNN law. If you should choose to exercise your diplomatic rights, then that is your prerogative, but there is nothing to be gained by dodging questions. You have agreed to remain on the station of your own volition, and I thank you for that, but I do require your further cooperation in this matter.” The alien’s innumerable sensors tracked and zoomed, its robotic voice going silent for a few moments. Perhaps it was considering his challenge, or maybe it was communing in secret with its fellows through unknown means. It was impossible to tell.

I will cooperate,” it finally replied, seeming to wake from its temporary lethargy. “All inquiries that relate to the incident will be answered truthfully, but no unrelated information will be divulged. Is this acceptable, Security Chief Moralez?”

Very acceptable, thank you for your cooperation, Ambassador.”

In relation to your initial query, no sensory data that was gathered during the security council meeting was transmitted to any third parties.”

So you are able to record and transmit data during the meetings?” Moralez asked, raising an eyebrow. “Are you aware that this goes against UNN policy?”

It is permitted by your Admiralty,” the Broker replied, “we have violated no laws or treaties.”

Is that so?” Moralez mused. It was a little difficult to interview a suspect when they were privy to information that he was not. It sounded like the Brokers were given a great deal of special exemptions from protocol and policy on the station, without the knowledge of their peers. How might the other council members react if they knew that they were being recorded in secret and that the Brokers were leveraging unfair advantages during the proceedings with the apparent consent of the Admiralty? He knew what Vos would say, the Admiral would claim that it was a matter of Naval security and forbid him from pursuing the matter further.

Security Chief,” the creature continued, its synthesized voice echoing in the empty hangar. “The assertion that the Brokers would carry out this attack is groundless. We voted in favor of the Jarilo colony being admitted to the Coalition, we foresee a profitable and mutually beneficial relationship developing with them. What motivation would we have to sabotage the proceedings?”

When a crime is committed, we must determine three factors,” Moralez replied as he held up three polymer fingers. “Those are means, motive, and opportunity. You were present during the meeting, ergo you had the opportunity to transmit a signal outside of the room, and you certainly had the means to do so. As for the motive, I can speculate. As secretive as your people are, we know that you founded the Coalition several centuries before the United Nations became a signatory, and that you were waging your own war against the Betelgeusians for that period of time. You have been fighting for as long as we have been a spacefaring species. That goes beyond a simple conflict, it’s more of a blood feud.”

An anthropocentric interpretation of affairs,” the alien replied. Was that a hint of irritation in its voice? “The Brokers do not take such things into consideration. We judge our actions in terms of what will bring us prosperity, and what will not. There is no profit in souring our relationship with our allies, or in failing to take advantage of new technologies. That the Jarilans are of Betelgeusian descent is irrelevant to the value that they represent.”

And what exactly do they represent to you?” Moralez asked, gesturing to the floating vessel. “It seems to me like you guys have the technology side of things covered.”

The Jarilans are in possession of unique Betelgeusian biotechnology that represents perhaps tens, or even hundreds of thousands of years of development. Possession of these technologies will allow us to reverse-engineer them for our own purposes, and probe them for weaknesses that would give us an advantage in future encounters. The Jarilans also represent a significant industrial and military force, which will benefit us greatly during the trials that await us. This opportunity for cooperation may never present itself again, the circumstances of their surrender are unique. As such, the death of the Jarilan ambassador would be an unacceptable loss.”

It was impossible to tell whether the alien was sincere or not, it had no facial expressions to read, and very few inflections in its tinny voice. Boyd and Lorza were of no help, and he had to wonder if they knew more about the Brokers and their relationship with the UNN’s brass than they were letting on. Either way, it wasn’t looking like this interview was going anywhere. There was no basis for assuming that the creature was lying, and it certainly seemed to be making a good case for itself. There wasn’t anything to be gained by pressing the issue further.

One more thing,” he added. “A thought occurs to me. If someone were to plant a listening device on your...person...without your knowledge, you wouldn’t be able to detect the signals that it emits due to the interference that you described, and it would not be found due to the lack of security screening. Do you think it’s possible that someone could get close enough to you to accomplish that?”

Perhaps,” the Broker admitted, “but such a device would be easily detected once I had returned to my vessel. The interior is shielded from the ambient pollution that your communications systems produce. I have found no such device.”

Thank you for your time, Ambassador,” Moralez said with an obvious finality. “Your cooperation is appreciated. We’ll leave you to your business now.”

The Broker did not respond, it merely turned its back on them, marching up the ramp and returning to the darkness of its strange vessel. The ramp receded behind it, melding back into the featureless hull as though it had never been there at all. The orifice that served as the ship’s airlock sealed up, knitting together like a healing wound until there was nothing left but flush, silvery metal.

Satisfied?” Boyd asked.

For now,” Moralez replied, turning back in the direction of the hangar door. “You guys know things about the Brokers that you’re not telling me, don’t you?”

Boyd and Lorza exchanged a glance as they followed behind him.

Our security clearance is far higher than yours,” Lorza explained, “it is only natural that we should know things that you do not.”

And I don’t suppose you can you share any of it?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

No can do, Sheriff,” Boyd replied. “This one’s out of your jurisdiction.”

If you knew something that pertained to the investigation, something important, would you tell me?”

Boyd hesitated, considering carefully before giving his reply.

It’s not up to us, Chief. We’re Naval Intelligence, keeping secrets is part of our job description. We can’t tell you anything that’s above your clearance level, not without ironclad need-to-know, and you don’t need to know.”

Alright,” he grumbled, knowing that he couldn’t strongarm the agents. “At least tell me one thing. Have the Brokers ever done anything along these lines before? Staged an attack of some kind in order to achieve a larger goal?”

In our line of work we call that a false flag,” Boyd said, his tone becoming ominous. “I can’t say if they’ve ever done anything like that, but I will say that they’ve been known to step back and let events take their natural course if it results in some kind of gain for them.”

Do you think they did that on the hub?” Moralez asked.

Boyd didn’t reply, he merely gave him a shrug.

***

Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Harry asked, Holly cleaning her antennae nervously as she stood before the wall-mounted monitor. “You only needed one more vote for a majority, and it sounded to me like the Araxie ambassador was pretty convinced.”

I must explore every possible avenue,” she replied. “I can leave nothing to chance, not when the fate of my people is at stake.”

Alright,” he mumbled, “it’s just that they seemed pretty pissed when you showed up in the conference room. I’m still surprised they agreed to see you at all, at least that means they’re willin’ to listen if nothin’ else.”

You are making me nervous,” she said half-jokingly.

Got it, got it...”

Harry backed up, Holly steeling herself as they waited for the call. After a couple of minutes, the standby symbol changed, a video feed coming through. Four alien faces stared back at her, the strange, flexible sheaths of muscle that hung from their heads like pigtails opening to reveal layered feathers. The colorful plumes flashed in shades of yellow and purple, four pairs of striking, violet eyes fixing on Holly. They had long snouts that made them look like lizards to Harry, or maybe dinosaurs, their skin made up of a mosaic of fine scales that came in varying tones of green.

The four Valbarans remained silent, watching the Bug suspiciously, waiting for her to make the first move.

Honorable Ambassadors,” she began, taking the formal approach. “I thank you for granting me this opportunity to speak with you. Our first introduction was cut short, I had hoped that I might rectify that.”

My name is Netza'cui'atl,” one of them replied, her odd name slipping through Harry’s fingers almost immediately. Her tinny voice was so strange, distinctly female, but with an accent that almost seemed to vary from word to word. It was like she was imitating the mannerisms of half a dozen people, his brain able to pick each one out instinctively. “You may refer to me and my flockmates as Ensi.”

As you wish, Ensi,” Holly replied with a demure bow.

We realize that we may have reacted emotionally during our first meeting,” another of their number added, “but the Val’ba’ra’nay do not see passion as something that should be curtailed or repressed. We believe our feelings to be valid, but we will grant you your request for an audience. If we are to integrate into this Coalition, then we must be malleable, willing to change our perspectives.”

You are wise, Ensi,” Holly replied. “I will try to be worthy of your consideration.”

Please proceed,” another of them said, Holly nodding her head in response.

During my short stay on this station, I have realized that my attempts to distance my people from our Betelgeusian heritage have been fruitless. As much as I would like for you and the other species of the Coalition to see the Jarilans as a separate and unique entity, we share too many traits with our belligerent cousins.”

She began to pace back and forth before the monitor, keeping her lower pair of hands clasped in front of her while gesturing with the upper pair to add a little more animation to her presentation.

I was raised and educated by a human, a former Marine turned naturalist. One of the values that he instilled in me can best be summarized by the idiom; never judge a book by its cover. It means that a person’s motives and values cannot be ascertained through judging them outwardly. What I neglected to understand until recently, however, is that actions are how a person is best judged. Despite that realization, I find myself unable to act. I have traveled light-years from my home for the sole purpose of speaking before you, yet what I want to achieve cannot be accomplished through that alone. It is a quandary that I have mulled over a great deal during my confinement in this suite.”

She paused before the monitor again, addressing each of the Valbarans in turn.

I must ask your trust, although I have not earned it. I must ask your sympathy, although I do not deserve it. I cannot back up my promises with actions, not yet, all I can do is assure you that I have the authority to make agreements on behalf of my Queen. She will honor them.”

The four aliens paused to convene, speaking in a language of rapid chirps and squeaks that sounded to Harry like a soundbite being played back at ten times normal speed. Their hurried conversation was punctuated with flurries of colorful feathers, conveying inflection, and emotion. When they were done, all four of them turned back to scrutinize Holly in unison.

We appreciate the difficulty of your situation,” the one who had called herself Netza began, “but we cannot give you the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of what you claim, you share the same genealogy as those who reduced our colony world to cinders, who invaded our homeworld in an attempt to exterminate us. Those instinctual drives are still locked within you, you haven’t fundamentally changed, you have merely been forced to adapt to a new situation. Without the current constraints that curtail that behavior, would you not revert to your genocidal ways?”

Why must everyone bring up hypotheticals?” Holly replied, her frustration getting the better of her momentarily. “What we might do, what we could do, what-ifs. What about what we are doing right now? Does that count for nothing? Does sending me here, having me stand before you and offer you our submission, have less meaning than imagined threats?”

Harry had never seen her lose her composure before. For a moment, he wondered whether all of the pressure was getting to her, but then he remembered what the Ensi had said earlier. The Val’ba’ra’nay do not see passion as something that should be curtailed or repressed. Holly was not losing her temper, she was playing to the crowd. Would her bold strategy pay off?

The aliens engaged in another rapid-fire discussion, then turned back to the ambassador.

“We see your point,” one of them said, a flash of sympathy in her violet eyes. “Perhaps our speculation is unfair, but you must understand our perspective. Millions have perished at the hands of the insect fleets, we were utterly defeated at Ker’gue’la, and we would have lost of the battle of Val’ba’ra was it not for the Coalition fleet that came to our aid. Our civilization, our species...it was almost extinguished. Now you ask us to bring you into our flock, to trust you, to forgive your transgressions.”

“We realize that yours is not the same hive that attacked Ker’gue’la and Val’ba’ra,” another added hastily, “but the comparisons are unavoidable.”

You speak of promises,” a third said, her feathery headdress flashing in shades of yellow and orange. “What exactly do you offer?”

Holly straightened herself, her demeanor changing, her four hands clasping behind her back to give the air of a general who was about to command her troops.

I believe that we can offer you something of value, something that will not only benefit your people but potentially begin to make amends for the actions of our cousins.”

That got their attention, the Valbarans appearing to huddle closer to their camera as they waited for her to elaborate.

Would it be inaccurate,” Holly continued, “to say that taking back the planet Ker’gue’la is your people’s greatest aspiration at this time? Righting that wrong, avenging your dead?

The four aliens communed again, chattering for a moment before giving their reply.

After rebuilding our defenses on Val’ba’ra, that is our most immediate goal, yes. We had hoped to enlist the aid of the Coalition in the endeavor.”

The Jarilo colony pledges their support. We are prepared to provide you with an invasion fleet once we have replenished our numbers sufficiently. Betelgeusians are evolved to fight one another, we can develop castes tailored to countering their forces on the ground, and in greater numbers than the other Coalition members can muster. We are also prepared to provide technology and logistical support that will help even the odds. We can intercept their pheromone signals just as a conventional soldier might intercept enemy troop orders over radio, we know their battle doctrine, we understand the layouts of their tunnels instinctively. Imagine if every Coalition unit was provided with a Jarilan Drone who could warn of impending attacks and track enemy movements. You will know their secrets, their weaknesses, they will be robbed of their strengths.”

The Valbarans began to talk hurriedly again, Holly not missing a beat as she continued her proposal.

“And when the battle is won, and the enemy presence has been excised from the planet, legions of our Workers will help you rebuild. They can work longer and harder than any vertebrate, they are tireless, driven. Your fallen cities could be repaired, and new infrastructure could be built in mere months rather than years. With our help, Ker’gue’la will be cleaned of its infestation and made habitable again with the fewest possible Valbaran casualties, and in the smallest possible window of time.”

The aliens became even more animated, pausing to glance at her occasionally as they debated in their strange tongue. They seemed to want to come to some kind of consensus before they gave her a reply. Two of them were apparently arguing, their feathers flashing in shades of red. When they were done, they turned their reptilian snouts back to Holly.

Your offer is an intriguing one, Ambassador,” the leftmost Valbaran began. “You have clearly studied our history, learned what offers we might find most tempting. We question your sincerity in wanting to right wrongs after having argued so passionately to distance your people from the Betelgeusians, or your cousins, as you refer to them. But we do not doubt your ability to follow through with your promises, we are all too familiar with the capabilities of a hive fleet.”

The question that we must now ask ourselves,” another of the bird-like aliens added, “is whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential dangers. We do not doubt that you could raise a powerful fleet in time, but who would its might be directed against? That is harder to determine.”

We have your assurances,” the rightmost of their number said, “but you yourself have explained why that may not be enough. Yet we also concede that you must be given the opportunity to prove yourselves. If there is a chance of peaceful cooperation, however remote, then we must consider it.

Then...you will support our application?” Holly asked, the antennae on her head standing erect and seeming to flutter in an invisible breeze. She sounded almost afraid to say it out loud, as though acknowledging the possibility might somehow cause it to escape her grasp.

There will be another council meeting in the coming days, where your status will be decided,” Netza replied. “The Coalition has been very fair in allowing us a vote on the matter despite our membership not being fully formalized yet, and we intend to make use of it. I will discuss the issue further with my flockmates, and we will present our decision on that day.

Thank you for your consideration, Ensi,” Holly replied with a respectful bow of her head. “I am sure that you will vote wisely, whatever the outcome.”

The four Valbarans replied with a subtle nod of their heads, the feed shutting off a moment later. Harry watched as Holly left her place in front of the monitor, making her way over to the couch. She turned and flopped down onto the cushions, lounging in a decidedly un-ambassadorial fashion, one of her four arms draped over the armrest.

Congratulations,” Harry said with a grin, waltzing over to join her. He sat down on the opposite end of the couch, glancing over at Holly, whose eyes were closed as she leaned back against the headrest. “You’ve changed a few minds today.”

I was designed to perform ambassadorial duties,” she replied, the plates on her face arranging into a smile as she loosed a low chuckle. “So why do I feel like I’m barely pulling through?”

Maybe you’re just ambassador-ing harder than anyone intended,” he suggested with a wink. “You should take a break, you know, wind down a little. If you keep up this pace for too long, then you’re gonna get burned out.”

Burned out?” she asked, opening her eyes and cocking her head at him inquisitively.

Yeah, exhausted, drained. If you don’t take time to recuperate, then your work will suffer, you can’t keep going indefinitely.”

My people do not require breaks,” she replied dismissively, closing her eyes again.

Well you sure look like you do,” he said, her antennae flicking with annoyance. “Come on, don’t you think that this is cause enough to celebrate? It’s not in the bag yet, but if just one of the delegations decides to vote in your favor, your mission is complete. They both sounded pretty sympathetic to me, even the Valbarans.”

Are you rooting for me now, Sergeant Hayes?” she asked, opening one eye to peer at him.

I don’t know about all that,” he grumbled, crossing his arms defensively. “I did say that I didn’t want to get involved in the politics of it all, and I haven’t changed my mind, but...I guess I’m starting to warm up to you a little. I can like you without having to get behind the Jarilans, right? Hell, I have some good Martian friends, but that doesn’t mean I have to support their cricket team.”

Cricket?” she asked. “You are losing me, Sergeant.”

Trust me, there are some things you don’t want to know about humans,” he replied.

Oh, you are making a joke. Very humorous.”

But you’re not laughin’,” he said, maintaining eye contact with her until her resolve cracked. She began to chuckle, covering her painted mouth with her hand in a futile attempt to stifle it.

Very well,” she finally conceded, “we may celebrate. In any case, I have nothing more to do while I wait for the next council meeting. I fear that the Borealans would not be so easy to convince.”

The cats are stubborn, that’s for sure. They might be persuaded in time, but they’ll never admit that they’re wrong unless you back ‘em into a corner. I’m going to teach you a new human skill.”

And what is that?” she asked.

How to relax,” he replied. He pointed over his shoulder at Blackjack, who was resting in his usual place on the wood floor, his barrel chest slowly rising and falling as he snored quietly. “Where did you think BJ learned how to do that? I’m an expert on the subject.”

I think that if Blackjack became any more relaxed, he would be dead,” Holly chuckled. “So tell me, what do humans do to wind down, as you put it?”

On this station, we’d usually head down to the recreation center and get some drinks in us, play some card games or maybe some pool. We can’t do that, of course,” Harry added. “The Chief has confined you to the suite. Otherwise, we might watch a movie, play some videogames. But again, the Chief has ordered me not to let you use the computers, so that’s probably off the table.”

Then...what may we do?”

What my folks would have called a quiet night in,” he replied, rising to his feet and making his way over to a touch panel on the far wall. He dragged down a slider, the lights in the rooming dimming, then tapped at another icon. Beneath the monitor that was mounted on the wall at the front of the living room, a holographic, three-dimensional image flickered to life. It started off transparent for a moment before becoming solid, Holly’s eyes widening as she watched from her seat on the couch. It was as though a fireplace had appeared from thin air, carved from what looked like white marble, the wood logs in the open hearth already beginning to sprout licking flames.

She slid down from her seat, inching across the carpet to examine it more closely, her antennae waving in the air in search of more information. The stonework seemed so real, reflecting the soft light in the room, the crackling fire casting an orange glow along with wavering shadows. As Holly drew within a foot of the hologram, she recoiled, looking to him for guidance.

I know that it is not real,” she said, the firelight creating beautiful hues of blue and green in her iridescent carapace as it cast its light on her. “Yet I feel heat. Would it burn me if I were to reach out and touch it?”

You’re right, it’s a hologram,” Harry replied. “It’s cheaper to just simulate one rather than cartin’ marble and wood fuel all the way out to the station. No, you can touch it. It won’t burn you, I promise.”

Holly turned back to the fire, her pink eyes reflecting its glow, edging a little closer. She extended an upper hand and brushed her fleshy fingers against the marble, testing if it was solid, and watching them slide through it like a ghost. It had no mass, no texture, it was just projected light. Next, she reached towards the dancing flames, crouching so that she could touch the burning embers. Harry watched her hesitate, then she plunged her fingers into the fire, seeming relieved when she was not burned.

There’s a heatin’ element in the wall,” Harry explained as Holly batted at the flames like a curious cat. “The fire doesn’t actually produce any heat, it’s just part of the illusion.”

But...why?” Holly asked, still mesmerized. “The suite is climate-controlled. The temperature, humidity, and lighting are all maintained by the computer. I have seen you edit their properties. What purpose does this illusion serve?”

You’re askin’ why we’d go out of our way to fool ourselves into thinkin’ that the warmth was comin’ from a log fire, rather than just turnin’ up the heat in the room? Can’t you tell just by lookin’ at it?”

I do not understand, Sergeant,” she replied as she stood upright again.

There’s somethin’...primal about fire, mystical. Sure, we could just turn up the thermostat and be done with it, but it feels good to sit in front of a fire. It’s calmin’ to watch the flames dance, and to feel its heat on your face. The way it lights up the room, that cracklin’ sound. All we’re missin’ is the smell of charred wood, but we can’t really simulate that here. Don’t Bugs make campfires?”

We regulate the temperature and humidity of our colonies using a system of ventilation shafts that create convection cells,” she replied, Harry sighing.

Alright, I guess not, then. Just...sit in front of the fire and watch it for a while, tell me how it makes you feel.”

She looked like she was about to argue for a moment, she probably had a question ready about what the purpose of watching fire was, and how it didn’t relate to her mission. Instead, she returned to the couch, sitting quietly as she watched the flames lick at the logs. Harry made his way over and sat beside her, the two of them peering into the hearth in silence for a minute or two.

Sometimes it’s nice to just waste time, y’know?” he muttered, Holly turning her head to glance at him. “We’re always doin’ shit, always thinkin’ ahead. We never live in the moment. What are we doin’ in ten minutes, in a week, in a year? Even when we’re takin’ time off, we’re still busy. We have fun on a schedule, we relax to an itinerary. So let’s just exist for a while and not think about anythin’.”

That-”

Doesn’t make sense to you,” he interrupted, “I know. Bugs don’t take breaks, Bugs don’t waste time, but you’re part human too. It’s important that you learn how to be inefficient.”

