Or Die Alone


Cover Illustration by Oouna: https://www.oouna.com/ https://www.furaffinity.net/user/oouna/

© 2023 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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This work of erotic fiction includes scenes featuring sexual content and is intended for adults only.

CHAPTER 1: DANGLE

Boyd secured his cloak as he pushed through the bustling crowd of colonists and traders, each step of his scuffed boots kicking up a small cloud of dust from the arid ground. He was surrounded by market stalls selling scrap metal and shrink-wrapped rations, the colorful tarps that had been strung up as makeshift awnings protecting their owners from the harsh glare of the system’s sun. The street – if it could be described as such – was sandwiched between two rows of prefab buildings that had been erected to form a rudimentary settlement. Their formerly pristine, white facades had been stained by airborne sand and weathering, but they remained bright enough to reflect the sunlight in a way that he found decidedly unpleasant. They were industrial in their appearance, all function and little form, deployed on extensible stilts that resembled the outriggers of a crane. Comms antennae and exposed air conditioning units jutted from their walls, patched with electrical tape and clumsy repairs in places, the insulated cables that linked the structures to the colony’s power grid snaking their way along the ground between them. There was nothing but desert and scrubland beyond, the planet’s hardy flora clinging to life wherever it could in the inhospitable environment.

The locals were clad in obscuring shawls and protective visors, their bodies wrapped in flowing garments that shielded them from the ever-present dust. It made for a very impersonal crowd – all the better to disappear in. Boyd was wearing a duster made from brown leather that was scored by faded scratches, his shoulders wrapped in a ragged cape with a cowl that cast his features into shadow. The passers-by would be none the wiser of the Navy-issued handgun that he carried on his hip, nor of the environment suit that he wore beneath his disguise, its moisture recyclers helping to stave off the oppressive heat.

Hades was a UN colony on the outskirts of human space, a recent effort by corporate conglomerates back on Earth to expand their operations. It was populated almost exclusively by miners seeking a paycheck and outlaws fleeing the authorities on their homeworlds. The corporations needed able bodies for their colonization efforts – people to man their equipment and extract the resources that funded their ventures. It was common to see lawbreakers sign up to escape punishment. From debtors to murderers, the colony ships would take anyone who showed up and signed the waivers. It was a widely-known secret that the companies were fully aware of who they were hiring, but plausible deniability let them dodge fines and sanctions, and background checks were kept to a legally required minimum. Hit a pedestrian while drunk driving? Not to worry – just sign your life away to a mining concern, and you’ll disappear forever. Nobody who had better options would ever agree to relocate to a place like this…

Even among the outlying worlds, Hades was an exception. The fledgling colony had quickly become a haven for hardened criminals and organized gangs, its mobsters and pirates eventually gaining enough of a foothold to draw the attention of the authorities. The straw that had broken the camel’s back had been a pirate raid against a UNN jump freighter carrying weapons for the planetary defense forces stationed on the colony. The PDF were weekend warriors, for the most part, poorly trained and usually even more poorly equipped. Still, with the planet so far from UNN supply lines, they were the first and last line of defense in the event of an attack. It was their job to hold out until a fully-fledged fleet could arrive to do the heavy lifting, which could potentially take months. The vessel had been hit shortly after exiting superlight at the edge of the system, the pirates taking advantage of the brief period of disorientation that followed a jump to board the freighter with a skiff, quickly overwhelming its skeleton crew. They had made off with its cargo of heavy weapons, no doubt to be sold off on the black market and shipped all over Coalition space.

The criminals would have known that they couldn’t steal the freighter itself – it would be practically impossible to hide or sell off a vessel of that class, as monumentally large and expensive to operate as they were. The sheer audacity of the raid demonstrated that there had been a shift in attitude on Hades, however. The situation here had changed, and the Admiralty had tasked Agent Boyd with finding out why. It was an operation months in the making. After spending weeks undercover posing as a corporate hiree, he had boarded a colony ship on Ganymede, the lax recruitment standards making it a trivial affair to blend in with the usual rabble of desperate job-seekers and flighty criminals. Once on Hades, he had laid low, eventually making contact with an informant who was willing to sell him information on the local criminal enterprises. His price wasn’t credits, but a pardon for any crimes committed and a ticket back to Earth. Boyd was authorized to make such deals, and so had agreed to the man’s terms.

His contact had claimed to be a gang member who had become disgruntled with life on Hades. He refused to communicate via unencrypted channels and had demanded a face-to-face meeting at a local tavern, the public setting going some way to ensure that this wasn’t some elaborate mob honey pot. Boyd was no less wary – this could just as easily be a trap intended to draw out UNN spies – but he felt confident with the comforting weight of his XMH on his hip.

As he weaved through the throngs, he spotted a few children milling about, sticking close to their parents or playing beside the market stalls. They were the real victims – families who had taken advantage of corporate incentives to make a go at a new life on the frontier. As bad as Hades was, the overpopulated domes of Martian cities and the subterranean tunnels of Jovian colonies were hardly brimming with opportunity, and the promise of open skies with a breathable atmosphere was often all that it took to convince the uninformed to relocate. Rather than finding opportunity here, they had found themselves at the mercy of a criminal empire, and had likely been given little choice but to keep their heads down and cooperate.

The higher-ups that funded these ventures didn’t give a damn as long as the ore kept flowing and the colony turned a profit. With nobody to hold them accountable so far from populated space, the corporate entities formed a kind of symbiotic relationship with the local criminal organizations, and it was in the interest of both parties to ignore the other. Everything might have continued to run smoothly, flying under the UNN’s radar, if someone hadn’t taken things a step too far. Now, the eyes of the Navy were firmly fixed on Hades.

Boyd spied the tavern in the distance – another ugly, boxy prefab standing on a set of outriggers that lifted it off the ground. The structure had been expanded by joining several of the modular buildings together. There was a neon sign hanging above its entrance, so caked in dust and grime that it was hard to tell if it was even turned on. He could see an array of solar panels on the roof that would presumably supply the structure with supplemental power, along with a satellite receiver, its bowl now full of sand.

As he climbed the short flight of creaking, metal steps that led to the entrance, the automatic door opened to let him pass. He noted that it didn’t quite slide flush with its frame, suggesting that there were probably grains of sand jamming the mechanism. He stepped into the dingy interior as the door struggled to close behind him, and he reached up to lower his hood, his features still obscured behind a pair of protective goggles and a respirator that covered his mouth and nose. His dark hair was matted with sweat, and he wiped his brow with the sleeve of his duster, finding that the gesture served only to glue more sand to his damp skin.

The tavern was relatively empty. It was cramped and poorly lit, clouds of tobacco smoke swirling around the solitary ceiling fan that turned lazily overhead. There were only a dozen tables scattered about the main prefab, and only a handful of them were occupied, the establishment’s patrons glancing up at him suspiciously as he made his way towards the bar that lined the far wall. They were dressed much the same as the people he had encountered out on the street, clad in thick coats and shawls, their faces hidden behind masks and hoods – anything to protect themselves from the windblown sand and the relentless sunlight that beat down on the planet. Any one of these people could be his contact – even the bartender couldn’t be ruled out. How would they make themselves known to him?

The man standing behind the bar glanced up at Boyd as he approached, the agent sinking into one of the padded stools, leaning his gloved hands on the faux-wood counter. None of the furnishings were made from real wood – it was all polymer and metal, as genuine timber was a luxury on planets where it couldn’t be sourced locally.

“Barkeep,” he rasped through his respirator. “Got liqueur?”

“Got scrip?” the man replied, crossing his tattooed arms impatiently.

“Aye,” he said, reaching into one of the pockets of his duster. He dropped a handful of plastic coins on the counter with a clatter. Credits were worthless out here. The employees were paid in vouchers – small, plastic tokens that could only be redeemed at company-owned stores. It was wage slavery of a sort. You work in the mines, then you get paid in a currency that can only be paid back to your employer. The excuse given to justify the practice was that commercial entities weren’t often willing to ship their goods so far out to service such a small population, and that the company was only doing what was necessary to secure essential supplies for its employees. That didn’t really hold up to scrutiny, especially when one took into account that much of the equipment used by the colonists was leased from the same company, ensuring that they remained in debt. Such practices only seemed to grow more brazen the further the colonies were from commercial shipping lanes. The joker who ordered the hit on that freighter was about to cost a whole lot of people a whole lot of scratch.

The bartender lifted one of the tokens suspiciously, producing a handheld scanner and running the little disk beneath its sensor, checking for the laser-etched code that was used to prevent forgery. There was a beep of confirmation, and though he seemed satisfied, he was no less suspicious of the newcomer.

“I have rum, tequila, vodka, gin…”

“Gin,” Boyd crackled, his respirator masking his voice with a hidden modulator. The bartender selected a bottle from one of the shelves, then poured him a glass of colorless liquid, setting it down on the countertop in front of him. Boyd extended a built-in straw from his mask with the press of a button, then took a draw, the drink burning on its way down. It wasn’t exactly top-shelf stuff…

He felt vulnerable here with his back to the room, but he had to keep up appearances until the informant revealed himself. There were always new workers being shipped in, so it wouldn’t be unusual to see unfamiliar faces, even in a hole in the wall like this.

Damn it, didn’t they have a jukebox? Some music would help ease the tension, and it would mask the noise of the incessant coughing and the hissing of respirators. The bartender wasn’t very chatty, ignoring Boyd as he washed glasses with a filthy rag, leaving him to sip at his gin in silence. Boyd’s goggles were tinted to protect him from the harsh sunlight, allowing him to turn his head and observe the patrons without being too obvious, scanning his eyes over the hunched figures as they drank or played card games at their tables. Nobody seemed all that interested in him, which was a good sign. The shifts in the mines were over, and these people were likely exhausted after a hard day’s work. He wondered briefly how many of them were criminals, who among them was fleeing alimony payments, and who might have murdered their spouse or skipped their probation hearing. Every person one met in these colonies was under suspicion. The man working the stall beside yours could be a murderer who had posted bail and then boarded a colony ship under a false name – there was no way to know.

He was interrupted as a stranger sat down heavily on the stool to his left, making the old leather creak. It was a portly man, wearing only a pair of faded work jeans and a stained tank top, his lack of protective gear suggesting that he had been in the tavern for a while. Maybe he was an employee? Boyd watched as the man fidgeted nervously, shifting his weight in the seat, drumming his fingers on the bar. The guy looked like he was about to crawl out of his skin. This must be his contact…

“Are you here to meet someone?” the man asked, making a poor attempt to sound casual.

“I believe we spoke on the phone,” Boyd replied, his distorted voice hissing through his mask. “As you requested, I have come to buy the item in person.”

The portly stranger exhaled a quiet sigh of relief, relaxing somewhat as he leaned some of his weight on the bar. Boyd took the opportunity to get a better look at him. His hairy arms were covered in tattoos, some of which probably denoted gang affiliations, and his thick fingers were covered in callouses that hinted at a life of hard labor. This man had been on Hades for a long time.

“Yeah, I have what you’re looking for in the back,” he continued with a gesture over his shoulder. “You want to come inspect it?”

“Lead the way,” Boyd replied.

Not a bad idea – there would be less chance of them being overheard in a back room. Boyd spared a glance at the bartender, concerned that he might be listening in, but he was conspicuously disinterested. Even shady backroom deals and conspiratorial whispering might not arouse a lot of suspicion in a place like this. Contraband and stolen goods likely changed hands on a regular basis, and it was nothing out of the ordinary. The people of Hades would have learned to keep to themselves and mind their own business pretty quickly.

The agent finished his drink, then rose from his stool, following his contact to a door on the left side of the room. Another sliding panel opened to grant them access, and they stepped into one of the prefabs that had been joined to the main building, the door sealing shut behind them with a hiss. It was being used as a storeroom – the walls were piled high with crates, and shelves filled with bottles reached from floor to ceiling. The informant checked the room hurriedly, then squeezed past Boyd to lock the door, entering a numerical code into a touch panel that was embedded in its frame.

“Okay, I think we’re alone,” the man said as he wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He took a seat on a nearby crate, the container sagging a little under his weight. “You never know who might be listening in,” he continued, his wild eyes darting to the agent’s inscrutable goggles. “The Syndicate controls this colony – they have eyes and ears everywhere. Not here, though. I made sure of it.”

“You told me that you had information to sell,” Boyd said, cutting straight to the point.

“Yes, yes,” the man grumbled with an impatient wave of his hand. “First, I need you to prove that you are who you say you are. I need to know that this isn’t some kinda rat trap before I give you anything.”

“Very well,” Boyd replied. He began to unbutton his leather duster, the man flinching away as he reached beneath it, expecting him to draw a weapon. Instead, he produced a leather wallet, holding it up to the informant.

“What’s this supposed to be?” he demanded, squinting incredulously as he leaned closer to inspect it. “There’s no badge there – nothing.”

Boyd slipped off one of his gloves and pressed his fingertip against a hidden scanner in the back of the wallet. A holographic badge flared to life, the insignia of the United Nations Naval Intelligence branch clearly visible, along with his name and rank. It lit up his contact’s surprised face in the dingy room, then fizzled out, the man taking a moment to collect himself.

“Okay, okay,” he stammered as he began to wring his hands. “Fuck me, you’re UNNI? I didn’t realize things had gotten bad enough to get you guys involved. You’ll keep your word, right?” he added. “You’ll protect me if I squeal?”

“I’m authorized to make deals on behalf of the agency,” Boyd replied, stowing his wallet back inside his duster. “But, you have to give me actionable intel first. Tell me everything you know about the hit on the freighter. I want names, and I want to know where those weapons ended up.”

“Okay, yeah,” the man said as he hopped off the crate. He was pacing now, visibly agitated. “They have people in flight control – it’s not hard for them to get their hands on jump schedules and shipping manifests. They had weeks to plan the hit.”

“What about the local authorities?” Boyd asked.

“Shithole like this barely has enough wardens to police low orbit,” the man scoffed. “It wasn’t hard to make sure no patrol ships would be sniffing around the exit point. They hit the freighter before her drive was even cold. Came away with three Cupcake SAMs – deployable surface-to-air missile launchers packing EMP warheads, perfect for taking out low-flying spacecraft. The Navy uses them to defend their bases. Other shit, too, I heard. Crates of surplus XMRs, forty-mill launchers, enough slugs to choke a Krell. They were en route to the PDF, those fucking useless militiamen, but the Syndicate got there first. Never seen anything like it before,” he added with a shake of his head. “Nobody has ever hit a UNN jump freighter – nobody’s ever had the balls. The Syndicate does.”

“What is this Syndicate?” Boyd asked. “Who’s running the show?”

“You’ll protect me, right?” the informant asked hurriedly. “You’ll vouch for me? I want it on record that I had no choice but to cooperate,” he continued as he spread his arms in exasperation. “I’m not a bad guy, but nothing happens on Hades without their say. They control everything. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the saying goes. If you don’t fall into line, they’ll put one in the back of your head and dump your body down a mine shaft.”

The man was rambling, obviously terrified by the prospect of reprisals. Boyd had to calm him down and get him back on track before he had a goddamned coronary.

“This is all being recorded,” Boyd said, trying to reassure him. “The UNN is bound by any deals that I make. Just tell me everything that you know, and I’ll see to it that you disappear. We’ll put you in the witness protection program – give you a whole new identity – and you’ll be on the first boat back to Earth. You’ll be out of reach and impossible to find – you have my word.”

The man wiped his mouth on his fuzzy forearm, taking a moment to compose himself before continuing.

“The Syndicate is everyone. There are pirates, smugglers, mobsters, separatists – all united under the same banner. It’s easier that way. They’re not competing against each other, and they outnumber whatever two-bit local cops aren’t already on the payroll. The corp doesn’t give a fuck as long as operations keep running smoothly. The Navy wasn’t supposed to care about what happens out here either. Naval Intelligence…Jesus Christ,” he muttered as he lay his head in his hands. “They brought the Ninnies down on our heads.”

Boyd ignored the derogatory nickname, pressing the man for more details.

“Try to focus. So, this Syndicate snatched the weapon shipment? I need to get that hardware back. They can’t have had time to move the goods off-world yet, not when they’re so hot, so how are they planning to fence them? Do you know if they have any buyers lined up?”

“No, you’re missing the big picture,” the informant replied with a bitter chuckle. “Thought you Ninnies were supposed to be smart? The Syndicate wants control over the colony, completely. They want to drive the pencil pushers out and claim Hades as sovereign territory. Billions of credits worth of resources get extracted from this dust bowl every year, and the Syndicate wants control over that wealth. If they can direct the cash flow, then they’ll become more than just petty criminals. They’d have the resources to stake their claim, and to defend it, from both corporate security and the UNN if need be. All of the infrastructure they need is already here.”

“Why would they try to take over the planet?” Boyd asked, his brow furrowing behind his goggles. “Why piss off the corp? Why rock the boat? All the intel we have suggests that the criminal organizations on Hades have an unspoken truce with the corp – one that benefits them both. What changed?”

“They want the whole pie, not just whatever slice the suits are willing to give up to keep the peace. This colony is remote enough and poorly defended enough to give them a shot. Not everyone living here is a criminal, of course. There are plenty of families here, people who came to Hades for work, for a shot at a new life. The Syndicate is telling them that the UNN can’t protect them, and that they’re the only ones who can. In a way, they’ve already proven it. The Navy can’t even keep their own freighters safe out here. They’re banking on you not responding, banking that you won’t divert fleets from the war effort to put down an insurrection on some shitty backwater nobody gives a fuck about.”

“If nobody gave a fuck, I wouldn’t be here sweating my balls off,” Boyd grumbled. “It’s a full-blown insurrection, then? The situation is worse than I thought – much worse. If that’s all you have to tell me, then I need to get this intel off-world as quickly as possible. The UNN needs to be warned.”

“Yeah, absolutely,” the man replied with a nod. “You know everything I know. You got a ship in orbit, anything like that? Anyone to back you up? I’m not a big player – I can’t get a message out without some gangster or suit picking up on it.”

“No, I went undercover on one of the colony ships,” Boyd replied. His hand slowly wandered inside his duster, reaching for the sidearm on his hip. “But why would you need to know that?”

The informant’s demeanor changed abruptly. Gone was the anxious, pacing man, his darting eyes now fixed confidently on Boyd.

“Thank you, Agent Boyd. That was all we needed to know.”

Boyd pulled his handgun from its holster with practiced speed, but too late, he heard the sound of the door panel sliding open behind him. Something hit him in the back of the head, and his world went dark.

***

Boyd awoke to darkness. His mask and goggles had been removed, and he could feel coarse fabric brushing against his face as he struggled to turn his head. There was a throbbing pain in his temples, like someone was driving an ice pick into his skull, and he could taste blood on his tongue. When he tried to move his hands, he found that they were bound behind his back, a metal chair creaking beneath him. He wasn’t dead, then. At least, not yet…

The burlap sack was unceremoniously torn from his head, the light blinding him, Boyd blinking to clear his vision as the dark shapes that surrounded him slowly came into focus. He found himself in a spacious building with a high ceiling – some kind of warehouse, maybe – filled with rows ofshelves that were packed with nondescript crates and containers. He was tied to a folding chair in the middle of a concrete floor, surrounded by five men. Three of them were wearing full-faced helmets with opaque visors – the same kind worn by Marines. Military surplus, maybe? Their uniforms identified them as members of the colony’s PDF, and they were all holding XMRs, likely the same rifles stolen from the freighter. The magnetic coils on their barrels made them easy to identify.

One of the remaining men was immediately recognizable as his would-be informant, producing a butterfly knife from his pocket, playing with it as he began to circle the chair. Boyd turned his head to follow him, the rest of the group looking on in silence. The last stranger was standing a few feet further away, his hands buried in his pockets. He was an older man, and he was smartly dressed, sporting a tailored suit in a shade of slate grey that matched the streaks in his thinning hair. He wore a pair of expensive loafers, and there was a glint of gold on his cufflinks. This was a mob boss if Boyd had ever seen one – his rap sheet might as well have been tattooed on his forehead. He scrutinized Boyd with a pair of cold, blue eyes, as sharp as razors despite the crow’s feet at their corners. His calm, commanding demeanor made him far more threatening than the fool swinging the knife around.

“I gotta be honest, boss,” the informant began as he circled back into view. “When you said you wanted to bait a Ninnie to Hades and take him alive, I thought you’d lost the plot, but here we are.” He stopped in front of Boyd, then brought the tip of the blade close to his face, seeming annoyed when he didn’t flinch away. “We have our Ninnie, along with enough hardware to take out an entire landing force of UNN dropships. If they park a carrier in orbit, they won’t be able to get a single boot on the ground.”

“You kept me alive,” Boyd groaned, his headache still lingering. “Why? What do you want with a UNNI agent?”

The informant stepped aside, giving him a view of the man in the suit. He had produced a fat cigar from his pocket and was shielding a lighter as he lit it, taking a few quick puffs to get it going. He exhaled a cloud of smoke, then cleared his throat, his voice a gruff baritone as he began to speak.

“As my colleague has already alluded to, Mister Boyd, I brought you here for a purpose. Cooperate, and no further harm will befall you. Everything that you have been told so far is true. I represent the Syndicate, and we aim to take control of Hades.”

“You can’t steal an entire planet,” Boyd replied incredulously. “It’s impossible. You’d have to be very poorly informed to think that you could pull it off.”

“I think you’ll soon come to realize that you are the one who is poorly informed, Agent,” the man replied as he took another leisurely puff from his cigar. “Ironic, considering that HUMINT is your organization’s specialty. I’d have something to say about the UN wasting tax credits, but issues like taxation aren’t going to be a concern of ours for much longer.”

“If you really try this – if you try to take control of Hades and cut the colony off from the rest of human space – you’re going to have a lot more than one carrier breathing down your neck,” Boyd spat.

The man took a few steps closer to the chair, exhaling a cloud of acrid smoke in his direction, Boyd fighting the urge to cough.

“You don’t get where I am today by being risk-averse, Mister Boyd,” he continued as he tapped his cigar to dislodge a small shower of ash. “How’s that little war of yours going, Agent? Things aren’t looking too good, I hear. The fleet is spread thin all across the frontier, without enough ships or men to protect every colony, and a Bug fleet could drop out of superlight almost anywhere. That’s why the weapon shipment was coming in to begin with – because in the event of an invasion, you’d have to rely on our good friends in the PDF to hold the line until the boys in blue could arrive to save the day,” he said with a gesture to his armed goons. “It doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence.”

“Do you realize how many people you’d be putting in danger by diverting resources from the war effort for this nonsense?” Boyd demanded.

“I don’t think you can spare a fleet,” the boss continued, ignoring his question. “Ask yourself – what’s a higher priority for the Admiralty? Helping some corrupt corp maintain control over a backwater like Hades with less than a million inhabitants, or denying the Bugs a foothold in human space? The Navy can’t be everywhere at once, and the choice is an obvious one.”

He became stern suddenly, his weathered features wrinkling into a frown.

“You know as well as I do, Ninnie, that the UNN would expend more resources maintaining their tenuous hold over uninhabited wastelands like Kruger III or Chara II than they would defending this strategically insignificant colony. I am not a dishonest man,” he continued, bringing the cigar to his lips again. “The reasons my colleagues and I want control over this planet are purely selfish and monetary in nature, but when I say that the Navy won’t protect the people of Hades, I tell no lie. The Syndicate, on the other hand, defends its assets. The colonists are an asset to us, and we will defend them against any and all threats. The Bugs, the corp, the Navy – it doesn’t matter. Our price might be economic domination over the planet, sure, but that control is already exerted by ExoCorp and its subsidiaries. The locals won’t even notice the change in management.”

The man leaned down to eye level with Boyd, taking another long drag from his cigar.

“What do the people of Hades have to lose by cooperating with us? The protection of a UNN fleet that wouldn’t arrive for weeks if they called for help? The employ of a corporation that cares even less about their welfare than smugglers and pirates? Nobody is being hustled or coerced here,” he added, spreading his arms. “We merely offered the people of Hades a choice, and most of them have already made it.”

“So, not everyone is on board with your scheme?” Boyd asked with a smirk. The boss stood again, brushing a spec of ash off his lapel, his confidence faltering a little.

“Not as of yet, but that’s where you come in.”

“What can you possibly expect me to do?” Boyd scoffed.

“We can’t strong-arm the holdouts,” the man replied, watching a wisp of smoke rise lazily towards the ceiling. “Coercion would defeat the purpose of everything we’ve tried to accomplish on Hades, but what we can do is convince them. Or rather, you can convince them,” he added with a gesture to Boyd. “What I have sitting before me is living proof of the UNN’s incompetence – of their inability to maintain control of Hades. We baited a Ninnie and trapped him like it was nothing, we made a mockery of the Admiralty’s most feared operatives. If those who are still on the fence hear about the UNN’s disregard for Hades from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, it would help tear down the final barrier that’s preventing us from taking full control of the colony.”

“You’re asking me to be…what, exactly?” Boyd asked as he shifted his weight uncomfortably on the metal seat. “Your poster boy? A mouthpiece for mobsters? You have to know that I won’t cooperate.”

“Oh, but you will,” the man replied with a sinister smile. “Because if you don’t, I’ll just put a railgun slug through your skull and dump your body in the desert. The only people who even know you’re here are your handlers in UNNI. We’ll just repeat the process with the next fool they send to investigate until we find someone who’s more amenable. I’m sure your replacement would come around if he heard about what happened to his predecessor,” he added with a chuckle. “A little video of your grisly execution could prove to be very persuasive.”

“You’re going to get the same answer from the next guy, and the next,” Boyd protested.

“Does it surprise you that we know UNNI operating procedures? Until recently, we had a man in the Admiralty, someone by the name of Rawling. I’m sure this isn’t news to you. While you did a good job of covering up the scandal, Rawling did an equally good job of covering his tracks. Evidently, you were never able to tie him back to us. We know that standard procedure requires the deployment of another agent to investigate the disappearance of the first. Can you be sure that they’ll be as stubborn as you are? Would you stake your life on it?”

Boyd had to admit, the Syndicate had really tied this affair up in a neat little bow. If the organization had the support of the population and an inside knowledge of how the UNN and its intelligence branch operated, then every agent that was sent here would be walking into the same trap. Only Boyd could stop this, and until the Syndicate changed the minds of the people who were still resisting them, there was still time. He had to get the information he had learned off-planet by any means necessary. If his captors were monologuing like this, then they were confident that he was screwed, but he wasn’t out of the fight just yet.

The weight of his handgun was absent from his hip, and his duster was gone, his captors having stripped him down to his UNNI-issue environment suit. The grey-blue garment was skin-tight, snaking wires and tubes that resembled veins crisscrossing its surface, connecting small electronic devices and life support systems that were embedded beneath its surface. He had been stripped of his weapons and equipment, but they must not be aware of the suit’s capabilities. It was highly classified tech – nobody outside of the organization would know how it worked, and it would just look like a fancy pressure suit to the uninitiated. Even the traitorous Admiral Rawling wouldn’t have been privy to its secrets. It was too early to play his hand, however. He had to wait for the perfect moment to strike.

“It’s not too late to back out,” Boyd began. “I’m authorized to make deals on behalf of the UNN. This situation hasn’t yet escalated to the point that we can’t come to a solution that works for everyone.”

His captors began to laugh, the PDF goons included, their voices taking on a robotic timbre through their helmet speakers.

“What makes you think you’re in a position to make deals, Ninnie?” the portly informant chuckled, the butterfly knife dancing between his deft fingers. “You’re drifting with a dead drive. The options are to do as we say, or like the boss said, we’re gonna bury you in a shallow hole in the scrublands.”

“Then, I guess we’re done talking here,” Boyd replied with a sigh of resignation. “I won’t help you. Do whatever you need to do.”

“I respect your resilience, Mister Boyd,” the man in the suit said. He took one last puff from his cigar, then tossed it to the concrete, putting it out beneath his loafer. “Your loyalty is admirable, but those you serve would never extend the same courtesy to you. You’re a deniable asset, one that they’ll claim never even existed once you’re gone. Such is the fate of UNNI’s fallen heroes.”

“Comes with the territory,” Boyd replied.

The boss scrutinized him, searching for some show of fear or apprehension, but found none.

“In a few moments, I’m going to ask these fine PDF militiamen to take you out to a truck, zip you up in a body bag, and then dump you down an abandoned mine shaft out in the desert. Maybe the fall will kill you, or maybe they’ll be merciful enough to put a few slugs in you first, but your sacrifice will serve no purpose. You’ll be dying for nothing. One of you is going to crack,” he added, one corner of his mouth lifting in a sneer. “One of you will have weaker resolve than the last, and if I have to go through half a dozen agents to find him, that’s what I’ll do.”

“That’s it?” Boyd asked, tilting his head. “You’re not going to offer me a bribe – a seat on your pirate council? Not going to torture me for good measure?”

“I am a businessman first and foremost,” the man replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, the gold rings that adorned his fingers glinting. “I have no interest in inflicting undue suffering, and your type are too opinionated for bribes. Besides, I know that you won’t break under torture – not someone with your level of security clearance. I’ve heard enough,” he added, turning to make his way back towards an open door at the far end of the warehouse. “Dispose of him.”

The man wielding the butterfly knife stepped forward, his lips peeling back in an ugly grin. At the informant’s direction, two of the PDF troopers approached and lay their hands on Boyd’s shoulders, the third waiting nearby with his rifle at the ready.

“In a way, I’m glad you refused the boss’s offer,” the informant said, flicking his knife closed with a click before stowing it in his pocket. “I’m gonna enjoy this. Take him to the truck!” he barked, turning his attention back to the troopers. They hooked their hands beneath Boyd’s arms, hauling him out of his seat, his hands still tied behind his back.

“I have just three words for you,” Boyd grunted.

“Oh yeah?” the informant asked, cocking an eyebrow. “What’s that? Don’t kill me?”

“Parakeet, hyphenated, Monroe.”

There was a brilliant flash of light accompanied by a shower of bright sparks, the high-density battery packs that ran down the suit’s spine releasing a two-hundred-milliamp electrical current into its lining. The two troopers who had been holding him up tensed for a moment, going as stiff as statues, then toppled to lie motionless on the concrete floor. Wisps of smoke rose from beneath their helmets, their nervous systems fried by the electrical discharge, their hearts stopped dead in their chests. The ropes that bound his hands burned away, turned to ash by the intense heat, Boyd ducking low as he charged towards the remaining soldier. The suit would need time to recharge before it could deliver another shock like that – he’d have to fight his way out of here the old-fashioned way.

The militiaman was already raising his XMR, preparing to fire from the hip, but his complacency had cost him valuable seconds. Boyd crashed into him like a linebacker, knocking him to the ground, his helmet bouncing off the concrete. The man struggled to point the barrel of the weapon at Boyd, but the agent pinned it against his chest with his weight, the two grappling on the floor. The trooper managed to get his finger around the trigger, Boyd angling the rifle away as it let off a burst of gunfire, the deafening crack ringing his ears. The magnetically-accelerated projectiles blew through a crate off to their right, showering the pair in an explosion of packing peanuts.

The goon managed to get a hit in, Boyd feeling his lip split open as the butt of the rifle connected with his face, but the man didn’t have enough leverage to stun him. The agent planted a boot beside the trooper, then reached for his ankle. If the mobsters had used a metal detector to scan him for weapons or had simply frisked him, they would have missed the concealed ceramic blade. He drew the push-knife, plunging it beneath the man’s helmet and into his throat. His adversary gurgled for a moment, dark arterial blood forming a spreading pool on the concrete beneath him, then went limp. Boyd tore the rifle from the man’s lifeless hands, slicing through its sling with his blade, blood from his split lip dripping down his chin.

As the ringing in his ears began to abate, he heard the sound of echoing footsteps, looking up to see the informant fleeing towards the exit. For all his bluster, the man was smart enough to know not to bring a knife to a gunfight. Boyd reached behind his head for the hood that was connected to his environment suit, pulling it over his face, the garment creating an airtight seal around his neck. The flexible visor slid over his eyes, the built-in hearing protection activating to filter out the ambient noise in the warehouse. He dropped to a knee, taking aim, the recoil kicking the rifle into his shoulder as he fired. The hypervelocity slug caught his target between the shoulder blades, throwing him off his feet, gore spraying as it blew a fist-sized exit wound in his chest.

As the man’s body dropped to the floor, Boyd saw the crime boss standing in the doorway ahead, his eyes wide. The round had passed through its target, impacting the far wall, leaving a smoking crater an arm’s breadth from his head.

The pair stared each other down for a moment, the air above the rifle’s magnetic coils shimmering as they cooled, the sound of Boyd’s labored breathing filling his hood. He swung the rifle up towards the man, but he was already leaping behind the wall, out of view. Boyd cursed under his breath, rising to his feet, still a little unsteady from the blow to his face. He checked the counter on the little LCD display mounted above the rifle’s receiver, seeing that he had twenty-six slugs left. The body of the PDF trooper lying beside him had a chest rig packed with spare magazines, like he was expecting to fight off a goddamned invasion. The weapon was nothing more than an expensive toy to people like him – a chance to look cool and feel powerful.

He stooped to recover one of the magazines, then tapped at the touch panel that was built into the forearm of his suit, activating a series of electromagnets embedded in the chest area. They snatched the mag from his hand when he brought it close, letting the suit act as a rig in a pinch. With a second magazine hanging off his torso, he felt more confident, turning back to the door just in time to see a procession of PDF troopers come rushing through.

“I want that fucking Ninnie dead!” he heard the boss yell from somewhere behind them, his calm demeanor forgotten. “Bring me his fucking head!”

Eight of the men spread out into the warehouse, their weapons already leveled, Boyd darting for the nearest row of shelves as they began to fire. The chatter of automatic weapons filled the room, the rounds punching through the containers above him as he ducked low, showering him with concrete mix and fertilizer. Those weren’t XMRs – they sounded like machine pistols firing caseless rounds – older tech that the PDF garrisons would have in spades. They were still lethal, the large volume of inaccurate fire forcing Boyd to the ground. He rolled onto his side, glancing beneath the rows of shelves that stood between him and his assailants, seeing several pairs of boots.

He took careful aim, then pulled the trigger, one of the men dropping into view with a gaping hole in his chest. The railgun could fire through the obstacles like they weren’t even there, another burst sending the troopers scattering. Even with only the most basic training, the troopers knew to leverage their numerical advantage, a couple of them laying down suppressive fire while the rest moved deeper into the warehouse. He had to stay mobile, or they’d get a bead on him. His suit could do many things, but stopping a bullet wasn’t one of them.

Boyd scrambled to his feet, ducking as the shooters peppered the shelves around him with bullets.They seemed to have no real idea where he was, so they were just shooting randomly, hoping to keep him pinned.

He took a moment to examine his surroundings, his eyes darting around through the flexible visor on his hood. The warehouse was a large one, the ceiling rising high above his head, the skylights letting in harsh sunlight that was tinted orange by the sand that caked them. Itwas likely being used to store building materials and tools for the colony based on the cement mix that dusted the shoulders of his suit and the pallets stacked high with crates ready to be loaded onto trucks. Most of the floor space was taken up by the shelves, which reached almost to the ceiling, the space between them just large enough that a forklift could fit through. He had to use the environment to his advantage, or they were just going to flush him out.

He heard footsteps nearing, his suit’s software increasing the gain, helping him pick out the subtle sounds. Slowly, he crept closer to the shelf that he was using as cover, peering between two of the crates. One of the PDF troopers was a couple of aisles away, sweeping the area with his machine pistol as he searched, crunching the spilled packing peanuts underfoot.

Boyd leveled his XMR, taking careful aim, staying as silent as a hunter sighting a deer. He pulled the trigger, the butt of the rifle rocking into his shoulder, the slug cutting through the boxes between him and his target like they weren’t even there. The hypervelocity round impacted the crate beside the trooper, hitting something harder than foam – maybe some piece of industrial machinery or a shipment of tools. It turned whatever was inside the box into a spray of molten shrapnel, lifting his target off his feet like he had been hit by a grenade, tossing him against the adjacent shelves.

As the man’s lifeless body was buried in an avalanche of crates, his comrades came running towards the source of the noise, shouting threats and egging each other on. Another hail of inaccurate fire shredded some of the boxes to Boyd’s left, sending tattered paper and fragments of polymer spraying, but they didn’t know where he was. Again, he took aim, loosing a three-round burst that caught the lead man in the chest. The rounds blew fist-sized holes in his torso, imparting enough kinetic energy to throw him to the concrete like he’d been hit by a truck. The tungsten slugs overpenetrated, one of them tearing into the arm of the man who was standing directly behind him, almost severing the limb. Blood sprayed the nearby containers, the man’s scream muffled by his helmet as he dropped his weapon, reaching for the arm as it hung by a thread of torn flesh.

The four remaining troopers pressed on, one of them laying down covering fire while the rest rushed towards Boyd’s hiding place. He was forced to relocate, ducking low again as the rounds whizzed over his head, puffs of shimmering dust from a shipment of sintering powder filling the air. He made for the far end of his aisle, but as he neared, one of the goons beat him to the punch. He stepped around the corner, right into Boyd’s path, swinging his machine pistol towards the approaching agent in alarm. Boyd didn’t even flinch, barreling into him, sending the burst of gunfire wide. The two men grappled for a moment, Boyd grabbing the man’s weapon, keeping it aimed away from him. The PDF trooper tried to do the same, letting out a yell of surprise and pain as he wrapped his hand around the XMR’s exposed coils, the hot metal burning straight through his glove.

Boyd took advantage of the distraction to wrest the machine pistol from his other hand, sending it clattering to the concrete, wrapping his arm around the man’s neck as he got behind him. The trooper struggled, grasping at Boyd’s forearm, but he had him in a solid headlock. Two of his comrades came rushing into view at the other end of the aisle, Boyd leaning the barrel of his XMR on his hostage’s shoulder.

The pair hesitated just long enough for him to fire, Boyd filling the aisle with tungsten, the slugs tearing through the two troopers. As they slumped to the floor, he kicked his hostage in the back of the leg, forcing him to his knees before dumping two rounds into the back of his helmet.

Before he could get his bearings, he heard the sound of metal on concrete, glancing down to see a ball-shaped object rolling towards him. It began to disgorge an obscuring cloud of white gas, the substance jetting into the air, quickly filling the aisle’s narrow space. It was CS gas – used by the PDF for riot control. His hood would protect him from the debilitating effects of the aerosol, but he couldn’t see three feet in front of him.

He began to move, and just in time, the chatter of automatic fire ringing out. His assailants hosed the aisle, the bullets sparking off the concrete and spilling more packing peanuts, Boyd throwing himself to the ground. He pulled the limp body of the PDF trooper up by the straps on its chest rig, putting it between him and the shooter, feeling the corpse shudder as the rounds slammed into its back.

Through the swirling smoke, two more figures walked into view. One of them was holding a riot shield, while the other was advancing behind him with another machine pistol, a hand on his shoulder. As they approached his hiding place, Boyd lifted his rifle over the body, dumping the rest of his magazine into the pair. As the man with the machine pistol fell, Boyd swung the barrel towards the second, but heard an empty click. He ejected the spent magazine, rolling onto his back as he reached frantically for a spare, tugging it free of the electromagnets that secured it to his chest.

The remaining PDF trooper let out a yell, raising the riot shield above his head and bringing it down towards Boyd. The agent was forced to roll out of the way, its edge slamming down on the floor where he’d been lying a moment prior. As he climbed to his feet, his opponent knocked the XMR out of his hand with a swipe of his shield, sending him stumbling back a few paces.

The two began to square off, the CS gas starting to clear now. The trooper produced an extensible baton, shaking it to full length with a click, starting to advance with his shield raised defensively. Boyd backed up, frantically looking around for something that he could use. The man was between him and all of the discarded weapons now. He settled on a sack of concrete mix that was sitting on a pallet on a nearby shelf, dragging it down, gripping one end as he prepared to swing it. The trooper weathered the blow as Boyd slammed it into his shield, the weight enough to force him back a few steps, the bag erupting into a spray of grey powder.

Boyd took advantage to step in, dropping low, sweeping the man’s feet out from under him with a kick. The trooper fell on his back, the heavy shield that was strapped to his arm weighing him down enough that getting back up was a struggle. Boyd leapt over him, warding off a few strikes from the baton, diving for the nearest machine pistol that was lying on the ground. He rolled over, aiming it at his opponent just as he managed to climb to his feet, squeezing the trigger. Muzzle flash illuminated the shelves as he unloaded, the man ducking behind his shield, the rounds slamming into the translucent material to leave spiderweb-like cracks. It was bulletproof – the trooper rushing down the aisle towards him.

From his prone position, Boyd took careful aim, then put a solitary round through the man’s boot. He fell, yelling into his helmet, dropping his baton as he reached for his injured foot. Boyd put the next two rounds into his chest, and the trooper lay still, Boyd gripping a nearby shelf for support as he pulled himself upright. After tossing the empty pistol, he searched for the XMR, retrieving it and loading a fresh magazine. A sudden yell echoed from somewhere on the other side of the warehouse. They were sending more goons in after him. If he stuck around much longer, he’d have to fight the entire PDF garrison. With his rifle in hand, he retreated in the opposite direction, leaving the carnage behind. At the far end of the building was another exit – he could see sunlight bleeding in through the open doors.

He ran out into the open air, his visor dimming automatically to protect his eyes from the harsh sunlight. There were no troopers out here waiting for him, no vehicles. They must have assumed that he was still inside the warehouse, preparing to stage his last stand. He could make out the silhouettes of structures in the distance, just visible through the blowing sand. Wherever they had brought him, it was on the outskirts of a settlement. There was ample cover ahead – sand dunes that had begun to form around industrial machinery and stacks of raw materials forming a kind of maze. He disappeared between a half-buried bulldozer and a pallet of steel girders, shielded temporarily from the howling wind that muffled the shouts of the men behind him.

CHAPTER 2: PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY

Boyd slipped into an alley between two prefabs, leaning against the nearest wall as he caught his breath. He was wrapped in a long cloak that he had bought for a few plastic tokens from one of the market stalls, the garment obscuring the telltale blues and greys of his environment suit, its frayed hem whipping in the wind. Slowly, he crept out of the shadows, scanning the dusty street beyond for threats. PDF patrols in teams of three or four were moving between the groups of civilians, stopping people every now and then to check their identities. They were clearly searching for him, likely following the orders of the Syndicate. Was the entire organization in their pocket?

After escaping the warehouse, he had found himself in a port town – the largest settlement on the planet. There were a hundred little pockets of civilization spread out all over Hades, usually situated close to specific mining operations and mineral processing sites, but all of the planet’s cargo came through here. It was where supplies were shipped in and where the refined ore was shipped out, so it made sense for the warehouses to be close by. Unfortunately, it was also the most secure settlement on the planet and likely where the largest PDF garrison was located.

Boyd felt naked without his rifle, but he’d had to ditch it. The weapon was far too large and conspicuous to conceal. His only defense now was stealth. He had to find a way off-planet so that he could get a message to UNNI. Hades had an FTL comms satellite like all colonies did, but it was owned and operated by ExoCorp, meaning that he had no way to transmit data without blowing his cover. If he tried to contact the corp for help, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t just make him disappear and try to deal with the Syndicate themselves, rather than risk having their dirty laundry aired for the whole sphere to see. If he tried to slip an encrypted message into the satellite’s comms buffer, there was no way to estimate when it would actually be transmitted, as corporate communiques would have the highest priority with the limited bandwidth available. No, his only option was to physically leave the colony, and he was starting to formulate a plan.

Towering above the dusty landscape, gradually vanishing into the blue haze, was the orbital tether. The structure was designed for carrying large payloads of cargo to and from the planet’s surface, as it was cheaper in the long run than having haulers burning fuel with every trip. It was a big investment on the part of the company, to be sure, but it had probably already paid for itself. It resembled a large strand of black cable that was several meters in diameter, anchored to the ground by a skeletal, ring-shaped structure that dwarfed the surrounding clusters of prefabs and industrial buildings. Massive jump freighters like the one that the Syndicate had raided would dock at the space station that served as its counterbalance, loading and unloading cargo that would then be ferried up and down the elevator. As he watched, a massivecrawler began to rise up the length of the cable, slowly picking up speed as it went.

The tether wasn’t his objective, however. Boyd was more interested in the civilian ships that would be sitting on the landing pads that surrounded the anchor. If he could barter for safe passage with an independent trader or just stow away in someone’s cargo hold, he’d be out of the Syndicate’s reach.

He waited for the nearest pack of PDF troopers to move on, then shrouded himself in his cloak, heading out into the crowd. With the tattered garment covering him, he was indistinguishable from the locals, and he would be safe as long as he was wary of the patrols. Sticking to back alleys and large throngs of colonists as best he could manage, he gradually made his way towards the port, guided by the oppressive tether that loomed over the settlement.

When he eventually arrived, he found that the compound was separated from the surrounding prefabs by a large concrete wall made from interlocking segments. There was an entrance for pedestrians that was guarded by a pair of men with caseless rifles slung over their chests. They weren’t PDF – they looked like corporate security, dressed in the same shades of black and yellow as the logos that adorned all of the cargo containers. Corporate enforcers were nothing to trifle with – especially ones that were posted on backwaters like Hades. They were better armed than the PDF and far more competent, dressed to intimidate with their faceless helmets and bulletproof armor.

They were stopping people at the gate, asking for ID by the look of things, managing the slow trickle of colonists that came in and out. Boyd reached for his pocket reflexively, but found it empty. If he’d still had his wallet on hand, he could have used its onboard computer to generate a fake ID that would likely have gotten him through the checkpoint, but the goons had taken it. There was no way he was slipping past those guys – he had to find another way in.

The sound of an engine drew his attention, and he watched as a large truck trundled into view some distance to his left, emerging from a dusty road that led deeper into the settlement. It was a bulky, rugged design intended for use on colonies that lacked proper roads, built more like a piece of heavy industrial equipment than anything that belonged on a highway. The cab was raised high off the ground to give the driver better visibility, and its eight wheels were each as tall as a man, sporting honeycomb tires to prevent flats. On its bed was a cargo container that was likely filled with refined ore ready to be sent up the tether. As he watched, it drove up to the wall some two hundred meters away, a far larger gate opening automatically to let it pass.

That was his way inside…

Boyd made his way through the dusty streets, eventually arriving at the dirt road where the trucks were coming through. He waited, biding his time in an alley until another shipment came along, checking the display on his wrist to see that approximately fifteen minutes had elapsed. This truck was much like the first – the same heavy, industrial design. He examined it as it trundled past, feeling it shake the ground, its chunky wheels kicking up clouds of dust. The container on its flatbed was completely sealed, likely prepped to load directly onto the cars that ran up and down the tether. There was no way to smuggle himself inside, so a more creative solution would be required.

Once it had passed through the automatic gate, he turned to the nearest prefab, examining it for a moment. His plan formulated, he hauled himself up onto the roof, using a shaky air conditioning unit that jutted from the wall as a foothold. He kept low so as to avoid attention, creeping over to a satellite dish that rose three or four feet into the air, a common feature in the settlements. It was bolted to the roof, but the device wasn’t exactly sturdy, a few hard yanks breaking its support. Boyd checked his display to ensure that he had enough time to get ready, then tossed the broken satellite dish into the road below. It made for a small obstacle, but one that would hopefully give the next driver pause. It was windy enough that a fallen satellite dish likely wouldn’t raise suspicion.

Slowly, he crept back down to ground level, lurking in the shadow of an alley as he waited. After a few more minutes, he was greeted with the sound of another engine, the next shipment driving into view. It passed his hiding spot, then ground to a halt, its brakes squealing. The door on the raised cab swung open, and a man wearing yellow overalls hopped out, climbing down a small ladder. As he appraised the fallen dish, Boyd made his move, sneaking out of cover. He ducked low, making for the rear of the truck, dipping beneath its bulky chassis. Its large wheels raised it a good couple of feet off the ground, giving him enough space to move around at a crouch. He glanced up, seeing the vehicle’s drive train above him. Much of it was covered by a tough casing that shielded the machinery from the harsh environment, but there were handholds enough to serve his purpose. Spurred on by the sound of the driver dragging the debris out of the road, he climbed up, securing himself beneath the truck. It was already uncomfortable, but he only had to hang on for a few minutes at most.

He heard the door of the cab slam shut, then the vehicle lurched into motion, the vibrations threatening to shake him loose. The sandy ground rolled past beneath him, then they stopped again, probably waiting for the gate to open. When the truck resumed its journey, he knew that he was inside the compound. Unable to see anything but the road from his hiding place, the only indication that he had entered the processing center was the sunlight dimming and the dusty ground giving way to polished concrete. There must be somewhere that the trucks unloaded their cargo, and with any luck, it would all be automated. These corps weren’t usually eager to pay more salaries than they had to. There was the distinct possibility that he might be clocked by security the moment he left cover, but he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

The quality of the ambient sound soon changed, too. Over the roar of the engine and the whirring of the drive train, he could hear what sounded like machinery echoing through an indoor space. When the truck stopped, he lowered himself down, edging towards the wheels so that he could get a look out at his environment. As he had hoped, he was in some kind of cargo processing center for the tether. There were several berths that could accommodate the transports, where large, mechanical arms would lift the cargo pods from their beds and place them on a conveyor that ran deeper inside the facility. There were no security guards in sight, and he spotted an access door on the far side of the room. There were probably cameras – for liability reasons if nothing else – but whether anyone was watching the feeds was up in the air.

He crawled on his belly towards the front of the truck, then slipped beneath the raised gantry that provided access to the cranes, hiding in the shadows among the supports. After a couple of minutes, the truck set off again, its flatbed empty. That should give him around fifteen minutes until the next shipment arrived.

Doing his best to keep out of sight of any cameras, he followed the gantry to the right side of the cavernous room, quickly arriving at the door. It was locked with a numeric keypad, but no spy worth their salt would be stopped by a locked door. He turned to his wrist display once more, keying in a voltage setting for the magnet that was embedded in his right glove. It was designed to help him hang onto surfaces in zero-G, but with the right power setting, it could actuate the relays in an electronic lock like this one. With a wave of his hand, the lock opened like magic, and the door swung open with a gentle push. Beyond it was a sterile, corporate hallway. There must be a way through into the civilian area of the port.

Ever cautious, he crept deeper, passing empty maintenance rooms and offices. Footsteps alerted him that someone was approaching, and he threw himself into a branching corridor, putting his back to the wall. His heart raced as the source of the sound drew closer, but it was just a man in a dress shirt holding a tablet computer, his eyes fixed on its display as he walked past Boyd’s hiding place. Nobody here would be on alert for infiltrators – it was a normal workday for them.

Heading in the direction the man had come from, he soon found an exit to what looked like a spaceport terminal, the telltale cloaks and shawls of civilians moving around beyond its narrow window. He glanced behind him to check that the coast was still clear, then opened the door with another wave of his magnet, quickly closing it behind him before blending into the crowd.

Only now did Boyd allow himself a sigh of relief. Unless someone stopped him to check his ID – unlikely now that he was inside the perimeter – he’d be indistinguishable from the other commuters. He took a moment to look around, finding himself in a much more recognizable environment. The civilian area of the port seemed to form a crescent on the right side of the tether’s anchor, the terminal split into a dozen gates that led to the landing pads outside, visible through the curving windows. There were displays showing flight schedules, and desks where people could talk to the facility’s staff. He could even see a cafe where a few corporate employees were having coffee. It wasn’t as large as a commercial spaceport, but it was pretty high-end for Hades. They must want to make a good impression for any independent traders or contractors who happened to pass through here. It wasn’t like the colonists could afford to travel.

He took a seat on the nearest bench, his eyes open for anyone who looked like they didn’t belong – anyone who might not be on the Syndicate’s payroll. He saw more corporate security patrolling the port, a couple of men in flight uniforms sitting at a table as they ate shrink-wrapped sandwiches from a vending machine, and a handful of guys who looked like corporate engineers. The ExoCorp employees had a decent chance of not being compromised, but that was a gamble that could cost him his life.

Then he saw it – his ticket out.

A giant alien strode across the room, heads turning to watch it as it marched along, snow-white fur protruding from beneath its form-fitting jumpsuit. Its coat was thick and fluffy, patterned with dark rings that resembled coffee stains where it was visible. It wore no shoes, its digitigrade legs ending in cat-like paws with dark talons, a tail that was as bushy as a feather duster poking out from a hole in its coveralls. It was a female – that much was obvious by her ample figure, relatively humanoid in appearance despite her exaggerated size. It was a Borealan of the Polar variety, about eight feet tall. She stuck out like a sore thumb, standing head and shoulders above the surrounding humans, wading through the chest-high crowd. What the hell was she doing here? The heat alone must be driving the poor creature insane – they were adapted for frozen environments, not arid deserts.

The feline stopped at one of the desks, leaning down to speak to a woman who was standing behind a computer monitor, the alien’s unwieldy chest spilling over the counter through her suit. She was packed into that thing like a sausage about to blow its casing. Polars had a layer of insulating blubber that protected them from the frigid cold of their home territory, endowing the already imposing creatures with especially full figures, their average weight easily surpassing six hundred pounds. She tapped at a touch monitor, relaying some information that Boyd couldn’t hear clearly, the clerk nodding along. After talking for a couple of minutes, the alien left in the direction of one of the gates, Boyd rising from his seat to intercept her. There was no way this alien was a colonist, and the chance that she was on the payroll was as low as he could possibly hope for. He wouldn’t get another opportunity like this.

He hurried to catch up with her loping strides, trying not to draw attention to himself by running, heading her off just as she arrived at her gate. She looked down at him quizzically with a pair of ice-blue eyes, her vertical pupils reminding him of a cat. He was aware of Polars, but he had never seen one up close before – few people had. She had a flat brow that tapered into a pink, feline nose, a pair of fuzzy ears tipped with black marks turning to track him like little radar dishes. Her face was covered in a thin coat of fur, patterned with more spots, framed by shoulder-length hair that was slate-grey in color. While she had little muzzle to speak of, her skull was large enough to rival that of a Siberian tiger, her powerful jaw muscles hinting at her carnivorous heritage. She didn’t have to say anything for him to see the question in her expression.

“Are you a pilot?” Boyd asked, pulling back the hood of his cloak to expose his face. “A ship’s captain?”

“Is there something I can do for you, stranger?” she asked. Her accent was odd, reminiscent of Russian, the alien rolling her Rs like a purr. At least she spoke good English – Polar wasn’t one of the languages that Boyd had learned during his training.

“I need passage off-planet, and I’m willing to pay well for it,” he replied hurriedly.

“So book a flight with a passenger ship,” she replied with a shrug. The gesture made her chest wobble, Boyd finding himself taking a step back to avoid being clocked in the head. “Why is that my problem?”

The promise of credits didn’t appeal to her, then. He would have to try a different angle. If her ship was a Navy vessel, he could pull rank – commandeer it. Borealans were a rare sight, and they mostly appeared working as auxiliaries on Coalition ships.

“Is your ship UNN?” he asked.

“No, it is a private survey vessel,” she replied. “Now, are you going to tell me why you are acting so shifty, or should I call security and have them find out?”

Clever. She’d put him in a position where he was now forced to explain himself. She wasn’t taking the bait, so he’d have to try a new approach. Legally, he could commandeer a civilian ship too, but not without revealing his true identity. Perhaps he could concoct a sob story to gain her sympathy? Telling her the truth was far too risky, and she might not have believed his tales about secret agents and hidden criminal empires anyway.

“I can’t charter a flight through normal channels,” he began, glancing around nervously as he lowered his tone to a whisper. “Please. You’re the only one who can help me. People who come to Hades aren’t allowed to just leave of their own accord…”

That seemed to pique her interest, her round ears pricking up.

“Why is that?”

“ExoCorp doesn’t run this planet,” he replied. “That’s how it looks from the outside, but in reality, Hades is owned by organized criminal gangs. The corporation knows about it, but as long as the mines stay open and the creds keep flowing, they don’t give a damn about what happens to the people who live here. The corp pays its colonial workers in worthless plastic tokens that can only be redeemed at company-owned stores – we can’t buy passage off-world with those. They don’t want us to leave, we’re basically slaves here. Either we fall in line and work the mines, or they make us disappear. I sold everything I owned to a black market dealer to get my hands on some UN credits, hoping that I could find someone who would sell me a seat on a ship. I don’t care where it’s going as long as it takes me away from here,” he added, wringing his hands in a silent plea. “You’re the only person I’ve met so far who’s just passing through – who isn’t on the payroll of the corp or the gangs. Please, you have to help me.”

There was just enough truth sprinkled on top of the lie to make it believable, and she seemed less suspicious now, her pink nose twitching as she considered.

“Listen, I am just a cartographer,” she explained with a sigh. “My job is mapping the planets that we survey and identifying exploitable resources. I am not the captain or anything like that, so I cannot make decisions about who gets to come aboard.”

Boyd’s face fell, but she cut him off with a wave of her furry hand before he could speak.

“But…I can put in a word for you with the captain, and we will see what he says. No promises.”

“I would be eternally in your debt,” he added excitedly. “If I can get off-world, I can raise the alarm about the conditions here. Maybe I can help everyone else, too.”

“Wait here,” she continued, heading for her gate. “I will return soon.”

She exited through an automatic door that led to an enclosed catwalk, Boyd watching through the nearest window as she strode out onto a large landing pad, the harsh winds tugging at her fluffy fur. She held up a long arm to shield her face from the blowing sand, approaching the shadow of a vessel. It was an orbital shuttle – an older model that looked to be of Russian Federation design based on the configuration of its engines and the shape of its canopy. There was Cyrillic lettering on one of its tail fins, probably a serial number. That might help explain the Polar’s accent. Polar refugees had established a colony in Siberia not long ago.

The shuttle might be thirty or forty years out of date, but judging by the burn marks that scorched the heat tiles on its underbelly, it was still perfectly functional. The hull was all exposed metal in varying shades of grey, discolored patches revealing where it had been hastily repaired in places, its engine cones conspicuously exposed. Its cockpit was raised high on the stubby nose, forming a kind of bubble canopy, and it had a set of short wings designed for atmospheric flight. This wasn’t the survey vessel – that ship would be up in orbit or maybe docked to the tether station.

Boyd tried to look inconspicuous as a pair of corporate security guards walked past him, scrutinizing him with their faceless helmets. He flipped his hood back up once they had moved on, then took a seat on the nearest bench, hunching over. Perhaps he had gone a little overboard with his disguise. Street urchins and dust-caked miners shouldn’t be hanging around the executive lounge at the spaceport.

Finally, the Polar returned, shaking the sand off her fur like a wet dog as she stepped through the automatic door. She muttered something in Russian that sounded like a complaint or a curse, then looked around for Boyd, making her way over to him. She leaned over to put herself closer to eye level with him, her ample chest swinging within the confines of her suit, her toothy grin suggesting that she was about to break some good news.

“I brought it up with the captain, and he says you may ride with us, but on the condition that you pay for the resources you consume. Food, oxygen, water, and so on.”

Boyd made a show of his gratitude, which seemed to please her, cutting the display a little short after drawing a suspicious look from a guard.

“I owe you big time,” he said breathlessly. “When can we leave? Soon?”

“We can go now,” she replied, rising to her full height again. “I was actually just leaving when you cut me off at the gate. You are a very lucky little human. If you had come a few minutes later, you might have missed me entirely.”

“Fate must be on my side,” he added as he hopped out of his seat.

He followed his towering benefactor out of the port and into the blowing winds, the sound of airborne sand hammering his cloak almost loud enough to drown out the noise of idling engines. There must be a storm blowing in – anyone who wanted to leave would have to dust off pretty quickly to avoid being grounded. As the pair made their way across the elevated landing pad, a cargo ramp at the rear of the shuttle began to open, dropping down on a pair of hydraulic pistons. Boyd gave the wretched settlement one last glance, then mounted the ramp, joining the Polar inside. It closed behind them with a mechanical whir, shutting out the wailing wind, Boyd hearing a hiss as the bay pressurized. When his eyes adjusted to the relative gloom, he found himself standing in a cramped cargo bay, a few containers strapped to the deck with netting to prevent them from moving around. The Polar must have been doing a supply run when he had caught her.

She had to duck to avoid the loose wires that hung from the ceiling as she made her way towards the cockpit at the front of the vessel, a man who was sitting in one of the two pilot’s seats turning to greet her. He wasn’t wearing a flight helmet or a pressure suit – just work coveralls. It seemed like the emergency procedure for a hull breach would be to hold their breath.

The two exchanged words in Russian, then the man turned his attention to Boyd, addressing him in English.

“So, this is our hitchhiker?” he asked as he looked the newcomer up and down. He had a thick Russian accent matching that of his feline companion. “There are some fold-down seats in the bay. Strap yourself in, and don’t mind the turbulence. The girl’s old, but she won’t shake apart any time soon.”

Boyd located one of the seats, snapping it open and settling in, securing the flimsy harness across his chest. If this old rust bucket so much as flinched, he’d probably end up pasted all over the inside of the hull. The Polar followed suit, sitting opposite him on a seat that seemed to have been welded to the deck specifically for her use, its frame reinforced to accommodate her size.

“It is a short journey up to our ship,” she explained, raising her voice over the sound of the spooling engines. “The ride can get a little bumpy in atmosphere, but she will hold together.”

Considering that this was his second warning about the structural integrity of the ship in so many minutes, their reassurances were starting to have the opposite effect…

The deck began to vibrate beneath his feet, then the vessel lurched, Boyd feeling the clunk of the landing gear retracting into the hull as it lifted off the pad. There were no windows in the bay, but through the spacious cockpit canopy, he could see that they were rising away from the port. There was a tug as they accelerated, slowly nosing up, the azure sky darkening until it became a rich velvet black. He waited for the AG field to kick in, feeling weightlessness turn his stomach, but it never came.

“No AG?” he grumbled, glancing across the bay at the Polar. Her long hair was floating around her head, making her look like she was underwater.

“Not on the 80’s model,” she replied apologetically. “The Federation tends to value practicality over comfort.”

That went some way towards explaining why everything in the cargo hold was bolted down or secured with netting, at least. Without artificial gravity, its contents would just float around.

As the rickety shuttle burned into a new orbit, the tether station came into view ahead of them. At the apex of the black cable was a metallic disk, hanging high above the arid planet. Even though it was small by most metrics – there were stations orbiting Earth and Mars that were many times larger – it was still an impressive sight. It almost looked like a floating hubcap, ringed by berths that could accommodate freighters, the rib-like structures extending from it almost like the spokes of a wheel. It was hard to get a gauge of its true size, but using one of the docked vessels for reference, it was probably a kilometer across. Its shape was that of a flattened dome, the panels that made up its hull dotted with antennae and comms equipment, a ring of windows encircling it.

That wasn’t their ultimate destination, however. Floating away from the station, having likely only recently undocked, was the survey vessel. It was easily identifiable, maybe sixty meters long, shaped vaguely like a giant flashlight. It had a bulbous, rounded nose equipped with a protruding sensor dome that gave it the profile of a dolphin, a series of blister-like bridge windows situated just below it. The grey hull was made up of interlocking panels that shone in the harsh light of the system’s star, giving it an almost makeshift look, as though it had been welded together from sheets of scrap metal. There were no fins or wings, as it wasn’t capable of atmospheric flight, the flared aft section playing host to a cluster of engine cones. Its length was bristling with little dishes and jutting antennae, the odd porthole here and there glinting in the sunlight. It was certainly behind the curve, but it had a superlight drive, and that was all Boyd needed.

The vessel ballooned along with the station as they approached, the forward-facing thrusters on the shuttle flaring, helping it decelerate. The pilot was communicating with the survey ship in Russian, reaching up to flip a few rocker switches on a panel above his seat as they neared. There was no docking bay that Boyd could see. Modern vessels had a bay that was open to space, pressurized with the help of a molecular force field that would allow solid objects to pass through, but would keep the atmosphere inside.

Instead, they maneuvered beneath the survey ship, Boyd watching through the canopy as a pair of hangar doors on its belly swung apart to expose an open cavity. With a few careful blasts from the thrusters, the pilot slid the shuttle into the shadowy recess, a shudder reverberating through the deck as it came into contact with something. Some kind of docking arm had grabbed them and was now lifting the shuttle further inside the bay as the doors beneath it sealed shut. He suddenly felt the weight of his body settle into his seat, and across the cargo hold, the Polar’s long hair fell about her shoulders. They had entered the survey ship’s AG field. There was another clunk as the shuttle came to a jarring halt, Evan hearing mechanical sounds bleeding in from outside the hull, suggesting that the docking bay had been pressurized.

“Welcome to the Zemchug,” the Polar announced, spreading her long arms enthusiastically. “It means pearl, which was a more fitting title when she was fresh out of the shipyard. She has lost some of her luster over the years, but she flies just as well as she ever did. Follow me, rebenok. I will introduce you to the captain.”

The pilot hit a switch, the cargo ramp beginning to open, the scent of recycled air assaulting Boyd as it flooded into the shuttle. It had a metallic tinge to it, almost as though he could taste the oxygen filters on his tongue. He followed the Polar down the ramp and onto the deck, pausing to examine his surroundings. The docking bay must have been designed specifically to work with this shuttle, or maybe similar models, because there seemed to be barely a meter of clearance between its wingtips and the edges of the bay doors. There was indeed a mechanical arm gripping the hull of the vessel, holding it in place with four large electromagnets that sat flush against its hull, powered by insulated cables that trailed along the armature haphazardly. Its landing gear was sitting on top of the doors themselves. There was a small cargo area for loading and unloading, then a pair of large doors that presumably led to a dedicated hold.

The Polar led him around towards the front of the shuttle, ducking beneath one of its wings, the pilot remaining behind to hook his ship up to a trailing fuel line. Boyd followed the alien to a smaller door on the opposite side of the chamber, which was barely large enough for a taller than average human to fit through. Not only did she have to duck, but she had to turn sideways, the breadth of her hips actually wider than the opening. He watched curiously as her protruding chest caught on the frame, then she squeezed through, resuming her journey as if this was all routine to her. This vessel was cramped, even by his standards, and it hadn’t been modified to accommodate her in any way that he could see. It must be like living in a dollhouse for someone of her stature.

A single claustrophobic passageway spanned the length of the ship, the doors that branched off it to the left and right leading to various rooms and cabins. There was an oppressive, industrial quality to the ship’s insides that matched its patchy exterior, dominated by exposed metal and hanging cables. Even the grates that made up the floor beneath his feet creaked worryingly under the Polar’s weight. There were jutting pipes in places that forced her to hunch over to avoid hitting her head, her girth practically plugging the corridor. What could have motivated her to live and work somewhere like this?

The corridor opened up into a more spacious bridge area, banks of computer terminals and holographic readouts occupying most of the space, a series of bubble-like windows looking out into the void beyond. A lot of old Russian ships sported this style, almost like the compound eye of a fly. He could see the twinkling stars, as well as the horizon of Hades curving off into the distance, its desert hues encircled by the azure glow of its atmosphere. There were three people sitting behind the consoles, swiveling in their chairs to greet the newcomers, Boyd noting that the old leather padding was cracked and faded. They were dressed in civilian clothes, but one of them wore a traditional captain’s hat, the archaic headgear making him easy to identify. He rose from his chair, exchanging a greeting with the Polar in Russian, then turning to Boyd. He was a little older than his crew, sporting a short beard that looked more like the product of apathy than cultivation, streaked with grey in places. This wasn’t a Navy vessel, so there were no strict dress codes.

“Is this him?” he asked, looking the agent up and down. “Welcome aboard, mister…”

“Jones,” Boyd replied, stepping forward to offer the man his hand. The captain had a firm grip, shaking it vigorously, his weathered face breaking into a smile.

“My name is Morozov – I am responsible for the Zemchug and her crew.”

“I really appreciate your help, Captain. If you can drop me off at the nearest UN colony or Navy outpost, I’ll be happy to transfer any funds that you require.”

“That’s quite alright, Mister Jones,” he replied. “I only ask that you compensate us for the resources that you use during your stay. This ship is not exactly designed with a surplus in mind. I have to say, I do not make a habit of picking up hitchhikers, but your furry friend made quite a case on your behalf.”

“Thank you both,” Boyd added, glancing up at the Polar appreciatively. “I’ll try to keep out of your way while I’m here.”

“You can bunk in the boiler room,” one of the crew members added. Judging by the joysticks on his control console, he might be the pilot. “We can move a spare mattress in there for you. It isn’t the Metropol, but it should do fine. If you get hungry, there is food in the mess. Just ask Sibirskiy, and she’ll get you whatever you need.”

“I am also the ship’s cook,” the Polar whispered, glancing down at him with a smile. “Working with canned and freeze-dried supplies can be a challenge, but there are ways to make them more appetizing.”

“We will be burning out to a safe distance from the station before we jump,” the captain added, returning to his seat at one of the bulky consoles. “Sibirskiy, why not show our guest around while we get into position?”

“Alright,” she replied, giving Boyd a pat on the back with a giant hand. She led him back into the corridor, leaving the bridge behind them.

“Is that your name, Sibirskiy?” Boyd asked as they headed for one of the doors.

“No, that just means the Siberian,” she explained as she ducked under its low frame. “It is what the Russians have taken to calling the Polars who settled there. My name is Lorza, priyatna paznakomista,” she added with a chuckle.

“What does that mean?”

“Pleased to meet you,” she replied.

Boyd followed her into the room, peering around her bulk to see that they were standing in the ship’s mess hall. It was small and cramped, just like the rest of the vessel, but it was large enough that half a dozen humans could sit comfortably at the round table that was bolted to the middle of the floor. There were narrow counters built into the walls, along with a metal sink and a few appliances for cooking, all of them recessed into the hull to save space. It must be like living in a sardine can, but at least the crew had some basic amenities. One of the portholes that he had seen from the shuttle was situated on the far wall, the blackness of space visible beyond the glass, frost crystals clinging to its edges. There were three more people sitting around the table, seemingly halfway through a game of cards, one of them acknowledging the pair with a lazy wave.

“Let me see, who else do we have here?” Lorza mused as she scratched her furry chin with one of her black claws. Her hands were massive, closer in size to those of a bear than a human. She had three fingers and a thumb almost as thick as his wrist that ended in wicked hooks, her digits sporting fleshy pads like a cat. “That is Alexei, he is our geologist. He does not speak English, so do not bother trying to introduce yourself. You met the captain, and Mikhail, the pilot. The woman is Roza, she is a Federation surveyor, and the last guy is our engineer, Sokolov. We are out here looking for new resources and potential colonies. I am the cartographer, so my job is making the maps and charting the surface of planets.”

“Have you been out here long?” Boyd asked.

“Oh, a few months now,” she replied. “It was nice to be planetside while we picked up some supplies, but Hades is a miserable place for my kind. Yours too, it appears,” she added with a sideways glance.

“You don’t like heat and dust, I take it?”

Nyet, I prefer the snow and ice.”

Boyd felt a rumbling beneath the deck, and he reached for the door frame to support himself, glancing around in alarm as cups and cutlery vibrated on the kitchen counters. One of the crew members reached for his mug of coffee, steadying it as it began to dance its way across the table.

“Is this…normal?” Boyd asked, the shaking making his voice waver.

“There is no cause for alarm,” Lorza replied with a laugh. “She may not be the smoothest ride, but the Zemchug gets the job done.”

It was a very Russian take. At least the aliens seemed to be absorbing the local culture…

The rumbling abated after a couple of minutes, the ship likely finishing its initial burn, starting to coast through space. They couldn’t initiate a jump too close to the station, or the superlight manifold that formed around the ship like a bubble would carry anything within its radius along for the ride. Boyd and Lorza took seats at the table, joining the rest of the crew. Unlike her reinforced seat in the cargo shuttle, the Polar seemed to have no chair, choosing to sit on the deck with her legs crossed instead. It put her at an appropriate height, so maybe she would be too tall otherwise. The captain soon appeared at the door, pausing to address his new passenger.

“Our present course will bring us close to a UNN outpost,” he began, leaning against the frame. “It should take us less than a week to reach it. We will drop you off there, and you can be on your way.”

“I’m not sure how much Lorza has told you, but you guys are literally saving my life,” he added as he glanced around the table. “Hades is under the control of mobsters. They’re holding the workers hostage, using them as slave labor, preventing them from leaving. If you can get me to that outpost, I can raise the alarm, and maybe the UNN can restore some order to the colony.”

“I am glad to be of help, but do me a favor and do not mention the name of my ship when you give your report,” the captain replied. “We operate a long way from home, and I do not need a target on my back.”

“Of course,” he replied.

“When was the last time you ate?” the captain asked.

“Maybe…two or three days,” Boyd conceded. Ever since his kidnapping and escape, he had been running on fumes.

Sibirskiy, see to it that our guest has a full belly,” the man added before tipping the brim of his hat. “I have duties to attend to, but let me know if you need anything.”

Boyd thanked him again, then watched him head back in the direction of the bridge.

“For people who don’t make a habit of picking up hitchhikers, you sure know how to make a guy feel welcome,” he said.

“This is something that Polar and Russian traditions share,” Lorza added, puffing out her ample chest proudly. “If a stranger appears at your door, it is only right to feed them and offer them a bed for the night. Siberia is large and sparsely populated, as was my home territory on Borealis. Conditions there were harsh, and the offer of food and shelter could mean the difference between life and death. We Polars learned to give freely, and that generosity was its own reward.”

“Sounds like you’ve integrated well,” he added with a chuckle.

“Believe it or not, even the most remote territories of Siberia are a paradise to my kind,” she continued. “The climate that we fled was far harsher, its resources more scarce.”

“Well, I’m glad you decided to send a little of that generosity my way,” Boyd said as he watched one of the other crew members deal a hand of cards with practiced skill. “If I hadn’t come across you in the spaceport…”

“Think nothing of it,” she replied, giving him a pat on the back that was almost powerful enough to empty his lungs. “Now – you need food, and that happens to be my specialty. Let me cook for you.”

She announced her plans to the rest of the crew in Russian, and the prospect seemed to perk them up, a couple of them turning in their chairs to watch as she squeezed her way around the table. Maybe she was as good a chef as she purported to be. She made for one of the counters, having to hunch over the already small surface due to her size, reaching up to open a sliding cupboard door that was recessed into the wall. Boyd’s stomach began to growl as he heard the sound of plastic packaging being torn open, accompanied by the metallic clink of a can opener. UNNI agents were trained to endure a lot of hardship, as their missions could see them stranded without supplies for extended periods of time. Still, the moment the scent of cooking reached his nose, his resolve crumbled.

“So, where you come from?” one of the crew members asked in broken English. He was wearing a faded shirt and a beanie that covered his head. This was the engineer that Lorza had introduced him to earlier – Sokolov, if he recalled.

“Originally?” Boyd asked.

Da,” the man replied, pausing to take a drink from his mug of coffee. He was holding his playing cards in the other hand, fanned out like he was halfway through a poker game.

“Ganymede,” Boyd replied, the lies flowing easily.

“Ah, say no more,” he said as he took another sip from his cup. “Very bad place, Ganymede. People there live like kpot, uh…” He paused for a moment, trying to remember the English translation. “Moles. Underground tunnels, no sky, surface radiation too high to see stars.”

“That’s about the long and short of it,” Boyd replied.

“No wonder you came here. Even Hades has breathable air, open sky.”