She couldn’t help but chuckle, shaking her head at him.

So much of what you say makes little sense to me, Sergeant Hayes, yet I find it difficult to argue with you.”

We don’t have any marshmallows, and the fire isn’t real, so we couldn’t roast them anyway,” Harry added. “But a hot drink is customary when sittin’ around a campfire.”

If you keep feeding me hot chocolate, I will exceed my daily nutritional requirements, Sergeant.”

That’s another important human skill that I’m gonna teach you,” Harry replied, rising to his feet and making for the kitchen. He returned not long after with a steaming mug of cocoa in his hands, passing it to Holly, who waited for it to cool as she gazed into the flames. The plates that made up her jaw splayed open again when she was ready to drink, the off-blue proboscis dipping into the warm liquid.

How are you feelin’?” Harry asked.

I will admit that the low light and the glow of the fire has me somewhat relaxed,” she replied, continuing to drink through her fleshy straw as she spoke.

The word you’re lookin’ for is vibe,” Harry corrected. “But yeah, I think I nailed it.”

I wanted to ask you,” Holly began, pausing her drinking and retracting her proboscis. “Have you ever been to Earth?”

I’m an Earthling born and raised,” he replied, “an Iowa native.”

I didn’t want to make the assumption that all humans come from Earth,” she added, “I know that your species has many colonies.”

I’m sure that I’d appreciate the thought if I was a Martian or a Franklin. So, what did you want to know?”

What’s it like there?” she asked, peering up at him with her expressive eyes as her antennae waved in the air. They always did that when she was curious, maybe she was instinctively trying to collect more information.

That’s a hard question to answer,” he laughed, leaning back on the couch. “Earth has a lot of different environments, lots of different places. Where I grew up has nothin’ in common with a Brazilian jungle or a New Zealand seastead.”

My father spoke of Earth’s diversity,” she replied, her proboscis reemerging to take another drink from her mug as she clutched it in her lower pair of hands. “It is hard for me to imagine. Up until a few days ago, I had only ever known the valley where I was hatched. Even beyond its boundaries, there is little diversity on Jarilo. Giant trees dominate the landscape, they have colonized every continent. It is beautiful, but no matter where one goes, everything looks...similar.”

Sounds like our Pacific Northwest, I’ve been there before.” “Yes, the Sequoia,” she replied enthusiastically. “My father often made that comparison.”

Are you into that kind of thing, like your dad?” he asked. “I guess the word would be naturalism, right?”

I spent my formative months in his company while he explored the area surrounding the hive,” she replied, staring off into space fondly. “It would be impossible for his curiosity and enthusiasm not to imprint on me. He is a courageous man, and he has an uncanny ability to see things from different perspectives. I try to embody that as much as I can.”

I’d say you’re doin’ a pretty good job so far. It took guts to come out here, to confront people when you know that they don’t want to listen to you. The right course of action is rarely the easy one.”

You attribute more bravery to me than I deserve,” she replied, “it was not my choice to come here. I was born for this role, purpose-designed.”

But you wanted to come?”

I did,” she admitted.

Well, then you can’t attribute everything to your Bug programming, can you?”

I suppose not,” she conceded, taking another sip of her cocoa. “So what was it like where you were raised? Iowa, you called it.”

Rolling hills covered in green grass,” he said, locking his fingers behind his head as he reminisced. “Lots of farmland, golden fields, hay bales. Patches of forest and snaking streams weavin’ between them. You can see for miles there, I’ll bet you can’t see a hundred feet in any direction on Jarilo, right?”

Indeed, the forests can be dense. What of Blackjack?” she asked, leaning forward to look past Harry. The giant reptile was in his usual spot, stretched out on the floor. It was hard to tell if he was listening, but he would often open one eye when something of interest was happening in his vicinity, and the one that they could see from their angle was currently closed.

BJ’s planet is different. His people live in swampland and marshes, they spend about as much time wallowin’ in mud and swimmin’ in lakes as they do on land. Livin’ on the station is a little harder for them than it is for us, they need their basking pools so that they don’t dry out, and their heat lamps to warm them up.”

Do you miss your homeland?” she asked.

Sometimes,” he admitted, “everyone gets a bout of nostalgia every now and then. How about you?”

This is all still new and exciting to me,” she said, her proboscis probing the bottom of her mug for stray droplets as she finished the last of her drink. “I have not had much time to dwell on thoughts of my home, but yes, I do miss it in some ways. Humans are a very visual people, tactile, but scent is our primary sense. We communicate with one another through pheromones, it is our language, even serving in lieu of maps and writing. Although I have learned to communicate through speech, I still consider it my mother tongue. Everything and everyone has its own smell, immediately recognizable, and some of those scents can be...compelling in their own way. When one is hungry, the sweet scent of a Replete with a crop full of honey is almost irresistible, one has to make a conscious effort to avoid following the pheromone trail to the feeding chamber in a trance. It is so vivid, visceral, you can taste it on the air. The smells here are unfamiliar, confused. It makes me feel...disorientated, in a way.”

I hadn’t considered that,” Harry said, “I guess I’d be pretty off-kilter too if someone put a blindfold on me and told me that I had to feel my way around from now on.”

It is not quite so debilitating,” she added, “but the metaphor is apt.”

What about me?” he asked jokingly, “what do I smell like?”

Her pink eyes lingered on him for a moment, her feathery antennae twitching, the silence lingering until he began to fear that he had committed some kind of faux-pas in her culture. She snapped out of it after a few moments, batting her lashes at him and returning her gaze to her cup.

Like a human,” she replied, quickly changing the subject. “I would dearly like to visit Earth one day and see the things that you describe for myself. Jarilo is my home, it is where I feel most at ease, and yet I carry the genes of someone who was born there. Surely that makes it as much my ancestral home as wherever it was that my species originated from?”

I suppose so,” Harry replied. “My ancestry is Irish and German, but I’ve never felt any desire to visit those countries. I suppose alien planets have a much stronger allure.”

Did you mean what you said when you told me that I would never be allowed to set foot there?” she asked, Harry rubbing the back of his neck as he struggled to come up with an answer.

I mean...kind of, yeah. I was being a bit of an ass, I admit, I know that you’re different from the other Bugs now. But still, unless you guys really knock it out of the park with this Coalition thing, I don’t see it happenin’.”

Then we will have to knock it out of the park,” she replied.

CHAPTER 8: OPEN-HANDED

Moralez and the two agents made their way downspin, heading in the direction of the residential quarter, where the ambassadors were housed. The interview with the Broker hadn’t been too productive, but it had given him reason enough to doubt that they had been involved. There was no motive that Moralez could pin on them for sabotaging the meeting, at least none that wasn’t so secretive and convoluted as to be absurd. Perhaps it would be a good idea to pick up the end of that thread again if their subsequent investigations produced no results. As a great detective once said; if you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Are you sure you want to skip over the Krell and the Araxie?” Boyd asked as he walked beside him, the artificial breeze rustling the leaves of the trees as they passed by a row of planters. “I agree that the Valbarans can’t have had the time or the contacts to organize something like this, but why not the others?”

The Araxie have no motive,” Moralez replied. “They haven’t even been members of the Coalition for a year, and their troops have never served against the Betelgeusians.”

I concur with the Chief,” Lorza added. “The Araxie do not have much political power on Borealis, they have been cozying up to the Elysians for protection from the Rask, and Ambassador Elysiedde made a good case for his defense.”

I suppose you guys know all about what’s going on with the factions on Borealis?” Moralez asked.

Da, it is our job to know,” the Polar replied.

We have a listening station at the planet’s pole,” Boyd added with a conspiratorial grin. “A little favor granted to us by the Polars who used to inhabit the region. It trawls the planet’s comms and sends anything juicy to UNNI.”

Isn’t that classified or something?” Moralez asked skeptically. “Why would you tell me about that, but refuse to spill any beans on the Brokers?”

It’s a well-known secret,” Boyd replied with a shrug, “not exactly airtight. If the allied factions know about it, then they don’t pay it much mind. I suppose they figure that if the UNN operates their comms satellites, then we’ll have access to all of their data regardless.”

The situation on Borealis is volatile,” Lorza continued. “Both the Rask and Elysian territories seek to expand their influence. Elysia through alliances and somewhat aggressive diplomacy, Rask through military conquest. We Polars elected to leave the planet entirely, and our population now resides in Siberia on Earth. The Araxie sought to remain hidden in their dense jungle, as they have for centuries, but Rask incursions forced them to come out of hiding and seek assistance from the Coalition.”

Incursions?” Moralez asked, “wouldn’t any hostile actions against their neighbors violate their agreements with the UNN?”

They would,” she replied, “the matter is being investigated. If it is found that the Rask violated the treaty that they signed, then there will be severe consequences. Probably not expulsion from the organization, but certainly sanctions of some form.”

I get what you’re saying,” Moralez continued, pausing to let a column of marching Marines pass them by. “If the Araxie were going to be assassinating anyone, it would be the Rask. As for the Krell, we all know that they wouldn’t even swat a fly if they could avoid it.”

What if the Krell think that they’re avoiding future deaths by preventing the Bugs from joining the Coalition?” Boyd suggested, “protective instincts and all that?”

I can’t imagine that being the case,” Moralez replied with a shake of his head. “Not with all their talk of families and circles. They seemed quite happy to have another member species back at the meeting, they voted in favor.”

Besides, how would they organize a scheme like this?” Boyd chuckled. “They’re not exactly renowned for their communication skills. Shoot big fire stick at shiny bug, me pay you with wood charm on rope!”

Lorza began to lick her palm, Boyd dodging out of range and covering his head with his hands protectively.

Don’t you dare, you oversized housecat!”

Do not belittle other species, malish.”

Will you two can it?” Moralez complained, “we’re supposed to be doing a job here.”

The two agents fell into line, sharing angry glances as the trio continued on their way. As they reached the end of the military quarter, near the recreation center, Moralez noticed a group of people who stood out in the crowd. It was only thanks to the subtle curvature of the torus that he could see over the heads of the throngs in front of him, able to pick out black armor in unusual configurations, and the polymer housings of their prosthetic limbs. They were SWAR, no doubt about it. These must be some of the men that Murphy had brought with him to the station at the behest of Admiral Vos.

There were three of them, Moralez watching them step off the street and head for the recreation center’s door. Of course, where else would military men go to relax on the station?

Lorza had noticed them too, her senses were many times more sensitive than his own, and she spared him a concerned look.

I know what you are thinking, Security Chief,” she said ominously. “But these men are not to be trifled with.”

What’s that?” Boyd asked. “Did you see someone?”

It’s about lunchtime,” Moralez said, keeping his gaze fixed on the men as they entered the bar. “Why don’t you two go get something to eat, and we’ll meet up again in an hour or so?”

I would advise against that, Security Chief,” Lorza replied. “As we say in Russia, do not poke the bear...”

Besides,” Boyd added, “Vos told us to keep tabs on you.”

The Admiral wanted you to report my activities to him, am I right? Well, if I’m talking to the SWAR guys, they’ll do your job for you. Or do you think that they won’t report everything that I say to them straight to Murphy?”

He does have a point,” Lorza said, glancing down at Boyd.

And I suppose it’s entirely coincidental that you’re agreeing with him when food is involved?” Boyd complained. “You don’t need any more food, you’re so wide that you can barely fit through most of the doors on the station. You ate four full English breakfasts this morning. Four!”

I need the calories, malish,” she shot back. “I am a very appropriate weight for my species. If you will make fun of my size, then I shall make fun of yours, little bean sprout. If your height were proportionate to your ego, you would be banging your head on the roof of the torus.”

Oh, very clever. Well you’re so fat that...hey, where’s the Chief?”

The two of them paused their arguing to look around, but Moralez had already vanished into the crowd.

***

The familiar smell of cigarette smoke rose to Moralez’s nose as he stepped through the automatic door to the recreation center, the ceiling fans creating swirling vortexes in the haze as they spun lazily. It was midday, and so there weren’t many people at the bar, leaving most of the booths and tables vacant. Even so, the low murmur of conversations blended together, creating a background noise that kept things from becoming too quiet.

The three special forces soldiers were easy enough to pick out. They were huddled around a circular table, drinks clutched in their prosthetic hands and e-cigarettes between their lips. This was one of few places on the station where smoking was permitted, so it was no surprise that there was always a cloud of smog no matter the time of day.

He decided to pretend that he hadn’t noticed them yet, sauntering up to the bar and ordering a drink. The bartender recognized him, but if he thought that seeing the Chief there in the middle of the day was at all strange, he didn’t mention it. Moralez sipped at his glass of brandy for a few minutes, then turned to get a look at the trio of soldiers. They were still at their seats, huddled together conspiratorially.

Moralez hopped down from his bar stool and made his way over to them, their heads turning in his direction as they heard the telltale tap of his prosthetic foot on the wood floor. They didn’t greet him as he approached them, even as he pulled up a nearby chair and joined them at their table. They were much like Murphy in their dress and appearance, wearing plate carriers that were adorned with all manner of pouches and accessories, though these men had foregone their helmets while off-duty.

All three were quadruple amputees, making no effort to hide their prosthetics from view. One of them had rolled up the sleeves of his battle dress, another was wearing a Navy shirt beneath his rig, and the third had no sleeves at all.

Their limbs were not models that Moralez was familiar with, each one was different, customized in some way. One had layers of supplemental ceramic armor built into his arms, blending perfectly with the plating of his BDU, the knuckles of his prosthetic hands sporting studs that seemed designed to make his punches more lethal. An after-market mod, no doubt. No doctor would have consented to manufacturing such a thing. Another had subtle, dark grey patterns that had been etched into his housing, visible only when they caught the light at the right angle. They were like tattoos, hard to make out. The third seemed to have wrapped his prosthetics in a tight covering of Kevlar that was creased at the joints, giving the appearance of fabric.

Their legs were much the same. Two of them had skids for feet, and the third was wearing boots, which suggested that he had opted for more realistic replicas. There were pouches and holsters strapped directly to the housing in many places, all of them wearing shorts of varying lengths, the one with the boots securing the hem tightly around his knee joints to leave only his shins exposed.

What surprised Moralez about them were their faces. Only one of them had any scars, an ugly plasma burn that ran from his cheek to his neck, while the others were as fresh-faced as cadets. After what he had been through to lose three limbs, Moralez looked like a walking piece of hamburger meat. He couldn’t imagine what kind of trauma would cost these men their limbs without leaving other marks. Perhaps they too were covered in scars beneath their clothing, but it seemed unlikely.

As the three of them watched silently, Moralez drew his e-cigar from the breast pocket of his uniform, popping it into his mouth. It could be lit using a heating element, but he wanted to show off, drawing his XMH from the holster on his hip. He ejected the magazine, then turned on the battery, pulling the trigger a few times to send an electric current through the copper-colored coils. They began to warm rapidly, and when they began to glow red, he touched one of the coils against the tip of the cigar. It lit with a flicker of flame, and he took a draw, exhaling a plume of smoke as he returned his weapon to its place.

The three men remained silent, confident, but curious about the intruder.

I saw you from the bar, and thought that I might introduce myself,” Moralez said. “I’m Security Chief Moralez, but most people just call me the Chief.”

We know who you are,” the one with the scar replied, taking a drink from a glass of amber-colored liquid. His skin was dark, and he had an odd accent, African Union perhaps.

I assume that your Lieutenant Commander has told you all about me,” Moralez replied. “You’re SWAR, aren’t you? You rode in with him on the modified Courser.”

That’s right,” the man replied, eyeing him warily. “Her name is the Black Arrow.”

Oh, very mysterious,” Moralez replied as he took another puff of his cigar. “You know, I’ve been in the Marines since before the beginning of the war, and I’ve never heard of a Special Warfare and Advanced Recon group until now.”

We’re relatively new,” the stranger replied, staying tight-lipped. “It’s experimental stuff.”

I’ll say,” the Chief replied, gesturing to the man’s hand with his lit cigar. “I’ve never seen any prosthetics like that before. I’ve known a few guys who lost a limb or two and decided to customize their gear a little, but these are something else. Are they custom jobs?”

The three men exchanged glances, the scarred one speaking for them.

What of it?”

We have something in common if you hadn’t noticed,” Moralez said as he twirled his cigar in his polymer fingers. “Think of it like...stopping to admire a custom car at a gas station.”

These men were certainly proud of their prosthetics, judging by the work that had been done on them, and the way that they displayed them. It was probably the best way to get them talking. Most amputees took measures to appear as normal as possible, covering their arms with sleeves, and their hands with gloves. They wore long pants and boots, they didn’t want to be defined by their injuries. Moralez was a little different in that regard, he wouldn’t look normal again without a lot of plastic surgery that he wasn’t vain enough to care about, and so covering up his gear was somewhat pointless.

I have to say,” Moralez continued, “it’s unusual to see someone return to active duty after sustaining such severe injuries. I didn’t,” he added with a shrug, “I took a cushy security position on the station instead. Could have retired, but I think I’d get bored living a civilian life. I don’t have to worry about getting too old to do my job, it’s not like I’ll be getting arthritis, right?”

That got a chuckle from one of the men. Good, he was getting through to them.

I lost mine on Kruger III,” he continued, taking a drink from his glass as the men listened. “It was early in the campaign, and the roaches had occupied the third planet in the system. They had dug in deep, and so had we, they’d launch assaults on our trenches from their tunnels every few hours. They’d come rolling over those blasted mudflats, popping out of the mist to tangle with us, then disappearing back into their holes. I was tasked with leading a team into the tunnel network to root them out, and things went south pretty quickly. We engaged Betelgeusian Warriors in close quarters, even the Mad Cats didn’t stand a chance, they got torn to pieces. Bayonets, railguns, explosives. Nothing can scratch those things. Someone set off a grenade belt during the chaos, which caused a cave-in, and I got trapped on the wrong side of it. Me and another survivor managed to make it back to the surface, but we were engaged by another Warrior.”

He stuck his leg out from beneath the table so that they could get a look at it, giving it an affectionate tap.

Lost this one to a Penguin gunship’s ground support cannon, fucker hit me as well as the Bug that it was aiming for while covering our evac. I went down, dropped the grenade that I had been holding, found it minus a pin when I came to a few seconds later. I tried to sift through the mud, but there was no chance of replacing it, and the grenade went off in my hands. Thank God for my chest plate and my helmet, they were the only things that kept me alive. When I woke up again, I was here, on the station. Took weeks of physical therapy to get me back on my feet, but I made it through. How about you guys?” he asked, glancing at each one of them in turn. “What are your stories?”

That’s classified,” the African replied, swirling the ice cubes in his glass.

Somehow, I doubt that you were all injured after joining SWAR,” Moralez said as he narrowed his eyes at the man. “Murphy was a quad, you’re all quads. Seems to me like they only recruit quadruple amputees, am I right? Maybe that’s why I wasn’t invited to the party, I’m one card short of a deck.”

They didn’t reply, and Moralez decided to try pressing them a little harder.

Nobody goes straight into the special forces, you were probably Marines first, right? That’s another thing we have in common. Any injuries that you sustained while serving in the Corps won’t be classified. Will you at least tell me what carriers you served on, what campaigns you fought in? Marine to Marine, amputee to amputee...”

There was a certain sense of fraternity in the Corps, even more so between amputees. Moralez had never encountered a Marine, former or otherwise, who had no war stories to share with his brothers. It came off more than a little rude, but he was increasingly suspicious that all was not as it seemed.

I served on the UNN Samar,” one of them finally said. This man had a light complexion and an American accent. His hair was shaved, as was common for people who frequently donned helmets. His prosthetic arms were wrapped in Kevlar, which ended at the wrists, leaving his skeletal hands exposed. They were more spartan than Moralez’s, their silver, metal joints gleaming between the black housing that filled out his fingers. “Did three tours, one long-range patrol and two combat missions. The Samar was sent to Kruger to reinforce the Bastogne, I’ve seen Kruger III.”

The Bastogne was my carrier,” Moralez replied with a smile, “you must have arrived shortly after I left. What did you think of Kruger III? Not exactly an ideal place to found a colony, is it?”

I’ll say,” the man chuckled, “nothing but mud and dead trees as far as the eye can see. Anyone who tries to make a go of it there is crazier than we were for fighting over it.”

Gotta uproot the Bugs either way,” one of his friends added, another Australian by the sound of him. They certainly recruited their members from a variety of places.

Yeah, no doubt,” he replied. “But if it’s any consolation, Security Chief, we killed everything bigger than a mud worm on that planet. Never did find the Queen’s chamber in that maze of tunnels, but we cleared most of ‘em out, starved ‘em of resources. When the Drones stop coming to the surface, you know they’re done. No doubt some future colonist will explore the tunnels and find her emaciated corpse, serves the fuckers right.”

I hear that,” Moralez replied. “So, did we both leave a few limbs down on the mudflats, or did that happen later?”

Later,” the man replied, not seeing fit to elaborate further. “It’s not all bad though, right?” Moralez continued. “There are some benefits to having gear. You can punch a guy and be sure that his jaw is going to break before your hand does, you can swap a melted XMR barrel and not feel a thing, recoil is a distant memory.”

The three soldiers nodded in agreement, they seemed to be warming up to him.

Better than blood and bone,” the man with the African accent added. “I don’t miss my Mark Is.”