They were distracted by the sound of a toaster popping, Boyd glancing over to see that Lorza was finishing up their meal. Stacking the plates like a seasoned waitress, she returned to their table, setting a dish down in front of each of its occupants. She handed him a knife and fork, Boyd taking the cutlery as he glanced down at his dish. He wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at. It was some kind of canned meat dumped on top of a couple of pieces of toast, whatever sauces it had been marinating in seeping into the bread. He glanced up to gauge the reactions of the crew, but they were already digging in eagerly.

The deck shook as Lorza sat down beside him, depositing a whole tray of food on the table with a clatter. It looked like she was using a baking dish in lieu of a plate. Rather than use human cutlery, which would have been comically undersized in her massive paws, she produced a serrated knife and a two-pronged fork. They looked custom-made, their handles embossed with ivory or some kind of polished bone, the metal twisted into a spiral pattern.

“I never go anywhere without them,” she explained, noticing that he was admiring the implements. “They were a parting gift from my pack.”

“So, what’s this?” he asked as he prodded his meal with a fork suspiciously.

“Mackerel on toast,” she replied proudly.

“Mackerel on toast?” Boyd repeated, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“It is canned mackerel in a tomato and garlic sauce,” she explained, shifting her weight on the deck. “It lasts about four years if we store it properly, so we have a lot of it onboard. I butter some toast, then I pour the contents of the can onto it so that the sauce soaks into the bread. It is quick, easy, and filling.”

Boyd’s hunger was greater than his suspicion, so he gave it a try, cutting off a square of soggy toast along with a chunk of canned fish. His skepticism soon vanished as he began to chew, Lorza chuckling to herself as she noted the change in his expression. It was good – great, even. Hunger was a spice that could make any food palatable, but if this was their regular diet, then the people working about the Zemchug didn’t have it half as bad as he’d initially assumed.

He ate the rest of his meal, watching his hosts play poker, the satisfaction of a full stomach blending with the fatigue that was finally catching up with him to make him drowsy. Lorza’s tray was filled with eight slices of toast and enough mackerel chunks to match, Boyd looking on in amazement as she put away almost as much as the rest of the crew combined.

“We Polars need a lot of food to maintain our body weight,” she explained, downing another mouthful of soggy toast. “Our blubber protects us from the cold and acts as an emergency energy reserve when resources are scarce.”

“Yeah, I can imagine,” he muttered. He didn’t say it out loud, but she looked like she could probably go for weeks without eating.

“You must be tired after your ordeal,” she continued, pausing to chew on a mouthful of fish. “When you are done eating, we shall find that spare mattress and move it to the boiler room. Nowhere on the Zemchug is truly quiet, but you will get used to all of her little sounds over time.”

The ship lurched, Boyd having to grab the edge of the table to steady himself, the lights flickering off to plunge the room into total darkness. The gravity was out too – Boyd feeling himself start to rise from his seat, his stomach churning as his senses concluded that he was falling. His first instinct was to activate his magnetic boots to secure himself to the deck, but he resisted the urge, as doing so might blow his cover. He heard gasps of alarm and Russian curses from around the table, one of Lorza’s large hands reaching out to grab his arm in a bid to stop him from floating away.

The AG generator was out, the electronics – likely the engines, too. What the hell had happened? Was the old rust bucket of a ship finally giving out, or was something more sinister afoot? His mind flashed back to the shipping manifest of the freighter that the Syndicate had raided. EMP warheads. Had they been fired on? How could the Syndicate have tracked him to orbit?

The lights returned along with the AG field, Boyd falling back into his seat, feeling the deck shake as Lorza’s considerable weight returned to the floor. A couple of the crew members had fallen out of their chairs, climbing back to their feet, nursing bumps and bruises as they glanced around the room in confusion.

“Was that normal?” Boyd demanded as he glanced up at his furry neighbor.

“No, that was not normal,” she replied as she stood up. Her bushy tail was flicking back and forth restlessly, her ears flattened against her head in what might be an expression of worry. She addressed the crew in Russian, probably checking that they were alright, then stooped to retrieve a few fallen items from the deck. The poker game had been ruined – the playing cards were strewn all over the room. “The backup generator kicked in, but I do not hear the engines. What hit us?” She looked down at Boyd suddenly, her ice-blue eyes piercing. “Do you have something to do with this?”

Before he could reply, there was a shout from up the hall. It sounded like the pilot. Lorza called out a reply in Russian, Boyd unable to follow the conversation.

“Navigation is down, engines offline,” she explained. “We are drifting.”

“What happened?” Boyd asked, feigning ignorance.

“Maybe I should be asking you that question,” she replied, narrowing her eyes at him. “Wait here.”

She squeezed through the kitchen door and into the corridor beyond, heading for the bridge, Boyd waiting as instructed. Sokolov – the engineer – followed behind her, the rest of the crew exchanging words in their native language. While he couldn’t understand them, their alarmed tone was easy to pick up on. After a couple of minutes, Lorza returned, her expression dire.

“Something locked onto us and knocked out our power,” she began. “Probably an electromagnetic weapon of some kind. There were no other ships in the vicinity, so it must have been fired from the surface. The backup generator has restored life support and low-priority systems, but the engines and navigation are still offline. Sokolov is going to try to restart them, but we are caught in the gravity well of Hades’ moon. If he cannot get them back online, then we are going to crater.”

Boyd’s cover wasn’t quite blown just yet. There was still a chance that he could hide his true identity, maybe even make Lorza and her crew believe that the Syndicate would play their hand just to stop one rogue miner.

“I had no idea that this would happen,” he insisted, wringing his hands in a display of nervousness. “I would never have imagined that they would go to such extremes to stop me from leaving. I would never have put you and your crew in danger if I had known. Please believe me.”

The Polar was shrewd, and for a moment, he worried that she might have seen through his act.

“Either you know more than you are telling us, or these criminal gangs you mentioned think you are enough of a threat to down a civilian ship over.”

“We need to get to the escape pods,” Boyd said, ignoring her comment.

“Escape pods?” Lorza laughed derisively. “What do you think this is, a pleasure liner? We have no escape pods – this ship is twice your age.”

“Well, what do we do if the engineer can’t get the engines back online?”

“Then we buckle in and hope we land on something soft.”

There was no escape, then. He could incapacitate the crew and go EVA in his suit – it was doubtful that anyone would be able to identify any of the bodies after the crash, and it would be assumed that he was dead. A spacewalk would be pointless if they were already caught in the moon’s gravity, however. If there were no ships in range that could reach them in time, then his limited supply of oxygen wouldn’t last long enough for pickup either. His escape was a bust, and surviving the crash that was coming would be next to impossible. There was more Russian shouting, and Boyd looked to Lorza as he waited for a translation.

“That was Sokolov,” she explained. “He managed to get our thrusters back online, but the engines have taken irreparable damage to their electronics. We are going down.”

“What’s the safest location on the ship?” Boyd demanded.

“We will be hitting the ground at near terminal velocity, nowhere is safe.”

“The beds have harnesses for when the gravity fails, right?”

“I guess so,” she scoffed. “Why does that matter?”

She was trying so hard to hide her fear, but her tail was betraying her, the fluffy appendage whipping back and forth restlessly. He should try to reassure her. She might not survive, but he owed her at least that much.

“Lie on a bed with one mattress on top of you and one beneath, then secure the safety harnesses to keep them in place. It won’t do much, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Why does it sound like you’ve done this before?” she asked, her tone accusatory.

“Just trust me – it’s safer than being on the bridge, even if it only increases your chances by a few percent. One more thing – do you have any fire suppressant foam canisters or dispersal bombs?”

“Probably,” she replied with a shrug. “This ship is not exactly compliant with UN regulations…”

“Good. Go find as many as you can. When we’re about to hit the atmosphere, activate the suppressant. It will fill the room with expanding foam that might help dampen the impact.”

“How are you so calm about this?” Lorza exclaimed, perhaps a little louder than she might have intended. “We are about to crash – we could die, and you act like this is just routine!”

“There are procedures that we can follow to minimize the danger, at least marginally,” he explained. “Death is statistically likely but not certain. The density of the atmosphere and the gravity will be a factor – whether we land on a solid or a liquid surface, the aerodynamics of the ship and how much air resistance it generates will come into play. The force of the thrusters will probably be the deciding factor in this case. If your engineer was able to get them working properly, then they may slow our descent enough to raise our chances of survival by a significant margin. That is if the G-forces don’t cause the pilot to lose consciousness before we hit the ground. By my estimations, our chances of survival are one in five. Favorable, by most standards.”

“You are no miner,” she grumbled, glaring down at him. “If you get me killed, I am going to haunt you, malish.”

“My identity is the least of your worries right now.”

She covered her face with her furry hands and growled into them. It could have been an expression of frustration or maybe fear – it was hard to tell with these aliens. Being shot down was a distinct possibility for UNN personnel. Everyone from pilots to janitors went through drills and training that instructed them on what to do during a crisis, and more importantly, how to remain calm in high-stress situations. It didn’t do to dwell on death too much. If you died, you died. There was no way around that. The majority of crash landings were not survivable, and it would be a painless death – the ship’s occupants vaporized during reentry or obliterated upon contact with the ground. Boyd welcomed pain, however. Pain meant life. Suffering was the exclusive domain of the living, and he would take it gladly over the final peace of oblivion.

“Just do as I say,” he insisted, Lorza peeking at him between her fingers. “It’s your best chance to live through this.”

The Polar snarled in what might be disgust, then wheeled around, storming out of the room. The dramatic effect was somewhat lessened when she had to duck below the door frame, grumbling to herself as she squeezed through the narrow opening. Before long, he heard more rapid-fire conversation in Russian, the Polar likely explaining his plan to her crew.

She returned a short while later with handfuls of small, round canisters the size of softballs, tossing one to him. He plucked it out of the air, examining it. The device’s metallic casing was covered in warning markings that identified it as an old model of fire suppressant grenade. Shipboard fires posed a serious threat in the enclosed environment of a spaceship, where they would rapidly consume the limited supply of oxygen along with causing the usual damage through combustion. These grenades were primed and then thrown, the idea being to fill a room with fire retardant foam that would choke out the flames as quickly as possible. If the foam was packed tightly enough, it would also absorb shocks and hold whatever was caught inside in place. It probably wasn’t enough to save their lives, but it was worth a shot.

“The captain says that we will be entering the moon’s atmosphere in a few minutes,” Lorza announced. “Whatever you want to do, better do it soon. There is not much time.”

The pilot and the captain would need to stay on the bridge to maintain thruster control until impact, and they would almost certainly die as a result. Maybe the others could be saved, but that wasn’t Boyd’s chief concern. The information that he carried was of the utmost importance.

He headed off into the bowels of the cramped ship, leaving Lorza behind, searching for a room that would suit his needs. His training didn’t allow him to think about the fates of the crew, or even his own mortality – only the mission mattered. One of the doors opened into someone’s private quarters, Boyd glancing around as he stepped inside. There were posters on the exposed bulkheads covered in Cyrillic text, pictures of someone’s relatives, a nudie calendar. The cramped cabin was in disarray now, all of the owner’s belongings strewn around the room thanks to the brief loss of gravity. He located the bed, then began to remove the mattress, hauling it off its metal frame and out into the corridor. Bringing it to an adjacent cabin that was in a similar state, he lay down on the bunk, pulling the mattress up on top of himself.

The beds were bolted to the deck, and they were equipped with a harness that would keep the occupant from floating away in zero-G or from thrashing around during the rigors of a superlight jump. It was usually secured around the chest, but after lengthening the straps, Boyd was able to get it around the mattress. Now securely sandwiched between the cushions, he took the fire suppressant grenade in his hand. The cabin was small enough that the device should be able to fill it with foam, helping to hold him in place so he wasn’t simply dashed against the walls.

It didn’t matter who saw his UNNI pressure suit now, Boyd securing the hood over his head, pulling back the tattered sleeve of his disguise so that he could access the touch panel on his forearm. He pressurized the suit, feeling it inflate around his body, circulating cool air. His readout showed that he had fifteen minutes of oxygen reserves, maybe a little more with his rebreather.

Those were all the precautions that he could take, given the circumstances.

The low rumbling that had been slowly building over the last few minutes grew louder, the ship’s old chassis creaking and groaning, the cup that was still sitting atop the nearby bedside table starting to dance across its surface. Boyd gritted his teeth as the ship’s thrusters engaged in a futile effort to slow their descent, the G-forces crushing him against the bed frame, even through the mattress. They had hit the atmosphere, the turbulence making the vessel rock and shake around him, the sound of straining metal and wind tearing at the hull deafening him. To his credit, the pilot kept them level, still manning the helm despite the ground that was rushing up towards him. They plummeted towards the surface, the vessel drifting into a flat spin, Boyd feeling himself beginning to black out as the inertia started to draw the blood from his brain.

He hit the activation switch on the grenade with his thumb, then dropped it, hearing it clatter to the deck. It erupted into a spreading mass of off-white foam, quickly filling the cramped space, smothering everything. He felt the cold solution pour around him through his suit, crossing his arms over his chest as he braced for impact.

CHAPTER 3: BLOWBACK

Boyd awoke to freezing cold, taking in a sharp breath of frigid air that burned his lungs. His ears were ringing, and he couldn’t remember where he was or what had happened. Did he have a concussion? He tried to sit up, but the pain was too great, and he quickly collapsed back into a bed of snow.

Snow?

As his vision cleared, he saw a dark sky overhead, tiny snowflakes catching the light as they drifted through the air. His breath was freezing into puffs of sparkling ice crystals through his rebreather, a little warning icon in the corner of his visor blinking to alert him that the oxygen reserves had been depleted. Something was wrong, however. With each breath that he took, a searing pain shot through him, every twitch making his muscles ache. He felt like he had been beaten with lead pipes. He craned his neck to look down at his body, his stomach lurching as he saw the wreck of the Zemchug a couple of hundred meters away.

It was totaled. The ship had landed on its belly and ruptured like a ripe fruit, digging a crater and vaporizing all of the snow around it to reveal the naked bedrock beneath. A plume of smoke rose high into the sky above it, the surrounding area lit by crackling flames, casting dancing shadows as they painted the snowdrifts in eerie hues of orange. There were pieces of wreckage everywhere he looked – huge chunks of hull and unidentifiable machinery strewn all around him. How had he survived the crash? Had he been thrown all the way over here?

He was covered in the sticky, fire retardant foam, clumps of it clinging to his clothes. The disguise that he had been wearing was charred and mostly burned away, but the suit beneath it seemed intact, still reading positive pressure. He could feel all of his limbs, and he could move his fingers and toes – that was a good sign. He tasted blood on his tongue, but besides the undiagnosed pain that radiated through him, he seemed to be in one piece.

He tried to get up again, succeeding in rising to a sitting position, one hand clutching his ribs as he took in his surroundings. The wrecked ship was the only landmark that he could see. There was nothing around him but flat ice fields and snowdrifts extending all the way to the horizon. He remembered now – they had crashed on the moon of Hades. It must be an ice moon, then. The air seemed thin, but as long as his suit was functional, he should be alright. If the atmosphere here wasn’t breathable, he would never have woken up in the first place.

He stumbled to his feet, then dropped to a knee, catching himself just before he fell. Something was seriously wrong with him.

Despite the chilling cold, he reached down to unzip his suit, already beginning to shiver as he examined his exposed chest. A massive, ugly bruise extended across his ribcage on the left side, pocked with patches of red. His lightheadedness wasn’t just a result of the thin atmosphere – he must have taken some nasty hits during the crash.

If he didn’t hurry, the cold would make him unable to tie his own shoelaces, let alone treat a traumatic injury in the field. He raised his left wrist, activating the flexible touch panel that was built into the sleeve, tapping at it with an unsteady finger. His suit had as much tech as the UNN’s research division could cram into it, including an advanced onboard medical diagnostic system that could diagnose injuries through sensors embedded in his suit, then suggest a treatment. There was an energy cost to everything that he did, however. It was the Achilles heel of the technology. If he made use of too many functions in too short a period of time, he would drain the power cells that ran down the suit’s spine, and that would eat into his life support. Until he came up with a game plan, he might need every minute of heating and oxygen filtering that he could get, so he could only use these functions in an emergency.

The suit began to read his biometrics, reporting its findings, a diagnosis scrolling past on the glowing display. Contusions, hairline fractures, blunt force trauma – he must have been tossed around like a ragdoll. It was a miracle that he had no internal bleeding.

He fumbled for the first-aid kit in one of his pockets, retrieving a little pouch about the size of a tablet computer. With a shaking hand – he wasn’t sure if it was nerves or the cold – he removed the protective cap on a device roughly the size and shape of a screwdriver handle. It had a small compartment where payloads in capsule form could be inserted, Boyd searching his kit for the appropriate doses. He brought it to his chest, wincing as he pressed the device firmly against his bruised skin. With the press of a button, he activated it, Boyd stifling a grunt of pain through gritted teeth as it extended a tiny needle to pierce his skin. The concoction contained anti-inflammatories to stop the swelling, a powerful anesthetic to help him work through the pain, and a metabolic stimulant that would promote healing. His wounds would take days to heal, but he wasn’t in a position to rest.

Boyd took a few burning breaths as the drugs did their work, his thoughts already becoming sharper and more focused, the distracting pain diminishing to a dull background noise. It was a stopgap measure – not something that would hold for long, but he had to keep moving. Standing still with his suit open like this, he’d probably succumb to hypothermia. What he needed right now was shelter and to assess what supplies were available to him.

He zipped up his suit and pocketed his first-aid kit, stumbling in the direction of the wreckage. While there were pieces of the ship strewn all over the area, the main hull seemed to be mostly intact. If any equipment or supplies had survived the crash, that’s where they’d be.

Boyd trudged through the snow drifts, some of them deep enough to reach his knees, the heating elements in his suit barely keeping the cold at bay. Not knowing how long he’d been out or how long the suit’s life support systems had been keeping him from dying of exposure, he raised his display to check his battery, seeing that its charge was dwindling. It was expending as little power as possible to keep his vitals in check, but he couldn’t dig through the wreckage with stiff fingers. With a few taps, he raised the suit’s temperature, the circuitry that ran throughout its lining overcharging to flood it with invigorating warmth.

The Zemchug’s warped hull loomed above him as he entered its shadow, wreathed in choking smoke, lit from beneath by the flames that still burned in its spilled innards. Its structural beams had been exposed in places, the outer hull sloughing off them like skin from a carcass, giving it an eerily skeletal appearance. Ignoring the lingering ache in his muscles, he made his way deeper, ducking under dangling cables and broken pipes that were still spewing coolant onto the snow. It was dingy – hard to see more than a few feet in any direction, but he dared not expend the power to use his flashlight attachment.

He had not been very familiar with the layout of the vessel when it had been intact, and now that it was beached like a dead whale, he was even more lost. The corridor that ran down the spine of the ship was broken and twisted, the metal becoming as pliable as putty when subjected to such massive and catastrophic forces. He found what he thought to be an equipment locker, its door ajar, this section of the wall raised at a ninety-degree angle to the floor.

He climbed up, careful not to cut his hands on the jagged metal, and rummaged inside. There were personal effects here – photos of family members taped to the inside of the door that had somehow survived the heat and impact, a pair of shoes, and some holographic media chips. These had belonged to someone, someone who was now certainly dead, but he didn’t have the time nor the desire to let himself start thinking in those terms. The mission above all.

Moving on, he tried to remember what the ship had looked like before the crash. The bridge would have been behind him – if it was still intact – and this was where the crew quarters and mess hall had been. Further ahead, he should find the shuttle bay and the cargo hold, which was likely where most of the useful supplies should be. That was, if they hadn’t been scattered across hundreds of kilometers like the contents of a giant pinata.

Lingering around the wreck for too long was a bad idea, as Syndicate ships would certainly beat any rescuers to the scene. There had to be outposts out here – maybe bases or drilling platforms. This moon would be perfect for ice mining, even moreso if there was a liquid ocean under all the snow. Water could be drunk, turned into oxygen for life support, and even hydrogen fuel for engines. He made his way carefully along the twisted corridor, feeling his way with each step, the metal groaning under his weight.

As he made his way towards what he thought was the shuttle bay, he heard a scratching noise. He ducked to retrieve his ceramic knife, spinning around to face the source of the sound, weapon at the ready. It was coming from a cabin door – now warped and jammed halfway open by the impact. Blobs of flame-retardant foam had seeped out through the gap, the hardened substance starting to crumble away as black claws dug their way through it. A furry arm emerged, its immaculate coat now matted with foam, stained red with splotches of blood. It was Lorza – Boyd holstering his blade. Once there was enough of an opening, she called out in Russian, then switched to English when there was no reply.

“Is someone out there?” she panted, her voice teetering on the edge of panic. “Please!”

For a moment, Boyd considered simply leaving her. She was a huge, clumsy creature who would surely slow him down, but something made him hesitate. He was by no means an honorable man – in fact, his profession often precluded honor. Still, she had taken a chance on him, and she had suffered for it. It was the least that he could do to help.

“Are you stuck?” he replied after a moment of hesitation. “You’re almost out – keep digging.”

There wasn’t much that he could do for her. She was too large and heavy for him to help pull her free, and she was far stronger than he was. She got herself most of the way out of the cabin, fragments of hardened foam scattering across the deck, but the door blocked her path. It was stuck fast, and she was too big to fit through the gap.

“You have to push it open,” Boyd advised.

Lorza loosed a grunt of effort, her frustration palpable, bracing her shoulder against the frame. She gave it a shove, then growled again, a second push making it creak. On the third attempt, it finally gave way, and she pushed through the last of the foam to fall to her knees in the corridor outside. One of her arms was hanging limp, the sleeve of her jumpsuit stained red beneath the elbow. She must have been injured during the crash. Besides that, she seemed none the worse for wear. Borealans were notoriously tough creatures. She rose to her feet unsteadily, leaning against the nearby bulkhead, blinking her blue eyes groggily.

“W-we are alive?” she stammered, almost as though she feared that he might correct her. “Where are we?”

“Looks like we both survived the crash, but the ship is totaled,” Boyd replied. She watched him in disbelief as he turned around, resuming his march to the cargo hold. “We need to secure what supplies we can, then get as far away from the wreck as possible before someone comes looking.”

“Wait, wait,” she muttered as she cradled her head in her good hand. The other was still hanging at her side, dangling unnaturally. “We should stay here, da? That is what they say you are supposed to do – stay put and wait for rescue.”

“The only people who are going to come looking for us have much less charitable intentions, believe me,” he replied. “Now, find a pack, and fill it with as much useful gear as you can carry. Rations, tools, whatever will keep us alive.”

“This is all your fault,” she snarled, flexing her claws as she shot him a hateful look. “What have you gotten us involved in? I have half a mind to break your damned legs and turn you over to whoever it is you pissed off back on Hades.”

It wasn’t an idle threat coming from a Borealan. Boyd might be skilled at self-defense, but there wasn’t much that he could do against seven hundred pounds of pissed-off fat and muscle. It would be like trying to fight a grizzly bear.

“I would advise against that,” he said cautiously, keeping his tone level. “They won’t leave any witnesses alive. If we’re lucky, some of the bodies will be too damaged to identify, and they’ll assume that I was killed. I don’t think it’s likely that they’ll send out a team to look for us.”

She spat an insult in Russian that he didn’t understand, turning her attention to her broken arm.

Damn it. At least the pain is keeping me awake. It seems that your crazy plan worked after all,” she added, turning to glance at the foam-filled cabin. “We need to search the Zemchug for other survivors. I will not go anywhere until everyone is accounted for, dead or alive.”

“Time is of the essence,” Boyd protested. “We need to-”

“Keep your mouth shut!” she snarled. Her sharp teeth were bared, and her round ears had pressed flat against her head. “Find the bodies – there will be five of them. If you leave before we are done, I will tell whoever comes looking where you went. Try to kill me, I dare you. Even injured, you cannot fight a Polar.”

He raised his hands defensively and took a step back. She was right – he didn’t fancy his chances trying to take her down armed with only a tiny knife. Better to choose diplomacy over conflict in this instance. It would take the Syndicate a little time to locate their crash site and dispatch a ship, so he could humor her request. She might yet be an asset to him, assuming she didn’t die from her injuries. Borealans were prized as shock troopers for a reason.

They set off in different directions, poring through the wreckage for any signs of life. The cockpit had crumpled when they had hit the ground, the pilot and the captain now little more than a red smear between the layers of crushed metal. One of the personnel had been thrown from the craft as Boyd had, but had landed a lot harder, their blackened body limp and twisted unnaturally.

Boyd was digging through what was left of the mess hall when he heard a faint voice. It was human – weak enough to be almost inaudible. It crossed his mind to simply ignore it. There was no way that they could treat any severe injuries with the resources they had at hand, and the Polar might slow them down trying to care for or carry what was now surely dead weight.

Lorza quickly appeared at the door, however. Her furry ears were swiveling erratically, honing in on the source of the sound. She had far better hearing than he did.

“Do you hear that?” she gasped. “Someone is alive! I think it is Alexei!”

She called his name, and they heard him reply, Lorza following the voice over to a nearby bulkhead. She tapped against the warped metal with her knuckles but couldn’t find any compartments or breaks, deducing that he must be on the other side. Boyd watched as she squeezed into one of the cabins, peering through the door to see Lorza pulling the man from a crash couch, the harness having miraculously kept him intact despite the room around him having essentially disintegrated. Things weren’t looking good for Alexei – he was delirious, as limp as a doll. Lorza dragged him into the corridor, then out into the snow, cradling his head in her giant hand as she lay him gently on the ground. She was clearly distressed, so Boyd kept his distance, surmising that she would likely hold him responsible for whatever happened to her crewmate.

She whispered to him in Russian, the man slowly coming to, reaching up to grip her sleeve with his fist. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, his behavior implying a severe concussion.

“He will freeze,” she pleaded, turning to look back at Boyd with tears in her eyes. “He needs a respirator and some warm clothes.”

Boyd held his tongue. The man almost certainly had a skull fracture or a bleed on the brain, and the prognosis wasn’t good. There was little to be gained by wasting time and resources on a man who wouldn’t survive the next few hours, but he was eager to avoid conflict with Lorza, so he set off into the wreck to search for the requested items. He returned a few minutes later with an emergency respirator and a winter coat, handing them off to Lorza, who draped the garment over her friend. It was a futile gesture – Boyd’s suit was reading twenty below zero. She held the mask to his face, encouraging him to breathe, the simple emergency respirator doing its best to filter oxygen from the environment.

“You know the ship better than I do,” Boyd began. “Go find as much food as you can, and anything you think might be useful. Sleeping bags, clothes, weapons, tools – anything you can fit in a backpack. I’ll take care of Alexei – I’m trained in first aid.”

Lorza nodded as she rose to her feet, panicked but clearly relieved to have something to occupy herself with. She headed back into the wreck, leaving the injured geologist in Boyd’s care. He kneeled in the snow beside the man, lifting the coat to give him a quick once-over. His body was covered in abrasions and some rather deep flesh wounds, but there was nothing that looked immediately life-threatening. The head injury was the more pressing issue. There was a crust of dried blood on his scalp that had made its way down one side of his face, his eyes were unfocused, and he was peering around in a daze.

“Alexei, can you hear me?” Boyd asked. “Try to stay awake. Can you speak?”

He coughed through the respirator, unresponsive, looking past Boyd as though he couldn’t even see him. That wasn’t a good sign. Boyd had his first-aid kit on hand, but there was no way to judge the extent of the damage without a medical scanner, and he couldn’t exactly perform brain surgery in the snow. It might be kinder to give him a lethal dose of painkillers to ease him on his way, but Lorza would certainly object. An adrenaline shot might get the Russian back on his feet. He’d still be a dead man walking, but at least they could move away from the wreck, and that was Boyd’s chief concern right now.

Boyd fished the aid kit out of his pocket, opening the little case and retrieving the injector. He searched the kit for one of the adrenaline capsules, then loaded it into the device, extending the hypodermic needle. After opening the man’s overalls to expose his chest, Boyd slammed the needle directly into his heart, injecting the payload into his system. Alexei’s eyes suddenly widened, and he sat up straight, breathing hard through his respirator as Boyd stowed the injector back in its case.

Cyka blyat!” he exclaimed, his eyes darting about in alarm.

“Hey, try not to move around too much,” Boyd advised as he put a hand on the man’s chest in an attempt to ease him back down. “You have a head injury.”

Alexei peered back at him, confusion etched onto his face, and Boyd remembered that he didn’t speak English. The agent gestured to his head, then guided him back down into the snow, Alexei seeming to get the picture. He was shooting daggers at Boyd, likely starting to remember what had happened and placing the blame squarely on his shoulders. He perked up when he saw Lorza reappear, the Polar tossing a pair of loaded rucksacks into the snow beside them as she crouched down to talk to her crewmate.

“I gave him a shot of adrenaline,” Boyd explained as the pair exchanged words in Russian. “It should be enough to get him walking, but I have to warn you – his outlook isn’t good. I don’t have the tools or the skills necessary to treat a brain injury like this.”

“Will he die?” Lorza asked, her voice cracking.

“Likely, but if we can get clear of the wreck and find some shelter, I can make him more comfortable. Once we’re secure and we have time to stop and take a breather, I’ll see if there’s anything more I can do for him.”

Da, yes,” Lorza replied with a terse nod. “I have brought everything I could find that might be of use. Can we move him?”

“Don’t have much of a choice,” Boyd grumbled. “Can you help him along with your busted arm?”

“I will be fine – just carry one of the packs,” she replied as she began to help Alexei up.

Boyd lifted one of the rucksacks, finding that she had packed it a little heavy to be worn comfortably by a human, but that wasn’t their concern right now. The Polar gripped Alexei under one arm, the man leaning against her unsteadily as they began to walk.

“Where are we even going?” Lorza asked, glancing out at the empty horizon. “I see nothing but snow in all directions.”

“I don’t know yet,” Boyd admitted, reaching down to tap at his touch display. “My suit has GPS, but this moon might not have any satellites to connect to. Once we get clear of the wreckage, I’ll see if I can pick up a signal, but I wouldn’t bet on it. We might be stuck doing things the old-fashioned way.”

They marched a few hundred meters from the still smoldering wreck of the Zemchug, heading in the direction of the nearest snow drifts, the howling winds shaping them like sand dunes. Alexei was struggling to keep up, even with Lorza’s help, the Polar practically dragging him through the knee-deep powder. At this point, it was a race to see whether the bleed or the exposure would kill him first.

“Hold it,” Boyd warned, extending an arm to stop her. She followed his gaze to the ground, where there was a translucent patch of blue ice visible through the snow. They were standing on some kind of subsurface ocean or lake, not unlike those of Europa or Enceladus, though the ice sheet seemed meters thick instead of miles.

“Is it strong enough to walk on?” she asked warily. “For me, I mean.”

“It looks safe – just keep an ear open for cracks,” Boyd replied as he set off again with a more cautious gait.

“If we are on ice, why did the Zemchug not punch straight through?” Lorza wondered as she glanced back at the ship.

“We hit bedrock – I could see it under the melted snow,” Boyd explained. “If we had come down half a klick in this direction, we’d be at the bottom of an alien ocean right now. Come on,” he added, waving her along. “We need to pick up the pace.”

***

They walked for a good half-hour before Alexei started to get worse, falling to his knees and muttering unintelligibly as Lorza tried to comfort him.

“For God’s sake!” Boyd snapped, his patience running low. “He’s on his way out. There’s probably more blood than brain fluid in his skull by now. Let me give him a fatal dose of morphine to send him off.”

Lorza looked up at Boyd with her feline teeth bared, her brow furrowed, and he felt a pang of primal fear.

“Fine, have it your way,” he shot back. “He’s just going to die slower. What’s he saying, anyway?”

“He is rambling,” she replied, supporting him with a hand on his back. “He says he is too cold, that he wants to go home. Now, he talks of seeing colorful lights in the ice.”

“Just let me give him the coup de grace, Lorza,” Boyd sighed. “Can’t you see that he’s suffering?”

“Wait,” she mumbled, momentarily distracted. “I…I see them too.”

“The concussion has turned his brain to mush,” Boyd scoffed. “I know you didn’t hit your head that hard, or you wouldn’t be talking to me.”

“No,” she insisted, narrowing her eyes as she stared at the ice beneath her. “There is something below us…”

Boyd walked over to where the pair were kneeling, blue ice visible beneath a patch in the snow, and he squinted as he tried to focus on the darkness beneath. There was something there – beautiful, mesmerizing. It looked like a cartwheel covered in Christmas decorations, colored lights in a rainbow of hues spinning in the murky water, forming intricate patterns that drew his gaze.

“What…is it?” Lorza asked, transfixed by the sight.

The colorful wheel accelerated towards them suddenly, rising up through the murky water like a torpedo, giving them barely enough time to throw themselves clear. The dark shape plowed through the ice sheet, a cracking sound like a calving iceberg shaking Boyd’s bones as it shattered the obstacle, sending heavy chunks the size of boulders cratering into the snow all around them. They were showered in a spray of frigid saltwater, a mass of glistening tentacles writhing in the snow like a ball of snakes.

Boyd lay half-buried in a drift, staring at the thing in disbelief as it seemed to take form, his eyes picking out the details. There was a spherical body at the center of its considerable mass, two dozen powerful appendages like thick, meaty cables flailing and whipping through the air as it struggled to find purchase. Its limbs were covered in pulsating, bioluminescent pustules that glowed with an eerily beautiful kaleidoscope of colors, each of them the size of his fist. Its oily skin was as black as pitch, almost seeming to absorb the light that touched it, only the glistening of what might be seawater or some kind of mucous letting him pick out any details. As the grotesque creature turned in his direction, Boyd realized that the thing had a face – a hundred tiny, black eyes clustered around a mouth. It opened the circular orifice, its dark flesh parting to reveal rings of serrated teeth, like a biological buzzsaw.

For the first time that he could remember, Boyd was frozen in fear, too terrified to move. The nightmare creature turned its attention to Alexei, who was closest to it, Boyd watching in silent horror as one of its muscular appendages shot out to wrap around the man’s leg like a lasso. It began to drag him towards its open maw, but Lorza dug her claws into his coat, straining against its primal strength. The geologist wailed in fear and confusion as it tore at his limb, and he began to slip out of her grasp. Lorza tried to grab him with her injured arm reflexively, hissing in pain. Her black claws tore through the coat’s insulated lining as the thing yanked its prey free, even the Polar powerless to stop it, dragging the flailing Russian through the snow. Boyd was on his feet and running by the time the man’s screams were silenced, Lorza’s voice ringing out in a wordless wail of anger and despair.

“Run!” Boyd commanded at the top of his voice. It seemed to jolt her out of her stupor, and he looked over his shoulder to see her rising to follow him, her wide paws far more suited to the snow than his boots.

Apparently not sated by its grisly meal, the thing gave chase, skittering across the ice like some kind of nightmarish octopus. Its gelatinous body undulated as it moved, its seething mass of tentacles pulling it along, throwing up clouds of white powder. It had no bones, no support, like something dredged up from the depths of the ocean. The monster was unwieldy on the surface, and they quickly outpaced it, the thing coming to a wobbling halt as it abandoned the short-lived pursuit. Boyd slowed to a jog, turning to watch as it slithered back to the hole in the ice, hooking the jagged edge with its tentacles before pulling itself back into the black water with a splash.

Lorza came to a stop beside him, breathing hard, clutching at her broken arm. She let out a string of Russian curse words, peering back at the hole with a horrified expression. Even Boyd was disturbed, his heart racing, adrenaline pumping through his veins. That thing had eaten Alexei like a damned ration bar, and even the massive Polar had been helpless to stop it. Boyd hadn’t felt so much as a twinge of fear when he had been captured by the Syndicate – not even when he had been preparing for the crash – but no training could have steeled him for this.

“Nothing we can do for Alexei now,” he panted. “Keep moving! It might surface again!”

“What was that thing!?” Lorza exclaimed, her eyes wide with panic. She was starting to hyperventilate, perhaps going into shock. “It just…it ate Alexei! I had him. He was in my hands. I tried to…I could not even-”

Boyd reached up and gave her a nudge, snapping her back to the present, those wild eyes turning on him.

“We need to move,” he insisted. “Focus, Lorza!”

She swallowed the lump in her throat, then nodded, following behind him as he made his way off into the snow.

***

They marched for hours, spurred on by their fear, the idea of the creature creeping along under the ice as it tracked them lingering in their minds. Eventually, they reached deeper snow that obscured the ice sheet beneath their feet, and there was some illusion of safety.

Now was as good a time as any to stop and catch their breath. Boyd had to take inventory of what they had recovered from the wreck, then figure out where they were and where they were ultimately going. He raised a fist in a gesture for Lorza to stop, the Polar seeming relieved as she sat down heavily, still nursing her broken arm. They had barely spoken during their trek, but Boyd had nothing to say to her that might lessen the shock and loss. Alexei had been the last remnant of her former life aboard the Zemchug, and he was gone now – literally torn from her hands.

“We have two priorities right now,” Boyd began, shrugging off his heavy pack. “We need to figure out what direction we’re going in and what supplies we have on hand. I’m going to see if I can get any kind of signal,” he added, bringing up the flexible touch panel on his forearm. “I need you to empty these bags and make a list of what food and tools we have available. Water won’t be a problem – we’re surrounded by snow – but we’re going to need to ration our food. There’s no telling how long we’ll be stuck out here…”

“What makes you think it matters where we go?” Lorza scoffed, shooting him a surly glance as she sat on a snow drift. “Look around you,” she added, spreading her arms in exasperation. “There is nothing here but ice and snow! We have been walking for hours, and we have seen no signs of civilization.”

“This moon is rich in natural resources,” Boyd replied tersely. “It has an oxygen atmosphere, ice, and a subsurface ocean full of liquid water. That means life support, potable water, hydrogen fuel. There will be ice mining outposts here, oxygen harvesters, cracking facilities – I’m sure of it. It would be insane to have an inhabited planet in spitting distance and not take advantage of the resources here.”

“And, you think these outposts will have ways off the moon?” the Polar asked.

“Certainly,” he said, turning his attention back to his display. “They’d need transportation, supplies – nobody could live here long-term. We haven’t seen so much as a goddamned weed so far. I just need to find a GPS signal from a satellite, or pick up some kind of radio transmission, and figure out where we are in relation to it. They have to be communicating somehow – no way a bunch of pump jockeys are using tightbeam.”

He tapped at his touch panel and was relieved to see that their hike had recharged a little of his battery capacity. The suit had photovoltaic cells built into its lining, albeit rather limited ones, but it could also convert the kinetic energy of his movements into electricity. Praying that he could get some kind of signal, he set a scan going across all frequencies. Even if he connected to a satellite or a transmitter that would allow him to transmit data, he still couldn’t call for help. They would all be owned by the corp or compromised by the Syndicate, and it would only bring his enemies down on his head. His situation hadn’t changed in that regard. All he needed was some coordinates – maybe he could pull a map if he was lucky – something to tell him which direction to walk in.

There! A signal! It was a fraction of a bar, just a few kilobytes per second, but it was enough. Apparently, there was at least one corp satellite in range, likely acting as a relay for whatever facilities they were operating on the moon. Breaking its civilian-grade encryption was trivial with his UNNI-issue software, and he waited for a few excruciating minutes as his system pulled whatever data it could grab, hoping that he could assemble something usable from the fragments before the satellite orbited out of range.

After what felt like an eternity, he was looking at a map on his wrist display. Well, not a map – the moon seemed to be completely uncharted. What he had were the coordinates of the nearest fuel refinery, as he had predicted, and a clear direction that they needed to travel to reach it. He tried to calibrate his compass, quickly realizing that the moon had no magnetic poles to speak of. Frustrated, he considered for a few moments, then glanced up at the sky to see a rust-colored ball floating above the horizon. Almost all moons were tidally locked to their parent, and if that was true for this one, then Hades should remain in a fixed position in the sky. As long as he kept the planet to his left, he would be heading in the right direction – due West. Fortunately, the Zemchug had approached the moon from the direction of Hades. If they had ended up on its proverbial dark side, they would be drifting with a dead drive, as his contact would have said.

Pleased with himself, he turned around to see if Lorza had made any progress with her task. She had emptied the bags onto the snow and was sorting what she had recovered into piles.

“How’s it coming?” he asked, walking over to get a closer look. “What do we have?”

“Six ration packs, my sleeping bag, two fire suppressant grenades, some bottled water, zip ties, duct tape, toothpaste…that’s about it.”

“What!?” Boyd exclaimed, his sudden outburst making her ears flatten against her head protectively. “Are you stupid? Why the hell did you bring toothpaste and zip ties instead of more food? Didn’t you grab any tools – any weapons?”

“I grabbed whatever I could find!” she protested, pouting at him. “You did not give me much time to search, and thanks to you, half of the ship was burned to ash or crushed like a soda can. I was lucky to find even this!”

“You didn’t get me a sleeping bag?” Boyd asked, the roll of padded fabric already alluring to him.

“This one is mine,” she replied, snatching it up and holding it against her chest as though he might steal it from under her pink nose. “I brought it from Siberia. Besides,” she added, looking him up and down with an expression of disdain on her furry face. “You do not seem to be having any trouble keeping warm, mister miner.”

Boyd massaged his temples through his hood, trying to keep his cool as he exhaled a sigh through gritted teeth. This damned alien was getting on his last nerve. He was usually so calm and collected, but recent events had pushed him to the limits of his endurance.

“Okay, whatever,” he grumbled. “It is what it is. I retrieved the data I needed, and I have a direction, so let’s get walking.”

“How far is it?” Lorza asked, starting to return her haul to the bags.

“About four hundred kilometers.”

“Four hundred!?” she exclaimed, pausing with an MRE in her hand to shoot him a disbelieving look.

“We can make it,” Boyd insisted. “Fifty or sixty klicks a day is doable in this terrain. Besides, you look like you could use the exercise,” he muttered with a nod to her considerable bulk.

She scowled at him, her brow furrowing like an angry lion.

“That is not the point,” she replied with a low growl. “There are only six MREs here,” she added, waving the little package at him. “We do not have enough supplies to make it that far!”

“It will be plenty if we ration them,” Boyd continued. “If we keep up the pace, we can cover that distance in a little over a week. Those MREs are about three thousand calories apiece, right? If each of us eats half of that per day, we should be fine. We’d lose a little weight, but we’re not going to starve to death, not even close.”

“Are you seeing this, human?” Lorza demanded as she gestured to her girthy figure with a clawed hand. “If you had not noticed, I am a Polar. I need five times that number of calories. What we have here is barely enough to last me two days!”

“By the look of you, you have enough fat reserves to last you a month,” he muttered as he looked her up and down. He could see the paunch of her belly through her suit, the considerable weight of her bust straining against the fabric of her coveralls. They must be using some industrial-grade zippers to keep the thing from popping open and spilling its generous contents all over the place.

“We are supposed to look like this!” she snapped, crossing her arms in a way that made them sink into her bosom like quicksand. “Our blubber insulates our bodies from the cold. It is the reason I have no need of a fancy suit.”

“If you say so,” Boyd continued, making no effort to mask his sarcasm. “Now, finish packing up that junk. We need to get going. The sooner we arrive at the refinery, the sooner we can get out of this fucking tundra – and each other’s hair.”

“Finally some good news,” she grumbled, loading the last of their supplies into one of the packs. She tossed it towards Boyd a little too hard, knocking him off his feet as he tried to catch it, sending him toppling into the snow. Lorza found the situation a lot more amusing than he did, chuckling to herself as he struggled free and began to brush off his suit. “Come on, Jones,” she said with as much disdain as she could muster. “Time to get moving.”

CHAPTER 4: SAFEHOUSE

Hades was always stationary in the sky, acting as their guide, but the same could not be said of the sun. The system’s star was starting to drop below the horizon as the moon progressed through its orbit, and the temperature along with it. It had been cold enough in direct sunlight, but Boyd’s suit was showing that it was dropping a couple of degrees every hour. Worse – without the sun to supplement the supply of kinetic energy that was keeping his batteries charged, his photovoltaic cells were dead weight. His battery was gradually starting to drain, the heating elements in his suit’s lining ramping up to counteract the plummeting temperature, expending energy faster than he could replenish it. He was in serious trouble, but he wasn’t about to tell Lorza that.

Paradoxically, the Polar seemed to be doing better than he was. She was evolved for conditions like these – her layer of seal-like blubber and her thick coat of fur trapping enough heat that she could tolerate this freezing cold without so much as a jacket. While her weight made her look out of shape, she was proving surprisingly athletic. Perhaps it was the muscle that was required to haul all of that weight around or her larger lung capacity. While Boyd had to struggle through the deep snow, her wide paws spread her mass across its surface, almost like a camel walking on sand.

“We need to make camp for the night,” he said, making his way up the slope of another drift. “Find some shelter – get a few hours of sleep. We won’t make it far if we exhaust ourselves.”

“It feels as though it is getting colder,” Lorza replied, the chill wind whipping at her hair. “We should find a cave or build a shelter from snow. We need to trap as much of our body heat as we can.”

“What, like an igloo?” Boyd asked.

“I do not know this word, igloo, but an ice cave would suffice. Judging by the terrain, there should be ice caves here – either meltwater cutting through glaciers or wind carving hollows in the snow.”

“How the hell do you know that?” he scoffed, turning to look back at her.

She gave him a sideways glance as she scaled the slope beside him, far more agile in the snow than he was, despite their difference in weight.

“I am a cartographer, remember?” she replied as she came to a stop beside him. She certainly wasn’t doing it out of kindness, but her bulk acted as a windbreak, giving him a few moments of reprieve from the frigid gale. “It is my job to know these things. I am also a Polar, and my people learn survival skills at a young age. They are passed down from generation to generation, enabling us to be self-sufficient when the need arises. We can all hunt, build shelters, and whatever else we need to survive the tundra. On our homeworld, not knowing how to fish on an ice flow or how to find shelter in a cave could be a death sentence.”

“You can tell me your life story once we find somewhere to hole up,” Boyd grumbled, impatience giving his tone a little more bite than he might have intended. At this point, every second they wasted brought him another step closer to running out of battery power and dying of exposure. “Let’s split up and search the area. Don’t wander outside of shouting distance, you hear?”

“Better than you do,” she sneered, heading off into the snow. He had offended her, but Boyd had no interest in learning about the finer points of Polar culture, nor did he feel any desire to know her any better than he already did. They were allies of circumstance, and once they were out of this predicament, he’d have no further use for her.

They searched for a little while before Lorza finally found a cave. As relieved as he was to have a place to take shelter, the Polar’s smirk almost made him want to brave the cold. Calling it a cave might have been overly generous. It was little more than a narrow hole in the snow, exposing a tunnel of blue ice that extended down into the gloom. Boyd made his way closer, but Lorza hesitated, sizing up the opening.

“It is small,” she complained. “I am not sure I can fit.”

“Well, make an effort,” he replied as he peered into the tunnel’s mouth. The way that the light bounced off its icy walls almost made it look like they were glowing. “I’m a little wary of native animals after…y’know…so let’s exercise some caution. Last thing I want to do is disturb some kind of hibernating space bear or something.”

Boyd turned sideways, slipping into the narrow gap. His boots began to slide on the icy slope, and he reached out to grab the walls in a futile attempt to slow himself, picking up speed. Images of cold, dark water flashed before his mind’s eye, but he quickly emerged into a comparatively spacious chamber. He activated the flashlight that was built into his suit’s wrist, sweeping it around the dome, the beam making the walls of jagged ice glitter. It was a shallow cave with no branching tunnels – only one way in and out.

“It’s safe!” he yelled, his voice echoing back up the passage. “You can come down!”

Boyd waited a few moments, then heard something akin to scrabbling claws, turning the beam of his flashlight back towards the opening. Lorza had plugged the crack with her bulk like a cork in a wine bottle, blotting out the light from outside, her black talons raking against the ice as she struggled to free herself.

“Maybe a little rationing is going to do you good,” he chuckled, watching her brace her hands against the edges of the gap as she tried to push herself the rest of the way through. She snarled in response, but she was stuck fast and couldn’t do anything about his taunting. It looked like the width of her hips was what had landed her in trouble – they were wider than his shoulders – her chest swinging within the confines of her coveralls as she wriggled. It was like watching someone try to force a marshmallow through a coin slot.

Lorza growled with the effort as she gave one last heave, finally freeing herself, the waning sunlight spilling in behind her as she slid down the short slope on her face. Boyd couldn’t stifle his laughter as she rose to her feet, crouching a little under the seven-foot ceiling, brushing some of the white powder off her clothes. His chuckling was cut short as she shook herself like a wet dog, dislodging the ice and snow from her fur, spraying him with slush in the process. Now, it was her turn to laugh as he wiped his visor with the back of his glove, plucking a white hair from the half-melted slurry.

“Could you not have done that outside?” he grumbled.

She ignored his comment as she walked past him, planting a furry hand on his mask to push him out of her way, dropping her heavy backpack on the floor. She knelt to fish inside it as Boyd silently fumed, the Polar withdrawing a massive roll of black fabric, finding a relatively level area of the floor where she could lay it out. The sleeping bag was large enough that it spanned almost the entire length of their little cave, and wide enough to accommodate her, lined with soft padding that looked like it would provide a great deal of insulation. Boyd was immediately jealous – she hadn’t even tried to find him a sleeping bag in the wreck, so he’d be spending the night on the ice. Lorza slipped inside the bag and quickly zipped herself up, turning away from him to face the wall.

Boyd lay down on the hard, freezing floor, rolling around as he attempted to find a comfortable position. He tried using his backpack as a pillow, but it was lumpy and inconvenient, so he settled on sitting upright with his back against one of the walls. After making sure that Lorza wasn’t watching him, he turned on his display, his heart skipping a beat when he saw how little battery he had left. Against his every instinct, he turned the heating element down just enough to keep himself above the brink of hypothermia, immediately starting to shiver. He wrapped his arms around himself in a bid to ward off the cold, but it was a futile gesture.

His contusions and fractures still throbbed beneath the numbing haze of the anesthetic. He’d have to give himself another injection before long – it wasn’t intended to last a week, only a few hours at most. His breathing was still regular, so it seemed to be doing its job for the time being, but it was a ticking time bomb along with his dwindling battery. As hungry as he was, his exhaustion was a more pressing concern, and he allowed it to carry him off into a troubled sleep.

***

Boyd was roused by the sound of an alarm beeping in his ears. He opened his eyes groggily, glancing down at the display on his wrist, an orange warning symbol lighting up the icy walls as it blinked at him aggressively. It was the low battery warning – his suit was nearly out of juice. The cold was already creeping in, making his limbs so stiff that he could barely move, and he started to shiver violently. There was no choice but to shut off the heating element. It was drawing too much power, and who knew how long he’d last without the rebreather? The suit provided next to no insulation without it, and the sub-zero temperatures quickly began to sap away his warmth, stabbing at him like a thousand tiny knives. If he didn’t find a source of heat quickly, he’d go into hypothermia, and there was only one option that he could think of.

He crawled across the frigid cave floor, each movement like trying to drag himself through molasses, his extremities so cold now that he could barely feel them. Once he had reached the sleeping bag, he woke up Lorza with a nudge, the Polar rolling over to look at him as she grumbled to herself.

“L-Lorza,” he began, his teeth chattering as he spoke. “I need your sleeping bag. My suit ran out of power – I’m freezing.” As much as he loathed to ask her for help, he wouldn’t survive the night without it. “Come on, you’re furry – let me have the bag!”

Only now did he notice that she, too, was shivering. Even within her padded cocoon, and with all that fat and fur, she was faring little better than he was. Her blue eyes were open, reflecting the light from his display – she was wide awake.

“You cannot have it,” she replied, wrapping the sleeping bag more tightly around herself. “It is too cold, even for me.”

“I won’t last the night!” Boyd snarled, reaching towards the ceramic blade that was concealed in his boot. “Get out of that bag before I-”

Before he could even finish his threat, one of her massive, furry hands shot out from within the confines of the insulated fabric. Her powerful fingers closed around his forearm, her grip like iron, Boyd trying to pull away reflexively. Even without the cold sapping his strength, he wouldn’t have been able to break loose.

“We will not survive on our own,” she said, those icy eyes locking onto his. “Our only chance to see the sunrise is to combine our body heat.”

“I am not getting in that fucking sleeping bag with you, you…overgrown housecat!” Boyd exclaimed, trying to yank his arm back as she began to drag him closer. It was futile – she was too strong – the Polar zipping open the bag with her other hand like a beast opening its maw to swallow him whole. “Let me go, you fat fuck!”

Lorza ignored him, wrapping a hand around his rebreather to muffle his protests, manhandling him into the sleeping bag. Boyd wasn’t used to being overpowered like this – made helpless – his fury and indignation counting for nothing as he was buried in the plush material. The Polar placed him upside-down relative to her, grabbing his ankles in a single fist to stop him from kicking her in the face.

“Stop struggling, malish,” she snarled. “Unless you would prefer to freeze to death, this is the only option!”

As little as he wanted to admit it, she was right. The warm confines of the sleeping bag were already starting to calm his shivering, the heat that her massive body put out radiating through him, the numbness in his fingers and toes receding. In this position, his face was pressing against her thighs, her cushiony flesh spilling around his head through her coveralls.

“Keep trying to kick me, and I shall squeeze your head until you pass out,” she growled. That got his attention, and he slowed his struggling, finally giving in. There was an odd scent seeping in through his rebreather with each breath – a distinctly non-human odor, partially masked by soaps and perfumes. It might not have been entirely unpleasant had he not been in such a foul mood.

“You smell terrible,” he grumbled, his voice muffled by her enormous thighs. “When was the last time you took a bath?”

“Consider that my nose is many times more sensitive than yours,” she replied. “We have both been trekking through the snow all day, and you hardly smell like you just stepped out of a banya yourself. Now, keep quiet and go to sleep.”

“Yeah, being unconscious is probably the best option for me right now,” he complained. She pressed her thighs a little more tightly around his head, Boyd stiffening as he felt steely muscle rise up from beneath the thick layer of blubber. She was probably just teasing him, but he wasn’t about to test her resolve. Besides, her plan was working. For the first time since he had woken up on this accursed moon, he felt that the cold was being driven away rather than being kept temporarily at bay. Lorza was like a giant space heater, and when combined with his own body heat, the sleeping bag was actually reaching a comfortable temperature.

“You can turn upright if you promise to behave,” the Polar said. This close together, he could feel her powerful voice resonating in his very bones. He felt her release his ankles, so he began to shift around inside the sleeping bag, turning right-side up. While it was spacious by human standards, there wasn’t a lot of room to spare while sharing it with Lorza, the two jerking away from one another reflexively as his struggling caused him to make unwanted contact. He accidentally elbowed her in the stomach, feeling it sink a good three or four inches into her paunch, her protruding bust knocking against his head as he surfaced. The pair grumbled as they shifted their weight around, but it was impossible to stay separated – there just wasn’t room. Begrudgingly, Boyd settled in, trying to ignore the tufts of white fur that were spilling out of her collar to brush against his mask.

Her chest was unavoidable if he wanted to get his head above the fabric, and he found his eyes level with her throat, the considerable weight of her bust spilling over and around his upper torso like it was making a deliberate attempt to consume him. Every subtle movement set her flesh wobbling like a plate of jello – he could feel them rise and fall gently with each breath that she took. Her breasts looked large enough on her massive frame, but from a human perspective, they were big enough to fill the seat of an average car.

“Will you make some goddamned room,” he grumbled, attempting to push her away. His hand merely sank deep into the cushiony fat, her soft blubber engulfing it up to the wrist. He quickly drew away in embarrassment, rolling over to put his back to her, glad that his rebreather was concealing his reddening cheeks. He felt a wave of relief as she rolled over as well, turning to face away from him, the more intimate areas of her anatomy finally out of his reach.

“Stop wriggling like a fussy kitten,” she complained, breaking a silence that was quickly becoming uncomfortable. “You are keeping me awake.”

“It’s not my fault that you’re fat enough to fill this thing like a sausage casing,” he muttered in reply. “It looked large enough for ten people before you squeezed into it.”

“It is my sleeping bag,” she replied, Boyd kicking away her fuzzy tail with his boot as it brushed against him. “Once again, I suffer for my hospitality.”

Her comment stung, but as much as he wanted to make an equally cutting remark, she might actually put him out in the cold if he pressed the issue any further. After a few minutes, her breathing became deep and regular, letting him know that she had fallen asleep. It had been a good call. Between the two of them, the sleeping bag was almost cozy, and he was no longer in danger of imminent death. He could still feel Lorza’s ass resting against the backs of his legs, like he was sitting atop a beanbag made of fat, but he ignored the distraction and tried to get some rest. Her tail would flick back and forth occasionally, like a dog that was having a dream, but he was too tired to pay it much mind.

***

Boyd was awoken by movement, Lorza jostling him as she struggled her way out of the sleeping bag. He felt a flood of frigid air as she opened the zipper, and when he turned to complain, all he got was a faceful of her fluffy tail. He hastily reactivated the heating element in his suit, confident that his remaining battery charge would last until they got up and moving again. A little sunlight and some walking would have his power reserves back at a more stable level, but whether he could charge up enough to last a night without sharing a bed with Lorza again was another question.

Before he could climb out, the Polar lifted the sleeping bag effortlessly with him still inside it, shaking it to dislodge him. He landed on the cold, hard floor, cursing as she began to roll up the bedding.

“God damn it,” he snapped, climbing to his feet. “How about a fucking wake-up call next time, you animal?”

“As I said – my sleeping bag,” she replied as she returned it to her pack. “You should be thanking me for saving your life again.”

“Starting to wish you’d left me at the spaceport,” he muttered, rubbing his bruised elbow through his suit. He was beat up enough already.

“We need to eat before we set off again,” she continued, ignoring his comment as she opened one of the pouches on her pack. “We must keep up our strength.”

“Hold on,” Boyd warned, gesturing for her to put down the MRE that she was preparing to open. “Remember what we talked about back at the crash site? We have six MREs – that’s half of one each per day until we reach the refinery. Fifteen hundred k-cal. Half of that is mine, so gimme my share before you start pigging out.”

“Let me explain something to you, since you ignored me last time,” she said as she waved the plastic packet at him. “You are a human, I am a Polar. Follow me so far?”

“Get to the point,” he sighed, crossing his arms. “Every second you waste complaining is a second of battery life I don’t have.”

“Humans need two thousand calories per day, but Polars need ten thousand,” she continued. “Fifteen hundred is easy for you, but half of this MRE is only a sixth of the food I would need to maintain my weight.”

“You act like that’s a bad thing,” he muttered.

“I am supposed to look like this!” she snarled. “I want a larger share. I did the math last night. If I eat twenty-five hundred calories per day, and you eat five hundred, we are both eating one-quarter of our daily requirement. It is fairer than a fifty-fifty split and suits our different needs better.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Boyd chuckled as he began to pace back and forth across the cave floor. “So you get to eat seventy-five percent of the food, and I get the leftovers? Fuck you, that’s what I think. In what universe is fifty-fifty not fair?”

“Jones, or whatever your real name is,” she began with a more dour tone. “I will begin shedding weight, and when that happens, I will become colder and weaker by the day. I have no fancy suit,” she added with a gesture of her clawed hand. “If you starve me in this way, I may never make it to the refinery.”

“In case you missed my subtle remarks up to this point, you are fat,” Boyd replied. “Are you seriously telling me you’ll die after a week of eating fifteen k-cal a day?”

“In these conditions? Maybe,” she replied solemnly.

“We already agreed on fifty-fifty,” Boyd protested.

You agreed. You ignored me when I tried to argue!”

Balling his fists, Boyd marched over to his pack, fishing out the MREs that Lorza had stowed in it. He did the same with her pack, then laid out the six rations on the icy floor. He split them down the middle, sliding three of them over to her and moving the other three over to his side of the cave.

“There,” he declared, pointing to each pile in turn. “Three for me, three for you. Do whatever the hell you want with your share – eat them all in one sitting if you want to, I don’t fucking care.”

“You hear my words, but you do not listen,” she growled. “Perhaps I will make a meal of you when I run out of food instead.”

“We have enough problems to deal with right now without threatening to murder each other over scraps of food,” Boyd shot back. Lorza held her tongue, collecting up her share of the rations and stowing them in her bag, save for one MRE that she began to open with her claw. He could tell that this wasn’t the end of the discussion, but neither one of them had slept especially well or eaten for more than a day, and they very literally lacked the energy for prolonged arguments.

Boyd squirreled his MREs away, then began to open one too, tearing into the plastic wrapper. These weren’t the UNN rations that he was used to – they were some kind of civilian variant with Russian markings, which raised some questions about their quality. It would be a bad idea to try to reseal anything that he opened, but in this environment, the leftovers would practically be refrigerated anyway. He pulled his hood back for the first time in over a day and felt the cold air sting his cheeks, his skin already starting to flush red in response. Better not take too long – he was in as much danger of losing his nose to frostbite as he was running out of oxygen.

Inside were several smaller nondescript packets and cans, likely separated into courses and snacks. His first instinct was to ask Lorza what was written on their labels, but after the interaction they’d just had, he didn’t want to admit that he needed her help. She watched him, pausing what she was doing, her furry ears turning in his direction as he chose one of the cans at random. He picked up a fiddly can opener that was included in the ration pack, starting to cut into the circular container. After popping it open, he was met with some kind of off-white substance that gave off a milky smell when he gave it a sniff. Using a plastic spoon, he stirred it experimentally, his brow furrowing.

“You realize that is condensed milk?” Lorza asked skeptically.

“I know that,” he replied, hesitating as he brought the spoon to his mouth.

“Have you ever had it before?”

“No,” he grumbled.

“You are just going to eat that out of the can?” she chuckled.

“Yes!” he snapped, swallowing the substance pointedly. It was sickly sweet, and he failed to suppress a grimace, the Polar giving him a knowing smirk. Another spoonful of the syrupy substance was the last thing he wanted, but he’d already opened it, and he wasn’t about to waste the precious calories.

Lorza seemed very amused by his plight, chuckling to herself as she unfolded a portable stove that had been collapsed into a flat sheet of metal. She broke what looked like a hexamine tablet from its blister, then set it beneath the little stove, lighting it with one of the stormproof matches that were included in the kit. Even sitting on the ice, it ignited into a flickering flame, its light dancing off the cave walls. She selected a long, flat can next, and pulled open the tab with a hooked claw to reveal some kind of processed meat. Everything was miniature to her, and he marveled at the care she took to manipulate the tools with her giant fingers, like she was playing with toys intended for children. A scent akin to cooking pork soon began to waft over to him, Boyd’s stomach growling as he struggled to keep down his cloyingly sweet snack. He just kept telling himself that it represented sugar, fats, and carbohydrates.

One thing that he could read on the can was that it represented about ninety calories, so following Lorza’s example, he set up his own stove and began to cook one of the meat dishes. Mouth watering, he dug into the block of meat and vegetables with his spoon, the freezing environment causing wisps of steam to rise from its warm surface. It was bad – tasted like dog food – but in that moment, it might as well have been the best meal he had ever eaten. He could practically feel his lethargy leaving him with each bite.

Stopping just short of licking the empty can, he tossed it aside, then stowed what remained of the MRE back in his pack with the rest. As much as he wanted to sit there and eat the entire thing, he had to be conservative if his share was going to last. Fifteen hundred calories a day, separated into two meals – that was all he could afford.

Unbeknownst to Lorza, he had another trick up his sleeve. His first aid kit contained a supply of nutrient pills – dietary supplements that would help keep an agent active and alert in scenarios where they had no access to food. They were only intended to be used in emergencies, and they had a tendency to destroy one’s kidneys if taken too frequently or for too long, but they would help keep him moving. He had no idea if the Polar could even process them, or if a supplement designed for humans would be of any use to her at all, but he wasn’t about to give up what might be his last lifeline in a crisis. The mission above all.

When they were done with their breakfast – insubstantial though it was – they packed up their gear and prepared to set off. Boyd pulled his hood back down over his face and positioned the rebreather over his mouth, a breath of warm, oxygenated air filling his lungs. It had only been off for maybe half an hour, and he was already starting to feel a little lightheaded.

“Is your fancy suit working again?” Lorza asked, adjusting the straps of her heavy pack. “You do not need me to hold you in my big strong arms and keep you warm again as I did last night?”

“I remember you forcing me to join you against my will,” Boyd muttered, checking his display. “But, yes, it’s working. After a little sunshine and exercise, I should be back up to a respectable battery level.”

“Those things cannot be cheap,” she mused, her eyes following the outline of one of the trailing cables that ran down his torso. “I am surprised that you were able to afford something like that on a miner’s salary, mister Jones.”

“Let’s just go,” he sighed, gesturing to the cave entrance. Light from the rising sun was spilling through the narrow gap now, making the slope of ice that led up to it shine like a mirror.

Lorza took the lead, using her sharp claws for purchase on the slippery surface, Boyd’s boots sliding as he made his way up behind her. He suddenly felt her fuzzy tail bat him in the face, and he brushed it away, glancing up at her angrily to see her sizing up the narrow gap in the ice.

“Oh, this should be good,” he chuckled.

Lorza gave him a sour look over her shoulder, then hooked her clawed fingers around the edges of the crack, preparing to pull herself through. The cave was plunged into darkness as she plugged the gap with her bulk, Boyd flicking on his flashlight to watch her struggle, laughing at her plight. Just like the day before, she was stuck fast, her hips too wide to make it through.

“Come on, you can do it!” he shouted as her claws scrabbled against the ice. “You somehow managed to get that ass in here, so you can get it back out!”

She struggled for a couple more minutes, Boyd’s laughter faltering as he realized that she really was stuck – and so was he. If she was blocking the cave entrance, he had no way to get out. He might even run out of air for his mask to filter in the enclosed space. Lorza stopped her wriggling to catch her breath, and after a moment, he heard a muffled voice from the other side of the entrance.

“I am stuck!” she panted. “You will have to push me!”

Boyd took a step back to appraise the obstacle, shining the beam of his flashlight across her rear. Her butt was wide enough to completely clog a hole that he had simply walked through with a few inches of clearance between his shoulders and the ice, and it was probably about as heavy as he was, the outlines of her round cheeks clearly visible as they strained against the blue coveralls. Each time she kicked or wriggled, a ripple spread through her fat like a wave, making him wonder how they maintained such a distinct shape. He remembered having her thighs around his head the night before, and feeling muscle like coils of steel cable rising up from beneath the soft layer of flesh and fur. Maybe there was more brawn packed into those cheeks than it might appear. He was amused to see the little hole that had been cut into her coveralls at the base of the spine, letting her long, fuzzy tail poke through.

He wouldn’t be able to push her on this slippery ice, but he might be able to give her a good shove. Boyd took a few steps back – he would have rolled up his sleeves if he’d still been wearing his disguise – then began to run up the incline. He slammed his shoulder into one of her cheeks like he was breaching a door, sinking deep into her fat, the impact making her butt wobble. It was springier than he had been anticipating, sending him rocking back like he had just tried to tackle an exercise ball, and he reached for a handhold to save from falling down the slope. The only one in range was Lorza’s tail, his fist closing around the fluffy appendage. It felt like a thick rope made of bone and muscle, albeit far thinner than her explosion of fur made it look.

The Polar yowled like an angry cat, yanking her tail out of his grasp, Boyd backing up warily for fear that she might kick him like a horse.

“Stop pulling my tail, malish!” she snapped.

“Just stay put,” he replied as he geared up for a second attempt. “I think it’s working.”

“Oh, very funny,” he heard her reply. “Why are you such a- ouch!”

Boyd slammed his shoulder into her butt again, better prepared this time, sinking into it like he was pushing into a wall of fresh dough. He shoved as hard as he could, bracing a hand against the tough fabric of her coveralls, feeling her flesh swallow it up to the wrist. Under different circumstances, he might have marveled at its softness. Lorza was a whole lot of woman – too much, in his opinion – but a woman nonetheless. He heard a cracking sound – the ice that had caught around her waist was starting to give. With one last heave, the ice shattered, sending the Polar falling into the snow just outside the cave. His momentum carried him after her, Lorza’s rear breaking his fall like a waterbed, Boyd feeling it wobble beneath him as her feather-duster-like tail batted his face.

“Off, off!” she snapped as the appendage coiled around his waist like a snake. She lifted him – her tail extraordinarily strong – and tossed him into a nearby drift. He struggled out of the freezing powder, the snow starting to melt as the circuits in his suit’s lining warmed it.

“How about thank you for helping me, Boyd?” he grumbled as she gave him a decidedly unfriendly smile.

“So, is it Jones or Boyd?” she asked as she clambered to her feet. She shook herself again, sending a spray of snow into the air, whipping her tail back and forth to dislodge a few stubborn chunks of ice as she brushed off her clothes. “Having trouble keeping your story straight, mister miner?”

“Let’s just get moving while we can still take advantage of the sunlight,” he replied, searching the sky for Hades. He quickly found it, the rust-colored ball hanging above them, immovable. “Maybe I can generate enough power to avoid having to spend another night sharing a sleeping bag with you, you overgrown bathmat.”

“What is bath mat?” she repeated, cocking her head at him like a curious dog.

“Don’t worry about it,” he muttered as he set off into the snow, his visor darkening to protect his eyes from the white glare. “You’d have to bathe to know what that is.”

He brought up his display as Lorza began to lope along behind him. They had traveled about fifty kilometers the day before, and they had another fifty ahead of them before they could rest again. Marching from dusk ‘till dawn made him feel like he was in goddamned boot camp again. If he survived this, he was going to put in a transfer request for a desk job.

“Lead on, Boyd,” Lorza chimed.

***

The sun was starting to get low again, growing cold and distant as it dipped towards the featureless horizon. They had been walking all day, and Boyd was almost exhausted enough to stagger, his boots sinking deep into the snow to make each step an effort. Lorza seemed to lack his stamina, but she was made for this kind of environment, her wide paws making the going far easier for her. The pair hadn’t spoken since they had left the cave that morning. Neither had anything constructive to say to the other, and Boyd could almost pretend that his furry companion wasn’t there if he focused on the ground beneath his feet. As they crested another of the dune-like snow drifts, Lorza called for him to stop.

“I need a break for a few minutes,” she said, sitting down on the slope to catch her breath. “Let me rest.”

“We need to keep moving,” Boyd panted, pausing to look back at her. “We don’t want to be caught out in the open when the sun goes down – the temperature is going to plummet like a fucking rock. We can take a break when we’ve found shelter.”

Lorza’s stomach growled loud enough that he could hear it, and she closed a clawed hand over her paunchy belly, wincing as a hunger pang rocked her.

“I told you that the lack of food would make me weak,” she grumbled, shooting him a resentful glance as she nursed her stomach. “If you had just let me-”

“We’re not having this food argument again,” he said, cutting her off. Truth be told, she did seem to be suffering from the hunger, but it was impossible to tell how genuine her complaints were. An overweight human who was put on a low-calorie diet would react exactly the same way, even if they were in no real danger, and there was no way for him to know how much of that could be chalked up to her biology. For now, he would err on the side of caution. If they burned through their supplies too fast, they would be in serious trouble.

“We will have to have it eventually,” she replied, her eyes narrowing. “Sooner rather than later. I cannot subsist on melted snow.”

“You’re not gonna starve, that’s for sure,” he added as he looked her up and down conspicuously. “Maybe those coveralls will actually fit you properly by the time we reach the refinery. You’re spilling out of them…”

“Does it bother you that much?” she asked, a sly smile curling her lips. Her hunger temporarily forgotten, she lay back in the snow, stretching out like a model posing for a painting. She was remarkably limber for someone so large, her spine arching off the white powder, Boyd’s eyes drawn to the flowing curve of her hourglass hips. Her breasts shifted and wobbled within the confines of her coveralls, their weight straining against the fabric, almost like she had been poured into her clothes and they were the only thing keeping her contained. “Maybe you should focus on getting us out of here rather than commenting about my figure all the time. It seems to be on your mind a lot for someone who claims to hate it…”

“Don’t delude yourself,” he grumbled, waving his hand dismissively as he turned his eyes to the horizon. “You’re basically an animal to me. Get your oversized ass off the snow, and let’s find a damned cave to sleep in. We’re losing sunlight, and I don’t want to be stranded out here.”

“Eager to share a sleeping bag with me again, are you?”

“There’d be a lot more room if you were really starving,” he scoffed, shaking his head as he set off into the snow. Lorza watched him for a few moments with a grin on her face, then it faded, the Polar rising to follow him. She was bored, clearly – trying to get under his skin – but she would eventually get tired of it and stop as long as he didn’t give her a reaction. That kind of behavior might work on someone less disciplined than Boyd, but he would be damned if he was going to let her get to him that easily.

***

They searched for a good hour, but there were no more ice caves to be found. Maybe it was the geography of the area, or maybe they were just unlucky, but time was rapidly running out. The sun was setting, staining the endless landscape of snow orange, Hades forming a red crescent in the darkening sky. Boyd checked his display, seeing that his battery had been depleted to a worrying degree. Just like the night before, as his suit ramped up its heating element in response to the dropping temperature, the system began to run at a deficit. Sleeping out in the open wasn’t an option – they needed shelter.

Boyd glanced up, surveying the terrain that surrounded him. There was nothing but tundra as far as the eye could see. It was an arctic desert, a wasteland. Lorza suddenly appeared over a snowdrift ahead, skidding a little as she descended the near side on her wide paws.

“You find anything?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she replied. “We will have to make our own shelter tonight.”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Boyd asked, crossing his arms skeptically. “I haven’t seen so much as a boulder or a tree since we set out from the crash site.”

“Oh, so now you are interested in what I have to say?” she replied with a scowl. “You are happy to listen when it benefits you.”

“Just cut the shit and tell me what you need me to do,” Boyd sighed.

“Fine,” she conceded, her tail flicking back and forth in what he had come to associate with annoyance. “Follow me, and do exactly as I tell you.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he muttered with a sarcastic salute as he began to trail after her bushy tail.

Lorza led him to a few of the drifts, selecting one that was a suitable size, then testing the snow for consistency with her fingers.

“One benefit of this wretched place is that the low temperature creates firm snow,” she began, sticking a digit into the powder. “Good for tunneling.” She stood up, brushing off her furry hands as she appraised her chosen spot. “We will dig deep into the snow to create a chamber with a flat floor and a ceiling high enough that we can sit comfortably. It will need to be larger enough for me to lie flat, obviously. Once that is done, we will seal it, then tunnel up into it from below. The upward angle of the tunnel will prevent fresh snow from sealing it shut, and since hot air rises, it will prevent it from escaping.”

“That’s it?” Boyd asked. “We just dig a hole? I was expecting it to be more…complicated.”

She began to dig, using her massive, wide hands like shovels. Boyd had to dodge a large handful of snow, stepping out of its path as she sent it sailing his way. Her claws seemed to benefit her – she really was adapted to the cold – the black talons giving her more purchase, almost like organic ice picks. After a minute, she stopped, her breath forming clouds of condensation as she peered back at him.

“What are you waiting for, malish? Come help me.”

“Do you see a snow shovel?” he replied, turning up his palms.

“Use your hands,” she snapped, her ears flattening. “You insinuate that I am fat and lazy, yet you shy away from hard work.”

Groaning into his rebreather, Boyd walked over to join her, rolling his shoulders as he prepared to start digging. He took up position to her left, feeling like a kid building a snow fort as he began his work. The going was slow, and immediately, he gained an appreciation for why UNN Marines all carried foldable shovels as part of their kit. Digging a trench or a latrine without specialized tools was a good way to end up with a back injury.

“Your arm seems better,” he panted, pausing to glance at her. “I assumed it was broken after the crash.”

“Just some cuts and a sprain, I think,” she replied as she moved another handful. “Your kind heal more slowly than mine.”

Lorza quickly outpaced him, slowly vanishing up to her waist as she tunneled deeper, leaving great piles of snow behind her. This far below the surface, the snow became more densely packed, forming almost solid chunks that she tore away using her claws for purchase. Now, Boyd was starting to understand why the whole thing wasn’t just going to collapse on top of their heads when they were done. At these temperatures, the snow was closer in consistency to ice than a powder. The chunks were easier for him to move, at least, and he began to carry them out of the trench.

Once the Polar was deep enough, she began to hollow out an area above her, her upper body occasionally vanishing into the chamber that she was constructing. It was going much faster than Boyd had anticipated – they’d only been at it for maybe twenty minutes. Still, the temperature was dropping fast, Boyd’s battery draining just as quickly.

“Bring me some of those blocks,” she said, ducking back into view at the end of her trench to gesture to the chunks of snow.

Boyd hauled several of them over to her one by one – some of them were large enough that he needed both arms to carry them – and she began to plug up parts of the structure. She packed the spaces between the uneven chunks with snow, creating an airtight seal, eventually leaving only a small entrance that curved up into the chamber. She dropped to her hands and knees, squeezing her way inside, Boyd watching as her tail rose out of view. She called to him, and he followed after her. When he reached the entrance, he had to crouch, making his way into a tunnel that was just large enough for Lorza to get through. It curved up at a gentle angle, emerging into a dome that was high enough for him to stand in, the ceiling shaped like the inside of an igloo. The floor had been patted flat, creating just enough space for the Polar to lay out her sleeping bag. She was already unrolling it, her pack pushed up against the nearest wall.

“Cozy,” Boyd muttered, hauling himself inside. “Surrounding ourselves with ice and snow to get warmer is a little unintuitive, but it already seems to be working.”

“This is how my people survived the journeys between settlements on my homeworld,” she replied, reaching for her pack. She fished inside one of the pockets, producing an MRE, starting to peel it open with a hooked claw. “It could take many days to travel between villages and trading posts, and it was the only way to find shelter on the open tundra.”

“What, no mag-levs?” Boyd asked as he slung his pack off his shoulders. “No roadside motels with free ice and snow cones?”

“Mock me all you want, but this would have been your final night in this world had it not been for my primitive techniques,” she replied as she unfolded her portable stove. “You humans think yourselves superior to less advanced species like the Borealans and the Krell, but when stripped of your technology, you are as helpless as a kitten. You cannot hunt, you cannot forage, you cannot even dig a hole in the snow to save your life.”

“I’d like to see you survive on a desert island,” he replied, retrieving the ration pack that he had opened that morning. “Just because I don’t know how to do those things doesn’t mean there are no humans who do.”

“Yet it is you who mocks,” she added, lighting a match to set a pellet burning.

The little chamber soon filled with the scents of cooking food, the pair heating up more nondescript canned meat, even the scant warmth that the hexamine tablets produced helping to raise the temperature in the little dome. Before long, Boyd felt safe enough to turn off the heating element in his suit entirely. He emptied his pack, stacking its contents against the wall behind him, then sat on it to help insulate him from the cold floor.

“This thing isn’t going to melt and collapse on us, is it?” Boyd asked as he glanced up at the ceiling warily.

“It will be fine,” she replied as she dug into her can with a plastic spoon, holding it between her padded thumb and forefinger like it was a sewing needle. “At these temperatures, it might stay intact for days.”

Boyd finished off the second course from his ration, then started on the desserts. There were some snacks and other sundries like cereal bars, and he figured that he might save those to eat during the day when he needed a pick-me-up or an energy boost. He dug a handful of snow out of the floor, then dropped it into a collapsible cup to melt over the stove, adding a fruit concentrate when it was liquid enough. The resulting raspberry-flavored drink was warm, but pleasant in these conditions. Next, he started on a bar of milk chocolate, watching as Lorza polished off a can of what might be some kind of paté. She had eaten pretty much an entire MRE in one sitting and was now surrounded by empty containers and crumpled wrappers, upending a little packet of sugar into her open mouth.

“You should slow down,” he added, gesturing to her MRE with his fork. “That was supposed to last you two days – you just ate it in one sitting.”

“This is a third of my daily requirement,” she replied, glancing up from her dish. “Unless you think you can carry me the rest of the way, I must eat more.”

“They’re your rations,” he replied with a shrug. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I could say the same to you,” she added, giving him a pointed look from across the chamber. “I will ask you once more to share the rations more fairly.”

“Give you my food, you mean?” he scoffed. “Not a chance. Is that an implied threat?” he continued, meeting her gaze. “What, you gonna make a meal out of me when you run out of crackers?”

Her lack of a reply was somehow more ominous than any threat that she could levy. She set her empty MRE aside, then unzipped her sleeping bag, shuffling inside its padded confines. She left it open expectantly, waiting for him to join her.

“It got pretty warm in here,” he said, leaning back against the wall as he settled in for the night. “I think I’ll chance it.”

“Do you really hate me so much that you would put yourself at risk just to avoid being close to me?” she sighed. She waited a few moments for a reply, frowning in frustration when he gave none. “I do not know what I did to earn such scorn,” she muttered, zipping up the bag. “The way I remember it, it was I who helped you escape when you were putting on your little show of being an oppressed miner back at the spaceport. My culture values those qualities, you know,” she added. “Cleverness, shrewdness, the ability to manipulate others into giving you what you want while avoiding conflict and bloodshed. You make a better Polar than you realize.”

“Just drop it and go to sleep,” he grumbled.

“They have a popular saying in Russia,” she said, rolling over to face away from him. “A liar should have a good memory. If you are going to lie, at least keep your story straight. Do not take advantage of me and my crew, then insult my intelligence by denying it.”

Boyd ignored her comment, crossing his arms over his chest as he drifted off to sleep.

***

Boyd was roused by a beeping sound, finding himself shivering violently, the breath that left his rebreather freezing into clouds of glittering ice crystals. He lifted a shaking arm to see a warning flashing on his display. His suit was dangerously low on battery again, and his core temperature had fallen to dangerous levels. Without the alarm, he might not have woken up at all. Although the ambient temperature in the chamber was warmer than it was outside, it was still too low to sustain him, the nights on this cursed moon plunging double digits below zero.

Once again, his only option was to go to Lorza for help.

He shuffled over to her sleeping bag on stiff limbs, giving her a shove to wake her up. She rolled over to face him, blinking back at him groggily with her blue eyes. She seemed to be faring just fine with her insulated sleeping bag and her space heater of a body. Despite the cold, it was still warmer than the ice cave had been, and was apparently tolerable by her standards.

“You came crawling back, I see,” she began. “Literally…”

“Don’t be a bitch,” he mumbled, reaching for her zipper. “Let me in.”

“Tell me your real name,” she replied, her tone adamant.

“Come on!” he protested through chattering teeth. “Let me in, or I’m gonna freeze to death out here! You think you can make it to the refinery on your own and get off-world without me?”

“Tell me your real name,” she repeated, batting his hand away from the bag. “And do not lie this time – I will know.”

“Fine,” he grumbled. “It’s Boyd. Now, let me in before I start losing extremities.”

“There, was that so hard?” she cooed as she unzipped the bag and swung it open in invitation. “Come join me, Boyd.”

The threat of death eventually overpowering his reluctance, he climbed inside, finding himself once again in uncomfortably close proximity to Lorza’s oversized body. Her jutting breasts were immediately rocking against his face, his hands finding plump, yielding flesh no matter where he tried to rest them. She zipped up the bag behind him, sealing them inside to create a little pocket of warmth. To his surprise, he felt the Polar wrap a long arm around him, tugging him closer, seemingly indifferent to the fact that his masked face was sinking into her pillowy bosom. He fought to pull away, but she was stronger than he was even on his best days, never mind when he was on the brink of hypothermia. Whether she was doing this out of genuine concern or just to mess with him, he couldn’t say, but he gravitated to her warmth like a moth to a flame all the same.

He couldn’t see anything other than her collar, where her white fur spilled out of her coveralls, the zipper that ran down her torso threatening to split open and disgorge its contents like a failing dam. There was that scent again – creeping in through his rebreather – alien and floral. He could even feel her warm breath through his hood, her pink nose hovering just above his head.

“You know,” she began, her whispering sending a confusing shiver down his spine. “We are going to be stranded here for a long time. We might as well make an effort to get along. You may find that you come to enjoy my company if you take the time to get to know me better.”

“Uh-huh,” he muttered into her chest. “And this sudden change of attitude is coming right after you just explained how Polars like to manipulate people to avoid conflict and get what they want?”

“You really are shrewd,” she chuckled, the motion making her chest rock against his face.

As hot as his pride burned, it wasn’t enough to keep him warm – only the Polar could do that, so he swallowed it. Truth be told, her warmth and softness were inviting. Her body was like a heated mattress, driving away the cold that surrounded him, the Polar giving him little choice but to use her copious bust as a pillow. It was difficult to maintain his anger and discomfort when his cold, tired body was betraying him.

Just as his eyes were starting to close, he heard a gurgling sound, Lorza’s breasts bumping against his face as she brought a hand down between the pair to cradle her belly. She groaned in discomfort, her stomach growling like a hungry beast.

“How are you that hungry?” Boyd asked, lifting his head to glance up at her. “You just ate an entire ration pack that was supposed to last you two days.”

“I keep telling you that I have a higher calorie requirement than you do, fool,” she grumbled in reply. “I am burning fat, and my body is running out of energy to keep me warm. You have your fancy suit, but I can only rely on my biology. When I run out of fat reserves, my fur will not be enough to stave off the cold, and we will both be in trouble. Is it not obvious now that you cannot survive the nights without me?”

“And I’m the only one who knows where we’re going,” he replied. “I’d like to see you reach the refinery without my map. A few more days – that’s all. You’ll survive. I’m hungry too, but complaining isn’t going to help.”

While her lips remained quiet after that, the same could not be said of her stomach, its rumbling keeping him awake for some time until he finally fell asleep.

CHAPTER 5: THREAT CONDITION

Boyd awoke to find the sleeping bag empty. Lorza could be quiet when she wanted to be – she must have woken up before he had and crawled out without rousing him. Perhaps she was finally coming around after their conversation the night prior. The scent of food already filled the little chamber, and he could see the flickering of a hexamine tablet reflecting off the walls. She must be cooking breakfast.

“I hope it’s not a whole MRE this time,” he said, yawning as he struggled out from beneath the heavy fabric. He climbed to his feet, then stretched, checking his display briefly. There was a little battery left – enough to keep him going while he charged it. “We should-”

Boyd paused as he glanced over at Lorza, finding her hunched on the far side of the room, leaning over her stove. His heart skipped a beat when he noticed the piles of wrappers and empty cans that surrounded her. His eyes darted over to where he had left his supplies after emptying his pack the night before, seeing that his two remaining MREs were conspicuously absent.

“What…what did you do?” he asked, taking a wary step closer. “Lorza?”

“I told you that I needed more food,” she replied, the sound of a plastic spoon scraping the bottom of a can carrying over to him. “You put both our lives at risk by refusing to share it fairly – you left me no choice.”

“Oh, no,” he hissed as he shook his head in disbelief. “You didn’t…”

“I explained the situation – that I need five times the calories that you do – but you refused to listen. If my choice is to steal or to collapse in the snow, then I shall steal.”

“You fucking idiot!” Boyd snapped, reaching down to pick up an empty can of beef stew. He hurled it at her, the container bouncing off the back of her head. “We still have four days left! Four days of trekking through rough terrain! There was enough food there to keep us both fed, and you just ate it all in one sitting!”

“Nine thousand calories,” she replied, climbing to her feet. “Almost a day’s ration for me.”

Boyd was seeing red, adrenaline flooding his veins, the sight of the fat glutton just standing there among the torn packets and discarded cans filling him with rage. He lunged across the little dugout, driving a fist into her belly. It sank like he was punching a training dummy, leaving Lorza unfazed, the towering feline rocking forward to slam her substantial weight into him. It was like being hit by a sumo wrestler, and he was sent flying away from her, skidding on his back for a good couple of feet.

“Try that again, and you will get the claws,” she snarled.

“Take my head off, and you’ll never make it to the refinery,” he replied as he staggered to his feet. “You’ll freeze to death out here or starve without me.”

“And you will not last a night without me,” she replied, planting her hands on her wide hips. “My actions ensure your survival as much as mine.”

“Bullshit,” he snapped, pointing an accusing finger at her. “You can’t even go two days without gorging yourself. That’s what this is about. You’ve fucked us – that’s what you’ve done. I have half a mind to leave you here to die.”

“I would not even be here if not for you!” she bellowed, the power of her voice giving him pause. It was like being roared at by an angry lion. “All of my friends are dead because of you! You brought down my ship, you killed my crew, and now you starve me. The only question I ask is whether ignorance or malice motivates you! Here!” she added, tossing a handful of protein bars onto the icy floor. “I saved you what little I could spare, though the courtesy is more than you deserve.”

He glared at her for a moment, then stooped to gather the morsels of food, stowing them in the pockets of his suit.

“If you expect me to thank you-”

“It is done,” she said, interrupting him. “We have no choice but to move forward. You need me, and I need you. All I have done is buy us more time. We will see if it was enough.”

As much as he wanted to throw another punch, she was right. What she had done could not be undone, and it didn’t change how dependent they were on each other. Without the coordinates that he carried, she would die, and the same was true of him if she wasn’t there to keep him warm.

“This matter isn’t settled,” he said, glaring at her through his visor. “The only reason I’m not ringing you over the fucking coals right now is because we have to move. Get your shit,” he added, storming over to his flattened pack. “I’m leaving in five, whether you’re ready or not.”

***

They packed up their gear and made a swift exit through the narrow tunnel that led back out onto the tundra. Boyd found himself stuck behind Lorza’s enormous rear as she crawled along ahead of him, her cheeks swaying back and forth, her long tail trailing after her. He cursed as his pack got caught on a jutting piece of ice, pausing to adjust the straps. What was the point of even lugging the thing around now that there were no MREs left? When were they going to need toothpaste or foam grenades?

The Polar climbed out of the trench, the morning sunlight flooding in behind her. He hauled himself out after her, seeing her standing there on the snow, stretching her long arms above her head as she exposed her sharp teeth in a yawn.

Boyd searched the sky for Hades, then brought up his display, turning in the direction of the refinery.

“This way,” he said, setting off into the snow. “I trust that you can keep up despite having a belly full of my food?”

“I prefer you when you are asleep,” she replied, trudging along behind him. “It is the only time you are not insulting me or throwing childish tantrums.”

“Keep it up, you tub of lard, and I’ll show you a tantrum.”

“Thank you for proving my point,” she replied as he crested a snowdrift. “I feel the best course of action is to walk you until you are too exhausted to misbehave, like an unruly kitten.”

“One of these days, I’m going to strangle you in your sleep,” he muttered under his breath. It wasn’t enough to escape her finely-tuned hearing, it seemed, the alien raising a hand to her mouth as she stifled a chuckle.

“I would love to see you try.”

“Let’s just keep moving,” he continued, stumbling as he navigated the slope. “The faster we walk, the sooner I can be rid of you. I’m counting down the seconds.”

“I am sure you will agree that we have to find ways to amuse ourselves,” she said as she descended behind him, still chuckling to herself. “Can you not handle a little teasing? You certainly seem to lay it on thick when you joke about my weight.”

“Who says I’m joking?” he replied, turning to scowl at her over his shoulder. “May I remind you that you just wiped out the last of our rations? It’s going to be a hungrier, more difficult march now, all because you couldn’t stick to the plan. In a day, you’ll be just as hungry as you were this morning, and there will be nothing for you to eat.”

“My actions were not gluttony but careful calculation,” she replied. “You will see that soon enough.”

His statement wasn’t entirely true. There would be something left to eat – him. Could he take her if he really needed to? She didn’t know all of his suit’s capabilities, but he wasn’t sure that he could generate enough charge to shock someone of her size. There was the ceramic knife in his boot, but unless he went for the jugular, it wouldn’t even penetrate her fat. For now, they needed one another, but would that be enough to keep her hunger at bay?

***

They trudged through the snow for the better part of a day, Boyd eating one of the protein bars that Lorza had so graciously spared him as his only meal. At this rate, he would have to start using the emergency pills in his medkit. They were packed with nutrients, minerals, and enough stimulants to get a dead man up and marching. Still, the prospect wasn’t an attractive one. They could damage his kidneys, and if Lorza saw him eating them, she would be furious with him for hiding them.

As they crossed another patch of exposed ice, the wind began to howl, flakes of fresh snow starting to fill the air. It quickly became difficult to see, the airborne powder hammering the pair, piling up so quickly that it was reaching Boyd’s knees in mere minutes.

“Blizzard!” Lorza shouted, even her powerful voice almost drowned out by the roar of the storm. She was trailing behind him, struggling against the wind as though it was a physical barrier that was holding her back. “We need to take shelter, or we shall both be frozen solid before long!”

“I saw some weird geography ahead of us,” Boyd replied, raising an arm in a futile attempt to shield himself from the wind. He was already dripping – the heating element in his suit melting the snowflakes that settled on it. “Maybe we can find somewhere to hole up until it passes!”

The glacial terrain slowly came into view through the swirling snow ahead of them, great chunks of ice that had been shifted around and smashed together by natural forces jutting up into the sky like small mountains. They had been dusted with a thick layer of snow, glazed like a cake, but the blue glow of exposed ice led them towards an opening. It was a crevasse – a crack created by ice sheets pulling apart – leading deep below the surface. Boyd had no idea how deep it went or what lay at the bottom, but it might be the only chance they had.

He began to descend, Lorza following behind him, the howling wind fading as they ventured inside. The rough walls gave them plenty of handholds, and the gentle slope was easy enough to navigate, the great walls of ice rising up to either side of them like the cliffs of a canyon. He feared that they might reach a bottleneck or a squeeze that Lorza couldn’t pass through, but it never came. After a short while, the walls met over their heads, forming a kind of tunnel more than a crack. They eventually emerged into a chamber, the ceiling rising high above their heads, the walls so smooth and strange that they almost seemed to be sculpted. There was blue light filtering through – just enough to see by.

“A gallery,” Lorza mused, glancing around as she stepped inside after him. Her eyes reflected the glow, as blue as the ice itself. “Flowing water carved these channels. I wonder how close we are to the ocean?”

Boyd looked down at the ice beneath his feet warily, seeing nothing but darkness.

“You reckon that thing is still following us?” he asked. “Haven’t seen head nor tail of it for a couple of days.”

“Who can say?” she replied, tossing her pack onto the floor. “I know nothing of this moon or its ecology. It may not need to eat again for a year, or it may have developed a taste for mammals.”

Her shoulder-length, grey hair was matted with ice from the storm, as was all of the exposed fur where it wasn’t covered by her clothes. Her face, hands, feet, and her bushy tail were all soaked through. She looked downright miserable. Boyd shielded himself reflexively as she tried to shake some of it off with little effect, then she began to use her claws, scraping at the frozen slush.

“Ouch!” she hissed, one of her talons catching on a clump of matted fur.

“Should have brought a comb instead of toothpaste,” Boyd muttered, the Polar giving him a scowl.

“My people usually groom ourselves impeccably,” she replied, wincing as her claws got caught in her hair again. “A tangled, wet coat is as much a danger to our lives as to our social status. Ugh, my clothes are soaked,” she grumbled as she tugged at her coveralls. “This will not do.”

She began to slide down the zipper on the front of the garment, an explosion of white fur bursting forth as the weight of her breasts spread it open. Boyd averted his eyes in embarrassment, staring intently at the far wall as she began to shuffle out of her coveralls. How did she even cram that much fur into the thing? She was like a walking shag rug.

“What the hell are you doing?” he muttered.

“I need to bathe,” she explained, Boyd hearing the sound of her damp clothes hitting the floor. “If I cannot get clean and dry, I will not be able to insulate myself from the cold.”

“Can you not do that further down the tunnel where I don’t have to see it?” he complained.

“Do I offend your delicate sensibilities, Boyd?” she replied with a chuckle. “My apologies, but I must have missed the changing room on the way down here. If it upsets you, perhaps you should go back down the tunnel. Humans are so prudish.”

“It’s called having shame,” he shot back. “Maybe you should look into it sometime.”

Even with his back to her, he could still see her reflection in the ice, distorted like a funhouse mirror. He couldn’t make out much detail, but she seemed to be curled over like a cat – remarkably flexible for someone of her size.

“Are you…licking yourself?” he asked. “That’s disgusting!”

“I am sorry, is there a banya to go with your imaginary dressing room?” she snapped. “Do you see any water that is not infested with monsters? I must bathe, whether you find it palatable or not. If it bothers you so, go fetch me enough melted snow for a bath.”

“There isn’t enough snow on the whole moon,” he muttered.

“Maybe enough for yourself, then,” she added. “When was the last time you bathed? Not since the crash, and even some time before that, I would wager. Your nose is far duller than mine. I can pick up hormones and pheromones that you are not even aware you secrete. I can even pick up traces of the deodorant that you put on a few days ago. Citrus – a poor choice,” she mused. “Lavender would suit you far better.”

“At least I don’t wash myself with my tongue,” he grumbled, keeping his back to her as he took a seat on the cold ice.

“Back home, I would have all kinds of soaps and perfumes,” she sighed as she paused her licking to reminisce. “My fur would be as white as snow, as fragrant as a flower, and so soft that even you might be tempted to run your fingers through it.”

“That’ll be the day,” he scoffed.

“The facilities aboard the Zemchug were not exactly designed for my kind, but I made do. Until you brought her down, of course.”

She almost sounded as sore about her fur as she was about her ship. Whenever he commented on her hygiene, she was quick to bring up her people’s cultural disposition towards cleanliness as a retort. Maybe being stranded with matted fur and no shampoo was starting to get to her.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said.

“What do you know?” she demanded, interrupting her licking to glare at him. “Your kind do not even have fur – you look like the patch of naked skin left over when a healer shaves a wound.”

“Do you get fleas?” he chuckled, enjoying having her on the back foot for once.

“No, actually,” she replied as she turned up her nose at him. “Earth parasites cannot drink from Borealans. Our blood pressure is too high – it kills them. You are more likely to be infested with parasites than any Polar.”

“You are a parasite,” he replied.

She laughed at that – it was a bad comeback – so he stayed silent for a while as she finished cleaning herself. Before long, she called to him, Boyd resisting the urge to turn his head.

“Come, I need your hands.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“The fur on my back is matted, and I cannot reach it with my tongue. I need your help to clean it.” He began to complain, but she cut him off. “Just listen for a moment, Boyd. Matted fur tangles into knots. They grow tighter and tighter, more and more painful, until they eventually tear the hair from one’s very skin. Do not subject me to that discomfort on top of everything else that I must endure.”

“Fine,” he sighed, making a show of his reluctance as he rose to his feet.

“I will protect my modesty if it disturbs you so,” she added.

By the time he had turned around, she had lifted her coveralls and was holding them over her chest like a towel. She was facing away from him, and for the first time, he got a look at her without her clothes. The full figure that he had only glimpsed until now was laid bare, her dense fur doing little to conceal her curves. Her torso was wider than any human’s, as befitted her stature, but it tapered gently into a perfect hourglass. It wasn’t thin, by any means, but the way that it was accentuated by her flared hips made it seem that way. He was taken aback for a moment – expecting to find formless fat, not this…

Rather than rolls of flesh, he found subtle creases around her waist, each one hinting at her softness. So much of her weight seemed to cling to her round cheeks, just firm enough to maintain their shape, spreading subtly where they met the ice like a melting peach. He had felt her rump through her clothes when she had been stuck in the cave, but seeing it now, it was probably large enough to fill an average-sized couch. Her long tail trailed across the floor, free of ice and slurry now, as fluffy as he had ever seen it.

As he approached, her ears swiveled back to face him, moving independently even as she kept her gaze on the wall ahead. She was tall enough that her head was level with his chest, even sitting.

“So…what do you want me to do?” he asked as he examined her furry back. Her white coat covered her from head to toe, only broken up by the slate-colored hair that fell down the back of her neck and the coffee stain rings that patterned it. It looked like camouflage, something akin to a snow leopard. The tips of her round ears were black, as was the end of her bushy tail. He had to stand over the appendage with a foot to either side of it to get close enough to reach her.

“You see where the fur is tangled?” she asked.

“I see where you somehow licked your own shoulders,” he muttered. “I don’t want to know how you accomplished that.”

“Prehensile tongue,” she explained.

“You gonna start coughing up furballs now?”

“Stop fretting,” she chided, making him flinch as she whipped him with her tail. “Between my shoulders, and down the middle of my back. Use your fingers to comb the fur straight. You have no claws, but those dull digits should suffice.”

He shrugged, doing as she asked, running his fingers through her coat as he would someone’s hair. It was denser than it had looked, softer, and he better understood how it helped to insulate her body heat now.

“You have warm hands,” she sighed, leaning into him.

“It’s the suit,” he replied. “The circuits that run throughout its lining can be overcharged to produce heat.”

She grunted in displeasure when he found a knot, Boyd relenting.

“What do I do?” he asked.

“Work it out,” she replied.

“What does that mean? I’ve been many things, but a dog groomer wasn’t one of them.”

“Just comb until it comes loose,” she explained, one of her ears flicking in irritation. “If that doesn’t work, cut it out. Yes, I have seen the knife that you hide in your boot,” she added as she glanced back at him over her shoulder.

He drew the knife and began to cut away one of the more stubborn mats. Her comment carried an implicit threat – that hiding things from her was harder than he had assumed. He would have to be extra careful not to be seen taking his pills. Slowly, he made his way down her back, doing his best to work out all of the tangles, combing her silky fur straight. If he was going to do it, he might as well do it properly.

“Thank you, Boyd,” she sighed as he neared the small of her back. “I mean it. The first thing I will do when I get back to civilization is sit in a warm banya for a whole day. Siberia is cold, to be sure, but this is something else.”

“So, what’s the story with the Polars and Siberia?” he asked.

“Are you taking an interest in my personal life, Boyd?” she cooed.

“Just making conversation. Gotta pass the time somehow while we wait out this blizzard.”

She seemed to relax a little, as though the prospect of a conversation that wasn’t just an exchange of insults was appealing to her.

“Conditions in my home territory were worsening for a variety of reasons,” she began. “The land was not as harsh as this cursed moon, but it made Siberia look like a paradise in comparison. Our civilization was formed from disparate settlements and the trading posts that connected them. It was very primitive by your standards, and even by the standards of some of the other territories like Elysia. Our population numbered little more than fifty or sixty thousand at its peak. The climate on Borealis is harsh, volatile,” she continued as he moved down towards the base of her tail. “The other territories have large lakes surrounded by jungle bands – like giant oases – that shield them from the elements by creating a microclimate within their borders. All else is desert, be it scorched or frozen.”

“You’d been surviving there for millions of years, presumably,” Boyd said. “What changed?”

“There was no single catalyst,” she replied. “The planet goes through cycles that last tens of thousands of years, according to your researchers. Once, jungles covered most of the surface, and the climate was far wetter and cooler than it is today. As the planet grew warmer and dryer, the jungles receded, until only small islands of greenery remained. The same process impacted our territory. With less rain, the poles can become as dry as deserts. The taiga receded, and with it, the animals that we relied on for food.”

“It got so cold that even you couldn’t live there?” Boyd mused.

“There was also the threat of the Equatorials. For generations, they lacked the ability to cross the frozen mountains and enter our territory. Their kind do not fare well in the cold – it makes them lethargic. In this new era, they have access to environment suits and ships that can cross the mountain ranges in minutes. Had they any imperial ambitions, we would not be able to stop them.”

“I guess that’s kind of our fault,” Boyd added. “We upset the balance of power by arming the territories that agreed to join the Coalition.”

“You merely accelerated a process that was already happening,” Lorza replied with a shrug. “Had you not come when you did, there likely would have been no Polars left to conquer by the time the Elysians developed the technology to bridge the mountains.”

“Sounds like you’re enjoying Siberia, though.”

“It is bountiful in comparison. Warm, overflowing with abundance, and with far friendlier neighbors. The Federation allowed us to found our own republic there. The environment was too harsh for humans, and they seem happy to have someone exploiting the land. We have our own laws, our own language, and our own customs – though we are still subjects of the Federation.”

Boyd wasn’t so sure that their motives were entirely charitable. While Russia was a member of the UN, they had a tendency to act on their own, taking on projects and ventures independently. The Federation had established several Russian-speaking colonies in the early phases of humanity’s expansion that flew in the face of the UN’s message of unity, and while there were no laws prohibiting it, they remained a somewhat archaic throwback to a time when the species was bogged down by internal conflicts. Some in UNNI suspected that the Polar colony was Russia’s attempt to create a home-grown Borealan army that could be fielded independently of the UNN’s auxiliaries. Perhaps this was his chance to learn a little more.

“So, what’s the catch?” he asked as he used his knife to dislodge another knot. “Surely they didn’t give you all that land with no strings attached?”

“They seemed eager to make us into soldiers,” she replied, confirming his suspicions. “We are not great warriors like our hot-blooded cousins. When conditions are ideal, we tend to occupy ourselves with social matters and leisure – warfare was never a part of our history. Many Polars serve the UNN and the Federation, but most are doctors and scientists. I fear that we may have disappointed our hosts,” she added with a chuckle. “How about you?” she asked. “Where do you call home?”

Boyd hesitated, unsure if he should tell her the truth or concoct another convenient lie. The saying that she had relayed to him earlier came to mind – a liar should have a good memory, and he felt as if his capacities were diminished in this blistering cold. There wasn’t really any harm in telling her the truth now.

“Utah,” he replied. “It’s hot and dry, the polar opposite of this godforsaken moon – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

“Why did you leave?” she asked, her ears tracking him attentively.

That was a question he was increasingly asking himself. He realized that she was probing him for information, much in the same way that he was probing her, perhaps expecting him to let slip something important due to their newfound familiarity. I left Utah to become a spy was not something he was going to tell her, however.

“I left in search of adventure,” he replied. “Looks like I found it.” It was a vague reply, though not necessarily untruthful. He decided to move the conversation along so as not to give her too much time to think about it. “How about you? Why did you leave Siberia?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. His dodge hadn’t gone unnoticed, but to acknowledge it would also be admitting her intent, so she let it slide. She was more socially adept than he had given her credit for. He would have to tread carefully.

“Before the colony ship took us away, I had never been into space before, and I had never seen my homeworld from orbit. You probably cannot imagine what it was like – your people have been spacefaring for centuries – but to us, it was like a giant hand had reached down from the sky to pluck us from the ground. Everything that I had ever known dwindled until I could cover it with a single pad,” she said, raising a thumb as if to demonstrate. “The whole Galaxy was suddenly open to us, and our world became so much grander than just a longhouse in the snow. I wanted to see more of it.”

“Maybe I do know what that feels like,” Boyd insisted. “There’s a first time for everyone – even me. I still remember the first time I saw Earth from orbit, my first superlight jump, the first time I set foot on another world. Those things stick with you – especially the jumps,” he added with a dry chuckle.

“It made all of my prior concerns feel…trivial, temporary,” Lorza continued as Boyd nodded his head in agreement. “My biggest concern the day before had been finding enough firewood, and the next, I was jumping across lightyears of space on a vessel that had better living conditions than my own village.”

“What did you fly out on?” Boyd asked, tackling another knot near the base of her tail. “Was it one of the old colonial vessels from the expansion period? A liner with a pool and catering, and all that?”

“A liner,” she replied. “For someone who had spent their life living in buildings made from wood and heated by fire pits, it was inconceivable. There was more food than any one of us could eat in a single sitting, a heated pool a short walk from my cabin, and the temperature could be controlled with a button press. Imagine spending your whole life struggling to find enough to eat and fighting to stay warm, then finding yourself in such an environment. We might as well have died and gone to paradise.”

“Sounds like you discovered the buffet table,” Boyd mused.

“When we arrived at our destination, well…let us say that Earth is a poor name for such a planet. This conjures images of soil and dirt, but it is as blue as the sky. My people would have chosen a more fitting title.”

“What does Borealis mean, then?” he asked.

“That is the name that your people gave my planet,” she replied. “You named it after our star system, which you also named. In our language, the name roughly translates to the great mother or the all-mother. In our culture, the planet takes on the qualities of a strict parent. She brings us into the world through her love, but she also teaches her children hard lessons, and her discipline helps them grow strong and hardy.”

“I guess you’d have to be to survive in a place like that,” Boyd said as he finished his work. He took a step back, then stowed his knife in his boot. “Better?”

“Much,” she replied, trying to look over her shoulder. “I think my clothes should be dry enough to put back on, if you would like to avert your eyes.”

“Don’t need to tell me twice,” he said, turning his back to her.

“About the food,” she began, but he cut her off.

“It’s like you said – it’s done. No point griping about it now.”

“I would not have done it if I thought I had any other choice – I just want you to know that.”

“Whatever,” he muttered, turning around to see that she was clothed again. She was just fastening her zipper, reaching up to adjust her breasts as she struggled to close it over them, the tufts of fur around her collar slowly vanishing beneath the fabric. When she was done, she reached down to adjust the fit around her waist, then glanced up at the ceiling. Boyd followed her gaze, seeing dots of colorful light dancing across the ice above them.

“Is…your suit’s display making those?” she asked, her ears flattening against her head.

He felt his stomach drop, his blood freezing in his veins as he turned his eyes to the floor beneath their feet. Through the sheet of shimmering blue ice was a kaleidoscopic spiral of blinking lights, creating mesmerizing patterns as they whirled and danced in the murky water.

“It is in the ocean below us,” Lorza whispered, her growing panic making her voice waver.

They were both rooted to the spot, frozen in place, too terrified to move lest they draw the monster’s attention. Boyd felt a bead of sweat drip down his forehead in spite of the cold, an unfamiliar dread overcoming him. He was trained to thrive in the chaos of a firefight and even to resist the agony of torture, but the prospect of being hunted and devoured ignited an ancient and primal terror that was locked away deep in his bones. Memories of poor Alexei being dragged towards its maw of jagged teeth flashed through his mind, that terrible, final scream replaying in his head like a broken record.

The creature shot up towards them, slamming into the ice sheet with enough force to knock the pair off-balance, its surface fracturing with a sound like a gunshot. It must have been a meter thick at least – maybe two – but the beast struck it with the force of a hammer. It jolted the pair out of their stupor, and they scrambled for the exit, stooping to pick up their packs without breaking stride.

Boyd raced ahead of Lorza – there was no way he was getting trapped behind her if she got stuck again, not with that unspeakable horror on their heels. They reached the opening to the gallery, as the Polar had called it, fleeing back up the sloping crevasse towards the surface. The blizzard still raged, but being frozen to death was marginally better than being eaten alive by something that looked like it had been dredged out of a deep-sea trench. Another loud cracking sound echoed after them, followed by splashing. The creature had made it through.

They dodged through the uneven passage, Boyd’s boots sliding on the slippery ground, Lorza having to duck and weave to avoid hitting her head on jutting pieces of ice. He turned to look back at her as he passed through a narrow squeeze, the panting Polar having to turn sideways to make it through, almost sobbing with a blend of fear and panic. The crevasse was a couple of hundred meters deep, at least, and it would take them a few minutes to reach the surface. Did the thing have time to catch up to them? Could it even fit down these cramped tunnels? It had looked so unwieldy and awkward when it had chased them across the ice during their first encounter.

The ceiling above their heads gave way to the towering walls of the crevasse, the blizzard blotting out the sky, the wind howling through the gaps in the ice. Boyd paused to look back again, seeing Lorza hurrying after him. Behind her, a dark mass of teeth and tentacles was squeezing its way through the cracks, contorting its spongy body to fit through openings that seemed far too small for something of its size. It reminded Boyd of an octopus squeezing into a glass bottle in search of a morsel of fish left there by its handlers. It was coming fast – faster than they could outrun it – the way that its jet-black flesh glistened as it moved making it look like an ink stain brought to life.

It was gaining on Lorza, reaching out its tentacle towards her, the bioluminescent pustules that ran down their length pulsing with colorful light. She threw herself through another narrow gap between the walls, too small for the creature to get through, its momentum shaking the crevasse around them as it slammed into the obstacle with enough force to crack the ice. The thing was in a frenzy, rearing its gelatinous body back to hammer into the obstruction, some of its grasping tentacles slithering through. Lorza stumbled to her feet, narrowly avoiding one of the appendages as it swiped at her tail, Boyd waving her on frantically.

“Come on!” he yelled, the ice beneath his feet shaking as the monster made another attempt to smash its way through the gap. “That might not hold it!”

They made their way towards the fading sunlight, the wind buffeting them as they emerged onto the open tundra, the snow reducing their visibility to only a few meters. Boyd briefly checked his display to get his bearings, having to wipe the droplets of melting snow from its screen.

“What do we do now?” Lorza asked, raising an arm to shield herself from the storm. She was only standing a few paces away, and he could barely hear her voice. “We cannot stay exposed like this!”

“There have to be more caves or crevasses around here,” Boyd replied. “The whole area was all torn up from what I could see on our approach. We don’t have much time – my battery is almost spent, and that thing could still be after us.”

“Over there!” Lorza said, pointing into the blizzard.

“What?” Boyd asked. “I can’t see shit.”

“My eyes are better than yours,” she replied, setting off into the snow. “Hold onto my tail!”

“What? Why?”

“It is how we prevent kittens from getting lost in snowstorms. They hold their mother’s tail and form a chain behind her.”

He wanted to argue, but every second that he spent complaining was another second closer to freezing. Instead, he reached out to grip her fluffy tail, following her through the knee-deep snow. He looked over his shoulder, watching the opening to the crevasse like a hawk as it slowly vanished into the white haze, but they were not pursued.

***

Freezing and on the brink of exhaustion, they finally found shelter, taking refuge inside another crevasse a half hour’s walk from where the squid creature had ambushed them. Though they feared it might somehow still be tracking them beneath the ice, they had no other option but to chance it. Boyd’s battery was reaching critical levels, and even Lorza was suffering from the extreme cold. At least this cave was shallower, and he couldn’t see the water beneath the ice, making him more confident that the squid wouldn’t pummel its way up through the floor again while they were asleep.

They had been forced to stay out in the cold for longer than was safe, wanting to get as much distance as possible between them and the previous cave, so they were even more surly than usual. Lorza was yet again covered in a layer of ice that clung to her matted fur, and she immediately set about cleaning herself with her tongue as soon as they reached a chamber with a flat enough floor to sit on.

“What’s the deal with that fucking thing?” Boyd demanded of nobody in particular, shaking some of the melted slurry off his sleeve. “Doesn’t it have anything else to eat?”

“I am more concerned with why it hunts near the surface,” Lorza replied, pausing to lick the ice from the back of her hand. He could see her tongue now – it was tapered at the end, covered in a forest of little barbs that she was using to comb her fur. “We have seen no signs of life on the surface, no plants or animals of any kind. The sea life must have evolved around geothermal vents, perhaps created by the gravitational forces exerted on the moon by Hades. Why has it evolved this behavior?”

“How do you figure all that?” Boyd asked.

“I work on a survey ship – it is my job,” she replied. “Well, I worked on a survey ship…”

“It reminds me of an orca – a killer whale,” Boyd mused, shrugging off his pack. “They’ll sometimes beach themselves on the ice to chase penguins.”

“We have something akin to your seals in my home territory,” Lorza added with a nod. “They would leave the frozen lakes to bask on the snow, where they were safe from predators. That was when they were most vulnerable to our hunting parties. We valued their pelts for warmth, their meat for food, and even their blubber for fuel. Perhaps there is a creature on this moon that has developed a similar strategy for evading predators, and the beast that stalks us has evolved a means to reach it.”

“I could use some space seal meat right about now,” Boyd sighed, sitting down to lean against the cave wall. His stomach was growling almost as loud as Lorza’s had the night before. His nutrient pills included an appetite suppressant, but he’d have to find an excuse to get away from Lorza before he started popping those. Instead, he fished in one of his pockets for a precious cereal bar, Lorza’s ears pricking up as she heard him open the plastic wrapper. To his surprise, she didn’t ask him to share.

“You alright?” he asked, taking a bite.

“Why the sudden concern?” she replied, brushing some of the ice off her coveralls. “Pizdyet, I just got this dry…”

“I won’t get very far without my space heater.”

“Very funny,” she muttered. She paused suddenly, reaching for her paunchy belly as she let out a groan. “My stomach,” she sighed, her ears drooping. “I wish that we could go faster. I wish that I had the strength to run for three days and nights, but I am too weak.”

“Wouldn’t survive out there anyway,” Boyd added, gesturing back down the tunnel with his half-eaten snack. “We have to take it slow and steady. We try to overextend ourselves, and this moon is gonna eat us alive.”

“You do not seem worried,” Lorza mused, scrutinizing him from across the little chamber. “Earlier, you acted as though my actions had doomed us both. Now, the prospect of going days without food does not perturb you?”

“Me griping and arguing won’t bring back the food you ate,” he replied, crossing his arms. It was a half-truth. While what she had done could not be undone, the real reason that he wasn’t panicking was because he still had his reserve of emergency pills. He could probably starve for another week without really feeling the effects, as long as he had some freshly-printed kidneys waiting for him at the next UNN starbase.

She began to lay out her sleeping bag, fluffing the padded material like a cat preparing to sleep on its favorite blanket, her fur still dripping with melted snow. The Polar looked about as miserable as he had ever seen her. She was hungry, exhausted, and soaked to the bone to top it all off. This time, she wasn’t even bothering to dry her clothes, she just seemed to want to sleep.

“Hey,” he muttered, getting her attention. She paused what she was doing, glancing over at him suspiciously. “I’ll leave my suit on for a little bit. Might help you dry off faster.”

Her expression softened somewhat, and she nodded. Boyd felt his stomach gurgle, and he had to stop himself from doubling over, his reluctant companion’s ears rising as though she could hear it from across the cave. If he didn’t get an appetite suppressant soon, his guts were going to collapse in on themselves like a singularity.

“Gotta drain the worm,” he muttered, struggling to his feet.

“Is this a worm that we can eat?” she asked.

“I mean I’m going to relieve myself,” he clarified, heading deeper into the tunnel. “Don’t worry, I know you have a sensitive nose,” he added as she narrowed her eyes at him. “I’ll go a ways.”

Boyd made his way through the icy passageway, finding that it had the same oddly sculpted look as the crevasse that they had been chased out of. Lorza had mentioned something about meltwater carving out these channels in the glacier, perhaps in a way that mirrored the formation of canyons back home. It was an odd comparison to draw – the arid climate of Utah was about as far removed from this frozen hellscape as it was possible to get – but the same natural phenomena were at play.

Wary of going too deep lest he encounter another hungry squid, he stopped, glancing over his shoulder to ensure that he had broken Lorza’s line of sight. Confident that he was alone, he zipped open his suit, gritting his teeth against the cold as he examined his injuries. The ugly bruise on his ribs hadn’t diminished, and it was still pocked with worrying patches of red, the ache from his collection of healing fractures starting to grow troublesome again. That last mad dash for safety had probably set his recovery back by days. If he pushed himself too hard, starvation would be the least of his worries.

He reached into one of his pockets, retrieving his medical kit and folding it open, cursing under his breath as the unmistakable sound of tearing velcro echoed up the tunnel. He raised the screwdriver-sized hypodermic injector, loading it with another small capsule of stimulants and painkillers, then pressed it into his bare chest. There was a hiss as he activated the device, followed by a brief sting as it delivered its payload into his bloodstream.

After sealing his suit again, the warmth returned, and he turned his attention back to his medkit. He glanced over the tools and medicines that remained, then reached for the little velcro strip that held the resealable packet of pills in place, popping one of the large tablets into his mouth and swallowing it dry. The stimulant might make sleeping difficult, but no more than the hunger would have.

“What are you doing?”

He spun around to see Lorza standing in the tunnel behind him, her ears flat. For how large and heavy she was, she could be remarkably quiet on those fleshy paw pads when she wanted to be.

“Come to watch me piss?” he chided, but her eyes were locked onto his medkit.

“What do you have there?”

“It’s just medicine,” he replied, presenting it to her as nonchalantly as he could muster under the circumstances. “These are antibiotics. Who knows what kinds of bacteria are floating around out here?” He tried to close the pouch before she had a chance to get a better look, but she was fast, lunging forward to snatch it from his hand. “Hey! I need that!”

“If it was just medicine, you would not be trying so hard to hide it from me,” she growled as her eyes began to scan the tools inside. Boyd felt his heart begin to beat faster, a blend of apprehension and the stimulant that he had just taken making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. She was blocking the tunnel – there was no way past her, and he had no idea what lay deeper down the passage.

“Lorza-”

“Emergency…nutritional…supplement,” she said, reading off the unfamiliar English words. “These pills…they are a substitute for food. You have had these in your possession this entire time, and you let me starve?” she demanded as she lifted her furious eyes to him. There was hurt in her tone, accompanied by an undercurrent of anger that gave her every syllable a sting. “You could have shared the rations fairly – you could have given them all to me and not suffered for a moment because of it. I could have eaten three thousand calories a day, but you…”

“Listen to me,” he began, starting to back away from her. “You don’t understand. Those supplements-”

“Oh, I understand,” she snarled as she matched his movements. She tossed the medkit to the ground, flexing her fingers as though preparing to make use of her claws. They were as sharp as knives, curved like meat hooks, long enough to fillet him like a fish. “When I was begging for a fair share of the food, when I was starving, you forced me to steal to survive. You lay there and listened to my stomach churn when you had an entire stash of these pills in your pocket!”

She bellowed that last word, her voice bouncing off the walls of ice, reverberating through his very bones.

“Those aren’t aspirins,” he insisted, raising his hands defensively. As well as buying him a few precious seconds, it allowed him to see the readout on his display. She might know about his knife, but she had no idea that his suit could discharge its battery to deliver a shock. With such a low charge, would it even have an effect on someone of her mass? It could stop a human’s heart, so he wasn’t eager to find out, but Lorza might not give him a better option. “They can do me serious damage, and they’re formulated for humans. I don’t even know if Polars can eat them!”

“No more dangerous than starving!” she snapped, her brow furrowing like an angry wolf. “You little rat! Were you going to wait until I was on my deathbed before you shared!?”

“You had your chance,” he shot back, jabbing a finger at her indignantly. “You ate all of our food. Why should I believe that you wouldn’t just eat all of my nutrient pills too? The only reason I have to resort to using these in the first place is because you ate my share of the rations in one fucking sitting. You couldn’t stomach a fifty-fifty split, so you just took what you wanted!”

Lorza was shaking with rage, her claws splayed, her black lips pulling back to expose her sharp teeth as Boyd ranted. The floodgates were open now, and he was letting all of his bottled-up resentment spill forth.

“You aren’t going to die,” he scoffed, gesturing to her. “You have enough fat to last you a fucking month, but I’ll starve to death without those pills.”

“Look at me, malish!” she snapped as she gave her stomach an aggressive pat. She wasn’t exactly emaciated, but he could see that her belly and thighs had somewhat diminished, not straining against her coveralls in quite the same way that they had when the pair had set out. “This is not normal for me! I am burning through all of the fat reserves that are supposed to be insulating me from the cold! Maybe I should make a meal out of you,” she growled, taking another step towards him.

“Oh, I’ve been ready for this,” Boyd replied as he stooped to draw his blade from his boot. “I’d love to see you try, you mangy furball.”

“I wish I had never encountered you at that spaceport, you hairless runt.”

“Yeah? Well I wish you had died in the crash.”

Lorza snapped, loosing a bestial roar as she swung a hand the size of a dinner plate towards his face. He ducked under it, a blow that could have taken his head clean off his shoulders missing him by a hair as it displaced the air. The strike hit the tunnel wall beside him, her hooked talons chipping the ice and showering him with frozen fragments. As he rose, he brought up his ceramic knife, slicing it across the Polar’s forearm. The blade cut through the tough fabric of her coveralls, biting into the flesh beneath, a patch of dark red staining the blue. The shallow cut might have drawn blood, but it wouldn’t be enough to deter her.

Her eyes wide with rage, their pupils dilated into dark circles like a cat stalking its prey, she lunged towards him with a follow-up swipe. Boyd dodged away from her, narrowly avoiding it, those black claws whistling as they cut through the air. Under normal circumstances, she should have been stronger and faster than any human could have hoped to be, but a combination of hunger and cold was making her sluggish. Boyd, on the other hand, had just taken a stimulant formulated to keep a starving man marching for a day. He was as awake as he had ever been, the pangs of hunger already a fading memory, what remained of his battery charge keeping the cold at bay.

Lorza charged at him, shouldering her way through a pillar of ice that was blocking her path, Boyd dancing out of her reach like a boxer. It must have been half a meter thick, but it crumbled before her six-hundred-pound frame, disintegrating into fragments as she plowed into it. The broken pieces scattered across the slippery floor as she pursued Boyd, the agent avoiding another clumsy strike. She was already exhausted after their mad dash from the squid and their desperate trek through the blizzard. If she was willing to take things this far, it might be the best chance he’d get to neutralize the threat.

She let out another bellow as she swung a fist that could break bone, but Boyd used the opportunity to dart in, swiping the blade across her belly. While he drew blood, the cut was barely a scratch by her standards. If he wanted to do damage, he’d have to hit an artery. He cut her again, the rampaging Polar’s long arms disadvantaging her in close quarters, but she responded with a knee to his belly that lifted him off the floor. The wind was knocked out of his lungs as he hit the ice, a sharp, alarming pain shooting through his core. He couldn’t take many hits like that.

As he struggled to his feet, the Polar rushed him, leaving him little time to get out of her path. She was like a freight train made of fat and muscle, unstoppable by human standards. He had only a moment to roll out of the way as she brought her foot down on the floor where he had been lying, conveying enough force to crack the ice.

Boyd began to circle her, swapping his bloodied knife from hand to hand, keeping her guessing as to where the next attack would come from. He was no more afraid of Lorza than he had been of the mobsters in the warehouse. This was what he had trained for, but techniques intended for humans wouldn’t work against an eight-foot Borealan. He would have to improvise.

“Come on!” he yelled, trying to goad her into charging him again. She took the bait, baring her teeth as she crossed the narrow tunnel at a run. As she lunged, he dropped to deliver a kick, trying to sweep her feet out from under her. His boot connected with her ankle, but she had so much mass that it was like trying to topple a marble statue. All he succeeded in doing was making her stumble, her momentum carrying him to the ground along with her, the pair tumbling across the ice.

Lorza was the first to right herself, catching Boyd as he was getting his bearings. With a snarl, her claws flashed again, this time finding their mark. He pulled back, but too late, the tips of her razor-sharp talons tearing through his hood. They glanced off the rebreather that covered his mouth and nose, one of them slicing into his cheek, cutting deep into his flesh. He ignored the dull throb of pain, scrambling out of her reach, taking up a defensive posture. Blood had now been shed on both sides, droplets of crimson freezing where they splattered the floor beneath his feet. The two began to circle one another again, Lorza growling like a beast. As much as her hunger had weakened her, it was also driving her.

She attacked again, and this time, Boyd caught her arm. Attempting to use her immense weight against her, he tried to throw her, the alien slamming her face into the wall as the momentum carried her past him. She stumbled, dazed by the blow, Boyd taking advantage to strike at her thigh. It was the only vital point that he could reach, but again, the blade failed to penetrate her thick layers of fat. It was like trying to slay a bear with a letter opener.

Her long, dexterous tail snaked out to tangle his legs, pulling his feet out from under him. For all his training, he hadn’t expected an attack from that angle. He crumpled to the floor, the Polar wheeling around to face him, blood dripping from her feline nose. She loomed over him, drawing back an arm as she prepared another swipe. He placed a hand firmly behind the handle of his knife, driving it through her palm as she struck. Lorza yowled like a cat with its tail caught in a door, wrenching the knife out of his hands as she withdrew, retreating a few paces. Her fingers shaking, she plucked the ceramic blade free like an oversized thorn, discarding it on the floor with a clatter. Her white fur was stained red in places by both of their blood, Lorza snarling as she clenched her wounded hand into a fist. She reached up to wipe her bloody nose with her forearm as she advanced once more, seeing that Boyd was now disarmed.

The agent leapt to his feet, driven by his surging adrenaline and the stimulants that were coursing through his system, letting out a war cry as he rushed towards her. He ducked under another of her swipes, harrying her belly with a flurry of swift punches, aiming for the kidneys and groin. His opponent scarcely seemed to feel it, Boyd barely avoiding another strike from her knee. With a bellow of frustration, he delivered a vicious kick to the side of the joint in an attempt to buckle it, but she ended his assault with a backhanded strike that sent him reeling. She was so strong – it was like being hit in the face with a hammer, Boyd feeling his rebreather cut into the bridge of his nose.

The Polar reached down to grab his arm, Boyd stifling a cry of pain as her iron grip tightened, his boots leaving the ice. She suspended him above her head, leaving him dangling there helplessly, like a doll in her grasp. At arm’s length, he couldn’t even kick her – she was too far away.

“Enough!” she panted, fatigue starting to get the better of her. “You have…two…options. Give me…the pills…and whatever else…you are hiding, or…I will eat you…instead.”

Boyd was down to his last card, but playing it might well doom him along with her.

“What…do you have to say…for yourself!?” she demanded.

“Parakeet, hyphenated, Monroe.”

His suit discharged what power remained in its batteries into the circuitry, overloading it and sending a powerful electrical current coursing down Lorza’s arm. Her fur puffed up like a frightened cat, her teeth clenching involuntarily, her eyes snapping wide open. Her fist closed around his forearm as the shock caused every muscle in her body to contract involuntarily, Boyd letting out a wail of pain, his bones fracturing under the stress. After a moment, she went limp, her eyes losing their focus as her legs gave out. As she fell, she loosened her grip, dropping Boyd a good nine or ten feet. His head made contact with the ice, and his cry of alarm was cut short, darkness enveloping him.

***

Boyd awoke to warmth. For a few moments, he didn’t know where he was, but his splitting headache soon reminded him of what had happened. He felt as though some time had passed, but he wasn’t sure how much. How long had he been out? As he glanced up, he saw Lorza’s fluffy fur peeking out over her blue collar, her massive chin practically resting on his head. He was pressed up tightly against her inside the sleeping bag, its insulated fabric enveloping them both, creating a pocket of heat. Lorza’s long arms were wrapped around him – cradling him – and her chest was squashing against his torso. Had she carried him here after they had both been knocked out?

A wave of guilt washed over him. What the hell had they been thinking, fighting like that? What if one of them had been injured to the point that they couldn’t continue the journey? What if one of them had been killed, dooming the other? They needed each other – there was no getting around that. Lorza couldn’t navigate without him, and he couldn’t survive the freezing nights without her.

She shifted in her sleep, and Boyd let out a yelp, her movement bumping against his arm to send a stab of pain shooting up the limb. It really was broken. The Polar opened her eyes to peer down at him, her ears drooping.

“Are you…”

“Nothing a little medical attention can’t patch,” he replied. “What about you?”

“No lasting damage, I think.”

“Listen,” Boyd began, stumbling over his words. “I’m-”

“I am sorry too,” she said, preempting him. “I was just so angry when I found out that you were hiding food from me. The hunger, the stress…well, that is no excuse for the way I behaved. When you fought back, I felt as though you meant to kill me.”

“I haven’t been plotting to kill you, Lorza,” he mumbled into her collar. “I just…” He trailed off, struggling to collect his jumbled thoughts. “I was so angry after you ate the rations. The pills were all I had left, and while it’s true that I don’t know what kind of effect they’d have on a Polar, I guess I was also trying to get back at you. When you attacked me, my training just kicked in, and I did what I felt I had to do to incapacitate you. It’s like flipping a switch for me.”

“I suppose I deserved that,” she sighed. “I really did need to eat those rations, but I will not claim that I did not glean some satisfaction from punishing you for denying me food and for killing my crew.”

“We’re as bad as each other,” he added with a humorless chuckle. “I guess we’re even now. You stole my food, I hid the pills. You broke my arm, I shocked you unconscious. Neither one of us can claim to have the moral high ground.”

Broke your arm?” she repeated, her eyes widening. “Boyd, f-forgive me! I-”

“It’s my own damned fault,” he replied, wincing as he tried to move the limb. “You crushed it when I shocked you.”

“What did you hit me with, at the end?” Lorza asked. “What was that?”

“An electric shock,” he explained. “My suit can discharge its batteries into the lining.”

He left out the fact that it could kill a human, not wanting to add salt to the wound. He had deployed the weapon as a last resort, not knowing what effect it would have on her. Thank the stars that it had done no lasting damage, likely thanks to its low charge and Lorza’s sheer mass.

“That fancy suit of yours again,” she muttered.

Boyd expected probing questions, but none came. She had to be piecing together the clues about his identity – she was as shrewd as they came – but perhaps guilt or a newfound respect kept her silent. He shifted his weight and was once again rocked by a dizzying throb of pain from his broken arm. It couldn’t wait – he had to deal with it now.

“I brought your medkit,” Lorza added, picking up on his discomfort. “I did not eat the pills.”

“Would you fetch it for me?” he asked, the Polar nodding her head in reply. “I need to clean up the mess I made.”

Lorza peeled open the sleeping bag, doing her utmost not to jostle him, but their proximity made the task impossible. He struggled out into the cold, checking his battery, seeing that there was precious little left. He decided to activate the heating element anyway – he couldn’t do first aid with shaking hands. Even the effort of tapping at the touch panel on his good arm hurt, each press sending a jolt of pain shooting up his limb. The system didn’t have enough power to run a diagnostic, but he didn’t need the suit’s suite of sensors to know that his arm was fucked and his nose was broken.

Slowly, he unzipped his suit, peeling the sleeve off his injured arm. He could already see an ugly, purple bruise spreading along its length, and it was starting to swell. Lorza handed him the open medkit, hovering over his shoulder restlessly, not sure what to do or say.

“I am sorry,” she began, but he shook his head at her.

“Like I said – it’s my own damned fault. The worst you gave me was this scratch on my cheek,” he said, gesturing to the cut. It had already started to scab over, but it probably needed to be sealed. “Don’t worry,” he added, noticing her concerned expression. “It’s nothing a plastic surgeon can’t laser off. I’ll be as good as new once we get back to civilization. How about you?”

“That tiny knife?” she scoffed, a little of her usual sarcasm returning. That was reassuring. “It did no lasting damage.”

“Still, I’ll dress the cuts,” he said as he fished for a tool inside the pouch. “It’s the least I can do.”

He withdrew his injector again and loaded a small capsule into a slot on its handle. He pressed it against the skin of his arm, then activated it, a tiny needle shooting out to deliver its payload.

“Metabolic stimulant,” he explained as the curious alien watched. “It’ll help the bones heal faster. This next one is a painkiller,” he added, loading a second capsule before returning the device to his arm. It was fast-acting, and he allowed himself to relax for a moment, the steady thrum of pain gradually diminishing.

Next, he withdrew a little roll of fabric mesh. It was pocked with honeycomb-shaped holes, almost like chicken wire, forming a tube. Boyd carefully slid it over his forearm, where it hung loosely from the limb. He drew a small electrode about the size of a pin from the kit, then pressed it into the material, the mesh suddenly tightening around the limb as it became as hard as a plaster cast.

“This is a brace,” he explained, moving the arm tentatively. “It starts off flexible, but when you apply an electric current, it becomes firm and keeps its shape. It’ll stop the bones from moving around while they heal, reinforce the limb, and protect it from impacts. Since it’s a mesh, air can pass through it, and it doesn’t get in the way when you need to wash. Not that we have that luxury…”

“You humans think of everything,” she mused.

“I’d offer you a painkiller, but I’d have to eyeball the dosage,” he added as he glanced up at her. “It’s probably more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Do not worry on my account,” she replied with a smirk. “I think you fared a little worse than I did.”

“Alright, alright,” he grumbled. “Let’s agree to call it a draw.”

“If you say so.”

Boyd slid his arm back into its sleeve, then pulled back his hood, feeling the cold sting his skin as the seal around his neck broke. He applied some adhesive patches to the deep cut on his cheek that were about the size and shape of bandaids, the two halves joined together by something akin to a zip tie, helping to seal the wound when pulled taut. The cut on the bridge of his nose wasn’t so severe, but its position would cause endless irritation by rubbing against his rebreather. He placed an adhesive bandage over it to protect it, then sealed his hood again, his lungs filling with warm air.

“Your tiny knife is still down the tunnel, by the way,” Lorza added with a gesture to the nearby opening. “Better fetch it before we leave.”

“Come sit with me first,” he said, patting the floor beside him.

“What for?” she replied, tilting her head skeptically. “Give me some of those bandages, and I can dress my own wounds.”

“Just sit,” he insisted.

With a shrug, she lowered herself down beside him, so large that his head was level with her shoulders. He produced the injector again, changing its mode with a couple of button presses, then brought it to her arm.

“Roll up your sleeve. This might sting a little.”

“What are you doing?” Lorza asked, resisting the urge to pull her arm away from him.

“Taking a blood sample.”

She resigned herself, pulling up her sleeve to expose her furry coat, grimacing as Boyd stuck her with the needle. It filled an empty vial with dark blood, Lorza rubbing her arm as he linked the device to his suit over ad-hoc, using its onboard computer to analyze the sample.

“Low iron content. You run the risk of anemia. I don’t know anything about Polar physiology, but your blood sugar and lipid content is low, even by human standards. Your body is cannibalizing itself trying to find energy to burn.” She really was starving – no wonder she had been so desperate. He had dismissed her complaints as the whining of a glutton, and he had mocked her even as her body was eating itself to stay alive. “Take this,” he added, handing her four of his eight remaining nutrient pills. She took them in her furry palm, staring first at them, then at him.

“Do you not need them?”

“I can make do – I’m not going to die,” he replied as he reached out to close her fingers around them. “You need these a lot more than I do right now. Listen, they’re formulated for humans, and they’ll do a real number on your kidneys if you take too many too quickly. The appetite suppressant and the stimulant probably won’t do much for someone of your size, but they’re packed with essential minerals and vitamins. It’s something, at least.”

“Thank you, Boyd,” she replied.

“I’m sorry that I didn’t take you seriously,” he added, watching as she swallowed one of the pills. “And, I didn’t mean what I said about the crash.”

“I know.”

He rose to his feet, then set off down the tunnel to look for his knife.

“Better pack up your sleeping bag. It’s time to get moving again.”

CHAPTER 6: TERMINATED

They marched through the snow, following Hades as their only guide. The landscape was devoid of any identifiable landmarks, completely flat in every direction, but the arid planet shone night and day. It almost looked like a harvest moon back on Earth, sharing the rusty hues, but shrouded in the blue haze of its atmosphere. He felt as if he could reach out and brush the planet with his fingertips. Salvation was so near by stellar terms, but so out of reach by human metrics.

His arm was secure beneath its cast, and the cocktail of drugs that were coursing through his system had taken the edge off the pain and his hunger. Lorza seemed to be doing a little better, too. He doubted whether the nutrient pills had had much of an effect on her, but at least the pair had worked through some of their stress and resentment. As dangerous and as stupid as their fight in the cave had been, it was a strange kind of therapy.

As they mounted another of the endless snowdrifts, he felt Lorza’s heavy hand on his shoulder, and she whispered for him to be quiet. Her ears swiveled on top of her head like radar dishes, tracking some sound that must be beyond Boyd’s range of hearing.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Hush…”

They crept up to the top of the drift, keeping low to the snow, Boyd peeking over its lip to see an expanse of exposed ice stretching out before them. Sitting out in the open, basking in the sunlight, was something alive. It was hard to make out what it was at first, but as Boyd watched it through his tinted visor, he started to get an idea of its shape.

It was some kind of scaleless fish, its body covered in a layer of slick, shining skin that was a deep brown in color that bordered on black. In many ways, it looked like the hide of the squid creature, oily and glistening. Its body plan was very different, however. It was elongated, with a large head that tapered into a streamlined body, ending in a tail with a very understated fin. It had four flippers that were splayed out on the ice, which it almost seemed to be using as legs to push itself along on its belly, like some kind of transitional form. It had no eyes that he could see, but the red, fleshy gills that ran down its flanks were bubbling as they exchanged gasses with the environment. It was resting close to a hole in the ice – presumably where it had breached.

“Looks like a giant mudskipper,” Boyd whispered.

“I knew it!” Lorza hissed, ducking a little to keep out of sight. “This is why that creature hunts us! This…land-fish must be its usual prey, and because we walk above the ice, its simple mind mistakes us for a meal.”

“Just like a shark attacking a surfboard,” Boyd replied with a nod. “That thing looks to be about the size of a seal. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he added, grinning behind his mask as he glanced over at her.

“I have always been partial to fish,” she replied, returning a toothy smile. “The question is – how do we catch it? We have no weapons, nothing to throw, not even a branch at hand to carve into a spear. Have you anything that we can use?”

“Sorry, I must have forgotten to pack my harpoon,” he replied sarcastically.

“Then, we will have to hunt in the old way,” Lorza continued as she turned her gaze back to their prey. “With tooth and claw.”

“You’re gonna run out there and grab it?” Boyd asked, chuckling for a moment before realizing that she was being serious. “Not to pick at old wounds, but you’re not exactly spry. Are you fast enough to catch that thing?”

“I have not seen it move,” she replied with a shrug. “It could be fast, it could be slow. In my experience, any watergoing creature that beaches itself willingly is not spry, as you would put it.”

“I don’t see any eyes,” Boyd added. “Maybe you can sneak up close and get the jump on it before it notices you – put those hooked claws to use.”

“The Elysians love their bare-handed fishing,” she replied, flexing her talons. “Stay here. I can move more quietly than you can.”

“So I’ve noticed,” he muttered, watching as she slowly scaled the drift.

She began to climb down the other side, keeping as low as someone of her size was able, leaving wide paw prints in the snow. Her quarry was entirely alien – they had no way to know if it sensed its environment through smell, sound, or vibration. It could be totally blind while on the ice, or it could bolt at the slightest disturbance like a frightened deer. He felt his heart quicken as she narrowed the distance between her and the fish, the tension rising. They hadn’t seen anything but snow and ice since they had landed on the moon, which meant that chances like this could be few and far between. That was a whole lot of meat to let slip away.

As Lorza came within a hundred meters of the thing, it stirred, flopping onto its belly as though preparing to flee. It lay there, its strange, bulbous head turning left and right as though trying to sense something. The Polar froze like a statue, one foot still raised off the snow, Boyd’s breath catching in his throat as he watched. Had it noticed her?

Something caught his eye, and he glanced to the ice beyond the drift, where the white powder gave way to its blue sheen. It was thin enough that he could see beneath it, a mass that was even darker than the murky water surrounding it floating along in eerie silence, as still as a piece of driftwood. Behind it, he could make out the vague outline of trailing tentacles, the colorful points of light that they emitted bleeding up through the ice.

Just like Lorza, he found himself paralyzed, but for very different reasons. He wasn’t sure what to do. Should he cry out? Wave his arms? Run down to help her? If only she’d had a damned radio. Remembering how sensitive her ears were, he decided on the former, raising his voice as loud as he dared.

“Lorza!” he hissed. When she didn’t react, he raised his voice a little higher, and one of her fuzzy ears swiveled in his direction. “Lorza! Don’t move! It’s coming!”

He didn’t need to elaborate further, her head turning to face the ice as she searched for the creature. She couldn’t run away now – it was too close, and they had both seen how fast it could move. The fish, on the other hand, was flopping clumsily across the ice as it made for the safety of its hole. Whether it was fleeing from Lorza or it had somehow sensed the approach of the creature, it was impossible to say, but it was moving as fast as its four flippers would allow. Boyd watched – powerless – as the black shape drifted beneath the Polar. In the blink of an eye, it could breach the ice and swallow her whole, just as it had Alexei.

To his relief, it passed beneath her, more interested in the flopping fish that was struggling along ahead of her. It covered the distance rapidly, and when it was beneath its prey, those trailing arms fanned out into a spiral. Mesmerizing lights swirled and danced, the fish stopping in its tracks, tilting its head to watch. It must have eyes after all, or perhaps some analogous light-sensing organ. With a sudden flurry of motion, the squid launched itself upward, exploding through the thin sheet like a torpedo. It sent a shower of shattered ice and dark water spraying in all directions, throwing the fish into the air like an Orca tossing a seal. The poor creature flopped down nearby, stunned by the blow, the squid’s many tentacles snaking out to engulf it. It was dragged, thrashing, into the yawning maw of the monster. That ring of serrated teeth turned it to chum like a saw, and then, the beast was gone. It slipped back beneath the ice, then sank from view, its colorful bioluminescence fading into the darkness below.

Only now did Lorza bolt, wheeling around to race back towards the snowdrift, moving remarkably quickly on her long legs. Boyd waved her on as if the snow presented any kind of safety, but where else could they go? She hauled herself up the drift and back to his side, skidding to a stop in the powder, breathing hard.

“Fuck!” Boyd exclaimed, glancing over the lip again to make sure she wasn’t being followed. “Are you alright?”

“Physically, yes,” she replied as she looked back at him with wide eyes. “Emotionally, you will be selling that fancy suit to pay for my therapy when we get back home.”

“Damn it!” he growled, burying his fist in the snow. “That fish thing couldn’t have outrun you. It would have been trivial to catch, and we could have eaten our fill of flame-roasted meat. We could have gone to sleep with full bellies if it wasn’t that loathsome fucking squid!”

“How is it still pursuing us?” Lorza demanded, throwing up her arms in frustration. “Does it sense us through the ice? Can it track our footfalls?”

“It wasn’t interested in you,” Boyd mused, peering out at the jagged hole that it had left in the ice sheet. “When you stood still, it passed right by you and went for the fish. Maybe it’s attracted to sound, movement, vibrations? It doesn’t go for us when we’re on the snow, only when we step onto the ice.”

“We cannot cross this,” Lorza added, gesturing to the expanse that lay before them. “Unless you propose that we go around? I see nothing but ice in all directions save for behind us. We are short on time as it is.”

“I’m not proposing that we go around it,” Boyd replied, his stern expression giving her pause. “I’m proposing that we kill the fucking thing. I’m done with letting this thing haunt us, and stealing a meal right from our plates is the last straw. What do you say? Let’s take it down.”

“Were it so easy!” she scoffed. “In case you had forgotten, we have no weapons, and it is both stronger and faster than we are. Did you not see how it…” She trailed off, averting her eyes. “It ate Alexei like he was a damned pelmeni. It is a little dumpling filled with meat,” she added, seeing Boyd’s confused expression. “It does not matter. My point is that the beast is dangerous. How do you hope to best it?”

“It might be strong and fast, but it doesn’t look very resilient,” Boyd replied. “Its body looks soft, gelatinous, like Earth’s cephalopods. Poke it with something sharp, and it’ll probably pop like a balloon full of offal.”

“We cannot stake our lives on probably,” Lorza grumbled. “I take it you have a plan to propose?”

“It seems to go after anything on the surface – anything that moves,” he began. “We know that it has far too many eyes, and that it isn’t picky about what it makes a meal of. Maybe we can…toss one of our packs to distract it? Take it from behind?”

“And then what?” Lorza asked, tilting her head sarcastically. “Should I wrestle it into submission? My claws might best a fish, but not that creature. If only we had a stick,” she sighed, sinking down into the snow to lie on her side. “I would trade all of my belongings back home to have a simple branch right now…”

“Well, let’s think,” he continued. “What tools do we have at hand?”

“Tape, foam grenades, medical implements,” she said as she counted them off on her four-fingered hand. “Maybe toothpaste is toxic to it,” she joked, eliciting a chuckle from Boyd. “What of your suit? Can you do that…electric thing again?”

“No,” he replied with a shake of his head. “I’d have to discharge the batteries, which would shut off the heating element. I’d die of hypothermia before we could reach shelter. That’s assuming I even have enough juice to hurt the thing.”

“Yes, it did not fare so well against me,” Lorza added with a smirk.

“Could you go toe to toe with it?” Boyd asked, her smile fading. “Even for a minute or two? Perhaps we could do something with the tape. Tie up its tentacles, maybe?”

“It tore Alexei from my very hands,” she replied, her grimace suggesting that she was reliving the terrible memory. “It was far stronger than I am, I could not hold it at bay. Besides, who knows if the adhesive would even stick to its skin? What if it is too wet or covered in slime?”

“It was a dumb suggestion anyway,” Boyd sighed, looking out over the ice again. “Who knows where the thing has gone now? Its last…meal didn’t keep it satisfied for long, so I don’t know how long the fish will tide it over until it’s hungry again.”

“What of the grenades?” Lorza asked, her ears pricking up.

“Those are foam grenades,” Boyd replied. “Unless the squid sets one of us on fire, I don’t see how that helps us.”

“When we crashed, the foam grenade that you told me to set off saved my life,” she explained. “It also hardened enough that even I struggled to dig my way out.”

“I see what you’re getting at,” Boyd said, a little of his optimism returning. “We lure it onto the surface, then we toss a foam grenade at it. With any luck, it might set fast enough to trap the thing.”

“Perhaps it can breathe on land, but for how long?” Lorza replied with an affirmative nod. “It seems to retreat back beneath the ice quickly.”

“I think it’s the best shot we have,” Boyd said, shrugging off his pack. He reached inside, finding the two grenades, handing one off to Lorza. “We only have two, so make it count. You ever thrown a grenade before?”

“Do I look like I have ever so much as seen a grenade?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at him.

“Prime it and throw it, same as you did when we crashed,” he replied as he gestured to the red button on the metallic casing. “Just make sure it lands near the thing. You know what – let me go first.”

“What do we do?” she continued. “Just walk out there and see what happens?”

“There’s nothing else we can do,” he said, starting to empty his pack. “We can’t wait for it – don’t have the time. We walk straight across, and when we see that shadow beneath the ice, we stay still and we throw my pack. With any luck, it’ll go for that instead of us.”

Once all of the useful items had been passed off to Lorza, he began to fill it with snow.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Gotta make sure it’s heavy enough to draw some attention,” he explained.

“You are bad at making plans,” she grumbled, but she made no further protests. She knew that it was the best they could come up with. They made their way carefully down the drift and stepped onto the ice, their eyes firmly fixed on their feet as they began to walk.

***

“I see the other side!” Lorza said, Boyd lifting his gaze to see the ice give way to more snow a few hundred meters ahead of them. They had almost crossed the ice sheet, and there had been no sign of the creature so far.

“Maybe our number one fan really did eat its fill,” Boyd said, glancing at the ground warily.

As they approached the relative safety of the snow, Lorza extended an arm to stop him, her head turning as she tracked something behind them. Boyd soon saw it too – a dark shape drifting towards them beneath the ice. It was slow, motionless, save for the way that its trailing tentacles floated in the water behind it.

“It’ll fan out its tentacles before it strikes,” Boyd warned, trying to keep as still as he could while sliding off his pack. “Here – you can throw further than I can.”

He passed it off to Lorza, and she swung it by the straps, sending the snow-filled rucksack sailing through the air. It landed a good twenty meters away, slamming down onto the ice. Boyd watched, only his eyes moving as he tracked the creature, its course changing. With a lazy push from its tentacles, it began to drift towards the pack, no longer heading straight for them. He swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to stave off the primal fear that was commanding him to flee.