Mark Is?” Moralez asked.

Blood and bone,” he repeated, he must be talking about his original limbs.

Sometimes I just want to hack off my last organic limb and slap a new one on there,” Moralez continued. “Feels a little lop-sided, you know?”

That would violate the Yellow Sea treaty,” the Australian replied, giving his companions a sideways glance. “I doubt that you could find a doctor who would perform a procedure like that...”

Indeed,” Moralez said, taking another drag from his cigar. “Some might say that the treaty is obsolete in these trying times. We reconsidered the ban on plasma weapons when the Bug war broke out, so why not take another look at the laws prohibiting augmentation?”

The LC warned us about you, Moralez,” the African man began. He set his glass down and leaned his imposing prosthetics on the table, the angular layers of supplemental armor giving him an intimidating profile. “He said that you were too curious for your own good, that you would try to pry information out of us.”

Come on, Ndiaye,” the American muttered. “This dude seems alright.”

He raised a prosthetic hand in response, glaring across the table at Moralez.

I think we’ve been relaxing for long enough,” he said, rising to his feet. “Let’s get back to work.”

The trio left the table, the American glancing back at Moralez as they filed out of the recreation center on their prosthetic legs. The Chief watched them leave, taking one last puff of his cigar before extinguishing it in an ashtray.

***

Wish we could get assignments like this more often,” Boyd muttered, glancing around as they made their way along the torus. This area of the station was more like a shopping mall than a military base, the walls lined with stores and restaurants, a cool breeze ruffling his hair. “It’s been a long time since I visited the Pinwheel, I feel like I’m on vacation.”

It makes a nice change from what we’re used to,” Lorza replied, a hapless tourist dodging out of her way. “We usually have to go undercover on remote colonies that barely qualify as habitable, or cramped outposts on the edge of nowhere, pizdet. I’m all for trying new things, but rodents roasted over exhaust vents are not one of them.”

I told you not buy anything from the street vendors on Callisto,” Boyd replied. “You think the Chief is gonna be okay?” he asked, changing the subject. “I’m starting to feel like we shouldn’t have let him slip through our fingers like that.”

He is willful,” the Polar said with a shrug of her broad shoulders. “Perhaps he will discover something of value. He has more in common with the SWAR operatives than we do, after all. The presence of UNNI agents would likely only serve to seal their lips.”

I just hope he’s barking up the right tree.”

The most pressing issue is what we are going to do with our free hour,” Lorza added, grinning down at him.

Besides eat?” Boyd asked skeptically. “Come on, even I can smell the food from the restaurants, and I know better than to stand between you and a meal.”

How many times must I tell you that I eat an appropriate amount for my species?” she protested. “A human might be able to subsist on two thousand calories a day, but my people need five times that at least if we are to maintain a healthy weight.”

You could stand to lose a few pounds is all I’m saying,” he added, looking her up and down pointedly. Lorza began to lick her hand, and he scurried out of her reach.

Come now, malish, how long has it been since we have had time to relax? Not since our journey to Jarilo to collect the asset, no?”

I’d hardly call being cooped up in that Courser’s tiny quarters relaxing,” he grumbled.

It is true that relaxation was perhaps not at the forefront of our minds,” she added with a sly smirk. “We always find ourselves sharing confined spaces, do we not?”

To be fair, most spaces become confined when you enter them,” he replied. Lorza resisted the urge to chase him, narrowing her blue eyes at him.

Oh!” she gasped, pointing across the torus. Boyd followed her clawed finger, seeing that she was gesturing to a nearby store. Like all of the buildings on the torus, it had been sculpted from the station’s white hull material, the facade scored to resemble brickwork. It had a colorful awning, and the windows that overlooked the street were packed with mannequins that were modeling clothes. It looked like some kind of department store.

Lorza took him roughly by the hand, steering him through a startled crowd of pedestrians, then through a large door that seemed designed to accommodate aliens. They emerged into a room that was packed with aisles full of clothing. It reminded Boyd of a store that one might find on Earth or one of the more developed colonies, albeit smaller, as the station had a very limited living area. Many of the furnishings inside were scaled up to Borealan proportions, despite the limited floor space, making everything feel stretched. The mirrors on the walls, the height of the shelves, it was all proportioned for someone of around eight feet.

What the hell are we doing in here?” he asked, Lorza finally releasing her hold on him.

Malish, do you know how hard it is for me to find clothes that fit?” she asked, her eyes scanning the shelves in awe. She looked like a kid in a candy store, pausing to run her padded fingers over a nearby loom of fabric. There was a fat joke in there somewhere, but Boyd held his tongue.

What is this, a store for aliens?” he asked as he began to look around. There were clothes in Borealan sizes and styles, from the flowing, gossamer fabric favored by the Elysians to the leather jackets of the Rask. One wall was completely covered in hanging ponchos of the variety worn by the Krell, while another was stacked with underwear in Borealan sizes. There were bras that looked like they could have been used as playground swings, and even revealing, lacy lingerie that would fit the felines. Perhaps he shouldn’t be so surprised. There was a demand for supersized clothing on the station, as it had a large population of aliens, so it was only natural that someone would eventually fill that niche. Still, the concept of a Polar wearing a frilly brassiere was a new one...

Lorza saw what had caught his attention, giving him a nudge with her furry elbow.

See something that you like, malish?”

No, I was just imagining using a pair of those panties to parasail.”

Uhuh,” the Polar replied skeptically. “Come, help me choose some clothes.”

We’re going shopping?” he asked incredulously. “Really? We’re here on an assignment, what are you going to do, carry the bags around with you while we investigate the assassination?”

I’m sure that I can have them delivered to our suite,” she replied, her eyes focused on a large woolen sweater that was hanging from a nearby rack. “If you think that I will pass up this opportunity, you are even more boneheaded than I gave you credit for. Who knows when we will be posted on a station or a colony with such accommodations again?”

Alright,” Boyd sighed, trailing after her as she began to peruse the shelves.

What about this?” she asked, holding up a gown in the Elysian style. It was made from flowing, translucent fabric in a shade of lime green, so light that it almost floated on the air.

Isn’t that for hot weather?” Boyd asked.

This is hot weather, kotenok,” she replied. “Humans always set the thermostat too high.”

I dunno, it’s kind of a revealing getup for a spy,” he muttered as she sized it up.

You of all people should be able to appreciate the value of seduction and distraction,” she purred, smiling as she watched his cheeks redden beneath his visor. “Come, help me try it on.”

She took him by the hand again, guiding him along one of the aisles towards a row of changing rooms at the back of the store. The cashier watched them pass, Boyd giving her an awkward smile as the Polar manhandled him into one of the booths. She slipped in after him and locked the door, her bulk occupying most of the space, forcing him up against the far wall.

Calling her voluptuous would be an understatement. Her hips were almost as wide as three men standing shoulder to shoulder, giving her an hourglass figure despite her girth. The subtle paunch of her belly was visible where it protruded from beneath her tight-fitting, grey jumpsuit, but he knew from experience that it concealed the core strength of a powerlifter. It was so tight that he could even make out the creases that were formed by the fat on her waist through the fabric. Her thighs were as thick around as his torso, as stout as a pair of tree trunks, the layer of cushiony blubber belying the muscle that was required to move her mammoth body around in the high gravity of her home planet. Her butt was large enough that if he were to wrap his arms around it, they would stand no chance of meeting on the other side. The clinging garment that she wore visibly strained to encompass her chest, each of her breasts so voluminous that it could have filled an average-sized shuttle seat. The fat that he so often teased her about was distributed to all of the right places, giving her the appearance of a fertility Goddess, her every movement sending a ripple through it.

Now help me out of my suit,” she insisted, turning to face him and almost clocking him in the head with her swinging bosom.

You really want to do this here?” he whispered. Boyd knew her well enough to recognize one of her ploys, he was intimately familiar with her Polar wiles. It was unprofessional, to the say the least. They worked well together, and he still couldn’t be sure if that was because of their ongoing relationship, or in spite of it. His superiors had to be aware of their entanglement, he worked for an intelligence organization, after all. But if they saw any conflict of interest, then they hadn’t expressed any concerns to either of them. It wasn’t that he was embarrassed by Lorza, not exactly, but she had this uncanny way of melting through his cool persona. She was one of the only people in the Galaxy who could make him flustered, throw him off-kilter, and she reveled in the power that she had over him. Nobody knew him quite as well as she did, he had never allowed anyone to get so close to him before her, and her charms were both a source of discomfort and admiration to him.

Come on,” she cooed, reaching up and dragging her zipper down just enough that the weight of her ample chest began to part the garment. It spread open, threatening the burst at the seams, exposing her snowy fur and a hint of her deep cleavage. “If we take longer than fifteen minutes, the cashier may become suspicious.”

Why not wait until we’re back at the suite?” Boyd protested, his cheeks warming again as she leaned down closer to him. She pressed him up against the plastic wall of the booth, thrusting her cleavage into his face, the flowery scent of her perfume filling his lungs and sapping his strength like a neurotoxin. Fur like strands of silk brushed against his skin, her flesh so soft that it offered no resistance, engulfing him as he sank into her fragrant coat.

Because I want you now,” she explained. “Must I always rely on the cold to drive you into my arms? Do not play coy, lyubimyy. I know your secret desires, I’ve heard the things that you whisper to me when your passion clouds your judgment.”

Her long tongue parted her lips, at least a foot of pink, prehensile muscle snaking forth to probe his ear. Boyd shivered as he felt its warm, slimy texture, Lorza pausing to nibble with her sharp teeth.

Alright,” he conceded, her chest muffling his voice. If he didn’t play along, she’d probably just walk him out of the booth sporting a conspicuous erection as penance for spoiling her fun. “But let’s do this quickly, alright? You know how I feel about fooling around when we’re on the job...”

We’re not on the job,” she whispered into his ear, her warm breath tickling him. “We have a little less than an hour before we’re expected back, and I intend to make the most of it.”

He pulled down her zipper, exposing more of her chest, her breasts cascading forth in an avalanche of flesh as they were released from their confines. The globes spilled over his shoulders like a melting candle on the edge of a shelf, weighing him down, pressing up against the wall behind him. She chuckled as he was buried, his face rising from her cleavage like a drowning man trying to take a breath, the motion sending a ripple through them.

He slipped off his gloves, stowing them in the pockets of his coat, then reached up to delve his fingers into her breasts. Her fur was so thick and fluffy, as white as snow, patterned with dark spots that resembled the stains left by a coffee mug on a coaster. Beneath her delicate coat was flesh as soft as putty, his digits sinking up to the knuckle as her pink lips curled into an appreciative smile.

You think yourself so cool,” she whispered, “so collected. Yet you burn when we do this, don’t you?”

He took a generous handful, letting her buttery fat fill his palm, her ears flicking as her eyes lost their focus. As he pressed deeper, his hands vanished up to the wrist, the weight of her breasts bearing down on him. It was like trying to lift a lump of dough the size of a beach ball from beneath, her increasingly labored breathing making them wobble as they cradled his head. They were so voluminous that their flawless, rounded shape was almost irrelevant, just a boundless mass of flesh and fur from his perspective. Her people had a layer of blubber that kept them warm in the frigid environment of their Arctic home, making their flesh springier and denser than simple fat, like a seal or a whale.

Boyd struggled to handle one of them, it kept slipping from his grasp, finally managing to wrangle the heavy globe and bringing it to his mouth. He mauled her flesh with his fingers, as soft and as malleable as putty, seeking out the nipple that was hidden beneath her fluffy coat. His lips sealed around the engorged, pink nub, and he felt Lorza shiver as he began to circle it with his tongue. She gasped as he trapped it between his lip and his teeth, pinching it, peppering its surface with doting licks and teasing flurries. He bit her areola gently, just enough that she could feel it, Lorza sucking her lower lip into her mouth and chewing on it covetously.

Boyd located her zipper again and began to drag it down her abdomen, her furry paunch spreading it apart as he went. Her figure was Rubenesque, giving her an alluring softness about her midriff, her belly defined enough that it subtly overhung her waistline when it wasn’t being restrained by her tight clothes. He couldn’t resist burying his hand deep inside, feeling her squirm as he squeezed it.

For someone who constantly makes fun of my weight, your wandering hands always seem to seek out the softest parts of me,” she muttered wryly. “It’s almost as if you’re being insincere, malish.”

He rewarded her accusation with a gentle bite to her swollen nipple, her massive frame shuddering contentedly. His free hand slipped beneath the fabric of her jumpsuit as his desire began to get the better of him, his oversized partner shifting her weight as his fingers reached her hip, taking a firm grip on her love handle and pulling her closer. He tried to reach her butt, her cheeks filling out her jumpsuit to the point that it was about ready to burst at the seams, but his arm wasn’t quite long enough to reach.

She laughed as she felt him claw at her, her chuckling tapering into a low, sultry moan as he moved down to her inner thigh. She closed her legs around his hand as he kneaded her, Boyd feeling the hard, sinewy muscle that lay beneath the layer of cushiony fat tense at his touch. As his fingers roamed beneath her fluffy mound, they encountered warmth and wetness, his feline partner emitting a comely whine as he found her loins.

He parted her swollen lips with his finger, tracing the satin folds of her fever-hot vulva, already damp with her anticipation. She let slip another stifled moan as he slid a finger inside her twitching opening, feeling her passage grip him fiercely. Warm, velvety flesh caressed his digit, her syrupy fluids easing his passage. Despite her immense size, she was still tight, her powerful muscles bearing down on him. Lorza leaned against the cubicle wall above his head, her eyes slowly closing as he began to move his finger, stroking her from within. He found the firm nub of her clitoris with his thumb, wetting it with her juices and making slow circles, feeling a tremor rock her.

They remained that way for a few minutes longer, Boyd playing his tongue over her nipple, sucking and pinching as she began to slowly rock her hips as though trying to take his digit deeper. He could feel her growing more and more excited, the way that her loins narrowed around his buried finger in ever more frequent spasms betraying her. The teasing eventually became too much for her, and her sapphire eyes snapped open, her bosom pulling away from him.

Enough of that,” she gasped, Boyd watching her breasts bounce heavily as they settled. “You know how to push my buttons all too well, I won’t let you finish me off so quickly.”

It’s not like we have room to do much else,” he complained. Even with her back against the door, and his up against the wall of the changing room, the soft fur of her boobs was scarcely an inch from his nose.

You must think outside of the box,” she replied with a smirk, beginning to shrug off her jumpsuit. She danced on the spot as she struggled to get it past her flared hips and her plump rear, making her voluptuous body shake, her breasts swaying like a pair of pendulums. She finally managed to pull it down, Boyd dodging a knee as she stepped out of the legs and set the garment on a low bench to their right. She wore no underwear, not because she had been expecting this encounter, but because the temperature on the station was already too hot for her liking. More layers of clothing would only worsen her discomfort.

That’s more of an ask when you’re inside a literal box,” Boyd muttered, his eyes tracing the curves of her fertile figure. “What are you going to do, lie on the floor? I don’t think the booth is big enough...”

This is your problem, Agent Boyd,” she said in a mocking tone as she turned her back to him. His field of view was filled with her ample rear, her stature putting it about level with his navel, the hourglass curve of her waist drawing his eyes with a magnetic power. Despite her weight, the muscle that was required to keep her Polar body aloft in the one-point-three Gs of her homeworld made her cheeks wonderfully round and toned, like a pair of exercise balls being pressed tightly together. Her fluffy tail brushed his face playfully, the appendage emerging from her lower back between the dimples of Venus that were just visible beneath her snowy coat. “You can quote the regs, but you lack...imagination.”

And who was it that saved our asses from that squid monster back on the ice moon?” he protested. “I didn’t see you coming up with any creative solutions. Or how about that time we had to escape that drug den on Ceres?”

She dropped to her knees heavily, raising her rump so that it was level with his crotch, turning to look back at him over her shoulder. He shivered as her tail caressed the bulge in his pants, her blue eyes flashing.

I’m trying to seduce you, pridurok. Now, are you going to fuck me or not?”

He fumbled with his zipper as she grinned at him, her blue, reflective eyes watching as he freed his erection. She brushed his aching member with her tail as it wound around his waist like a furry lasso, Lorza drawing him closer. She reached back, spreading one of her cheeks to expose her loins, the doughy layer of fat bulging between her fingers. The rosy pink contrasted beautifully with her pristine fur, her lips puffy and flushed, aching for his touch. His eyes followed a strand of her juices as it drooped from her lustrous vulva, the clear fluid sparkling in the light, like oozing nectar leaking from the folded petals of a rose.

Boyd sank his fingers into her rump, watching as they were engulfed by her quivering flesh, like pushing his hands into a velvet pillow. He gripped her love handles for leverage as the tip of his member slid between her lips, the two of them stifling a gasp in unison as a spark of pleasure rocked them.

No time for games,” she said, backing up into him abruptly. Her weight trapped him against the wall, her rump wide enough that her plentiful cheeks spilled around his waist, the impact sending a tremor through them. His eyes widened as she took his member all the way to the base in one smooth motion, his hips sinking deep into her flesh, Boyd doubling over as she forced the air from his lungs. She was so wide that he could have perched a computer monitor on her lower back and comfortably used her ass as a desk.

He was engulfed by her shifting, clenching insides, her delicate flesh clinging to his shaft like a latex glove. Her toned muscles pressed down on him from beyond the slimy, warm walls of her seizing passage, exerting an intense pressure. Her spine arched beautifully as she pushed back against him, her matted fur brushing against his balls, wet with her fluids.

How about...a little warning…next time,” he gasped as he caught his breath, Lorza smirking at him over her shoulder.

An agent should be able to handle unexpected situations,” she purred, pulling away from him. He looked down between her cheeks, watching as his length emerged from her pink lips, his skin glazed with a shining layer of her excitement. When only his glans was still inside her, she pushed back again, forcing him up against the wall as she buried him in her velutinous depths.

Lorza found a pace that suited her, but which kept Boyd on edge, slowly rocking back against him as she let her weight do most of the work. She was on all fours, her head brushing the door, the changing room scarcely large enough to accommodate her. The cushion of her rump made their coupling almost silent, but he worried for the integrity of the booth. The last thing they needed was to send the wall crashing down, if such a thing were possible.

His misgivings about them being caught in the act by a curious employee slowly faded as the pleasure began to get the better of him, her insides shifting and roiling, her muscles kneading him like a fist clad in a velvet glove. He began to meet Lorza’s thrusts, pushing deeper, his member kissing her furthest reaches. She shivered and sighed as his shaft scraped against her tender passage, her insides narrowing around him, the heat and friction making his head spin. He could feel every bump and wrinkle as it raked across his glans, gliding up and down his length, caressing him from every angle.

He turned his attention to her butt, combing his fingers through her inviting fur, sinking his hands deep into her flesh until he felt the steely muscle beneath tense. The impact of their impromptu lovemaking sent waves through her cheeks, making them wobble with each thrust, her heavy breasts swinging as her pace increased. She leaned her forearms against the door, making it shake in its frame, the sliding lock rattling.

She was nearing her limit, he could feel it in the way that her dripping loins were milking him, her pace becoming erratic as she tried to satisfy her burning need. She began to circle her hips, stirring him around inside her, holding him aloft as he clung to her rump. Boyd reached down and gripped the base of her tail, tugging it sharply, feeling the appendage tighten around his waist like a belt. Lorza lifted her head, a hand moving to her mouth as she stifled a yelp. She glared at him over her shoulder, her ears flattening against her cropped hair, but the lascivious glint in her blue eyes betrayed her.

What?” he asked, feigning confusion. “You said that agents should be able to handle surprises, right?”

Such disrespect,” she muttered. “I will get you back for that, malish.”

The base of a Borealan’s tail was full of sensitive nerve endings, making it a highly erogenous zone. She couldn’t keep a straight face as he gave it another tug, the muscles that ran up her spine tensing, the Polar throwing her head back as she loosed a silent snarl. Her loins sealed around his throbbing member like he was being vacuum-packed in wet satin, Boyd gritting his teeth as a pulse of pleasure rocked him, his feline partner lifting his feet from the floor as she pushed back against him.

Now it was his turn to stifle a moan as the ceaseless flexing and sucking of her loins drew out his climax, Boyd taking handfuls of her fur as his member jumped and throbbed inside her. Lorza’s slippery walls clamped down on him as she felt his warmth pour into her, the Polar sucking in a sharp gasp, his lower body vanishing between her cheeks as she tried to take him deeper. One of her furry hands darted between her thick thighs, rubbing her damp mound furiously as her climax neared, ropes of her juices drooping from her swollen lips. Her clinging walls pulsated around him, the ruthless stroking of her wet flesh forcing more of his emission out of him, the pleasure coursing through him like he had touched a live wire. The sensation of her slimy, velvet insides sliding against his glans made him see stars, his climax heightening his senses to the point that he had to bite his lip to stop himself from crying out and alerting the cashier.

There was a scraping sound as Lorza dug her claws into the wooden door, leaving scars in the blue paint, lost in her fugue as her massive body shook and shivered. Boyd could feel every wave of her orgasm as it crashed over her, her loins wringing his erection, begging for every drop that he could give her.

As her bliss gradually receded, she sank to the floor, bringing Boyd down with her. She tried not to pant too loudly, cooling herself off, as her people lacked the ability to sweat. He found himself draped over one of her plush thighs, his afterglow making his legs unsteady as he lifted himself off her, her long tail unwinding from around his waist. They shivered together as he slid out of her, an aftershock making her mewl.