“Do not move a muscle,” Lorza hissed. “It seems more interested in the bait than us.”

Perhaps seeing the shadow of the rucksack from beneath the ice, the creature stopped beneath it, starting to fan out its octopus-like arms into a mesmerizing spiral of pulsing colors. It was the prelude to an attack, and just as Boyd had anticipated, the creature propelled itself up through the water with a powerful thrust from its tentacles. The sound of cracking ice echoed across the flat terrain as the beast smashed through, an explosion of murky seawater and frozen fragments showering the surrounding area, close enough that Boyd and Lorza had to raise their arms reflexively to shield themselves. The nightmarish creature flailed its mass of black tentacles, flopping onto the surface, its gelatinous body undulating as it reached for the pack. It dragged the bag towards its maw, tearing into the fabric with its rows of razor teeth, reducing it to fluttering shreds in seconds.

The two onlookers were already moving, trying to put some distance between themselves and the furious creature, running in the opposite direction. It quickly abandoned the tattered remnants of the pack, turning its ring of expressionless, black eyes and its gaping maw in their direction. Like an octopus dragging itself across the sand, it gave chase, its ink-black hide glistening in the pale light of the moon’s star.

“What are you waiting for!?” Lorza yelled.

Boyd spun around to face it, seeing a mass of teeth and tentacles the size of a small car bearing down on him. He reached into one of the pockets of his suit, pulling out the grenade, his thumb pressing down on the primer. Like he was lawn bowling, he rolled it across the ice, the round device sliding directly beneath the charging alien. There was no explosion, no flash of light or loud bang, merely a sound like escaping gas as the grenade began to disgorge its contents. It was designed to quickly fill rooms and choke out fires, expanding in every direction, the off-white foam taking on the qualities of a cloud as it engulfed the monster. The creature halted in its tracks, disappearing into the mass of foam, its squirming tentacles vanishing from view. As the substance lost the consistency of shaving foam and began to harden, it started to droop, draping itself over the squid. Tentacles writhed, spraying flecks of the foam that glued themselves to the ice, the creature seeming disoriented as it twisted and struggled. The foam was forming a mound now, like a pile of melted plastic, encasing it.

“It’s working!” Boyd exclaimed, allowing himself a moment of relief. “I think-”

The beast burst free, sending fragments of semi-hardened foam scattering across the ice with a violent flail of its powerful arms, its jet-black hide coated with gluey clumps. Far from being trapped, their ploy only seemed to have made it angrier, the thing lurching towards them as it spied its quarry.

“Run!” Lorza shouted, Boyd wheeling around to follow her.

The beast went for the larger target, gaining quickly, remarkably fast in spite of its clumsy gait. One of its tentacles whipped out to entangle the Polar’s legs, and she fell on her face, the grenade that she had been holding bouncing out of her hand. She yowled like an angry cat as it wound its tentacle around her limb, more of the snaking appendages reaching for her, her violent kicking doing nothing to dissuade them. It gripped her legs firmly, starting to drag her towards the gelatinous mass of its body, its mouth splitting open like a wound full of serrated teeth. Lorza dug her claws into the ice like picks in a bid to slow herself, her biceps bulging, but even her strength was no match for the beast. She let out a wail of fear that stopped Boyd dead in his tracks.

He could run and let it take her, but if Lorza died, then he would die soon after. Their fates were intertwined. More than that – he couldn’t watch it tear her apart like it had Alexei, even if it meant putting her life before the mission. All for one, and one for all…

Boyd drew his push blade, bellowing a challenge as he charged into the fray. The creature seemed to hesitate, its attention split between two targets now, leaving Lorza helplessly tangled in its tentacles as it turned its ring of glistening eyes on the newcomer. One of those ropy appendages shot out towards him, dripping with strands of slime, the blister-like orbs of bioluminescent light that ran down its length throbbing angrily. He ducked under the first swipe, hearing its whistle over his head, then slashed at the thing’s oil-slick-colored hide with his blade. The sharp edge cut through its skin easily – just as he had imagined – its flesh soft and rubbery. Yellow fluids seeped from the cut, but the creature was undeterred.

Its arms flailed like loose firehoses, the glowing spots that ran along their length drawing colorful trails in the air. Boyd ducked and weaved, slicing at them wherever he could, his suit showered in flecks of its yellow blood. His blade wasn’t large enough to give it much more than paper cuts. First thing he was doing if they survived this hellhole was putting in a request for R&D to figure out a way to fit a Bowie knife into the damned survival suits. His distraction was helping give Lorza more time to free herself, if nothing else.

The Polar was battling with all of the strength that her starving body had left, slicing at the tentacles that bound her with her wicked claws, hacking them apart like a butcher trying to portion up a stubborn cut of meat. They were far more effective than his knife, her white fur and her blue coveralls soaked with yellow stains and viscous slime, each new cut exposing dark flesh and muscle. The monster seemed conflicted now, perhaps having never encountered prey that put up so much of a fight.

It lurched suddenly, flinching away as Lorza succeeded in severing one of the tentacles that was wrapped around her waist, holding it still with her claws as she ripped it apart with her sharp teeth. Strands of wet meat tore as she savaged it, the dismembered limb falling to the ice, where it flopped and twitched like a tail dropped from a frightened lizard. It wasn’t enough to dissuade the creature, its grip around her midriff and thighs tightening like a noose, her soft fat bulging around its tentacles as she gritted her teeth against the pain.

The distraction created enough of an opening for Boyd to get closer, dodging through its tentacles to reach its bulbous body. He hilted his knife in its wet flesh, dragging the blade across its flank, splattering the ice beneath with its oozing fluids as he opened a gaping wound. It was just as dark on the inside as the outside, as though its very cells had been saturated with black paint. That hurt enough to warrant a response, the thing wheeling around to face him, whipping a heavy tentacle into his torso. He was lifted off his feet, landing flat on his back a few meters away, the impact driving the air from his lungs to leave him dazed for a few moments.

When he regained his composure, he saw that Lorza was being dragged towards its mouth, so close now that she could touch the creature. With another frenzied wail, she braced her hands against what passed for its face, straining to hold it back as its jaws snapped at her. It had been large enough to swallow Alexei whole, and Lorza wouldn’t make much more than two or three mouthfuls. In a last act of desperation, she began to claw at its eyes, popping them like blisters with her sharp claws. It recoiled, throwing her to the ground, but it didn’t relinquish its tight hold on her. She bought herself a few more seconds, but it was soon dragging her closer again, wrapping more of its limbs around its struggling quarry to immobilize her.

“Boyd!” she cried, the terror in her voice freezing his heart in his chest. He struggled to his feet, then spotted a metallic glint nearby. It was the last foam grenade – the one that Lorza had dropped. Ignoring the fresh pain that radiated through him, he began to run, ducking low to snatch the softball-sized device off the ice. He sprinted straight towards the squid, ducking under another furious tentacle swipe, putting himself between Lorza and its flashing teeth.

“What are you doing!?” Lorza wailed as he drew back his arm, the grenade in hand. “Boyd, no!”

He plunged his right arm into its mouth, and its jaws snapped shut like a bear trap, Lorza letting out another cry of dismay as she watched his limb vanish into its maw. Something was wrong, however. The creature bit down again in confusion, its teeth meeting resistance. Boyd’s mesh cast had weathered the blow – the protective casing as hard as concrete – and he dropped the grenade that he had been holding into its gullet. The thing paused, then began to tremble violently, pushing itself across the ice in an attempt to get away from him. It tossed Lorza aside, flinging Boyd away with another swipe, rolling onto its side as its many limbs writhed like beached eels.

Flame retardant foam spewed from its mouth, solidifying as it dripped to the ground, the thing’s bulbous body convulsing and bloating as its guts filled with hardening froth. It slapped its tentacles against the ice, regurgitating another torrent of liquid foam, then its entire body seemed to stiffen. With one last wracking shudder, it collapsed. Like a deflating balloon, its gelatinous body seemed to sag, its limbs going limp.

Lorza picked herself up, rising to her feet on the ice. She was shivering – whether from the cold or the fear, Boyd couldn’t tell.

“You okay?” Boyd asked, gripping his bruised ribs as he suppressed a cough. “You injured?”

“No, no,” she muttered as she glanced down at her own blood-soaked hands. She took a moment to compose herself, rubbing her neck where one of the alien’s tentacles had choked her. “I am okay. Is it…”

Boyd walked over to the creature’s body, giving one of its tentacles a kick. The appendage was loose, unresponsive, lying still. He dared to approach a little closer, giving its rubbery corpse another tentative poke with the toe of his boot. His blood was still coursing with adrenaline, the euphoria that followed a fight washing over him. If the thing had a head, he might have been tempted to cut it off and mount it on his wall as a trophy. This wretched creature had haunted them for days, and they had finally bested it.

“Yep, this fucker is dead,” he called back to Lorza. “I’m not afraid of you,” he muttered to himself, crouching to examine the creature more closely. It had a dozen tentacles, a handful damaged or severed by Lorza’s sharp claws and teeth, its pus-like fluids still leaking from the wounds in its rubbery flesh. The eyes down one side of its face had been gouged by her talons, and its mouth was packed with foam. The grenade must have released the expanding suppressant all the way through its digestive system, rupturing its organs. He took off his glove and briefly rolled up his sleeve to check his brace, seeing that the rigid material was scratched where its teeth had found their mark, but it wasn’t damaged. It had been strong enough to resist whatever bite pressure this alien could muster. There were some holes in his suit where the thing’s fangs had pierced it, so he made his way over to one of the packs, searching for the roll of tape. He began to wrap it around the breach, then tore off a section with his teeth. That should hold – it wasn’t like it needed to be pressurized.

As he turned to look back at Lorza, he saw that she had descended on their kill like a vulture, not wasting a second. She began to tear into one of its fleshy tentacles with her claws, stripping off a hunk of wet meat and bringing it to her mouth.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Boyd protested as he began to jog back over to her. “You don’t know if that’s edible or not! At least let me scan it first!”

She paused with the wobbling piece of flesh an inch from her mouth, her hands already soaked in yellow fluids, turning her head to look at him.

“You can do that?”

“I have a food analyzer,” he replied, coming to a stop beside her. “It’ll take literally fifteen seconds.”

Lorza relented, watching curiously as he cut off a tissue sample from the tentacle with his knife, placing the sliver of rubbery meat on the ice. He brought up his display, tapping at the touch panel, activating the molecular scanner that was built into the sleeve. It was the same principle as the handheld devices often used by the UNN, but integrated into his suit’s systems. He held his forearm over the morsel for a moment, then read off the results, Lorza waiting impatiently.

“The mercury content is a little higher than I’d like, but overall, it’s edible. We should be able to-”

He paused the thought, watching with a blend of awe and disgust as Lorza carefully lifted the chunk of dripping meat to her mouth, biting into it like it was a giant slice of watermelon. She wolfed it down, barely pausing to chew, its yellow blood dripping from her chin like some kind of grisly condiment.

“What the fuck, Lorza? At least cook it first!”

Boyd grimaced as she carefully cut away a long strip of gelatinous meat from the tentacle, using the claw on her index finger like a scalpel. She pulled away a piece that must have been a foot long and a couple of inches thick, gripping the slippery skin with her talons, choking it down like a grisly strand of spaghetti. Whether it tasted good or not wasn’t a factor – meat was meat. He set about cutting off some smaller strips for himself, worried that she might not leave any for him, despite the size of their catch.

“Well, I’m going to cook mine,” he said as he used his push knife to slice off a chunk the size of a salmon steak. Its black color and greasy consistency made it less than appetizing, but it would probably be kinder on his kidneys than the emergency pills. “How are we going to store all this?”

She swallowed another monstrous portion before answering, chewing through its sinew, having already eaten enough meat to feed three people.

“Why do you need to store it?” she asked, already starting to hack away at the next serving. “Just eat it now, and you will not have to carry anything.”

“What do you mean, just eat it now?” Boyd asked as he narrowed his eyes at her. “Oh lord, is that what you’re doing? You’re going to gorge yourself in one sitting?”

“Naturally,” she replied, giving him a quizzical look as she bit off another hunk of rubbery meat. “Why are you looking at me that way? Our ancestors could have gone days without a successful hunt, so it was important for them to be able to fill their bellies with enough food to sustain themselves when the opportunity arose. In dire situations, we can eat very large quantities, up to thirty percent of our body weight. I have seen humans larger than you. Was that not what they were doing?”

“Fuck no!” he replied, watching what must be another ten pounds of alien flesh disappear into her mouth. “Why would you assume that humans can do that? We need to eat every day – we can’t just put away fifty pounds of pork rinds in one sitting.”

“Cut away what you want and drag it,” she replied with a shrug, wiping some of the viscous blood from her mouth with the back of her furry hand. “The snow is pure and clean – nothing lives on the surface. At home, we store our meat on raised wooden platforms so the scavengers cannot reach it, and the weather is too cold for it to spoil. We prepare fish in the same way – exposed to the frost on drying racks. It will keep.”

He retrieved her pack and rummaged through it, finding the zip ties. Maybe he could fashion something using those. Yeah, if he cut the straps on the rucksack and tied them together, he could fill it with meat and drag it along behind him. It would be like a kind of sled made of fabric. That way, it wouldn’t be near the small aura of heat that his suit gave off, so it wouldn’t thaw and spoil. He could transfer the contents of Lorza’s pack to his pockets – they didn’t need it to carry toothpaste and tape.

“Hey Lorza,” he began, glancing over his shoulder at her. “When you ate the MREs, you kept the flammable gel packets, right? And the little metal cooking stands?”

She turned her head to him and nodded, a massive strip of meat lodged halfway down her throat. She swallowed with some difficulty, her muscles really working hard to drag the flesh down into her belly, then gestured to her rucksack.

“In my pack – the big pocket.”

“Good, I’ll need them later,” he said as he opened up the zipper. “We can bring some food for you, too, you know. You don’t have to eat this much in one…” She ignored his suggestion, setting upon a fresh tentacle. “Never mind, then.”

***

Over the next half hour, Boyd cut away as much meat as he could carry – enough to last him for the next few days of their journey. He cut off the shoulder straps from the pack and tied them together, using one of the zip ties to secure it to a belt loop behind his suit, leaving a makeshift tether a couple of meters long that he could use to pull his haul behind him. He stacked the meat on the ice, waiting for it to freeze, which shouldn’t take long in this environment. Once it had frozen into solid blocks, he could just toss them in the pack, and they shouldn’t thaw as long as he left it outside the cave or dugout while they slept. He could even pack the rucksack with fresh snow. Lorza’s sleeping bag had its own pocket, so it wouldn’t come into contact with the meat.

Lorza had eaten so much meat that her belly was visibly distended. It looked like she had swallowed an exercise ball. She was relaxing on the ice beside the dead monster, one hand cradling her stomach, surrounded by the remnants of her meal. It was hard to gauge exactly how much she had consumed – probably close to two hundred pounds. Watching her go to town on the squid had been like watching a starving lioness eat a zebra.

“You good to go?” Boyd asked, the Polar opening her eyes sluggishly.

“Yes,” she mumbled. “We should seek shelter soon. I must sleep off this meal.”

“I dunno if I’d call that a meal,” Boyd replied, glancing at her distended stomach pointedly. “You weren’t joking about eating me, were you? Looks like you put away about my body weight in calamari.”

“This is an efficient way to eat,” she insisted. “This meal will keep me fed and warm for days. Even if I see no food until we reach the refinery, I will be in no further danger.”

“Maybe I’ll share some of mine if you ask nicely,” he replied, gesturing to his haul. “Come on,” he added, climbing to his feet. “I don’t care if you have the itis, we need to get to a cave. My battery is ticking down by the minute.”

“What is the itis?” she asked, lifting her head curiously.

“You never heard that term before?” he asked, starting to fill his pack with the now solidified squid steaks. “I suppose I don’t see why you would, coming from Russia. The itis is what you get after eating a big meal – it makes you feel tired. Granted, that’s usually referring to Thanksgiving turkey or a nice backyard cookout, not a couple of hundred pounds of sashimi.”

“Ah, my people have a word for this feeling,” she said as she struggled up off the ice. She said something that sounded halfway between a growl and a purr, Boyd raising an eyebrow at her through his visor.

“I’ll take your word for it. There’s no way I’m going to try pronouncing that.”

“Odd,” she replied, giving him a smirk. “I was always told that humans had agile tongues.”

Boyd didn’t get the joke, so he ignored her toothy grin, turning his attention to his display. Once he had his coordinates locked in, he set off, dragging his pack on the ice behind him. Lorza followed after him, one hand steadying her swollen belly like a pregnant woman. He gave her another look of disapproval, but she merely answered it with a smile, the pair heading for the snowdrifts on the far side of the ice sheet.

***

As the sun began to set, they came upon another of the caves that dotted the landscape, its mouth just wide enough for the distended Polar to squeeze through. Boyd paused outside to unhitch his rucksack, then fished out one of the steak-sized portions of meat that he had harvested from the slain squid, Lorza pulling out her sleeping bag. After packing the rucksack with fresh snow for good measure, he left it outside, then continued into the opening. A short tunnel led them to an expansive ice chamber – or a gallery, as Lorza referred to it – that was large enough for her to stand erect without her furry ears brushing the ceiling. She set about unrolling her bed, laying it out on the floor.

“The temperature will drop soon,” she said, sliding the zipper open. “You should join me.”

“I need to eat something first,” he replied, pulling the cooking utensils from one of his pockets. “That is, if there’s even room for me in there anymore after your buffet.”

He set a blister of hexamine tablets and a box of storm matches on the ice, then began to unfold one of the portable stoves left over from the MREs. Lorza watched from her sleeping bag with mild interest as he bent the three legs into shape, then lay one of the tablets beneath it, its flickering flame illuminating the cave in a dull glow when he lit it. The first thing he did was melt some snow in a collapsible cup and try to wash the meat to the best of his abilities, but there was a greasy layer on its hide that just didn’t seem to come off no matter how hard he tried.

Taking the ink-black, gelatinous cut of meat in his hands, he placed it gingerly atop the apparatus. The MRE courses would each have had their own can or packet in which they could be reheated, but he would have to wing it with the meat. It was sagging over the sides, and he’d probably have to keep turning it over to cook it evenly, but it should work out.

“What does this stuff even taste like?” Boyd wondered aloud, watching it start to sizzle.

“It is slimy, salty,” Lorza replied as she shrugged beneath her sleeping bag. “I was too hungry to care much about the taste.”

They waited in silence for a little while as the meat cooked, Boyd occasionally using a plastic fork to flip it over and reposition it, the oily flesh starting to char. The scent wasn’t exactly the most appetizing thing he had ever smelled – it was more like burnt rubber than barbecue – but the prospect of going to bed with a full stomach kept him optimistic. When it was finally ready to eat, he sliced off a bite-sized piece with his ceramic blade and popped it into his mouth, blowing and huffing as he juggled it on his tongue to save from burning himself. When he began to chew, he found that it had a rubbery, displeasing texture that reminded him of shellfish or maybe oysters. It had a strange flavor, something akin to bass or trout that had been seasoned with far too much salt, but there was plenty of water to quench his thirst. He was famished enough to push through, and before long, he had wolfed down the entire steak.

“Is that all you intend to eat?” Lorza asked, tilting her head quizzically. “You have been starved for days, and that tiny portion is enough to satisfy your hunger?”

“That’s enough to fill me for the time being,” he replied, the room darkening as he poured a little water on the tablet to put it out. They could be reused if they hadn’t burned down to nothing. They were left with only the light that made it through the ice to see by, casting everything in a dim, blue twilight. “When I wake up, I’ll have some more for breakfast.”

“How did a species ever evolve that way?” Lorza chuckled, shaking her head in disbelief. “I knew that humans had small appetites – I was charged with feeding the crew of the Zemchug – but I had always assumed you were capable of eating larger quantities in a survival situation. What if you had no way to store or transport the meat? Would you eat a single meal, then let the rest go to waste, even if you might die later as a result?”

“I’d have no choice,” he replied. “My stomach can’t expand like yours seems able to.”

“Some of you live in environments almost as cold as ours, yet you have no fur,” Lorza continued. “You were the apex predators of your homeworld, yet you cannot eat more than a few morsels in one sitting. How did creatures like you ever survive your prehistory?”

“What do you mean were the apex predators?” Boyd asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

“Well, we are there now,” Lorza replied with a grin.

“You aren’t apex predators – you’re glorified squatters,” he scoffed.

“We are larger and stronger than you are,” she explained, Boyd rolling his eyes. “If we can eat you, that makes us the apex predators.”

“There are plenty of animals that can eat humans,” Boyd added. “That’s what we invented pointy sticks for.”

He felt a shiver, and glanced down at his display to see that the battery warning was flashing, Lorza unzipping her sleeping bag in invitation.

“Come, it is getting cold,” she said as she beckoned to him with a clawed finger. “Do not make me grab you again.”

“Fine, I’m coming,” he grumbled as he shuffled over to her. There was usually enough room for the both of them, but her stomach was so enlarged that it was now a struggle. “Move over a little,” he grumbled. “I can’t get past your gut.”

She shifted her considerable weight, trying to make more room for him, but he couldn’t worm his way deeper. Instead, she unzipped the entire bag and opened it like a clam, gesturing for him to lie down beside her. With some reluctance, he did as she asked, lowering himself down onto the padded fabric. She wrapped a long arm around him, pulling him close, Boyd feeling his chest sink into the soft meat of her bosom.

“What are you doing?” he complained, the Polar keeping him from wriggling free.

“Closing the sleeping bag around us,” she replied. “Keep still, or would you rather we both freeze?”

With some difficulty, she began to zip up the bag, Boyd finding himself crudely sandwiched between her cushiony fat and the insulated lining. His face was buried in the nape of her neck, just above the large shelf formed by her bust, the silky fur that spilled out of her collar brushing against his rebreather.

“This is very uncomfortable,” he complained, his voice somewhat muffled by her fur. There was that strange, floral smell again, seeping in through his mask. It was familiar to him now, almost calming in a way, as though he had begun to subconsciously associate it with sleep and warmth. His lower body was pressed tightly against her swollen belly, oddly firm beneath the pillowy layer of blubber that surrounded it. Her mammoth breasts were squashed up against his chest like a pair of giant marshmallows that had been stuffed into her coveralls, so soft that they almost seemed to spill over his shoulders like a liquid, wobbling subtly every time one of the bag’s occupants moved. One of her arms was trapped beneath him, and he shifted and wriggled, trying to get it out from under him.

“Move your damned arm,” he muttered.

“There is no room,” she replied, making no effort to accommodate him.

It felt as if the sleeping bag’s zipper might just split open under the pressure and disgorge him onto the cold ice. There wasn’t even enough room for him to turn away from her as he usually did when they were forced to sleep together. He could feel her warm breath through his hood, her chin practically resting on his head, and he tried to squirm away in discomfort. The sound of her heavy breathing distracted him, as did the way the rise and fall of her ample chest pushed his face further into her bosom, the beating of her massive heart like a drum to his ears in the eerie silence of the ice cave.

“Stop breathing on me,” he grumbled, wriggling in frustration. Lorza laughed, the motion making her chest rock against his face in gentle waves.

“You are like a fussy kitten. Just keep still, relax. Go to sleep.”

“I can’t sleep with your fat in my face!”

“No?” she cooed, glancing down at him with a smirk. “One would think you might appreciate having something so soft and warm to rest your head on. You know, you must be the first person to share a bed with me who found cause to complain about it. The men back in my village would be lining up for the opportunity.”

“Good for you,” he grumbled, trying and failing to avoid sinking into her bust as he struggled to get comfortable. “Personally, I’m not in the habit of getting intimate with Persian rugs.”

“I told you – I am from Siberia.”

“I’m calling you an overgrown carpet,” he clarified.

She sighed, exhaling warm air on his hood, then muttered something in Russian that ended with malish.

“What does that mean?” he asked, lifting his chin out of her bust to look up at her. “Malish? You keep using that word.”

“The closest translation in English is child or little man,” she replied. “It is not a term of endearment, but it suits you well.”

“Lovely…”

He realized that the sleeping bag was already warm – very warm. It would have been downright pleasant if he wasn’t being forced to share it with his unruly companion. The Polar’s metabolism must be working in overdrive to digest all of the food that she had eaten, cranking out almost enough waste body heat to make him break a sweat. The temperature was starting to make him sluggish and compliant, his outrage becoming more difficult to maintain as the warmth permeated his muscles like the soothing fingers of a masseuse. Lorza didn’t smell half bad now that he was used to her alien scent, and he would be lying if he said that her chest didn’t make an admirable pillow. Her proximity still made him uncomfortable, but the day’s exhaustion and the satisfaction of a full stomach were overcoming him.

“You seem more relaxed than usual,” she murmured, her lips an inch from his ear.

“Don’t pay attention to how relaxed I am – just go to sleep,” he grumbled in response. She chuckled, those heavy breasts rocking against him again.

“You are usually facing away from me. What changed? Are you starting to warm up to me?”

She laughed at her own pun as Boyd scowled up at her.

“No, you’re just so fat that I can’t turn around, so I’m stuck like this.”

She shifted her weight as she tried to find a more comfortable position, her belly pressing against his lower body. So much of her plump figure was in contact with him, almost as though she was trying to swallow him up, their combined warmth baking them inside the sleeping bag like a pair of jacket potatoes. It might have been too warm to be comfortable under different circumstances, but considering the freezing cold that they had endured for the better part of a week, it was a welcome change.

“So warm,” Lorza whispered, her blue eyes turning down to examine Boyd. “Your face is red, little human.”

“Because I’m hot,” he complained.

“If you say so…”

She was trying to get under his skin again, testing his resolve, trying to probe for a chink in his armor. Any opportunity that she saw, she took. Did she think that she could manipulate him into doing what she wanted? Was she going to wrap him around her clawed finger with nothing more than a few sweet words and a bat of her lashes? Boyd was made of sterner stuff than that – he had been trained to resist interrogation techniques up to and including torture. She seemed to notice that he had become tense – defensive – leaning her head down to whisper to him.

“Why not relax?” she purred. “You are so uptight, always on edge, even when we are safe and warm. Are you afraid of me?” she added with a sly chuckle.

“Afraid of you?” he scoffed. “I’ve already beaten you in a fight, if you’d forgotten. I’m not afraid, I’m just…maybe this is normal for you, but it’s not normal for humans. We need space, privacy.”

“I remember things a little differently,” she murmured, moving her hand from the small of his back. He shivered as her fingers slid up his spine, his form-fitting suit letting him feel the soft flesh of her pads, along with the prick of her claws. She brought it to his face, cradling his head in her furry palm, tracing the scar that she had left on his cheek with her thumb to further her point. Even though he was wearing his hood, he could feel her warmth, her fluffy coat brushing the material.

“Why can’t you keep your hands to yourself?” he grumbled, trying and failing to squirm away from her in the tight confines of the sleeping bag.

“Oh, come on,” Lorza replied with a sigh. “We are trapped in such close proximity – I have little choice but to touch you.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to do it like…that,” he muttered.

Lorza cocked her head at him, sliding her hand back beneath the sleeping bag.

“You know, I can usually read people – influence them,” she continued as she scrutinized him with her ice-blue eyes. “But not you. You are opaque to me. I can never tell what you might be thinking, what you might be planning, what words are lies or truth. When I press you, you evade me. Like trying to hold onto melting snow, you slip through my fingers the harder I squeeze.”

“Well, it’s encouraging to know that you’ve been probing me for weaknesses like some kind of lab rat,” he replied.

“No,” she continued, shaking her massive head. “That is not my intent. In my culture, we resolve our disagreements through social maneuvering rather than through conflict. Our hot-blooded cousins claw each other to pieces at the slightest provocation, but we Polars talk to each other, we find compromises. We try to learn a person’s wants – their desires – then we sate them. Why fight when there are ways to influence a person into behaving in just the way that suits you?”

“That sounds like manipulation to me,” Boyd shot back, scowling at her through his visor. “It sounds despicable.”

“Better than clawing each other to ribbons or bombing people with orbital railguns when they don’t see things your way,” she insisted, her ears flicking with irritation. “You cannot even conceive of an approach to conflict that is not in some way violent. Even words are violence to you – to be wielded like weapons.”

“Violence is the only power we truly have,” Boyd replied. “How is a lie or a manipulation any different from a feint or a misdirection in war? A well-concocted lie can topple an army just as effectively as defeating it in battle.”

“It is destructive – a waste of resources.”

“You’ve become quite the pacifist for someone who tried to murder me over a handful of pills yesterday.”

That hit home, and the flat bridge of her nose furrowed, her ears lying flat.

“Only because you refused every diplomatic solution that I offered,” she growled, Boyd feeling her voice reverberate through his body. “You are the one who pushed me over that line. I only did what I thought had to be done to survive.”

“You talk like you’re so sophisticated,” Boyd began, pressing the attack. “But under all that fur, you’re not so different from your hot-blooded cousins. I bet if I shaved you, nobody would be able to tell you apart.”

“That is one of your vaunted lies, and you know it,” she grumbled. She had tried to mess with his head, and he had turned it around on her. The ball was in her court now, and she had been taken off-guard by his swift return. “I cannot fathom why you choose to behave the way you do,” she added, turning her nose up at him as though he was emitting some foul odor. “You succeed only in making things harder than they need to be – harder for both of us.”

“Yeah, well, my line of work doesn’t afford me many friends. I’m used to operating on my own, and I prefer it that way.”

“Ah, yes,” Lorza said as her bosom wobbled in time with a derisive chuckle. “The solitary life of a miner. It is through no fault of mine that we came to be here, Boyd. In fact, you are solely to blame. The culmination of all your clever lies and tricks resulted only in you being stranded here with me. I am only trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

“By manipulating me into behaving in just the way that suits you?”

She laughed at that, and he glanced up at her, confused by her reaction.

“If only you knew what you were missing, malish. You might find that cooperating suits you far better than fighting me at every turn.”

Boyd shifted, trying to get his face away from her chest, but there was no room to turn away from her in the confines of their sleeping bag. It seemed almost as though she was going out of her way to smother him. If he tried to wriggle any lower, she’d envelop his head completely. Any higher, and he’d be face to face with the surly Polar. He settled on resting his head in the nape of her neck. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was sleeping in some fluffy waterbed somewhere, but that floral, alien scent that she exuded kept bringing him out of it. It made him feel…confused.

“Stop fidgeting,” she complained. “You are keeping me awake.”

“I’m trying to find a comfortable position where I don’t get smothered in my sleep,” he complained. He tried to push away from her but succeeded only in sinking his hand deeper into her paunch.

“Oh, enough!” Lorza grunted.

She closed her arms around him, trapping him in a tight hug, pulling him into her. She pressed one hand into the small of his back to keep him from wriggling away, the other cradling his head, pushing his face into her bust. His arms were pinned at his sides, his whole body enveloped by hers, her inescapable scent filling his lungs as it seeped in through his mask.

“Let me go, you oversized-”

He let out a frustrated snarl that only made her chuckle wryly.

Despite all the squirming and bucking that he could muster, she merely held him there, her strength far exceeding his own. Like a toddler having a tantrum, she let him burn himself out, Boyd eventually tiring and lying still in her arms. It was like trying to fight off a polar bear.

“Enough of this,” she repeated, giving his face another forceful push into her breasts. Even through the taut fabric of her coveralls, they yielded, as soft as feather pillows. “You will get used to me, and you will do it quickly. We will have to share a bed for days to come, and we will have no company but one another, so get it all out. You have no choice but to touch me, to smell me, so deal with it. And stop hiding from me inside that suit,” she added, reaching for the seam where his hood joined to his collar. She must have seen him take it on and off when they stopped to eat, peeling the protective material back to expose his face to the cold air, surprisingly deft with her large fingers.

“Hey!” he protested, trying to free an arm so that he could pull it back down. “The air here isn’t breathable for me!”

“It is breathable enough for you to stuff your face for a good hour without your mask,” she replied. He felt her hand return to his head, her fingers delving into his hair, the tips of her sharp claws pricking his scalp. He felt surprisingly vulnerable, as though a barrier that had been protecting him from her had been breached. She forced his face into her collar, and that silky, snow-white fur rose up to brush against his warm cheeks. He had never felt anything quite as soft, and without his rebreather, her unfiltered scent set his head spinning. What was this supposed to be – some kind of exposure therapy?

He hated that she was right, but there was no point wasting energy on bickering about their sleeping situation any longer. This would be their reality until they escaped the moon, and no amount of complaining would change the fact that they needed each other to survive the cold nights.

Lorza felt him relax a little, so she loosened her hold, Boyd exhaling a frustrated sigh.

“People usually bond in a crisis,” she said, her warm breath blowing his hair in the absence of his hood. “I wish that you would let your guard down for a while and stop acting as though making friends is the worst thing that we could do. You will never see me again once we make it off this blighted rock, so what does it matter if I learn some of your secrets? Would it kill you to lighten the mood for just a few days so that we might make this situation slightly more bearable?”

Boyd went silent for a moment before replying, letting his eyes close as her warmth radiated through him.

“You’ve been trying to push my buttons ever since we crashed,” he replied. “You’ve been trying to get inside my head and extract information without me knowing about it – who I really am, what I was really doing on Hades. I can never tell if you say these things because that’s how you really feel or if it’s just one step on the road to tricking me into dropping my defenses. I’ve had some experience in that field,” he admitted, glancing up at her furry face. “Suggestion, interrogation, manipulating people into doing things that aren’t in their best interest. You’ve never treated me as anything but a mark.”

“That is the Polar way,” she replied with a shrug. “I make no excuses. What you see as pushing buttons, I see as olive branches. What terrible fate do you imagine might befall you if I have my way? You, on the other hand, have taken all of your frustration and your stress out on me since the moment we arrived. You have never wasted an opportunity to throw insults my way.”

They lay together in silence for a while, their breathing growing rhythmic and regular, before Boyd finally spoke up about something that had been bothering him.

“You wouldn’t really eat me, would you?”

“Only if you end up being more useful inside me than out,” she replied with a laugh that came off more sultry than threatening. “I will give you this, Boyd – you keep me guessing.”

He still wasn’t sure if she was being serious, but he decided not to press the issue. She allowed him to put his hood back on, and he eventually settled into a sound sleep, finding her proximity a little less offensive.

***

When Boyd awoke the next morning, he found himself trapped under Lorza’s bulk. She must have rolled over during the night. The Polar wasn’t quite on top of him, but he was securely pinned beneath one of her long arms, and he could feel the hefty weight of her bosom resting on his chest. It was a miracle that she hadn’t crushed him.

He tried to push her away, but his hands merely sank into her pillowy flesh, swallowed up to the wrists. Lorza barely stirred, one of her round ears flicking, still soundly asleep. It was hopeless – it was like being smothered beneath a weighted blanket that was as heavy as a small car.

As he tried to wriggle out from beneath her, he noticed that her swollen stomach had already shrunk back down to its usual – albeit still considerable – size. Come to think of it, she had filled out all over, regaining the insulating fat that she had lost during their trek. It had barely been a day since she had eaten her monstrous meal, and already, her metabolism was hard at work turning it into blubber. Her thighs were fuller, her breasts straining against her coveralls, the paunch of her stomach pressing into his lower body. As he felt himself sinking into her, he realized that she was even larger than when they had first crashed on the moon, her clothes now so tight that they looked a size too small. Her body was packing on the fat in its survival mode.

As he tried once more to move her off him, she muttered something in her sleep, then curled an arm around him to drag him back into her embrace. She was treating him like a damned teddy bear, Boyd exhaling a resigned sigh as he found himself once again enveloped. Between her weight and the tight confines of the sleeping bag, escape was impossible. Whatever – at least he was warm. Might as well try to go back to sleep until she finally deigned to wake up.

***

Boyd was roused by Lorza shifting around, opening his eyes to see the Polar’s sharp teeth as she yawned. She seemed surprised to find herself resting atop a struggling human, pulling back to free his face from her cleavage once she had recovered her faculties, blinking down at him. Her confused expression quickly morphed into a smirk, and she rose above him, straddling him as she planted her clawed hands to either side of his head.

“I am sorry, Boyd. Could you not get out with me lying on top of you?”

Her legs were so long that her knees reached his armpits, Boyd finding himself sandwiched between thighs that were thicker than his torso, like a human hotdog in a Polar bun. She wasn’t resting all of her weight on him – just enough that he could feel it, her breasts swaying an inch above his face as she chuckled at his flustered expression.

“Would you get off?” he grumbled, feeling her thighs grip him more tightly as he began to struggle.

“I am going,” she cooed with an exaggerated air of innocence, starting to crawl up over his head. Those swinging breasts rose from his field of view, replaced with her paunchy belly, then her thighs as her knees passed his head.

Finally free, he crawled out of the bag, brushing a few stray hairs off his suit as he rose to his feet.

“I hope you got enough sleep,” he said, making his way over to the mouth of the cave. “We have a long day ahead of us.”

He braved the cold as he fished another squid steak out of the snow-packed rucksack, making a swift retreat to find Lorza sitting on her sleeping bag as she waited for him. He hesitated, then elected to sit beside her, the thick padding insulating him from the cold floor. Her ears pricked up in surprise, but she made no comment as he began to set up his stove.

“I’m not going anywhere before I’ve had my breakfast,” he declared, lighting one of the hexamine tablets. “It’s the most important meal of the day.”

He set the slab of meat to thaw, prodding at it intermittently with a fork, the silence starting to drag.

“Boyd,” Lorza began, but he cut her off.

“Oh, no,” he chided as he wagged his fork at her. “I don’t want you even sniffing this meat. I told you to bring your own yesterday, and you didn’t, so you’ll not get so much as a morsel from me.”

“You need not worry about the food,” she replied with a sigh. “I have eaten enough. I wanted to talk about yesterday…”

Boyd paused to flip the steak, then turned his head, giving her his full attention.

“Go on…”

“When that creature took me, I thought I was going to die just as Alexei did,” she said as she turned her gaze to the floor. “I was afraid during the crash – I feared for my life and for the lives of my crew, but being ensnared by that beast made me feel something far more terrible.”

“I know what you mean,” Boyd said, Lorza’s ears swiveling in his direction curiously. “I’m never afraid, but that thing…it disturbed me.”

“I did not thank you at the time because we were arguing – we are always arguing,” she grumbled with an annoyed flick of her furry tail. “So, I will do it now. Thank you for saving my life. If you had not acted as quickly as you had, I would have suffered a painful death. I saw you hesitate – I feared you might abandon me – but you came back.”

“I need you,” he replied, his eyes fixed firmly on the sizzling meat. “If you die, I die.”

“Perhaps,” she replied, but she sounded no more convinced that he was. “Would that all Hadean miners were so reliable under pressure.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, Lorza’s ears pricking up in surprise as she waited for him to continue. “What happened to your crew wasn’t part of the plan. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If I’d had my way, you’d have dropped me off at the nearest UNN starbase, and that would have been the last you’d see of me. I won’t patronize you by claiming that they died for some great cause, but a lot more people are going to suffer the same fate if I don’t get back to civilization. I didn’t lie to you about that.”

“You did what you could for Alexei,” Lorza conceded. “You did all that you could for me yesterday. I cannot give you forgiveness, but you have my gratitude, for all the good it will do you here.”

“It’s better than a punch in the face,” he said, spearing the steaming cut of meat. He pulled back his hood, then bit into it, finding its rubbery texture no more appetizing than he had the night before.

“How far do we still have to go?” Lorza asked.

“About a hundred klicks, by my calculations,” he replied after pausing to check his display. “Two more days of walking should see us to the refinery.”

That seemed to lift her spirits somewhat, Boyd catching a genuine smile flash across her face – one that wasn’t laden with sarcasm or smugness. He had to admit that things were feeling a little less bleak now. They had ample food, they were no longer being stalked by the creature, and they were closer to freedom than ever.

“We’re going to make it, Lorza,” he added with a nod of encouragement. “It’s not far now. We’ll beat this.”

She returned his nod, his words filling her with fresh determination.

When he had finished eating, she rolled up her sleeping bag, Boyd returning his cooking utensils to his pockets. They made their way back out onto the surface, emerging from the mouth of the cave into the bright sunlight, Boyd’s visor darkening once more to protect his eyes from the glare.

“No storm, calm winds,” Lorza mused as she watched him hitch his makeshift sled to his belt loop. “It is as nice a day as we could ask for in this place.”

“And we don’t have to worry about ending up as a meal,” he replied, dragging his pack out of the snow. “Unless another one shows up.”

“Do not even joke about that,” Lorza grumbled, following behind him as they set off into the snowdrifts.

CHAPTER 7: FRATERNIZATION

The weather was fair enough that the wind didn’t carry away their voices, and they didn’t have to fight against the elements with each step. Even the freezing temperature was easy for Boyd to ignore with enough battery charge to keep his suit humming. Lorza tried to make small talk to pass the time, and for once, he didn’t spurn her. Maybe it was the weather that had him in a good mood, or perhaps their conversation that morning had helped ease some of the tension between them, but he felt inclined to indulge her.

“So, are you ever going to tell me who you really are?” she asked as she mounted a snowdrift beside him. “I know that you are no miner. I am asking honestly,” she added, sliding a little on the powder as they descended the other side. “This is no attempt to push your buttons, as you put it. After all that we have suffered through, have I not earned the right to know?”

“I wish it were up to me,” he said, his cryptic reply only intriguing her more.

“So,” she continued, scrutinizing him for any tells with those icy eyes. “Your identity is either a cover or a lie intended to gain my sympathy. You flee from powerful men who are willing to kill to stop you. Only criminals would bring down a civilian vessel, so perhaps that part of your story was truth. You answer to someone else – someone who can forbid you from speaking, someone who values secrecy. My guess is that you work for the Navy – an undercover policeman or a detective.”

Boyd considered for a moment. Lorza was sharp, and she had been quick to figure out that his cover story wasn’t the truth. She had even managed to get his real name out of him. He couldn’t reveal his true vocation – that was classified – nor could he tell her the true nature of his mission on Hades. That said, she was already neck-deep in the shit right alongside him. From the moment that they had crashed here, their fates had been intertwined, and her life as she had known it had ended. If the Syndicate saw them together – if they somehow found out that they had survived the crash – it wouldn’t matter what secrets he kept from her. They would kill her all the same, or torture her for information that she didn’t possess. She was his responsibility now, she was in his custody, and she wouldn’t be safe until she reached a UNN base. It was time to come clean – he owed her that much.

“What I’m about to tell you is classified,” he began, Lorza’s ears tracking him intently. “I’m only permitted to share it on a strictly need-to-know basis, and at this point, I think you need to know. You won’t be safe now, not until I can get you to a secure location. You need to promise me that you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone that we might encounter between then and now, or I might lose a lot more than my job.”

“I promise,” she replied, her eyes wide.

“I work for the Navy’s intelligence branch. What I told you about the criminal organizations on Hades was true – I came to gather intelligence on their activities. Before I could get off-world to send my report, my cover was blown, and I had to make a quick getaway. When I told you that I needed your help to escape, I was being truthful, even if I had to use a cover story to protect my identity. I didn’t know who was friend and who was foe,” he added, glancing up at her. “If I had told the wrong pilot that I was trying to escape, they might have just turned me in. Same goes for the corp – they wouldn’t want the UNN knowing about the situation any more than the mobsters.”

He waited for some scathing remark, but none came.

“Then, you did not lie about the reason the Zemchug was brought down,” she mused. “You carry information that these criminals do not want leaving the system – information that they did not hesitate to kill for.”

“That’s about the long and short of it,” he replied, pulling his sled up the next incline. “We’re in the same boat now, if you’ll pardon the expression. If they see you with me, well,” he muttered with a shrug of his shoulders. “They already shot down a civilian ship – I don’t expect they’ll want to leave any loose ends.”

“Wonderful,” she sighed. “So, these criminals – who are they?”

“They call themselves the Syndicate,” he replied, Lorza cocking an eyebrow. “Yeah, not the most creative name, I know. They’re a loose alliance of mobsters, pirates, and petty criminals who are hell-bent on wresting control of the colony from the mining corp.”

“Does this mean that we will not be parting ways once we leave this moon?” she asked.

“You won’t be safe until the Syndicate is dealt with,” he replied. “Until that happens, you’re in my custody.”

“So, I am like your deputy?” Lorza asked with a grin. “Do I get a badge?”

He laughed at that. Why hadn’t they just relaxed and had normal conversations sooner? Lorza could be pretty fun when she wasn’t stealing his food or threatening to eat him.

“I’d call it witness protection more than being a deputy,” he replied with a chuckle. “You don’t sound too bothered by the idea of me squirreling you away to some UNNI black site.”

“My crew is dead, and the ship that was both my home and my workplace is gone,” she sighed. “The only place I can go now is Siberia, and that is many light-years away. You are probably my best ticket home.”

“Considering that it’s my fault you’re in this mess, I can probably swing that,” he said.

They continued to walk in silence for a few minutes, then Lorza slowed her long strides to match pace with him, walking beside him in the snow.

“So, what do you have to do to become a secret agent?” she asked.

“Well, there are lots of things that go into making a good agent,” he began. “You need to know how to handle yourself in a fight, for a start. A lot of us are ex-military, usually UNN Marines. You need to have a natural talent for subterfuge and manipulation. It requires steady nerves and an unwavering commitment to your role. If you so much as give someone the wrong look, it could put your life and the success of the mission in jeopardy. You could be operating in hostile environments with no hope of backup or extraction, so a familiarity with survival techniques and outdoorsmanship is a must, along with physical fitness.”

He realized that he was basically describing Lorza. She was all of those things and more, along with being a wildcard due to her lack of a military background. She might have made a good Ninnie herself if the stars had aligned for her. Lord knows she had been grilling him for information like a seasoned interrogator from the moment they had been stranded on the moon.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

“Just daydreaming,” he replied. “Don’t worry about it.”

“That must be why I cannot read you, then,” Lorza continued.

“What do you mean?” Boyd asked, looking up at her as she loped along beside him.

“Do not take this the wrong way, but humans are easy to read and easily manipulated,” she said as they descended another drift. “We Polars are tempered by our pack system – it teaches us to always be on guard, to always be aware that others seek to sway us. Every social interaction is a game of feints and misdirection, one that we partake in willingly, as these things do not have negative connotations in our culture. It ensures that those who rise through the ranks are the most adept and intelligent members of the community.”

“Still sounds like a civilization of used car salesmen to me,” he muttered, giving his sled a tug to get it over a rough patch.

“You are not like other humans,” she continued, glancing down at him with an expression that might be appreciation. “You are opaque to me – very hard to read. I have never met a human who can out-maneuver me like that before, and I find it…refreshing. I cannot always tell what you are thinking, and you are very difficult to persuade, along with being a very convincing liar. In many ways, it is like losing a sense that I have always relied on.”

“And, that’s a good thing?”

“At first, I was just frustrated that I could not get you to behave the way I wanted you to,” she conceded with an annoyed flick of her tail. “Polars are not usually so…belligerent. But, there is something to be said for it. Everything that comes out of your mouth is a surprise to me, and I am not accustomed to that. Nor am I accustomed to having to fight so hard to get what I want.”

“Well, humans usually interpret lying and manipulation as hostility,” he replied. “That said…I think I’m starting to get where you’re coming from. If you had been successful, we would have avoided our fight, and I wouldn’t be walking around with a busted arm right now.”

They walked in silence for a while, some of the tension that had been building up over the last few days dissolving. It felt good to just talk to someone, even Lorza. As much as they had fought and argued, they had gotten to know each other intimately. They had been through a lot of shit, roughed it together, survived together. Maybe he should give her more credit and tone down the jibes and teasing. It wasn’t helping him blow off steam anymore – it just made him feel bad.

“What about you?” Boyd asked, making small talk. “What’s the life of a surveyor like?”

“Oh, nothing so exciting,” she chuckled. “I am just a cartographer. I make maps, usually of unexplored stellar bodies like this one. I help find minerals and useful resources for exploitation. The corporation that controls Hades would have contracted a survey ship like the Zemchug to determine its viability as a colony.”

“I don’t think that’s uninteresting,” he insisted. “You told me that leaving Borealis is what made you want to get out on your own and see the Galaxy, right? That sounds like a good way to do it. You’ve probably seen more planets than I have – more than most humans alive.”

She seemed taken aback, stooping down to his level to give him another appreciative look.

“You really were listening? I thought…never mind,” she said with a shake of her head. “Yes, I have been all over the local sphere, though few of the planets that I visited were habitable. Ninety percent of worlds are just gas giants or barren terrestrial planets, but sometimes, we find one that can support life and has exploitable resources. There is joy in discovery – there is beauty even in the lava flows and craters of lifeless worlds – but to discover new life is something profound. Even though I never set foot on the surface, observing from space is still wonderful.”

“How many planets have you discovered that have life?” Boyd asked, genuinely intrigued now.

“One,” she replied, raising a clawed finger.

“Out of how many?”

“Perhaps forty,” she said. “They are rare, which is what makes them so valuable. All stellar bodies have resources – the question is merely whether they are profitable to exploit. Habitable words, however, are like seeds from which civilization can sprout. The bonuses for locating one are considerable.”

“That’s cool,” Boyd mused. “One day, there might be cities on a planet that you discovered.”

“Not likely,” she chuckled. “It was a tidally locked planet ravaged by hellish storms, but it had microbial blooms that could be seen from space. Beautiful in its own way.”

“Hang on,” Boyd added. “You’re telling me that just a few years ago, you were living a hunter-gatherer’s lifestyle, but now you’re qualified for planetary surveying? How did that happen?”

“We were given grants to attend universities in the nearest cities – near being a relative term,” she explained. “Lessons on language and culture were common, but we were also permitted to pursue higher education if we so chose. I wanted so badly to explore the Galaxy, and becoming a cartographer was my best chance.”

“I’m impressed that you were able to adapt so quickly. Going from living in wooden shacks to working on a spaceship can’t have been a smooth transition.”

“We had a writing system before you humans arrived,” she replied, turning her nose up at the suggestion. “We had a culture that valued learning, and a rich social system. I was drawing maps and studying the land long before I ever set foot on a spaceship. Those skills were easier to translate to work on a survey vessel than you might imagine.”

They emerged onto ice again, the snow giving way to a vast, blue expanse. Boyd glanced at the floor beneath his feet apprehensively, but they were safe now, and he suppressed the instinctive fear that rose up within him. The only place he was going to see those spinning lights again was in his dreams.

“So,” Lorza continued, her sharp claws giving her good purchase on the ice. “Do you have any good stories about your assignments? We have a lot of time to pass, and it would be fun to hear about the exciting life of a spy.”

“Most of the interesting stories are classified,” he replied. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

He had intended it as a joke, but it must have been an expression that she hadn’t heard before, her eyes widening.

“I didn’t mean it,” he chuckled as he gestured for the alarmed Polar to calm down. “It’s a joke – it’s from an old movie or something. I wouldn’t really kill you.”

“Oh, fair enough,” she replied with a relieved smile. “You humans like your movies. Sometimes, you have conversations that are nothing but references to them – it is impossible for me to follow.”

“You must have seen some movies, though,” Boyd insisted. “I don’t know how anyone could study human language and culture but never come across one, even in passing. I expect they made you watch them in your classes, right?”

“Well…a few,” she admitted, shrugging her shoulders. “I had a human friend in Russia who would watch them endlessly. We shared a room while I was studying cartography and she was getting her doctorate. She pored over those things, and I had the misfortune of overhearing much of it. She went on to become a doctor in the UNN, I believe.”

“And, you never wanted to join the Navy yourself?” Boyd asked. His boots slipped on the ice, and he almost fell, but Lorza reached out to steady him with surprising speed. “Thanks,” he muttered, regaining his footing. “That’s usually the go-to route for people who have their head in the clouds, anyway. They put see the Galaxy on their recruitment posters for a reason – there’s no better way for some muddy nineteen-year-old to go on a space adventure.”

“No,” she replied with an adamant shake of her head. “I wanted to explore planets, not fight on them.”

“It’s not all fighting, you know. There are plenty of humanitarian career paths in the UNN that don’t involve shooting an XMR or flying a Penguin on bombing runs.”

“It is not for me.”

***

They chatted on and off for the rest of their walk, their mutual animosity fading as they shared stories of the places they had been and the exotic planets they had explored. The sun eventually began to dip below the flat horizon, and they were forced to locate another cave where they could spend the night, climbing down into a shimmering cavern of blue ice. This one was spacious, carved out by water that had melted its way through a glacier, the translucent walls refracting the beam from Boyd’s flashlight to create an azure glow. Lorza’s eyes reflected it, too, making them shine in the dark like those of a cat.

She wasted no time laying out her massive sleeping bag while Boyd began to set up his cooking implements. Once more, he retrieved a suitable cut of meat, then unfolded his portable stove. He ignited another hexamine tablet with one of the precious storm matches, then set the frozen meat on top, waiting for it to thaw. It soon began to cook, Boyd prodding it and turning it over with a fork, the cave starting to fill with its scent.

Lorza was sitting on her sleeping bag beside him, her arms crossed over her knees, watching the cooking flesh with longing glances. Boyd knew from experience that when you were starving, everything tasted good. Hunger was nature’s own seasoning. Even this rubbery, fatty meat with its unappetizing appearance gave off a smell that made his mouth water in anticipation. Now that his alien companion had finished digesting the monstrous meal that she had eaten the day before, the hunger was starting to get to her again, and her sensitive nose must make the smell all the more tormenting. To her credit, she had made no requests of him, and she had made no more attempts to steal food in spite of the temptation that she was no doubt enduring.

Boyd flipped the meat over, exposing the browned skin on the other side, the hot metal imprinting on it like a grill. It sizzled, leaking juices, just about ready to eat. He took the piece off the stove and skewered it on his knife, suspending it for a minute or two to let it cool in the cold air.

“Hey, Lorza,” he said. “Catch.”

Startled, she snatched the cut of meat out of the air as he tossed it to her, her claws hooking into its tender flesh. She looked to him for confirmation, surprised by his sudden act of generosity, her ears pricking up attentively.

“Go on,” he added with a nod. “It’s yours. I brought way too much meat to eat on my own anyway, and we’ll be out of here in a couple of days. Might as well share it, or it’ll just go to waste.”

“You really are full of surprises, Boyd,” she chuckled. She dug in, a smile brightening her face as she bit into the succulent meat, taking her time now rather than wolfing down pounds of it without even pausing to chew. Boyd rose to his feet, then headed out of the cave to fetch another portion from his pack, brushing the snow off his suit as he returned to set it down on the stove.

“How is it?” Boyd asked as he sat down beside her, tending to his meal. “Does it meet the high standards of a ship’s cook?”

“It is not bad,” she replied over a mouthful. She paused to swallow, then licked the juice from her lips, inspecting the cut as she held it in her claws. “It is certainly more palatable cooked, I can tell you this for sure. If we had some seasonings, I might even be able to make a meal of this. I could stew it with some vegetables – that might help dull its salty flavor.”

She finished off her portion with a few more large bites as Boyd cooked his share, removing his hood and blowing on the steaming meat before taking a bite. It was indeed salty – and chewy – but there was something to be said for eating an animal that you had brought down yourself. Cooking game meat over a naked flame out in the wilds was a primal experience that was oddly satisfying.

“You can have more if you like,” he said, noting that the hungry Polar was watching him again. “I know that wasn’t enough to satisfy you. There’s plenty to go around, but don’t go crazy, alright? We don’t want a repeat of the MRE incident.”

She hesitated for a moment, then rose from the sleeping bag, lumbering over to the mouth of the cave. When she returned, she was carrying another portion from the meat sled, and she set it down on the ice beside the stove.

“Is this okay?”

He nodded, so she sat back down on the sleeping bag beside him, waiting patiently for him to finish cooking his helping.

“In a way, it is nice not having to worry about the food spoiling,” she mused as she watched him turn his cut of meat over. “One could eat off the floor here if they were so inclined. Checking the dates on cans and packets was a constant preoccupation on the Zemchug. The best foods rarely last long.” She was silent for a little while as Boyd ate his steak, then he began to cook her next serving, her tail starting to flick back and forth indecisively. “And…your wounds?” she asked hesitantly. “They are healing well? There has been no infection?”

Boyd had seldom heard her sound so remorseful, and he turned his head to look up at her, her round ears drooping as she averted her gaze.

“I’m fine, Lorza,” he insisted. “Really. You gave me a good scar to remember you by, but they can clean that up in an afternoon at a UNN medical facility. My arm will be fine – the cast is doing its job. How about you? I got in a few good shots with my knife. How’s your hand?”

“We heal quickly,” she replied with a shrug. “I had almost forgotten about it.”

He gestured for her to give him her hand, and after a moment, she complied. It was huge, so large that she could probably have encompassed his head in her fist, her fingers almost as thick around as his wrist. The pink pads on her fingertips protruded from her white fur, and each digit was tipped with a shining, black hook. They were still dripping with juices from the meat, the fur around them stained yellow by the squid’s fluids. Gently, he brought his fingers to her palm, inspecting the area where he had stabbed her during their fight. He had to dig for it, but he soon found the wound – little more than a knitted scar now. Curious, he splayed his fingers, finding that they barely spanned her palm. Her coat was surprisingly thick – he could feel how soft it was even through his gloves.

The meat smelled ready, so he released her, turning back to the stove. He speared the steak on his knife, then handed it to her, Lorza hooking the steaming cut with her claws. Interestingly, they seemed to let her handle hot food without burning herself.

“Consider it a peace offering,” he said, giving her arm a reassuring pat. “We’re square, Lorza. We both got in some good hits, and we both made complete asses of ourselves. I’ve been in drunken brawls that ended in more serious injuries – believe me.”

“You are no longer angry with me, then?” she asked as she poised with her steak suspended near her lips.

“No more than I’m angry with myself for letting things escalate as far as they did,” he replied.

“I am glad this thing is dead,” she snarled, taking an especially savage bite. She sank her carnivore teeth into the dark flesh, tearing a chunk away. “It killed Alexei,” she added through her mouthful. “And we killed it right back.”

“Yeah, that’ll be a story to tell over a few drinks when I get back to civilization,” Boyd chuckled.

“How did you know the grenade would work?” Lorza asked, turning her attention back to him. “What if the creature had merely spat it back out? How did you know that your cast would prevent it from severing your arm?”

“I didn’t,” he admitted with a shrug, taking another wet bite of his steak. “I just had to think on my feet and hope the risk paid off, and this time, it did.”

“Are these kinds of risks…normal in your line of work?”

“We’re not expected to fight alien squid monsters with our bare hands on a daily basis,” he replied. “But, we do have to keep our cool in deadly situations, and we often have to come up with creative solutions to problems. We improvise and adapt because there’s nobody on the line to give us orders or to pull our asses out of the fire when we’re operating undercover – there’s no backup coming. Fighting that thing was only the third time I’ve almost died this week,” he added with a bitter laugh that made Lorza cock her head at him.

“That sounds lonely,” she said, finishing the last bite of her steak. She paused to clean the fur on her fingers with her barbed tongue, Boyd pausing to watch the glistening, pink muscle wind its way around her digits. It was longer than he had realized – and she had remarkable control over it. “Living undercover means never forming real relationships, never being able to truly trust anyone. How do you deal with that?”

Boyd chewed on another mouthful of squid meat as he considered his reply. He was usually so bent on completing his mission that he didn’t take the time to stop and think about how living a life of carefully concocted lies impacted him socially. There was scant little time between assignments to build meaningful connections – it wasn’t like he got weekends off – and opening up to the wrong person could mean being killed on the spot. His entire life was classified – he couldn’t even talk about his job without putting other people in danger.

“I guess you just get used to it after a while,” he finally said. “You don’t have a choice.”

“Well, I think we make a good team,” Lorza added with a smirk. “Maybe you need a partner.”

“You know what? Sure,” he laughed as he finished his steak. “I could use a partner, at least in my present situation.”

When they were done with their meal, the cold began to creep in, nightfall sending the temperature plummeting. Boyd shivered, glancing down at his suit’s display to see that it was flashing a low battery warning. Lorza unzipped her sleeping bag and flung it open, patting the soft padding in invitation.

“Bedtime,” she declared. “There is more room now,” she added, patting her stomach. “You will not have to be so close to me.”

There wasn’t much left of the hexamine tablet, and its wavering flame was providing enough light to see by, so he decided to let it burn out. Lorza wormed her way into the sleeping bag, her white fur painted orange by the little fire, holding it open for Boyd expectantly.

This time, he crawled in beside her without hesitation, Lorza closing the zipper to seal him in as he lay down next to her on the plush padding. Despite her promise, they were still pressed tightly together in the limited space, her paunchy body affording him little room to breathe. Even when he turned away from her, he could feel her bosom spilling over his shoulders, her soft belly almost enveloping his lower body. Somehow, he found her proximity less unpleasant now. Her warmth and the feeling of her soft fat pressing against him through his suit was relaxing rather than bothersome, the heat that she radiated and the gentle flickering of the hexamine tablet mingling in his tired brain to give the impression that they were sleeping beside a crackling campfire. He would see trees again once they got out here – he would walk on grass, hear the chirping of birds, and feel the warmth of a star beating down on his skin.

Lorza shifted a little, trying to get comfortable, the considerable weight of her breasts rocking against him from behind.

“Sorry,” she murmured, glancing down at him apologetically. “Just settling in.”

“It’s fine,” he muttered.

They had slept together every night since the crash, so why was it so different now? Why did it make him feel…embarrassed? Perhaps their newfound friendship had made it feel more intimate than it had the previous times, when they had both been driven by necessity. Being squashed together like two peas in a pod, the comforting scent of her body invading his rebreather, breasts that rivaled his rucksack in size pouring around his neck and shoulders like a wobbling travel pillow – it made him oddly self-conscious. Had their relationship changed so much since the fight with the squid? Maybe he saw her more as a person now, rather than as the alien that she had once been.

Lorza pressed a little closer, seeming to notice the conspicuous lack of complaints and insults.

“Something wrong, Boyd?” she whispered. There was that sensation again, her warm breath blowing against his suit, her lips a scant inch from his ear.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he mumbled in reply, staring intently at the wavering flame in a futile attempt to take his mind off the butterflies that were swarming in his belly. “I guess I’m just tired. We made really good time today – shouldn’t be more than a day or two before we reach the refinery now. Keep your eye on the horizon, and you might spot it. The terrain is pretty flat, and the atmosphere is thin.”

He felt one of her long arms curl around him, and she tugged him a little closer for warmth, sinking him even deeper into the meat of her bosom. The fluffy fur that escaped her collar brushed against the back of his hood, and he felt her chin rest on his head.

“You feel tense,” she murmured, the way that her voice resonated through him making him stiffen. “Try to relax. You will need the rest, as we have a long way to travel yet, malish.”

She said it more like a nickname than an insult this time, and he chuckled to himself.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m a naked kitten, and you’re a Persian rug.”

“I will have to purchase one of these rugs when I return to Siberia,” she mused. “I want to see what all the fuss is about.”

As he started to get comfortable, he realized that he was leaning into her voluntarily, treating her chest like a pillow. Could he actually be enjoying her company? As shocking as the realization might be, and despite all of their arguing and fighting, he had gradually become accustomed to her as he had adapted to this new situation. They had spent so much time together – more time than he had spent alone with anyone in a very long time – that he had gotten used to her presence. Her alien scent, the feeling of her body pressed tightly against his, even the sound of her voice no longer irritated him.

For the first time since they had crashed on the moon, that feeling of isolation was no longer gripping him. How long had it been since he had been able to open up to someone outside of UNNI? He had been lying for so long that telling the truth about who he was – letting anyone get close to him emotionally – was almost a revelation. Lorza now understood him in ways that few people outside of the agency could. She had shared in his experiences, in his triumphant highs and his lowest lows. She could be insightful, even funny in a kind of dry way when she wanted to be, and…

He heard Lorza snore – she was already asleep. Slowly so as not to wake her, he turned around to face her, finding himself at eye-level with her chest. The fat that she had put on from her squid meal had really filled her out, and now, she couldn’t even zip up her coveralls all the way. The extra weight had forced her to leave a little of it open, exposing more of the fluffy fur. Boyd’s face reddened behind his mask as he caught himself glancing down into the beginnings of her cleavage, the velvet-soft meat of her breasts squashed together inside her clothing, the dancing firelight creating a deep and tantalizing shadow. The garment was barely staying closed – he could see the way that it was fighting against their weight, threatening to spill its heaving contents at the slightest provocation. Her breathing was deep and regular, the gentle rise and fall of her chest making her assets wobble softly, their proximity giving Boyd no choice but to press into them as they lapped against his chest like surf. One of her arms was still draped over his waist, a belly that rivaled her bosom in girth and softness resting against his groin in a way that was impossible for him to avoid. They were practically spooning – he was closer to Lorza than he’d been to another woman in months. It wasn’t like his job afforded him many opportunities for courting.

He swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to ignore the floral, feminine scent that was invading his senses with each breath. It was a scent that he now associated with warmth, with comfort, the Polar conditioning him like Pavlov’s damned dog. Tearing his gaze away from her chest, he turned to lie on his back, staring intently at the ceiling. He tried to go over the journey ahead in his mind, planning out what he might do if the refinery was staffed, what kind of cover story he might concoct. No matter how hard he tried, his usually clinical, analytical mind was in a tailspin.

Boyd closed his eyes and tried to banish the intrusive and inappropriate thoughts that his subconscious spewed forth, attempting to ignore the involuntary swelling in his loins as he fell into a troubled sleep.

***

Lorza draped her long arm over Boyd’s shoulders as she walked beside him in the snow. It was another fine day, the skies clear, the wind not quite fast enough to whip up more than a few stray flecks of powder. Her limb was surprisingly heavy, packed with iron muscle beneath the layer of blubber, her high-gravity bones like concrete. He sagged, and she chuckled at him, removing her arm.

“What is wrong, malish?” she asked. “You have been quieter than usual today. You are not growing bored of me, I hope?”

He shook his head, and that seemed to satisfy her. She had certainly warmed to him after their conversation the night before. Now, she was being far friendlier towards him, and she wouldn’t keep her hands to herself. He might have resented it before, but that was no longer the case, he just didn’t know how to respond to her new familiarity. The alien’s concept of personal space and appropriate social interaction might differ a great deal from his own. Strangely, the more he took her otherness into account, the less it bothered him.

“You know, I could carry that for you,” Lorza said as she gestured to the sled that he was dragging behind him. “It would probably be easier for me than it looks for you.”

“I’m good, don’t worry about me,” he replied. “Just keep your eyes on the horizon and tell me if you see the refinery. They’re a lot better than mine.” He glanced down at the display on his wrist, then at Hades as it hung in the sky, checking the coordinates. “It should be visible pretty soon, especially in these conditions.”

“This night might be the last one that we spend in a cave,” Lorza said, patting his back with a hand the size of a dinner plate. It was almost strong enough to knock him off balance. “I suppose you will be happy to sleep in a real bed without my fur in your face. You can enjoy a meal made from something that did not try to eat you first.”

“If I can sleep in a muddy foxhole with Bug chemical shells raining down over my head, then I can get used to sharing a sleeping bag with you,” he said as he lugged his sled over another snowdrift. “It’s not as bad as I’ve been making out.”

“Perhaps you can sleep with one of those Persian rugs to preserve my memory,” she chuckled.

“I’d have to roll it up and stuff it with beach balls, or it won’t feel the same.”

She patted his head, pushing him a little deeper into the snow like a tent peg.

“Be careful, malish, or you will have to enjoy the remainder of our journey from the inside of my rucksack.” She noticed that he had sunk up to his knees in the white powder, gripping him by the collar like she was scruffing a kitten, lifting him up and placing him back on the snow. “I do not know how you will survive without me,” she said, giving him a sly smile.

“Come on, let’s keep up the pace,” he grumbled as he kicked some of the snow off his boot. “I don’t want to rest until I see that man-made structure come into view. I don’t care if I never see snow again – I just want to feel metal under my feet.”

“You know, I think I may visit somewhere more temperate when I return to Earth. This weather is enough to make even a Polar long for warmth. I hear Toronto is nice in the winter months.”

“Canada is temperate for you?” Boyd asked, shooting her a skeptical glance.

“Notice the fur?” she asked sarcastically. “I am not going anywhere tropical on vacation. It is a mystery to me why you humans seem to enjoy exposing yourselves to solar radiation. Burning your epidermis is a fashion statement to you.”

“You saying you don’t appreciate a sun-kissed tan?” Boyd said, Lorza turning her nose up at him when she realized he was making fun of her.

“You will not appreciate the cancer, is my point.”

They trekked for a while longer, Boyd’s boots crunching in the crisp snow, the going made harder by the ups and downs of the drifts and the occasional patch of uncovered ice. Lorza had no such problems – she was built for this. Her wide paws stopped her from sinking into the snowdrifts, and her claws gripped the ice to prevent her from slipping. Where before she had let the smaller human struggle and fend for himself, she helped him along now, steadying him when he lost his balance and helping him mount the steeper slopes.

She seemed to hold no grudges, and she was remarkably forgiving of the way he had treated her. Then again, Boyd felt the same way. They had worked through their differences, and now they were square. There was no reason to dwell on the past, as fresh as some of their scars might be, both literal and figurative.

Lorza stopped at the peak of one of the drifts, holding her hand to her brow to shield her eyes from the sun, then he heard her cry out in excitement.

“I see it! Boyd, I can see it!”

He scrambled up the incline to join her, practically dropping to all-fours for purchase as he climbed, coming to a stop beside her. He could see it too – the refinery’s storage tanks and towers rising up above the horizon, hazy like a mirage.

“That’s it! That’s the refinery!” he exclaimed as he pumped a fist into the air. “We can’t be more than a day’s walk away now!”

Lorza swept him up in her arms, lifting him off the snow and pressing him tightly against her chest as she spun him around in celebration. They became tangled in the makeshift rope that he had used to drag his sled, tying Lorza’s legs together and sending the pair toppling to the snow in a puff of powder. Boyd found himself lying atop the Polar, his fall broken by the soft cushion of her bosom, his face pressing into the fluffy cleavage beneath her open zipper. Like a sea mammal surfacing for air, he lifted his head away, her enticing scent lingering in his rebreather. Lorza laughed heartily as she struggled to untangle herself, the motion making her assets wobble. After a moment, she gave up and flopped back onto the snow, spreading her arms as though she was making a snow angel as she caught her breath. She glanced down at Boyd, who was now red-faced, straddling her belly like a space hopper.

“You are not half bad at navigating, malish. You might make a fine cartographer one day.”

Boyd struggled to lift himself off her, but his hands merely sank into her yielding flesh wherever he tried to find purchase, like he was crawling across a waterbed. Lorza stifled her laughter as he inadvertently tickled her, reaching behind his back to unclip the tether from his belt loop. She untangled him, then took him by the arm, rolling him off her. He landed in the snow beside her, then rose to his feet, brushing the melting powder off his suit’s circuits. He gave her a look of disapproval, but she responded with another infectious laugh. He didn’t have the heart to scold her, nor could he suppress his smile. Freedom was in sight, and maybe they needed a little levity after everything that they had been through over the last few days.

He tried to help her up, then thought better of it, the Polar smirking at him as she sat upright. She tossed him the end of his tether, then nodded in the direction of the refinery.

“Lead on, mister Boyd.”

CHAPTER 8: HONEYPOT

The sun was getting low, painting the sky in shades of red and orange that were reflected in the snow, silhouetting their destination in its glow. The refinery was growing larger by the hour, and now, it was close enough for them to see the shafts of sunlight that penetrated its many pipes and catwalks. Boyd could make out the storage tanks, the cooling towers for the fission reactors, and even the ice drilling platforms that extended deep into the moon’s subsurface ocean.

Water ice was a valuable commodity. Having it in both solid and liquid form, along with free oxygen to siphon from the atmosphere, made the moon an ideal location. Humans breathed oxygen, they drank water, and hydrogen was what fueled conventional spaceship engines. All of them could be sourced right here.

Wherever there was a colony or an outpost, there would be an ice refinery on a nearby stellar body, if not on the planet itself. Asteroids, comets, gas giants, and frozen moons like this one all contained water ice in abundance. It could be broken down into its component elements through a process known as thermochemical cracking, where it was heated by a nuclear reactor to the point that the hydrogen and oxygen atoms were separated. This one must have been placed here by ExoCorp to supply Hades with fuel and drinking water, and to resupply the ships that docked at the planet’s orbital station. With any luck, it would be manned by civilian workers, or it might be completely automated. The possibility of Syndicate stooges taking control of the facility couldn’t be ruled out, but it wasn’t as if they had any other options. Better to keep his concerns to himself so as not to put a damper on Lorza’s good mood.

“We should find a place to take shelter soon,” he said. “Though, I’m loathe to stop when our destination is this close. I feel like I could reach out and touch it.”

“There are plenty of small ice caves around here,” Lorza replied. “We have enough food to last us for days, and there are no monsters on our tail, so there is no need to hurry. We can take a break, and you can cook us up some supper.”

“All you think about is food,” Boyd chided, the Polar patting her belly in response.

“I must keep the engine running.”

“Granted, you’re starving, but I still feel like you’re the only person who appreciates my cooking.”

“Does your wife not enjoy your cooking?” Lorza asked, glancing back at him over her shoulder as she stepped over a patch of ice.

“Don’t have one,” he replied, lugging his sled along. “I couldn’t in my line of work.”

“Poor Boyd,” she cooed, putting on an exaggerated pout. “No mate to cook for him, so he must eat his own terrible food. Lorza will have to teach him.”

“You’re going to teach me to cook?” he chuckled incredulously.

“Of course,” she replied, placing a hand on her chest proudly. “We Polars are natural-born chefs, and I was the ship’s cook, if you had forgotten. When we get off this moon, I shall have you making borscht like a true babushka in no time. Then, you can woo a mate.”

“Oh, is that my problem?” Boyd chuckled. “I would have taken a class if I’d known that was all it took.”

“There is a human adage that shows uncharacteristic wisdom,” she continued, raising a finger into the air as though sermonizing. “The path to the heart is through the stomach. This is true for my people also. Literally – the stomach is the organ that Polars associate with emotion, not the heart.”

“I can barely contain my surprise,” he replied.

“Food is central to our culture,” she continued, ignoring his sarcasm. “Hunting together reinforces our social bonds, and preparing the kill brings us together. When the whole pack feasts at the same table and shares the fruits of their labor, we grow as a family. After all, what greater expression of love can there be than sharing resources when they are scarce – to go hungry for the sake of another?”

Boyd hadn’t really thought about it in that light before, but for a species that lived in such harsh conditions, such a simple gesture could hold great meaning for them. No wonder she had appreciated him sharing the squid meat.

“How about you?” Boyd asked, crossing the patch of blue ice gingerly as he extended his arms for balance. “Is there a Mister Persian rug waiting for you back home?”

“Borealans do not pair off in the way that humans do,” she replied. “Well, when we are trying to mate, we sometimes have exclusive partners for a time. Generally speaking, all members of a pack and sometimes members of that pack’s community will lie with one another freely. There is no stigma associated with seeking love and affection in such a way.”

“Sounds like some kind of commune,” Boyd muttered.

“Humans are monogamous, and they are said to pair for life,” Lorza replied. “In my experience, this claim is rarely true. I have known them to have multiple partners in sequence and even to seek out new mates in secret. Some who visit the Siberian colony quickly find that our way of approaching relationships suits them far better.”