The narrow bench creaked as he sat down on it, his eyes playing across her prone figure, his still swollen member wet with a blend of their sordid fluids. The arch of her hip was even more pronounced when she lay on her side, gravity squashing her bountiful breasts together, the confined space forcing her to curl up like a giant cat sitting in its owner’s lap.

Satisfied?” he asked, thanking his stars that none of the employees had come to check on them yet.

For now,” she cooed, giving him a smirk as she climbed to her feet. “How long do we have before the Chief expects us back?” she asked as she reached for her jumpsuit and began to pull it back on. He was transfixed for a moment, his eyes drawn to her shaking hips and swaying bosom as she struggled into the tight garment.

Another half-hour,” he replied, checking his visor.

Just enough time to clean up and get a bite to eat,” she said with a grin. “I always get so hungry after sex.”

When are you ever not hungry?” he joked, the Polar shooting him a sideways glance as she struggled to drag her zipper past her stomach. She drew closer to him, pressing her breasts together with her upper arms and leaning forward, letting the cascade of wobbling meat and fluffy fur bury him. She laughed as he struggled to free himself, his red face emerging from the depths of her cleavage.

You’d soon complain if I went on a diet,” she purred, “there would be so much less of me to play with...”

***

Boyd and Lorza were waiting for Moralez as he emerged from the recreation center, the Polar finishing up the last of a large sandwich that was dripping with mayonnaise. She licked her furry fingers clean as the pair made their way over to him, Boyd sparing her a disgusted look as her pink tongue coiled around her digits like a snake.

We just saw three very pissed off SWAR types leave in a huff,” Boyd said, sidling up beside Moralez as they resumed their walk to the residential quarter. “I don’t suppose you got anything of use out of them before they stormed off?”

They didn’t tell me a damned thing,” Moralez replied, “but it’s what they didn’t say that interests me.”

How so?” Lorza asked, crumpling up her wrapper and stuffing it in the pocket of her grey overalls.

I thought it was weird that all the SWAR guys that I’ve seen so far have been quadruple amputees,” he began. “Not one of them had three prosthetics, or two. Not one had a partial amputation. They’re pretty devoid of scars for people who have suffered some of the worst injuries imaginable. It’s not impossible that the organization recruits people who meet those specific criteria exclusively, but when I pressed them for details about their service and their injuries, they stonewalled me. I’ve met some guys who didn’t want to talk about the stuff they went through, but people are usually happy to tell war stories, especially with those who’ve shared their experiences. This was different.”

You think they are lying about their injuries?” Lorza asked, her furry brow furrowing. “For what purpose?”

I think I have some idea,” Boyd said warily, “but I’ll let the Chief explain. Sounds like he has a personal stake in this.”

Tell me, Agent Lorza,” Moralez said as she swiveled her furry ears in his direction attentively. “What do you know of the Sino-American war, and the Yellow Sea treaty?”

I know that America is an Earth territory,” she replied, “but nothing else.”

In the middle of the twenty-second century, there were two great powers on Earth. The United States of America, and the People’s Republic of China. Both sought economic and military dominance, engaging in trade wars and proxy battles, for the most part.”

Those were the days of atmospheric fighter craft, launched from carriers that floated on the ocean,” Boyd explained with a grin. “It was before humans had colonized space. We weren’t using railguns back then, mostly weapons with chemical propellants. Closer to what the Borealans use than what we have today, really.”

The power of the ruling party in China began to wane,” Moralez continued. “They took extreme measures to secure it, capturing surrounding islands and territories. Theirs was a highly technological society, unfettered by the ethical concerns of other nations. They had access to gene-editing technology, and advanced prosthetics that could be used to augment their soldiers, and they used them. They edited healthy genes to make their soldiers larger, stronger, more resilient. They amputated healthy limbs and replaced healthy organs with cybernetic substitutes.”

Was it not wise to take every measure to ensure their victory?” Lorza asked, perplexed.

As it turned out, no. The program was very successful, the People’s Liberation Army was able to best the Americans on the ground when they intervened, even if their Navy and their Airforce were inferior. They began to favor amphibious attacks, hopping from island to island as they pushed the USA back. Their soldiers were ruthless, tireless, the better training and weapons of the Americans had been nullified. Allied countries in the region fell one after the other, capitulating to the Chinese. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan. The Americans had to sail their ships thousands of miles to reinforce their troops, and for every engagement that they won in the air or on the ocean, they lost one on the ground.”

I still fail to see the downside,” Lorza said, but Moralez kept talking.

The downside came when the PLA soldiers started to get sick. It turned out that their gene-editing technology wasn’t quite as advanced as they had initially thought, and the mutated DNA of their soldiers began to cause problems. Cancer was the biggest killer, the more their damaged cells replicated, the more it spread throughout their bodies. What’s more, many of them began to reject their implants, losing the use of their limbs or dying outright due to organ failure and infection. When the Americans launched a campaign to recover the occupied territory, they were met not by super-soldiers, but by invalids and piles of corpses.”

Were all of their soldiers so affected?” Lorza asked.

No, they had plenty of unaugmented soldiers in reserve. The country had a huge population, but they were no longer able to hold the captured territory. It eventually resulted in a peace deal between the two countries that lasted until the Chinese government collapsed in the twenty-two hundreds.”

How does the treaty that you mentioned come into it?” the Polar said.

The Yellow Sea treaty was penned at the end of the war, and it was later signed by all members of the United Nations. It forbids the practice of weaponizing the human body. It forces all signatories to recognize that soldiers are people before they are weapons, and that all those who serve in the armed forces should do so with the expectation of returning to civilian life one day. It forbids genetic manipulation for the purpose of war, cybernetic augmentation, indoctrination, or anything else that irreversibly modifies the body to make a soldier a more effective killer at the expense of their health. For that reason, it’s illegal to amputate a healthy limb in order to replace it with a prosthetic, such surgeries can only be performed for medical reasons.”

You can’t go back to life as a civvie if you have a railgun for an arm,” Boyd added. “You can’t work as a bank teller if your skin has been replaced with a Kevlar weave, and your eyes were replaced with infrared cameras. You can’t hold your baby with hands designed to tear open tank hulls.”

Then this treaty is about respect for the sanctity of life?” Lorza asked. “It does not matter if your technology has improved enough that such procedures would be safe, it is a matter of principle?”

Yeah,” Moralez replied, “something like that.”

And you suspect that these men are violating the treaty?”

It certainly seems that way,” Moralez grumbled, “but I don’t have any way of proving it right now. It just...pisses me off. I know people who would give anything to have their original limbs back, people who wake up every night trying to scratch an itch on an arm that isn’t there anymore. These SWAR guys are making a mockery of that, all in the name of...I dunno, machismo. The rest of us get on fine with our Mark Is.”

Do you think that they had something to do with the assassination attempt?” Boyd asked, “or are you just wasting our time?”

I don’t know,” Moralez replied with a shake of his head. “They had a pretty overt hatred of the Bugs, but so do ninety percent of the people on the station. I don’t see how they could have been involved, but something funny is going on with those guys.”

He wasn’t yet ready to voice his suspicions of Admiral Vos, he didn’t trust the two yet, Boyd especially. In time, perhaps he would get to know them well enough to share his thoughts, or enough to know to keep his lips sealed.

If you say so, Chief.”

Right now, we need to focus on Vice Admiral Korbaz,” Moralez continued. “We’re narrowing down the list of suspects, and she’s pretty high up there. She’s always acting shifty, even when she hasn’t done anything wrong, and more than once I’ve caught her trying to smuggle weapons onto the hub. I never thought that she’d actually use them before now, it’s just typical Rask behavior, but it raises some red flags.”

Do I sense a hint of bias, Chief?” Boyd asked.

Bias? I’d call it experience, the Rask are always a huge pain in the ass.”

What motive would they have for trying to kill the ambassador?” Lorza added, her voice emanating from somewhere above and behind Moralez due to her height.

There are several possibilities,” he replied, “revenge is one of them. She might not share Elysiedde’s pragmatism when it comes to the war. Another is genuine apprehension about the Bugs betraying the Coalition in some way, they’re not a people who like to wait around and let others solve their problems for them. Perhaps the Rask hope to expand their influence in the alliance if there are fewer members. I don’t know, it could be anything with them.”

What do we know about her?” Boyd asked. “I’ve read her file, but you seem to know her personally.”

Korbaz is your typical Rask,” Moralez said. “She’s headstrong, ambitious, stubborn, aggressive. I’m not sure what the title of Vice Admiral entails for a people with no Navy who are surrounded by deserts, but she has a high position in the Matriarchy. She has a low opinion of other species, as is commonplace among the Rask, and she’s expressed on more than one occasion how she believes that the Coalition is being poorly managed. She imagines her own people taking a leadership role, of course.”

Do you know her well?” Lorza asked.

I’ve had a lot of dealings with her, she’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s hard to give her the benefit of the doubt. Honestly, I’ve been waiting for her to cross a line for quite some time. I will say that her reaction when the ambassador entered the conference room was by far the strongest of all the delegates, she was furious. I thought that I might have to restrain her.”

That could just as much be taken as evidence of her innocence,” Boyd added, “someone who had foreknowledge of the Bug’s visit wouldn’t have been so surprised.”

Unless she was exaggerating her reaction to give that impression,” Lorza suggested.

The words innocent and Korbaz don’t go together, I know that much for sure,” Moralez muttered. “We should be arriving at her suite soon, it’s not far off. Just let me do the talking, we have a kind of...working relationship. I’m mostly talking to you, Agent Boyd...”

My lips are sealed,” Boyd replied sarcastically, miming zipping up his mouth.

If only,” Lorza grumbled.

***

Well, if it isn’t my favorite human,” Korbaz purred as she opened the door for them. She had a smile on her face that came off as wholly insincere, her yellow, predatory eyes telling a different story altogether. She was wearing her usual leather getup, half biker, and half post-apocalyptic raider. The litany of belts and holsters had been returned to her wide hips, laden with bulky revolvers and wicked daggers. Her padded jacket was open, her tank top short enough, and her pants riding low enough to show off some of her toned midriff.

And you’ve brought your mate with you,” she added, narrowing her eyes at Lorza.

A pleasure as always, Vice Admiral,” Moralez said as he stepped into her suite. It was identical in layout to the rest, and it didn’t look as though the ambassador had spent much time in it. “These are Agents Boyd and Lorza of Naval Intelligence, they’re here to assist me in my investigation. Lorza is not my mate, she’s a colleague.”

Oh, then there are more of them,” Korbaz muttered as she looked the Polar up and down disdainfully.

Thank you for agreeing to remain on the station during the investigation,” Moralez said as Boyd stepped inside, the automatic door sliding shut behind him. “I’m sure that you’re eager to return to your home territory.”

I can imagine worse places to be confined, Security Chief. Your summons today has interrupted my leisure time, however. I would thank you to get this interview over with quickly before my countrymen begin to miss my company.”

I’m sure that your absence has them distraught, Vice Admiral,” Moralez said as he gestured to the kitchen table. “Shall we sit down and begin?”

The four of them took up seats around the table, Korbaz resting her face in her furry hand as she drummed her claws on its varnished surface, apparently bored already.

When you asked that I wait for you alone in my suite,” the Vice Admiral complained, “I had other activities in mind.”

You’ve always had a very vivid imagination,” Moralez replied, her insincere smile returning as she locked eyes with him over the salt and pepper shakers. “We’re here to discuss the assassination attempt on the Betelgeusian ambassador. We’ve been interviewing everyone who was present at the security council meeting, and we have cause to believe that someone inside the room was feeding information to the shooter.”

And I am the prime suspect,” she replied, rolling her eyes at him. “Sometimes, I think that you just want to have me in handcuffs, Security Chief. Perhaps the thought excites you?”

You’re actually not the first person that we interviewed,” he replied, “but you were present in the room during the attack. That makes you as much a suspect as any of the other ambassadors.”

Very well, ask your questions if you must,” she sighed.

I think that we should start with the elephant in the room,” Moralez began, Korbaz raising an eyebrow in confusion as the term went over her head. “Your opinion of the Betelgeusians is...poor, shall we say. You reacted very strongly to the ambassador’s presence, and you expressed your dislike for her in no uncertain terms.”

Is that not my right?” she asked. “You know me well enough to know that I do not mince words, Security Chief, I speak what I feel.”

Indeed,” he replied, “but you can see how that might raise suspicions?”

If hating my enemies is a crime, then put me in chains,” she replied with a sneer. “I stand by what I said in the meeting, these creatures will betray us the moment they have the strength. They have spilled Rask blood, and the only fate that they deserve is extermination.”

You’re not exactly convincing us of your innocence,” Boyd muttered, the alien shooting him an angry glance.

I need not defend myself against baseless accusations, I have nothing to hide. Would you have me lie about my intent, and dull my tongue, all to appear more docile so that you might think better of me? That is not our way.”

So what would you have had happen to the Betelgeusian Ambassador?” Moralez asked.

I would not have shed a tear in mourning if the insect had been turned to paste,” she laughed, no doubt imagining the scene in her mind’s eye. “You were fools to bring it aboard to begin with, and I know that it was a human decision, you and your Broker friends were already conspiring behind our backs. Tell me, how can the Coalition function if members with more influence conspire to keep the rest in the dark?”

It’s true that Admiral Vos and some of his personnel knew that the Betelgeusian would be arriving on the station before the other delegates did,” Moralez admitted. “I was only informed a short while before her arrival, it came as a surprise to me, too. I share many of your concerns, but my job is security, not diplomacy. Whether the Broker delegate knew in advance, I honestly don’t know,” he added with a shrug of his shoulders. “But it was decided that her presence should be kept a secret until after the Valbaran vote, the Admiral wanted them to be able to have their say in the matter.”

Then they do not keep you in their confidence either, Chief. Does their lack of faith in you not insult you? Does your blood not boil to know that they deceive you just as they do the rest of us? What about you two?” she continued, directing her question towards the two agents. “Did you know about the insect? Even the other humans dislike you, they call you Ninnies, spooks. Imagine all the secrets that are locked behind those tight lips.”

We aren’t at liberty to discuss that,” Boyd replied with no small measure of satisfaction, Lorza staying quiet as she met the Rask’s icy gaze.

Enough time alone and uninterrupted with the little one, and I could have him squawking,” Korbaz said with a sinister grin. “We might both learn something, Security Chief.”

I’m sure we would,” Moralez replied, “but that’s not why we’re here today.”

Lorza chimed in next, Korbaz glaring at her from across the table with her feline eyes.

If you are so adamant that our suspicions are baseless, surely you have something to say in your defense?”

I suppose that you will not leave me be until I do,” the Rask grumbled. “Very well, have it your way. How am I supposed to have been in contact with the would-be assassin from inside the conference room when I had no communications equipment?”

You could have smuggled something onto the hub,” Boyd replied.

After the good Security Chief gave me such an intimate pat-down?” Korbaz asked, flashing Moralez a toothy smile. “His metal fingers do wander...”

It’s true that you were subjected to a thorough pat-down,” Moralez admitted, “but you have been known to smuggle objects into secure areas in the past.”

A force of habit,” she said with a dismissive shrug. “In my culture, one is never without their weapons, least of all in a diplomatic setting. The more heavily armed the participants are, the less chance there is of anyone starting a fight.”

Mutually assured destruction,” Boyd muttered, shaking his head in disbelief. “Why am I not surprised?”

Another thing,” the Vice Admiral continued, “how would I have known that the insect would be present on the station before its arrival? If the secret was so closely guarded that the station’s own Chief of Security was not aware of it, then how could the information have reached the Rask in time to organize such an attack? We have no personnel in your hierarchy who could feed the Matriarchy information, we provide only warriors for the Coalition’s armies.”

Moralez had to admit that she was making sense. After all, had Korbaz not been too obvious a villain? She lacked the means to commit the crime, even if she had the motive and opportunity. So who did that leave on the list? The Krell, the Araxie, the Valbarans? No, if such a list existed in a physical form, at the top of it would be Vos’ name underlined in red marker.

Chief, can I talk to you?” Boyd asked, nudging Moralez to get his attention. “Alone?”

Please excuse us, Vice Admiral,” Moralez said as he rose from his seat. “We’ll be back shortly. Lorza, please keep the ambassador company.”

Boyd followed after him as they made their way to the bathroom, closing the automatic door behind them for privacy. Boyd reached up to the Borealan-sized sink and turned on the faucet, Moralez raising an eyebrow.

Borealans have sensitive hearing,” the agent explained, “and I don’t want to be overheard.”

Alright, what’s so important that you had to interrupt the interview?”

I was using my visor to download the data that our surveillance equipment collected on the ambassador when I noticed an anomalous signal,” Boyd began, Moralez interrupting him.

Wait, wait. You bugged the ambassador’s suite?”

Of course we bugged the ambassador’s suite,” Boyd scoffed, “we bugged all the suites. What do you think our job is, sitting on our asses and twiddling our thumbs?”

Oh, for fuck’s...alright, what’s this anomaly that you found?”

There’s a wireless signal being transmitted from inside the suite, it’s sending data to the station’s intranet. There should only be the wireless signals for the appliances, and then our equipment. Thing is, this new signal is using encryption protocols that aren’t UNNI, or UNN. Whatever data it’s sending, they don’t want it to be decoded.”

Could it be a personal device belonging to Korbaz?” Moralez asked.

Maybe, but we were looking for a listening device of some kind that had been smuggled onto the hub, and here we have a mighty strange signal using some pretty hefty encryption.”

Think it’s a smoking gun?” Moralez asked.

Could be, just stall Korbaz for a bit while I pinpoint its location.”

They reemerged from the bathroom to be greeted by Korbaz’s suspicious stare, her feline eyes tracking them as they returned to their seats at the kitchen table. She drummed her claws, their sharp points tapping on the varnish.

Vice Admiral,” Moralez began, “how would you describe your people’s relationship with the Coalition?”

Korbaz leaned back in her chair with a creak, crossing her arms and glancing between the trio suspiciously.

Why?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at the Chief.

What’s the matter, Vice Admiral?” he asked. “You’ve always been very forthcoming with your opinions in the past, even without solicitation.”

If I did not know better, I might think that you were trying to entrap me,” she replied. “The attack was against the insects, what does the Coalition have to do with it?”

Boyd pressed a finger against his temple, operating the controls of his visor inconspicuously as Korbaz directed her attention towards Moralez.

You’ve always expressed a dislike for how things are run,” he continued, meeting her angry gaze. “That the Rask are better suited to a leadership role than any of the other members.”

I do not deny that,” she hissed, “but how does it relate to the attack? In my mind, killing that repulsive creature would be an act of defense, not of aggression. If we wanted to destroy the Coalition, then letting the insects overrun it would require nothing but our inaction.”

Vice Admiral,” Boyd interjected, her round ears swiveling in his direction. “What do you have in the pouch on your belt?”

What?” she snapped, “which pouch?”

One of the pouches on your right, I’d say...the small one that’s hanging from the belt towards the front, next to that big revolver.”

What is this?” Korbaz snarled, rising to her feet and planting her hands on the table as she glowered at them. “I have been patient with you, Security Chief, more than cooperative considering the circumstances. State your intentions plainly, or get out of my suite. I will not be mocked like this.”

Please...open the pouch, Vice Admiral,” Moralez insisted. Her eyes darted angrily between the three of them, her sharp claws piercing the wood to leave furrows in the table as she bared her carnivore teeth.

I am a Coalition diplomat, my status affords me rights. I refuse to cooperate any further.”

Sounds like she’s asserting her right to diplomatic immunity,” Boyd said, glancing at Lorza. “But I must have misheard her.”

The Polar nodded, the legs of her chair squeaking on the floor as she rose to her feet, her ice-blue eyes fixed on the Vice Admiral. Korbaz took it as a challenge, her lips pulling back to expose incisors that would have made a wolf blush, her sandy-colored tail puffing up like a feather duster as her ears pressed flat against her cropped hair. One of her clawed hands moved to her belt, out of view beneath the table. She was laden with knives and firearms, who knew what she was about to pull on them.

Lorza moved faster than Moralez would have imagined possible, the table flipping as she threw it out of the way, a gunshot ringing out. When he was able to get his bearings again, Lorza’s hand was gripping Korbaz’s wrist tightly, her snow-white fur contrasting with the blonde of the Rask. In the Vice Admiral’s hand was one of her crude revolvers, the barrel smoking, and he glanced up to see a fist-sized hole in the ceiling.

The Polar took her other wrist in her hand, Korbaz struggling, her biceps bulging from beneath the sleeves of her leather jacket. Lorza seemed to be stronger, however. She squeezed until the handgun fell to the ground, making a sound like a dumbbell being dropped. The Rask’s feline pupils expanded into dark circles that made her look possessed as she spat and hissed, trying to free herself from the Polar’s hold. She kicked with one of her paw-like feet, aiming for Lorza’s belly with her claws, and Lorza threw her back with enough force that she slammed against the far wall. The cupboards above the kitchen counter were knocked open, plates and glasses raining down on the furious Rask as her hand darted to her belt, drawing a serrated blade the size of a butcher’s knife.

Moralez moved to intercede, but Boyd held him back, pulling him away from the fight.

Lorza knows what she’s doing,” the agent insisted, “let her do her job.”

Korbaz yowled, surging forward faster than Moralez’s eyes could track, driving her wicked blade towards the Polar’s throat. Lorza sidestepped her, delivering a swift strike to the kidney, the Rask buckling under the blow. She quickly recovered, swinging the dagger, Lorza darting out of her reach. Korbaz was undeterred, and she was obviously an experienced knife fighter, switching to an underhanded stance as her strikes whistled through the air.

The Polar was faster than she looked, dodging and parrying, ducking in do deliver a monumental blow to the Rask’s belly that made her double over. Borealans usually fought with their claws, seeking to slice and cut, but Lorza was employing a human fighting style that she had no doubt been taught as part of her UNNI training. Besides, she didn’t want to gut the ambassador, only subdue her.

Before the Rask could recover again, Lorza slammed into her, leveraging her immense mass to knock her opponent off-balance. It was like being hit by a giant, furry freight train, Korbaz staggering across the kitchen and leaning a hand against the counter to steady herself.

Moralez had fought Borealans in hand-to-hand combat before, he understood the forces at play, but Lorza was strong enough that even the eight-foot, five hundred pound Rask was being pushed around. Lorza probably weighed about eight hundred pounds, and she had the muscle to carry that weight under the high gravity of her home planet, her insulating blubber was entirely misleading.

Korbaz came at her again, visibly tiring, her steel flashing under the soft lighting of the suite. Lorza caught her wrist with her right hand, letting the Rask’s momentum carry her forward, twisting her opponent’s arm behind her back. She gripped Korbaz’s collar with her left, getting behind her snarling opponent.

The knife clattered on the floor as it fell from her hand, the Rask making noises like a one-person catfight, the Polar’s hand gripping the back of her neck as she kicked the back of her knee and forced her to the ground. She straddled the Vice Admiral, sitting on her rump as she twisted her arm, pinning her against the wood floor. Korbaz tried to reach behind her with her free hand, swiping at her assailant, but Lorza caught that arm too and twisted it.

Finally subdued, the Vice Admiral began to relax, ceasing her ardent struggling. Perhaps she knew that she was beaten, or it might be her Borealan instincts kicking in, urging her to submit. Now that she lay still, Moralez and Boyd returned to the kitchen area, stepping around broken plates and scattered cutlery.

You will regret this violation,” Korbaz hissed, her amber eyes fixing on Moralez. “When the Matriarch hears of this...”

Lorza yanked her arm, the Vice Admiral gritting her sharp teeth and going silent. Boyd crouched beside her, reaching into the pouch on her belt and fumbling for a moment. When he withdrew his gloved hand, he was holding a small, metallic object between his thumb and forefinger. It was about the size of a button, disk-shaped, the agent pausing to examine it.

Just as I thought,” he muttered, turning it over in his hand. “This is the source of the encrypted signal, it’s some kind of concealed scanning device. Looks like a radio emitter, it was probably using radar to scan the room and deliver the positions of its occupants to the shooter.”

What is this babble?” Korbaz snapped, “what do you have there?”

There’s no use playing dumb,” Boyd replied, “we have the evidence that we needed. Chief,” he continued, glancing up at Moralez from beneath his visor. “I assume you have a brig that can hold a pissed off cat?”

Yeah,” he sighed, “we’re going to have to walk her to the military quarter. This isn’t going to be a good look. Korbaz, why did you do it? I thought that you and I had an understanding?”

I have done nothing,” she spat, “I am innocent of this crime! These two spies are framing me! It is their profession to lie, to deceive, how can you be blind to this? What better scapegoat than the Rask, we are always under unjust scrutiny, we are always treated with suspicion by those who profess to be our comrades!”

How did you get this device past security?” Boyd demanded, waving it in front of her pink nose as Lorza kept her pinned with her weight. “Something like this should have shown up on the scanners.”

I cannot answer, and you know it,” she replied with a menacing growl. “If this overweight kitten was not sitting on my back, I would flay you alive with my bare claws for daring to make the accusation.”

You won’t be flaying anyone,” Boyd replied, giving her a playful tap on the nose. “You’re going in time-out until we can figure out how you managed to sneak this thing past the security check.”

Agent Boyd,” Moralez warned, “I don’t think we need to make her any angrier than she already is. Agent Lorza, let her up. She’s still a dignitary, and she needs to be treated with the respect that her status affords her.”

At least the Security Chief has some manners,” Korbaz muttered as Lorza pulled her to her feet, keeping a tight hold on her arms. Moralez stepped forward, beginning another pat-down, sliding his prosthetic hands beneath her jacket. He pulled knives and revolvers from her belt, patting down her thighs and her springy butt through the tight leather as she grinned down at him.

You should have fought me yourself, Security Chief,” she whispered as he set the items on a nearby counter. “We’d both be having a lot more fun right now if you had...”

My apologies for the rough treatment,” he said, knowing full well that it was entirely her own fault. “If you’ll please accompany us to the brig, we’ll try to get this matter sorted out.”

He reached into the pocket of his uniform and withdrew a heavy-duty zip-tie, passing it to Lorza, who secured it about the ambassador’s wrists.

I won’t cooperate until I am allowed to contact my people,” she replied, beginning to walk as Lorza guided her with a firm grip on her upper arm. “My rights must be respected.”

I’ll see what I can arrange,” Moralez said, leading them towards the exit. He should feel elated, they had solved one of the mysteries, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were missing something important. Oh well, all that they could now was process the Vice Admiral, and see what happened next.

CHAPTER 9: BAD BEAT

Harry felt his companion stir, one of her feathery antennae tickling his cheek as she lay her head on his shoulder. They were still sat on the couch in front of the holographic fireplace, the flames crackling in the hearth as they licked at the burning logs. The two had talked for what must have been a couple of hours before Holly had fallen asleep, seeming to cling to him instinctively in her groggy state. She was accustomed to sleeping in piles with her sisters, so she had told him, and so sleeping alone might be unnatural to her. Her two right arms were wrapped around his left, and her fluffy ruff was pressed up against his sleeve. She didn’t snore, she might not have lungs at all, but her torso and her thighs seemed to slowly rise and fall as though they were doing the breathing instead.

As her eyes slowly opened, she blinked up at him, drawing back as she came to her senses.

My apologies,” she stammered, shuffling away from him. “I must have fallen asleep.”

It’s fine,” he replied, flexing his now free limb. “You made my arm fall asleep, too. You must have been tired, didn’t you like the bed?”

I find it...difficult to sleep alone,” she replied, confirming his theory. “Why did you not move me?”

You looked like you needed it,” he said, the tingling in his fingers slowly abating. “Feel better now?”

She nodded her head, reaching up and cleaning her antennae with her hands. Harry rose to his feet, stretching his arms above his head and yawning widely. He noticed Blackjack, who was sleeping in his usual place, walking over and giving him a tap on the flank with his boot.

Wake up, you lazy lizard, you’re on watch. I gotta take a shower before I start smellin’ like a Rask’s jockstrap after a workout. I didn’t think we’d be stuck here for so long.”

The Krell rumbled his displeasure, but rose to his feet obediently. He shook his massive body like a dog, sending a ripple through his fat and muscle, his jaws opening wide to expose his jagged teeth and his purple tongue as he yawned.

You want anythin’ to eat...er...drink before I get in the shower?” Harry asked, Holly shaking her head as she peered at him over the back of the couch. “Cool, I’ll be out in ten. Let BJ know if you need anythin’.”

He was already shedding his armor before he reached the bathroom, removing the ceramic plates that were strapped about his thighs and shins, unstrapping his chest carrier. He stripped down to his Navy-blue uniform, stacking his armor by the door, then entered. Once it had closed behind him, he removed the rest of his clothes and took a much-anticipated shower. Wearing the heavy, black combat armor in a casual setting for hours on end was a bit of a nightmare. It was about as light as they could make it, but there was no getting around the weight of the ceramic plates that were designed to dissipate the heat from plasma bolts.

Harry sighed as he stepped beneath the showerhead, letting the cool water flow through his hair, washing away the prior day’s sweat and grime. As he upended a bottle of shampoo into his hand, his thoughts turned to Holly. She had reacted strangely when he had jokingly asked her what he smelled like. She was far more sensitive to scents than humans were, it might be polite to use a lot of scented soaps, maybe human body odor was unpleasant to her.

As much as he wanted to get out of the suite and feel the artificial breeze on his face again, he had to admit, he was starting to like Holly enough that he might miss her when she was gone. It had never really hit him before now, how tragic her death would have been at the hands of the assassin, how undeserved. He would never have imagined that he would feel sympathy for a Bug, but his desire to keep her safe now went beyond the Chief’s orders.

Was he starting to sympathize with her cause? No, he still thought that admitting the Bugs to the Coalition was a bad idea, but what if they were all like her? What if every Drone and Worker had the capacity to empathize and emote in the way that she did? The question was becoming less black and white. Maybe she was right in that they deserved the chance to prove that they were different, if nothing else. He knew that the thought of gunning her down as he had so many others made his heart sink, he saw her as a person now, not as an insect.

***

Harry emerged from the bathroom, still drying his hair with a towel, finding Holly sitting quietly on the couch as Blackjack watched over her like a scaly gargoyle. For a moment, he wondered why she wasn’t finding some way to entertain herself, then he remembered that the Chief’s orders prevented her from accessing any of the entertainment that would usually be available.

Maybe he really was interpreting those orders too literally. It wouldn’t do any harm to let her watch a movie, or read a damned e-book. Although, there were other options...

Come on guys,” he announced, the two aliens turning to peer at him from across the open-plan living room. “I’m gonna go stir crazy if we don’t find a way to spend the time. You up for a Poker game?”

Blackjack loosed an affirmative rumble, Holly kneeling on the cushions and leaning on the backrest as she looked between them in confusion.

What is Poker?” she asked.

I’ll show you,” he replied, gesturing for her to follow him. She hopped down off the couch, making her way over to the kitchen on her digitigrade legs, her dainty feet giving her a graceful gait. Blackjack lumbered along after her, as far as one could get from graceful, his many-toed feet making the floor shake as they slapped against the wood.

The three of them sat around the kitchen table as Harry drew a pack of cards and his tablet computer from his pocket, Blackjack sitting on the floor, his stature putting him at an appropriate height. His long tail trailed out of the kitchen and into the hall, tall enough that a human would have needed to step over it as if it was a low garden fence. Harry shuffled the deck, then began to deal, Holly watching with fascination as his practiced technique landed the cards directly in front of her.

What is the purpose of this game?” Holly asked, holding one card in each of her four hands as she examined them carefully.

Poker is a game of subterfuge,” Harry explained, shuffling the deck again. “It’s about gambling, strategy, deception. You’re supposed to defeat your opponents by outwitting them.”

Blackjack rumbled affirmatively, the vibrations making the hanging skin beneath his jaw vibrate. He was holding his own cards in his scaly, seven-fingered hands as he examined them with his beady, yellow eyes.

We’re teaching Holly to play,” Harry warned, glaring across the table at the giant reptile. “So don’t cheat!”

The Krell replied with another low, resonating vocalization that made Harry’s teeth chatter.

Yes you do, I don’t know why you bother denyin’ it. Just because we have faster metabolisms than you doesn’t mean that we have no attention span, you were doin’ it just the other day!”

Holly glanced between them, trying not to laugh as they had their one-sided argument.

Alright,” Harry continued, turning his attention back to her. “There are four suits, those are the little symbols on the cards. Clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds.”

Why are they called that?” she asked, looking down at her cards in confusion.

Er...I dunno, they just are. Then you have thirteen different ranks, those are the little numbers on the cards. The higher the number, the more value it has. There are also Jacks, Kings, Queens, and Aces. Those are the highest ranks. Ace is the highest, then King, then Queen, then Jack.”

But the Queen should be the highest rank,” Holly protested, cocking her head at him.

If it was based on Betelgeusian hives, yeah, but it’s based on the human feudal system. There are also Jokers, but don’t worry about those right now.”

So the goal is to find the highest value card?” Holly asked, Harry shaking his head.

No, you have to have what’s called a hand. A hand is a combination of cards, and some hands have more value than others. Here,” he said, tapping at his tablet for a moment before sliding it across the table. She caught it, turning it around and examining the screen. “These are the different hands, you can use this as a reference until you’ve learned them.”

This looks complicated,” she grumbled. “Where does the strategy lie if what cards the players are dealt are randomized?”

You’ll see,” he replied. “When you play Poker, you’re usually playin’ for money, or for some substitute for money. You make a bet, which means that you gamble with a certain amount, then the other players have to raise or call. Call means they bet an equal amount, and raise means they bet a larger amount, which the other players then have to match. If you think your hand is too weak to win, you can fold, but that means forfeiting the money that you bet so far.”

My people do not use money,” Holly replied, “the hive works cooperatively to provide for the needs of its members.”

Oh, right,” Harry mumbled. “Well, we’re just playin’ for fun, so it doesn’t really matter. We have no chips, though. What can we use instead?”

He glanced around the room, thinking for a moment, then rose from his chair. He opened one of the drawers and fumbled around, then returned to his seat to deposit a handful of small, colorful packets on the table.

We’ll play for condiments,” he declared. “Ketchup packets are worth twenty, mustard and mayonnaise are ten, and salt packets are one.”

Ten of what?” Holly asked skeptically.

Just ten, that’s their value. It’s a substitute for money.”

Alright,” she said, her long antennae twitching. “I will try this game.”

***

Fold,” Harry said, tossing his cards on the table. “That’s it, I’m out of mayonnaise. All I have left now is the shirt on my back and two salt packets.”

Holly glanced up at him, her pink eyes flashing mischievously, then she turned her gaze to BJ. They both had large piles of condiments, but it looked like Holly was edging ahead with that last hand. She had picked up the game remarkably quickly, and she was surprisingly good at it. She had been designed from the chromosome up to be good at diplomacy, and what was Poker if not diplomacy boiled down to its most basic form? The ability to persuade, to mislead, knowing when to play your cards and when to take a loss.

Talk about a Poker face,” Harry muttered, “how is this fair? Your face is made of chitin,” he said, gesturing to Holly. “And you have the emotional range of a doorstop,” he added as he turned an accusing finger to Blackjack.

I like this game,” Holly replied, the plates that made up her face shifting to form a smile.

Beginner’s luck,” Harry said, feigning poor sportsmanship.

Blackjack pushed a handful of his condiments to the center of the table, grunting his challenge. Holly examined her cards for a moment, clutched in her upper pair of hands, then called with the lower pair as the off-white tips of her antennae bobbed in the air.

Let us see your cards,” she said, BJ laying his hand down on the table.

Full House,” Harry said with an impressed nod. “Three Kings and two threes.”

Holly revealed her own hand, grumbling as she compared the two.

Flush,” Harry said, peering across the table at her cards. “A King, a Jack, a nine, a four, and a two. Full House beats a flush. Hang on,” he added, narrowing his eyes at Blackjack’s cards. “Why are there two Kings of Spades in the deck, BJ?”

Holly began to giggle as the reptile produced another pair of high-value cards, using a sleight of hand trick to make it seem as though they had appeared from thin air, holding them between his scaly fingers.

I don’t know why I play with you,” Harry complained. “Where are you even hidin’ those? You’re not wearing any clothes!”

Holly’s laughter filled the kitchen as the Krell rubbed his hands together, revealing his empty palms. Harry reached across the table and tried to grab his wrist, determined to see where they were going, Blackjack moving his arm out of reach.

It’s behind his hand,” Holly giggled, “I can see it!”

So you’re back-palmin’ them, are you?” Harry demanded. He couldn’t keep a straight face as Blackjack’s hand vanished below the table, reemerging with what looked like most of a stack of cards and spraying them at him. Holly doubled over as the torrent of cards scattered about the table, the Krell loosing a rhythmic, low-frequency huffing sound that was his equivalent of laughter.

She reached out and scooped up his pile of condiments, returning them to her own stash.

I win,” she announced, “I have accrued a total value of five hundred and twenty-seven.” “It’s a shame you can’t spend mustard on anythin’,” Harry replied, “or you’d be rich.”

I will purchase some food,” she said, sliding a ketchup packet across the table towards him.

Oh, I see,” Harry said as he snatched up the condiment. “You’re practicin’ for when you’re gonna be rollin’ in Coalition money. At your service, Madame.”

The station personnel will have provided me with nutrient paste,” she said, gesturing to the cupboards. “There will be a supply here somewhere.”

Does it need to be refrigerated?” Harry asked, and she shook her head. He reached up and rummaged through a couple of cupboards before finding what she had described. There were several clear packets that looked like blood bags, filled with an amber-colored, translucent fluid that resembled honey. As he set them on the counter, he realized that he recognized them. They were UNN-branded, he had eaten them as a component of some of the more recent MREs out in the field. The stuff was great on crackers.

What the...we’ve been eatin’ these,” he muttered as he held up one of the packets. “I always assumed it was some kind of jelly...”

We have been providing nutrient supplements to the UNN, yes,” she replied with a nod. “We trade them for other resources that we cannot obtain in the valley, as we are not allowed to set foot outside of its bounds for the time being.”

They’ve been feedin’ us Bug paste?” Harry asked, sticking out his tongue in an expression of disgust.

Do you dislike the taste?” Holly asked, cocking her head at him quizzically.

I mean...no, not really. It tastes pretty great, actually. Gives you a kick, like drinking a sports drink, but I can see why they didn’t tell us where it came from. Do I want to ask you how it’s made, or am I gonna regret that?” he asked as he turned to pass her one of the bags.

Raw materials are rendered down in the crop of a Replete,” she explained as she took the bag, opening the seal and plunging her proboscis into the fluid like a straw. “This food is a product of all of the nutrients and vitamins that could be gleaned from them.”

What’s a crop?” he asked warily.

The crop is an organ not unlike a stomach, where digestive enzymes dissolve the raw materials into their base components. Sugars, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, things like that. The resulting paste is then fed to other members of the hive.”

I see,” Harry mumbled, starting to feel a little green as he watched her fleshy organ bulge with each gulp. “And, uh...what kind of raw materials are we talkin’ about here?”

Plant and animal matter for the most part,” she replied, peering up at him as the bag slowly drained. “Workers forage for suitable plants outside the hive, and Drones hunt native animals for their meat. We are omnivores, not unlike humans, and we have many of the same nutritional requirements. When a member of the hive dies of injury or natural causes, their bodies are usually consumed by the Repletes, and rendered down into-”

Alright, too much information,” Harry said with a wave of his hand. “I think I’ll trade the next bag that I get for an energy bar...”

May I have more?” Holly asked, setting her now empty bag on the table. Harry passed another to her, and she started all over again, holding the bag between her upper pair of hands as she slowly drained it.

Man, you really like that stuff,” Harry muttered. “You’re wolfin’ it down.”

It is all that we eat,” she replied. “At least until now.”

Yeah, you like your hot chocolate too,” he chuckled.

May I use the shower when I am finished?” she asked.

Yeah, of course. I didn’t realize that Bugs took showers.”

We do not usually,” she replied. “Workers bathe the other castes using their tongues to clean their carapaces, but I am alone now, I must bathe as my father would.”

Okay...” Harry muttered, trying to imagine what that might look like. “I’ll show you how to use it.”

When she was done eating, Harry led her to the bathroom, while Blackjack resumed his slumber on the floor. He showed her how to regulate the temperature and flow using the touch panel controls, and also how to lock the door.

Do Bugs have a sense of modesty?” he asked skeptically, Holly holding the door open for a moment as he stood outside.

I do,” she replied, closing the sliding panel on him. Harry shrugged, and made his way back over to the kitchen, intent on fixing himself a real meal. He hadn’t eaten anything but cereal since arriving, and there was no word yet on when they would be allowed to leave.

***

Holly felt the cool water run over her carapace, flowing between the joints, soothing her exposed skin. She reached out and tapped at the control panel, making it slightly warmer, her muscles relaxing as steam began to fog the glass cubicle.

She ran her fingers along the branching hairs of the sensitive antennae that protruded from the top of her head, reaching behind her with her lower pair of arms to wash those that draped down her back, cleaning them of the residue and tiny particles that they had ensnared. It wasn’t quite as thorough as being bathed by a Worker, but it felt good all the same.

Her thoughts turned to Sergeant Hayes and what he had said about modesty. What did she care if he saw her without her armor on? Could she even be nude, lacking the human features that defined the term? If not, then why did the thought make her feel so...vulnerable?

She moved her hands down her torso, gently washing the exposed, fleshy parts of her body that were usually concealed beneath the hard covering. They were softer than her firm carapace, more sensitive to touch. It was nice to be free of the armor, if only for a short while. Why the Queen had seen fit to outfit her with it, rather than simply baking it into her genome, she had no idea. Perhaps her creation had not produced the desired result, and the Queen had merely repaired Holly’s body after her gestation in lieu of creating a new ambassador to replace her?

Holly found herself hoping that was not the case, the survival of the colony should not have been entrusted to a flawed design.

Yet that was not the only thing that she didn’t understand about herself, not the only possible defect. Ever since she had arrived on the station, the plethora of new scents and new sensations had sent her reeling, so numerous and so varied that she was almost unable to process them. Maintaining her composure, projecting that air of poise that was so important to her ambassadorial image was a constant struggle. The comforting, safe scents of damp soil and family were long gone, these new smells instilling strange emotions in her that she felt unable to control.