That was certainly something to think about – a whole village of Lorzas. Just one of them was more than he could handle.

“So…you’ve never met anyone that you really liked?” he asked. “Does it even work that way for you?”

“Oh, sure,” she said as she helped him over another patch of slippery ice. “We have favorites. I have never found a mate, though. Not in the way that a human would understand the concept.”

“And…have you ever been with a human?” Boyd asked hesitantly, trying to phrase the question in a way that sounded less suggestive. “I hear stories about Equatorials from the Marines – word is they get up to a lot when they’re off-duty. If people are visiting your colony…”

“Why? Are you interested in being my first?”

She laughed at him as he shook his head vehemently.

“No, I’m just curious,” he insisted as he raised his hands defensively. “It’s not every day that I get to have a heart-to-heart with an alien.”

“I have never laid with a human,” she replied, her openness surprising him. “There was one who interested me,” she added, seeming to reminisce. “A boy who I met while I was studying in the city. He was cute, and we hit it off, as you would say. We shared many classes, and I could sense that he had little experience with women. He liked me, though. Perhaps talking to an eight-foot alien was less intimidating than talking to a female of his own species,” she chuckled. “One night, he accompanied me back to my dorm. I had told him that I needed help with my studies, but it was a pretense to get him alone, of course.”

“What happened?” Boyd asked.

“I propositioned him, but he said no,” she replied with a shrug. “Not all humans are so accepting of aliens in that way.”

“His loss,” Boyd said, Lorza giving him a sideways glance.

“Why do you say that?”

“He passed up an opportunity to try something unique,” Boyd explained. “I doubt he’ll get that chance again. You should always seize the moment and try new things. Even if you end up not liking them, at least you can say that you gave them a fair shake.”

She reached over and gently punched his shoulder. She was being playful, but she was still strong enough to knock him off balance, the Polar grinning at him as he stumbled.

“I did not expect such wisdom from you, malish. What about you? Ever been subjected to a night with an Equatorial?”

“Can’t say that I have,” he replied, shaking his head. “It probably comes as no surprise to you, but there aren’t many positions suitable for Equatorials in my profession. They’re not exactly the most subtle or tactful operatives. Why do you phrase it like that, by the way? Are they really that bad?”

“Worse,” she said with a sordid chuckle. “They make love like they fight – there is a winner and a loser, and they give no quarter.”

“What about Polars?” Boyd asked, shooting her a curious glance that she answered with a smile.

“We put a little more thought and care into it than that,” she replied. “For us, making love is a social experience, one that we use to reinforce bonds between members of a community. There is little distinction between a friend and a lover.” She paused the thought, gesturing past him with a clawed finger. “Look – a cave opening. We should stop here and get some rest.”

Boyd nodded in agreement, somewhat relieved by the change of subject, and they changed course as they headed towards the mouth of the cave. This one was a little more cramped than the last, the ceiling low enough that Lorza had to duck, but there was just enough room to lie down in one of the shallower chambers. Before long, Lorza had laid out the sleeping bag, and Boyd was cooking up another portion of squid steaks.

He flipped the cut of meat over, watching it sizzle, its scent filling the little cave. If he could forget the mobsters who were out for his blood and the man-eating squids that filled the subsurface ocean beneath their feet, it was almost cozy. Maybe he should take a well-earned vacation once he got back to civilization – do a little camping.

Lorza hovered beside him, eyeing the browning meat, licking her chops as Boyd turned it with his ceramic knife.

“If only we had something warm to drink,” she muttered. “We could boil some snow, yes, but I would fight another squid for a warm mug of sbiten.”

“The fuck is sbiten?” Boyd asked as he tended to the stove.

“It is a Russian drink,” she explained. “It is a kind of mulled wine, I suppose, made from a base of honey. They add ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and other spices. It is best served hot, like tea. Polars do not have much appreciation for sweet flavors like humans do, but we enjoy the drink’s other elements. It will warm one’s belly on a cold day.”

“Well, there were tea packets in the MREs,” Boyd said as he paused to glance at her. “But, you ate them.”

“Calories are calories,” she replied with a shrug.

“This one is nearly done,” Boyd added, flipping the steak over again. “Maybe a hot meal will warm you up just as well as…what was it?”

Sbiten,” she replied with a chuckle. Boyd handed the steak off to her, Lorza hooking it in her claws, steam rising from it in the chill air. She took a wet bite as he set another portion to cook, licking the juice from her chin with her prehensile tongue. Every time he saw the damned thing, it seemed to get longer.

“You do not give yourself enough credit, Boyd,” she sighed as she swallowed another mouthful. “This is like heaven. Perhaps it is the mild malnutrition talking, but I could eat this all night. We Polars like our meat oily.”

“Considering that I watched you put away about two hundred pounds of the stuff raw, I don’t doubt it,” he replied.

Lorza scooted a little closer on the plush sleeping bag, draping an arm over his shoulders and pulling him closer, Boyd feeling his head sink into one of her weighty breasts like a pillow.

“You know,” she began, pausing to saw off another piece of meat with her sharp teeth. “We are likely the only people who have ever laid eyes on one of these animals, let alone eaten one. We should name it!”

“Name it?” Boyd chuckled, trying to focus on his stove rather than the giant rack that was threatening to swallow his head.

“Yes,” she insisted. “We discovered it, so we should name it. That is customary, nyet?” She scratched her chin with one of her black claws as she considered. “”How about…ice devil?”

“Not bad, not bad,” Boyd mused as he prodded his steak. “Needs to sound more aquatic, though. What about an octo-stalker?”

“I know!” Lorza declared, bumping his head again in her enthusiasm. “Do you know of the Rainbow Spider?”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of it,” Boyd replied. “I assume you’re about to tell me all about it, though.”

“It is a huge predator that lives in the equatorial jungles of Borealis,” she explained, finishing off the last piece of her steak. “It is covered in beautiful, iridescent fur that refracts the light, hence its name. The Elysians especially see hunting one as a rite of passage for their warriors, and its pelt is often worn as capes or robes as a symbol of status. This creature was also colorful and dangerous,” she continued with a nod to his stove. “Why not name it a Rainbow Squid?”

“Fair enough,” Boyd conceded, blowing on his steak as he brought it to his mouth. He took a bite, juggling it around for a moment before continuing. “Rainbow squid it is, and this right here is Boyd’s home-cooked flame-grilled rainbow squid steak, patent pending.”

She laughed and brought her head down level with his, rubbing her fur against his cheek in a display of affection that surprised him. Without his hood, he was once again struck by how soft it was, her warm coat like velvet against his skin. Polars really were a tactile people – so much of their communication happened through touch. It had been alarming at first, but he was starting to grow accustomed to it now.

“Your suit is so warm,” she marveled. The Polar smirked to herself, then slid her hands around his torso, lifting him off the sleeping bag as though he was no larger than a child. He lurched as she planted him in her lap, crossing her arms around him and pulling him into a tight embrace. Her pudgy thighs made for an admirable seat, softer and more inviting than any recliner, and the paunch of her belly cushioned his lower back. Breasts that were each larger than his head spilled over his shoulders, barely contained by the much-suffering fabric of her coveralls, their considerable weight coming to rest on him. Even through the tough material of her work clothes, he could feel himself slowly sinking into them, as though her velvet-soft fat was trying to take a mold of his upper body. Even when he tried to wriggle away, all he succeeded in doing was sinking another couple of warm, yielding inches. “If only you could keep it turned on overnight,” she said, a pleasant shiver sliding down his spine as he felt her warm breath blow his hair. “It would be so nice.”

He finished off his steak, blushing in earnest, her gentle breathing making him all the more aware of her breasts as he felt their weight shift. She lay her chin on his head as she watched the fire dance beneath the little stove, Boyd practically wearing her like a coat, enveloped in fluffy fur and cushy fat. It was oddly relaxing – that was impossible to deny – the cold all but driven away by their combined heat. It felt…good to be held, as strange as that realization made him feel, and he thanked his stars that she couldn’t see his burning face from that high angle.

“You are quieter than usual,” Lorza mumbled, lifting her furry chin from his head. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m just…relaxed.”

“I know that some humans do not like to be touched, but we are friends now, da?”

“I don’t mind you touching me,” he said, not really stopping to think about what he was saying.

“I think that you would be a credit to any pack that would have you,” she added. It was an oddly off-hand comment, and he peered up at her as she looked down at him with her blue eyes.

“Yeah? Why do you say that?”

“I think that you are a Polar at heart,” she explained, Boyd feeling her grip on him grow tighter. “You are a survivor, and you take care of your own. At least, once you have learned who your allies are,” she chuckled as she ruffled his hair affectionately with a giant hand.

“I guess the way to your heart really is through your stomach,” he said, and she laughed at him.

They sat in silence for a while, watching the flickering of the flame, Boyd feeling an unfamiliar tension growing within his chest. There was nowhere that he could rest his hands, nowhere he could sit where he wasn’t in contact with Lorza. He was acutely aware of the way that his fingers sank into the supple, doughy meat of her thighs, and how the weight of her chest leaned on his shoulders. Fuck, his head was practically nestled between her breasts, every subtle motion making them quiver.

He couldn’t stand it any longer, and he struggled out of her lap. Escaping her inviting flesh was as difficult as pulling himself out of quicksand, his hands sinking into her wherever he tried to find purchase, but he succeeded in climbing to his feet.

“What is the matter?” Lorza asked, cocking her head at him.

“I just…bathroom break.”

He hurried off down one of the side tunnels, Lorza watching him with a quizzical expression. Once he had broken line of sight, he leaned against one of the cold ice walls. Hoping that it might have the same effect as taking a cold shower, he tapped at his display, lowering his suit’s temperature. His chest felt so tight – what the hell was wrong with him? He had endured her teasing, and he had resisted her attempts to get under his skin for days, but her genuine shows of affection were burning through his defenses like a hot knife. This wasn’t a form of interrogation – he couldn’t deal with this in the same way.

Did he like her?

He felt his heart skip a beat, his breath catching in his throat as the realization dizzied him. It felt like someone was inflating his heart with a bicycle pump, and it was about to explode. What the hell was he supposed to do now? He struggled to compose himself, drawing on the training that let him keep his head on straight in a firefight, but it was somehow even more difficult to focus. Frustrated, he tore his hood off and took a few gulps of fresh, frigid air. Logically, his mask wasn’t stopping him from breathing, but it was an illogical impulse.

The bite of the cold helped calm him a little, enough that he could put on a stoic front again, but how long would that last? The thought of sharing a sleeping bag with her again, as permissive and affectionate as she had become, filled him with a blend of dread and anticipation that made his mouth dry out. He had to do something about this. Could he endure her company for just one more night? Once they got back to civilization, there would be no further need to sleep together, no reason to be in such close proximity. Maybe that was the issue – they had become too familiar, and it was all starting to feel too normal.

He had to stick it out. In just a few more hours, it wouldn’t matter anymore, and she’d have no way of knowing about his temporary lapse. Lying was his job, playing a role was his profession, and this was no different.

Boyd took a few more moments to compose himself, doing a breathing exercise usually reserved for far more dire situations, then slid his hood back over his head. When he made his way back up the tunnel, he found Lorza waiting for him, her blue eyes and her fluffy ears tracking him as he returned to sit beside her. The silence seemed to bug her, so she broke it.

“Boyd,” she began, giving him a concerned look. “I may not be able to read you as easily as I can other humans, but I know you well enough by now to realize when you are acting out of character. You have been behaving strangely all day. Did I do something to upset you?”

“It’s nothing like that, just some digestive issues from the squid meat,” he replied with a dismissive shake of his head. “Listen, Lorza – we only have one night left before we’re off this rock, right? What do you say we get some sleep? I’m exhausted from all the walking we’ve been doing, and the sooner we pass out, the sooner we can be up and moving again.”

“Yes…alright,” she replied, sounding unconvinced.

He had to admit, he wasn’t doing a very good job of concealing his emotions. Somehow, trying to hide the way he was starting to feel about her was so much more difficult than what he had been trained for. He felt as though he couldn’t look her in the eye, or she’d know.

Boyd lurched suddenly as he felt her giant, fluffy tail wind around his waist, the Polar dragging him into her waiting arms. She planted him in her lap again, enclosing him in a cocoon of flesh and fur, his head spinning as her familiar scent washed over him.

“At least share your heat if you are going to get all quiet on me, malish. It is getting colder – the sun must have set. Will you stop your wriggling?”

Boyd couldn’t escape her – she was too strong – so he gave in and let her manhandle him like an overly possessive girl with a new puppy. That pressure in his chest returned as he felt her soft, fluffy hands curl around his torso, the heft of her breasts coming to rest on his shoulders once more. All he could do was sit there and simmer quietly, not knowing how to object in a way that wouldn’t reveal the conflict that was raging within him.

“Your suit grows colder,” she murmured, loosening her grip on him as he breathed a silent sigh of relief into his mask. “You are running out of power, no? We should get into the sleeping bag, unless you want to become a Boyd popsicle.”

There was that blend of dread and anticipation again, Boyd nodding his head, Lorza letting him slide out of her grasp as she unzipped the sleeping bag. He tapped at his display, shutting down his suit to conserve what remained of its charge, feeling the tendrils of cold start to creep in. He turned to see Lorza lying snugly inside the bag, holding it open in invitation with one hand, her breasts squashing together under their own weight as she lay on her side.

“Come. I am letting the heat out.”

He steeled himself, then complied, lowering himself into the bag beside her. She closed it around them, then zipped it up, sealing him inside with her. Not wasting a moment, she scooped him up in her arm, tugging him close. She pressed him up against her voluptuous body, Boyd feeling himself sinking into her warm, soft flesh like she was draping a blanket over him. No matter what position he tried to shuffle into, he was always in contact with something round and squishy, her body heat already baking the inside of the bag.

It should have been no more uncomfortable than the previous nights – it wasn’t like had hadn’t endured this before – but she was being extra affectionate and handsy since she had declared them friends. She draped one of her long arms around his waist, her breasts practically consuming his right shoulder as she dragged him closer, pushing her face into the nape of his neck to nuzzle him like a cat.

“My people sleep in piles,” she explained, her hot breath blowing on his shoulder. “I am glad you warmed up to me, Boyd. I can relax around you now, and I sleep much more soundly when I can feel someone else close to me – their warmth, the sound of their heartbeat.”

Could she hear his heart pounding like a hammer with those sensitive ears? Her flowery scent was unavoidable, every breath that he took making his head spin, butterflies swarming in his belly. What the hell was wrong with him? He hadn’t felt this way since he was a damned teenager. Lorza seemed to notice, his face burning as she peeled back his hood, then gently pressed the back of her furry hand against his forehead as though she was checking his temperature.

“Are you sick?” she asked. “Your face is so warm.”

“N-no, I’m fine,” he stammered as he blinked back at her. “Just the stress getting to me, I guess.”

She hooked her clawed hand around the back of his head, sinking her fingers into his hair, and pulled him closer to bury his face in her furry bosom. He breathed in her scent without the filter of his mask, his heart quickening as she scratched his scalp, pleasant shivers rolling down his spine with each gentle prick of her claws. Her coat was impossibly soft against his cheeks – thick, silky, and luxuriant.

Were all Polars this affectionate with one another? Was this normal behavior for them? It was far from his first time sharing a bed with a woman, but he had never felt this kind of intimacy before. It was as if compassion was leaking from her very pores. He felt more wanted in that moment than he ever had, even in the heat of lovemaking. The sensation was confusing and exciting – it made him feel drunk. His head swam as he remembered what she had told him earlier – that there was no distinction between friends and lovers in her culture. Did that only apply to other Polars or to him, too?

“There you go, just relax,” she purred as her hypnotic stroking continued. Her hand was covered in fluffy fur, like she was wearing a mink glove, while her sharp claws felt like the teeth of a comb. “You are so tense tonight. We will be free of this place tomorrow. Get some rest.”

Her voice was soft and low, husky yet feminine, her breath tickling his skin as she murmured in his ear. He should pull his hood back up – put his rebreather back on, but he didn’t want it to end. Did she even know what she was doing to him? No, she couldn’t influence him like she could other humans – she had said so herself. Unbeknownst to her, years of training in resisting everything from persuasion to outright torture had steeled him against her wiles, but this was something different. He wanted this.

That pressure inside him was reaching its boiling point. He felt as if he might explode if he didn’t say something – anything. This would be their last night together, his last chance to act on these feelings. What was it he had said to her? You should seize the moment, let no opportunity pass you by, and never fear new experiences.

“Lorza,” he mumbled, his voice muffled by her silky fur.

“What is it?” she asked. “Are you finally going to tell me why you have been acting so strange tonight?”

“I…I think I might be attracted to you,” he admitted, speaking into her collar to avoid having to look her in the eye for fear that he might melt into a puddle. “What do we do about that?”

She released him from her embrace, looking down at him with an expression that was a blend of surprise and confusion. She was usually so snarky – she had a comeback for every scenario – but she was speechless now. His face burned as he stammered through the rest of his confession, each sentence making him feel more and more like he had made a grave mistake.

“It might sound dumb, but being stranded here with you – it’s the closest I’ve been to anyone in a long time. Maybe it’s because we’ve both been through the same shit, or maybe it’s because we’ve had no choice but to spend every waking moment together, but you might be the only person alive who knows me as intimately as you do. I’m a UNNI spook – I can’t even tell most people my real name. From the moment I met you, I’ve been lying to you, and it’s only gotten harder. Now, I feel like I can’t even look you in the eye without spilling my guts. What kind of a lousy spy does that make me?”

Her shocked expression softened, replaced by one that was warm and somehow hungry. She didn’t reply, but he got the impression that she was waiting for him to continue.

“Maybe I was only making fun of your figure and your fur because I was trying to deny how much I like it,” he continued. He was rambling now, his embarrassment welling as she scrutinized him with her piercing, blue gaze. “It was just a defense mechanism, I guess. I didn’t want you to know how much I looked forward to sleeping with you – I didn’t want to admit it to myself…”

She reached up to cup one of his burning cheeks in her hand, the delicate fur that covered her palm tickling his skin, tilting his head up so that she could see his face. His breath caught in his throat as she leaned down to press her lips against his. They were so much larger and fuller than those of a human, scaled up in proportion with her eight-foot stature, softer than he could ever have anticipated. As mismatched as they were, Lorza still found a way to lock them to his, subjecting him to a slow and gentle kiss. His heart skipped a beat as he felt the tip of that long, sinuous tongue probe his mouth, the Polar’s pace tentative and exploratory. She had never kissed a human before, and she was probing him, perhaps trying to figure out how much of it he could handle. The soft smacking sound of their embrace was amplified in the silence of the cave, Boyd’s eyelids fluttering as her deft tongue began to explore him.

Its heat surprised him, contrasting with the cool air that surrounded them, its surface slick with her saliva. She started with just the pointed tip, but as her confidence grew, she piled more of its fat coils into his mouth inch by glistening inch. The length of wet muscle twisted and squirmed, bulging his cheeks as it glanced their sensitive inner lining, tickling the roof of his mouth with each exploratory stroke. Its copper flavor pricked his taste buds as he did his best to match her pace, but this was nothing like kissing a human – he was completely on the back foot. She was so strong, so large, and it could easily have become overwhelming if she wasn’t so doting and gentle. Every so often, he could feel the cat-like barbs that lined its upper surface, but she was so skilled that they rarely came into contact with him. Something about her caution made him feel like he was being touched for the first time again, and he found himself pressing closer to her, his hands delving into the fur that lined her cheeks.

There was no need to keep his hands to himself now – no need to fear the intimacy that she had been offering him. He let one of his hands roam down towards her chest, Boyd hurriedly pulling off a glove and tossing it aside, combing his fingers through her fur without the suit coming between them. It was so impossibly soft and fluffy, putting even the most expensive fur coats to shame, trapping her body heat to make her even more inviting. Before long, his fingers found her chest, but her sumptuous breasts were still protected by her coveralls. He took a handful of supple, wobbling flesh through the tough fabric, pawing impotently at her bosom.

Lorza let out a rumbling purr in response, leaning into him, her kiss intensifying. Boyd felt like someone had poured ice water into his brain. His mind was fogging, and the sensation of her massive, slippery organ painting shapes inside his mouth and teasing the back of his throat was all that he could focus on. Her embrace was so impossibly deep, so lurid, but she was so emphatically gentle and considerate of his human limitations. How could something as mundane as a kiss feel so intense? It was like nothing he had ever experienced before, like she was pouring every drop of her affection and her desire into each lingering, dizzying lick.

He was starting to think that it would go on forever, until Lorza finally relented. She withdrew her long, winding tongue, her plush lips breaking away with a wet pop. As she drew back, the panting couple remained joined by a shining strand of their shared saliva, stretching until it broke. Lorza loomed over him, gazing down at him with covetous eyes that reflected the dancing light of the little stove.

Malish,” she cooed, cradling his face in one of her giant hands. “Do you think that I have not been trying to seduce you since we first arrived here? I admit it – at first, all I wanted was to make you pliable and cooperative. I thought that I could use sex as a bargaining chip, as we Polars often do with others of our kind, but you resisted me. I am not accustomed to being refused, so I thought that perhaps you just did not feel attraction to aliens. It would not be the first time – I believe I told you the story about my study partner.”

She ran her fingers through his hair, pleasant shivers sliding down his spine as her sharp claws danced across his scalp, her touch just light enough that he could feel their prick. The sensation made his brain fizzle and pop, like someone was setting off fireworks inside his skull. He had been so sure that she would reject him – that she would mock him and tease him for his lapse, but this was a better reaction than he could have imagined.

“As time passed, and we got to know each another better, I started to realize that you are not like other humans,” she continued. “I could not break your resolve. Anyone else would have cracked the moment that I invited them to share my sleeping bag, but not you. Something about you is different. Maybe it is because you are a spy, but I think it is this intangible quality that makes you a good agent rather than the other way around.”

She leaned closer, catching his ear between her pointed teeth, chewing it gently as she whispered to him in a low and sultry tone.

“I wanted to do things to you,” she purred, her tongue sliding out to glance his skin. “Things that would have cooked us in this sleeping bag. I would have you hungering for my touch more than you hungered for food.”

She began to move lower, nuzzling as she went, Boyd flinching reflexively as those carnivore teeth pressed against his neck. Her bite was gentle, just hard enough that he could feel it, and he bucked as he felt her slide a thick thigh between his legs. His already aching erection pressed into her doughy flesh, so plush and yielding that their clothing did nothing to diminish it, a gasp escaping his tightly-pursed lips as her tongue slid out to graze his throat.

“I had given up,” she continued, pausing to nip at his neck where his suit ended. “It was only when we started to talk in earnest that I realized I wanted something more. I wanted to have you, and the fact I could not was maddening.”

She bit him a little harder this time, grinding her thigh against his stiff member, Boyd taking handfuls of her coveralls as she teased him. Transitioning to gentle kisses, she peppered his neck, planting her puffy lips against the red indents that she had left in his skin as if to soothe them.

“But, now,” she continued as her lips roamed up to his ear again. “Now, you come to me willingly, eagerly. Let me have you, Boyd. I want you…”

He squirmed in her arms as she mouthed and licked, her dexterous tongue sliding beneath the collar of his suit, her attentions leaving Boyd almost unable to formulate a coherent reply as he gasped and flinched.

“Don’t stop,” he whispered, a sudden violent desire welling inside him. “We’ve been an inch from death so many times – I want to feel alive.”

The Polar hesitated for a moment, breathing heavily as she peered down at him, then she rolled off him to let him up.

“Clothes. Now.”

Boyd didn’t need to be told twice, scrambling to take off his suit, which was made doubly difficult inside the sleeping bag. His getup wasn’t exactly easy to get into, and it was no easier to get out of, the skin-tight material sticking to him like spandex. Lorza wasn’t faring much better – having put on more weight than she had started out with after eating the squid, leaving her coveralls a couple of sizes too small for her. He couldn’t help but pause his struggling to watch her, awed by the way that her massive breasts were swaying with her movements, shaking within the tight confines of her clothes as she struggled to pull her zipper down. Finally, it gave in, the weight of her copious bust spreading the garment apart to unleash a cascade of fur and flesh. A pair of breasts more comparable to the size of beach balls than anything in human proportions burst forth, quivering as gravity separated them. They spilled over the sides of her torso as she lay on her back, the Polar gathering them in one arm, pulling the zipper lower with the other. Her velvet fat bulged around her forearm as she fought to contain them, her hand vanishing as one of her boobs consumed it like an amoeba absorbing its prey.

Next came her belly, her paunch subtle, but just generous enough to create a little bulge that lit a fire inside him. Calling her figure voluptuous was an understatement that did her no justice. She was Rubenesque, like a classical painting leaping from the canvas, overflowing with a health and vitality that tugged at something primal buried deep in his psyche. There was beauty in someone slim and lithe, but his attraction to Lorza was one steeped in instinct, her child-bearing hips and exaggerated feminine features inspiring the same lust in him that had once motivated his cave-dwelling ancestors to carve fertility fetishes obsessively. He couldn’t have kept his hands off her if his life had depended on it.

Her tummy quivering almost as much as her chest, she dragged the zipper to her crotch, where he saw a flash of her black panties. She seemed to go without a bra, but she wore her bottoms, the dark fabric contrasting with her white fur. Lorza lifted one leg to kick her suit the rest of the way off, then the other, the ample meat of her thighs shaking with the effort. Sitting upright now, she let her breasts fall, the heavy globes of fat bouncing as they clapped against her torso. They were made for far higher gravity than this, somehow maintaining their teardrop shape and their enticing fullness despite their size, Boyd’s eyes lingering on them as she began to slide off her underwear. He couldn’t see what they had been concealing from where he was lying – he was at the wrong angle.

She tossed her underwear aside, so large that Boyd could probably have used them as a sail. He did the same, finally succeeding in peeling off his suit, then tearing off his shorts. The danger that he was exposing himself to never even entered his mind, neither the thin atmosphere nor the potentially lethal cold giving him pause. He freed his erection, Lorza’s eyes wandering down to his throbbing member, the Polar wetting her lips in anticipation. They were both nude in the partially open sleeping bag now, Boyd feeling her fur against his hip and thigh, her hanging breasts within arm’s reach.

Wasting no time, he sat up beside her, plunging his eager hands into Lorza’s bust. The Polar tensed in response, loosing a sharp gasp. They were at the perfect height for him, and he tried to lift the nearest one from below, marveling at its heft. It barely budged, instead draping itself over his hand, filling his palm. His hand quickly vanished up to the wrist, engulfed by silken fur and flesh so soft that he could almost manipulate it like wet clay. When he squeezed, it spilled through his fingers, springing back when he relented.

“How long have you been wanting to do that?” Lorza laughed, the motion sending ripples through her bosom.

Boyd slid his hand higher, admiring the way that her fat deformed beneath it, combing her fur with his fingers as he went. She was a playground of tactile sensation, and there was so much ground to cover, one of his digits glancing a swollen nipple after what felt like an eternity. It was firm, erect, an appreciative shudder passing through her body when he gently trapped it between two fingers. Growing more aggressive, he pressed deeper, finding sensitive breast tissue beneath the thick layer of blubber. Maybe it was his imagination, but she felt softer than any woman that he remembered, as though her alien flesh was somehow more delicate. He had been distracted by her chest so many times – been forced to stare down her enticing cleavage whenever they had shared the sleeping bag. Now, he was making up for lost time.

“Come here,” she chuckled, reaching out to catch the back of his head in her hand. She drew him closer, turning her torso towards him, plunging his face into the depths of her cleavage. His vision went dark, all sound muffled, Boyd filling his lungs with her scent unreservedly. Like being pressed between two incomparably soft pillows, he found himself totally encompassed, some of their weight coming to rest on him as her breasts draped over his bare shoulders.

He raised his arms, trying to lift them as though he was carrying a bag of fertilizer on each arm, but they merely poured over his limbs like melting wax. Giving up, he elected to burrow deeper instead, delighting in the sensation of her fur brushing against his face. He leaned into her, attempting to wrap his arms around her core, but finding that they barely made it halfway around her. She returned his embrace, holding him tight, her affectionate purring resonating through his body.

“Take your fill of me,” she cooed, Boyd arching his back as she trailed her claws down his spine. “Hold nothing back – I want all of it.”

He surfaced for air, freeing himself from her chest, his eyes wandering between her breasts as they stared him in the face. Her nipples were almost at eye level, so he reached for one of her boobs, fighting to maneuver it closer. It was a struggle, flesh like putty slipping out of his grasp, and it took both hands to wrestle it into range. He leaned in, digging through her fur, taking the swollen nub of pink flesh into his mouth. He pursed his lips around it, starting to circle it with his tongue, drawing on it more aggressively as Lorza let out a growl of encouragement. She pressed a hand to the back of his head again, forcing him closer, her flesh bulging around his face like he was pressing his fist into a ball of dough. Boyd kneaded her supple tissue all the while, rolling her fat between his fingers as he nursed, pinching her nipple between his teeth and his tongue.

“I had no idea that humans had such smooth tongues,” she gasped, following up with a low rumble that Boyd could feel in his bones. “Harder,” she demanded, Boyd feeling a pleasant sting as she gripped his hair more tightly. He had let it grow out a little more than regulation usually allowed during his weeks undercover, and there was just enough for her to get a hold of. “You need not worry about hurting me.”

He did as she asked, batting her nipple with his tongue, sucking ardently as he teased her with his lips. It was so much larger than the human equivalent, almost as long as his pinky finger, but it gave him more to work with.

As he mouthed and licked, he let one of his hands wander down towards her midriff, taking a generous handful of the subtle roll of flesh that overhung her beltline. The Polar lurched as he squeezed aggressively, finding it just as soft and as irresistible as her chest, the alien easing him away gently as though he was tickling her.

“All of your mocking really was because you were attracted to me,” she giggled, covering her mouth with her hand in a way that came off as strangely demure. “You used to make fun of me for being fat, and now, it is the first place your hands wander.”

“Oh, I was absolutely full of shit,” he replied with a candor that surprised even himself. “You have no idea how much just being in contact with you was fucking with my head.”

“I am glad to have such an effect,” she cooed, placing a hand on his chest to ease him back down onto the sleeping bag beside her. “Now, let me see what else you have been hiding from me, malish.”

She lay a hand on his belly – large enough to span it – the sharpness of her claws contrasting with the softness of her fleshy paw pads. She paused to examine his lingering bruises, tutting at the sight.

“Poor thing,” she murmured, baby-talking him. “Let Lorza make it better.”

Testing the firmness of his abs, she roamed lower, her claws leaving red trails on his skin. She never pressed down hard enough to draw blood, but it kept him on his toes, the subtle sting only making him harder as she neared the base of his shaft.

“You really are all naked,” she chuckled, the thought seeming to amuse her. “I like it,” she added, her voice dripping with desire now. “It makes you smooth…”

With a torturously slow pace, she walked her fingers up his shaft, Boyd’s breath halting each time one of her pads touched him. Finally, she relented, closing her first around his entire length to bury it in her opulent fur. He was by no means poorly endowed, but her hand was so large that only his glans was visible, the Polar smirking as she eyed it.

“Is it different from what you’re used to?” Boyd asked.

“Yes, but I have plenty to work with,” she replied with a toothy grin. “It is covered in skin – was not expecting that.”

“Yours aren’t?” he added, his brow furrowing as he tried to imagine what that might look like.

“Not like this,” she said, gripping him more tightly as she slid her hand lower. She inadvertently pulled back his foreskin, exposing his shining head to the cold air, her eyes widening for a moment. “I am glad that is supposed to happen…”

Just the warmth of her hand was enough to make him ache, his entire length buried in her silky coat, Boyd painfully aware of each delicate strand of hair as she began to stroke slowly. The lazy rise and fall was enough to make him lift his butt off the padded fabric beneath him, thrusting into her fist in search of more stimulation.

“You are eager,” she purred, watching his pained expression with a smile of satisfaction. “A whole week of pent-up frustration, and who knows how long of a dry spell before that. How many weeks were you living in a prefab on that dustbowl of a planet? Did you even satisfy your urges with your hand, or are you too highly trained for that? What does it take to make a spy give in?”

“Apparently, sharing a sleeping bag with you,” he grunted. She laughed at that, Boyd feeling another throb of pleasure as he watched her breasts way, her smile widening.

“If you think you can flatter me, you are entirely correct, and I encourage it.”

Her steady pace was sending warm waves of pleasure washing over him now, the very rhythm of his heart seeming married to the gentle pumping of her fist. At her apex, she paused to wet the pad on her thumb with his leaking pre, making slow circles around his glans. It was like being massaged with a marshmallow – a strange but welcome sensation.

She noticed that his eyes were fixed firmly on her chest, so she snuck her free arm beneath him, lifting him into a reclining position as she continued her doting handjob. Her breasts spilled over his torso, voluminous enough to practically cover him in a blanket of warm, velvet-soft flesh. His entire field of view was blocked as one of her boobs practically engulfed his head, the fluffy strands of her fur brushing his cheeks, her scent filling his lungs with every breath. She was lowering her bosom into his reach, presenting herself to him, and he wasn’t one to refuse such an alluring offer.

Fat with the consistency of melting butter poured between his digits as he reached up to delve his hands into her breast, filling them with her heaving flesh, so ample that even two was scarcely enough to handle her. Boyd ran his fingers through her thick, luxuriant fur, taking his fill of her now that there was no need to hold back. He gathered her boob up in both arms, feeling it spill around them, wobbling like a mound of jello being tapped with a spoon. Even then, it was a struggle to wrangle it, but he succeeded in bringing a swollen nipple to his lips. Lorza shivered contentedly as he began to draw on it, batting it with his tongue, her flesh swallowing his fingers up to the knuckle.

She kept up her slow, teasing stroking all the while, the delightful pressure of her fist and the feeling of her silky, fluffy coat gliding up and down his length keeping him on edge. He felt her change the angle, directing his member into something impossibly soft and squishy. Although he couldn’t see anything other than the mountain of flesh and fur that was smothering him, he could guess that it was her other breast, his glans sinking into its yielding surface with each upward stroke. For all her strength, she was so gentle, almost to the point that it was frustrating. He wanted more, bucking into her fist, but she maintained that lazy pumping motion regardless.

“I have something that you might enjoy,” she purred, drawing back a little so that he could actually see her. She released his member to leave it throbbing in the cold air, and as her breasts rose away from him, he saw that she was bringing her hand to her mouth. She opened her fingers, Boyd’s heart starting to race as he watched that impossibly long length of pink, glistening flesh part her lips. She was putting her tongue on display now – she wanted him to see it – strands of her saliva drooping from it as it snaked through the air. Fully extended, it must have been close to a foot in length, easily as long as his forearm. She dragged it across her palm slowly, decadently, like she was sampling some delicious morsel of food. The winding organ left a thick web of bubbling saliva in its wake, matting her coat, and she began to lower it back down towards his aching erection.

There was an audible squelch as she gripped his cock in her damp fist, her satin fur soaked with warm, slimy drool. She coated his skin as she began to pump, tightening her grip, the wet strands of her hair gliding along his shaft. It was a strange, but enjoyable sensation, Boyd unable to prevent himself from moving in time with her strokes. He would never have anticipated that she could make him feel this way. What would have been mundane foreplay under different circumstances had him veering dangerously close to the edge with each thrust, Lorza seeming to know precisely when to back off to keep him wanting.

“I like you this way,” she cooed, gazing down at him with her blue eyes as she cradled him in her arm. “You can be so obtuse, but here – with me – you are open like the pages of a book. Every twitch and gasp betrays you.”

“Gotta admit, it’s nice to be able to let go,” he sighed as she gave him another cruel squeeze. “How are you so damned good at this?”

“Practice,” she replied with a smirk. “Though, I have no experience with humans. What do you say – will you be my study partner?”

“Sure, my schedule really freed up this week,” he replied.

She responded with a low, sultry laugh, Boyd writhing as she began to twist her fist. She was making a maddening spiral motion now, occasionally pressing her soft thumb pad against his glans, alternating the tightness of her grip to keep him guessing. He was enraptured, his whole body moving with her, his spine arching as he thrust into her waiting hand. Her saliva made her touch so wonderfully slippery, that soft fur caressing him, her warmth drawing him in. Boyd allowed himself to melt into her embrace, the Polar hugging him closer as her pace increased, letting the quivering meat of her bust spill over him again. His entire world was warmth and pleasure, the bitter bite of the frigid air only encouraging him to press closer – to put more of himself in contact with her. Despite himself, he began to gasp, stifled sighs escaping him with her every affectionate squeeze. Just when he felt like one more thrust might send him stumbling over the edge, she slowed, gradually easing off until she stopped moving altogether. She gazed down at him with a smirk, still holding his member in her hand, her grip disappointingly loose.

“Perhaps I should rub one out of you so that you will last,” she chuckled, trailing a finger up his pulsing length to make him groan into her cleavage. “You wanted me all this time – you were forced to share a bed with me, and you did not even have the privacy to take care of your needs yourself. Humans have such strange hangups,” she mused, lowering him back to the sleeping bag. She leaned in close to bring her soft lips to his ear, her sordid whispering filling his head, one of her breasts practically pouring over his chest. “You should have come to me sooner. No Polar would deny a friend in need, you know. We could have taken our frustrations out on each other. Fucking is so much better than fighting, would you not agree?”

“I think I can be convinced,” he replied.

Lorza smiled, then began to crawl lower, planting a kiss on his neck. Her questing lips wandered down his chest, the Polar leaving lingering, sucking kisses as she trailed towards his belly. She had planted a hand to either side of him now, not quite straddling him due to her height, her breasts draping over his torso as she dragged them lower. They were large enough to spill over his sides, covering him completely while still having enough excess mass to spill onto the padded sleeping bag beneath him.

Before long, he felt his member slide between them, the weight of her assets squashing them together tightly enough to create an enticing pressure. His cock was completely buried, surrounded on all sides by her pillowy, fluffy cleavage. Her feline nose was level with his navel now, and she peered up at him with a sultry expression on her face, those blue eyes reflecting the dancing flame from the stove that still burned off to her right. His breath hitched as she slowly extended her tongue, putting its length and dexterity on display once more, a warm droplet of saliva falling to his stomach. She licked his belly, leaving a damp smear from his waistline to his chest, the sensation of her barbs making him flinch. They weren’t painful, but he could feel them – like a little forest of firm bumps.

Lorza was kneeling at the bottom of the sleeping bag now, tenting it, exposing his upper body to the cold. She noticed that he was starting to shiver and put on a mock pout.

“Do not worry – I have other ways of keeping you warm,” she cooed as she shuffled a little lower, the motion making her breasts bounce. She doubled over to bring her puffy lips within a hair’s breadth of his member, a shiver of anticipation coursing through him as he felt her hot breath wash over his sensitive glans. After what felt like an eternity to him, she finally slid them over his head, pursing them in a lurid kiss. He felt her tongue lap at him, sneaking beneath his foreskin, stars dancing before his eyes as she swirled it around his tender tip. There were no barbs that he could feel – maybe she was skilled enough to only use the smooth underside of the organ.

She painted him with the barest tip of her pointed tongue, drawing teasing shapes, the warmth of her mouth making his head spin. He wanted so badly to thrust – to bury himself to the hilt in her wet, hot flesh, but she lay a hand on his hips to keep him securely on the sleeping bag. Leaning just a little of her weight on him, he found that he couldn’t even buck half an inch deeper. She was setting the pace, and she wanted him to know it.

He propped himself up on his elbows, watching as her length of shining, pink muscle began to slide past her lips. It wound around his shaft like a fat, slimy snake, smearing his skin with lubricating saliva to leave it glistening in the wavering firelight. She had such perfect control over it, the prehensile organ sliding lower, wrapping him in its tight coils. Her lips remained sealed around his glans all the while, sucking gently, the tangible weight of her breasts pouring over his thighs. He lurched as the tip of her tongue reached his balls, lapping at them gently, teasing them.

Suddenly, her grip on him tightened, her slithering coils squeezing him like a fist. His entire length was trapped in a prison of damp velvet, her hot, slippery muscle flexing around him. Moving it like a hand, she began to slide her tongue up and down, the delicious tightness joined by the feeling of her drool-soaked flesh gliding against his skin. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before, and he found himself collapsing back onto the sleeping bag. Lorza chuckled at his reaction, the vibrations only stimulating him further.

She discovered the sensitive spot beneath his glans, Boyd flinching again as he felt her start to lick his frenulum, the silken texture of her tongue making him grit his teeth. Each stroke of her organ was different from the last – a little tighter or looser, faster or slower, sometimes lingering around his glans or sneaking lower to drag across his balls. Fat strands of her drool escaped her lips, sliding down his shaft in globs, matting his pubic hair.

After a few minutes of her relentless massage, she finally deigned to take him deeper, Boyd finding himself holding his breath in anticipation as her luscious lips inched lower. They slid past his head, Lorza drawing him in with her tongue, guiding him into the warm confines of her mouth. The undulating muscle began to uncoil, replaced by the smooth sensation of her inner cheeks pressing around him, his glans brushing against the ribbed roof of her mouth. Her tongue was still there – fighting him for space, stroking and glancing him as it shifted around. The strands of her hair tickled his belly as her lips kissed his base, Lorza taking his entire length into her mouth, holding him there in a position that would have had any human woman gagging.

A ripple of satin-soft muscle caressed his glans, a jolt of pleasure shooting up through his body, Boyd realizing that she was swallowing around him. She was taking him into her throat, pressing down on his cock, her pink nose bumping against his stomach. God, it was tight, each swallow making him reel as she drank down the saliva that was pooling in her mouth. How long could she keep this up? Her lung capacity dwarfed that of a human – it was one of the things that allowed her to survive on the moon without a rebreather.

She gripped him more tightly as he bucked, her furry hands wrapping around his hips, those black claws coming a little too close to his belly for comfort as her thumbs met beneath his navel. Still, he trusted her, another seething throb of pleasure sending him sinking back to the padded fabric as she swirled her tongue around his shaft.

“Fuck, Lorza,” he groaned as her questing organ slid past her lips to cradle his balls. “You’re a goddamned artist.”

She chuckled to herself again, her tone taking on a lurid quality, her purring resonating up through his body to tickle his senses. Another gulp forced him upright, Boyd delving his fingers into her slate-grey hair, taking handfuls. He could feel the narrow confines of her gullet struggling around him, flexing, each swallow creating a milking motion that only drew him deeper. Flesh like luxuriant satin soaked in honey dizzied him with its cruel contractions, fighting him as though it was trying to reject him, Lorza finally reaching her limit as she gradually drew back. She kept those soft lips tightly pursed around his shaft, pausing at her apex to deliver another nerve-jangling lick to his tender head, creating a gentle spiral. She could have tied a knot with that thing.

The smirking Polar released him with a lurid smack, her lips still joined to his shining member by a sagging rope of her saliva, Lorza watching it slowly break to drape itself over his throbbing shaft. His cock was standing erect in the cool air now, beating like a heart, soaked in her shining residue.

“You are fun,” she cooed, her eyes rising from his cock to meet his gaze. They flashed in the firelight, making butterflies swarm in his belly. “Such a sensitive little creature…”

“Am not,” he protested, his breath coming in ragged bursts.

“Let us find out just how sensitive you can be,” she purred, closing her fist around his shaft again. Her delicate fur surrounded him, her saliva soaking into it, and she began to stroke lazily. She leaned a little closer, extending her tongue to lap at the bead of pre that was welling at his tip, massaging his balls with her free hand. He couldn’t help but buck in time with her rhythm, the tingling euphoria of someone who has been teetering on the edge for far too long washing over him in waves, his mind fizzing with soothing static. His usually razor-sharp, analytical brain was being drowned in happy chemicals, and it was a relief.

She left a lingering kiss on his glans again, Boyd letting slip a whine unbecoming of a UNNI agent, the Polar watching him intently as she laughed.

“What was that noise, malish? I have you mewling like a kitten.”

“I’ll get you back for this,” he growled, his eyes losing their focus as his threat was rewarded with another affection-laden lick.

“Oh, I am counting on it,” she replied with a grin. She released his member from her hand, pulling it away to admire the stringy saliva that still connected them, making sure that he could see it too. She placed the same damp hand on his chest, pushing him back down onto the sleeping bag.

“Stay down, and let me have my fun. When I am done, you can have yours.”

Dazed and wanting, he did as she asked, watching her with unfocused eyes as she leaned over him again. He arched his spine off the padding as he felt her lick the sweat from his abs with her rough tongue, leaving a trail of warm drool as she continued downwards. His erection was aching with need now, and Lorza knew it, stroking him with a furry finger to keep him excited. She tickled his balls, breathing warm air on his glans, made all the more alluring by the chill air.

“You have me dripping,” she murmured, wetting her lips as she eyed his member covetously. “I want a turn now, so be a good little human and come for me.”

She gripped his cock again, starting to pump with a more aggressive pace, her grip tight and ruthless. She mouthed and licked as she went, peppering his glans with flurries of licks and hot, sucking kisses. A dull, familiar pressure began to well deep inside his core, growing in its urgency as she prolonged his pleasure, each swell more intense than the last. Her fur was so exceptionally soft – it was like masturbating into an expensive sheepskin, the sensation joined by the agile dance of her tongue. He could feel his resolve melting away as she paused to coat his inner thighs and belly with kisses, mouthing passionately, her tongue trailing across his skin. Her attentions flooded his head with white noise, overriding any logical thoughts until all he could do was react.

Her tempo rose in intensity, Lorza cradling his balls in her velvet palm as her hand pistoned up and down, but she eased off to let his excitement wane when she felt him start to tense up. It was a kind of wonderful, sensual torture. She heard him groan in exasperation, laughing at his plight, then began to make lazy circles around his glans with one of her fleshy finger pads.

“Very well, I shall stop my teasing,” she chuckled as she watched him writhe. “It is really your own fault for providing such amusing reactions. What?” she added, her lips curling into another sordid smirk. “No comeback? No witty retort? What is the matter, Boyd? Have you lost your bite?”

Before his lust-addled mind could formulate a reply, she slammed her face down into his lap, hilting him in a single, wracking motion. He was returned to the unbearable tightness of her throat, her tongue welcoming him back by winding around him, constricting like a predatory snake. The pressure forced more of her saliva from her lips, his belly and thighs sodden with it.

She began to bob her head, careful to keep her sharp teeth clear, his member sliding against the soft cushion of her tongue. Her throat clung to him like a latex glove, every subtle ripple and squeeze translating into his cock, her muscles kneading him with each indulgent swallow. She went faster and faster, plunging him in and out, her tongue stroking him lovingly whenever he wasn’t buried in her seizing gullet. She lifted him off the sleeping bag, raising his butt off the cave floor, her pointed claws pricking his skin as she brought him towards her mouth for leverage.

All he could do was cover his burning face with his hands and try to endure the ecstasy that she was subjecting him to, euphoria spreading through his body like a fever, held aloft like a doll as she brought him closer and closer to climax. A rising moan caught in his throat as one last, wracking thrust sent him toppling over the edge, Lorza swallowing him as deep as she could manage in response.

She held him in the reaches of her tight throat, drinking down the first rope of his seed, the stroking of her muscles drawing it out of him like she was squeezing a tube of toothpaste. He threw his head back, white-hot pleasure shooting through him, biting his lip to stave off a pained cry. There was nobody to overhear them in the little cave, but Lorza would hold it over his head for the rest of their journey together.

Her tongue joined the ruthless clenching of her throat, tightening as it glided up his length, milking him to ease out every pang of pleasure that she could. He felt the next spurt splash against the roof of her mouth, each glance of her organ against his hypersensitive glans setting off fireworks in his skull, his body contorting as he flooded her eager mouth with his emission.

She held him there for what felt like an eternity, every fresh throb of his orgasm sending another wave of pleasure washing over his beleaguered body, every subtle twitch of her tongue and flex of her throat amplified a thousandfold. Again and again, he released between her pillowy lips, Lorza swallowing dutifully as he bucked. Finally, he was spent, Lorza lowering him back to the sleeping bag. Her coiled tongue slid back up his length, her lips pursed tightly, cleaning the sordid residue from his member. With a conspicuous gulp that she took pleasure in making him watch, she collapsed down beside him, draping an arm over his chest. She pulled him into her embrace, plunging his face back into the fluffy, warm confines of her cleavage as he floated in a haze of afterglow.

“I take it you enjoyed that?” she purred. “You look like someone hit you in the head.”

“Yeah,” he conceded with a weak chuckle. He pushed his face a little deeper, using one of her massive breasts as a pillow, enjoying the soothing sensation of her silky fur against his cheeks. “I should have come to you sooner.”

“It seems I have finally discovered a means to get you to shut your mouth for a while,” she added with a low, teasing giggle that made her bosom quiver around his head.

He let himself relax into her arms, utterly content, the satisfying ache that followed a powerful climax sapping his strength. He felt as though he could have fallen asleep in her embrace and not woken up for a week. Her scent was wonderful, her voluptuous body drawing him in with its inhuman softness, her warmth radiating through him like he was clutching a giant hot water bottle. His lingering erection was pressing into the soft paunch of her belly due to their disparity in height, her warm breath blowing his hair.

A sudden annoyance overcame him, disrupting his bliss. She was so smug and self-satisfied, peering down at him with an expression of confidence, as though she had finally gotten the better of him. She noticed the look that he returned, Boyd peering up at her from the confines of her furry cleavage, a grin spreading across her lips.

“Why are you looking at me like that, malish? Does this embarrass you?” she added, lifting him from her cleavage. She leaned down to pinch his ear between her sharp teeth, filling his head with her salacious whispers, his scent on her breath. “You are so adorable when you come. That facade of a stoic, unfeeling agent melts away, and I get to see what happens when you are completely overwhelmed.”

She was making fun of him, trying to rile him up, and he knew exactly what reaction she wanted. Rather than call her out, he decided to play along, not wanting to put a damper on her growing excitement. He eased her onto her back – the Polar far too large and heavy for him to throw her around in the way that he wanted to – Lorza complying when she realized what he was doing. Every soft part of her abundant figure seemed to quiver as she flopped onto her back, her breasts swaying for a moment before gravity took hold of them, sending them spilling over the sides of her torso. She peered down between them, her breathing growing more rapid as Boyd began to crawl lower, her lashes fluttering when he neared her thighs.

“We’ll see who’s adorable,” he muttered, shuffling between her legs. She was so large that just navigating around her took a surprising amount of time. He found himself nestled between her thighs, her knees tenting the sleeping bag just enough that it cleared his head. He reached out to part her legs, opening them wider. They were easily as thick around as his torso, his fingers sinking deep into her insulating layer of fat as he spread them, like they were wrapped in memory foam. His fingertips soon encountered steely muscle as they sank up to the first joint, the brawn that was required to move her massive, heavy frame around providing a wonderful resistance. Beneath her deceptively full figure was musculature that would have made the average bodybuilder blush – if they could see it. The mere act of moving what must be six or seven hundred pounds around in the 1.3Gs of her homeworld was a form of resistance training in itself. While she had a very humanoid body plan, she was really closer to a bear or a lion in terms of size and strength than she was to a human.

His eyes wandered down to her furry mound, where they were greeted by a sight that made his heart leap with desire. Nestled in the silky forest of snow-white fur was a sliver of glistening pink, a few stray strands glued to her rosy flesh by her excitement. Boyd reached out to splay her flushed lips with his fingers, finding her slick to the touch, the surrounding coat sodden with her juices. Her massive frame shivered with anticipation as he exposed the satin folds of her vulva, misted with glittering beads of moisture like dew clinging to the petals of a flower. Despite her exaggerated size, she was so delicate, so receptive to his touch. He watched with bated breath as her opening winked in invitation, a solitary droplet of her nectar dripping down to cling to one of her silky hairs, the heat that she radiated almost feverish in its intensity. It looked human enough to be familiar, even though its size was exaggerated to match her stature.

He leaned closer, running his fingers through the fur on her inner thighs. Their positions had been reversed, and now it was her turn to prop herself up on her elbows to watch him, Boyd pausing to admire the way that her breasts bounced as she moved. For all her bluster, she was trembling like a leaf, her thighs shaking around his head as he breathed warm air on her vulva.

“Do your worst,” she chuckled, watching as he leaned in. “I doubt that a human could-”

The thought was cut off as she sucked in a sharp breath through gritted teeth, her long spine rising from the sleeping bag. A clawed hand shot down to delve into his hair as he dragged his tongue between her swollen lips, tracing her folds, their texture like pleated silk. Lorza cursed in Russian – or maybe it was Polar – her thighs shaking as they clamped around his head like a vice, sinking his face into their soft cushion. She soon regained her composure, releasing him again as she uttered something between a sigh and a groan.

“Your tongue is so smooth,” she chuckled, a hint of nervousness creeping into her voice now. Her hand was still resting on his head like a furry hat, almost as though she feared that he might pull away before she’d had her fill, her claws pricking his scalp. “I had heard stories, but I was not expecting it to feel so…different.”

It seemed that he had surprised her, but after feeling the rough barbs of her own tongue, it was easy to understand her point of view. It hadn’t been enough to make her licking unpleasant, but she had shown remarkable skill and control that was probably the result of a great deal of practice, so perhaps not all Polars were quite so adept in that regard. Oral that wasn’t uncomfortable might be a novelty to her. Now, it was his turn to grin. He reached out to lightly brush her burning flesh with his fingertips, admiring the way that they remained joined by little strands. She was so wet, so ready for him, so enraptured that she was practically panting.

“No claws, either,” she murmured as he danced his digits across her anatomy. “No wonder human visitors to the colony create such a stir. I should have done this years ago.” She saw the mischievous look in his eyes, her round ears pricking up. “Someone looks pleased. I suppose you see this as an opportunity to make me pay for my teasing?”

“Just how petty do you think I am?” he replied sarcastically.

He brushed his cheek against a pillowy thigh as he slowly lowered himself back down, her covetous eyes tracking him intently. When he returned his lips to hers, he felt her entire body tense up, then sag back to the plush padding. He began to mouthe and kiss, pouring his desire into every adoring stroke of his tongue, ropes of her love dripping from his chin as he explored the delicate creases of her loins. Her thighs pressed against his red cheeks, her fingers tugging at his hair in encouragement, each lick making her flinch.

Slowly, he roamed up towards her clitoris, pursing his lips around it, feeling it pulse against the flat of his tongue in time with the pounding of her heart. He drew on it gently, easing it out from beneath its hood of skin, his titanic partner almost bending double as he began to dote on it. He circled it, lashing it with quick flurries, then teasing her with indulgent licks to keep her from getting too complacent.

Unable to resist that clenching opening, he pressed a finger inside her, keeping his lips locked to her needy bud as he went. Immediately, he found that she was far tighter than he had anticipated, grasping muscles welcoming him with a powerful contraction. Her fever-hot passage drew on his digit like an eager mouth, the rolling waves of her velutinous walls easing him deeper, the suction such that he had to exert some effort to pull back. Fuck, she was strong – he could feel those iron muscles gripping him even through the warm, slick barrier of her flesh. She might be many times his size, but this was not going to be a hotdog in a hallway scenario – far from it. Another lick made her seize up again, her twitching loins clamping down on his finger. Her back curved into a beautiful arch again as he began to probe her for weak points, Boyd daring to insert a second digit despite the fear that she might crush them both to dust.

“Now I know why the Equatorials salivate over all the young recruits,” she purred.

He silenced her with a come-hither motion, sliding his fingertips along the roof of her tunnel, the slimy muscle yielding as Lorza shivered. Her grip on his scalp tightened, and she began to roll her hips in a futile effort to fuck his hand, Boyd having to grip a handful of the fur on her thigh for purchase.

Her plush ass rose from the sleeping bag as he played his tongue over her vulva, tracing every dainty fold, the blend of his saliva and her viscous fluids making his organ glide against her hot flesh. He fought against the clenching of her powerful pelvic floor muscles, pushing his fingers deeper, pausing to lap at her clitoris intermittently. She seemed to take such delight in the texture of his tongue, flinching each time he dragged it between her swollen lips, stifled moans escaping her when he returned to her tender bud.

It was a joy to watch her body in motion – he couldn’t take his eyes off her – glancing up between her parted thighs to watch her squirm and shudder. After her meal of squid, she was even more voluptuous than when they had first met, and that insulating blubber had been distributed to all of the most alluring places. Her thighs quivered around his head each time he kissed her loins, the paunch of her belly wobbling, just as soft and as abundant as her bosom. Her breasts swayed and jiggled in time with her desperate writhing, clapping against her torso, knocking together whenever his probing fingers elicited a jolt of pleasure that made her sit upright. When she sank back down into a reclining position, they cascaded over the sides of her torso, just firm enough to maintain their fullness. Wherever he lay his hands – whatever he tried to hold onto – his fingers were practically swallowed by her yielding flesh and her downy coat. Even her mound was fat and squishy, irresistible to the touch, as though a marshmallow had inexplicably sprouted drooling loins.

Boyd reached up, sinking his hand into the soft paunch of her belly, gripping the subtle tire of fat for purchase. She was bucking so hard now that he was afraid she was going to throw him off. Her thighs tightened around his head, and while she had the strength to pop his skull like a ripe cherry, they were so soft that it was more like pressing his face between two feather pillows.

Soft, comely cries escaped her pursed lips as he licked, her insides clamping down on his fingers whenever he grazed her swollen clitoris with his tongue. His digits slid back and forth, buried up to the knuckle in her spasming passage, massaging her sensitive walls from within. With claws like those, she might never have been touched in this way before by another Polar, all of her vaunted experience counting for nothing here. She was dancing like a puppet on the ends of its strings, her nervous system at his mercy, the previously sarcastic and cocky alien now reduced to a veritable mess at his hands.

She was so wet, a sheen of warm, slippery fluid making her glisten in the firelight. Her metallic taste was on his tongue, her lurid scent filling his nose with every breath, but he had abandoned all pretense of modesty long ago. Fat, wobbling strands of her excitement linked his lips to hers, soaking her inner thighs, matting the strands of silky fur around her sex. He began to thrust his fingers in and out of her more quickly, feeling them slide against her sodden flesh, hastening his ardent licking. Her giant body convulsed in response, one of her hands reaching up to seek out a weighty breast, its copious flesh bulging between her fingers as she began to knead with a desperate urgency. Breathy gasps turned to impassioned moans, her other hand drawing his head closer in a wordless plea for more. He glanced up to see a pair of blue eyes gazing back at him longingly, her lashes fluttering with each curl of his fingers.

“C-close. Do not stop,” she stammered. Her eyelids were drooping, her gaze unfocused as she chewed on her lower lip lasciviously, rolling her loins against his face with instinctual need. He glanced up over the mound of her belly, then let her clitoris pop out of his mouth, withdrawing his fingers with some difficulty along with a flood of sticky fluids. Her brow furrowed, her labored breathing making her ample breasts sway, Boyd wincing as she gave his hair an irritated tug.

“H-hey! I was close! You little…”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand in a futile gesture to clean some of her honeyed emission away. A rope of it was hanging from his chin, breaking to fall to his bare chest, Lorza’s lustful eyes following it. He smirked at her, gently rubbing her throbbing clitoris with his thumb, keeping her on edge. It was hard for her to maintain any level of anger with his digit making lazy circles around her sensitive bud, Boyd grinning at her as he watched her eyes lose their focus, her annoyed expression faltering.

“Just getting you back for earlier,” he said, laughing as she flopped down onto the sleeping bag with a frustrated groan. After a moment, she rose to a sitting position again, a mischievous glint in her eye.

“You should have learned by now not to start fights that you cannot win, malish.”

She moved far faster than her size would suggest, and in a flash, she had reached down between her legs to lift him like a toy. His stomach lurched as she flipped him over onto his back, and he watched one of her massive legs pass over his face as she straddled him, her knees planted on the soft fabric to either side of his head. The sleeping bag was draped around her waist like a skirt, her hips wide enough that it could hang off them with ease. She brought her flushed loins down towards his face, lowering herself as though she intended to sit on him but stopping a mere inch short. He gazed up at her beautiful, rosy folds, a droplet of her anticipation falling to wet his cheek. Her face seemed so far away, those blue eyes peering down at him between her pendulant breasts, her hand creeping down to find purchase in his hair once again.

The considerable weight of her butt came to rest on his chest, so large that he could probably have used it in lieu of a beanbag chair, flesh as soft as putty pressing him down. It wasn’t enough to actually crush him – she was too careful for that – but it was enough to let him know who was in charge. She stroked his hair, her claws tickling his scalp, crooning in mock concern as she brushed her burning vulva against his nose suggestively.

“Be a good boy and finish me off,” she purred, her fluffy tail brushing against his erection like a feather duster. “Make it good, and perhaps I shall declare a truce.”

“I should warn you that I’ve been trained to resist interrogation,” he replied, Lorza silencing him as she lowered herself a little further.

She trapped him in a lurid kiss, Boyd beginning to lap dutifully, drawing shapes on her tender folds. Her thighs shook as he pushed his tongue into her twitching tunnel, Lorza’s eyes snapping shut, and she began to chew on her lower lip again. She cupped one of her copious breasts in her hand – a challenge, even with hands as large as hers – rolling the flesh between her fingers as she started to grind. She swayed back and forth, riding his face in earnest, Boyd doing his best to match her pace. Despite her sheer size and her obvious excitement, she remained considerate of his human limitations, never making him feel as though he was being overwhelmed.

His cock jumped in the air as he felt her dexterous tail wind around it, the velvet fur impossibly soft against his skin. She gripped it, tightening the appendage around his shaft, then started to stroke in rhythm with her gentle thrusting.

“Maybe you need a little encouragement,” she cooed, giving him a wracking squeeze. “Now, put that sharp tongue of yours to work.”

His cock twitched at the suggestion, and she gave him a knowing smile, watching his face burn as she smeared her nectar on his lips. He had a wonderful view of her from down there. Her dripping, pink loins and her fluffy mound took up most of his field of view, her thighs tapering off to either side of his head. Above that was the little shelf of fat that overhung her waistband, and higher still – her hanging breasts, swaying like pendulums in time with her movements. They somehow looked even fuller and heavier from below.

He flinched as she began to stroke his cock with her tail, the control that she could exert over it no less impressive than when she had used it to toss him into a snowdrift, just as deft as her hand or her tongue. She coiled it around him like a snake, squeezing his length, brushing it against his pulsing erection in the same way that an adventurous lover might tease him with a feather.

“I think I like this,” she groaned, her voice husky and breathy. “Maybe we should stick around for a few more days, really take our time, enjoy each other. There is no danger – you will not run out of things to eat.” She chuckled at her own euphemism, her gyrations becoming more erratic, and she leaned forward to plant her hands on the ground for balance as she moved atop him. Her breasts hung from her chest, swaying with her movements, her muscles quivering with barely contained excitement at each enamored stroke of his tongue.

He caught her clitoris between his lips again, drawing it out, lashing its smooth surface with flurries of doting licks. His trembling partner uttered another curse in a rolling, purring language that he didn’t speak, faltering as his tongue painted her most tender anatomy. Boyd took full advantage to slide his hands beneath her ass, filling them with her cheeks, delving deep beneath the velvet fat in search of the springy muscle that gave them their alluring roundness. He remembered how soft they had felt through her coveralls when she had been stuck in the cave, and how deep his hands had sunk into her inviting flesh, taking his fill now that he no longer needed to maintain appearances.

“Keep it up,” she whined, half threat and half plea. Her grip on his hair tightened, her breasts starting to bounce as her breath came in staggered gasps, Lorza gazing down at him adoringly.

The shivering Polar threw her head back, her spine becoming as straight as a rod as his licking pushed her over the edge. Her blue eyes snapped shut, her breath catching in her throat, her mouth hanging half-open in a silent moan. Each lap of his tongue provoked another shuddering wave of her climax, washing over her like a tide, her rhythmic movements making her look as though she was lost in a trance. Boyd struggled to stay latched onto her, wanting to prolong her ecstasy for as long as he could, matching her desperate thrusting to keep his lips locked to hers.

She fell forward, too unsteady to stay upright, planting her hands on the sleeping bag high above his head as she dropped to all-fours. He felt the thud reverberate through the ice beneath him, glancing up to watch her breasts rock, slowly swaying as she ground her hips against his face. He reached up to run his hands up her thighs, squeezing the plump flesh of her butt, sinking his fingers into the deep paunch of her belly. There was so much of her, and right now, she was all his…

Practically fucking his tongue, Lorza let out a few more stifled gasps, culminating in a drawn-out moan as she lowered her face towards the pillow that was sewn into the bag’s lining. She pushed her face into it, sinking her teeth into the plush material, using it to muffle a few more desirous groans as Boyd eased out the last few pangs of her orgasm. The Polar was practically lying on top of him now, her knees spread wide to bring her drooling sex into reach, like she was doing some kind of elaborate yoga exercise. He teased her with another lazy glance, dragging the flat of his tongue across her swollen bud, an aftershock making her thighs quiver. Her trembling slowed and eventually abated, her breath becoming deep and regular, Lorza finally rolling off his face to collapse onto her side. Once again, the impact shook every soft part of her voluptuous body like jello being tapped with a spoon.

She rubbed her thick thighs together, grumbling quietly as Boyd crawled up her body to reach eye level. Lorza reached out to hook a hand beneath his chin, angling it up as she gazed down at him drunkenly, still wallowing in the warmth of her afterglow. She moved a clawed thumb to his red cheek, scraping away a strand of her come with her pad, wetting her shining lips with her tongue in a gesture of barely-contained hunger.

“This look suits you,” she murmured, giving him a sordid smile. “You should be careful, making such a mess of me. I may decide I want to keep you.”

“You’re in my custody, if you recall,” Boyd replied.

Oh,” she purred, putting on a mock expression of alarm. “Will you handcuff me, mister policeman?”

“If the mood takes me,” he chuckled.

He felt something furry slide up his spine, realizing that it was her tail, the fluff tickling his skin. It wound around one of his wrists, then the other, tightening like a rope to pull them together behind his back. His hands now bound, she cupped his head in her fuzzy palm, pulling him into a placating kiss. Unconcerned with the obscene sheen of her love that still clung to his lips, she eased her long tongue into his mouth, dizzying him with its artful strokes. Like a brush on canvas, she painted his palate, drawing shapes on his inner cheeks. He tried to move his hands reflexively, wanting to plunge them into her inviting chest, but she tugged his wrists together more tightly.

Ah ah,” she chided, wagging a finger at him as she let a few inches of glistening tongue slide back out of his mouth. “You are being detained.”

She caught his chin again, resuming her deep, probing embrace. He lurched as he felt her grab his ass, pulling him into her, his renewed erection pressing into her pillowy belly as his upper body was swallowed by her cleavage. Noticing his throbbing, she reached down to circle his leaking glans with her finger, then wrapped his shaft in her fist, stroking him from his base to his tip. Each upward motion sank him deeper into her supple flesh, encouraging him to thrust, the Polar’s chest vibrating around him as she chuckled into his mouth. Her tongue coiled around his own, as slippery as wet silk, the provocative moans and sighs that she let slip ensnaring him. He knew that he was being manipulated, but playing along had its rewards.

His excitement began to mount, and he felt as though just the lavish texture of her coat would be enough to finish him off. Her ravenous kisses were intoxicating, and he found himself leaning into her in search of more, Lorza taking pleasure in the way he pursued her when she drew back to tease him. Every stroke of that hot, slippery muscle was imbued with her desire, dripping with such raw carnality that it was almost a sex act in itself. He could sense her greed in each forceful lick, in the way that she filled his head with her fleshy coils, but there was also a tenderness to her embrace. He had never felt anything like this. After a few more tormenting strokes of her gentle fist, she backed off, her tongue lingering for a moment as her lips rose away from him.

“You should see your face,” she said, covering her mouth with her hand as she chuckled to herself. “Have you never been kissed this way before?”

“The way Polars do it is a little more…intense,” he mumbled, struggling to find a word that wouldn’t betray his feelings too much. She seemed to know that he was downplaying it, a cruel smile crossing her lips.

Boyd,” she cooed, putting on a sing-song voice that sent a pleasant shiver crawling up his spine. “You are so adorable when you lie. We can make out until the sun comes up if you want to – you only have to ask. And you do have to ask,” she purred, her lips brushing his ear. “It would excite me to hear you say it.”

“I had something else in mind,” he replied, Lorza blinking back at him in surprise. She seemed to think that she had him wrapped around her finger, but he was only getting started.

“Oh, I see,” she purred as she released his hands from her tail. “Ready to consummate our newfound friendship?”

Boyd’s heart hastened with anticipation as he sat up, remembering how her silken insides had wrapped around his fingers, massaging them with their steely muscles. How would those slimy, hot walls feel coiled around his cock? He hesitated as he appraised her massive frame, however. She was lying on her side on the sleeping bag beside him, the curve of her hip rising to chest level like some kind of fluffy hill, her breasts squashing together under their own weight as they spilled across the padded fabric. As much as his instincts demanded that he throw her down and ravish her, he was going to require a little more cooperation than that.

“Er…how should we go about this?” he asked. “Do you want to lie back, and I’ll climb on top?”

Lorza scratched her chin with her claw pensively, then laughed.

“I had not thought that far ahead,” she admitted, sliding the sleeping back a little further down to expose more of herself. “Yes, let us try with you on top. That is, if you think you can handle it,” she added with a smirk.

“Any time,” he shot back. “You’ve made a habit of underestimating me.”

“Oh my, are we going to need a safe word?” she giggled as she rolled over onto her back. Once again, Boyd paused to admire the sheer physics of her body, watching as she fought to gather her wobbling breasts in her arm to prevent them from escaping over her sides. She propped herself up with her other arm, her eyes tracking him eagerly as he began his journey down towards the bottom of the sleeping bag. He shuffled between her open thighs, his gaze lingering on her flushed loins, the way that her lips glistened drawing his eyes inexorably.

She was a little higher off the ground than a human woman would have been, putting her at about the height of someone who was lying with a pillow beneath her rump, or something to that effect. He drew closer, leaning a hand on the voluptuous fold of her belly, feeling it sink when he put his weight on it. It really was impossible to keep his hands off her – whatever he touched was as soft as cookie dough. It was a struggle to mount her – he felt like he was trying to climb atop a furry beanbag, Lorza doubling over to bring him into reach. She let her bosom drop, a ripple spreading through her flesh, then reached out to guide his face closer. It was a little athletic, but she was able to trap him in a kiss, Boyd leaning into her as she gave him a few tender licks of encouragement.

Her azure eyes turned down, and she watched as he took his pulsing erection in his hand, guiding it towards her lips. He could feel the heat that she radiated on his glans before he had even touched her, swallowing the saliva that was pooling in his mouth, Lorza’s chest starting to sway as her breathing hastened in anticipation.

They gasped in tandem as he pressed his shaft against her vulva, the delicate, silken pleats of her loins caressing his skin. She was so slick, so ready for him, his member almost frictionless as it glided against her sodden flesh. He could feel the firm bud of her clitoris against the underside of his shaft, the Polar growling when he pressed down on it, shivering as she felt him throb.

“Enough teasing,” she grumbled, her tail coiling around behind him to tug him closer. She was off-kilter, not used to being denied like this. “Fuck me already.”

It was a request that he couldn’t deny, and he pushed his glans against her twitching opening, then rocked into her. In one fluid motion, he buried himself to the hilt inside her burning, clenching tunnel. She rose off the sleeping bag, almost lifting him with her as she let out a yelp of pleasure and surprise, her depths sealing around him in a maddening spasm that rippled up his length. He plunged his face into her heaving bust, letting himself sink into the soft meat of her breasts, filling his lungs with her floral scent. Draping his arms as far around her waist as he could manage, he let his weight rest on the cushion of her belly, like a waterbed that had been set out specifically for that purpose. It rocked in time with his thrusting as he began to move, providing a wonderful amount of leverage, Boyd unable to resist mauling the doughy flesh of her love handles as he went.

“N-not too shabby, f-for a human,” Lorza stammered. She fell back to the bed, the cushion of her butt bouncing, wrapping her arms around him to keep him close. He felt her fluffy thighs close around his waist possessively, like a pair of padded armrests from a lounge chair. They lay together like that for a few moments, trying to adjust to these new sensations – to the feeling of finally being joined. Even when they actively tried to keep still, the involuntary twitches and throbs were impossible to ignore, pleasure coursing between the pair like a live current.

“Gimme a sec,” he grunted, struggling to regain enough composure to start moving.

He started off slowly, feeling her insides grip him tightly as he attempted to draw back. The delicate creases and folds of her walls slid up his shaft on a layer of her warm, slimy excitement, her toned muscles bearing down on him. She was so strong, paradoxically tighter than anyone he had ever been with, fitting him like a silk glove. When he pushed back into her, he felt her squeezing, kneading passage part before him. She conformed to his every contour, like she was trying to take a mold of his cock, her every wrinkle and teasing imperfection stark in his mind. He could feel every ripple, every squeeze – it was like having a dozen licking tongues painting him from tip to base. It was enrapturing, Boyd burying his face between her breasts, the sound of her giant heartbeat pounding beneath her chest as he nuzzled.

Lorza did her best to keep still, letting him set the pace, her massive frame rocking gently as his thrusts started to grow more aggressive. She ran her hands up and down his spine, crooning contentedly as her touch made him flinch and shiver, Boyd’s gasps muffled by her bosom. Her claws left red welts in his skin, her fluffy fur tickling him, keeping him guessing as to which sensation he might be subjected to next.

“You are so much fun to play with,” she panted, putting on an aloof tone in a futile effort to mask her excitement. Her husky voice was starting to crack, the way that her body reacted to him betraying her, her hips starting to roll gently.

Boyd wanted so terribly to lay himself bare before her – to look her in the eyes and let his passion flow uninhibited – but it would have meant an end to the little game they were playing. Instead, he started to increase his pace, Lorza releasing him from her arms so that he could change his position. He lay his hands on her plush belly, finding that it was too soft to provide much stability, but he had the leverage that he needed. Spreading his arms wide, he gripped her hips again, hearing a purr of anticipation.

He pushed deeper and harder, Lorza shivering as she felt his glans rake along her passage, the way that her insides narrowed around him with each squeeze and flex only goading him on. She was creating such incredible suction, forcing him to fight against it on his way out, her muscles holding onto him as though her body was desperate to keep him from leaving. Lorza was pushing back now, the impact of their coupling sending subtle ripples through her ample fat, like a raindrop disturbing the calm surface of a puddle. It was wonderful just to watch her move, the sight only making him desire her more.

The Polar swayed and twisted her wide hips, changing the angle of penetration, almost like she was trying to scratch some maddening itch deep inside her. He could hear it in the silence of their little ice cave – the lurid sucking sounds of her loins drawing on him, the wet slap as their bodies crashed together. Every time he pulled away, he could see the drooping strands of her nectar bridging his hips and her sopping mound, her matted fur making the experience a messy one. Boyd wouldn’t have it any other way – there was something liberating about it, like they were throwing off the shackles of modesty and decency in their shared pursuit of pleasure. Lorza’s breathy sighs and moans were just as encouraging, the Polar gripping him like a vice whenever he hilted her.

His hands roamed all over her inviting body all the while, squeezing her ample breasts and belly, feeling the yielding fat spill between his fingers as he sank them into her meaty ass and thighs. She giggled, ticklish, running her sharp claws through his hair.