Being around Sergeant Hayes was the most difficult of all her trials. Her people were sensitive to pheromones, it was their primary means of communication, the way that they experienced the world around them. There were other senses, too. Her eyes picked up wavelengths of light, her carapace could sense vibrations in the air, she could reach out and touch objects. But scent still ruled her, it was many times more powerful and more immediate than her other senses.

There was something about the Sergeant that drew her to him, a magnetism that only seemed to grow stronger the longer they interacted. Despite his initial misgivings, he was kind to her where the others like him were suspicious. He no longer treated her as an emotionless insect, a biological machine, but rather an intellectual equal worthy of engaging with. He made her laugh, and when that happened, she felt an odd fluttering sensation rise from within the depths of her belly. The more she grew to like him, the more his scent appealed to her, creeping into her brain insidiously and diverting her thoughts from her purpose. It was becoming distracting.

Was that by design, or was it a mistake, an unintended by-product of her human DNA? The Queen had not warned her of any of this during her extensive mission briefings, and Holly could no longer seek her wisdom, nor could she go to her father for advice. Human pheromones were a quiet whisper compared to the loud voices of her kin, but they did produce them, however weak they might be. Was her sensitivity to the alluring, masculine musk that he put out the intention of her Queen, or was she picking up the organic equivalent of radio static?

She examined her own hands beneath the water, flexing her pink, fleshy fingers as she let the warm liquid flow over them. She had always thought of the human elements of her DNA as being secondary to her Jarilan genome, she outwardly resembled a Jarilan far more than she did a human, after all. But more and more, she was starting to experience emotions and sensations that could serve no conceivable purpose, irrelevant to her diplomatic mission. How did these feelings further the hive’s goals?

Should she block them out and focus on her task, her sole reason for being, or was it the Queen’s intention that she explore them? It was all so confusing…

Her thoughts turned to Sergeant Hayes again, his warm smile, the way that he joked and teased. The warmth of his body as they sat together beside the intangible flames, the taste of the cocoa that he made for her, his words of support and encouragement. That fluttering sensation returned to her abdomen, her chest seeming to warm and swell, her heart pumping faster.

She clenched her fists, the internal conflict making them tremble.

What would you have wanted me to do?” she whispered to herself, the patter of water on the tiles below drowning out her voice.

***

Holly emerged from the bathroom with a fresh shine to her carapace, its lustrous surface catching the light with its colorful iridescence. She was patting at the soft ruff of fur around her neck with a towel, still drying off.

Not for the first time, Harry’s eyes were drawn to her oddly human, feminine silhouette. Her corset-like carapace pinched her waist, her wide hips and her wing-like skirt flaring out to give her a pronounced, hourglass figure. He could see more of her fluff beneath her gossamer wings, the white fur lining the exterior of her upper thighs, making it look like her skirt had a fur lining. It seemed to sparkle as she walked, the individual hairs refracting the light, her measured gait making her hips rock from side to side as though she was making her way down a catwalk. The longer pair of translucent wings that seemed to be connected to her body just above her rump trailed behind her, like a gown fashioned from the wings of a dragonfly.

Her pink skin too seemed cleaner in the sparse places where it was visible, waxy, reflective. Between her regal ruff and above her chitin corset were the two mounds of pink flesh that so resembled a woman’s bosom. They seemed to be pushed up by the rigid armor of her chest, a subtle ripple passing through them with every step. Her inner thighs were much the same, made from soft flesh that shook gently when she walked, contrasting starkly with the pearlescent chitin that encased them.

Again, he found himself wondering whether these traits were an intentional attempt to mimic the human form, or if it was a purely incidental result of her hybrid heritage.

She met Harry’s gaze from the kitchen table as he ate a plate of scrambled eggs on toast, the two antennae on her her head twitching.

Feel better?” he asked, pausing his chewing for a moment. “Hey, come check this out. You’ve never seen human food like this before, right?”

She finished drying her ruff, then straightened her gossamer skirt, ignoring his comment.

Sergeant Hayes,” she began, “I wish to review the information on the Elysian and Rask ambassadors.”

Oh?” he asked, setting down his fork and giving her a confused glance. “I thought you were pretty satisfied on that front?”

I must take every available opportunity to ensure the success of my mission,” she replied dispassionately.

Well...if you think it’s necessary,” Harry replied with a shrug. “But you have the votes that you need already unless both the Araxie and the Valbarans do a total one-eighty, which seems pretty unlikely at this point.”

Irrelevant,” Holly replied tersely, “there is more that I can accomplish in service of my Queen.”

Alright,” Harry muttered. “Just let me finish eatin’, and I’ll be right with you. I’m afraid I used some of your Poker winnings on my eggs,” he joked, “you’re down to five hundred and seventeen points. Let me know if you want a rematch, and I’ll try to keep BJ from cheatin’ this time.”

She watched him as he ate, her gaze somehow cold, distant. She was standing with her hands neatly clasped in front of her, just as she did when she spoke to the other delegates, as motionless as a store mannequin.

I can get you somethin’ to drink while you wait,” he suggested, “want another hot chocolate?”

That will not be necessary,” she replied.

He shrugged, finishing up the last of his eggs as she waited patiently. When he was done, he picked up the tablet from the table, closing the Poker hand reference sheet and opening up the database that they had browsed together earlier.

You want to sit with me again while we read it?” he suggested, “we can put the fire on if you like. Hell, I’m pretty sure I saw some marshmallows in one of the cupboards when I was searchin’ for your Bug paste. They probably won’t cook over the heating element, but I can show you how we-”

That will not be necessary,” she replied, holding out a hand expectantly. “I know how to operate the tablet computer now. Thank you, Sergeant.”

Harry handed the tablet to her, frowning as she marched over to the couch and sat down, crossing her long legs. Blackjack raised his head from the wood floor, glancing between the two of them and giving Harry a low, quizzical rumble. Harry shrugged silently, he didn’t understand her sudden shift in attitude either. Just when he had started to feel like she was warming up to him, letting herself relax and having a little fun, she had reverted straight back to robot-mode. Maybe getting wet pissed Bugs off or something, who knew?

CHAPTER 10: HOLE CARD

We can’t get her to talk,” Boyd sighed, Lorza closing the interrogation room’s door behind him as she followed him out. Moralez was waiting for them in the corridor outside, looking up from his tablet computer as they emerged. “She’s as stubborn as a mule, won’t give us the time of day, let alone a confession.”

She continues to insist that she had no part in the attack,” Lorza added, “and she demands that her right to diplomatic immunity be respected. I fear that we will be forced to release her if no further evidence is found. When the Rask Matriarchy lodges a formal complaint, as they surely will, we will no longer be able to hold her.”

The listening device alone isn’t enough to pin her,” Moralez muttered, scratching his stubbly chin with his prosthetic fingers. “We need to find out who was receiving that signal, who pulled the trigger, and we have no leads. Without that, we can’t link anything back to Korbaz.”

Did you figure out how she got it past the security check?” Boyd asked, Moralez shaking his head.

No, it shows up on the scanners just fine, and materials analysis didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Even if she had swallowed the damned thing, it would have been detected. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Well, we can’t decrypt the wireless signal that it was sending,” Boyd added. “It’s consumer-grade, but even that would take a supercomputer decades to crack. Did the search for the weapon turn up anything yet?”

Moralez shook his head once more, loosing a frustrated sigh. It had been a long day, and despite their discoveries, he felt no closer to finding an answer that would satisfy Vos. There were only around thirty hours left until the deadline that the Admiral had set.

My people are still looking, but they haven’t found anything so far. If we can locate the railgun, then maybe we can figure out where it came from, but the trail has gone cold for now.”

Then I don’t see what else we can do,” Boyd said with a shrug of his shoulders. He seemed just as deflated as Moralez felt. “We have nothing left to follow up on.”

Perhaps we still do,” Moralez said cryptically, beginning to pace in the hall. “Have either of you considered that Vice Admiral Korbaz might be telling the truth? I wouldn’t say that we have a close relationship, but this just feels wrong to me, it isn’t her style. If she was going to smuggle something onto the hub to assassinate someone, it would be a weapon, and she’d do it face to face.”

Yeah, I considered it,” Boyd replied dismissively. “But where does it get us? Assume that someone somehow got close enough to her to plant the device without being noticed, which is a hard enough prospect where humans are concerned, never mind Borealans who can hear a mouse fart through three feet of hull. We still don’t know how it got past security, we still don’t know who was receiving the signal, and we still don’t know who took the shot. Right now, Korbaz is the only lead we have.”

She acted very suspiciously during the interview, and she readily resisted arrest,” Lorza added.

She always acts suspiciously,” Moralez replied, “and of course a proud Rask would resist arrest. The more I think on it, the more out of character this all seems.”

Okay, so let’s say she’s innocent,” Boyd continued. “It still doesn’t tell us how she got the fucking transmitter through security.”

Perhaps it does,” Lorza mused, leaning against the wall beside the door to the interrogation room and crossing her arms. She paused for a moment, considering as the two humans turned to peer up at her expectantly. “What if the transmitter never passed through the security check at all? If all evidence suggests that sneaking it through would be an impossible feat, then what options remain?”

If you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” Moralez muttered with a nod of his head. “I think you might be on to something, Agent Lorza.”

You’re saying that the transmitter never went through the security check at all?” Boyd asked. “Then that would mean...”

That the transmitter was already on the hub,” Lorza added, finishing his sentence. “It means that someone planted it on her person sometime between her clearing security and entering the conference room.”

The engineer!” Moralez exclaimed, slamming his prosthetic fist into his palm. The two agents exchanged confused glances, waiting for him to elaborate. “I was with the delegates as they made their way from the torus to the conference room. Along the way, an engineer walked straight into Korbaz, he wasn’t paying attention to where he was going. There was a bit of a scuffle, I thought that she was going to claw his face off, but he got close enough to her that he could have slipped the transmitter into her pocket. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, it was just Korbaz being Korbaz.”

A perfect distraction,” Lorza added, narrowing her eyes. “Leverage the predictable aggression of the Rask to mask the planting of the device. Who would pay any mind to a frightened engineer who merely wanted to escape the situation? Iskusnyy...”

That has to be it!” Boyd said. His prior lethargy was gone now, he seemed animated, excited. “Chief, could an engineer get the transmitter through a security check? If he hid it in a toolbox or concealed it within another transmitting device that he had clearance to bring onto the hub, for example?”

Absolutely,” Moralez replied adamantly. “It all adds up. He could smuggle the transmitter onto the hub, he could plant it on Korbaz, an engineer would have access to the service tunnels and the jumper cables that were used to power the rifle.”

Then Korbaz really was just an unwitting patsy,” Boyd said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe I’m going to have to apologize to a Rask, we’ve been grilling her for the last couple of hours...”

Security keeps records of everyone who enters the hub,” Moralez continued. “We can find out which engineers had clearance to be there, and when. The culprit’s name is just sitting in a fucking log file waiting for us to find it!” He turned and began to jog down the hallway as his companions looked on, the electric motors in his prosthetic leg whirring, an errant secretary almost dropping her tablet as she moved out of his way. “I’m gonna get Miller on the horn, be ready to move.”

What about Korbaz?” Boyd called after him.

She isn’t going anywhere!” Moralez yelled back, vanishing around a bend.

***

Sidearms at the ready,” Moralez said, drawing his XMH from its holster and turning on the battery as the trio marched along the torus. He was clad in full Marine armor, the visor on his helmet currently raised. They were headed towards main engineering, where Miller had told them the culprit was currently located. “He’s been able to sneak one weapon onto the station already, don’t take any chances.”

Compensating for something, Chief?” Boyd asked as he eyed the massive handgun. The agent was using a more traditional caseless sidearm that was small enough to be concealable and was equipped with a suppressor.

On the contrary,” Moralez replied, “I don’t have to compensate for anything anymore with these arms. Least of all recoil.”

What do we know about our target?” Lorza asked, checking the magazine on her own handgun. It was an XMH, much like the one that Moralez used, only slightly larger around the grip and trigger to accommodate her Borealan hands.

His name is Carl Edwards,” Moralez replied, a startled group of civilians dodging out of their path. “He’s been an engineer on the station for about nine months, and he’s had no citations so far, save for a reprimand for turning up late one day. Miller says he keeps his head down and does his job, has no interpersonal issues to speak of, save for being a little averse to social situations.”

What’s his history?” Boyd asked. “Has he had any contact with the Bugs? Does he have any reason to go rogue?”

Not that I can tell,” the Chief replied. “He came from a colony planet that has never been invaded, and this is his first posting. He seems completely unremarkable.”

Then perhaps money was the motivation?” Lorza asked.

I dunno...he has a lot of drive for someone who doesn’t have a personal hatchet to bury,” Moralez said. “Unless he has some hidden debts that nobody knows about, I don’t see it.”

Guess we’ll find out soon enough,” Boyd muttered, nodding at something ahead of them. It was the main engineering building, one of the few structures in the engineering quarter that looked like anything other than a featureless block, or a mess of pipes and machinery. This was where all of the systems that kept the station running were located, from the massive water processing plant to the nuclear generators that provided power to the immense structure. While most of the station’s torus was designed to trick the inhabitants into thinking that they were on a city street, or in a military academy, this area looked like an industrial park made entirely from white metal. There were still planters and benches, but the illusion was much harder to sell.

Edwards doesn’t know we’re coming,” Moralez said as they approached the building’s entrance, a pair of sliding doors made from glass that were built into the facade. “Let’s get this done quickly. Remember, a slug from an XMH will go straight through the perp, and everything that’s behind him, so pick your shots carefully.” “That’s why I use one of these,” Boyd said, brandishing his pistol. “Hollowpoint, no over-penetration.”

An engineer who was headed for the door paused when he saw the trio with their weapons drawn, Moralez shooing him away.

Miller is waiting to meet us,” he said, waving them forward. “Let’s do it.”

They made their way in through the main door and into a sparsely furnished lobby, a startled secretary sitting behind a desk widening her eyes as Moralez approached her.

Miller?” he asked.

I-I’ll let him know you’re looking for him,” she stammered, holding a finger to her ear and tapping at the touch panel on her monitor for a moment. “Yes, Sir. Three of them. I’ll let them know. He’s on his way,” she added, lowering her hand as she eyed their weapons warily. “Would you like to...sit down?”

I prefer to stand,” Boyd replied with a grin, Lorza shooting him an angry look.

After a moment, Miller emerged from one of the corridors that led deeper into the building, jogging over to meet them.

Edwards is in the employee lounge,” he said breathlessly, “down the hallway and to the right. I called everyone else away to make sure it’s clear. Try not to go all cowboy in my building, alright? Patching holes is easy enough, replacing employees is less convenient.”

I appreciate the help, Miller,” Moralez replied as they proceeded down the hall. They soon arrived at a door marked employee lounge, Boyd gesturing for them to stop before they got close enough to activate the automatic sensor.

What is it?” Moralez whispered, watching as the agent aimed his visor at the featureless wall and began to tap at his temple.

This puppy lets me see through certain materials that aren’t too thick or protected by shielding,” he explained. “Okay, I’m picking up one heat signature. There’s a guy sitting on a couch by the far wall, directly adjacent to the door. Nobody else is in the room. Can’t tell if he’s armed.”

I’m wearing armor, so let me breach,” Moralez said as they stacked up. He flipped his visor down, the HUD automatically syncing with his handgun to display an ammo counter and a battery charge level. He held up a hand, counting down from three with his polymer fingers, then moved into range of the door’s sensor.

It slid open, and he charged inside, his weapon aimed at a startled man in yellow overalls who was sipping at a coffee cup. It was an unremarkable room, populated by couches and low tables, along with a few potted plants and vending machines.

Military Police!” Moralez yelled, the speakers on his helmet giving his voice a synthetic timbre. “Put your hands on the back of your head!”

The man dropped his coffee in surprise, spilling it all over his coveralls, choking on a mouthful as Boyd and Lorza spilled in behind the Chief with their sidearms raised.

Hands behind your fucking head!” Boyd shouted, his voice seeming to jolt the man out of his stupor. He let his cup fall to the carpet, his trembling hands darting to his head.

W-what’s going on?” he demanded as Moralez marched across the room, keeping his weapon trained on him. He holstered his sidearm and produced a zip tie from his belt when he was close enough, tugging Edwards to his feet by the collar, the engineer wincing as the Chief forced his arms behind his back. He secured the zip tie around Edwards’ wrists, taking him by the collar again and marching him towards the door.

Carl Edwards, you’re under arrest for attempted assassination.”

What!?” Edwards exclaimed, hunched over as Moralez walked him along. “Who the hell are you people? What is this?”

You have the right to remain silent, though I wouldn’t recommend it,” Boyd said with a smirk. “Anything you say can be submitted as evidence.”

Evidence of what!?” the man asked. If he was feigning confusion, it was convincing.

We know that you were on the hub shortly before the attack occurred,” Lorza said as they walked him into the hallway. “We know that you planted the transmitter on the Rask Ambassador. There is no point denying the charges.”

You people are out of your goddamned minds!” Edwards protested. He spotted Miller as they entered the lobby, his eyes widening, Moralez forcing his head back down as he tried to stand up straight. “Mister Miller! Sir! What the hell is going on?” Miller didn’t reply, he merely crossed his arms, watching in silence along with the secretary and a few bystanders as Edwards was led out onto the torus.

***

Bullshit!” Boyd exclaimed, slamming a gloved fist on the table and making Edwards jump. They were in the interrogation room, a featureless box furnished with a metal table and a couple of chairs, lit by a harsh lamp that was recessed into the ceiling. The walls were whitewashed, and the floor was bare. It wasn’t supposed to be a comfortable setting.

It’s true!” Edwards replied, a touch of anger overpowering the bewilderment in his voice now. The interrogation had been going on for a good hour, and everyone was becoming frustrated with the lack of progress. “I had no idea that a Bug was visiting the station of all things, and I’ve never been assigned to the hub before! My job is fixing pipes, I’m just a plumber!” “The security logs show that an engineer by the name of Carl Edwards, with your serial number, was authorized to perform maintenance work on the hub at the exact date and hour of the crime. If you’ve never set foot on the hub, then how do you explain that?”

I don’t know!” the engineer protested, throwing his arms into the air in a gesture of exasperation. “What the hell do you people want me to say?”

We want you to tell us who you’re working for,” Boyd shot back angrily, Lorza making her way over to her fellow agent and placing a calming hand on his shoulder.

Mister Edwards,” she began, giving the engineer a warm smile that seemed to put him a little more at ease. “We can keep going back and forth all afternoon, or we can try to come to an understanding. I want to understand you, but I can’t do that unless you’re willing to talk to me. If you would prefer to see me alone, in a more private and accommodating setting, then I can arrange that.”

I have nothing to tell you!” the man replied, glancing between the two agents as if searching for some form of guidance.

You’re a lying sack of shit,” Boyd snapped, Edwards recoiling in his chair as though Boyd had just taken a swing at him. “If you don’t start singing, I’m going to leave you in this box to sweat overnight. Maybe you’ll be more willing to talk when you’ve been stewing in those coffee-soaked overalls for ten hours?”

Now now,” Lorza cooed, her tone soothing. “There is no need for such threats. I am sure that Mister Edwards wants to cooperate, we just need to work with him to make that happen. Isn’t that right, kotyonok?” she asked, directing her question to the bemused engineer.

He nodded his head, then stopped, perhaps not understanding what he was agreeing to.

Agents, if I could have a word?” Moralez asked as he gestured to the door. He opened it for them as they walked out into the hallway beyond, closing it behind him to ensure that Edwards wouldn’t overhear their conversation.

So, where are we at?” he asked.

He’s not bending under pressure,” Boyd said with a shrug. “Whatever he knows, he’s keeping it close to his chest, he hasn’t dropped the act for a second.”

I am not certain that this is an act,” Lorza added. “As Agent Boyd is already aware, my work with UNNI mostly entails using psychological methods to get information, we Polars are good at reading body language and sensing pheromones. Edwards is terrified, confused. Stress hormones are leaking from his pores, and I can hear his heart beating like a drum every time someone asks him a question. I see no overt evidence of lying, but it is admittedly harder to determine the source of his anxiety.”

Could it be because he’s been found out?” Moralez asked.

Not impossible, but I do not think it likely.”

We have enough evidence to go on,” Boyd said. “We have security records that put him on the hub at the right time, which means he had the opportunity. He definitely had the means. He’s an engineer, so he had access to the service tunnels, and he would have known about the jumper cables. We don’t have a motive yet, and we could really do with finding the weapon. That’s the key in all this. If we can connect him to the weapon, figure out how he got it onto the station, then I think we have this one in the bag.”

So what’s next?” Moralez asked, “he won’t give us anything to go on.”

I say we let him sit a while,” Boyd said, “see if it loosens his lips a little. We’re not gonna get anything out of him today.”

We can only hold him for forty-eight hours before he has to be charged with something,” Moralez added, “but we only have a little over a day left to work with. I hope you’re right, Agent Boyd. This would be so much easier if Vos hadn’t imposed such an unreasonable time limit,” he began, then thought better of it. He couldn’t allow himself to become too relaxed around the agents, they were still working for the Admiral.

The hour grows late,” Lorza continued, “I suggest that we reconvene tomorrow morning. There is nothing more to be done here.”