“For all of your spirited complaints, you seem so taken with me now,” she purred as she watched him move atop her. “You wanted me from the beginning,” she added, her tone low and sultry. “You wanted to touch me, you wanted to run your fingers through my coat to test how soft it was, you wanted to weigh my boobs in your hands. You put on such a good show that even I could not see through it. For so long, I thought you hated me, but you just wanted to fuck me. Did I drive you so wild with lust?”

He took a greedy handful of one of her heavy breasts – the thing was large enough that it couild have filled his lap and spilled over his thighs – giving it a cruel squeeze. Kneading her supple flesh, he trapped her engorged nipple between his fingers, Lorza letting out a comely moan. The tempo of his pounding hastened, Lorza keeping up her honeyed taunting, noticing that it was making him more aggressive.

“I want to hear you say it,” she growled, leaning forward to bring her face closer. She planted her furry forehead against his, gazing into his eyes expectantly, a hand reaching behind his head to hold him there. “Say that you want me. Say it.”

“I want you,” he growled, Lorza rewarding him with a hasty, clumsy kiss. She held his face in her hands, her embrace almost desperate, his thrusts robbing her of her usual poise and skill. He was hammering into her now, her entire body rocking in time with his rutting.

Lorza broke off her kiss, then coiled her tail around his waist like a belt, using it to drag him back out of her. They winced in unison as he withdrew, her sucking loins finally releasing him with a lewd pop. He clung to her fur, frustrated, her fluids dripping from his aching member.

“What gives?” he panted.

“You are far too hasty,” she replied, pausing to catch her breath. “A Polar knows to take their time – to savor every sensation as if it were a delicious dish at a banquet table.”

“Food analogies,” he grumbled. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Allow me to be your teacher,” she purred, reaching down to grab him. Her furry hands wrapped around his torso, and she rolled over on top of him, Boyd finding himself on his back again as she straddled him. He was nestled between her furry thighs like a hotdog in a bun, her swollen lips hovering just out of reach of his cock. She doubled over, supporting herself with her hands, her height putting her chest at eye-level with him. Smirking, she dropped a little further, letting her breasts brush against his face. He heard the sound of a zipper, though he couldn’t see anything with her sweater meat filling his field of view. When she rose off him again, he saw that she had zipped up the bag most of the way, cocooning them both inside its warm confines. It was like a sex-scented oven, pleasantly hot when contrasted with the frigid air outside, the warmth that their bodies exuded cooking them.

“There we go,” she purred as a droplet of her anticipation fell to his belly. “Nice and cozy. If only you had let me do this sooner – there is no better way to keep warm on cold nights.”

“Old Polar tradition?” he asked.

“Oh, you have no idea,” she replied with a suggestive chuckle. “Now, let me set the pace this time. We will go slowly and enjoy each other.”

Lorza used her prehensile tail to guide his erection towards her loins as she gradually lowered herself down, having to splay her legs to get low enough to reach him. He felt the slick, hot flesh of her vulva brush against his glans, then the tight ring of muscle that was her opening gripped him. Now, it was his turn to let out a moan as she slid down his shaft, her fleshy walls gliding against his skin. She let some of her weight fall on him, taking him all the way to the base, shifting a little with him still lodged inside her to find a comfortable position. Although she wasn’t crushing him, her weight was tangible, pressing down on his hips to sink him into the padding below. With him buried between her fat thighs, she started to move, her pace lazy and indulgent.

He had expected her to sit upright as she rode him, but instead, she lowered herself down to her elbows. Boyd’s face was plunged into her cleavage, her heaving breasts pouring around his head in a veritable avalanche of wobbling flesh, almost seeming to pool on the fabric beneath him. Her chubby belly came to rest on his torso like a weighted blanket, and with her thighs sandwiching his lower body, he was completely buried in Lorza’s warm flesh. Her silky fur stroked his bare skin as she moved, the sensation like having his entire body caressed by a lavish fur coat, the bliss chased by a harsher and more primal pleasure as her loins milked his aching erection.

Her insides were even hotter than the air inside the sleeping bag, her damp walls wringing his member with all the cruelty of a tight fist, making him gasp into her bust. She rose on his shaft until only his tip was still inside her, then let her ample weight fall on him, slamming him into her furthest reaches. He could get so deep in this position – it was enough to make his head spin. Her tempo was slow and heavy, as if she was savoring every minute contraction of her muscles and each throb of his member, driving him into the ground with the force of her lovemaking. He couldn’t help but push off the fabric to meet her, but she was securely in control, far too heavy for any human to lift.

Every downward thrust was nearly enough to knock the air out of his lungs, his hips straining under the force of it, but he knew that this was only a fraction of her weight. She was gauging what he could handle, cautiously adjusting her movements to better accommodate him, ever considerate of her diminutive partner.

This was the first time he had actually felt hot since the crash, their shared body heat baking them inside the bag, the exertion making him break a sweat. She was right – this really was the best way to keep warm. Lorza was tireless, rising and falling on his shaft, finding the perfect pace to maintain their pleasure without pushing either of them to the brink. It was slow, methodical, yet each powerful thrust flooded him with tingling sensation. Every tiny twitch and ripple of her loins stroked his cock like questing fingers, the stimulation making stars dance before his eyes, setting his nerves alight with pleasure.

Lorza kept close, burying him beneath the soft flesh of her belly, her breasts rocking around his head in time with her measured thrusts. He was trapped in a heaven of velvet fat and satin fur, the sound of her massive heart beating in his ears, pumping hot blood through her veins. There was no need to keep his hands off her, Boyd taking his fill, every squeeze and handful softer and more inviting than the last.

“How are you liking the Polar way?” she cooed, her warm breath blowing his hair. He had to dig himself out of her cleavage to see her face, surfacing for air between her breasts, the Polar smirking down at him from above. “Slow, tender, savoring every sensation?”

“There’s something to be said for it,” he grunted, another lazy thrust sending him reeling. “Damn it, you did that on purpose, didn’t you?”

“I enjoy the faces you make,” she chuckled, dizzying him as she began to make a teasing circle with her hips. She swirled his member around inside her, grinding him against her fleshy walls, the rhythmic squeezing of her muscles driving another gasp from his lips.

“You’re a goddamned artist,” he sighed, letting the pleasure get the better of him momentarily. “How do you even know how to do half of this shit?”

“Practice,” she chimed, subjecting him to another wracking contraction that made his toes curl. “Making love is such an important aspect of Polar culture – it pays to know what you are doing, and there is no shortage of those willing to teach. Perhaps I can bring you up to speed.”

She began to increase her tempo, taking him ever deeper, the pair groaning as he bottomed out inside her. Her clenching, teasing reaches were so warm and slick that it made him feel like he was melting, as though his cock was an ingot in a hot forge.

“I love the way you feel inside me,” she whined, burying her nose in his hair. He could feel her hot breath as she huffed – was she taking in his scent? “That little…ridge below your tip, vo dayot…”

“Polars…don’t have that?” he asked, struggling to maintain enough composure to form coherent sentences as she rode him into the floor.

“It is very different,” she replied, shivering atop him as his glans kissed her depths. “Different in a fun way,” she added with a comely sigh. She subjected him to more artful twists and shimmies of her wide hips, interrupting her steady rhythm, nuzzling at his hair as she went. His sweat was making her fur stick to his skin now, her syrupy emissions leaking around his cock, matting her inner thighs to make their contact salaciously wet and sticky. The profane scent of their lovemaking was filling the bag, tickling his animal brain, the Polar gasping as he buried his hands in her yielding breasts.

He fought to maneuver one of them into range, having to use both hands, her supple fat spilling from his grasp as it draped over his face. Lorza shuddered as he found what he was looking for, sucking her swollen nipple into his mouth, subjecting it to gentle pinches and cruel lashes of his tongue. He sank his fingers deep into the surrounding flesh, seeking out the firm tissue beneath, massaging it.

“You little beast,” she groaned, her voice trailing off into a low growl. He felt her falter, pressing closer to him, taking him as deep as he would go as he circled her nipple with his tongue. Her thrusting grew needier, more aggressive, the heavy Polar crushing him beneath her wide hips as she slammed down on him. She drove his cock into her spasming reaches, each thrust seeming to split her tight, silken walls apart. She was gripping him so tightly, clinging to him like a second skin, her massive frame trembling with barely contained desire.

She rose on her elbows a little to give him room to breathe, but not so much that her bosom was too high for him to reach. Lorza growled like a lion as he kept her stiff nipple trapped between his lips and his teeth, circling it with his tongue, sucking on it to draw it deeper into his mouth. She gripped his hair with one hand, peering down at him, her blue eyes aflame with lust.

Boyd wasn’t faring much better, each thrust pushing him a little higher, every soft part of Lorza’s body shaking with the impact. His nerves were on fire – there was too much sensation to process, too much pleasure to tolerate. Shivers crawled up and down his spine like icy fingers, her steely thighs squeezing him as though she was afraid that her prey might escape, her tail coiling around one of his legs possessively. His lower body was numb, his legs going weak as her merciless dance dragged on.

Keeping her nipple between his lips, Boyd eased his hand past her paunchy stomach, straining to seek out her clitoris with his fingertips. She bucked when he found it, her eyes glazing over as he wet his fingers with her thick emission, starting to rub its shiny surface.

“Those damned clawless fingers!” she growled, her voice petering out into a bestial grunt as he redoubled his efforts. He danced his fingertips around her throbbing bud, juggling her nipple with his tongue, her grip on his hair growing tighter as he teased her. She might be on top, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t put up a good fight. Lorza was beside herself, her narrow passage wringing his cock as he tormented her, his deft fingers and his smooth tongue making her groan with delight.

Suddenly, she rose to a sitting position, tearing open the sleeping bag with the violent motion to expose him to a flood of cold air. She tore her nipple from his lips, her breasts lifting out of his reach, Boyd watching them bounce against her torso. They began to sway as she started to move again, too alluring for him to take his eyes off them. She lay her hands on his shoulders, pressing him into the insulated fabric, gazing down at him with an urgent expression of longing.

He kept up his rubbing, stroking her clitoris as her fluids leaked into his palm in fat strands. She loosed a breathy, husky moan, sliding up his shaft as her slippery flesh clung to his member like a latex glove. She poised there for a moment, her chest heaving, then let her weight fall on him to impale herself on his pulsing length. The head of his cock hit her depths, jamming against her reaches, and he felt a powerful tremor flow through her body as she started to climax.

A beautiful ripple passed through her as her muscles tensed, and she lowered her head, her hair falling over her face in a grey curtain. Her voluptuous figure quivered like jello as she shivered, the ecstasy too much for her to endure, the last vestiges of her composure evaporating. She blurted a string of hurried curses in a language that he didn’t speak, Boyd sinking a hand into the plump meat of her hip for leverage, keeping up his furious rubbing. The Polar cast all moderation aside, fucking him in earnest now, her fluids oozing down his shaft to coat her thighs in a stringy mess. Each wave of pleasure that tore through her was joined by a stifled cry of passion that made his heart flutter, each one more urgent than the last, her claws digging into his shoulders almost enough to break the skin as she gyrated on his shaft as though her very life depended on it.

Boyd soon joined her in her ecstasy, the remorseless milking motion of her slick, hot insides pulling him over the edge along with her. She let slip a fresh cry as his warm ejaculate flooded her quivering tunnel, splashing against her silken flesh with each wracking spurt. As if trying to draw it out of him, her walls squeezed and kneaded, the intensity of the pleasure that assailed him making his head spin. It was raw, harsh, spreading up through his body like a fever. Dizzying waves washed over him, spreading into his every extremity, where they terminated in tingling static. His conscious mind was drowned in it, subsumed by wracking sensation, leaving little more than a panting animal running on pure instinct behind.

The two lovers fed into one another, every throb or contraction from one drawing a new surge of pleasure from their counterpart, working each other higher and higher in a spiral of mounting excitement that threatened to erode what little self-control remained to them. They rode out the swelling currents of their orgasm together, moving as one organism, their nervous systems blending together until Boyd could no longer tell where his body ended and hers began. The sense of oneness – of connection – was almost profound.

Her muscles finally wrung the last of his ropy emission from him, and her violent thrusting became more subdued, the pair gradually slowing their frantic rutting. They were both panting, soaked in sweat and more sordid fluids, the Polar’s fur damp with his exertion. She let herself sag a little lower, doubling over above him, their labored breathing filling the little cave as they struggled to get their bearings again. They were still locked together, Boyd feeling the slimy blend of their shared passion leaking from Lorza’s narrow passage, strands of it clinging to his fingers as he withdrew his hand from between her trembling thighs. A stray aftershock made her wriggle and clench, her velvet muscles giving him one last squeeze, colorful points of light dancing at the borders of his vision.

Only after a minute or two did Lorza dare to move again, gently lifting herself off him, the pair wincing as her warm passage relinquished its iron grip. His lingering erection bounced free along with a thick web of milky fluid, a warm glob of it falling to his belly as she rose away from him, the glistening strands that still connected them breaking. She flopped down beside him heavily, the impact shaking her abundant figure, then reached out to catch him in her arms. He found himself being dragged into her loving embrace, once again engulfed by luxuriant fur and flesh, Lorza pulling the sleeping bag over them to trap them in its pocket of warmth. Her bust heaved around his head as she buried his face between her breasts, still recovering from their wonderful ordeal, the Polar exhaling a warm breath into his hair as she held him close. Boyd was awash in afterglow, seething with an exhausted euphoria that made him almost giddy, a satisfied ache permeating his body.

Lorza pulled him higher, his head leaving the warm confines of her cleavage, where she greeted him with a kiss. Her embrace was clumsy, wanton, her tongue slithering into his mouth with a palpable impatience. He had never felt so wanted, as though her desire for him was overriding her usual composure. There was no facade anymore, no insincerity – this greedy, selfish kiss betrayed how she was really feeling in that moment. Boyd leaned into her, wallowing in her attention, his muscles relaxing as he enjoyed the sensation of her hooked claws running through his hair. He sank his hands into her breasts, feeling her kiss falter as she shuddered, post-coital bliss keeping her sensitive. She pulled back and buried her fluffy face in the nape of his neck, nuzzling and pinching his skin with her teeth, hugging him as tightly as she could manage without suffocating him.

“I think you’ve single-handedly improved my opinion of Polars,” he murmured as she cradled him.

“If only I had known what a good bedwarmer you make sooner, I might have tried harder to seduce you,” she replied with a contented chuckle. “I am…glad that we could put our differences aside. I had been so lonely without my pack, doubly so without my crew, but this helps. It helps a great deal.”

“So…what do you think?” Boyd asked, his eyelids fluttering as he felt her claws prick his scalp. “We’re pretty good together, right?”

“We are good together,” she confirmed, pulling his face into her fluffy cleavage. She leaned closer to whisper in his ear. “I want you again, and again, and again. Even after all this is over and we are safe – if you want it.”

“You know,” he replied, grinning up at her. “If we manage to find a shuttle in that refinery, it’s going to be a long journey to the nearest UNN outpost. Small ship, cramped conditions, nothing else to do but enjoy each other’s company…”

She bit his ear, her tongue worming its way inside to tickle him.

“You mean to say that our ordeal is far from over?” she giggled. “How unfortunate…”

“The night is still young,” Boyd said as he wriggled free of her tongue, Lorza crawling her lips down his neck. “Give me a few more minutes to recover, and I’ll show you what humans can really do.”

She bit her lip as his head disappeared beneath the sleeping bag again, her anticipation turning to smoldering desire as she felt his tongue find her loins, the flammable tablet that had illuminated the cave finally petering out to cast them into darkness.

CHAPTER 9: EXFILTRATION

Boyd awoke to darkness, momentary panic gripping him as he realized that he couldn’t breathe. He pushed against something soft and fluffy – he must be trapped beneath Lorza again. She had probably rolled over on top of him during her sleep. Like digging himself out of a grave made from fat and fur, he eventually surfaced between her breasts, taking a deep breath. Instead of a relieving gulp of air, he found that it did nothing to help, the corners of his vision starting to darken.

His thrashing had woken Lorza, and the next thing he knew, she was pressing something against his face. The next breath that he took cleared his head, the second calming him, and he looked through his visor to see the Polar staring back at him with concern. She had leaned over to grab his suit and was now holding the rebreather over his mouth and nose. After a few more deep breaths, he felt safe enough to ease her hand away.

“Well, that was quite the wake-up call,” he muttered. “I guess we’ve discovered how long I can go without the mask.”

“We were so busy last night that you must have forgotten to put it back on,” she chuckled, her concern morphing into amusement. “Good morning, by the way.”

“Morning,” he repeated, his cheeks starting to warm as he gazed up at her. They had been so wanton in their explorations of each other the previous night – so uninhibited. Now that they had both sobered up, he felt kind of embarrassed. She grinned back at him, and his worries melted away, her clawed fingers rising up to scratch his head.

“What is that expression?” she cooed, leaning closer to whisper in his ear. “Are you remembering how I fucked you into a whimpering mess last night?”

“I remember things a little differently,” he replied, Lorza laughing as she pulled him deeper into her bust.

“Okay, I admit it – you might have gotten a few reactions out of me,” she purred. “Perhaps there is time for a tie-breaker before we set out again?”

He hesitated, the proposal as alluring as ever, breathing in her scent as he pushed his face into her inviting bosom.

“As appealing as that might be, no,” he replied. “I still have a mission to see through – we need to get to that refinery.”

She sighed with disappointment, hugging him tighter for a few brief moments, then began to unzip the sleeping bag. As he slipped out of the padded fabric and into the cold air, he quickly remembered that he was still nude – and somewhat sticky. He scrambled to pull his suit on, his breath forming ice crystals as he hurriedly tapped at his display to turn on the heating element. There was more than enough charge to activate the circuitry, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he felt its lining start to warm. Lorza was pawing at her thighs and belly, her delicate fur matted with the residue of their nocturnal romp.

“I need to bathe,” she said, reaching for one of the mess tins that was sitting beside the stove. “This is not something I wish to clean with my tongue…”

She lit another hexamine tablet, then fetched some snow to melt over the flame, upending the water over the problem areas as she combed her fur with her claws. There was plenty of snow to go around, so it wasn’t like they had to ration their drinking water.

Pizdyet! It is still freezing,” she complained with a shiver. She rubbed herself down as best she could, then struggled into her coveralls, the fabric barely containing her voluptuous figure. Boyd watched with amusement as she struggled to get the now undersized clothes back on, her generous bust and rump bouncing as she danced on the spot. She fought to close the zipper, having to suck in her belly, leaving her cleavage on display as she failed to get it all the way back up to her collar. Damn, she looked good – even better now that he didn’t have to deny his voyeurism. He had to resist the powerful urge to walk over to her and just take a handful of her ass. She turned to look at him, seeing his smirk, which she answered with a frown.

“Oh, so now you want to go for round two? Well, too late,” she chided as she adjusted her bust. “I am not covering myself in ice water again any time soon.”

“How about some breakfast as a peace offering?” he asked.

Lorza made a show of considering, but he knew her well enough to know that she wouldn’t refuse a free meal, and she eventually nodded. Boyd fetched a couple of squid steaks from the pack, then started to cook them over the stove.

“You think we should take the rest of this with us?” Boyd asked, gesturing to the steaming cut of meat. “It’s not gonna keep if we can’t refrigerate it. I doubt that whatever shuttle or transport we might find will be equipped with an onboard meat locker.”

“We are guaranteed to reach the refinery today, da?” Lorza asked.

“Yeah, I’d wager around midday,” Boyd confirmed as he prodded the sizzling meat with his fork. “We don’t have very far to travel now.”

“Then, we will not need it,” she continued with a shrug. “Better to leave it behind.”

“Turning down food?” Boyd said, turning to her with an expression of mock alarm. She leaned over and gently punched his shoulder, knocking him off balance.

“You are one to talk,” she purred. “One would think that you had eaten your fill last night.”

“Don’t be vulgar at the dinner table,” he chided, waving his dripping fork at her.

“What will we do if there is nobody at the refinery?” Lorza asked, turning the conversation to a more serious topic. “What if it is all automated? Is that possible?”

“It’s very unlikely,” Boyd replied, spearing the slab of meat before handing it off to her. He set the second one cooking, Lorza taking a wet bite out of her portion as she listened. “I doubt this is going to be a state-of-the-art facility, considering the location. Even then, there still need to be workers on-site to handle repairs and potential issues, and someone has to come pick up the fuel at some point. No, I’m sure there will be people there, and they should have whatever supplies we need.”

“And, if they are allied with the people who pursue you?” she added warily. “This Syndicate?”

“Then, we do whatever we have to do,” he replied ominously. She waited for him to elaborate further, but he didn’t.

When they were done eating, they packed up their gear, then headed out of the little cave.

***

The refinery loomed in the distance, growing ever larger as they marched. Boyd could make it out in more detail now, the tall stacks of its cooling towers jutting into the air, the machinery beneath them a rat’s nest of pipes and storage tanks. The sprawling structure was just perched there on the ice, some of the pipes trailing out of view beneath it, siphoning the precious water for processing. It wasn’t sitting on bedrock, but perhaps the ice sheet was just as hard here, and it stood no chance of thawing.

Lorza loped along beside him, a spring in her step. She had been all over him since the previous night, taking every opportunity to lay her hands on him or to sneak a cuddle whenever they stopped to rest. She seemed to be in good spirits, and Boyd had to admit that despite his reservations about what they might encounter at their destination, he was feeling better than he had in days. No – in years. It had been far too long since he had allowed himself to be intimate – both in the physical and the emotional sense – and it felt good to get back on the horse. His lifestyle prohibited romance, not through any official decree, but simply because he had to spend so much time undercover. Not to mention that his line of work might put his loved ones in danger. That was a foregone conclusion with Lorza, however. She was already in danger.

As they got near enough to the refinery that its long shadow reached them, Boyd gestured for Lorza to stop, and she pointed her round ears at him curiously.

“What is it, Boyd?”

“We’re getting close now, and there’s no way to be sure if the workers manning this place are loyal to ExoCorp, the Syndicate, or are unaffiliated. We should tread carefully from here on. I think you should say hidden for now,” he added, Lorza cocking her head at him. “I don’t want them thinking some alien creature has wandered in from the tundra.”

Creature?” she grumbled, crossing her arms as she scowled down at him.

“You have to admit, you’d look pretty intimidating to a human at a distance,” he explained apologetically. “The last thing I want is you getting shot by some twitchy engineer with cabin fever.”

“Point taken,” she conceded. “But, what are you going to do? Is it safe for you to just walk up there?”

“I’ll pose as an ExoCorp surveyor who got stranded – try to gauge whether they’ve been told to be on the lookout for survivors,” he replied. “If things get hairy, well…we may have to improvise. I’m told Borealans are pretty good in a fight.”

“That is not a theory I am keen to put to the test,” she grumbled, glancing at the refinery’s tall cooling towers warily. “I suppose we have no choice. I will find a snow drift to hide behind while you determine their allegiance. Just, promise not to leave me behind, da?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he replied, setting off.

“Wait!” Lorza said, Boyd pausing to look back at her. “What is the signal?”

“Signal?” he asked.

“Spies have signals!” she insisted. “I saw it in one of my roommate’s movies. They imitated the call of a bird to avoid detection.”

“If you hear gunshots or shouting, that’s the signal,” he said. He continued on, leaving the scowling Polar waiting in the snow.

***

The Chainhand leaned over the rig’s railing, looking out past the refinery into the blinding snow, the tinted visor of his snowsuit barely serving to lessen the perpetual glow. It was like staring directly at the damned sun. Didn’t matter how cold it was – the system’s star beat down on the powder to create a glare that would quickly make you snowblind without protective gear. Granted, it was a damn sight better than working the mines on Hades, but there was no bar and no women out here. What little free time they were given between rotations was boring and pointless.

They had put him on sentry duty today, so rather than maintaining the pumps and machinery, he had been tasked with keeping watch for approaching figures. Word had come in that a Ninnie had tried to infiltrate the Syndicate, but his cover had been blown, and his ship had been downed over the moon. It was unlikely that anyone could have survived the crash, but if he did, the higher-ups didn’t want him slipping past them. This refinery was the only way off-world, and if anyone was coming, they would be coming this way.

He wiped some of the flecks of snow from his visor, his furry collar blowing in the wind, and then froze. He could see something – a solitary figure walking towards the refinery through the snowdrifts. It couldn’t be…

Fumbling with his helmet, he struggled to activate the suit radio with his thick gloves, the Derrickman’s voice coming through with a hiss of static.

“What is it? I’m fucking busy down here. One of the joints has sprung a leak, and the Ginzels are giving me the runaround.”

“Sorry, Mister Cohen, it’s Darrel – the Chainhand. I don’t mean to disturb you, but…I see something! There’s a person out there, comin’ our way!”

“What?” Cohen scoffed. “There’s no way. You wearing a tinted visor? If I come all the way up to the deck and find out you’re going snowblind, I’m dropping you down the fucking moon pool.”

“Nah, Mister Cohen, I swear! He’s about two hundred meters out to the East!”

“Right, hang tight,” he replied as Darrel heard the sound of shuffling in the background. “I’m getting the rifle and bringing some of the boys up with me. They wanted him alive, but I’m not taking any chances with a Ninnie. If he makes one wrong move, I’m painting the snow with his brains.”

“I hear you, Mister Cohen. You do what you need to do. Darrel out.”

He leaned his hands on the metal railing, the freezing steel cold enough to penetrate his gloves, and watched the stranger as he trudged through the deep snow. How the hell had this guy survived a crash from orbit, never mind the trek to the refinery? Ninnies must be downright supermen. The crew had seen the fireworks show from all the way over here – it had looked like a shooting star, and the vessel had hit the ground with all the grace of a falling brick. Yet, here he was, making his way towards them.

Darrel heard footsteps on the metal deck behind him and turned to see Mister Cohen and some of the Ginzels hurrying behind him – green as fuck miners who had been deployed to the rig without even being taught the basics of running the equipment.

Cohen moved up beside him and raised a hand to further shield his dark goggles, his rebreather exhaling clouds of mist. Darrel pointed towards the figure in the distance – a dark splotch against the snow.

“You see? I told you, Mister Cohen, it’s the Ninnie!”

“Well, I’ll be fucked…” He hefted a long rifle with a wooden stock and turned to the increasingly nervous Ginzels. “Alright, boys, this is your chance to show the Syndicate that you got what it takes. You prove your loyalty today, and I’ll make damned sure that the bosses back on Hades hear about it. This is the big one – they contacted me personally about this Navy lapdog, and if he slips through our fingers, it’ll be all of our asses on the line. Understood?”

There was some nervous and somewhat non-committal nodding, then the group set off down to the lower deck to intercept the man, Darrel trailing behind after taking one last look at the advancing figure. It was almost supernatural. He didn’t believe in ghosts, but this whole situation was giving him the willies. It wasn’t the first time that he had wondered whether serving his tax fraud sentence would have been easier than skipping bail and coming out here.

***

Boyd stumbled through the snow, trying to appear a lot weaker and worn down than he really was. If push came to shove, the less they knew about his capabilities, the better. He’d already noticed that there was a welcome party waiting to receive him – a group of a dozen men standing on the deck of the refinery where it met the snow. They were all wearing heavy winter gear, along with snow masks that obscured their features behind reflective visors. One was armed, which wasn’t a good sign. After a few more minutes of dramatic limping, he got within shouting range, and he heard a voice carry over on the wind.

“That’s close enough, pal!”

Boyd pulled back his hood to reveal his face, raising his hands to show that he wasn’t armed before shouting a reply back.

“Thank God! I thought I was going to die out there! My name is Henderson – I was part of an ExoCorp survey team searching for places to drop new refineries. I got separated from my team in a blizzard. Please help me!”

It had sounded convincing enough in his head, but the workers didn’t seem to be taking the bait. The one with the rifle was keeping the weapon aimed in his direction.

“Come over here!” the stranger shouted, gesturing with the barrel of his gun. It was an older model, nothing like the XMRs used by the Navy – some kind of caseless weapon, maybe. They were suspicious, downright wary of him. Had the Syndicate gotten word out that their ship had crashed here and that someone might have survived? At least they had stopped underestimating him. That must mean that these guys were on the payroll. Just his luck…

He decided to stick to his story, approaching cautiously as he kept his hands raised in surrender.

“Please!” he shouted, taking a few steps closer. “Do you have any food? I’ve been stranded out here for days!”

The man with the rifle – likely their leader – stepped off the platform and onto the snow to meet him.

“Yeah, yeah,” the man scoffed as he kept his weapon trained on Boyd. “Cut the shit, Ninnie. We know exactly who you are – you can drop the act.”

Boyd’s brow furrowed, and he lowered his arms, the demeanor of a frightened civilian evaporating. The men surrounding the one wielding the gun looked a lot less sure of themselves, shifting their weight from foot to foot as though they were extremely uncomfortable with what was happening. New arrivals, maybe? Perhaps he could use that to his advantage…

“Here’s how this is gonna go!” the man with the rifle shouted, his boots crunching the crisp powder underfoot as he neared. “You’re gonna put your hands behind your back, and one of my guys is gonna tie you up. We’re gonna take you to a shuttle and ship you back to Hades so the boss can pick up where he left off. We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” he continued, coming close enough that he didn’t have to shout anymore. “This is going to be a lot faster and a lot less painful for the both of us if you just do as I say without trying anything funny, understand?”

Boyd slowly moved his hands behind his head and sank to his knees, the man gesturing for one of his goons to walk out into the snow and bind him with a chain that he was holding.

“Don’t touch his suit,” the man added, gesturing with his weapon. “And take the knife from his boot.”

“Sounds like you’re wise to all my tricks,” Boyd said sarcastically, keeping his head still as his eyes tracked the approaching worker.

“That’s right, Ninnie,” the man with the gun replied. “You may have gotten the better of those PDF jarheads dirtside, but nothing gets past me.”

“Sounds like you have everything under control.”

“That’s right,” the man said, keeping his weapon shouldered as though he expected Boyd to dart towards him at any moment. “Now, are you gonna keep your mouth shut and cooperate, or am I gonna have to tell my boys to rough you up a bit so you get the picture?”

Boyd turned his attention to the trembling man who was fumbling with the chain behind him, raising his voice loud enough to ensure that everyone could hear him.

“I’m authorized to make binding deals on behalf of the UNN,” he began. “You can still stop this – you can still choose to walk away. We can even give you amnesty for any crimes committed on Earth – or whatever colonies you came from – in exchange for aid and information. You could all go back home with a full pardon.”

“Hey!” the man with the rifle shouted, pointing the barrel at his head. “Shut the fuck up!”

“You can’t seriously believe that you’ll get away with this,” Boyd continued, ignoring the threat. “Sooner or later, the Navy is going to find out what you’re doing here. They’ll send a jump carrier full of battle-hardened Marines, and no amount of stolen PDF weaponry is going to save you if that happens. Ever go up against a Borealan Shock Trooper? I hear they’re not the understanding type.”

“I said shut the fuck up,” the man blurted, taking a few steps towards him as the rest of the crew looked on with uncertainty.

“The Syndicate is banking on the UNN not responding,” Boyd continued, looking to the rest of the men. “They don’t think we care what happens on these outlying colonies, but that’s not true. Ask yourselves – would I be here if the Navy didn’t care about your welfare? Would they have sent me if they had no intention of defending Hades from its enemies, alien and domestic?”

“One more word out of that mouth, and I’m going to knock your teeth out,” the ringleader hissed. “What’s the holdup, Bauer? Tie his fucking hands already!”

The man called Bauer hesitated, then stepped out from behind Boyd, the chain clutched tightly in his gloved hands.

“He’s right, Cohen. We don’t stand a chance against the Navy. I never wanted to get involved in this – I just came here looking for work. Hell, half of us came to Hades to start fresh and leave our criminal pasts behind us!”

There were a few affirmations from some of the other workers who were standing behind Cohen, and he looked back at them nervously as he fingered the trigger of his rifle.

“D-don’t let this glorified rent-a-cop scare you! He’s full of shit! The Navy never cared about Hades, and neither did the corporate stooges who brought you here just to put shovels in your hands! The Syndicate are the ones who sign your paychecks, they’re the ones who protect the colony, not these jumped-up fascists. They don’t give a shit about us. We have weapons now!” he added, gesturing to Boyd. “We shot down this Ninnie’s ship, and if they send a carrier, we’ll shoot that down too!”

Cohen was losing the crowd, and he knew it, now unsure of where he should be pointing his gun.

“Last chance,” Boyd said, glancing up at Cohen. “A full pardon for any crimes committed on your homeworlds – and on Hades – for anyone who helps me get off this moon. You have my word. I’m afraid I don’t have my badge on me, but you know I’m legit, or these Syndicate assholes wouldn’t want me so badly.”

“Tie him up, Bauer!” Cohen yelled, starting to panic as he directed his weapon towards the disillusioned worker. “Tie him up, or by God, I’ll kill you as well!”

That seemed to push the rest of the crew over the edge, and a good number of them ran at Cohen from behind, tackling him to the ground as he screeched and tried to fire his weapon. One of the workers wrenched it from his hands and ejected the magazine, giving the mobster a good kick to the face for good measure as Bauer approached with the chains. Before long, a bloodied and furious Cohen was chained up and lying on the snow, ranting as his crew helped Boyd up onto the refinery platform.

“Darrel!” Cohen snapped, the chains rattling as he struggled. “Darrel, you asshole, do something!”

The man he was referring to turned and shrugged his shoulders.

“I want to go home, man. Fuck this shithole colony.”

Cohen screamed impotently, flailing as some of the workers hoisted him up onto the deck like they were hauling in a fresh tuna.

“Where shall we take him?” one of the men asked. “Should we lock him in the storeroom, maybe?”

“Moon pool,” another replied with a grin. Cohen struggled as he was dragged below deck, shouting curses until he was out of earshot.

“What do you need?” one of the men asked, walking up to Boyd. “We have a shuttle on the rig and food to spare. I can get it all loaded up and ready to go in half an hour. It doesn’t have a jump drive, but it’ll get you to the edge of the system where you can try to hail a freighter or something.”

“It’s Darrel, right?” Boyd asked as he shook the man’s gloved hand.

“Yeah, yeah,” Darrel replied with a nervous nod. “You’ll take our names down, right? You’ll make a record so they know we cooperated when the carrier gets here?”

“I’ll do it right now,” Boyd said, raising his display. “Get me a crew manifest for the refinery, and I’ll include it in my report. I’m assuming that everyone here will cooperate besides Cohen?”

“Yeah, none of us want to be here,” he replied. “All the guys will side with the Navy. Ice mining sounded better than doing time or breaking rocks dirtside, but Cohen ran this place like a fucking work camp. Once we got here, they wouldn’t let us leave. Don’t worry about that asshole,” he added, lowering his voice. “He ain’t gonna be around by the time the Navy gets here. Lot of people here got scores to settle. Unless…”

“Don’t worry, I’m not that kind of cop,” Boyd replied with a knowing smile. “Workplace accidents must happen all the time.”

“Yeah, it’s a dangerous work environment,” Darrel chuckled.

“By the way, I have a friend coming along for the ride,” Boyd added. “She’s an alien, so don’t be alarmed – she’s quite tame. Hold tight, I’ll be back.”

He headed back out into the snow to fetch Lorza, returning a short time later with the towering Polar in tow. Boyd could see Darrel’s discomfort even through his reflective visor as the Polar stepped up onto the platform, the metal grates that made up the floor creaking under her weight. He looked about ready to bolt, craning his neck to stare up at the alien, a few of his crewmates observing from a safe distance.

“I thought you might be losing your edge for a moment there, malish,” Lorza said as she gave Boyd a pat on the back that made him stagger. “You have a way with negotiation.”

“I’ll, uh…I’ll go get that list for you,” Darrel stammered. He backed away from the pair, then vanished into the maze of pipes and machinery.

“Skittish, that one,” Lorza chuckled as she lay a heavy hand on Boyd’s shoulder. “We have a ship, then?”

“Yeah, they’re letting us use their shuttle,” he replied with a nod. “It’s not jump-capable, but we can coast out to the edge of the system – try to hail a freighter near a jump point. Hades sees a lot of traffic. They have to ship out all the ore they mine, and it’s not likely that a commercial vessel will be on the payroll. Sounds like these guys have enough supplies to last us a good while, so we shouldn’t have any trouble waiting around.”

“You are taking me on a honeymoon already, Boyd?” she cooed. “How considerate of you.”

“Best to avoid that kind of talk until we’re in the shuttle,” he replied, lowering his voice in embarrassment. “We don’t know how these people will react if they find out that I…”

“That you ate me out like a thirsty animal licking dew from a rock?”

“Just keep it down,” he muttered. He knew that she was only teasing him, but they didn’t need any complications now that things were going so smoothly. Offending the sensibilities of hardboiled ex-cons who had just given their boss the cement shoes treatment wasn’t on his itinerary for today.

“Oh, fine,” she sighed. “I will have my fun with you later.” She crossed her arms beneath her ample chest and leaned against a nearby railing, the metal sagging a little as she put her weight on it, her tail swaying impatiently. They waited around for a while until Darrel returned, the man hurrying out of the forest of pipes with a crumpled printout in his hand.

“Alright, sir,” he said as he jogged to a stop. That winter gear was heavy, and it impeded his movement. “I got you the list of employee names – these guys are all good people. You’ll make sure they don’t forget about us, right? When the UNN arrives, they’ll know that we’re down here and that we’ve been pardoned?”

“I’ll see to it,” Boyd said as he took the list of names and began to enter them into his computer’s memory. There were only a dozen – the refinery must have been grossly understaffed. It was no wonder Darrel had mentioned Cohen running the place like a work camp. The more qualified ExoCorp personnel had most likely jumped ship as soon as they could, and the Syndicate had been forced to use inexperienced miners as replacement workers. “I’ll make sure someone comes to pick you up. I’m taking your only shuttle, after all. How long before you can start loading it up for us?”

“I’ll get someone on it right away,” he replied breathlessly. “We can give you enough food to last a week, easy. That thing is a cargo hauler – plenty of space. Shouldn’t take more’n a couple of days for someone to find you. The Syndicate has no wardens or patrol ships that I know of, so they can’t touch you out there.”

“I appreciate the help, Darrel,” Boyd replied as he finished entering the last name into his database. “We would have been stranded here without you, and I’ll make sure that my superiors know it.”

“Come on,” he added, gesturing for them to follow him. “You can come down to the break room while the boys get your shuttle ready. Just, uh…tell your friend to watch the pipes,” he continued as he mimed ducking.

They made their way through the mechanical guts of the refinery, walking along creaking gantries and platforms that snaked through the facility’s forest of pipes. The freezing environment hadn’t been kind to this place – every surface was caked in rust, glittering icicles forming wherever there was space. As they proceeded deeper, walking down flights of stairs narrow enough that Lorza’s hips brushed the walls, it began to remind Boyd of the interior of a spacecraft. It wasn’t unlike the Zemchug – all exposed metal and narrow, claustrophobic corridors.

They arrived at a door that was more like a bulkhead from a submarine, Darrel leading them into a pitiful little break room with a ceiling so low that even a tall human would have been in danger of clocking their head on a hanging pipe. Lorza practically had to crouch as she made her way over to a couch that could have seated two people. Her thighs pressed into the armrests as she wedged herself between them, the wooden frame sagging beneath her. She looked to Darrel apologetically, but he just shrugged. It wasn’t like they’d have to be here for much longer anyway. It was warmer than being outside, but not so much that Boyd felt comfortable enough to turn off his heating element completely.

The man took off his gloves, then his helmet, revealing an unkempt beard and a mop of curly hair. He was a little younger than Boyd had assumed – maybe in his late twenties.

“Can I offer you guys anything?” he asked, gesturing to a dilapidated vending machine that occupied one corner of the room. It seemed that the corp made them pay for their sandwiches and coffees out of their own pockets. Truth be told, it was a miracle that the Syndicate had kept it stocked at all. As much as Boyd wanted to decline, the allure of food that wasn’t grilled squid meat overcame his apprehension. Even a greasy burger cooked in a waystation’s food court would be heaven right now.

“Sure, thanks,” he replied. He watched as the man walked over to the machine, then lifted a kettle off a nearby kitchen counter, Lorza jumping in alarm as he used it to shatter the glass. Sifting through the broken shards, he retrieved a sandwich in a plastic wrapper, tossing it to Boyd.

“Don’t gotta pay anymore,” he explained, throwing another to the wide-eyed Polar.

“So, how’d you end up here?” Boyd asked as he began to fumble with the packaging. Lorza had an easier time, slicing the wrapper open with a claw, then sniffing its contents suspiciously. Satisfied, she popped it into her mouth in the same way that a human might eat an hors d’oeuvre, swallowing it whole. “Don’t worry – I don’t care about your rap sheet – just making conversation.”

“Tax evasion,” he replied, taking a bite of his own sandwich. “It was either serve a six-year sentence or skip town. The corp doesn’t care what you’re running from, all they want to know is whether you can hold a pickaxe. Thought I could start fresh on Hades, leave all my debts behind, but the whole thing’s a sham. After getting fucked over by the corp, throwing my lot in with the Syndicate seemed like the only way out, but they’re no better. Only difference is they’ll dump you down a mine shaft rather than dock your pay if you fuck up. You’re really here to bail us out?”

“That’s the plan,” Boyd said, succeeding in opening his meal. Wilted lettuce, ham that probably contained no ham, and cheese that certainly wasn’t cheese. No matter. He took a large bite, sitting back in a musty lounge chair as he enjoyed the taste and texture, such that it was. Anything was preferable to slimy, rubbery squid meat. “I can’t tell you everything, but it goes without saying that I was sent to investigate the Syndicate. Getting my report to the Navy is priority one. The situation there is a lot worse than anyone anticipated – we’ll probably have to dispatch an entire peacekeeping force to restore order.”

“Glad we’re up here,” Darrel muttered. “That sounds…shooty.”

“You could say that things have gotten pretty shooty,” Boyd confirmed, taking another bite.

“What’s her deal?” Darrel asked, gesturing to Lorza with a half-eaten sandwich.

“Word of advice,” she replied, the couch creaking as she leaned forward. “Do not pick up hitchhikers.”

***

“One of you two can fly this thing, right?” Darrel asked.

They were standing on the landing pad – an elevated platform maybe thirty meters above the snow that jutted out of the refinery. The shuttle was an older UNN model – a retired Marine dropship that had probably been auctioned off for scrap after exceeding its operational lifespan. They were supposed to be recycled or scavenged for parts, but it was a widely-known secret that scrap dealers often refurbished them and sold them on to private buyers. It was…probably spaceworthy. If it was large enough to carry cargo, it was large enough for Lorza to fit in the hold, so they couldn’t have asked for much more. The landing ramp beneath its tail was currently lowered, and some of the refinery workers were loading the last of the supplies in crates, one of them disconnecting a snaking fuel line from beneath a stubby wing.

“I can handle it,” Boyd replied, walking over to the ramp. While the vessel was on the smaller side, there was plenty of space in what had once been the troop bay for them to lie down and sleep, even if some of the deck was now taken up by crates that had been strapped down with netting. He gestured for Lorza to follow, the craft’s landing gear sagging a little under her weight as she climbed into the bay, having to duck just a little to avoid having her furry ears scrape the ceiling.

“Cozy,” she muttered, making no attempt to hide her disapproval. “If this thing pops a leak, what will happen?”

“I’ll be fine until my oxygen runs out,” he replied, patting his suit. “I’m afraid you’ll explode like a microwave burrito, though.”

“Lovely,” she muttered as she proceeded deeper into the dingy hold.

“Keep your comms open, Darrel,” Boyd said as he turned to address the worker. “When I raise the alarm, the Navy will dispatch a task force within a couple of days. Help should arrive within a week, depending on how far away the nearest carrier is. Can you guys hold out that long?”

“We have enough supplies to hold out here for months,” he replied. “Nobody will be expecting another fuel shipment for a few weeks, so I doubt anyone will come looking. They didn’t give a shit about us before – don’t see a reason they’d start now.”

“Thanks again,” Boyd said, shaking his gloved hand.

He moved through the shuttle, dodging around Lorza as she sat on the deck. He slipped through a narrow doorway and into the cockpit, sitting down in one of the two pilot’s chairs, examining the displays and consoles before him. This thing was older than he was, so the first thing he should do was run a diagnostic. Who knew how long it had been sitting out in the cold. Sure, space was colder, but this moon was wracked by blizzards and ice storms that were about as kind to a ship’s hull as a battery acid wash. The diagnostic results came back clean, a blinking green light on the instrument panel flashing an all-clear, so he began to warm up the engines in the hope of melting any ice that might have made their housings its home.

“You alright back there?” he asked, turning to look over the backrest. “Could get a little bumpy until we leave the atmosphere, so you may want to hang onto something. Strap yourself to the deck with cargo netting, maybe, I dunno.”

“This is not my first time riding in a shuttle held together with tape and prayers, if you had forgotten,” she replied. “I am more worried that you missed an opportunity for a wide load joke.”

Boyd gunned the thrusters, and the shuttle rose off the landing pad, its gear stowing in the belly of the vessel with a mechanical clunk that reverberated through the deck. It had been a while since he had flown a shuttle like this, but he had been to flight school as part of his UNNI training, and he could handle pretty much anything that could be piloted by one person.

He rose above the refinery in VTOL mode, then activated the main engines, the G-forces pressing him into the cracked leather padding of his seat as he angled the shuttle’s nose towards space. Turbulence buffeted the craft as it climbed, dark storm clouds washing over the canopy like billows of smoke, the violent shaking creating disconcerting rattles and creaks that made it sound like the very bolts that held the craft together were coming loose. Lorza had little choice but to grip whatever handholds and cargo netswere in reach, straining to save herself from sliding down towards the closed ramp at the rear of the bay. The blue sky slowly grew darker to reveal twinkling stars, and just when Boyd was starting to fear that the shuttle might shake apart under the stress, they punched through into low orbit. The shaking abated, replaced by the dull throb of the engines, weightlessness gripping them.

Please tell me this thing has an AG field,” Lorza complained, starting to rise off the deck. Boyd had to jam his boots beneath the console to keep himself from floating out of his seat, his eyes scanning the buttons and switches. He found what he was looking for and activated the field, hearing a thud as Lorza dropped back to the deck. “I will take that as a yes,” she grumbled, rubbing her butt as she climbed to her feet.

“You’re fine – I know how much cushion you have back there,” Boyd replied.

“Do you even know where we are going?”

“I will in a minute,” he replied, pulling an extensible cable from the device on his wrist. He searched around for a socket that it could actually interface with for a moment, starting to grow worried that the shuttle’s systems might be too old, but he soon found what he was looking for. “I might not have expected to end up stranded on that moon, but I did bring a star chart,” he explained as he began to transfer data between the two computers. “Pre-flight didn’t show any calibration errors on the engines, so I should be able to program a burn and have the autopilot do the rest. Good job the Hades system is a lot smaller than Sol, or we’d have to coast for weeks to reach the jump points. It’s not a good idea to exit superlight too close to planetary bodies. You might hit another ship, or worse, end up a few klicks inside the mantle.”

Boyd left his seat and made his way into the troop bay where Lorza was still getting her bearings, peering out of a porthole at the icy planetoid as it shrank in the distance. They were still close enough to make out the continent-sized cracks in the ice, like innumerable scars crisscrossing its pale face. Hades hung in the darkness beside it, the rusty reds contrasting with its partner’s cool blues.

“Good riddance,” Lorza muttered as she glanced over his shoulder, suddenly bitter. She might be remembering her lost crew or perhaps the incident with Alexei.

“We made it,” he added, trying to sound reassuring. “We should have died half a dozen times – the crash, the cold, the hunger, the squid, the refinery – but we made it out in one piece.”

“For the most part,” she replied, her expression softening as she gestured to his broken arm.

“If I don’t have to replace something when I come back from an assignment, that’s a win in my book. How about we celebrate?” he added as he gestured to one of the crates. “Don’t eat it all at once – we don’t know how many days we’re going to be stuck out here until someone responds to our beacon.”

Lorza set upon the crate, wasting no time fishing out canned goods to check their labels, sorting through the rations. Boyd suddenly felt famished. It had been days since he had eaten anything but squid meat, and the vending machine sandwich hadn’t exactly been filling. The prospect of some cooked food had him salivating.

“I expect you to demonstrate those MRE cooking skills you bragged about,” he said, watching her as she piled plastic ration packets on the deck.

“Just wait – after that squid meat, this is going to blow you away. Let me see what we have here,” she muttered as she lifted a can to read its label. “Red beans, lentils, tomato puree, dehydrated beef from the ration packs, there is some canned ravioli…”

“Hell, just toss me a ration pack,” Boyd interjected. “I’m about ready to start eating the stuffing from the seats.”

“Hang on, hang on!” she protested as she waved him away impatiently, her attention focused on a tin of sardines. “We should do this properly – you will not regret it. No longer do we have to subsist on scraps. I can cook up something worth waiting for.”

“Okay,” Boyd conceded, heading back to the cockpit. “Surprise me. I’m going to check our trajectory and make sure this thing even has a working distress beacon.”

“You are certain that the Syndicate will not find us out here?” Lorza asked, shooting him a worried glance as she looked up from the crate. “They cannot intercept the transmission and send a ship out to find us?”

“We won’t start broadcasting until we’re close to our destination, but Darrel seemed to think that the Syndicate had no patrol ships,” he replied as he slid into one of the seats. “Even if they had a warden or two, and they somehow figured out that we jacked a shuttle, trying to find a craft as small as this once it’s finished its burn is like looking for a needle in a haystack. No shot they tail us.”

She nodded, giving him a reassured smile, then delved back into the crate in search of more ingredients.

CHAPTER 10: UNDERCOVER

The shuttle drifted through empty space, its engines offline now that it had finished its initial burn, reducing its telltale heat signature. While it was unlikely that their pursuers had the means to reach them, there was no harm in going silent running, as it would help conserve fuel and battery charge just in case they had to make a return journey.

Boyd was sitting on a crate in the cargo bay, while Lorza sat cross-legged on the deck opposite him, tall enough that her head remained level with his. She had thrown together some kind of vegetable and beef stew from the contents of the crates, and Boyd wasn’t sure if it was just starvation talking, but it was one of the most delicious things that he had ever had the privilege of tasting. After their ordeal on the ice moon, this rusty old shuttle might as well have been a gourmet restaurant in a Parisian cul-de-sac, and this amalgamation of MREs and canned food rivaled the finest cuisine. She watched him raise the metal cooking pot that he was using as a bowl to his lips, wolfing down the last few mouthfuls, the Polar smiling as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Okay, I admit it,” he began as he lowered the pot. “You’re the queen of ration cooking. How the hell did you learn to cook like this in the first place? I feel like if I gave you two rocks and a bird’s nest as ingredients, you could come back to me with a lasagna.”

She grinned as she hooked a piece of beef that was floating in her broth with a pointed claw, popping it into her mouth and chewing contentedly. She was taking her time now, savoring each bite, in stark contrast to when she had wolfed down a couple of hundred pounds of squid meat in a matter of minutes.

“When you live with scarcity, you have to make do with what you have,” she replied. “Back on Borealis, food was not plentiful, so we had to know how to make the best of whatever the hunters and foragers brought back. Things are better now, but sharing food and communal eating are still huge parts of our culture. A hunter was honored for their skill in bringing down prey, the whole community helped prepare the meal, and everyone ate together. Impress with a particularly large kill, or wow with your cooking skills, and you would have your pick of bedmates that night.”

“What was it like where you used to live?” Boyd asked.

“Borealis or Siberia?” she said.

“Either way,” he replied with a shrug. “It’s hard to picture.”

“Then, let me illuminate you,” she added as she shifted her weight to get comfortable on the deck. “Storytelling and oral histories are also important to my people, and there is value in being able to enthrall an audience. Close your eyes,” she added with a smile, Boyd doing as she asked.

“Alright, they’re closed.”

“Imagine yourself traveling alone in a freezing tundra,” she began. “It should not be hard after what we have been through. You have no fancy space suit – only your furs, and the freezing wind tears at them. You trudge through ankle-deep snow, heading for a building in the distance that promises shelter. It is a longhouse made from hewn logs, as large as any structure you have seen.”

“Big wood hut, got it.”

“You would not be so dismissive if you could see one for yourself,” she scolded. “Now, silence. You approach the doors, and as you push them aside, a great swell of warmth drives away the bitter cold. You step into a cavernous hall, a dozen crackling fire pits running down its length, racks of curing meat and drying pelts surrounding each one. At the edges of the room, where the firelight gives way to shadow, there are piles of sleeping Polars. Some wake to greet you, embracing you as a friend, inviting you to eat. Between the fire pits are long tables, large enough to seat whole packs, where that day’s hunt is being prepared. A herd animal fattened on spring chutes is being butchered, great slabs of marbled meat stripped from its pale bones. Cooks turn the flesh on spits, its scent filling the room, drawing more sleepy Polars from their alcoves. When the meat is perfectly charred, you shed your heavy clothes, and your hosts bid you to sit with them. The succulent meat and the warmth of the fire are shared freely with no expectation of payment, for that is our way. When food and shelter are scarce, to refuse is no different from killing with one’s own claws. When all have full bellies and their hunger has been sated, you are guided to a sleeping pile, where more hospitality is extended to you. The comfort of sharing a bed and the pleasure of lovemaking are given just as freely.”

“Sounds almost idyllic,” Boyd replied, her words painting a detailed picture in his mind. “I can see how that kind of environment could mold such a social culture. There are human cultures that share similar traits – eating communally, sharing resources. Some places still have cultural and religious events where families or even whole communities are expected to eat together at the same table. Thanksgiving, for example. Those are more about tradition than necessity now, though. Technology enables people to live very isolated lives if they choose. Has technology not changed the way you live on Earth?”

“We lived simple lives through necessity,” Lorza said, spooning another portion of the stew into Boyd’s pot as though afraid that he wasn’t eating enough. “There is nobility in a simple and satisfying life, but we have not rejected the advancements that living on Earth has brought. The Elysians withheld technology from us when the UNN came to Borealis, but you humans share it freely. I can still enjoy a longhouse I helped to build from timber that I cut with my own hands – whether it has fire pits or central heating does not detract from the effort that went into it. Torches for light or electric bulbs, animal pelts or synthetic fabrics – it does not make a difference to us. We use what tools are available.”

“From what you’ve told me, it sounds like your people are just happy to be warm and fed,” Boyd said as he started on his next helping of stew.

“You could say that,” she replied, pausing to take a sip from her bowl. “Life aboard a long-range spacecraft was particularly difficult for me. It took me light-years from my pack – from the people I would usually eat and share a sleeping pile with. Humans understand the concept of loneliness, but for a Polar, being separated from their pack is akin to being separated from family, friends, and lovers all in one. I grew homesick, and I sorely missed the physical intimacy that so many humans seem averse to. I missed the social experience of sharing a table. I decided to apply what I knew about cooking to the rations we were given, and I went from being ignored by the rest of the crew to being praised and valued practically overnight. We are not so different in the end. Every living creature likes to eat, and if you do favors for people, they will usually reciprocate.”

“Do you…miss your crew?” Boyd asked a little hesitantly.

“I had grown accustomed to them, and they to me,” she said as she stirred her meal with a spoon. “They were never as close to me as my pack, we did not share a bed or bathe together, but they were the closest thing to a family that I had. I have mourned them already – there is no point dwelling on it any longer.”

“Human social behavior really seems to confuse you,” he added, reaching for a packet of chips. “Is it so weird that we don’t want to take showers with our friends and fuck our coworkers?”

“I find it perplexing that you refuse simple comforts,” she elaborated, her long tongue seeking out droplets of stew at the bottom of her empty bowl. “You live together, yet you remain apart. The simple warmth of another’s embrace, the solace of shared pleasure and affection – these things are often treated as poisons. I have lived among humans now for many years, and it still makes little sense to me.”

“Humans have different relationship dynamics,” he explained, biting into a potato chip. “We fall in love, we court, we don’t just fuck friends and strangers.”

“Not true,” she shot back, waving her spoon at him accusingly. “Humans have friends with benefits, and you are perfectly happy to make love with complete strangers. I have seen it on many occasions.”

“Well,” he began, then paused to consider. “I mean, for the most part, we have monogamous relationships with a single partner.”

“Also untrue,” she replied adamantly. “I have discerned no pattern of behavior other than that there is no pattern. Not only are individual humans different, but their sensibilities even change depending on their mood.”

“I guess it’s just a cultural thing, then,” he conceded with a shrug. “We make distinctions between acquaintances, friends, lovers. We have no concept of packs like you do. Giving your friend head to cheer him up when he’s sad isn’t something people do,” he added with a chuckle.

“You weren’t complaining when I did that,” Lorza purred, her tone becoming sly. She reached out to grab his wrist, pulling his hand out of the packet of chips and guiding it towards her mouth. She slid her soft lips over his finger, her warm, slimy tongue coiling around it like a snake. His breath caught in his throat as she lingered there, then she released him, those blue eyes watching him intently. “Go on,” she cooed. “Make a case for why I should not do it again. I will wait.”

“We’re…more than friends, I’d say,” Boyd replied as she crawled closer like a tiger stalking its prey. She plucked the packet of chips from his hands and tossed it aside, then took his face in her furry palms, her silky fur brushing his rapidly reddening cheeks.

“I would call you packmate,” she said, leaning in for a kiss. She pressed her full, warm lips against his and slipped her tongue into his mouth, stroking his cheeks with her silky fingers as she subjected him to a lurid embrace. She tasted of the stew, and Boyd allowed himself to melt into her fur, letting her warmth overcome him. It had barely been a day since their romp in the cave, but it had been on his mind ever since, stuck there like an intrusive thought. She was intoxicating, and being so close to her without being able to touch her had been maddening.

Her pace was lazy, indulgent. They had all the time in the world now, stuck on a tiny shuttle barely the size of a walk-in closet with nothing better to do than fuck to pass the time. They had eaten well for the first time since the shuttle crash, leaving them satisfied and lethargic, and Boyd had even turned up the temperature in the craft as though trying to spite the frozen hellscape they had just escaped from. They were warm, full, and there was nobody around to disturb them.

Lorza slid her sinuous tongue back out of his mouth as she drew back, a strand of saliva linking their lips, the Polar giving him a sultry look that he knew all too well. There were no beds on the shuttle, but she still had her sleeping bag, the Polar reaching for it. She pulled out the roll of padded fabric from beneath some nearby netting, then laid it out on the deck between the crates. It was almost large enough to stretch from the cockpit to the ramp.

Boyd watched as she began to strip off her coveralls, pulling down the zipper slowly to put on a show for him, letting the weight of her copious bust spread it open as she went. She had to lean over a little in the confines of the shuttle to avoid bumping her head against the ceiling, but that didn’t diminish the effect, Boyd getting an admirable view straight into her cleavage. When she got low enough, there was an explosion of white fur and wobbling flesh, her breasts escaping the garment’s confines. She reached the soft little pouch of her belly, then turned her back to him, her wide hips swaying as she fought to get the blue fabric past her rump. She made sure that he could see the way her plump rear spilled out of her clothes as she dragged them down around her ankles, bending over to discard them, presenting her heart-shaped ass to him.

Lorza wormed her way into the sleeping bag and held it open in invitation, Boyd’s erection already straining conspicuously against his suit.

“I have eaten well, I am warm, and I am content,” she declared. “Now, I wish to come at least twice before I sleep. I trust that you will not disappoint me?”

Boyd rose from his seat and stripped off in kind, Lorza’s covetous gaze roaming over his lightly muscled figure, her blue eyes lingering on the various healed scars and puncture wounds that decorated his skin. She wet her lips as his erection bounced free, her eyes tracking it as it twitched and jumped in time with his heartbeat.

“When have I ever disappointed you?” he demanded.

Her long, fuzzy tail snaked out of the bag to wind around his member, her soft fur brushing against his belly. His knees weakened as it tightened, almost making him stumble, Lorza leading him towards the sleeping bag with a smug expression on her face. She reached out to grab him when he came into range, wrapping her arms around him tightly as she pulled him inside the bag like a giant trapdoor spider. He found himself pressed up against her paunchy body, pillowy flesh enveloping him, the Polar holding him with one arm while she pulled up the zipper with the other. The scent of their lurid activities from the prior night still lingered, exciting him on a primal level, his cock pressing into the cushion of her belly as she danced her sharp talons down his spine.

Lying with Lorza was so comfortable that it almost overrode his excitement. She was like a giant heated pillow that could hug back, the softness of her coat and her familiar scent making him sleepy and lightheaded. The desires to fuck and sleep battled in his mind, Boyd breathing in the aroma of her copious breasts as she pressed his face deep into her inviting cleavage, Lorza gently dragging her pointed claws up and down his back all the while. She made the decision for him, pushing her furry thigh against his groin, his erection sinking deep into the delicate fat. He groaned, and she chuckled, bringing her head down to chew softly at his ear with her pointed teeth.

“Do not fall asleep on me, malish,” she purred. “There will be time for that later, but only after I have exhausted you.”

She took his face in her hand, angling it up so that she could lead him into another kiss. His head spun as her powerful tongue pushed its way into his mouth, her pace far greedier now, its every teasing stroke imbued with unabashed carnality. As much as he did his best to meet her embrace, she was overwhelming, the meat of her bosom spilling over his chest as she leaned over him.

She broke off, making him watch as inches of glistening tongue snaked back between her lips, then she planted a hand on the top of his head. It was almost large enough to encompass his skull, like he was wearing a furry ushanka. With a smile, she began to push him down into the sleeping bag, rolling onto her back as he crawled over the doughy mound of her belly. He soon ended up between her legs, and her abundant thighs parted to give him access, enough light making it into the bag that he could see the sliver of glistening pink nestled in her fur.

Boyd parted her swollen lips with his fingers, feeling her massive body shiver, a rumbling purr that rattled his bones escaping from her throat. It was almost enough to overpower the vibrations from the shuttle – like sitting atop a running engine.He pressed his lips against her warm loins in a tentative kiss, finding them feverishly hot, already slick with her anticipation. Lorza’s long spine arched off the deck as he traced the contours of her vulva with his tongue, the texture of her folds like wet velvet. Her familiar taste and scent filled his head like a drug, her massive body quivering with each lick and glance, so wonderfully reactive. He felt her claws on his scalp, her fingers delving into his hair asshe pressed him deeper, pushing his face into her groin with an almost desperate desire.

Her groans of encouragement filled the bay as he painted her loins, mapping her anatomy with his tongue, his hands sinking into the tufts of snowy fur and the plush fat of her thighs as he roved. He felt her legs tremble around him as he circled her opening with the tip of his finger, her oozing nectar making it slippery and wet, her muscles gripping it as he pushed it inside her. He knew what she liked by now – he knew her weak points, where she was most sensitive, starting to stroke her passage as it undulated around his digit.

“You learn quickly,” she sighed, unable to stop herself from grinding her hips against his finger. It was subtle – barely perceptible – but he could feel her moving.

“We call it information gathering,” he replied, glancing up at her with a smirk to see her peering back at him from the top of the bag. He faltered, groaning into her loins as her long, velvet-soft tail snuck up from behind him. Moving as though it had a mind all its own, it began to gently brush against his inner thighs and his balls, just as dexterous as her hands. That impossibly fluffy, feather-soft fur glanced his skin, each lingering stroke scrambling his senses. He lay his head on her mound – as soft as a pillow – taking a moment to bask in the sensation. When he returned his lips to hers, it was with renewed enthusiasm, each throb of pleasure coaxing him on. Lorza wriggled contentedly as he delved deeper and more greedily, massaging her with his finger, his lips roaming across her anatomy.

“What is the matter?” she asked, half a pant and half a chuckle. “I thought you had eaten your fill already?”

Boyd sought out her swollen, needy clitoris with his tongue, and that silenced her. A gasp caught in her throat, then escaped as a low, sultry whine that set his heart fluttering. She growled like a lioness as he pursed his lips around the bud of pulsing flesh, teasing her with quick glances and slow, lingering swirls that made her grip on his hair tighten. Her tail was distracting him from his work – it was like having a feather duster lightly dragged across his most sensitive areas, its touch so gentle that it was frustrating. Almost as though she could sense his need, it began to wind around his shaft like a furry snake, tightening to make him buck into it reflexively.

“Do not slack off, or I may have to sit on your face again,” she chuckled. “Or, is that what you want?”

He scowled and gave her clitoris another cruel lick, cutting off her laughter and transforming it into a long, drawn-out moan that was somewhere between arousal and the growl of an angry bear. He circled it slowly – too slowly to give her any real gratification, but just enough to keep her on edge. Her passage was tightening around his finger with fresh ferocity, massaging its length with cruel clenches and squeezes. A sudden desperate, urgent need for her welled up inside him, and he felt as though he might explode if his desire wasn’t indulged. He wanted to feel those slick, fever-hot walls enclose his aching member, their embrace at once firm and delicate. He needed those tight muscles milking him again, memories of their last night of passion flashing through his mind.

Lorza seemed to notice that he was growing more aggressive, gripping his hair to lift him from between her thighs, a strand of her fluids dangling from his chin.

“Gotta slow you down or you might finish me off too soon,” she purred, wiping away a glob of her juices that was clinging to his red cheek with her thumb pad. “I have an idea,” she added with a chuckle, reaching down to grab him.

She rolled him onto his back within the confines of the sleeping bag, swinging a leg over him as she straddled him. Rather than mount him, she began to crawl lower, tenting the fabric as Boyd watched her with a blend of curiosity and anticipation. She knelt, sitting upright, then cupped her furry hands beneath his butt to lift him off the deck. His stomach lurched as she slid him up the furry slope created by her thighs, Boyd having to spread his legs as he straddled her belly like it was an exercise ball. His hips were elevated off the deck now, his head and shoulders still resting on the sleeping bag. As he watched, she doubled over, letting the weight of her generous breasts spill over his thighs. Lorza corralled them by creating a barrier with her arms, as though cake batter was being poured into a pan, her luxuriantly soft fat filling the space and burying his pulsing cock in the process. Their weight alone was enough to create a wonderful pressure, her cleavage engulfing his shaft in its warm, fluffy confines. The shelf of doughy flesh quivered as she adjusted her position a little, Boyd gasping as the motion made her bosom rock around his length. Smirking down at him, she tightened her grip, her boobs bulging over her forearms like muffins overflowing their molds as she squeezed. They were soft enough that his cock sank into their surfaces almost without resistance, but their weight gave them a wonderful heft, pushing back against him.

“How does that feel?” she asked, her round ears tracking him eagerly as she waited for his reply.

“Amazing,” he replied, exhaling a sigh.

“I cannot even see you anymore,” she giggled, glancing down into the shadow of her own cleavage. She began to move, keeping her grip tight as she struggled to prevent her assets from escaping her arms, lifting them off him. Boyd shivered as he felt the feathery strands of her downy coat glide up his shaft, tickling his glans, every subtle movement making her bust quiver and wobble. At her apex, she let them drop again, their weight carrying them down to impact his hips and thighs with a tangible thud. They bounced around his buried cock, the sensation without compare, his eyes lingering on them as her springy fat slowly settled. He could have made a game out of giving them a slap, then seeing how long it took them to stop shaking. It was hard to resist the impulse to just rut into them, but he didn’t have the leverage in this compromising position – he was practically upside down.

“Lie still and let me have my fun,” she chuckled, feeling him wriggle in frustration.

She found a steady pace, lifting her breasts off him, then letting them fall again. She kept her arms wrapped tightly around them, struggling to contain their mass, stopping the quivering globes of flesh from escaping her grasp. Each impact reverberated through him, her boobs bouncing against his hips, Lorza keeping her cleavage tight enough that he could feel her yielding fat mold around his shaft like putty. It was like fucking a pair of fluffy, silken pillows.

“Enjoying yourself?” she purred, drinking in his dazed expression. “You think I do not notice you staring at these whenever the opportunity presents itself? For a spy, you are not very discreet, Boyd.”

“Well, your tits aren’t very discreet,” he replied. “Fucking things are always in my face.”

Lorza pressed her hands against her breasts, Boyd watching as they sank up to the wrist in the boundless ocean of flesh, the pressure around his shaft increasing. She began to move them independently of one another, pushing one forward, then pulling the other back as she alternated between them. It was a struggle for her to maneuver them, but she managed to manipulate them in spite of their considerable mass, moving her hands almost like a cat massaging its favorite blanket. Boyd gritted his teeth, this new sensation assailing him with fresh waves of pleasure.

“You’re just full of creative ideas,” he sighed, relaxing on the sleeping bag as he let the pleasant waves of euphoria wash over him.

“Is it making you lightheaded?” she chuckled, enjoying his reaction.

“Nah, all my blood is in my fucking head.”

Lorza laughed, the mountains of flesh shaking around his cock with the motion. All she was really doing was rubbing her silky fur and soft fat against his skin, but her cleavage was so intoxicatingly warm and tight, the weight of her breasts pressing them together so that they fit him like a glove. There wasn’t an inch of his skin that wasn’t in contact with something plump and plush. Despite her strength, it was a challenge for her to corral them. They were heavy and pliable enough that it was almost like trying to hold wet sand, her doughy fat spilling through her fingers, bulging around her hands as gravity sought to wrest back control of them.

Boyd managed to tear his eyes away from the beautiful sight of her breasts for a moment to glance at her face, seeing that she was wearing as large a smile as he had ever seen. This wasn’t just about sex – she was really having fun with this, exploring and experimenting as much as she was pleasuring him. There was satisfaction in finding positions that worked for them, their vast difference in stature and weight making it somewhat akin to solving a puzzle. Every encounter was a new challenge and a new opportunity to work their brains as much as their loins.

“You are buried so deep,” she said with a sly grin, her blue eyes fixed on her bust.

She wrapped her arms around her breasts again, that wonderful tightness increasing, eliciting a groan from Boyd. He watched as she leaned closer, bringing her head down towards her cleavage, the grey strands of her hair falling over her face. She lay her head on the wobbling shelf formed by her bosom, then Boyd lurched, feeling something warm and slippery brush against his glans. It was her tongue – she was extending the long organ down into her cleavage,blindly worming it deeper.

When she found him, the length of hot, wet muscle began to circle his head. He winced, another throb of pleasure rocking him, each delicate stroke plucking at his nerves like she was strumming the strings of a guitar. She licked his sensitive tip, sliding the satin-smooth underside beneath his foreskin, painting it with her warm saliva. It gradually snaked its way down his length until he was all but encompassed in its undulating coils, fur soaked with her drool sticking to his skin.

Once she had mapped him out in her mind, she began to tighten her grip, her slippery flesh sliding up his shaft with all the dexterity and control that he had come to expect from her. Lovemaking was an art form to the Polars, and Lorza was a master at her craft.

His toes curled as she circled his tender glans, drenching his skin in her stringy saliva, her increasingly wet fur tickling him as she began to move her breasts again. He was assailed from every angle – the wonderful warmth and softness of her breasts, the glass-smooth flesh of her winding tongue, the strands of damp fur caressing his pulsing shaft. It was like being trapped in some kind of cruel paradise.

“Lorza, I dunno how much more of this I can take,” he gasped.

“Well, steel yourself,” she replied as she chuckled into her bust. “Did you not say that you were trained to resist torture and that no interrogator could break you?”

“Not in so many words,” he muttered.

“Perhaps I will be the first to break you,” she purred, rolling her Rs. “The thought excites me…”

Before he could come up with a scathing reply, she plunged back into her bust, her breasts quivering as her puffy lips wrapped around his head. She drew him deeper into her mouth, guiding him with her tongue, the gentle suction making him take handfuls of the sleeping bag’s soft padding.

She crawled her lips down his shaft, the lining of her inner cheeks pressing around him as though he was being vacuum-packed in her velvet flesh, her tongue jostling for space. Her breasts parted as her lips kissed his base, her tongue coiling out to lap at his balls. He felt her throat muscles grip him like a smooth, slippery glove, drawing him deeper into her gullet as she swallowed in teasing waves.

He lay back and stared vacantly at the ceiling of the troop bay as she began to bob her head on his shaft, pushing down to take him all the way to the hilt, then sliding her pursed lips back up his length to circle his tip with her tongue. Her sinuous organ coiled and squeezed, wrapping his member in its slimy surface, the ropy muscle massaging him with its ruthless strokes. He still lacked the leverage to thrust, but she did it for him now, his glans grazing the back of her throat as she slammed her face down on his cock. Her sharp claws pricked his butt as she cupped it in her hand, lifting him off her lap, the other fighting to keep her breasts sealed tightly around his cock. Every time he left the warmth of her mouth, her soaking-wet fur was there to greet him, matted with the bubbling saliva that lubricated his shaft. It was a strange and novel sensation, different from anything that she had subjected him to thus far. Strands of her drool were leaking out of the bottom of her cleavage now, droplets of it sliding up his belly, strands falling to the plush fabric beneath them. They were going to have to burn this damned sleeping bag once they got back to civilization – there was no salvaging it after everything they had subjected it to.

He winced as her throat tightened its grip on him, as if she was attempting to swallow his member, firm muscles squeezing and pulling beneath her slick flesh. She was so gentle and careful despite her ruthless pace, never catching him with her rows of carnivore teeth or the rough barbs of her tongue.

Driven by his growing need, he rolled his hips as Lorza drew him into her mouth, her face vanishing into the depths of her cleavage with each thrust. She grabbed him suddenly, wrapping her hands almost completely around his lower body, the sharp claws on her thumbs pricking his belly as she held him there. As if to demonstrate her alien lung capacity, she took him deep into her twitching gullet and kept him there, her grip on his hips preventing him from driving himself deeper or wriggling free of her hold on him.

Its tightness rivaled that of her loins, her muscles rippling and milking him as they made a futile attempt to reject his intrusion, Lorza already surpassing the limit that would have caused a human to gag and come up for air. A minute became two, each maddening spasm of her throat sending arcs of pleasure dancing between his nerves, the intense suction threatening to draw his emission from his very body. He gritted his teeth, his spine arching, in danger of losing control before she even ran out of breath. Their encounter had turned into a competition to see who would fold first. Would Boyd succumb and release into her waiting mouth, or would she reach her limit and free him first? As much as the allure of release tempted him, he didn’t want to lose the game – he didn’t want to let her break him as she had so smugly announced earlier.

Her hold on him grew tighter, her curved claws pressing into the meat of his butt as she held him in her mouth, her breasts draping themselves over his hips and obscuring her face. Finally, she relented, lowering him back into her lap as she let his aching member slowly slide past her lips. She took a deep breath, allowing a mouthful of stringy saliva to slough down into her cleavage, its warmth reaching his glans as it seeped between her boobs. As he watched, she allowed their weight to spread them apart, showing him the glistening web of drool that stretched between them like molten glass. His cock was nestled in her wet fur, shining with her fluids.

“You are full of surprises, Agent Boyd,” she chuckled. “I did not think you would survive that.”

“You underestimate humans,” he gasped, failing to mask his excitement as she circled the tender head of his member with her finger.

“I suppose I will have to test your limits in other ways, then,” she continued as she wet her lips. “In order that my estimations be more accurate, of course.”

He felt her warm lips press around his glans again, taking his throbbing length into her mouth and battering it with powerful, smooth strokes of her impossibly long tongue. It coiled and weaved, wrapping his shaft and caressing his skin, squeezing rhythmically as its tapered tip sought out weak points to tease. Boyd felt as though his legs were melting into jelly, bursts of prickling pleasure flowing up through his spine and spreading to the tips of his fingers and toes as if he were the conduit for some kind of raw, sexual energy. She was cleaning him – and seeing if she could finish him with a surprise attack – pulling away to leave him all but dry.

“Sorry,” she chuckled, laying him back down in the sleeping bag. “I must have forgotten to warn you.”

“Resorting to cheating?” he asked, feigning indignation to the best of his abilities in his state of drunken euphoria.

“What is it that your kind say?” she asked, flopping down onto the sleeping bag beside him with a thud that could have knocked the shuttle off-course. “All is fair in love and war?”

She wrapped a long arm around him, drawing him closer so that they could spoon, Boyd feeling the warmth of her breath as she pushed her feline nose into the nape of his neck. Her rough tongue slid out to glance his skin, Lorza practically shivering with glee as she tasted the salt, gazing down at him like a lion preparing to eat a gazelle.

“The human nose really must be dull.”

“What do you mean?” Boyd gasped, feeling her furry palm slide down his belly towards his still-rigid erection.

“The air is full of it,” she explained. “You are sweating hormones – I can taste it on your skin. You had better take a long shower before we go anywhere we might encounter other Borealans – they will be able to smell me on you from a mile away. It would be like walking around with a neon sign hanging from your neck that lists off all of our dirty deeds one by one…”

“That’s…” He winced as she traced his abs with her hooked claws, crawling her fingers inexorably downwards.

Arousing?” Lorza suggested as she reached his member, wrapping her silky fingers around it. Boyd pushed into her palm reflexively, her soft coat tickling his glans, still damp with her saliva.

“I was going to say obscene.”

She leaned closer and sucked his ear into her mouth, catching it in her teeth and chewing softly, gripping him more firmly in her hand as he squirmed.

“It excites me,” she whispered. “It is as though I get to write my name on your forehead in permanent marker. You will have to scrub to get it off.” He wriggled as she pinched his ear a little harder, giving his aching member a gentle stroke as though to reward him, the contrasting sensations boiling his brain in his skull. “You like it too, or you would not be throbbing in my hand like this.” He fumed, red-faced as she let the weight of her mammoth breasts rest on his chest, the pliant fat deforming and spreading as she murmured her obscenities in his ear. “You know, the more honest you are, the better I can make you feel. Now, try to keep still. I want you to blow your load in my hand. Stop fretting,” she added with a chuckle. “You have proven your point. I just want to make sure you last a good long time for me…”

She resumed her slow stroking, lazily pumping her furry fist, Boyd relaxing back into the soft padding of the sleeping bag as he basked in the sensation. Her earlier attentions had left him so sensitive, his skin still slick with her saliva, but she was prolonging his euphoria rather than finishing him off quickly. This wasn’t just about her own gratification – she enjoyed pleasuring him, enjoyed seeing him in this state.

Lorza buried her face in his neck again, nuzzling affectionately as she stroked, her plump lips crawling across his skin. She nibbled his ear, kissed his cheek, the barbs of her tongue grazing his throat. Her wobbling breasts cascaded over his torso like a warm, furry blanket, pressing him down against the deck with their weight. There was no need to hold back, and with her bosom in easy reach, he delved a hand into her velvet flesh almost absent-mindedly. He felt her shudder appreciatively as he began to knead, her grip on his shaft tightening, and she planted a lingering kiss on his neck.

“I really enjoy you,” he muttered.

“You know, you are a lot easier to get along with when pleasure has dulled your sharp tongue,” she chuckled in reply. “I will have to put you in this state more often.”

He tilted his chin up in search of a kiss, and she rewarded him, meeting his embrace. She slid her free arm beneath his head to lift him a little, keeping up her doting handjob all the while, the placating strokes of her agile tongue just as slow and as teasing as the movements of her silky fist. There was something wonderful about this sluggish pace, as though she was giving him time to dwell on each lick as her tongue wormed its way into his mouth – to wallow in every practiced pump of her hand. A fever was growing within him, a tingling heat spreading through his body, as though his very cells were warming at her touch. As much as he wanted this to continue forever – the two of them trapped in a little pocket dimension where they never had to get out of this sullied sleeping bag – that hazy euphoria was growing sharper and more urgent.

“Where do you want to finish?” she cooed, watching him with a smile. “Hand or mouth? You have to ask,” she added with a rumbling purr.

“Mouth,” he replied, his excitement mounting as she began to slide lower. The weight of her breasts left his torso, Lorza keeping his member in her tight fist as she planted kisses on his chest. She crawled slowly down his belly, delighting in the way that his muscles flexed involuntarily at her touch. She slipped beneath the sleeping bag, her hot breath blowing over his sensitive tip as she poised there, making him wait.

He felt the welcome warmth of her lips return to his glans, Lorza taking him into her mouth and lashing him with strong, smooth strokes of her impossibly long tongue. Her hair tickled his belly as she started to nurse at his tip, sliding a hand down to cup his balls, squeezing and stroking them with her unusual blend of teasing and gentleness.

Her tempo quickly began to build – perhaps she sensed his need – her lips kissing his base as she took him deep into her throat with practiced ease. Her tongue coiled and jostled as she began to rise and fall beneath the fabric, Boyd watching her head tent the sleeping bag. Grace was an afterthought now, moderation a hindrance, Lorza letting globs of her saliva escape her mouth as she slammed her face down into his lap. She wasn’t holding him down, either, allowing him to lift his hips off the deck as he thrust into her waiting throat. Its warmth was irresistible, her smooth flesh slick with her drool, the muscles in the reaches of her gullet seizing around him like a closing fist as he pushed deeper.

Animal lust overcame him, his desire mounting, a growing pressure in his loins urging him to go faster and harder. Lorza let her tongue loll from her mouth, stroking his balls with her soft fur, letting out comely moans of encouragement as he plunged her throat.

A few more frantic pumps were all it took, then she swallowed him to the hilt, alerted by his pained groan. Lorza drank, each gulp making those damp, silken muscles glide up in his length in an inexorable wave. His emission splashed against the back of her throat, filling her mouth, each pulse of his member ejecting a fresh wad of his seed into her waiting maw. Sharp ecstasy gradually gave way to a sweet ache that permeated him to the core, and he shuddered as she eased out one last rope, her tongue lingering for a moment to lap at his tip.

“There we go,” she purred, her ice-blue eyes glinting beneath the shadow of the sleeping bag as she glanced up at him. “You look like you enjoyed that, malish.”

She licked her lips with her pink tongue, then crawled back up their makeshift bed to join him, draping an arm over his glistening chest. She watched him intently as he slowly recovered his faculties, a smirk on her face, enjoying the fruits of her labor. He shivered as she brought a razor-sharp claw to his vulnerable belly, the Polar watching as he flinched away from it. Applying just enough pressure that he could feel it, she began to make slow circles, his heightened senses after his climax making it all the more distracting.

“You look mad,” she cooed, leaning her head in her hand. “Planning to get me back for that?”

“Just you wait,” he replied.

“Oh, I am looking forward to it,” she said with a smirk. She drew shapes on his skin with her talon, leaving red trails, the phenomenon seeming to amuse her. “You have such smooth skin,” she mused. “I thought it looked strange at first, but I have come to appreciate its texture.” She rubbed his sweat between the pads on her forefinger and thumb as if testing its viscosity. “It gets so hot and damp when you exert yourself, it glows red when you are aroused, like a beacon that broadcasts your desire.”

“Well, it’s pretty hot in this bay,” he explained as she dragged a padded finger across his slick chest. “I’m not turning down the climate control, though. Fuck that. After spending a week on that frozen shithole, I want this place to be a sauna.”

Lorza waited impatiently for his refractory period to end, prodding at him as if he were some specimen on a dissection table, chuckling at his attempts to bat her giant hand away.

“You’re insatiable,” he complained. “Wait just a few more minutes, jeez.”

She relented, plunging her nose into his hair, taking in a deep breath of his scent.

“I like this,” she sighed, tugging him a little closer possessively. “I have missed being intimate with my pack. Humans are usually so distant. They live and work together, but they behave as if there is an invisible barrier separating them at all times. They never touch each other, never get too close – unless they choose to mate, which they never do as much as they should.”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Most people aren’t going to be super accepting of a giant, fuzzy alien invading their personal space and getting touchy. We have boundaries, and each person is going to be a little different.”

“You like me though, da?” Lorza asked as she lay her furry chin on his head. “You like being close to me – you like me touching you?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

“I like to hear you say it,” she purred, waiting expectantly.

“Yeah,” he conceded after a moment. “You say you missed this, but I never really had it. Polars seem a lot more…open about their desires – a lot more permissive. You don’t overthink things, you don’t try to justify doing something that feels good, you just do it. We have insecurities and hangups that hold us back, we don’t trust each other, we worry that we’ll be judged. I feel comfortable enough around you that we could have been married for ten years, but I’ve only known you for about a week. It’s weird. Good weird.”

“Married?” she chuckled, covering her mouth demurely. “I am glad that you feel you can be honest with me. Lies and deception are your profession, after all.”

“Yeah, my job makes it hard to form genuine relationships. I haven’t…” He stopped himself, not wanting to be too candid about his romantic history. “I haven’t had an opportunity to be this close to someone in a long time.”

“Oh, I think we could be closer,” the Polar replied with a rumbling purr.

“Is that a euphemism?” he asked suspiciously.

“Absolutely,” she snickered, making him lurch as she slid a hand beneath the sleeping bag to brush his member. “Feels like you have recovered your strength, yes?”

“Will you calm down?” he grumbled, a jolt of pleasure rocking him as her soft fur tickled his glans. “We have all the time in the world now.”

“And I plan to make good use of every moment,” she added with a sly smile.

“I guess there’s no point arguing,” he said, feigning annoyance. “You have a large appetite in more ways than one.”

Lorza watched curiously as he sat up and began to unzip the sleeping bag. It was warm enough inside the bay that they didn’t really need it anyway – it was only there to protect them from the cold, hard deck of the troop bay. He threw back the fabric, then gripped a handful of her furry hip, trying to roll her over onto her belly. She let him struggle for a few moments, amused by his efforts, then she complied. As usual, any small movement drew his attention to the softness of her voluptuous figure, her round ass quivering as she shifted her weight to get comfortable. It wasn’t an easy task – her breasts spreading across the fabric beneath her.

“What are you doing back there?” she asked, peering over her shoulder as Boyd crawled down to position himself behind her. Her tail waved back and forth, tickling his bare skin as he sank his fingers a good couple of inches into the yielding mounds of her generous cheeks, the steely muscles beneath tensing when he reached the firm tissue. They looked like a pair of exercise balls that had been squashed together tightly, then wrapped in luxuriant fur.

“I have to satisfy at least one of your appetites, or I’m gonna end up like that squid,” he replied as he tapped one of her thighs. She parted them obediently, making room for him so that he could press closer, her flexibility once again surprising him. He kept having to remind himself that by Polar standards, she wasn’t out of shape in the least. Her lower body was so powerful – it wasn’t just her ample stores of fat that gave her that signature hourglass figure, but all of the muscle that was necessary to propel such a massive creature. He could feel it lurking just beneath the surface wherever he lay his hands. Lorza glanced over her shoulder again, narrowing her eyes.

“If you are going to do something that will blow me away, you had better-”

He cut her off, taking the base of her long tail in his fist and giving it a sharp tug. Lorza’s voice tapered into a groan, and she bit her lip, lifting her hips off the deck reflexively. Boyd couldn’t reach her hair, so he had elected to pull her tail instead, not expecting such a strong reaction.

“Did that hurt?” he asked.

Fuck no,” she said with a lascivious growl. “Do it again.”

Boyd gave the appendage another hard yank, watching her thighs tremble, her butt rising into the air again as if in invitation. There must be a nerve cluster at the base of her tail, or perhaps it really was the equivalent of pulling a human’s hair? In any case, she liked it, and he enjoyed turning the tables on her. He slipped a hand between her thighs, probing the soft fat and fur in search of her loins. Warm, damp flesh greeted his fingers as they glanced her labia, already slick and ready. She wriggled, her wide hips shaking and her ample butt wobbling as she repositioned herself, Boyd shuffling closer on his knees now that he had found his bearings in this mass of meat and fluff.

Maneuvering between her open legs, he leaned his weight on her rump, Lorza lifting herself a few inches higher to accommodate him.She wasn’t quite on all fours, her torso resting on the sleeping bag, her spine arching as she lifted her lower body off the deck on her knees. He paused, and she batted him with her tail impatiently.

“What are you waiting for, malish?”

“What?” he asked, giving one of her cheeks a playful slap that made it jiggle. “You’re gonna give me a view like this and expect me not to take the time to admire it?”

She hooked her tail around him like a lasso, guiding him closer, Boyd chuckling as he relented. He took his member in his hand, pressing it against her shining vulva. Warm, slick flesh glided against his own as he rubbed his glans between her flushed lips, the fur surrounding them already soaked with her anticipation. Beautiful shivers rolled through her titanic body, the little tremors of excitement making her inviting flesh ripple, a strand of her fluid drooping from her mound to stretch towards the fabric below. Taking her tail in hand like he was gripping the reins of a horse, he pressed his tip against her opening, then pulled himself into her.

There was a wonderful moment of resistance as a tight ring of muscles clenched around him, then he pushed through, sliding into her narrow tunnel with one smooth thrust. His skin glided against flesh like wet satin, conforming to his every aching contour as her walls tightened around his shaft, the powerful spasms of her muscles making him lightheaded. Even in this balmy environment, she was tangibly hot, that inviting warmth only encouraging him to push deeper. It felt like being wrapped in liquid muscle, each squeeze and clench making the pair sigh in tandem.

“You can reach so much deeper in this position,” Lorza mumbled, groaning into the pillow that was sewn into her sleeping bag.

He began to move, using her tail as leverage, the Polar arching her long spine. She growled like an angry cat as he found a slow, heavy tempo, all of the tension in her muscles starting to melt away. She buried her face in her pillow, sinking her teeth into the plush material, her sharp claws puncturing it as she grumbled to herself incoherently.

Feeling emboldened, he increased his pace, giving it his all as he buried his throbbing member in her narrow reaches. There was a palpable need in the way that she gripped him, her insides sealing around his shaft, caressing his length with little flutters and twitches as he scoured her tender depths. She shivered contentedly with every thrust, pushing back to meet him, driving him harder and deeper than he could muster on his own. Pulling her tail like this made her oddly compliant – not quite submissive, but her change in attitude was noticeable. Gone were the smirks and jokes – she was face-down on the decknow, matching his rhythm with a lust and eagerness that went beyond her usual enthusiasm.

He took the opportunity to grope her copious ass with his free hand, mauling her cheek as they moved together, her insulating blubber as soft and as yielding as wet clay. He played with her tail, feeling her insides tighten around him whenever he gave it a tug, slick walls pressing together to enclose his member in a prison of hot flesh. She was so excited, thick strands of her love dangling from her rosy vulva as the pair rutted, matting the silky fur of her inner thighs. It was almost like she was drooling in anticipation.

She began to roll her hips, grinding his throbbing shaft against her satin walls, stirring him around inside her. Every inch of his skin was being stroked and squeezed by her velutinous tunnel, ripples of damp muscle traveling up his length, a blur of sensations and mingling pleasures filling his brain with a kind of happy haze. He shook his head, trying to banish the fog of lust that threatened to cloud his mind, but it was like fighting a sedative. He had her on the ropes, and he wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass him by. This time, he wanted to see Lorza panting beneath him, trembling and dripping as she recovered from a mind-numbing climax.

The panting Polar cursed in Russian as he pulled her tail again, turning her head to glare at him over her furry shoulder. Rather than the scorn he was expecting, he saw that her azure eyes were lidding with each stroke, an expression of drunken carnality and longing etched onto her face. Seeing her in such an affected state invigorated him, stoking a fresh fire in his belly as he redoubled his efforts, hitting her from behind with all of the force that he could muster. Her plump cheeks bounced each time he slammed into them, helping to cushion the blows, his hips sinking a good inch or two into their plush surface with every thrust.

A rumbling purr rose in her throat, one that might have been intimidating if he hadn’t known that it was an expression of pleasure, a particularly powerful contraction making him gasp. She was pushing back against him so fervently now. The impact would probably have been enough to bruise, had her round ass not been there to absorb the shocks. He kept a tight hold on the base of her furry tail, wrenching it as he used it for purchase, each pull sending a rolling shiver down her spine that culminated in a wanton growl or a fresh bite into the now shredded pillow.

Vo dayot,” she moaned into the padding. “I did not know you had it in you, Boyd…”

Her voice trailed off as he gave her tail another harsh yank, slamming his member into her burning tunnel, Lorza matching his pace in a bid to take him deeper. She was gripping him so tightly now, her clenching muscles bearing down on him to the point that it was a struggle to pull out, her loins drawing on him greedily.

“D-do not slow down,” she pleaded, the desire in her voice surprising him. “I need this…”

Every word out of her mouth just made him want her more, every twitch and shiver that passed through her voluptuous body goading him on, fanning the flames of his lust. He increased his pace, hammering into her as she growled with glee, her voice muffled by her pillow. Boyd watched the stuffing spill onto the deck as she tore into the fabric with her sharp claws, and he considered how those same claws had drawn trails on his belly – how they had gently scratched his scalp. It had never really occurred to him until now how gentle she was capable of being, how much of her strength and lethality she was able to restrain for his sake. When the recruits talked about the scars they got from their encounters with Equatorials, was this what they were subjected to?

Lorza’s pace was growing erratic – she was thrusting back against him with more urgency, Boyd having to hold onto her tail to prevent himself from bouncing off her ass. He heard more tearing fabric as he pushed her higher, the pitch of her bestial moans rising as she edged closer to release, her loins gripping him like an angry fist. He elected to give her tail one last yank, her head snapping up from the pillow.

A powerful climax rocked her, a sharp cry catching in her throat, her long spine going as stiff as a steel rod. Boyd doubled over, his weight insubstantial to her as he leaned on her ample cheeks, her insides closing around him in a wracking throb. Like someone letting the air out of a pool toy, she began to melt back into the sleeping bag, twitching and gasping as the wracking pleasure started to ribbon up through her body. It was more than Boyd could stand, each stroke of those tight muscles milking him ruthlessly, dragging him over the edge along with her.

His groan was joined by another impassioned growl from Lorza as she felt his warm ejaculate flood her, thick ropes of his seed splashing against her twitching walls, the Polar pushing back in a desperate bid to take him deeper. Her muscles kneaded and squeezed, wet silk caressing him, her massive frame trembling like a leaf each time she felt another hot load pump into her intimate reaches. Their movements were mechanical now, driven by bestial desire, all affectations of civility abandoned as they rode out the spasms of their shared ecstasy.

Boyd sank his fingers deep into her inviting fur, taking cruel handfuls of her flesh, having to spread his arms wider than the span of his shoulders to grip her hips for leverage. There was something liberating about not having to worry about hurting her – she was far too large, her cheeks wobbling as his hips bounced off their springy surface.

He felt as though he was pumping his very life force into her eager tunnel, the ceaseless rocking of her hips and the kneading of her toned muscles sapping his strength like a vampire. He leaned over her, sliding his hands down to the small of her back – as far as he could reach, giving himself over entirely to his animal lust. Lorza was faring no better, her conscious mind ebbing as she was lost in her fugue, moving to a rhythm that only she seemed able to hear.

They stayed locked together for a few wonderful minutes that felt like an age to their addled minds, until their fading ecstasy gave way to a permeating afterglow. They took a moment to get their bearings, catching their breath, then Lorza slowly slid off him. He watched her pink flesh cling to his shaft as she relinquished her hold on him inch by glistening inch, a few stray ropes of milky fluid connecting her fur to his skin before they broke, the Polar flopping onto the sleeping bag like someone who had just run a marathon.

The fabric was impregnated with the sordid evidence of their coupling, even more of it sloughing out of Lorza as she loosed a contented sigh, dripping to the sullied fabric from her rosy lips. The pillow was destroyed, its stuffing now decorating the troop bay like off-white snow.

“I think we’re just going to have to space this sleeping bag,” Boyd muttered. “There’s no saving it at this point.”

Lorza laughed, snatching him in her furry arms as he lay down beside her, pulling him into a contented hug. He was soaked with sweat, still sticky from their lovemaking, but she couldn’t have cared less. She was wallowing in post-coital bliss, utterly satisfied, and he was in no better state of mind. Hearing the rumble of her purring, he buried his face in her chest, letting the supple meat of her breasts engulf his head as he breathed in her wonderful scent without reservation. The sensation of her silky fur against his skin somehow felt even better now.

“I have decided that I am definitely not going to eat you,” Lorza announced.

“Well, that’s good to hear…”

She reached down and kissed him, slow and tender, the deft strokes of her long tongue setting his heart racing again as she caressed his cheek with her soft palm. She broke away with a wet pop, draping her arm over him and pushing her feline nose into his hair again. He must smell good to her – she seemed to do that a lot.

“I am going to smell myself on you for a good week,” she cooed, her tone sultry. “In a way, I am glad that other humans cannot pick it up. It would be considered bad manners in Polar society, but as long as there are no other Borealans around, I can drench you in pheromones and nobody will know it besides you and me.” She chuckled to herself at the prospect, leering down at him as she wet her pink lips with her tongue. “Kind of makes me want to go another round. Do you have another in you, malish?”

He nodded, and she bit her lower lip with her sharp teeth, pulling the sodden sleeping bag over their heads and plunging Boyd into darkness.

CHAPTER 11: DEAD DROP

A beeping noise roused Boyd, and he struggled to free himself from Lorza’s furry arms, climbing out of the sleeping bag and hurrying to the cockpit. He slid into one of the chairs, the rough fabric irritating his bare skin, seeing nothing through the canopy but the blackness of space dotted with a few cold stars. The incoming hail light was blinking, so he hastily put on a headset that was sitting on a nearby instrument panel, a hiss of static coming through as he hit the accept button.

“…repeat, this is the civilian cargo freighter Nelleblad responding to distress beacon, come in please, over.”

Boyd leaned back into his seat, unable to believe his luck. It had only been three days – had someone picked up their distress call so soon?

“Come in, Nelleblad,” Boyd said as he angled the flexible microphone on the headset towards his mouth. “We hear you loud and clear. Thank you for responding, over.”

“What’s your situation?” the voice on the other end asked, distorted by distance and interference.

“We’re a short-range cargo shuttle in need of rescue,” Boyd explained. “We have two souls aboard, and we’re looking to hitch a ride out of the system. Any chance you could pick us up?”

“Negative on that, shuttle,” the voice replied after hesitating for a moment. “I’m going to need some kind of proof of identity – there have been reports of recent pirate attacks in this system, over.”

“Damn it,” Boyd hissed, keeping his finger off the transmission key. He was talking about the attack on the UNN jump freighter. The shipping companies that operated out this far must have alerted their assets of the threat and warned them to keep an eye out for exactly this kind of situation. A lone shuttle drifting at the edge of the system could be a honey trap for passing ships, as UN law required any vessel that detected a distress beacon to investigate it or face serious sanctions. Boyd would have been suspicious too, had their situations been reversed. How was he supposed to prove that he legitimately needed help? A million lies and schemes flashed through his mind, but for once, maybe the truth was the simplest solution?

All registered vessels – be they privately or commercially owned – had to update their systems regularly with UNN identification codes. Any legitimate vessel that was remotely up to date would carry a list of encrypted codes that would allow anyone with the appropriate authority to identify themselves and commandeer the ship, even in the absence of any long-range communication that could be used to verify their identity. If someone who carried a code checked out, the crew were supposed to cooperate to the extent that the law required. At the spaceport, he would have outed himself as a spy, but it didn’t matter out here.

“Hold for a moment, Nelleblad,” he began as he plugged his suit cable into a nearby console. “I’m sending you over some access codes.”

“Access codes?” the man replied, sounding concerned. Boyd was about to ruin their day, but he didn’t have much of a choice. There was also the possibility that the crew would just ignore him and purge the logs, as the codes didn’t actually give him control of the ship’s systems, at least not remotely. He just had to hope that they were upstanding citizens and not, well…he’d met his fair share of outlaws and criminals on this assignment.

The seconds ticked by, and he began to get nervous, hearing muffled conversations bleed through the audio feed. Finally, the man returned, Boyd hearing his mic crackle as he presumably put a headset on or returned to a chair.

“Alright, the codes check out. Didn’t know you were Navy. What the hell are you doing all the way out here in a shuttle? Over.”

“It’s a long story, and one that I’d prefer to tell in person,” Boyd replied with a sigh of relief. “Do we have permission to board? Over.”

“If we said no, all of our licenses would be revoked and we wouldn’t even be qualified to push shopping carts anymore,” the man grumbled. “I’m transmitting my coordinates to your flight computer. I’d rather you came to us, unless you’re low on fuel?”

“We can make it,” Boyd replied, examining the readout that was scrolling across one of his displays. “Much obliged, Nelleblad. We’re on our way. Over and out.”

Lorza poked her massive head into the cockpit, exposing her sharp teeth in a wide yawn, her claws sinking into the padded headrest of the pilot’s chair.

“Did someone find us already?”

“Yeah, a civilian freighter,” he replied as he pulled off the headset. “Looks like we might be out of here sooner than I thought.”

“Oh well,” she sighed. “I guess it can’t be helped.” She leaned in close behind him and pressed her teeth into his neck, making him lurch in his seat. “I wanted you all to myself a little while longer.”

***

The freighter loomed in the distance, illuminated against the velvet black backdrop of deep space by its flashing running lights. Its long, skeletal frame was filled out here and there by massive cargo containers, the comparatively small cockpit and living quarters of the ship affixed to the prow of the vessel. The massive engine cones and the module that housed the reactors were mounted on the stern like a counterweight, giving the vessel the appearance of a four-hundred-meter cotton swab.

Boyd angled the shuttle towards the hangar bay, just behind the hab module. It was open to space, protected by a shimmering barrier of blue light – a molecular force field that would keep the atmosphere from venting into space while allowing solid objects to pass unhindered. It was certainly a more recent design than the Zemchug. They closed quickly, spurts of blue flame shooting from the nose of the shuttle to slow their approach, its computer projecting a grid-shaped flight path on the canopy window to help guide him in. The landing area was barely large enough for two shuttles, and there was already one occupying the space, Boyd nudging the controls carefully as he set down beside it. There was a shudder as they transitioned to the freighter’s AG field, the thrusters beneath the craft’s belly flaring to compensate, the landing gear extending.

“Here we are,” Boyd said, hitting the button that would lower the ramp. “Do me a favor and wait here,” he added, Lorza moving out of his way as he stepped into the troop bay. “They’re probably not expecting an eight-foot alien, and we don’t want to startle them.”

He stepped down onto the Nelleblad’s deck, glancing at the force field briefly before turning left, in the direction of the hab module. Three men dressed in civilian clothes were waiting for him, one of them sporting a conspicuous pump-action shotgun that was currently pointed at the floor. It wasn’t the most modern weapon, but it would still shred him like a game hen at this range.

“I’d like to see some kind of ID,” the man said, Boyd recognizing his voice from their radio conversation.

“No problem,” Boyd said, slowly raising his wrist display. He tapped at it, then turned the screen towards the crew, showing them a copy of his UNNI credentials. They had no way to verify it without an FTL comms link, but the man with the gun gestured for him to take a few steps closer all the same, squinting at it for a moment. It seemed to satisfy him, and he relaxed a little.

“UNNI?” he asked incredulously. “You’re a Ninnie?”

“That explains how he ended up with those access codes,” another added.

“Sorry about the welcome,” the man with the gun continued. “It was a necessary precaution, you understand. Corporate sent out a pirate alert for this system, so we’ve been a little on edge.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Boyd replied. For a moment there, he’d been worried that these guys might be on the payroll, but they were just a little jumpy. “I have a friend with me – a Borealan. Please don’t be alarmed. She’s completely harmless.”

He called for Lorza, and she strode down the ramp, pausing for a moment when she saw the shotgun. There were some wide eyes and surprised mutters from the crew, but their weapon remained safely pointed at the deck.

“Saw a Borealan once when I was in the Navy,” the man with the gun said. “Never one that…large. My name is Connors, by the way,” he added. “This is Iversen, and this is Kruse.”

“So, what’s the deal?” Kruse asked. “What are you doing out here, and where are you headed?”

“I need you to take me to the nearest UNN outpost,” he replied. “I realize that I’m interrupting your delivery, but I can promise you compensation for fuel and lost time. I can probably swing some kind of reward for you, too, assuming the brass doesn’t hold out on me. I’m on an urgent mission for Naval Intelligence, and I have to get the information that I’ve recovered into official channels as soon as possible. Lives are depending on it.”

“You guys are spies, right?” Iversen asked. “You been investigating these pirate attacks?”

“You could say that,” Boyd replied cryptically. He didn’t want to pull rank or try to commandeer the ship, even if he was completely within his rights to do so. Better to have the crew cooperate of their own volition, because there wasn’t much standing between him and that shotgun other than a sense of duty and the fear of consequences. It was lucky that one of the men was ex-Navy.

“Well,” the shotgun-toting Connors began. “If you’re gonna compensate us, then we’ll be glad to make a detour. Lord knows I’ll be happy to have an excuse to avoid Hades for a few extra days. I’m gonna need some kind of document explaining the delay, though – something official I can show to my supervisor.”

“Done,” Boyd replied with a nod. “I’d stay away from Hades for a while if I were you, by the way,” he added. “Maybe come up with an excuse for some extended maintenance. Things there are going to get…turbulent over the next few weeks.”

“I’m glad I ran into you in that case,” he replied, gesturing for them to follow him out of the hangar. “Is it all top secret, or can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Need to know basis,” Lorza replied, mimicking Boyd’s accent. “It is highly classified.”

“In that case, I’d better not pry,” Connors said as Boyd gave the smirking Polar a stern glance.

She ducked under a human-sized door as the stranger led them into a short hallway that was lined with cabins. It wasn’t unlike what he had seen on the Zemchug, but everything here was more spacious and upscale. With a ship of this size, there wasn’t as much incentive to save space. At the end of the hallway was the bridge, which was far larger than the shuttle’s cockpit or the bridge of the survey ship, almost rivaling that of a capital ship. Bridge windows lined the craft’s boxy nose, looking out into the void of space, little frost crystals clinging to their extremities. The deck was mostly occupied by rows of consoles with glowing, holographic displays where the crew would sit during operations, but the ship could pretty much run itself during the majority of the voyage.

Connors passed his shotgun to Iversen, then sank into a rotating chair at the main console, punching in coordinates. A computer monitor flared to life, displaying trajectory, fuel consumption, and other miscellaneous data as he programmed a new flight path.

“Gotta wait for the jump drive to charge, but there’s a UNN fueling station a system over,” he explained as he examined the readout. “It’s only about three LY – shouldn’t take more than a few days to get there. You guys got food with you?” he asked, Boyd nodding his head in reply. “Good, we weren’t planning on having our crew double in size.”

“Do you guys have room for us?” Boyd added. “We can bunk our shuttle – it’s no problem.”

“We have some free cabins,” he replied, looking Lorza up and down. “Your friend might have to sleep on the floor, though. We’re not really set up for Borealans. There are harnesses on the beds, and there should be some bits in one of the drawers, but this one might have to bite down on a belt or something. You done many superlight jumps?” he asked, directing his question at the Polar.

“Many,” she replied. “It will not be a problem.”

“Just saying, biting your tongue is a lot worse with chompers like those,” he added with a nod to her sharp teeth. “We’re all keyed in, so go fetch whatever gear you need from your shuttle and get settled in. We only exited superlight a couple of days ago, so it’ll take a little longer for our drive to charge again – you got some time.”

“Thanks again,” Boyd said, leading Lorza out of the bridge and into the short corridor outside. “What are you doing?” he hissed once they were out of earshot. “You’re not a spy!”

“I am just having some fun,” she replied with a shrug that made her ample chest bounce in her coveralls. “They totally bought it, too.”

Boyd shook his head in exasperation, leading her back into the hangar bay. The shimmering barrier was to their left, and the two shuttles took up most of the space, along with some large stacks of supply crates and equipment. He headed inside the troop compartment and lifted one of the crates of food that Darrel had given them, grunting with the effort. Lorza appeared, plucking it out of his hands with all the effort of lifting a beer cooler, grinning down at him.

“Alright, you move the crates,” he said. “I’ll go find out where they have us sleeping.”

***

The layout of the freighter reminded Boyd of an apartment, albeit with more bedrooms. Several personal cabins branched off the main hallway, and there was a living area with a kitchen and a kind of common room, along with a bathroom area that actually had a shower. The prospect of finally being clean again was enough to lighten Boyd’s mood, and it was large enough that even Lorza might stand a chance of cramming herself inside it.

The freighter’s crew had given them one of the cabins for the duration of their stay, which was of suitable size for a human, but would barely fit a Polar lying down. There was just enough room for her sleeping bag, but she wisely elected to leave it in the shuttle and use some spare bedding instead, turning the entire room into a kind of giant nest. It seemed that the vessel could accommodate as many as six people but could be operated by far fewer, so there wasn’t a shortage of cabins to pillage for blankets and pillows. If the crew thought it was strange that they were sharing a room, they didn’t mention anything about it to him. There wasn’t much of a reason to keep up appearances when they would likely never see these men again after their short stay aboard.

After Lorza had moved their supplies to the hangar for easier access and they were settled in, they were ready for the jump. They returned to their cabin, and Boyd opened a drawer in the bedside table, rummaging inside it. He found what he was looking for – a plastic bit, wiping it on his sleeve before placing it in his mouth. It would prevent him from biting off his own tongue during the jump. When the superlight engine discharged all of the energy it had stored up, it would tear a hole in reality, propelling the ship and everything in its immediate vicinity into a parallel dimension where the laws of physics worked very differently. It was much easier to exceed light speed if time flowed faster or if you no longer had any mass. The downside of this alternate universe was that it played merry hell with living nervous systems, impairing their function, which could cause everything from nausea to convulsions. It got a little easier with each jump, almost like your brain was growing callouses, but it was always a good idea to take precautions.

He lay down on the bunk, securing the harness across his chest, then placing his wrists and ankles in padded cuffs that would close automatically to prevent the occupant from hurting themselves. Lorza stood beside the bed, looking down at him with a sultry expression, and he suddenly felt oddly vulnerable.

“What’s with that look?” he grumbled. “You need to strap in – we’ll be jumping in a few minutes.”

“I was just thinking,” she replied with a purr. “We are going to be here for a few days, and I can come up with some…interesting uses for these harnesses.”

“Will you just get ready for the jump?” he complained, Lorza smirking at him as his cheeks began to flush. “Go on – shoo.”

She lowered herself down into the nest of blankets and pillows that they had laid out beside the bed, shuffling to bury herself a little deeper. The cabin was small enough that she barely had enough room to stretch out, her round ears and her clawed toes brushing adjacent walls.

“Don’t you need something to bite down on?” Boyd asked.

“I have done more jumps than you have eaten hot meals, malish,” she replied.

Boyd stared at the featureless ceiling for a couple more minutes as they waited for the signal, a warning siren soon ringing out over the intercom, alerting them that the drive had finished charging. Superlight jumps didn’t worry him – he had completed hundreds – but the sound was intended to be jarring. If someone got caught with their pants down when the ship jumped, they could be in serious trouble. The familiar sensation of static electricity dancing across his skin greeted him as the drive began to work its magic, the hairs on his arms standing on end, as though the very air in the cabin was being charged with arcane energies. The drive was preparing to dump all of the accumulated energy that it had siphoned from the ship’s nuclear reactors over the last few days, using it to rend the fabric of space and send the vessel careening out of reality. The freighter’s superstructure began to groan and shake, the immense forces that were at play wrenching and twisting the metal, then everything went black.

***

Boyd took in a sharp breath, his muscles quivering as he strained against his bonds. Where was he? Had he been captured? Was he being tortured? He fought ardently, his restraints digging into his wrists and ankles, eventually exhausting himself. Wherever he was, he was trapped. When he opened his eyes, he saw nothing, leading him to assume that he was blindfolded. Little by little, his memories returned to him, and he remembered what was happening. The delirium that had come over him gradually faded, his senses sharpening, his vision fading in like a camera lens coming into focus to reveal the featureless ceiling of his cabin.

The harnesses that held him securely to the bed popped open automatically, and he sat upright, reaching back to rub his cramping neck with a grimace. His head was throbbing – he felt like he had just awakened from the mother of all benders, his heartbeat pulsing in his temples. Reminding himself that it would fade in time, he leaned over the edge of the bed in search of Lorza.

His companion was lying in the nest of sheets beside him, reaching up to cradle her head with a furry hand, her resonating groan of displeasure filling the little room.

“Cat still got your tongue?” Boyd croaked, Lorza lifting a hand to give him an uneasy thumbs-up.

“Do me a favor and stop talking for a while,” she grumbled, her ears flattening against her head protectively. “Feels like someone hit me in the head with a hammer.”

She had thrashed around a little, judging by how she was partially buried in the sheets, but she hadn’t been lying when she had told him that she was accustomed to superlight jumps. Some more experienced captains could even remain standing during a jump – so he was told.

The freighter would have traveled a dozen or so light-years in the blink of an eye, and it would now have to coast in realspace for a few days while the drive charged up again.

After a couple more minutes, he felt well enough to stand, carefully stepping over Lorza as he made his way to the door. It slid open, and he stepped into the hallway outside, heading for the bridge. There, he found Connors sitting in one of the chairs, nursing a headache as he examined the readout on one of the displays. Beyond the bridge windows, a colorful cloud of gas was spreading out around the ship, creating a rainbow smear against the dark backdrop. It was made up of remnants of the interstellar medium that had been trapped inside the superlight manifold when they had jumped, its properties altered by exposure to the strange qualities of extra-dimensional space.

“Another successful jump,” Connors announced, still rubbing his eyes groggily. He reached for the harness that was securing him to his seat, popping the clasp open. “It’ll take the drive a couple of days to charge again, then it should only be one more jump before we arrive at the outpost. Make yourselves comfortable – it’s gonna be a bit of a wait.”

***

Two uneventful days passed by with little to do other than eat and socialize. The crew were naturally curious, both about Boyd’s mission and his Polar companion. Hailing from a very social species, Lorza seemed glad of the opportunity to indulge them, chatting incessantly with her hosts and regaling them with embellished stories about her adventure. She also worked her Polar magic in the kitchen, transforming the freighter’s meager rations and supplies into hearty meals, her penchant for cooking and her resourceful use of the limited ingredients never ceasing to surprise. As well as wowing the crew, it seemed to relax her, and it made Boyd better appreciate what she had lost during the Zemchug’s crash. Having people to talk to and hungry mouths to feed was important to her. Boyd was less extroverted, but while he was unable to reveal some of the more sensitive information about his assignment, that didn’t stop him from adding his own commentary to Lorza’s tales.

While the fires of their passion still raged, the cramped environment and lack of privacy forced them to get creative. They could make love in their cabin if they were quiet about it, and more than once, they took an impromptu trip to their shuttle with the excuse that they had to review sensitive data pertaining to their mission.

After a couple of days and six meals that would have shamed even a cruise liner chef, they prepared for their second jump. Boyd once again strapped himself into his bunk, and Lorza lay down on the mattresses on the floor beside him, the ravages of superlight travel leaving them sore and dazed when they awakened.

The pair made their way to the bridge once they had recovered their faculties, finding the three crew members already at their posts, sitting behind their respective consoles. Boyd looked out past the frosty bridge windows and the drifting gas cloud that surrounded them, seeing a bright ball shining in the darkness. It was a gas giant, larger than Luna when seen from Earth from their perspective, bands of dull browns and reds swirling around its equator. Even a close jump usually landed hundreds of thousands of klicks from the target, and a UNN outpost wouldn’t be visible from such a distance without magnification.

“We have the station on our scopes,” Kruse said, swiping at his holographic display. “I’m sending them a tight-beam. We’re about four hundred thousand kilometers out, so it won’t take long to get a reply.”

“Looks like the system is uninhabited,” Connors added as he examined his feed. “No terrestrial planets – just a fueling station in orbit around a gas giant.”

“That outpost will still have FTL comms,” Boyd replied as he leaned on the console beside Connors. “These stations basically act as early warning systems. They keep an eye out for Betelgeusian fleets passing through the area on their way to inhabited systems, and they serve as rest stops for UNN vessels. If any Bugs were on their way to Hades, all of that ice and hydrogen would make a mighty attractive pit stop.”

They received a reply from the station a few minutes later, Kruse swiveling his chair around to face them as he relayed the message.

“Flight control has given us permission to start our approach, and they’d like us to transmit Mister Boyd’s clearance codes,” he announced as he glanced between Boyd and Connors.

“Start the burn,” Connors replied with a nod. “We should get there in under a day. Mister Boyd – if you’d like to do whatever it is they want you to do?”

Boyd moved over to Kruse’s console and extended the cable from his suit, plugging it into a socket that the man pointed out to him. He loaded some encrypted data packets that were included with the next transmission, sending over the requested identifying credentials and access codes.

“I’ll let you know when we’re about to arrive,” Connors said, rising from his seat and stretching his arms above his head. “You’ve got plenty of time to pack.”

***

About twenty hours later, Connors called them back to the bridge, and Boyd entered to see the gas giant’s bands of color occupying the entire field of view beyond the windows. At this distance, he could make out the swirling storms that raged around its equator, the immense clouds flowing together like streaks of watercolor paints on a canvas. The outpost was visible now – a ring-shaped structure that was scarcely wider than the freighter was long, silhouetted against the glow of the clouds behind it. A single UNN frigate was docked to it, the chisel-shaped, two-hundred-and-fifty-meter vessel anchored to the wheel-like habitat via a skeletal cradle that partially enclosed it.

“We’re too big to dock but they’ve granted your shuttle permission to board,” Kruse announced as he turned in his seat to greet the newcomers. “Connors – they’re sending a couple of Beewolves to guide us in.”

“Nothing to worry about,” Boyd added as he admired the view. “It’s standard procedure.”

Not soon after, a pair of dark shapes approached the freighter, breaking off to the left and right. They did a pretty close pass, their angular, stealth-coated hulls catching the light of the system’s star. The Beewolf was a space superiority fighter that was equally at home in both vacuum and atmosphere, taking on a more familiar aerodynamic shape, the vessels tilting their wings as they took up formation to either side of the freighter’s hab module. Lorza walked over to the rightmost window, pressing her feline nose up against the glass as she gawked at the aircraft – not quite close enough to make out the pilot in the cockpit.

Connors stood and walked over to join Boyd, who extended his hand.

“Looks like this is your stop,” Connors said as they shook.

“Thank you again,” Boyd replied. “Things could have gone very badly for us if you hadn’t shown up when you did. I’ll pull some strings – make sure you and your crew are properly compensated for your service. And, remember what I said,” he added with a more serious tone. “The situation on Hades is going to be heating up, no pun intended. Find an excuse to do some maintenance for a couple of weeks. A month would be better. The shit is about to hit the fan, and you won’t want to be standing nearby when that happens.”

“I appreciate the heads-up,” Connors replied. “Come on – I’ll see you to the shuttle bay.”

Boyd and Lorza bade farewell to Kruse and Iverson, then headed to their shuttle, Lorza engulfing Connors’ hand in her furry mitt as they said their goodbyes. Boyd mounted the cargo ramp and made his way to the cockpit, sliding into one of the padded chairs, the engines spooling as he started flipping switches. Once Lorza was inside, he sealed the ramp with a hermetic hiss, pressurizing the shuttle. With a few careful bursts from the forward thrusters, the craft slid out through the force field and into the darkness of space, Boyd feeling his stomach drop as they transitioned from the freighter’s AG field to the shuttle’s.

As he maneuvered away from the faint, blue glow of the freighter’s bay, a blinking light on his console alerted Boyd of an incoming hail. He slipped on his headset and opened a channel, hearing the characteristically calm voice of one of the Beewolf pilots come through with a crackle of static. He glanced out of the canopy window, seeing the dark, arrowhead-shaped craft drift into formation beside him.

“Shuttle, this is Beewolf Gamma-Six-Niner. Please follow me to the docking bay, over.”

“Roger that, Beewolf,” Boyd replied as he keyed in a trajectory. “Following you in.”

The two craft coasted towards the outpost, the docking ring of the station ballooning in front of them, covered in little windows and empty cradles. It was far smaller than the tether station that he had seen on Hades at maybe five or six hundred meters across, and a lot of that was empty space between the ring and the blocky structure at its center, but it was still an impressive sight. The support cables and walkways that joined the ring to the central hub made it look like a giant bicycle wheel that was floating through space. There were a few railgun turrets mounted at intervals along the ring, the nearest one turning its long barrel to track their shuttle, its optics glinting in the unfiltered sunlight. The Beewolf wasn’t just their escort – it was probably ready to chew them to pieces with its dorsal gun if they strayed off-course. Boyd was making an unannounced visit in a pretty dangerous region of space. If space stations had doors, they wouldn’t be leaving them unlocked in this stellar neighborhood.

Lorza appeared behind him, her claws sinking into the headrest of his chair as she leaned over his shoulder, getting a better look at the station.

“Big guns,” she muttered. “Are those for us?”

“They’re for particularly foolish pirates and to give the crew a false sense of security,” he replied. “If a hive ship jumped into the system, those turrets wouldn’t do much more than irritate it.”

A wireframe flight path popped up on his HUD as the station’s docking bay came into view – an opening that was protected by a blue force field, indistinguishable from that of the freighter save for being somewhat larger. Boyd angled the nose of the craft towards it, bursts of flame jetting from the forward thrusters as they shed velocity, the Beewolf finally breaking off to fly over the ring.

Boyd maneuvered the craft into the docking bay, following the markers that were painted on the deck, setting down beside a cargo shuttle that was in the process of being unloaded. The landing gear bounced as the little vessel settled, then Boyd rose from his seat, Lorza stepping side to let him pass.

“You know, I’m almost going to miss this old rust bucket,” he said, pausing to admire the cargo bay one last time. All of the crates and supplies that Darrel had given them had been left on the Nelleblad, as they wouldn’t be needing them anymore, leaving the cramped bay all but empty. “I can’t believe it actually got us all the way here without shaking itself to pieces.”

“What do you think they will do with it?” Lorza asked as she followed him to the ramp.

“Probably strip it for parts, then tow it into the gas giant,” he chuckled as he reached up to hit a button with his fist. The ramp lowered, and the bay was flooded with stale, recycled station air. They stepped out onto the deck, finding themselves in a hangar that made even Lorza look diminutive. It was like standing inside a warehouse with one wall open to space, the glint of the freighter visible just beyond the shimmering barrier, little larger than his finger at this distance. There were cargo crates stacked up against the walls, and insulated fuel hoses snaked across the floor, connecting beneath the wings of a couple of nearby craft. As well as the cargo shuttle, there was another Beewolf sitting idle a few meters away. The station likely had its own little air wing.

Boyd heard footsteps, turning to see three men approaching from the direction of the back wall. They made their way around the Beewolf, then stepped over one of the thick fuel lines, walking up to greet the newcomers. The one in the middle was a young officer clad in a Navy blue uniform, the golden insignia that adorned his breast polished to a shine, along with his dress shoes. Immediately, Boyd got the impression that he took his posting far too seriously. He must be the station’s overseer. Flanking him were a pair of UNN Marines in pressurized combat armor the color of onyx, their faces inscrutable behind the opaque visors of their helmets. They were armed only with XMHs – the handguns holstered on their hips. The officer greeted Boyd with a prim salute, one that he returned with far less enthusiasm. The two Marines tilted their heads up, ogling Lorza curiously.

“Agent,” the stranger began. “I have to say – I was surprised to hear that a UNNI operative was making an unannounced visit to my humble station, but all of your credentials seem to check out. If you had to reach us through such unconventional channels, you must be in dire need of assistance. I will make all of our resources and facilities available to you.”

“Thank you,” Boyd replied with a nod. “I’m Agent Boyd, and this is Lorza,” he continued with a gesture to the towering Polar. “She’s a key witness to a crime, and she’s in protective custody. She’s to be treated as a guest of the UNN during her stay here.”

“Of course,” the officer replied with a quick glance at the alien. Boyd was now the highest-ranked person on the station – unless there was an Admiral hiding in a storage locker somewhere – so the officer had little choice but to acquiesce. “I’m sure the first thing you’ll want to do is make a report. Please – follow me to our control center.”

He turned, still flanked by the two guards, Boyd and Lorza following behind him as he set off through the hangar. They exited through one of the automatic doors on the far wall, emerging into a corridor, the bare metal and blue carpeting typical of UNN installations. It was clean, but rather sterile, the hallway curving out of view in both directions as it followed the shape of the docking ring. Unlike the spacecraft that they had been confined to, it was a little more spacious. The ceiling was tall enough that Lorza didn’t have to duck, and the walls were set far enough apart that maybe half a dozen people could have walked shoulder to shoulder. It was lit by the harsh glow of halogen light strips, a few stray cables and pipes winding their way along the walls and ceiling in places.

“This way,” the officer said, gesturing down the corridor before clasping his hands neatly behind his back. “Am I to take it that you were operating undercover on Hades and were discovered?” he asked as they walked past more nondescript doors. “Should I be made aware of any threats to my installation, or is that information classified?”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter now,” Boyd replied after a moment of consideration. “The situation is no longer contained, and this is all going to be common knowledge in a matter of days. There is an alliance of criminal organizations on Hades that is conspiring to take control of the colony from its corporate managers,” he began, the officer raising an eyebrow. “They recently raided a UNN jump freighter and stole a shipment of surface-to-air missiles, and they intend to defend their claim by force should either the Navy or corporate security come snooping.”

They were distracted suddenly as a man came jogging into view around the bend ahead of them. He was dressed in a tank top and a pair of shorts, his brow wet with sweat, breathing hard as his sneakers pounded the carpet. He looked up, then did a double take when he noticed Lorza, his gait slowing. He pressed up against the wall to get out of the group’s way, peering at them in confusion as they walked past.

“They’ve already won most of the colonists to their side, and they’ve either turned or bribed the PDF garrisons who were supposed to be preventing this kind of situation from developing in the first place,” Boyd continued. “If we’re to stand any hope of stopping this from escalating into a full-scale war, we need to strike quickly and decisively. I’m going to ask the Admiralty to dispatch the closest jump carrier. A few thousand Marines and auxiliaries should scare some sense into the PDF, then we can capture the ringleaders and lock them up in a Navy penitentiary for the rest of their lives.”

“The situation is far more dire than I had assumed,” the officer added, his expression darkening as he mulled over what he had been told. “We have a quantum comms array that you can use to send a priority message to FleetCom. In the meantime, what would you like me to do about the civilian freighter?”

“The crew are to be fully compensated for any expenses incurred due to their detour,” Boyd replied, the officer nodding along. “Just put my service number on the requisition forms, and I’ll make sure everything gets taken care of by Naval Intelligence. I don’t want them leaving the system without a full fuel tank, a resupply, and a suitable reward under the Good Samaritan program. They may have saved Hades, and they deserve a nice payout for their efforts.”

“I’ll see that it’s done,” the officer replied as they stopped beside another sliding door.

They stepped through into a short walkway that led to the main hub, which was furnished in much the same way as the docking ring, albeit with a few ferns scattered here and there to brighten up the drab décor. It was like walking through an office building, the group passing another surprised crewmember who was clutching a tablet computer in her hands before arriving at a door.

“This is our comms room,” the officer said, pausing to glance at Lorza. “Station protocol requires me to request that your civilian charge remains outside sensitive areas of the installation,” he added hesitantly.

“Lorza, wait here for a little while,” Boyd said apologetically. Lorza blew a lock of her grey hair out of her face in annoyance, leaning against a nearby wall, her furry tail rustling the fronds of a decorative fern as it waved back and forth impatiently. One of the Marines remained with her while everyone else entered, Boyd finding himself in a fairly standard comms center, the walls lined with server banks and glowing monitors. There was a woman in a Navy uniform who was sitting at a U-shaped desk, a cup of steaming coffee in her hand as she examined the readouts of the holographic displays that were scrolling past, projected just above its polished surface. She heard them arrive, swiveling in her chair to greet them.

“Dianna – I need you to prepare a data packet for the quantum relay,” the officer began. It seemed that they were on first-name terms, which was to be expected on a station as small and as remote as this one. “It’s priority one, so bump it up the queue and make sure it goes out immediately.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied as her fingers began to dance across her keyboard with practiced speed.

“I appreciate the help,” Boyd said, turning to the man. “I’ll make sure to mention you by name when I give my report, officer…”

“Richards,” he replied, doing a poor job of concealing how excited he was to be involved in the proceedings. This was probably the most interesting thing that had ever happened on his station. “Once you’re finished, we’ll get you set up in some temporary accommodations while you arrange transport off-station.”

***

Boyd stared out of the solitary window in his little cabin, watching the gas giant drift past beyond the frosty glass. Lorza was lying sprawled on the makeshift bed that they had fashioned from mattresses, the blankets and pillows piled haphazardly, propping herself up with her elbow. She was nude, the weight of her breasts squashing them together as they spilled across the sheets, her opulent fur taking on the quality of bed hair after their most recent tussle. They had been cooped up in the cramped quarters that were serving as their temporary accommodations while they awaited pickup, and it had given them some much-needed privacy.

“Staring out into space will not make them arrive any sooner,” Lorza said, patting the mattress beside her. “Come back to bed. The only thing that requires your attention right now is me.”

“It’s been two days,” Boyd replied, his eyes still fixed on the starry backdrop. “They sent me a reply confirming that they received my report and told me to sit tight, but I haven’t heard anything since. No update about the situation on Hades, no info about how they intend to proceed, just radio silence.”

“You must trust them to handle it,” she continued, rising to a sitting position. “You cannot save the Galaxy all by yourself. What are you going to do – flap your arms and fly back to Hades?”

“I’m just used to being in the loop,” he said, turning his gaze from the planet to focus on her reflection in the window. “I’m a field agent – I take care of things myself. I’m not accustomed to just waiting around for other people to solve problems for me.”

“Well, you are not in the field anymore,” she continued as she crawled a little closer across the creaking mattresses. “You have completed your assignment, you uncovered the sinister plot, and you delivered that information to your people. That was your responsibility, not taking down the Syndicate single-handed.” She snaked her furry tail around his waist and began to drag him away from the window, catching him in her arms as soon as he was in range and pulling him into the bed. He sank deep into the soft cushion of her breasts, her silky fur tickling his bare skin, one of her fluffy hands sneaking between his thighs. “I have a new assignment for you,” she purred into his ear. “Your spymasters have decreed that you will serve me in the bedroom until you are told otherwise.”

“Spymasters?” he chuckled, sighing appreciatively as he felt her fingers wrap around his member. “How exactly do you imagine Naval Intelligence operates?”

“That is classified,” she replied, giving him a teasing squeeze.

Just as he was beginning to surrender to her deft hand, there was a burst of rainbow colors beyond the window, as if someone had thrown a balloon full of paint at a black canvas. The spreading gas cloud announced the arrival of a ship. Lorza huffed in disapproval, releasing him from her grasp as he climbed off the mattress and hurried back to the porthole. It was hard to make out much detail, but the needle-like profile of the vessel was immediately identifiable.

The ship was shaped like an obelisk that had been turned on its side, its streamlined hull tapering into a hab module and a cockpit with a pointed nose. The engines and the nuclear reactor that powered its drive were situated far at the back of a skeletal frame that resembled the jib of a construction crane, all of the necessary material stripped away to reduce its mass as much as possible.

“It’s a courser!”

“What is that?” Lorza asked, crossing her arms.

“Fastest class of ship in the fleet. They’re designed to carry important cargo and VIPs when they have to get somewhere quickly. It has to be here for us!”

He watched the vessel right itself with a few bursts from its thrusters, then its main engines flared, the pencil-shaped ship starting to coast towards the station. There was a hiss of static as the intercom turned on, Richards’ voice filling their cabin.

“Agent Boyd, please report to hangar bay five. We’re being hailed by a UNN courser.”

“That means you, too,” Boyd said as he turned to Lorza. She groaned, then rolled out of bed, Boyd pausing to admire the way that her plush body wobbled as she raised her arms above her head in a stretch.

“Do you know what I would like?” she asked. “To stay in one place for more than a couple of days.”

“Don’t worry,” he replied, tossing her coveralls to her. “They probably just want to debrief me.”

“They will not steal you away and send me back home to Siberia?” she asked, starting to pull on her clothes.

“I wouldn’t let them,” Boyd said as he stepped into his pants, trying to sound reassuring. “You’re my key witness.” That seemed to assuage some of her concerns, and she smiled at him. “If you’re worried that we’ll be separated, don’t be. I’m not going anywhere without you. After what I’ve been through, they owe me a lot of favors.”

Once they were dressed, they headed to the hangar bay, Richards meeting them on the way. A more modern UNN shuttle was waiting for them when they arrived, its engines idling as it sat on the deck, a pilot in a flight suit standing beside its open troop ramp. He stood to attention when he noticed the newcomers, hesitating as he glanced up at Lorza.

“Agent Boyd?” he asked, his voice taking on a somewhat tinny quality as it filtered through the speakers in his helmet. “I was dispatched to bring you back to the UNN Thermopylae for debriefing – Admiralty’s orders.”

“That’s a jump carrier,” Boyd explained as Lorza cocked her head quizzically. “Sounds like the Admirals are sending in the cavalry.”

“All due respect, sir,” the pilot continued. “But I only have orders to bring a single passenger.”

“She’s my plus one,” Boyd explained with a casual nod to his towering companion. “She goes where I go. If there’s a problem, you can take it up with the captain when we get back to the carrier.”

Boyd could pull rank if he needed to, but he gave the pilot some time to make his decision – he could almost see the gears turning behind his opaque visor.

“Very good, sir,” the pilot finally replied as he gestured to the troop ramp. “This way, please.”

They loaded into the bay as the pilot returned to the cockpit, sliding into one of the seats and starting to flip switches. Although they hadn’t planned on bringing Lorza along, the shuttle was far more spacious than the last one, and it was equipped with a handful of Borealan-sized seats that could be unfolded from the bulkhead. It was a more recent model than the one they had been set adrift in, and it was designed to accommodate alien auxiliaries as well as human passengers. They hadn’t brought much luggage with them, Boyd stowing the gym bag that contained his environment suit behind some netting above one of the chairs. He helped fasten Lorza’s straps, the harness sinking deep into the soft meat of her bust, obviously designed for her somewhat less impressively endowed cousins.

Once they were safely strapped in, the pilot gunned the thrusters, the craft drifting out of the hangar. Boyd watched the courser grow through the cockpit canopy as they drew closer, the skeletal frame that linked the bridge with the bulbous engine module at the rear coming into view. These ships were built to be as low-mass as possible while still being able to house and power the most efficient superlight drives that the UNN could produce. A courser could cross immense distances far faster than a freighter or a carrier, but due to their small size and low mass, they could only carry a few passengers at a time. They were mostly used to deliver important messages where quantum relays were not available, or to ship VIPs across human space at breakneck speed. If the Navy had sent a courser, then they wanted Boyd in a debriefing room urgently, implying that an invasion of Hades was either on the drawing board or had already been set in motion.

The vessel was too small to house a conventional hangar bay – it would add too much mass – so it docked to the shuttle via an umbilical that extruded from the hab module. It looked like little more than another skeletal jib wrapped in a loose tarp, which didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence, the walkway attaching to a small airlock on the port side of the shuttle as the little craft matched velocity.

It was a bit of a squeeze for Lorza, the metal grates that made up the walkway creaking ominously beneath their feet as they made their way across to the other vessel. After cycling through an airlock, they emerged into a passenger compartment that was lined with rows of seats and cargo netting. It wasn’t exactly luxurious. Coursers were engineered for speed and efficiency rather than comfort, giving everything a very spartan and industrial feel.

At the instruction of the pilot, they strapped in and prepared for the next jump, feeling the arcane energies dance across their skin as the drive expended its charge.

They reemerged some indeterminable distance away – likely quite close to the station in stellar terms if the courser hadn’t needed to spend hours recharging its batteries. When he had shaken off the confusion that followed, Boyd rose from his seat, walking over to help Lorza unfasten her harness.

Please tell me that was the last jump,” she groaned as he fumbled with the clasp. “I may be an experienced explorer, but our brains will surely be scrambled like eggs if we do too many more of these.”

“Don’t worry – that’ll be the last one for a while,” he replied, her breasts bouncing as he freed them from the tight straps. “The only scrambled eggs you’ll have to worry about are the ones in the carrier’s mess.”

Another shuttle soon docked with the courser, and the pair transferred over to it.

Through the pilot’s canopy, they saw their final destination nearing. They had landed in open space, without a planet or a station nearby, an ocean-grey hull slowly rising up before them as it caught the light of the nearest star. It was vaguely bullet-shaped, split into two distinct sections, the bulky aft tapering into a rounded prow. The back half was occupied by the hangar bays, the blue glow of their force fields picking them out, the clean lines of the hull broken up by fighter launch tubes. The squat bridge was raised atop it, the light from the many windows and portholes spilling out, the massive engine cones situated at the rear. The slimmer front section was lined with missile tubes, CIWS guns, and forests of railgun turrets mounted on flexible gimbals.

“That is…large,” Lorza mused, gripping a handhold on the ceiling of the troop bay as they coasted closer.

“It’s a jump carrier,” Boyd explained. “It’s just under half a kilometer long, it weighs a hundred thousand tons, and it can control the gravity well of a planet all on its lonesome. No support fleet,” he added, glancing around at the empty space. “It’s not part of a strike group. They must have redeployed on pretty short notice.”

The pilot had a brief exchange with the flight controller, then they set a course for the hangar on the near side, the giant craft ballooning to the size of a sheer cliff face. The hangar bays were far larger than those of the little station, able to accommodate more aircraft at once, a few Beewolves and dropships sitting on the deck as they awaited arming and fueling.

Their shuttle drifted through the thin molecular barrier, then set down off to the left side of the hangar, the whine of the engines fading as the pilot began to shut its systems down one by one. They descended the ramp, finding themselves standing in a space that resembled an artificial cave. It had to be fifty or sixty meters wide, at least twenty meters high, and maybe thirty deep before the spine of the vessel separated the port and starboard hangars. Engineers and flight crews identified by their yellow coveralls marched back and forth, attaching fuel lines or moving cargo and ammunition on loaders, the constant din of tools and voices reflecting off the metal walls.

Before they had even been given time to get their bearings, a man in an officer’s uniform came marching over to them, getting their attention with a click of his heel and salute.

“Agent,” he began, giving Lorza a glance that suggested he hadn’t expected her to be there. “Please follow me to the bridge. Captain Stavros has asked that you be brought directly to him for debriefing immediately.”

“Lead the way,” Boyd replied, slinging his gym bag over his shoulder. He gestured for Lorza to follow, and the officer hesitated, but ultimately decided that arguing wasn’t worth his time. He turned on a dime, then headed back in the direction of the rear wall, weaving past a rack of missiles that were in the process of being loaded onto a gunship.

When they stepped into the narrow hallways of the ship’s innards, Boyd was reminded of the freighter more than the courser. It was spacious enough that Lorza didn’t have to duck and furnished well enough to keep the people who had to live aboard happy, but space was clearly at a premium. There were pressure doors every few feet, the deck was covered in metal panels that opened up to grant access to the internal systems beneath, and bundles of cables and snaking pipes crisscrossed the ceiling above them.

After a few minutes of squeezing past other crew members in the maze of corridors and mounting steep staircases that led to the upper decks, they emerged through a sliding door into a more open space. It was a bridge – and a massive one. The tiered deck was occupied by banks of computer monitors, a dozen bridge crew reading displays and tapping at their consoles, a few Marines standing guard nearby. Sitting in the middle of it all was the captain’s chair, his privileged position giving him an unimpeded view through the tall bridge windows, the long nose of the carrier tapering off into the distance like an artificial horizon. He rose from his seat, walking over to greet the newcomers. The captain was clad in the white attire of his rank, his chest adorned with various colored ribbons and accolades, the golden UNN insignia on his matching cap glinting beneath the light strips on the ceiling high above. His face was weathered by age, and his stubble was peppered with flecks of grey, leading Boyd to guess that he was in his early fifties.

This time, it was Boyd who saluted first, the officer following suit. Lorza merely stood beside him, looking more out of her element here than she had while stranded on an alien moon. The captain returned a salute that was little more than a tip of his cap, turning his attention first to the officer.

“Reporting as ordered, Captain,” the man chimed.

“Very good, Lieutenant,” Stavros replied with a nod. “You’re dismissed.”

The officer turned on his heel, disappearing with the same speed that he had arrived.

“Now, then,” the captain began as he glanced between Boyd and Lorza. “Care to explain why exactly my carrier has received orders to jump to the ass end of nowhere with about an hour’s notice?”

“How much do you know, Captain?” Boyd asked, Stavros’ casual tone relaxing him a little. The captain gestured for them to follow him, and he made his way down the tiered bridge, the trio stopping in front of the massive windows. They were large enough that it gave him a sense of vertigo, Boyd keeping his eyes on Stavros. Lorza was under no such obligation to keep up appearances or follow protocol, pressing her padded hands against the glass as she peered out at the gun turrets and missile launchers.

“First, I’d like you to explain why I sent for a UNNI Agent and received a Polar Borealan,” the captain began with a gesture to Lorza. “Ma’am, do you have the appropriate clearance to be here?”

Boyd began to reply, but Lorza preempted him.

“My name is Lorza. I was a cartographer stationed aboard the Zemchug – a civilian survey vessel out of the Russian Federation. This fool got my ship shot down, and I am the only reason he has survived long enough to give his report.”

“I see,” the captain said with an amused smirk, looking to Boyd for confirmation.

“She’s a civilian traveling in my custody,” Boyd elaborated, shooting her an annoyed glance. “She was of…great help during my escape from Hades, and she’s up to speed on the situation. Clearance is somewhat of a moot point by now.”

“Alright,” Stavros conceded, clasping his gloved hands behind his back. “You’re the spy – you’d know better than I would. I received priority orders directly from the Admiralty to depart from port at Mu Arae immediately and to head for Hades. They included a report from a UNNI Agent by the name of Boyd talking about a conspiracy to overthrow the planetary government. I’d like to hear the story from the horse’s mouth rather than from a ten-kilobyte text file sent over quantum relay. I’m old-fashioned like that.”

***

Boyd recounted the events of his journey in as much detail as he could, with Lorza chipping in every now and then to provide her unique brand of commentary. He was also able to open his gym bag and hook his suit up to the carrier’s computer network, dumping all of the recordings and evidence that had been too large to upload via the quantum relay system. Stavros immediately sent it to his people for analysis, then listened patiently as the agent detailed the last leg of his journey.

“So, you have reason to believe that this Syndicate is fully prepared for a planetary invasion?” Stavros finally said. “What exactly should we expect to go up against here?”

“Worst case scenario, every PDF garrison on the planet has been compromised,” Boyd replied as he paced in front of the bridge windows. Lorza was sitting on a raised area of floor nearby, leaning back against a console, much to the confusion of the woman who was working behind it. “We know that they made off with the entire inventory of the UNN freighter that was hit in orbit, along with whatever else they could have been smuggling into the system.”

“You went toe to toe with these PDF,” Stavros continued. “What was your assessment of their capabilities?”

“Weekend warriors with surplus gear,” Boyd replied. “They’ll fold like paper once the Marines make contact, but that’s not what I’m worried about. My chief concern is those EMP warheads. Those things are surface-launched and orbit-capable – they can hit your landing force from almost anywhere in the same hemisphere. I saw them down a survey ship that was a hundred times the size of any UNN dropship, and it was halfway to the planet’s moon at the time. That gravity well is a minefield now.”

“They won’t get past the Thermopylae’s defenses, but they will certainly pose a threat to our dropships,” Stavros mused as he scratched his stubbly chin. “They’ll be most vulnerable during reentry – when they can’t maneuver or deploy countermeasures.”

“This is going to get very hairy very quickly, Captain,” Boyd added. “I’ve been on the ground – the colony is a dense urban center full of civilians. The Syndicate holds a lot of sway over the population, and if they portray this as some kind of revolution or defensive action, we may face widespread insurgency.”

“ExoCorp must have people on the surface,” Stavros said. “Can we rely on them for assistance?”

“I saw corporate security details planetside, but they’re about as corrupt as the gangs,” Boyd replied with a shake of his head. “That’s if they haven’t already been run out of town by the Syndicate. If you want my opinion, the corp is just as scared of outside scrutiny as the criminals, and they’re not likely to cooperate.”

“Killing the Alpha strikes fear into the pack,” Lorza interjected, the two men glancing to her. “You should target their leaders. Intimidation and inspiration both work through applying pressure from above. They may not be willing to fight so readily if that pressure is removed.”

“Cut the head off the snake,” Stavros replied with a nod of approval. “This isn’t a nation of people fighting for their homes – this is a loose alliance of mobsters and pirates strong-arming a captive population. They’re not a regimented army. Their cohesion could crumble if we take out the people giving the orders and spreading propaganda.”

“Rats leave sinking ships,” Boyd continued as he looked to Lorza appreciatively. “If we can hit the Syndicate hard enough and put the fear of God into them, I think they’ll try to save their own skins rather than hold their ground and fight. All their talk of Hades being a sovereign planet ruled by and for the people is just fluff. We scare them out of their holes, then bag them when they try to run.”

“That’s assuming we can get past their missiles,” Stavros said. “We have the shipping manifest from the freighter, so we know exactly how many launchers and warheads they took. If what you say is true, then they’ll be firing them from the cover of populated areas, so even precise orbital strikes are out of the question. We need boots on the ground, but that won’t happen if they shoot down all of our dropships.”

“I think we can come up with a creative solution,” Boyd replied with a smirk.

***

“You know, a civilian wouldn’t usually be allowed anywhere near the bridge,” Boyd said as they descended a flight of metal stairs into the bowels of the carrier. “Let alone be allowed to give input on a planned military operation.”

“The captain liked my suggestions,” she replied, the deck creaking under her weight. She cornered him at the bottom of the steps, turning her head to check that they were alone in the narrow corridor, then pressed him up against the bulkhead with her massive body. “I think you are jealous because I thought of ideas that you did not, malish,” she purred as he drew back to avoid being clocked in the head by her breasts. “Scared they will replace you?”

“Not really, my suit wouldn’t fit you,” he replied.

“You are funny,” she crooned. “We should find somewhere to fuck.”

“We’ll be jumping in like two hours!” he stammered, struggling to glance past her as he searched frantically for eavesdroppers.

“Then, we have two hours.”

CHAPTER 12: COUNTER OPERATIONS

The Thermopylae left superlight, Boyd slowly regaining consciousness to see a technicolor gas cloud spreading around the ship through the bridge windows. Beyond the tapering nose of the carrier was an arid horizon ringed by a thin sliver of blue – the deserts of Hades occupying their entire field of view, the curvature of the planet only just perceptible at this distance. They had emerged in high orbit, the ship’s railguns and CIWS turrets popping out of the ocean-grey hull, swiveling to track any potential threats. The bridge crew were slowly coming to their senses in their chairs, cradling their heads as they fought to regain their faculties, turning bleary eyes to their displays. Stavros was standing in front of his chair, his hands clasped behind his back, his hat still perched neatly on his head. The man was a beast – it didn’t even look like he’d flinched. How many jumps did it take to build up that kind of resistance?

Boyd heard a muffled growl of complaint, turning to see Lorza opening her eyes beside him, straightening her posture groggily. They were occupying a couple of fold-out chairs near the back of the bridge. Borealans were a fairly common sight on carriers, so they had seating that could accommodate her – just about.

An officer sitting at the pilot’s console cleared his throat, examining his instrument panel unsteadily.

“The superlight jump was successful, Captain. We’ve emerged in high orbit above Hades.”

“Radar sweep shows no ships in the immediate vicinity,” another of the crew members added.

“Red alert,” Stavros announced sternly. “All hands to battle stations.”

The bridge was bathed in red, the faint sound of a blaring alarm leaking in through the nearby door, making Boyd feel a pang of pity for all the poor crewmen who were still nursing migraines after the jump. He rose from his seat, helping Lorza up, and the two of them walked over to join Stavros in front of the viewport.

“That was a rather close jump,” Boyd muttered as he gazed down at the planet’s surface.

“We couldn’t exactly land at the edge of the system and slowboat in,” Stavros replied. “We need to maintain the element of surprise.”

“Fine by me,” Boyd added. “I’m just relieved that we didn’t come out halfway inside the planet’s mantle.”

“Hail from the ground, Captain,” a woman manning the communications console said. “Audio only.”

“That was fast,” Stavros mused. “Pipe it through the intercom – let’s hear what they have to say for themselves.”

The comms officer swiped at her touch display, and a voice came through on speakers situated all around the bridge. It was a man’s voice, a little distorted by interference but clear enough to be understood.

“You are trespassing in sovereign territory,” the voice chided. “Hades and the outlying system are under the authority of the Syndicate now, in accordance with the will of its people. The UNN has no authority here – turn back.”

Stavros turned to his comms officer and gestured for her to stop transmitting from their end of the connection.

“You think he’s beaming this conversation to the people on Hades?” the captain asked.

“Certainly,” Boyd replied. “It’s an easy PR win – he’s trying to legitimize the seizure of the planet by making it look like some kind of popular uprising rather than a cash grab.”

“That means they can hear you, too,” Lorza added softly. “Speak to the people directly.”

“Alright,” Stavros said, straightening up. “Start transmitting.” The officer swiped at her display, and the captain began his reply.

“Attention criminal organizations currently in control of Hades – this is the captain of the UNN Thermopylae. I have a fully-crewed jump carrier with a contingent of five thousand Marines aboard in orbit around your planet. You have broken interstellar law and are presently illegally occupying territory that does not belong to you. Under the United Nations declaration of frontier law, section eighteen, paragraph twenty-six, Naval forces are permitted to use necessary force to restore order. As the legal process to secede from the union has not been initiated by any recognized party, you are considered to be in open rebellion, which forces us to intervene. Surrender immediately and turn yourselves in.”

The man on the other end of the line seemed to hesitate for a moment, perhaps pausing to consult someone else. It was unlikely that he was making the decisions on his own.

“UNN Thermopylae, the so-called United Nations have no authority here, nor do the corporate investors who have exploited the people of Hades for profit. This is now a sovereign colony, beholden to no one, least of all to those who intrude on our territory and levy threats of violence against us for exercising our God-given right to self-determination.”

With another gesture from Stavros, the comms officer muted the feed again.

“Gotta admit, this is well-rehearsed,” Boyd began. “They’ve had a lot of time to prepare this spiel and get their story straight. We might know that these assholes are blowing hot air and that they care more about mineral rights than the revolutionary spirit, but it’s going to be harder to convince the Hadeans of that fact. They’ve been abused by the corp, then by the mob, and this is the first time half of them will have ever seen a Navy ship. At this point, the Syndicate is the devil they know.”

“All the more reason to show them a better path,” Lorza insisted. “We have the truth on our side.”

“I speak now directly to those of you listening in on this broadcast,” Stavros continued after gesturing for the transmission to resume. “Citizens of Hades – heed my words. Intelligence that was recently gathered by an undercover UNNI operative posing as a miner on your colony has provided evidence that the takeover of the planet was not undertaken for the purpose of liberating the population, but to seize control of ExoCorp’s mineral rights and redirect that lucrative revenue stream into the bank accounts of criminals. These people are not your saviors. They intend to bleed this colony for every credit it’s worth. By siding with them, you are only ensuring that they will line their pockets at your expense. Hades is a UN colony, and we have a duty to protect it from any enemies, be they alien or domestic. We will not allow terrorists and criminals to flaunt the rule of law – not while you remain under our protection. Stay in your homes and do not participate in hostilities. Anyone who surrenders will be treated fairly in accordance with UN conventions, but make no mistake – Hades will not remain under Syndicate control for a moment longer.”