Early bird gets the worm, eh?” Boyd asked.

Easy for you to say,” Moralez muttered, “your jobs aren’t on the line.”

If you have any suggestions, be my guest,” Boyd replied. “We don’t have anything else to follow up on until this guy starts talking, at least until they find the weapon that he ditched.”

Boyd was right, but somehow, admitting that to the man’s face was more than Moralez could stomach right now. They had reached the end of the trail, the case had been solved, for all intents and purposes. All that they needed to do now was find those last few threads, and pull them, then the whole thing would unravel in a way that Vos and whoever ended up prosecuting should find satisfying.

Alright,” Moralez sighed. “Everybody get some rest, and we’ll meet back here first thing in the morning.”

What about the Vice Admiral?” Lorza asked.

Oh yeah,” Boyd chuckled, “she’s still in her cell. Do you think if we let her out now she’s going to be more or less pissed off than if we wait until tomorrow morning?”

I just know that I don’t want to deal with her bullshit right now,” Moralez replied, running his prosthetic fingers through his hair. “We’ll set her loose tomorrow. Hopefully, being cleared of all charges will improve her mood enough that she doesn’t try to claw my face off as soon as I open the door.”

***

Moralez and the agents made their way back to the residential quarter together. Night was approaching on the station, and the sunlamps that were embedded in the painted ceiling above their heads were beginning to dim to simulate dusk. The usually crowded torus was starting to clear, the crowds dispersing. It was that small window between the day and night shifts when the station was at its quietest, as close to deserted as it was possible to get, only a few dozen people visible ahead of them before the deck curved out of sight.

As they neared the residential area, they passed beneath a series of decorative trellises that ran down the center of a section of the walkway. The flora that was growing out of the planters to either side of them created a sort of tunnel of foliage and flowers, the plants encouraged to grow around the wooden frame. It was dense enough to obscure the torus from view once one was inside, and it provided a brief respite, a moment of privacy on a station that was usually packed with people. It was tall enough that a Borealan stood no chance of hitting their head on any of the wooden beams and wide enough to let two or three of them walk side by side.

They could have built a couple of carriers with the money that they must have burned building this place,” Boyd muttered as they passed beneath the arched ceiling. Lorza seemed far more fond of the installation, pausing to reach out and guide a yellow flower towards her nose, a smile brightening her face as she sniffed at its petals. Moralez found himself wondering what it must smell like to her, the Polar’s senses dwarfed anything in human experience.

A little comfort goes a long way,” Moralez replied. He couldn’t see the agent’s expression behind his wrap-around visor, but he couldn’t help imagining that the man was rolling his eyes at him.

Vos seems to think that you run this place a little too comfortably,” Boyd replied, his casual tone failing to mask the implied threat. Moralez paused beneath the trellises, Boyd making a lazy semi-circle as he pretended to admire the plants. Lorza sensed that something was up, her ears swiveling to track the pair.

So I’ve heard,” Moralez replied, crossing his arms over his chest with an electrical whir. “Is that an opinion that you share?”

I think it’s time that we came clean,” Boyd replied, keeping his eyes on the wall of foliage as he reached out to inspect the buds on one of the protruding branches. Lorza shot him a questioning look, but she didn’t try to shut him up. “You’ve no doubt figured this out by now, but Lorza and I were assigned to evaluate you as much as to help you. The Admiral was very concerned, he wanted to know exactly what you get up to behind closed doors. We’ve been reporting our progress to him, but we’ve also been collecting data on you, assessing your methods.”

I suspected as much,” Moralez replied. “You’re Ninnies, after all.”

I’ve read your file,” Boyd continued, the Chief’s eyes tracking him warily as he sauntered along to examine a rose. “I know all about what happened to you on Kruger III, how you lost those limbs, your history with the Equatorials. The Bugs wiped out your whole platoon, save for you and a Borealan Shock Trooper, then your own squadmate assaulted you in an attempt to assert her dominance. She must have thought that she’d make a better pack leader, sounds like the integration training didn’t take too well with that one.”

Moralez let his arms fall to his sides, balling his fists as he felt that old tremor return, his hands shaking almost imperceptibly.

On the way out of that maze of Bug-infested tunnels, a combination of close air support and some rather careless handling of grenades resulted in your injuries,” Boyd added. “I don’t know who you blame for that one.”

What of it?” Moralez demanded. “I should be angry that you went behind my back, rather than asking me about my history directly, but being underhanded is part of your job...”

What of it?” Boyd repeated, turning to face him and planting his hands in the pockets of his long coat. “There’s someone else who had the opportunity to plant that tracking device on Korbaz. Someone else with the motivation to sabotage the conference and to implicate an Equatorial.”

You’re implying that I could have had something to do with this?” Moralez demanded, his anger getting the better of him for a moment before he reigned it back in. “After everything that you’ve seen? Why the fuck would I put my own job, my own reputation on the line to satisfy old grudges?”

You’d stop the Bugs from being admitted to the Coalition, and you’d sabotage relations with the Rask, which means a few less Mad Cats stalking your station. That might be worth the risk.”

And how the hell did I shoot at the ambassador from inside the conference room?” Moralez scoffed.

You might not have been working alone,” Boyd replied with a shrug, “you’re popular on the station. You said it yourself, most people here hate the Bugs with a passion. It wouldn’t be hard to find someone who would pull that trigger for you if it meant averting what some might see as a future genocide from within the Coalition itself. Maybe Lorza is right, and Edwards is telling the truth. Maybe you set him up, gave us just enough evidence to pin the crime on him. We still have no weapon, no motive, and only your assurances that his encounter with Korbaz went down the way you say.”

Let me tell you what holding grudges gets you,” Moralez snarled as he pointed an accusing finger at the agent. He took a couple of steps closer, rage furrowing his brow, Lorza glancing between the two of them as though preparing to intervene. “When I came back from that planet, I was a wreck, and I’m not just talking about my missing limbs. I felt like my personality had been scrambled, I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was angry, pessimistic, I felt guilt for being the only one to make it out. You can’t imagine what it’s like to wake up every day wondering why you’re still alive, why you alone were chosen to keep going on, sometimes finding yourself wishing that whatever cruel God might be responsible had made a better choice.”

Moralez took another step closer, Lorza moving in to place a hand on his chest, her sharp claws pricking him through the fabric of his uniform as she gently urged him back.

Yeah, I hated the Borealans for what they did to me,” he snapped. “When the woman who I later fell in love with appeared at my bedside, the woman who would make me whole again, I turned her away. To this day, I still can’t believe how close I came to sabotaging myself, all because of my own prejudice. I told her that I wanted to see a human doctor, I judged her because of her species, not because of her character. She stuck with me, helped me through months of emotional and physical therapy, it’s because of her that I’m standing here now.”

Boyd watched with a neutral expression as the Chief continued his rant, Lorza keeping him from getting any closer to her partner.

I know something about revenge, too,” he continued. “Here’s something that you won’t have read in your report. I found the Equatorial who assaulted me. She visited the station, and I let my rage rule me. I was seeing red, I was ready to commit a murder. I tracked her down, fought her in an alley, only pulled through thanks to my prosthetics. I had her bleeding on the ground, I could have killed her there and then. Do you know what I felt at that moment?”

Boyd didn’t reply, so Moralez answered the question for him.

Nothing,” he said, “not a damned thing. There was no closure, no satisfaction, no relief. Once again, I put everything that I had in jeopardy. My job, my relationship, all at risk because of my own hatred. I know from first-hand experience how pointless revenge is, and the last time I judged someone for the actions of their species, I almost ruined my own life without even realizing it. So no, I don’t hate the Bugs from Jarilo because of what the other hives have done, and I don’t have any grudges to settle with the Borealans. You can cram your little theory right up your self-righteous ass.”

He had said his piece, and he calmed down somewhat, Lorza releasing him once she was sure that he wasn’t going to close the distance and punch through Boyd’s head like an out-of-date Halloween pumpkin. The thought had crossed his mind…

What do you think, Lorza?” Boyd asked nonchalantly. “That enough of an emotional reaction for you to work your Polar magic?”

He tells the truth, malish,” he replied tersely. “It would be hard to fake a reaction such as that...”

Sorry for riding your ass so much, Chief, but you’re a hard nut to crack,” Boyd added with a satisfied grin. He reached up and removed his visor for the first time, revealing a pair of green eyes. “Had to rule you out, you understand. Gotta follow every lead, no matter how trivial or unlikely it might seem.”

So that’s why you’ve been such an asshole?” Moralez asked, unable to stop himself from chuckling as he shook his head in disbelief. “You Ninnies sure play the long game, don’t you?”

Take it from me,” Lorza added, “he is just as much of a mudak under normal circumstances.”

They began to walk again, Moralez feeling a little more confident in the company of the two agents now. It had taken this long, but he felt as though he had finally earned their trust, and he no longer had to question their real motives. Was it time to voice his concerns about Vos and his SWAR lackeys? They were still working for the man, after all. But if what Lorza had said about Edwards telling the truth was accurate, then they might only have one day left to follow this last lead. It was now or never.

There is one more possibility,” Moralez said cryptically, the agents turning to look at him. “I’ve been suspicious of Admiral Vos ever since the attack took place. He had foreknowledge of the Bug’s visit to the station, and he always seems to be at odds with the rest of the Admiralty. He told me that he foresaw security issues during the council meeting and brought SWAR aboard for that reason, but it’s a little too convenient. He voted yes on the motion, but that was on behalf of the UN as a whole, it had likely already been decided. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that he was somehow responsible and that his SWAR contacts were the ones who took the shot. They arrived on the station in a stealth ship that refused to identify itself, and I doubt they went through customs. It’s a good way for them to smuggle a weapon of sufficient power onto the Pinwheel.”

I was wondering when you were going to implicate Vos,” Boyd chuckled, “you’ve been conspicuously quiet about him. Nobody is above suspicion, and whether he assigned us to the case or not, we’ll look into every possible lead. That said, I think we’re onto something with Edwards. More specifically, with the engineer who bumped into Korbaz on the hub, if Edwards is indeed just another patsy. Admiral Vos may have orchestrated that in some way. Maybe he fudged the records to cover the real culprit’s tracks, but it’s too much of a stretch without more evidence to go on.”

Would you recognize the engineer from the hub if you saw him again?” Lorza asked, Moralez shaking his head.

I see a thousand new faces every day, and there are no cameras in that area of the hub to check for an ID. He was male, average height, Caucasian, dark hair that might have been black or maybe brown. That’s all I got. Edwards meets those criteria, but so do half of the humans on the station.”

Perhaps the Vice Admiral would recognize his scent?” Lorza suggested.

If you want to ask her for help, be my guest,” Boyd muttered. “I’m still not convinced that Edwards isn’t our man. He was in the right place at the right time, he had access to all of the secure areas, we’re just missing a motive-”

As the end of the tunnel of trellises came into view, the trio stopped, three shadowy figures pushing through the plant matter ahead of them to block their path. Lorza swiveled around, her ears pricking up as three more came in from behind, sandwiching them in. It was an ambush, a pincer attack. Beneath the dimming sunlamps and within the tunnel, it was hard to make out their features, but their build and stature suggested Borealans.

One of the strangers to their front stepped closer, a dim ray of light that made it through the leaves above them illuminating their face. It was a male, his dark complexion and his sandy-blonde hair giving him away as a Rask. His dusky skin was crisscrossed with pink scars, and it looked as though a claw had split his lips at one point, leaving an indent that had never fully healed. His pupils were dilated into dark circles, locked onto Moralez.

Metal man,” he snarled, “you have dishonored our Vice Admiral.”

My name is Security Chief Moralez,” he replied, his voice carrying through the tunnel. “Who are you, and what’s the meaning of this?”

You are the metal man who took our Vice Admiral into captivity,” the Rask snarled, baring his pearly teeth. “She speaks with the authority of the Matriarch, an insult against her is an insult against all Rask. You will release her immediately.”

Ambassador Korbaz was taken into custody as part of an ongoing investigation,” Moralez replied tersely, “she will be released when I deem it appropriate. If you must know, she has been cleared of all charges, and she will be released tomorrow morning.”

And what of the insult?” the stranger snapped. “What will be our remedy?”

There was no insult intended,” Moralez replied, “it’s standard procedure to take suspects into custody for questioning.”

Is it standard procedure to walk a Vice Admiral through a public space in chains, with her head bowed?” another asked from somewhere behind the first. “Our people’s dignity must be restored.”

The Vice Admiral resisted arrest,” Moralez explained, “we would have been happy to afford her every comfort and dignity available if she had cooperated.”

And yet you say that she has done no wrong?” the ringleader asked. “You admit that you were in error?”

Yes, but that’s not how our legal system works,” he added as his frustration began to mount. “If the Vice Admiral has any complaints about her treatment, then she’s free to take it up with my superiors. They will decide if I have followed protocol to the best of my abilities.”

The aliens were bristling, they hadn’t come here to talk protocol, they had come looking for a fight. It looked as though Boyd had already come to that conclusion, one hand slipping his visor back on, while the other crept beneath his coat. Lorza’s ears were flat against her head, her claws at the ready. She might have had no problem subduing Korbaz, but against a whole pack, they couldn’t rely on her brute strength alone.

Moralez looked his opponents up and down. None of them were wearing their UNN blues. If they were auxiliaries serving in the Coalition, then they had chosen not to represent the organization tonight. They were wearing the civilian clothing of the Rask, all dark leather and studded belts, padded for protection like a stab vest. Although he knew that the Rask were always laden with weapons, they had not drawn them. Indeed, if this was to be a matter of honor and status, then they would fight only with their claws. That was considered non-lethal by Borealan standards, but a good claw swipe could easily see a human bleeding to death or permanently disfigured.

Moralez knew how to deal with an angry Borealan, it called for dominance, assertiveness.

Now you listen to me,” Moralez snapped, the alien’s round ears flicking. “This is my station, I have authority over you. You’d better step the fuck down if you don’t want to be on the first jump freighter back to Borealis with your ass in a goddamned sling.”

We will have restitution,” one of the Rask who was standing behind them snarled.

Are you guys auxiliaries?” Moralez demanded. “If so, then your Matriarch has ordered you to obey the Coalition’s chain of command. I’m ordering you to back off, I have jurisdiction here.”

Their minds are already made up,” Lorza muttered. “They will not listen to you, Chief.”

He flexed his prosthetic arms, taking up a defensive posture.

I don’t want to have to fill out a casualty report tonight,” he muttered, “don’t send anyone to the morgue if you don’t have to.”

Boyd removed his gloves and shrugged off his leather coat, letting it fall about his boots, revealing his skin-tight bodysuit. It was a grey-blue in color, covered in a network of electrical wiring that looked liked veins, along with blocky components that might be batteries or other devices. Whatever purpose it served, he wanted it exposed during the fight.

They stared the Rask pack down for a moment, Lorza turning to face those at their rear, the silence dragging. It was broken by a snarl, the ringleader lunging forwards, his black claws flashing as he raised them above his head. Moralez blocked his downward swipe with his forearm, the wicked talons digging into the polymer housing, the servos whirring as they withstood the impact. The shock traveled up through his limb, translating into the bones in his shoulder and making him wince.

The alien was momentarily confused, perhaps anticipating the sensation of his claws sinking into soft flesh, Moralez taking the opportunity to make his move. He tore his forearm away, breaking a couple of the alien’s claws in the process, and took hold of his furry wrist. His grip was like iron, the Rask unable to escape in time as the Chief dragged him down to his level. He balled his left hand into a fist and drove it towards his assailant’s face with all of the strength that the motors would allow.

He struck the Rask square in his dull snout, blood spewing from his feline nose, Moralez feeling what might be teeth or bones cracking beneath his fist. It all happened in the space of a second, the Chief’s prosthetics affording him inhuman speed and strength, leaving the Rask dazed.

Before his opponent could recover, he darted in and delivered another savage punch to the alien’s gut, his rock-hard abdominal muscles providing little protection from the hammer blow. The Rask doubled over, clutching his stomach, the breath driven from his lungs. Moralez finished him off with an uppercut that sent the five-hundred-pound creature crashing to the floor, the thud shaking the leaves on the trees that had wound around the trellises.

Moralez stood over him, breathing heavily, pulling a broken claw from his forearm and tossing it to the ground defiantly as he glared at the other pack members. He no longer had the element of surprise, but taking out their Alpha might make the rest of them think twice.

No such luck. The other five closed in, the tunnel filling with the sound of their bestial growling. Moralez narrowly dodged another swipe, his reaction times were still woefully human, dancing away from the aggressor as it spat and hissed. The second one went for Boyd, and to Moralez’s bemusement, the agent ran straight at him. He reached out as though attempting to tackle the creature, but it weighed far more than he did, impacting it like he had run into a brick wall. The alien stopped, just as confused as Moralez was, wrapping his arms around Boyd in an attempt to crush him. The agent muttered something inaudible, his voice muffled by the leather jacket, and then the Rask went as stiff as a statue.

Every muscle in his body seemed to tense, his arms shooting straight to his sides, an expression of pain and surprise etched onto his feline face. Like someone toppling a store mannequin, Boyd gave him a gentle push, the Rask making no attempt to cushion his fall as he dropped to the floor. He lay there for a moment before his muscles relaxed again, his body sagging, no longer conscious.

Moralez heard a thud from behind him as Lorza slammed into an approaching Rask, knocking him to the floor, using her sheer mass and girth to prevent the assailants from slipping past her. She was facing three of them at once, however, one of the aliens managing to catch her upper arm with a claw swipe. His talons tore through the fabric of her grey jumpsuit, the area immediately beginning to soak with dark, red blood. She yowled in a blend of pain and surprise, striking back with an open-palmed blow to the offender’s face, snapping his head back and sending him staggering backwards.

Help Lorza!” Moralez shouted, Boyd giving him a nod. “I got this last guy.”

The agent swiveled to face their rear, knocking his fists together in anticipation, a bright arc of electricity bridging his knuckles. So that was his trick, his environment suit was able to discharge electricity, enough to put an adult Borealan on their ass.

The last of the three Rask to their front charged in, Moralez intercepting her, the female loosing a battle cry that sounded like the roar of a tiger as she swung at his face with her claws. He blocked her swipe, but only narrowly, her claws brushing his cheek so closely that he could feel them tickle the hairs on his skin. She had witnessed the fate of her predecessor, and she wasn’t going to fall for the same trick, wrenching her arm from the Chief’s grasp before he could take hold.

She swung again, but this time, the Chief ducked under her arm and closed in. Her long reach was a hindrance rather than an advantage as he began to harry her torso with punches, his arms moving faster than any human could have mustered, impacting with greater force. Even her chiseled Rask muscles were no match for his mechanical fists, the alien buckling under the assault. Moralez used his prosthetic leg to sweep one of her feet out from under her, knocking her off-balance, the female reaching out to grip the nearby wall of foliage in an attempt to catch herself. She stopped her fall, but now she was in range of the shorter human, the Chief dispatching her with a sharp blow to the face that made her crumple.

He turned to see Lorza and Boyd engaging the two remaining pack members in the tunnel behind him. The Polar trapped one of them in a bear hug as he closed in, pinning his arms at his sides as she wrapped her powerful limbs around him like a Sumo wrestler, throwing him to the ground with enough force that Moralez felt the impact shake the deck beneath his feet.

Boyd was dancing like a boxer, keeping out of range of his opponent, but the Rask was far faster than he could ever hope to be. The alien succeeded in making contact, reaching out to grab him by the shoulder, immediately pulling his hand away as the agent’s suit sparked. His long tail puffed up like a frightened housecat, a yowl escaping his lips, Boyd taking advantage of his pain and confusion to step in and plant his palms on the Rask’s chest as though he was delivering a shock with a defibrillator. Electricity crackled across the wiring on his arms and shoulders, channeling into his hands, where it was discharged into his target. The Rask stiffened, his tail standing up as straight as a board, the beginnings of a yelp petering out as he clenched his teeth involuntarily.

Boyd released him, the alien was still conscious, but the shock had been enough of a deterrent to send him packing. He turned tail and ran, the one that Lorza had body-slammed picking himself up and following after his packmate with a pronounced limp, the two vanishing down the tunnel of trellises.

Scaredy cats!” Boyd called after them, chuckling at his own joke. “Shit,” he added, noticing that Lorza’s sleeve was soaked with blood. “Are you alright? Did they get you?”

It is just a scratch,” she protested, but she pulled her hand away to see that her white fur was matted with crimson.

We need to get you to an infirmary,” Boyd said, but Moralez stayed him with a wave of his hand.

No need, my place is closer, and Kaisha will be back from her shift at the hospital by now. This way.”

What of these Rask?” Lorza asked. “Will you have them arrested and charged for their assault?”

Leave them,” Moralez replied, appraising the four unconscious aliens. “I think corporal punishment has already been administered. Unless...how much of a jolt did you give that one, Boyd?”

Not enough to risk stopping his heart,” the agent replied with a grin, “just enough to put him down for a few minutes. He’ll wake up none the worse for wear pretty soon.”

Come on then,” Moralez said, stepping over a snoozing Rask as he set off down the tunnel. “Let’s get Lorza fixed up.”