“Your threats of violence ring hollow, Captain,” the Syndicate spokesman sneered. “Our interim government possesses a number of surface-to-air planetary defense weapons that will bring down any dropships that violate our airspace. If you attempt to take the colony by force, you will be throwing away the lives of your men by the hundreds. Here is our ultimatum to you. Leave this system and never return. Strike it from your star charts and leave us to decide our own future.”

“I will not abandon the rule of law,” Stavros replied adamantly. “It’s the only thing that holds our colonies together, and without it, we are all defenseless and alone. You can plainly see that the UNN has not abandoned Hades as has been claimed. That we are here at all is ample proof of the organization’s commitment to order and security across human space, in this system as much as in any other.”

The mouthpiece on the other end of the line had no answer to that and cut the feed. Stavros sighed as he took a moment to compose himself, the bridge crew looking to him for further instructions.

“Looks like diplomacy has failed,” Boyd said, glancing at the captain expectantly.

“It was too much to hope that they might roll over and give up,” Stavros replied, reaching up to straighten his cap. “Give the order to start launching the dropships.”

One of the bridge officers relayed his command, Boyd tilting his head in a gesture for Lorza to follow him, the pair walking across the expansive bridge to look out of the windows on the starboard side. The bridge was mounted atop the hangar section, giving them a view of the dropships as they began to filter out into space in pairs, lit from behind by the blue glow of the force field. They turned their noses towards Hades, then started to burn, racing along the carrier’s length. Before long, a dozen of them were shooting off into the distance, the flames from their main engines picking them out against the planet’s arid surface.

The main bridge window in front of the captain began to grow foggy, as though it was being covered in frost. It doubled as a display, showing camera views that were arranged like the feed from a surveillance system. There were feeds from outside the hull, magnifying to track the swarm of dropships, others showing feeds from external cameras mounted on the craft themselves. They were burning in a tight formation, starting to spread out now as they neared low orbit. The tether station was visible from some of the perspectives, its elevator as small as a length of twine from this range, the colony sprawling out from beneath its footprint.

“Dropships hitting atmosphere, Captain,” one of the officers announced. Boyd watched as the rounded noses of the craft began to glow, the air resistance growing the further they fell, friction creating flames that danced across their hulls. When they reached the appropriate altitude, they turned belly-down, the thermal tiles that lined their undersides absorbing the intense heat. Their mounted cameras shook violently as the stresses of reentry tore at the vessels, their stubby wings and dual tail fins wavering as the flames licked at them. From the magnified view, they looked like a meteor shower now, leaving dark streaks as they plummeted towards the ground.

“Dropships reporting missile locks, Captain,” another of the bridge crew warned as he leaned over his console.

“Standard evasive maneuvers,” Stavros replied, his voice calm enough that he could have been watching a movie play out.

The dropships began to scatter, some of them reaching low enough altitudes that they could start to maneuver. They banked away, some of them popping streams of flares that formed glowing wing patterns behind them, the G-forces wrenching at their airframes.

There was a bright flash as one of the dropships was hit, the missile streaking up into view from out of frame, rising on a plume of smoke. Immediately, the vessel’s engines flickered off, its navigation systems shutting down. It lurched into an uncontrolled dive, nose-down to the ground, one of its tail fins shearing off. More of them were being taken out, the mosaic of views on the main display flashing one by one as the EMPs found them, the shuttles immediately losing engine power. They listed and tumbled, losing computer flight control, their systems going haywire as they plummeted towards the planet below.

The ships impacted the ground at terminal velocity, many of them breaking apart before they even reached the surface, flaming wreckage raining down beyond the outskirts of the colony. Boyd watched one of them crater into the desert, carving a deep furrow and leaving a trail of burning debris in its wake. The bridge was deathly silent, everyone looking on with wide eyes, Boyd feeling Lorza place a protective hand on his shoulder as her ears flattened against her head. Even for Navy personnel, that was a lot of destruction to bear witness to.

“All dropships are…down, Captain,” one of the officers announced.

“How many?” Stavros asked nonchalantly.

“Twelve, Captain.”

“Very good,” Stavros continued, unfazed. “I expect that we’ll be hearing from our friend again shortly.”

The comms officer soon announced another incoming hail, the gloating voice of the Syndicate’s mouthpiece echoing through the bridge.

“As we warned, your landing force has been decimated in a single salvo. How many brave Marines just died for your hubris? Go back where you came from – your attack has failed. Send more dropships, and we will shoot those down too.”

Boyd could hear cheering and revelry in the background – they were having a damned party down there. This was a big moment for them.

“A well-coordinated attack,” Stavros admitted, the man on the radio going silent as he listened. “You shot down every one of our landing craft, attacking from positions that were well-concealed. This is exactly the way that your PDF soldiers were taught to sabotage a potential enemy invasion force. It’s nice to see that their training has stuck. I’ll say this one more time – this is your last chance to surrender. Have your men lay down their weapons and turn yourselves over to our security forces.”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me clearly,” the man on the other end sneered. “Your invasion force is now nothing but burning craters in the desert! The indomitable will of the Hadean people cannot be so easily-”

Stavros waved for his comms officer to cut the feed, the voice going silent.

“You think we should have told him that they just wasted all of that ordnance on unmanned dropships?” Boyd chuckled. “I kind of wanted to hear his reaction.”

“That should be enough of a show to divert their attention,” Stavros said, permitting himself a satisfied smile. “Let them have their moment – if they think they’ve already won, they’ll let their guard down.”

“This is certainly a confidence booster for them,” Boyd said as he played his eyes across the burning wrecks. “Those missile launchers worked exactly as advertised – and they certainly have more ammunition than we have landers.”

“Comms officer – patch me through to Sergeant Korza,” the captain ordered.

The views on the feed changed, some of them showing unsteady perspectives from the helmet cams of Marines riding inside shadowy troop bays, others blowing up magnified views of the disk-shaped tether station. It looked like a giant hubcap floating in space, the long, thin elevator that connected it to the anchor on the planet far below trailing off into the distance. There were still a few ships docked to the skeletal berths that surrounded its rim. Boyd could make out the profile of a giant jump freighter, its narrow midsection almost stripped of colorful cargo containers, making him doubly glad that he had warned Connors and his crew to stay clear.

Half a dozen UNN dropships were coasting towards the structure, their engines dark, running silent with their sensory equipment shut off. If the Syndicate wasn’t looking for them, they’d have very little chance of being spotted – not unless someone looked out of a window at an inopportune time.

“How’s your progress, Korza?” the captain asked.

“Approaching the station now, Captain,” a gruff voice replied. Boyd searched the helmet cam feeds for a moment, finding that one of the dropships was packed with Borealans. They were Equatorials, their body plan similar to Lorza’s, but they were leaner and meaner. Shock Troopers were eight feet of muscle and claws, clad in a variant of the armor worn by UNN Marines, their kevlar-lined pressure suits covered over with black ceramic plating. The little ear covers on their helmets might be reminiscent of teddy bears, but there was nothing cuddly about them.

They were strapped into their seats, six of them taking up almost as much space as a dozen humans, short-barreled XMRs configured for close-quarters fighting stowed beside their crash couches. They looked like giant, Borealan-sized submachine guns. Their muzzle devices resembled suppressors, but Boyd knew that they were intended not to redirect gasses, but to prevent dangerous arc flashes when their weapons ionized the air around the barrel.

“Good,” Stavros replied. “Remember – minimize civilian casualties. It’s going to be hard to tell combatants from non-combatants, but don’t fire unless you’re fired upon, and give the enemy an opportunity to surrender where possible. We don’t expect them to put up much resistance once they realize the jig is up. I want your voltages set to subsonic, too. We don’t need to be poking holes in that station.”

“Understood, Captain,” Korza growled as he reached down to adjust a value on his wrist-mounted display. It was probably synced with his weapon wirelessly.

“Seize control of the station, then take the tether to the ground and secure the port,” Stavros continued. “Lock down the area and make sure that no vessels get airborne. If the Syndicate’s higher-ups try to flee Hades, they’ll have to launch from there. I’d prefer a sedition conviction to a slug to the head, so try to take them alive if possible.”

Boyd watched as the dropships began to maneuver, gentle puffs of flame from the thrusters mounted around their hulls changing their course, the ships spreading out. They were heading for different airlocks and berths, drifting along only scant meters above the station’s hull, casting shadows on the uneven panels and jutting comms equipment. One of them coasted to a stop above an emergency airlock on the domed roof, depressurizing its troop bay before the ramp began to open, exposing it to the vacuum of space.

Moving as though they were walking underwater, the squad of a dozen Marines piled out, pushing off the hull to send themselves coasting slowly towards the artificial landscape beneath them. The station was by no means enormous, but at about a kilometer across, it was large enough to feel like solid ground to a person. As they neared, the electromagnets in their boots locked them down, and they began to march across the hull with a halting gait.

“How will they get inside?” Lorza asked, watching intently as one of the men hooked a cable into the outer door’s control panel.

“This is a civilian station,” Boyd explained. “Engaging the overrides will be pretty easy. Hell – I did it myself on my way inside.”

More of the shuttles were sliding into position, Boyd watching from helmet cams as more of the Marines began to board. Korza and his pack followed suit, making for one of the empty berths at the station’s rim, using their tails to grip the exposed structural beams of the cradles like oversized monkeys. Having a fifth point of contact made them remarkably agile in microgravity.

“Unusual choice to have a Borealan leading the operation,” Boyd began.

“Sergeant Korza has proven himself on many occasions,” Stavros replied. “He has a cooler head than many of my Marines, despite his people’s reputation.”

One of the squads made it past the outer door and into the airlock, a Marine kneeling to hook up another cable as he began his work on the next door, three members of his team aiming their weapons over his head at the room beyond. This was when they were most vulnerable, but it was unlikely that any conventional weapon would make it through those thick, reinforced pressure doors. There had been surplus XMRs stolen during the raid on the freighter, however, so their caution was not unwarranted.

The inner door slid open, and they piled into the station, fanning out into a space that resembled a terminal. This area of the station wasn’t too different from what Boyd had seen inside the tether’s anchor, with a carpeted floor and upscale duty-free stores occupying the otherwise open-plan area. This pie-shaped cross-section of the station looked like it was reserved for tourism and civilian traffic, the corp raking in tax-free credits from booze and souvenirs made from precious stones while the miners below languished.

The Marines began to move in with practiced speed, sweeping the area with their weapons, covering one another as they dipped into stores to search for hostiles. The area wasn’t very populated – even before the Syndicate’s takeover of the planet, Hades wouldn’t have seen many visitors. The occasional civilian who was browsing the shelves and the store attendants manning the desks threw themselves to the ground in alarm, the Marines yelling commands through their helmet speakers, their HUDs tagging the startled people with green markers in an attempt to track them.

The same was happening on the other feeds, more squads ingressing through airlocks and docking bays all around the station. Some were moving through more industrial areas of the facility where the large cargo containers were transferred to and from the freighters, marching past berths filled with little loading shuttles that used grappling arms situated beneath their bellies to manipulate the containers. They encountered confused engineers wearing yellow pressure suits who raised their hands in alarm, dropping tools and lowering themselves to the deck as the troopers barked orders.

Korza and his pack were heading straight for their objective – the elevator control room at the station’s core. From there, they could take control of both the passenger and cargo crawlers that ran up and down the long tether, simultaneously cutting off the Syndicate from the station and giving themselves a straight line to the anchor.

They jogged through another civilian area, their intimidating presence sending the occasional traveler or staff member darting behind shelves and ducking beneath desks. The pack was rapidly approaching the center of the disk-shaped station, and the point of their pizza slice, where a curving wall separated the secure areas of the facility from the terminal beyond. As they came within a couple of hundred meters, one of the sliding doors opened up, a hail of gunfire spewing through the aperture. Bullets sparked off the walls of nearby stores, punching holes in the transparent polymers that served as their windows, snacks and bottles of alcohol that lined the shelves exploding into showers of amber liquid and potato chips.

Korza threw himself into the cover of a nearby concession stand, a few stray rounds deflecting off his ceramic chest piece, his pack scattering to get clear. The shooters took the opportunity to pile out of the doorway, Boyd recognizing them as PDF troopers, the gear that they were carrying similar to those that he had encountered during his gunfight in the warehouse. They were wielding caseless weapons – what looked like SMGs and short-barreled rifles – which explained why Korza wasn’t full of railgun holes right now.

“Contact!” Korza snarled, his voice coming through distorted as his mic struggled to dampen the sound of gunfire. The PDF troopers had spread out into the terminal now and were exchanging sporadic bursts of fire with the pack, popping in and out of cover from behind kiosks and stores, the muzzle flashes from their weapons reflected in their opaque visors. That surplus Marine armor might stop small arms and plasma, but there was no wearable armor that could stop an XMR slug.

“Those guys aren’t going to give up,” Boyd mused, watching one of the militiamen lean out from behind a structural pillar to suppress Korza. “They’ve probably replaced the corporate security who were managing the station before the Syndicate took over.”

“That place is full of people!” Lorza gasped. “If even one bullet…”

“No choice but to take them out,” Stavros added sternly. “Korza knows what to do.”

The armored Borealan reached up to tap at the side of his helmet, opening an in-picture view on his HUD that showed a feed from his weapon’s scope, then leaned it over the counter that he was crouched behind. The militiamen had already been tagged with red markers, the squad sharing information over their local network, keeping track of hostiles even when they were outside their direct line of sight. Korza fired from cover, targeting one of the red outlines with a short burst of slugs. The electromagnetic coils beneath the barrel shroud glowed red, the tungsten projectiles leaving molten trails through the air, drawing glowing lines toward his target. They tore through the store that the trooper was hiding behind, punching through shelves and metal like they weren’t even there, the impact tossing him to the carpet like he had been hit with a sledgehammer.

Korza barked orders in his native language of hisses and yowls, his pack following suit, loosing a barrage of coordinated XMR fire that dropped a good number of their assailants. They began to push up together, suppressing the remaining troopers, sweeping through bars and souvenir shops. Boyd saw another of the militiamen fall, a trio of molten holes smoldering on his surplus chest piece, another trooper’s face plate shattering as one of the Borealans put a slug through his helmet.

Korza came up on a structural pillar that was thick enough to stop his slugs, the man who was hiding behind it leaning out as he heard the Borealan’s heavy footfalls, frantically aiming an SMG from the hip. He swung the weapon around, but Korza was ready for him, closing his massive hand around the barrel and wrenching it out of his hands. He tossed the weapon aside like a toy, then delivered a kick to the trooper’s chest, lifting him clear off the deck. The man was thrown back, slamming into the curving central wall before crumpling to the carpet in a listless heap.

Only two of the maybe fifteen men remained now, tossing their weapons to the deck, emerging from cover with their hands raised in surrender. The Borealans rounded them up, growling orders as they kept their XMRs trained on them. Two of the squad members stepped forwards, forcing the pair of militiamen to the floor, securing their hands behind their backs with zip ties that were looped around their belts.

More Marines were moving to support them now, the firefight having only lasted a few scant minutes, some securing the civilians while others moved into the doorway from which the troopers had launched their attack. The same was happening in several other areas of the station, Boyd’s eyes wandering between the camera feeds as he watched the squads surround the central hub area.

Korza and his pack took point once the entrance was clear, moving through passageways that were cramped but not so small as to make it a chore for the eight-foot aliens to navigate. It was all exposed metal and colorful carpets, a strangely ordinary stage for such a bizarre performance.

Boyd watched through the Sergeant’s feed, the muzzle device on the end of his gun bobbing at the bottom of the frame. He gestured to his pack with hand signals, two of them moving up to clear a T-junction. There was a scuffle as one of them pulled a man in civilian clothes from behind the left corner, two more shock troopers training their rifles on the stranger as he was pushed to the ground and his hands were bound, ignoring his protests. He might be some random employee, but such details would be determined only after the battle was won.

There was gunfire from another of the teams, Boyd switching his attention to the helmet cam of a Marine who was clearing corridors from another approach. He was exchanging fire with two more PDF soldiers who were holding down a hallway, muzzle flashes overpowering the harsh light strips for brief moments. One of the Marines reached for his belt, priming a stun grenade and leaning out of cover to toss it down the hall like a softball. It exploded with a flash, the blast rustling decorative plants and making the light fixtures above sway.

If the PDF troopers were wearing surplus helmets, the noise and flash wouldn’t get through, but the attack seemed to scare them enough that they threw their weapons into the hallway and emerged with raised hands. The Marines tackled them to the ground and hogtied them, one of them kicking the weapons further away.

“This is about the performance that I expected from the PDF,” Boyd said with a smirk. “There will be more on the ground, though. I’m concerned by how many might be garrisoned inside the city.”

“Numbers will embolden them,” Stavros confirmed with a nod. “It is imperative that we isolate and capture Syndicate leadership before this devolves into running street battles. Still, we need to take all necessary precautions. Once Korza secures the anchor at the bottom of the tether, we’ll have a way to get more reinforcements into the city. I won’t risk landing more dropships – not until we can disable the launchers from the ground.”

“Are we certain that five thousand Marines will be enough, Captain?” Boyd asked. “As poorly as they might perform, the PDF outnumber us by a wide margin, and that’s not counting any miners who choose the wrong side. Our ability to deploy troops quickly is somewhat lacking, too.”

“Once we take control of the tether, we can build up our forces inside the anchor and move out into the surrounding city,” Stavros replied. “We’ll give them every opportunity to surrender, but anyone who raises a weapon against our security forces will be considered an enemy combatant and dealt with accordingly. Thanks to the shipping manifest from the freighter they hit, we know exactly how many launchers they took, and they just gave away their positions when they fired on the decoys. We’ll prioritize capturing those launch sites so we can deploy more troops via dropship.”

“The perception of strength can be just as effective as the real thing,” Lorza said. “They may panic if they overestimate your capabilities.”

“She has a point,” Boyd said, giving her an appreciative glance. “Maybe we can add a little counter-intel flavor to the party. Captain – can you have some of your people get on PDF channels and broadcast fake distress calls and radio chatter?”

“Make them think they are surrounded, or taking more losses than they truly are,” Lorza added with a toothy grin.

“I’ll have my people get on it,” Stavros replied with a nod. “Their force is mostly made up of irregulars, which means they’ll be poorly coordinated, and they’ll have very little control over the information space. It shouldn’t be difficult to sow a little panic.”

“Look at you, thinking outside the box,” Boyd whispered as he gave Lorza an encouraging nudge.

Korza was reaching the elevator control room now, the electronic crack of his XMR resounding as he took down another PDF trooper with a well-placed burst to the chest, the slugs passing straight through his armor to ring the hull behind him like a bell as he slumped to the carpet. The Sergeant waved one of the Marines forward, the man dropping to a knee beside the lifeless militiaman as he started to work at the door controls, hooking a cable from his wrist device into a port below the fingerprint scanner.

“If there are any of them left inside, they will be ready for us,” Korza growled as he reached below frame to reload his weapon. “Gamma pack will breach. Everyone else – stay behind us.”

The Marine succeeded in bypassing the door lock, then nodded to Korza, hurrying back down the corridor.

“Trench formation!” Korza barked. Two of his packmates took a knee in front of him, two more aiming their weapons over their heads – the corridor too narrow for three. “Hit the door!”

The nearest Borealan slapped the panel, and the door slid open, gunfire immediately greeting them. Whistling rounds bounced off their armor, creating showers of sparks, one of them deflecting off a shoulder pad to embed itself in the ceiling with a puff of debris. A bullet hit Korza right in the visor, and while it didn’t penetrate, it still carried enough energy to snap his head back like he had taken a right hook to the face.

As he turned his view back to the open doorway, Boyd got a brief glimpse of an engineer who was wielding a machine pistol being thrown back against the consoles behind him, his body riddled with slug holes. One of the monitors flickered off as a round dug into it, a wisp of smoke rising from a bank of holographic panels.

Korza waved his men forward, and the six Borealans piled into the control room two by two, sweeping every angle with their XMRs. The room was about what one would expect – a fairly small space filled with monitoring equipment and control panels for the station’s elevators.

“Clear!” he announced, some more Marines filtering through to start examining the computers. “Captain – we have secured the control room. The elevators are yours.”

“Commendable work, Sergeant,” Stavros replied. “Leave a contingent of Marines behind to guard it, then head to the main passenger elevator. Stand by for reinforcements. Word will have surely traveled to the anchor by now, so I’m sending you some heavy infantry to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Comms officer – dispatch a team of Linebreakers,” he added as he turned to the console behind him. “Helmsman – move the carrier closer to the station and keep it in range of our defensive guns. They may try to hit us in orbit now that they know what we’re doing.”

A few minutes later, another dropship sped out of the port side hangar, Boyd watching it diminish to a glowing spec as it headed for the station. The carrier followed after it sluggishly, turning its rounded nose toward the hubcap-shaped structure.

Korza and his contingent of Marines were heading for the elevator now, the deserted terminal giving the feed a very eerie and unnatural feel. The civilians had been corralled in a safe area of the station, and there was nobody at the baggage check or the security gate, the metal detector having an aneurysm as the heavily-armed soldiers marched beneath it one by one.

They stepped through onto a circular platform that ringed the tether, the thick, black cable vanishing into the ceiling high above them. It looked so small from a distance, but up close, it was like a redwood trunk with the texture of carbon fiber. Ahead of them was the passenger car – a climber the shape of a donut that attached to the cable snugly, almost like the steel fitting on a pipe. This tether ferried both people and cargo, which meant that the loading bay for the cargo car was probably on a deck directly beneath theirs. Boyd had seen the arrangement before on other less traveled worlds, where the two cars could be connected or disconnected from the tether depending on which one was in use. The car had a subtle conical shape, tapering at the top to diminish air resistance during the climb. Its hull was ringed by rows of porthole-like windows through which Boyd could make out seats and carpeting for the occupants.

There was ample space for the three dozen Marines and Korza’s squad, and they began to load into the vehicle, starting to strap into the seats. There were none large enough for the Borealans, so they stood in the aisles, their weapons in hand.

On one of the helmet cam feeds, Boyd caught a glimpse of something large approaching down the corridor that led to the boarding platform. It looked like a slab of black metal, wide enough to almost plug the passage completely. As it drew closer, he saw that it was a giant riot shield that was being carried by a Krell. The reptile was about fifteen feet from its alligator-like nose to its trailing tail, its spinach-green scales and bony scutes covered over by a black poncho that was laden with supplemental armor. Sleeves extended down its arms, and there was a high collar that came up to protect its neck. Krell Linebreakers were the Coalition’s heavy infantry units, sporting enough natural and artificial armor to make them walking tanks. They resembled bipedal crocodiles, maybe eight or nine feet tall and weighing a good ton or more. They carried light machinegun variants of the XMR in a single hand, the weapons equipped with heavy gun shields that were bolted to the barrel shrouds to provide even more protection.

There were two of them, the Krell squeezing their way through the double doors of the car, so large that they had to duck to fit inside.

“I have never seen a Krell before,” Lorza whispered, her eyes wide with awe. “They are even bigger than Polars.”

“They look mean, but they’re about the gentlest creatures you’ll ever meet,” Boyd explained as they watched the doors seal shut with a hermetic hiss. “Doesn’t mean they don’t get mad if you shoot at their friends, though.”

The car lurched as they began to descend, the interior decks of the station flashing past for a few brief seconds before it emerged into vacuum. It would take them some time to reach the ground, so Boyd turned his attention to some of the other feeds that had been brought up on neighboring bridge windows.

“Captain!” one of the bridge officers began, Stavros turning to look back at him. “I believe we’ve found a jump-capable ship on the ground.”

“Show me,” he ordered, another view blowing up on the main display. This one was a magnified view from one of the carrier’s telescopes, showing the anchor and the surrounding urban sprawl from above. Around its massive, industrial footprint were the landing pads that Boyd had seen during his escape, a few of them occupied by shuttles and cargo haulers. One of them stood out, however – a far larger vessel with a snow-white hull. It had a sleek, aerodynamic frame, its twin engines mounted on nacelles to make them look like the sponsons of a catamaran. There was a tiered bridge situated towards the aft section, and the otherwise flat area of the hull directly in front of it was occupied by a bubble dome through which the blue shimmer of a pool was barely visible.

“It’s a Ventura-class yacht, Captain,” the officer explained as a blueprint of the vessel appeared beside the feed. “It doesn’t have much more jump range than a warden patrol ship, but it could make it outside the system. Length is about fifty meters.”

“That’s their escape plan,” Boyd added. “Has to be. Can we hit that thing with a railgun or have a Beewolf take it out?”

“That ship is running a class-C fission reactor,” the officer replied. “There would be a high likelihood of contamination if we subjected it to those kinds of stresses.”

“We need to secure it from the ground,” Stavros confirmed with a nod. “As long as Korza can take control of the anchor, the Syndicate won’t be able to reach their yacht.”

“Assuming they get there first,” Boyd added as he turned his eyes back to the feed.

Korza’s elevator was nearing the anchor now, the horizon rising up through the portholes from the perspective of those riding inside the car. The bright sunlight dimmed as they slid into the structure, shedding all of the speed that they had accumulated, the cradle-like embarkation platform rising up to greet them. They came to a stop, massive industrial clamps descending from the ceiling to hold the capsule securely in place with a clunk that reverberated through the car.

Almost as soon as it had come to a stop, the doors to the boarding area slid open, dozens of PDF troopers piling inside. These must be men from one of the colony’s garrisons, as they had no surplus armor, only what looked like simple riot gear. Some took a knee, others diving to the ground, shouldering their top-loading rifles.

“Ambush!” Korza growled. “To the deck!”

A hail of caseless rounds hammered the hull of the car, the Marines inside taking cover wherever they could – throwing themselves to the floor and ducking behind seats. It sounded like rain on a sheet metal roof, spider web cracks starting to spread across the outer layers of glass that protected the portholes. The occupants quickly realized that the chemically-propelled rounds couldn’t make it through – the car was armored against micrometeorite impacts and space debris that it might encounter on its way up and down the tether.

“It’s alright!” one of the Marines yelled, rising to his feet. “No pen!”

He brought up his XMR, aiming it through the nearest window, but Boyd caught a glimpse of something new. Whether it was a PDF trooper or a corrupt ExoCorp security officer, he couldn’t say, but the man was wearing one of the heavy suits of black and yellow-patterned armor. In his hands was the unmistakable copper glint of a railgun, the exposed magnetic coils on its barrel catching the light.

Before anyone could issue a warning, he began to fire, those coils starting to glow as slugs filled the air with molten trails. They punched through the car’s window, flecks of liquid metal spraying the unfortunate Marine’s armor as he was tossed into the seats behind him, hypersonic projectiles tearing through his ceramic armor.

“Voltage! Voltage!” Korza yelled as he reached down to adjust the dial on his wrist device. As he ducked under the windows, another stream of slugs took out a second Marine, the rounds blowing fist-sized exit wounds in his back and spraying the upholstery behind him with gore. The slugs weren’t quite making it through the hull, but Boyd could see where they were bulging the metal, like the inside of a bulletproof vest that had taken a hit.

With their voltage now configured for high penetration, some of the Marines began to fire back through the narrow portholes, recoil rocking their weapons into their shoulders. Their networked systems were transmitting targeting data to the rest of the squads now, Boyd watching as a field of red outlines filled their HUDs. The Syndicate goons had them boxed in – they must have been waiting for the car to arrive. More XMRs were in play now, no doubt the same ones that had been stolen from the freighter during the heist, another group of men wearing corporate security armor laying down fire as they poured into the room. The Marines were outnumbered two or three to one.

The two Krell were already springing into action, the lumbering creatures moving with alarming speed for something of their size, simply barreling through the seats and knocking them down like dominoes. They raised their heavy shields, putting the obstacles between the gunfire and the Marines as best they could, stray rounds ringing the thick metal and digging craters in the Kevlar lining.

“We have to get out of this killbox!” one of the Marines yelled, ducking as caseless rounds poured through one of the broken windows to spark against the back wall.

“Krell – move up!” Korza ordered. “Get us out of this vehicle!”

The two Krell lurched into motion again, keeping their shields raised, squads of Marines moving between the aisles as they tried to stay in cover behind their armored bulk. They reached the double doors that led out onto the platform, one of the Marines darting in to hit the controls beside them, the panels sliding open to a barrage of gunfire. The indomitable Krell marched forward, weathering the hail, hundreds of rounds pancaking into their shields. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they raised their LMGs, starting to hose the crowd of PDF. The militiamen didn’t have much cover – perhaps not expecting to receive much return fire – scores of them torn to shreds as they scrambled to escape. The suppression gave the Marines the opportunity to pour out of the car, and they began to take up position, forming a firing line.

The men wearing ExoCorp gear were more disciplined, turning their railguns on the Krell, the massive aliens shuddering as they weathered the slugs like hammer blows. At maximum voltage, the platform could punch through six centimeters of steel. Even the heavy ballistic shields that they carried wouldn’t hold out forever against concentrated fire.

Korza knew it, directing his men to focus their attention on the yellow-clad targets, a few retaliatory bursts sending one of them crashing to the ground. Their armor was heavy and intimidating, but it wasn’t any better at stopping a slug than the UNN’s standard-issue gear.

Another of the armor-clad security officers leaned out from behind the cover of a door frame, aiming between the scurrying PDF as he emptied his magazine into the leftmost Krell. The reptile turned towards him, absorbing the slugs, but one of them caught a Marine who was out of position. It hit him in the shoulder, lifting him off the ground and spinning him around, sending him rolling across the deck.

The Sergeant rallied his men, bringing down the last of their armored opponents. Slugs chewed through the wall to shower the last shooter with shrapnel and molten metal as he tried to duck back out of sight, throwing him off his feet, his armor riddled with smoking craters.

A dozen PDF lay dead or dying on the deck, some trying to flee through the entrances to the boarding platform, others skirting around the circular room in a bid to get a better angle on the Marines. Korza had his men spread out, and they moved to intercept, the conventional ammo posing little threat to them. They weren’t bulletproof, however. One Marine clutched his thigh as he dropped to the floor, a lucky shot making it through the Kevlar between his plates.

Another man dragged the injured Marine back to the cover of the car, one of the Krell moving to cover them, the ceaseless stream of molten tungsten keeping the militiamen suppressed. It was clear that the engagement was over, a couple more troopers falling to bursts of XMR fire before the rest tossed their weapons aside, raising their hands in surrender. The Marines moved in, tackling them to the ground, kneeling on their backs as they bound their hands tightly.

“Beta squad – remain here and secure the prisoners,” Korza barked as he dropped an empty magazine to the floor. “The rest of you – with me. We must block off access to the yacht and clear the anchor.”

“That elevator car is totaled,” Boyd said as he watched the scene play out on the feed. “How are we going to get reinforcements to the surface?”

“We’re already loading up the cargo car,” Stavros replied. “It’s a lot larger, and it’s designed to accelerate much more quickly, but it’ll be safe for our people to ride as long as we slow it down enough. We can’t pull more than a few Gs without pasting everyone inside it.”

The two remaining squads began to stack up by the doors, the Borealan pack preparing to breach. One of the Krell tore off a partially-melted barrel from its LMG using a quick-swap handle, tossing it to the deck, the air above it shimmering with residual heat. With practiced speed, the reptile plucked a replacement from its belt and slotted it into place, then moved to block one of the doors. At Korza’s command, they pushed through, the Marines forming columns behind the two Linebreakers.

The terminal outside was mostly clear, a few sporadic bursts of gunfire echoing as the teams spread out into the building. It was just as Boyd remembered it from his brief visit, the civilian area of the port forming a half-circle on one side of the tether’s anchor, the terminal divided into a dozen gates that led to landing pads beyond the curving windows. The help desks and little cafes were eerily deserted now, and there wasn’t a civilian in sight, the crowds of natives clad in shawls and cloaks absent.

“Cover the entrances,” Korza ordered, waving his men forward. “Captain – we have eyes on the yacht.”

Boyd could see it from the Sergeant’s perspective, the fifty-meter vessel appearing even larger and more lavish when viewed from the ground. It was one of the smallest classes of ship that could house its own jump drive, and it was probably worth more than he’d make in a lifetime. It wasn’t hard to see where the Syndicate’s ill-gotten credits were ending up. It was sitting on one of the pads off to the left, Korza making a beeline for the gate.

“Captain!” one of the bridge officers warned. “We’re detecting infrared emissions from the yacht. Their engines are spooling.”

“Sergeant, I want that yacht grounded on the double!” Stavros ordered. “Shoot out the engines if you have to!”

Korza broke into a sprint, his packmates following behind him. As he neared the gate, raising his XMR to fire through the tall windows, he was forced to duck under a hail of slugs. Two men in civilian clothing had emerged from the far side of the yacht, raising rifles as they rounded its sleek hull, the wind tearing at their shawls. A third man wearing a two-piece suit and a rebreather that resembled a gas mask emerged into view, firing a handgun wildly.

The Borealans took refuge behind a row of seats, popping up to return fire, trails of molten metal crisscrossing back and forth as they punched holes in the window. The shooters quickly fell, one of them slumping against the yacht’s hull, another taking a slug to the chest before falling off the landing pad to the dusty ground a good ten meters below. The man in the suit followed, weathering two rounds before falling to his knees, but the distraction had given the pilot the time they needed.

The yacht rose off the landing pad, its thrusters kicking up clouds of dust and sand, the bulky landing gear that had been holding it aloft folding back up beneath its belly. Korza and his men dumped their magazines into it, but it was too late, the vessel rising out of view above the anchor.

“We have a solid lock on the target, Captain,” the weapons officer announced. “Ventral railguns are tracking.”

“Hold your fire!” Stavros snarled, watching the yacht angle its nose up on the magnified aerial view. “Even if by some miracle you don’t breach the reactor, that thing is going to fall on a residential area if it gets knocked out of the sky!”

“Do they think they can play chicken with a jump carrier?” Boyd scoffed. “What’s the play here? They have to know that their goose is cooked once they make it to orbit.”

“I don’t like this,” Stavros grumbled, narrowing his eyes as he watched the grainy telescope view. “Run a sensor sweep on that ship and tell me what other emissions it’s putting out.”

***

The yacht rose off the pad, the landing gear stowing beneath its belly as it angled its nose towards space. With the AG field active, the only sensation of movement came from the view beyond the portholes, the sprawl of prefabs stretching out beneath the ship. The vessel was small enough that it could make landfall, but it was no less a ship of its class, luxuriously furnished and sporting a small jump drive with a nuclear reactor.

The founders of the Syndicate were strapped to their padded seats in the lavish crew compartment, along with half a dozen of their most trusted lieutenants. The floor beneath their feet was polished hardwood, the interior walls styled in much the same way as the exterior hull, all sleek lines with a pearl-white finish. Crystal champagne glasses and ashtrays made from carved jade sat atop ornate coffee tables, each an antique in its own right, immovable as the artificial gravity glued them to the deck. One of the things that the Ventura class was known for was its smooth ride. It wasn’t exactly intended to be used as an emergency lifeboat, but they were out of options now that the UNN’s jump carrier was hanging over the planet like a vulture waiting to feast on a carcass.

“Five minutes for jump prep,” the pilot warned, his voice coming through crystal-clear on the intercom. “Make sure those harnesses are tight, gentlemen. This close to the ground, the superlight manifold is going to bring a whole block’s worth of shit along for the ride, and I can’t guarantee that some of that debris won’t hit us once we’re out of the pipe.”

“Get us out of here, Stefano,” one of the men replied. He was smartly dressed, wearing a tailored suit in a shade of slate grey, the sleeves adorned with golden cufflinks. A pair of icy, blue eyes stared out from his weathered face as he reached up to slick back his thinning hair, trying to keep his composure in front of the other partners. “That jump carrier could have its railguns locked onto us already.”

“They won’t dare fire on the colony,” the man sitting beside him added, pulling a cigarette from the pocket of his jacket. He slipped it into his mouth, then held up an ornate lighter, producing a flickering flame. “We’re safe as long as we jump from atmo.”

“Will you put that thing out?” the boss snapped. “You’re gonna drop it and start a goddamned fire when you get the bends.”

One of the men who was sitting across the room from them slammed his fist on his armrest to get their attention. His scarred face was covered in gaudy tattoos and piercings, his hair buzzed short, more patterns shaved into it. He wore an armored pressure suit – an older variant of those used by Marines with the UNN’s regalia removed, replaced with the insignia of his pirate clan.

“You said this was a sure thing,” he snapped, turning his furious eyes on the boss. “I fuckin’ told you cunts that hittin’ the freighter was oversteppin’. That’s what brought the boys in blue and the goddamned Ninnies down on our heads. We had a good thing goin’ on Hades ‘till you got greedy,” he continued with a jab of his gnarled finger.

Another man who was wearing a pair of slacks and a white dress shirt chimed in, tightening the straps that ran across his chest.

“We’ll talk about this later, Vicente. For now, put in your bit and shut your mouth, or the void will cut off your tongue before I have a chance to do it myself.”

“I don’t need a bit, old man,” the tattooed pirate replied with a sneer. “I’ve done more jumps than all of you muddy fucks put together.”

“That’s probably why you’ve got no brain cells left,” the man with the cigarette added, a few of the lieutenants laughing.

“Carter is right,” one of the partners interjected from across the room, nodding to the smoker. He was wearing a lavish jacket, the collar lined with fur. “The Navy won’t risk firing on a vessel that’s initiating a jump so close to a population center.” He sat back in his chair, steepling fingers that were adorned with jewel-encrusted rings. “We have them by the balls. They shoot us down, and the whole colony could get a lethal dose of rads from our reactor.”

“We’re getting out of here,” the boss snarled. “And when we do, the first thing I’m doing is dedicating all of my resources to finding that fucking spook. He’s the cause of all this, and if I can’t have my colony, I’ll at least have peace of mind knowing that he died slowly.”

The pirate laughed at that, exposing a few gold teeth.

“Aye, just don’t forget to send me the holo.”

***

“Sensors are showing a buildup of energy in the yacht’s drive, Captain!” one of the bridge officers warned as they watched the vessel slowly rise from the anchor. “Estimate four minutes until they jump!”

Can they jump so close to the ground?” Lorza asked, turning her wide eyes to Boyd. “I have never heard of such a thing.”

“That’s because it’s a fucking terrible idea,” he replied, his mind racing as he tried to think of a solution. “A ship of that size is going to project a superlight manifold about half a klick wide – a bubble that extends around the vessel – and anything inside that manifold is going to get dragged along with it. It’s how we use jump carriers to transport fleets – they ride along in the carrier’s wake.”

“It’s going to be like dropping a nuke on the colony,” Stavros growled. “Options, people – and I want them fast!”

“We shoot them down, they rain radioactive wreckage all over the colony,” the officer replied. “We let them leave, they slip through our fingers and dump a few thousand miners and their prefabs into space,” Boyd added.

“Captain,” another of the crewmen interjected from behind his console. “I hate to say it, but we might have to choose the lesser evil here. We have to think about this in terms of which option results in the fewest casualties. It may be safer to let them jump away.”

“They’re right next to the anchor!” Stavros snapped. “If they take a chunk of the tether with them, that station and everyone inside it is going to fall back to the surface like an asteroid. We still have Marines and civilians onboard!”

“The Marines already on the ground should be shielded from the radiation by their suits,” the weapons officer added. “Maybe a precision strike from one of the Beewolves could minimize the risk of a core breach?”

“I won’t risk irradiating a city!” Stavros replied. “I need better options! Think, people!”

“Please, Boyd,” Lorza said. She placed a furry hand on his shoulder, leaning down to whisper to him. “You are the cleverest human I have ever met. You must be able to think of something! If you can stop those crooks here, then Morozov, Roza, Mikhail, Alexei – their deaths meant something. If they died so that you could be here – so that you could save these people – that is a fair trade.”

“No pressure,” he chuckled bitterly. “We can’t shoot them down, and we can’t let them leave. How the fuck do we stop a jump drive from activating at a distance? How do we prevent it from working without destroying the reactor?”

The sound of Stavros brainstorming with his bridge crew faded into the background as he wracked his brain, sifting through a career’s worth of useless information and tactics.

“Like catching a ball in a mitt,” he gasped.

“What?” Lorza asked, cocking her head.

“Captain!” he yelled, interrupting their conversation. “How precise is a jump at this distance?”

“Distance from what?” Stavros replied.

“The distance between the carrier and the yacht!”

“Generally speaking, the shorter the jump, the more precise the calculation,” the helmsman replied as the captain looked to him for an answer. “We’re maybe two thousand kilometers away.”

“We can’t stop the jump drive from charging because we can’t disable it without damaging the reactor at the same time,” Boyd continued, talking quickly with the knowledge that every second might count. “What if we disabled the drive by introducing a neutral material to its inner workings that disrupted its functions? What if that neutral material was our hull?”

“You’re going to have to elaborate, Agent,” Stavros replied.

“Naval Intelligence has been doing experiments with merging different metals – using superlight in an attempt to create exotic alloys,” he explained. “If one object emerges inside another, their atomic structures fuse. They can’t jump if their drive is buried below the deck in one of our hangars. They’re complex, sensitive devices, so severing circuits and changing the very properties of their atomic makeup should stop one dead.”

“You want us to jump into atmosphere and merge the carrier with the yacht?” the helmsman repeated, blinking back at Boyd in confusion.

“Jump carriers can fly in atmosphere,” Boyd insisted.

“They can make landfall in an emergency, but they’re not designed for this,” the officer replied as he spread his hands in exasperation. “I don’t even know what kinds of stresses a jump in atmosphere might subject the superstructure to. Catching a fifty-meter yacht in a sixty-meter hangar from two thousand klicks would be like threading a needle from a moving car.”

“And if we make it, the yacht doesn’t jump and it doesn’t irradiate the city,” Boyd insisted. “With respect – you got a better idea?”

“Three minutes!” the comms officer announced.

“Helmsman, can it be done?” Stavros demanded.

“I-I think so!” the flustered officer replied as he scanned his readouts intently. “At this range, we can be accurate to within…three meters. There’s no procedure for this!”

“Make it happen,” the captain snapped, turning back to the comms officer. “Red alert. Evacuate both hangars and close the blast doors. Clear as many of the surrounding decks as you can and start emergency jump protocols. We’re down to the wire, but we have no choice.”

“Is this going to work?” Lorza hissed, following Boyd back to their seats. The bridge was bathed in red, alarms blaring.

“I dunno,” he replied, helping her strap in hurriedly.

“You do not know?” she repeated incredulously as he tightened the harness across her ample chest. “What happened with these experiments you spoke of?”

“The two payloads kind of got mushed together, I think. Wasn’t my area of expertise.”

“Your area of expertise was not making plans, either,” Lorza grumbled.

“It’s the best we’ve got,” he replied, sliding into the seat beside her. “That’s the scariest part of this situation.”

“One minute!” the helmsman warned. Even Stavros was strapping into his captain’s chair this time. “Forty seconds!”

“Are the hangar bays evacuated?” the captain demanded.

“They’re clear of personnel,” the comms officer replied. “Not of equipment.”

“Too late for that,” Stavros said, his eyes fixed on the planet beyond the bridge windows.

“Twenty!”

Boyd shared a glance with Lorza, watching as her fluffy fur started to stand on end.

“Three, two, one – mark!”

***

When Boyd clawed his way back to consciousness, he saw blue skies beyond the bridge windows, a vast expanse of desert stretching to the horizon. The carrier was rumbling, what must be turbulence buffeting it, its superstructure groaning under the atmospheric stresses. He blinked his eyes, trying to focus on Lorza, seeing that she was starting to come around beside him.

“Damage report?” Stavros asked, already awake and giving orders. “What’s our hull integrity?”

“N-no pressure drops on sensors,” one of the officers replied, audibly fighting against the malaise that still overcame him. “Hangar bay seems to be intact. No hull breaches reported.”

“Did we catch the yacht?”

“Cameras show that it’s…in the starboard bay, Captain.”

“Helmsman – get us back to orbit,” Stavros continued. “Nose up, full thrust. I want us out of the atmosphere ASAP.”

Acceleration pressed Boyd into his seat, the main engines behind the almost half-kilometer-long carrier burning, rear camera views on the bridge windows showing massive plumes of smoke trailing behind its giant cones. He could make out the colony below, mercifully devoid of craters, the tether still very much intact.

After a couple of minutes, the shaking abated, the blue gradually giving way to black. Only when the acceleration stopped did anyone rise from their seats, the captain turning to address his bridge crew.

“I want a full damage and casualty report. If anyone so much as sprained an ankle, I want to know about it. Get me a view of the hangar.”

One of the bridge windows switched to a camera feed from the ceiling of one of the bays, a few gasps and murmurs from the crew breaking the silence. The blast shield was down, closing it off from space, the light strips on the ceiling casting stark shadows. There were no personnel, and some of the cargo had been pushed up against the rear wall by the sudden acceleration, a couple of crumpled Beewolves making Boyd wince as he considered how much money their little jump had just cost the Navy. Half-buried in the deck was the yacht. It was perfectly centered – the helmsman had hit it right on target – but it looked like it was sinking into a frozen lake. Most of the aft section was below deck, the front half of it rising towards the ceiling as it listed.

“Radiation readings are minimal,” another of the officers announced. “Their nuclear reactor must have been stopped dead. Maybe our hull acted as a control rod.”

“Get a squad of Marines down there on the double,” the captain replied as he examined the feed. “Dispatch the science team and instruct them to await my arrival.”

“You’re going down there, Captain?” the comms officer asked as she gave him a concerned glance.

“You think I’m going to miss whatever that is?” he scoffed, gesturing to the display. “Agent Boyd – I think you’ll want to see this. It’s your case, after all.”

Boyd nodded, then helped Lorza out of her seat, waiting for an objection from the captain that never came. A pair of Marines who had been standing beside the bridge doors joined them as they made their way down into the bowels of the ship, passing personnel who were in varying states of confusion and disarray as they went. It wasn’t as though the captain had been keeping them up to date on his decisions and his reasoning. From their perspective, they had just been subjected to an emergency jump with only a couple of minutes of warning, followed by a period of turbulence and high acceleration in rapid succession. There would be more than a few bumps and bruises.

When they arrived at the hangar, a dozen Marines were waiting just beyond the door, their weapons trained on the yacht. For all anyone knew, the crew might still be alive in there. They were soon joined by a team of personnel clad in white pressure suits with sealed hoods and various scientific implements clutched in their hands. Lorza was instructed to wait at a safe distance, the captain gesturing for a nearby Marine to pass him a sidearm. He did the same for Boyd, then they began to advance, the squad moving ahead of them as the science team followed behind.

The Marines fanned out to cover what pressure doors remained above the deck, a couple of scientists moving in with handheld scanners to take readings. As Boyd approached the smooth, white hull, he saw strange spiral patterns and crystalline growths where it met the floor. The atomic structures of both materials had been fused in an instant, forming strange, exotic alloys.

“Radiation readings are still at safe levels,” one of the scientists announced. “It’s safe to enter.”

“Let’s see what it looks like on the inside,” Stavros mused, waving his Marines forward. “Get that pressure door open.”

One of the Marines fumbled with the outer control panel for a few moments, then the mechanism opened, the door sliding ajar to reveal a small airlock. There must be some batteries still connected to the system. The opening was raised a good foot off the floor due to the yacht’s inclination, so the man had to climb up, illuminating a flashlight on the barrel of his XMR as he made his way inside. A few more Marines followed, Boyd and Stavros waiting for the all-clear.

“We have a survivor, Captain,” one of the Marines announced over the radio. “The pilot is unconscious on the bridge – a medical team is on its way. We also found the rest of the passengers. What’s left of them, at least. You’re gonna want to see this…”

Boyd and Stavros shared a glance, then made their way inside, hopping up into the yacht. The hardwood floor was slightly inclined, Boyd reaching out to steady himself against the nearest wall, which was the same pristine white color as the outer hull. The décor made him feel like he was making his way through a sunken hotel, the light fixtures and furnishings all high-end and inordinately expensive, the door panels covered over with real wood. A couple of Marines directed them into a more spacious cabin halfway down the fifty-meter length of the vessel, the pair emerging to a bizarre sight.

This had been some kind of crew compartment. It was filled with padded leather seats and vintage coffee tables, glasses and fancy vases now shattered on the floor. There must have been rows of chairs for the passengers, but he could only see four of them now, rising from where the carrier’s bare metal deck intersected with the wood at maybe a twenty-degree angle.

Their occupants were still seated. Boyd stepped closer to examine one of the bodies, finding a man wearing an expensive fur coat who was immersed up to his sternum in the floor, surrounded by those strange spiral patterns and crystalline structures. His eyes were wide open, staring into nothing, as though he hadn’t even been given time to react before his bones and organs had become fused with the carrier. There was a pink hue to the material around his body, as though blood and tissue had merged with the alloy.

The man opposite him was in the same state, the floor rising to his chest, his head hanging forward to obscure his features. Further down the row, Boyd could only make out the heads of the next two people, surfacing above the deck like drowning men gasping for air.

“Looks like the frozen lake from Dante in here,” Boyd mused.

“The ninth circle,” Stavros added, crouching to inspect the nearest body. “Shame. I was hoping to take them prisoner – I’m sure they would have had a lot of interesting things to say. Perhaps we can get something out of the pilot. Looks like we came out a couple of meters lower than we should have.”

“The helmsman did say that we’d be accurate to within three meters,” Boyd said with a shrug. “I think he did an amazing job, considering the circumstances.”

“I suppose this brings your investigation to a close,” the captain said, straightening up to face Boyd. “Assuming that the rest of those seats were occupied, it looks like most of the so-called Syndicate’s leadership was probably on this yacht. We’ll have to dig the bodies out of the floor with a cutting torch now.”

“I’m sure there are still some criminal elements left on the ground – maybe some lower-ranked goons who weren’t important enough to land a seat,” Boyd replied. “I’m going to recommend a temporary occupation of the planet until we can root them all out. Lord knows Hades needs some kind of stable government with UN oversight. The Hadeans might actually have a chance now that the corp has been run off the planet and the Syndicate has been beheaded.”

“We need to pacify the remaining PDF elements and root out any collaborators,” Stavros continued. “The fight on the ground is still ongoing, but I doubt they’ll put up much resistance once they realize that the people who sign their checks are all dead. We have a lengthy peacekeeping mission ahead of us.”

“Fuck me sideways,” one of the science team members said, pausing to stare at the bodies as he entered the room. “Sorry, Cap’n…”

“If we’re not already in control of ExoCorp’s comms satellite, we will be soon,” Boyd added. “I’ll send my report back to UNNI. I think they’ll have some interesting questions for the corp’s board members.”

“Send word to Mu Arae as soon as a connection is established,” Stavros began, raising a finger to his ear. “Request whatever reinforcements they can spare. Report is as follows – UNN control over Hades orbit reestablished. Ground engagements ongoing. Syndicate leaders KIA. Request repair and refit at Fort Hamilton, have sustained…structural damage.”

“What should we do about this, Captain?” the scientist asked as he waved a medical scanner over the nearest corpse. “I can’t even get a reading – it’s like the sensor thinks he ends at the waist.”

“We’ll keep the bay sectioned off,” Stavros replied. “There’s not much that we can do to repair damage like this until we make it to drydock. Your team is free to collect data in the meantime.”

“Thank you, Captain,” the man replied as he tried to suppress his obvious excitement. “I don’t think a situation like this has ever occurred before, and we certainly wouldn’t create one intentionally. It’s a unique opportunity to study this phenomenon.”

“I’ve seen enough,” Stavros said, gesturing for Boyd to follow him. “I need to get back to the bridge – there’s still an invasion to coordinate.”

Lorza’s ears pricked up when she saw Boyd emerge from the ship, and they made their way over to her, dodging out of the path of the medical team as they hurried past in the other direction.

“Is it over?” she asked hesitantly.

“It’s over,” Boyd replied with a nod, watching the tension melt out of her body. “They’re all dead. We can’t be sure right now, but it looks like some of the Syndicate’s higher-ups tried to skip town. Now, they’re getting very familiar with the carrier, atomically speaking.”

“If it wasn’t for your actions, a lot more people might have died today,” Stavros began as he glanced between them with a new appreciation. “The lengths you went to in obtaining the information and getting in contact with us, your quick thinking and unorthodox ideas – it all brought us to this conclusion. Perhaps I might expect that of a UNNI agent, but certainly not a civilian,” he added as he looked up at Lorza. “I can’t offer you promotions or commendations, but I can certainly ensure that your contributions are recognized.”

“I am just glad that we do not have to look over our shoulders anymore,” she replied. “All I would ask of you now is a soft bed and a hot meal.”

“I’ll let my officers know that you’re to be given whatever you need,” the captain replied. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have more work to do. I’ll leave you in Agent Boyd’s capable hands.”

He walked out of the hangar, a couple of the Marines following behind him.

“Mess hall is this way,” Boyd said, nodding down the hallway. They left the bustle of scientists and Marines behind them, walking down one of the ship’s winding corridors until he was sure that they were alone. “So,” he continued, pausing beneath a convenient stairwell. “What do you want to do now? I said that you’d be in protective custody until the Syndicate was dealt with, and they’re looking pretty dealt with to me. You’re a private citizen of the UN – we can’t keep you here or make you do anything that you don’t want to do. Say the word, and I can have a courser take you anywhere in the sphere.”

“Trying to get rid of me already?” she chuckled.

“I’m just fulfilling my duties as a representative of Naval Intelligence.”

“If I am free to do as I please, then it pleases me to stay with you,” she replied as she leaned a little closer to him. He had to lift his chin to look her in the eye, a fact that she seemed to enjoy reminding him of whenever the opportunity arose. “What do you think – as a private citizen?”

“Don’t just stay with me,” he replied. “Make it official. Lorza, your ship got me off Hades, you got me off that frozen moon. For all my griping and arguing, I would have died without you.”

“Anyone would have done the same,” she said, trying to brush it off.

“Maybe, maybe not. You helped contain a situation that could have developed into a full-scale war, and you helped save the lives of thousands of people. It wasn’t your job like it was mine – you just did it because it was right. We need people like you – people with quick wits who act on moral imperatives, people with unique perspectives who can think outside the box under pressure. I don’t want you to be my deputy anymore, I want you to be my partner,” he continued as he took her furry hands in his.

“You really think I could be a spy, like you?” she asked as her tail whipped back and forth restlessly.

“UNNI will probably want me to stick around for a while to oversee the rest of the operation, but when I go back, come with me. Let me argue your case. You have all the skills and attributes they look for in an agent, and I know for a fact that they’re searching for alien recruits. You have unique experiences that we don’t, and you can go places that no human could. You don’t have to make the decision right now, but think about it.”

He wanted to tell her more – to gush about how she might be the only person alive who truly knew him, that this might be the only way for him to have any kind of long-term relationship – but he mustered his best poker face and kept his mouth shut. The last thing he wanted was to taint her decision with some feeling of obligation towards him.

“What is there to think about?” she replied, giving him a smile warm enough to melt ice. “My ship is gone, my crew is gone – I have nowhere left to go but back to Siberia, and you are not in Siberia.”

“I just don’t want you to feel like it’s a requirement for staying with me,” he continued. “Even if you decide this lifestyle isn’t for you, it’s not goodbye forever.”

“Somehow, I do not think that discovering a new mineral deposit will have the same excitement it once did after this,” she said with a smirk. “Now, I have not sat down to eat a proper meal all day, and I am hungry. Better take me to the mess hall before you start to look tasty.”

“Oh, we didn’t leave that joke in the ice caves?” he chuckled as they continued on.

“Not as long as it continues to get a rise out of you,” she replied, keeping a tight hold of his hand.

***

Korza lifted his head, watching the spreading cloud of colorful gas expand in the wake of the carrier as it materialized above the city. A massive shockwave of displaced air hit the ground a few moments later, kicking up a wall of dust and sand, the airborne debris hammering his visor as his helmet muffled the loud crack that followed. The titanic vessel couldn’t have been more than a few hundred meters off the ground, so close that he could make out the railgun turrets that lined its belly. Almost as soon as it had emerged, the massive engine cones at its aft began to burn, leaving great plumes of smoke in their wake as it rose towards the clouds.

“These humans are crazy,” one of his packmates growled, cursing in his native tongue.

“Captain Stavros is our crewmaster – he knows what he is doing,” Korza replied as he reached up to wipe his visor clean. “Keep moving!” he barked over the local channel.

His pack lumbered along beside him, their weapons shouldered, a squad of Marines following behind them. Korza could see the blips on his HUD that denoted the locations of the teams in his vicinity, a top-down wireframe map of the colony projected in a window to the bottom left. The blue markers were sweeping the streets, eliminating resistance from the traitorous PDF as they moved between the prefabs. At the captain’s orders, they had used the anchor as a staging area, moving deeper into the city once sufficient reinforcements had been sent down the tether. The humans were putting up sparse resistance, but their radios had been flooded with fake distress calls and fabricated reports, and it seemed that they were falling for the ruse. Every pocket of resistance that his team encountered seemed panicked and uncoordinated.

“The fuck are they thinkin’, jumpin’ a carrier into atmo?” one of the Marines remarked over the radio with a hiss of static. “They were almost close enough to sever the tether!”

“I don’t see the yacht anymore,” another of the humans added. “I think they pasted it like a bug on a goddamned windshield.”

“Turn your attention to your task,” Korza snarled. “We approach the city’s garrison – where resistance will be fiercest. We must disable the missile battery inside the compound if we are to gain air superiority.”

These humans were excitable, but he had quickly learned that the criticisms levied against their kind by his comrades back on Borealis were unfounded. To the uninitiated, their reliance on orbital bombardments and long-range firefights made them appear fearful of direct confrontation, but that was a dangerous misconception. Far from being iron caskets that shielded them from danger, their ships carried them straight into battle, and they fought ferociously for creatures of their diminutive size. As he had risen through the ranks as an auxiliary, he had come to respect their methods, and he had earned a place among them.

He led his team down the street, the Marines and Shock Troopers stalking between the prefabs, checking doors and windows for hostiles. The people of this city had been instructed to stay inside their homes, but it was still a sensitive environment to fight in, and it was hard to distinguish combatants from bystanders at a glance. The security forces had been ordered to use low voltage settings on their rifles – usually reserved for boarding operations where there was a danger of decompression – but they could still overpenetrate if they were careless with their fire.

This place was as dry as the deserts back on the homeworld, but the humans had made a go of it here, eking out a life in tiny capsules made of metal that were lifted off the dusty ground on stilts. It was a far cry from the homely sandstone structures that he was used to. Each one had a loud machine with a fan mounted to the outer wall, and there were scarcely any dwellings that didn’t have some kind of hasty patches or repairs. The scent of metal and solvents crept into his helmet even through his rebreather as he swept the alien homes with his XMR, scrutinizing every window. Most of them had metal slats that were presumably there to keep out the sand and harsh sunlight, too narrow for a shooter to fire through. His furry ears protruded through the slots in his helmet, swiveling to scan his environment, the sound of far-off gunfire carrying over the city.

“The garrison should be at the end of this next street, Sergeant,” one of the Marines said as he lifted the touch display that was built into his suit’s armored forearm. “We have two more squads approaching from the Northeast, so there should be no danger of a crossfire.”

“Hold,” Korza ordered, raising a fist to halt his men as he approached a junction in the dusty path. He leaned his XMR around the corner of a prefab, using the in-picture feed from its scope to get a view of the road beyond without exposing himself to enemy fire.

Some two hundred meters away, a concrete wall rose up above the surrounding structures, assembled in modular sections. It was tall – too tall to scale easily, even for a Borealan. There were a couple of covered watchtowers that were raised above its lip, giving the occupants a view of the surrounding area, both of them equipped with mounted machineguns. While the small arms used by the PDF troopers might not pose much of a threat to an armored Marine, those heavier guns would. They were perfectly positioned to provide covering fire and to protect the walls.

There was an entrance on the near side of the wall that provided access from the street, protected only by a security checkpoint and bollards, but it was currently being plugged by some kind of outdated armored vehicle. It looked like a personnel carrier with another machinegun mounted on a blister on its roof. A squad of PDF were milling about in its shadow, glancing around nervously. They were clad in simple flak vests and riot gear designed for suppressing civilian revolt, nothing that would provide much protection. What could the outlaws have promised them that made them think they could stand against the Navy?

“The uplink to the carrier is back online, Sarge,” one of the Marines warned. “Orbital imaging shows a lot of activity inside the compound – they’re running around like headless chickens in there. They must be panicking.”

“That’s because their comms are flooded with bullshit,” another of the men chuckled. “As far as they know, a whole CSG just arrived in orbit, and they’re landing tanks outside the city.”

“We must make our move before the truth is revealed,” Korza replied. “Hold until Epsilon is in position. They will believe that they are surrounded if they come under attack from multiple directions.”

“Sergeant Korza,” Captain Stavros began, his voice crackling over the radio.

“Captain,” Korza acknowledged. “We witnessed the carrier jump above the city. Is everything-”

“All’s well up here, Sergeant,” Stavros continued. “The Syndicate’s leadership is currently sitting in our hangar bay. What’s left of them, at least. Their organization has been decapitated – now I want that rebellion crushed. Let’s show the good people of this colony what their tax credits pay for.”

“We shall open the skies for you, Captain,” Korza growled in reply.

“All squads report their readiness, Alpha,” one of his packmates said.

“Then we move now,” he snarled, bracing his shoulder against the wall of the prefab. “All squads – open fire!”

He leaned out of cover, shouldering his XMR as he unloaded into the hapless PDF troopers, laying down covering fire. His packmates and the squad of Marines took advantage of their surprise to split into two groups, half of them sprinting to the other side of the street, where they joined the gunfight.

The hail of hypervelocity slugs hammered the checkpoint, digging craters in the concrete and sparking off the bollards, the troopers who were manning the entrance scurrying for cover. One of them was thrown off his feet by a burst of gunfire, slamming him against the hull of the APC, his body slumping to the dusty ground. They were uncoordinated, undisciplined, one of their number attempting to rally them with frantic shouts and gestures.

They began to return fire with their caseless weapon, some of them ducking back into cover behind their vehicle as a Marine hit one of them in the visor with a slug. The rifles posed little threat, but the machineguns were another story, the long barrel atop the APC swiveling in their direction. It opened up, its chugging rate of fire sending a stream of rounds their way, splashing into the sand.

The team leaned in and out of cover, taking potshots at the PDF, molten trails filling the air between their positions. Another of the humans fell, one of the Marines putting a well-placed slug through his shoulder, the exit wound spraying the concrete behind him with gore. More troopers were rushing to the gate from the inside of the compound to support them, and the machinegun mounted in the watchtower swiveled to take aim, sparking off the roofs of the metal dwellings as it fired down into the street. Korza heard the whistle of bullets flying past his helmet as he ducked back behind his prefab, his own heavy breathing filling his helmet.

“We gotta take out those machineguns, Sarge!” one of the Marines yelled as he leaned out of a nearby alley to get a look. “We can’t get any closer as long as they’re pinning us!”

“Private Osman – fire your forty-millimeter at that machinegun nest!” Korza barked into his radio. “The rest of you – tune your weapons for maximum voltage and fire on that vehicle, but take careful aim. We do not want to harm any civilians.”

“Sarge!” Osman confirmed, unfolding the stock of a grenade launcher and loading a shell into its barrel. “On your mark!”

“Now!”

A few of the Marines leaned out of the cover of the alley, bracing their rifles tightly, the recoil from the higher velocity slugs slamming the weapons into their shoulders. At these voltages, the rounds could penetrate six centimeters of steel. The surplus APC stood no chance, sparks flying as the slugs punched straight through its armor, leaving glowing holes in their wake that dripped molten metal like the blood from some wounded beast. A few of the troopers who were taking cover on the far side of the APC were sprayed with flecks of slag and deadly shrapnel, throwing them to the ground, one of the men losing an arm as a stray slug severed it at the bicep. The machinegun was quickly silenced, a wisp of smoke rising from the red-hot barrel as it stopped firing, its gunner dead.

It was the opening Osman needed, and he stepped out into the street, raising his launcher as he took careful aim. With a thunk, he fired his grenade, the projectile whistling through an open window of the watchtower. After a momentary delay, there was a bright flash of flame, dust billowing out through every available opening. The second gun went quiet, the surviving troopers glancing up in alarm as chunks of shattered concrete tumbled into the compound behind them.

“Move up behind us!” Korza roared, darting out of cover. His five packmates were on his tail, breaking into a sprint on their long, digitigrade legs. Borealans could cover short distances quickly, even moreso in this low gravity, the pack flying towards the few remaining PDF who were still guarding the gate. The Marines moved up behind them, sticking to either side of the street in tight columns, firing intermittently to keep the pressure on.

Korza felt a burst of gunfire impact his chest piece like hammer blows, but he was far too large and heavy to be stopped. He leapt a good two meters up onto the roof of the disabled APC, its eight wheels sagging under his weight, then aimed his XMR down at the men who were cowering behind it. A couple of them lifted their rifles to aim at him, but too late, a stream of molten metal cutting down half a dozen of them. He tossed his empty magazine, hearing it bounce off the armored vehicle’s cratered hull, loading a fresh one as his pack vaulted over the bollards.

They passed through the gate, putting the concrete wall to their backs, fanning out to cover the Marines as the squad filed in behind them. Korza found himself standing in a dusty courtyard, not unlike that of an old Elysian keep. Inside the concrete slabs that made up the walls was a scattering of prefab buildings, likely armories and barracks for the PDF, a few more APCs and smaller vehicles parked in lots. There were walls hastily assembled from sandbags and larger, block-shaped containers filled with dirt and sand to act as barricades, suggesting that the garrison’s defenders had tried to fortify their position in a panic. Sitting in the middle of it all, its white radome covered over with camouflaged netting, was one of the stolen missile launchers. It was a cupcake – he had seen them on forward operating bases before – a portable system used to shoot down airborne threats. A pair of missile launchers were mounted to either side of it, each one equipped with several tubes, the lenses on their cameras glinting as they reflected the harsh sunlight.

There were still many PDF inside the walls, Korza directing his men to take cover behind some nearby sandbags as a hail of bullets was directed their way. From their left flank, an explosion sent a shower of debris flying into the compound, Korza turning his head to see a Krell come lumbering through the breached gate. The giant reptile had its massive shield raised, enemy fire crating into its surface, another two squads of Marines advancing behind the reptile as though they were moving behind a tank.

The reptile swung its thick tail, leaning the barrel of its XMR around the shield, emptying the drum magazine into a group of troopers who were firing down from the roof of their barracks. Its charges flooded into the compound, diving into the cover the PDF had so generously provided, joining the fight.

“Captain, we have penetrated the enemy’s defenses,” Korza said as he put his back to one of the sandbag walls. “Our primary target is in sight.”

“Clear out that base and secure the battery,” Stavros replied. “Once enough of those launchers have been shut down, we can start landing dropships. We have several thousand more Marines up here itching for a fight.”

“It will be so, Captain,” Korza replied as he turned his attention back to the PDF. “Move up and clear the buildings!”

They began to move through the maze of sandbags and defenses, clearing out the pockets of resistance, the loud cracks of XMRs rising above the chatter of caseless weapons. The pack leapt into a circle of sandbags that had been arranged to form a foxhole, one of its occupants raising a handgun at Korza. He caught the man in the face with a backward swipe of his hand, the trooper unconscious before he’d hit the dirt, another of the Borealans loosing a burst into a human who was turning his rifle on them. As Korza swung his XMR at the remaining pair of PDF, they threw their weapons aside, raising their hands in surrender.

“Bind them,” he growled, two of his packmates setting upon the men. They rolled them onto their bellies, manipulating the little aliens like children playing with dolls, securing their hands behind their backs using plastic ties.

The defenders had been pushed back to the prefab structures now, Korza directing one of his squads to breach the barracks, leading his pack over to what looked like the command building if the comms array on its roof was any indication. It was a two-story structure made from prefabs that had been stacked on top of one another, the upper floor accessible via a flight of metal steps outside its walls.

Korza directed half of his pack to breach the ground level, then leapt up the steps, the rickety platform above groaning beneath his feet. He shouldered his way through the closed door, the dented panel clattering to the floor, his XMR raised before he had even stepped over the threshold.

A gunshot rang out, a bullet deflecting off Korza’s visor, sparking as it dug into the ceiling above his head. Standing before him was a PDF trooper with a sidearm clutched in a trembling hand, its barrel pointed squarely at the Borealan. The insignia on his breast identified him as the garrison’s commander. Korza was on him before he could pull the trigger again, covering the distance in a single bound, closing his massive fist around both the weapon and its wielder’s fingers. He felt the fragile bones snap, the man letting out a yell of pain and surprise, Korza tearing the pistol from his broken hand as he knocked the man to the floor with his bulk. He lay there, writhing as he clutched his wounded limb.

“Stay down,” Korza growled through his helmet speakers, lifting his eyes to examine his surroundings. This was clearly some kind of control center for the city’s PDF. The walls of the room were lined with metal desks that were loaded with computer monitors and sheets of paper. Thick, insulated power and data cables trailed along the floor, some of them terminating in a thrumming server rack that was sectioned off beyond a side door.

Two of his packmates entered a moment later, one of them keeping his weapon trained on the commander while the other moved to clear the server room. Korza walked closer to the nearest bank of monitors, then lurched as a shrill scream rang out. Huddled beneath one of the desks was a human woman. She was unarmed, dressed in civilian clothes – probably a colonist.

“Do not resist and you will not be harmed,” he said, beckoning for her to leave her hiding place. Clearly terrified, she slid out from under the desk, moving over to the far wall at Korza’s instruction. He turned his attention to the windows that looked out over the compound, seeing squads of Marines lining up captured PDF at gunpoint below, one of the Krell standing watch over them. The missile launcher was being shut down, a Marine tapping at a control panel mounted on its chassis, its long launch tubes lowering into a stowed position.

“Captain,” Korza began, sliding open his visor to get a breath of fresh air. “We have taken the PDF garrison, and the missile launcher has been secured.”

“Excellent work, Sergeant,” Stavros replied. “All of the stolen launchers have been accounted for, save for two, but we have teams heading their way now. Stand by – we should be able to land dropships at your location shortly. Most of the PDF inside the city have already surrendered. They seem to be under the impression that they’re facing off against a carrier group and that the colony is surrounded by mechanized units. Don’t know who gave them that idea,” he added with a sarcastic chuckle. “We’ve detected some wheeled vehicles heading for a mining outpost deeper into the desert’s interior, so it’s likely that some suspects with closer ties to the Syndicate are making a break for it. They can’t get off-world – there’s nowhere for them to go.”

“We will track them down, Captain,” Korza replied.

“That would be my suggestion, Sergeant. As soon as reinforcements arrive, I want Gamma pack on a dropship heading for that outpost. Happy hunting.”

EPILOGUE

Boyd pushed his way through the bustling crowd, the sound of a thousand conversations blending into an indistinct thrum of background noise. There were mostly humans surrounding him, some clothed in the blues and yellows of Navy personnel, others wearing civilian clothes similar to his own. Nobody would have any idea that beneath his casual garb was an environment suit that cost as much as the average battle tank. Plenty of aliens were present, too, easily identifiable as their stature lifted them head and shoulders above the throngs. Feline Equatorials and the occasional Polar strode along in packs, the foot traffic parting to make room for lumbering Krell, their oar-like tails dragging on the ground behind them.

At a glance, Boyd could have pretended that he was walking along some terrestrial street, storefronts with colorful awnings rising up to either side of a wide road that was split down the middle by planters filled with greenery and benches where weary travelers could rest. Beneath his boots was white hull material, however, the buildings extruded from it as though cast from a mold. The blue sky and puffy clouds above him were painted onto an arched ceiling that slowly curved up and out of view in the distance, the warm sunlight emitted by high-powered lamps that were spaced out at intervals. There was even an artificial breeze that tugged at his hair and rustled the leaves of the nearby trees.

Fort Hamilton – more widely known as the Pinwheel due to its wheel-like shape – was the largest and arguably most important station in Coalition space. Being too big for AG fields to be viable, it was spun to simulate gravity, meaning that he was currently standing on the inner surface of an enormous toroidal habitat. It was the only place outside of the Martian dockyards that could accommodate a ship as big as the Thermopylae in its drydocks. The carrier was currently undergoing an extensive refit after returning from deployment at Hades, and its crew were enjoying some well-earned shore leave. Boyd was not so fortunate – he was here on business.

He spotted his mark through the crowd, making a beeline for a bench, its occupant relaxing beneath the shade of a tree-filled planter. As much as he was trying to be stealthy, she noticed him long before he arrived, lifting her pink nose towards the branches above her. Her furry ears swiveled to track him as he approached, her bushy tail starting to flick back and forth excitedly.

“Don’t burn through your payout too quickly,” he said, taking a seat on what little of the bench was left unoccupied by Lorza’s sizable rump. “That sandwich must have cost you a fortune – it’s as big as my arm.”

She lifted a sandwich sub that must have been three feet long, taking a wet bite, her dexterous tongue snaking out to clean the tuna and mayonnaise from her furry chin.

“My bank account may be full, but my belly is not,” she replied after pausing to chew for a moment. “Some is insurance money and compensation, but I suspect that the rest is hush money. Your UNNI does not want me talking about what I saw or who I met,” she said with a pointed glance at the agent.

“Well, UNNI actions resulted in the loss of your ship and crew, not to mention the emotional damage caused. You’re entitled to some compensation.”

“Of all the strange things you humans have invented, I think I understand lawyers the least,” she added as she took another large bite. “How did your debriefing go? Were they pleased?”

“Overall, the Admirals seemed happy with my performance, considering the extreme circumstances. They accepted my request for a couple of weeks of paid leave, too, so we have some downtime to look forward to.”

“Finally, I shall have you all to myself for a while,” she said as she beamed down at him. “We have a great deal of lost time to make up for. Did they…say anything about me?” she added hesitantly, pausing to clean her fingers with her barbed tongue.

“They were very interested in learning how we survived together,” he replied, watching her fidget impatiently. “I left out some of the more…intimate details, but they seemed very impressed with your exploits. You survived everything that I did, after all, but you weren’t a highly trained special agent equipped with black budget gear.”

“So…”

“Yes, they want to interview you,” he said as he watched her eyes brighten up. “Once my period of leave is over, you’re coming back with me to start your training. Keep in mind,” he added, raising his hands to stop her from getting over-excited. She tried to put on a more serious expression, settling back into her seat. She hadn’t even noticed that a huge glob of tuna had landed on her chest. “This isn’t a done deal, so try to make a good impression.”

“Until then, I have UN credits burning a hole in my pocket and a whole space station to explore,” she said as she wrapped a long arm around him. She tugged him closer on the bench, Boyd feeling the weight of her breast come to rest on his shoulder, draping over him as the fabric of her coveralls struggled to contain it. “I also have a hotel room with a bed large enough for me to lie flat and a shower big enough for me to stand in.”

“I’m officially off-duty as of tomorrow,” Boyd replied. “I’m all yours for the next fortnight.”

“Then let us not waste any more time, malish,” she said as she tugged him to his feet and led him away into the crowd.

~THE END~

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