***

Are you picking fights again?” Kaisha complained, rising to take Lorza by the arm as Moralez led her into their apartment. Boyd trailed behind them, appraising the other Polar. He might not have seen many of them besides his partner, they were far less common than the other varieties of Borealan, save perhaps for the enigmatic Araxie.

I didn’t pick this one,” the Chief replied. “We ran into some Rask on the way back from work, they ambushed us. Sounds like they were pissed off about us bringing Korbaz in earlier today.”

What have I told you about hanging around women like that?” Kaisha grumbled as she used her claws to tear open the fabric of Lorza’s already ruined sleeve, droplets of red blood falling to the kitchen tiles below.

I wasn’t!” Moralez protested, quickly realizing that she was teasing him.

Three claw marks,” Kaisha muttered as she appraised the wound, Lorza wincing as she prodded at one of the cuts with a padded finger. “They’re not deep enough to reach the muscle, but they sliced fairly deep into the blubber. Come to the bathroom, sibirskiy, and I’ll patch you up.”

The two Polars left the humans alone, closing the bathroom door behind them.

Do they...all speak Russian?” Boyd asked.

They have a colony in Siberia now, so I suppose they must,” Moralez replied with a shrug. “You want a drink or something?”

What do you have on hand?” Boyd asked.

***

Sit here,” Kaisha said, guiding Lorza onto a stainless steel stool inside a glass shower cubicle. It was larger than any that Lorza had ever seen before, even more luxurious than the ones in the suites, the walls lined with angled water jets. A doctor’s salary had clearly allowed her fellow Polar to invest in some rare luxuries. Memories of trying to bathe aboard the Zemchug came flooding back, the cramped Russian survey vessel that she had served on before her fateful meeting with Boyd. Polars took great care to keep their soft fur clean and presentable, grooming consumed an enormous amount of their time, and this Kaisha person had spared no expense to make her life on the station a little more convenient.

The Doctor reached up and removed a showerhead from its mount, connected to a flexible hose, turning on the water and letting it flow over her hand as she waited for it to warm. When she was confident that the temperature was right, she began to run it up and down Lorza’s arm, cleaning the fur around the wound as diluted blood drained into the grate in the center of the expansive cubicle.

This Rask got you pretty good,” she muttered, switching to their native Polar tongue now that the humans were out of earshot. “It will require a few staples, can you tolerate the pain? It will only be momentary.”

I will endure,” Lorza replied, the warm water soothing the dull ache somewhat. “Thank you,” she added, peering up at the stranger. Kaisha nodded with a demure smile, her eyes fixed on her work. “Boyd wanted to take me to the infirmary, but the Security Chief insisted that we come here. He must have great confidence in your abilities. It was you who helped him recover from his injuries, was it not?”

I was his surgeon, and his physical therapist,” Kaisha replied. “I’m somewhat surprised that he was willing to talk about that period of his life around you and your partner, he is slow to trust.”

I fear that Boyd loosened his lips through provocation, rather than through earning his friendship,” Lorza replied. “He can be somewhat...abrasive at times.”

But you are very much in love,” Kaisha added with a chuckle. “Your scent is all over him, and I trust that it isn’t a result of merely working in close proximity.”

N-no,” Lorza stammered, momentarily flustered. “Though, I would appreciate your discretion. The Chief does not know, and I would prefer to keep it that way. It might be seen as a conflict of interest.”

I sympathize,” Kaisha chuckled, “I have been in the same boat. The humans sometimes take their work too seriously,” she added as she ran her fingers through Lorza’s fur, dislodging a few dried clumps of blood. “Our people understand the ebb and flow of emotion better than they do, we know that sometimes, a desire must simply be indulged before it can be managed.” She set the showerhead back on its brace, and made her way to a cupboard above the sink, rummaging through its contents for a moment. When she returned, she was holding a safety razor in one hand, and a bottle of iodine in the other.

I’ll have to shave the fur around the wound site,” she said. “Sorry, I know how bad it looks.”

Perhaps I will wear a fashionable armband,” Lorza joked, sucking in a sharp breath through gritted teeth as Kaisha began to shave her bicep. “It is nice to see another furry face,” she continued, trying to keep her mind off her injury. “I have been away from the colony for too long, my job has me traveling the Galaxy.”

Is the life of a spy as exciting as it sounds?” Kaisha asked, using the showerhead again to wash away the shaved fur. She exposed a patch of pale skin beneath, the coffee-stain patterning on Lorza’s thick coat reflected in its pigmentation, three cuts seeping a slow trickle of blood. The Doctor upended the bottle of iodine, coating the area liberally with the orange-colored fluid, staining the remaining fur around the patch of naked skin a sickly yellow.

There is more downtime than you might imagine, but yes, it can be rather exhilarating at times.”

The life of a doctor is perhaps not so exciting,” Kaisha added, appraising her work before moving over to the cupboard again. “But I find it fulfilling. Xenobiology has been a passion of mine ever since first contact with the aliens, along with alien cultures. The Russians were very accommodating. I won a grant to attend medical school in Novosibirsk, they put a lot of faith in me, as primitive as I was. I must have seemed like a cave dweller to them, but I had some experience in traditional medicine, which served as a jumping-off point for my studies.”

Looks like it paid off,” Lorza chuckled. “I wanted to see every planet in the Galaxy, and surveying was my ticket onto an exploration vessel. It was not a glamorous assignment, but it scratched that itch.” “Is that where you met Boyd?” Kaisha asked.

In a sense,” Lorza laughed. “He posed as a refugee as a pretense to get aboard my survey ship, hoping to escape the planet Hades. He had been assigned to spy on a crime syndicate, and his cover had been blown. They shot us down over the ice moon, and we spent the next several days marching across the tundra, just trying to stay alive. When people are thrown into a crisis situation like that, I suppose they just...bond. We went through a lot together, I don’t think anyone will ever understand me the way that he does.”

And vice versa,” Kaisha added with a smile. “They are curious creatures, aren’t they? They’re so possessive, passionate, relationships with them are so intensely intimate. Their concept of monogamy takes some getting used to, but I find that it’s worth the trade-off.”

Their males are in constant competition,” Lorza added with a shake of her head, “I don’t imagine that they would do well in a pack environment. And yet, I doubt that they would complain if more females were introduced to the equation...”

Yes, they tend to favor one gender or the other,” Kaisha chuckled as she finished disinfecting the wound. “Still, some of them grow intensely attached to their chosen mate. I find it endearing.”

I’ve been so long without the company of fellow Polars that the idea of living in a pack is almost the more alien option,” Lorza added as the Doctor moved over to the cabinet again.

But isn’t it wonderful that we get to choose?” Kaisha asked, returning with a rather menacing staple gun clutched in her furry hand. “Now, keep still. This is going to be painful.”

She positioned it over the first of the three cuts, pinching the parted skin together with her claws, and pulled the trigger. Lorza gritted her teeth as a tremor passed through her body, the sharp sting of a staple digging into her tender flesh slowly fading. The Doctor moved along the cut until it had been closed, the white material of the staples standing out against a fresh flow of blood, then she moved on to the next one.

There’s something to be said for their biology, too,” Kaisha added in an attempt to keep her talking. “Their tongues are devoid of barbs, their fingers are clawless. I didn’t realize how disadvantaged we are until I took a human partner.”

No chance of pregnancy during mating season either,” Lorza added, “I used to get so testy when I had to abstain from lying with the males for weeks at a time...”

Her sultry chuckle was interrupted by a pained gasp as the Doctor pulled the trigger again. After a couple of minutes, Kaisha was done, standing back to appraise her work. The three claw marks had been stapled shut, and she gave them a final wash with iodine, the sting of it making Lorza wince.

I’d like to bandage the wounds to make sure that there’s no infection,” Kaisha said, her patient nodding her head in agreement. A quick trip to the cabinet later, and her bicep was tightly bound with antiseptic bandages, covering up the bald patch completely. There was no sign of her injury now, save for a subtle stain in the fabric that might be blood or iodine solution. It was hard to be sure.

My thanks again,” Lorza said, flexing her arm.

It was my pleasure,” Kaisha replied warmly. “You shouldn’t need to change the bandages, just remove them in two or three days. The flesh should have knitted enough to close the wounds by then. The staples will dissolve on their own. Now, a warm drink to calm the nerves is in order, if you have no prior engagements?”

Lorza nodded, Kaisha helping her to her feet.

CHAPTER 11: SOLITAIRE

Korbaz paced about her cell, clenching her fists as she glared at the featureless walls. It was an empty box, for all intents and purposes, made from white metal without even a carpet to warm her paws. There were no windows, and only one door that was securely bolted shut, a single slot serving as a means to feed the occupant their processed swill. There was a toilet and a drinking fountain, along with a bed that was little more than a metal frame with a thin mattress laid on top of it.

The tight leather of her pants creaked as she stalked, joining the clicking of her sharp claws on the floor as the only sounds in the room. She was furious, frustrated, and with no outlet to speak of. She had considered savaging her mattress in a fit of anger, but that would leave her with nowhere to sleep, and she had no idea when they would see fit to release her.

How dare these creatures confine her like this, accuse her of atrocities that she had no part in! They flouted her diplomatic rights, denied her the respect that her status afforded her. The Matriarch would hear her complaints, and Korbaz was certain that her condemnation would be harsh indeed.

She finally ceased her restless pacing, the springs in the bed making an intolerable scraping sound as she sat down on them. She crossed her arms and legs as she loosed an irritated snarl, her tail flicking back and forth, her ears flat against her cropped hair. Her people did not imprison one another in this way, they settled their disputes with their claws, and punishments were meted out with little delay. It was impossible to guess what they hoped to accomplish by keeping her here, their alien minds were unfathomable.

She recalled the humiliating fight in the suite, how that oversized kitten of a Polar had forced her into submission, how the UNNI agent had taunted her. She would trade all of her pack’s riches back on Borealis for ten minutes alone with that smirking ape. She would peel the meat from his bones, have him begging for her to grant him a moment mercy. Humans had such tender flesh…

Her thoughts wandered to the Chief of Security, and she lay her head in one of her furry hands, exhaling a sigh as an involuntary pang of arousal tickled her loins. Her rank of Vice Admiral gave her a privileged position in the Rask hierarchy, on top of being the Alpha of a pack with high standing in the social order. She always got what she wanted, either given willingly by fawning underlings or taken by force if it was denied to her. The only people that she couldn’t strongarm were those of equal rank, and the Matriarch herself, of course.

Something about the Security Chief’s defiance and stubbornness made her desire him all the more. It was the forbidden fruit, just out of reach, that tasted the sweetest. She had heard the whispered tales of his people’s sexual prowess, their smooth tongues, and their dull fingers. They seemed almost designed to make a Borealan weak at the knees. Yet her Rask pride told her that they were frail creatures, small and fragile, unworthy of her consideration.

The Chief was different, however. He had strength enough to subdue even her, and his skin was a patchwork of scars earned in battle. The very thought of tracing them with her pads made her heart skip, it was a feature that her people found most desirable in a mate.

How she longed to challenge him, to defeat him, and to take him every manner that she pleased until she’d had her fill of him. Only then could she excise him from her thoughts. He had crept into her dreams following their first, somewhat confrontational encounter, taunting her in the depths of sleep where she had no control over her faculties. Korbaz was confident that she would come out on top in such a battle, but that nagging doubt remained, a possibility of defeat that gave the whole affair a dangerous and exciting allure. The humans did not observe the pack structure, and so there was little danger of any true loss of standing, yet the risk made her cheeks flush red all the same. The very idea that a Vice Admiral of the Rask could find herself in a subservient position to an alien was...scandalous. How long had it been since she had felt defeat, since she had been roughly mounted after being taught her place? Not since her youth. She was uncommonly resilient, as her high rank suggested.

There was her defeat at the hands of the Polar, but that was different. They were manipulative creatures, sneaky, and no challenge had been issued. Still, she couldn’t help but feel a guilty pang of arousal at the idea of the fat, furry creature taking her there on the kitchen floor, right in front of the humans. It was an intrusive thought that she quickly banished from her mind, turning the focus of her lust back to the Chief.

She parted her thighs, eyeing the corners of the room warily for the cameras that the humans liked to place all over their station. There were none that she could see, her captors had granted her the dignity of a little privacy if nothing else.

Her heart was racing, and the bout with the Polar had left her frustrated. There was no aphrodisiac quite like a good fight, and she had been denied the satisfaction of inflicting even a single injury on her opponent. There was nothing worse than swinging one’s claws and having them fail to connect. It was like building to an orgasm and then stopping just short of the climax. If she didn’t do something about it, she was going to go crazy, the risk of her jailors walking in on her be damned…

She began to unzip her leather jacket, her heart beating faster as she exposed her toned midriff, running her sharp claws across her stomach as they wandered down to her belt buckle. Her muscles tensed beneath her tanned skin, pulling taut as she left stinging trails, just the right amount of pain to get her going. She fumbled with her buckle for a moment, hastily unfastening her belt, the comforting weight of the weapons that usually filled her pouches and holsters now absent.

She pulled down her zipper, struggling to drag her skin-tight, leather pants down far enough to expose herself. They clung to her already dampening skin, Korbaz shuffling uncomfortably on the creaking cot as she got them about half-way down her muscular thighs, exposing a tuft of sandy-blonde fur on her otherwise smooth mound.

The cold from the metal wall behind her permeated the padding of her leather jacket as she leaned back against it, spreading her legs as much as her tight pants would allow. She was already dripping, her juices staining her inner thighs, her lips swollen and needy. Biting her lower lip, she slowly slipped a finger between them, wetting her fleshy pad with her excitement. She already knew that her fluids were going to soak her fur, she’d stink of sex, but she was beyond the point of caring about that now.

Her eyelids drooped as her damp, slippery pad brushed her engorged clitoris, a jolt of pleasure making her shiver. Being very careful with the sharp claw on her index finger, she began a slow, circular rubbing motion. Even now, Korbaz longed for something filling, something long and girthy that could scratch the maddening itch deep inside her. But there was nothing to be done about it, she couldn’t insert a finger, not without filleting herself from the inside.

She couldn’t remember the last time that she had been forced to do this alone, there had always been a willing subordinate on hand to provide a cock or a tongue whenever the urge arose. Grumbling her disappointment under her breath, she focused on her sensitive bud, closing her eyes and trying to take her mind off her decidedly unerotic setting.

In her imagination, the Security Chief had come to her suite alone, without his UNNI lackeys in tow. She couldn’t recall the details of his uniform, save that it was blue, perhaps a little tighter fitting in her mind’s eye than it had been in reality. His prosthetics stood out to her, however. She could recall every minute detail, down to the whirring sound that they made when they moved, to the subtle checker pattern that was visible on the black housing when they caught the light at just the right angle. His dark hair, the scars on his tanned skin, those dark eyes that radiated such self-assurance.

She replayed the interrogation in her head, blanking out the two agents and focusing on the Chief. Moralez, that was his real name, but his title afforded him a status that she found quite alluring. Chief of Security had no equivalent in her society, but it was similar to Captain of the Guard, a position in the Elysian military.

The scene played out in much the same way, with the Chief discovering the alien device in her pocket, and confronting her with the demand that she allow herself to be incarcerated. This time, there was no brutish Polar to fight on his behalf, Korbaz flipping the table and squaring off against the human.

He was strong, resilient, putting up a good fight as the pair exchanged scars and bruises. The duel was part of her fantasy, no less erotic than its result, and her racing mind went into great detail as her finger rubbed slowly.

Korbaz dodged out the way as the Chief swung at her with a clenched fist, the hard, tough material punching straight through the wall behind her as though it posed no resistance at all. He came at her again, far quicker than any normal human, a follow-up strike destroying a kitchen counter. The wood fractured, the contents of one of the drawers spilling alien implements onto the floor, her opponent’s dark eyes tracking her as she danced out of his reach.

He raised his arms defensively as she swiped at him with her hooked claws, her talons leaving deep furrows in his polymer forearms. It felt good to feel them tear through something, even if it was only synthetic flesh, the Chief reeling under her powerful blow. She forced him back against the counter, the alien giving up his defensive posture, ducking under her blow to send her claws slicing through a wooden cabinet where his head had been a moment before.

There was an electric whir as he punched her in the stomach, moving as though he intended to put his iron fist straight through her, her muscles tensing as a jolt of pain rocked her. She did not fall as he had expected, driving her knee into his torso, lifting him clear off the floor and sending him slamming into the counter. The Chief was dazed, rising to his feet as he glared at her defiantly, wiping the blood from his mouth with the back of his prosthetic hand. Korbaz had no idea how resilient humans really were, but in her fantasy, he could take anything that she could dish out.

The Chief took up a boxing posture, a human fighting stance that she had seen on the station’s intranet. Their fists were dangerous, the knuckles reinforced for combat to the extent that they had to wear protective gloves to save from wounding one another. She could only imagine that the Chief’s fists were even more deadly, perhaps designed for combat.

Unrelenting, he threw himself at her, harrying her with swift punches from his robotic limbs. He was fast, but he couldn’t hope to stand against a Rask, their bout ending with Korbaz throwing him across the kitchen with a brutal backhand that knocked him off his feet. Even now, he tried to get up, but she marched across the kitchen and reached down to grip him by the collar of his uniform. She lifted him off the ground like a duffel bag, tossing him onto the Borealan-sized couch in the living area.

Submit,” she panted, her sweat making her leather garments stick to her skin. “You are spent.”

A Borealan would submit once bested, he would become compliant, boring. But Korbaz had heard stories of how the humans prolonged the encounter well past the point of submission, resisting even as they were taken.

I’m afraid not, Vice Admiral,” he replied. He was always courteous, even when he was angry.

She reached down with her sharp claws, intending to tear open his uniform, but he gripped her wrist with a robotic hand. Korbaz batted her lashes in surprise as she found herself unable to break his steely grip. Her heart fluttered as her fingers began to grow numb, her wrist starting to hurt. He was so strong…

She brought in her second hand, and he stopped that too, Korbaz’s biceps bulging from beneath the sleeves of her jacket as she tried in vain to reach him. She was winded by a savage kick from his prosthetic leg, the skid-like foot catching her in the belly. Her lips curled into a grin as she pressed more of her weight on him, she could hear his arms creaking, the motors whining. Finally, she managed to gain control, pinning his arms against the cushions as she loomed over him.

Korbaz brought her face close to his, her labored breathing washing over him, the sweet scent of his exertion filling her pink nose. She opened her mouth, grazing his cheek with her rough, tapered tongue. His taste was just as irresistible.

I finally get to have you,” she whispered as her heart began to race, “no more games...”

The Chief reached up and sank his teeth into her neck, biting her hard enough to leave a sore, red mark. A jolt of pleasure coursed through her as her eyelids fluttered, the real Korbaz beginning to stroke herself faster as her imaginary counterpart wet her lips in anticipation.

You can’t resist me,” she continued, “you’ve never had anyone like me before. I’ll send you back to your prissy Polar covered in my scent.”

She drew the loop of rope that she kept in one of her pouches, delighting in binding his hands together. Korbaz wasn’t interested in the details, or the fact that he could easily have broken free, her fantasy demanded that he be restrained.

Now bound with his arms above his head, he couldn’t prevent her from slowly popping the buttons off his uniform one by one with her black claws. Did he have buttons, or had it been a zipper? She couldn’t remember. No matter…

She tore the garment open, exposing his chest, running her padded fingers over his collection of scars. Each one was the proof of a battle won, an engagement survived, a story that had been imprinted in his skin. Korbaz let her claws prick him, leaving red trails that came just short of drawing blood, the Chief twitching as she moved lower.

She knelt, the sound of tearing fabric filling the room as she discarded the rest of his shredded uniform. The garment disappeared to leave him naked as soon as it was no longer part of her imagined encounter, her focus turning to his alien, yet familiar physique. Korbaz could see where his prosthetics connected to his body now, the stumps covered by polymer housings in her mind’s eye. They were some of the most deadly injuries that could be survived, yet he fought on, a shiver traveling down her spine as she admired his physique.

Although she would never have admitted to letting her curiosity get the better of her, she had seen a human’s member before, an anatomical drawing on an intranet article. They weren’t nearly as small as one would have expected from a creature of such diminutive stature, and they were covered in smooth skin, without a barb in sight. The stimulation instead came from the odd ridge on the pronounced head and the bulging veins that ran up and down its length.

She pressed her padded finger against its sensitive tip, watching it twitch, her amber eyes darting upwards to see the Chief peering back at her expectantly. How could he resist her? Given the opportunity, she would turn him, she was certain of it. The sinewy, vigorous body of a Rask was a sculpted work of art, fat Polars and frail human women couldn’t hold a candle to her. If only he would see it. Korbaz had contrived so many opportunities to have him close to her, to let him run those metal hands across her body. If he was at all curious, then he never showed it.

All he had to do was turn up at her suite and ask for a closer look…

Her fingers began to rub faster, wet with her juices as she imagined closing her lips around his member, feeling his pulse against the flat of her tongue. She dug her claws into his prosthetic thigh, feeling them sink deep into the material as she began to suck, crawling her lips lower as his resistance started to melt. She took him into her throat, kissing the base, Korbaz delighting in the way that he throbbed in her mouth.

It was more than simply wanting to conquer him as she had so many others. She wanted to pleasure him, she wanted him to reciprocate her desire, and she wasn’t sure why. Conquest had always been enough before, but she wanted to prove herself in other ways, she wanted him to want her.