Writing Blog

Novels

SF Stories

Other Stories

NOVELS

Click on cover for more information.

 

A Question of Loyalty

By Wayne Austin

Her master had to allow Orange Spiral With Green Tips to progress to advanced arms training. He just had to. Her group was more than ready.

Phillipa crossed her arms and rested them on the sill, then leant forward to watch the lightning dance amongst the storm clouds gathered over the bluff on the horizon. After another hard training session, she could do with a break. For some reason she couldn’t fathom, the colony’s training had reached an impasse, just like the war. Over and over, all the groups had repeated the training exercises and tests for this level so that none now placed outside the ninetieth percentile.

Another flash of yellow lightning flickered across the orange sky and lit up the brown clouds with flashes of red and pink, like a h’Slaitiarr that had slipped through genetic screening at birth, only to have his disease take hold in adulthood. But she doubted that her masters were enjoying this comedic performance put on by the storm. Not after Earth’s recent attack on their home world with biogenic weapons.

And still her masters refused to allow the colony to advance to the next level of training.

The dome’s transparent skin fluttered against her face and she watched the purple strands of h’Skarra whip back and forth in the blustery wind while the brown bristles in the sparse patches of Mardokiarn rippled but refused to bend. She had molded her group to be h’Skarra when they had to give and Mardokiarn when they had to hold. Still, now and then, a particularly strong gust would strip a few of the orange clusters from the tips of the bristles and sweep them out over the chasm. Was that the worry? That in battle her group would break?

Or turn?

Not Orange Spiral With Green Tips, she was certain of that. Nor would any of the other groups. Failure to reach targets had weeded out the weak and as a junior she had watched whole groups terminated for the failure of one individual. But that hadn’t happened in a long time.

Off to the side, a familiar h’Slaitiarr emerged from a low building and angled for the dome’s airlock, triplets of tentacles at both ends of his body dancing in the air. With a loud sniff to clear her sinuses, she straightened and wiped once more at the trickles of sweat streaming down her face. The towel was already damp and did little to absorb the moisture as she wiped under her armpits and then across her breasts and stomach, all the time musing on what brought her master over for this unexpected visit. Pity. She could have done with a shower first.

Her perspiration began to ease as the airlock opened and her master made a beeline for her, his transparent environmental suit glistening along the edges where it had crinkled after being sprayed on. An orange spiral flickered along his flanks and the green tips flickered to a chirruped squeal. “Phillipa,” his translator rang out in its dull, metallic voice.

She watched him glide up to her, his five pairs of brownish-yellow legs rippling underneath his teal-gray ovoid body. The lazy red spirals and splotches of orange that slid along his sides revealed nothing. No flickering of green or blue was a good sign. She relaxed and stood with her hands clasped behind her back. A fist-sized monitor drifted by, just above head-height, and she flicked a glance at it as it paused for a moment before continuing its circuit of the dome.

Her master eased to a stop and splayed his leading tentacles before her in his usual greeting. The shorter ones, either side of his main tentacle, writhed and curled over each other in a reasonable imitation of two h’Skarra fighting over a patch of soil with higher selenium content. While she waited, he curled a trailing tentacle over his back and adjusted the respirator on his second breathing hole with his two fingers, not that they were like her fingers, his had no knuckles and were far more dexterous.

She smiled at a fond memory. Back in the crèche, when he had taken over her preparation for joining Orange Spiral With Green Tips, he had discovered by accident that she liked to be tickled. He had been trying to stop her scrambling all over him when he realized that she wasn’t really trying to fight him off, but actually liked being stroked and touched. From then on, he had used it as a means of bonding and as a reward for meeting her training targets.

He didn’t tickle her anymore, not since she had left the crèche, and though sometimes she missed that intimacy, her feelings for him never wavered.

“Greetings, Fifth Master from the h’Terzai, what can I do for you?”

The red spirals flickered yellow and sped up along her master’s sides. Then came a jumble of purple, tan and orange blotches, lanced through with pink and blue, while shrill pops and squeals emanated from all around him. “I have a difficult task, but I believe that Orange Spiral With Green Tips can be trusted to carry it out,” his interpreter droned.

Phillipa tensed, expectant. “Is this the next phase of training?” What an honor that would be; all the other groups would be jealous. She allowed herself a smug smile. Stupid Rodar would be livid!

“Your proficiency has not yet reached that level.”

“Oh.” Her smile faded. What proficiency could that be? She scratched her buttock and waited.

“Seventeen humans will arrive tomorrow and your group will take charge of them.”

“Humans? Like us?”

“There is a mixture of male and female, but we do not want to separate them. They were captured a month ago. You will isolate them from the other groups and manage them until preparations are complete in the research wing. We hope to keep this sample alive for a longer period.”

Phillipa trembled and hugged herself. New humans! She had seen glimpses of other prisoners brought in on shuttles and transferred to the research wing, but her masters had kept them well away as if somehow seeing them up close would contaminate the colony. “Will they be used in the breeding program?” Not that it mattered. She had already been mated twice and that was long ago, the first time only a year after she had begun menstruating. Still, if these were soldiers, they must have useful genotypes that could be incorporated into future generations. And exceptions weren’t impossible.

“No. They have undesirable aggressive traits that could be inherited, but any information that you gather will be most useful.”

“Thank you, Master, it is a great honor for my group.”

“Orange Spiral With Green Tips has proved itself to be the most obedient and proficient of all the groups and you have managed your group with a capability beyond our initial expectations.”

Phillipa blushed and her cheeks burned. This was high praise indeed. Still, she hesitated. “We have not trained for anything like this.”

“It cannot be helped, but it does give us an opportunity to study your first interaction with the enemy.”

So it was a test.

Phillipa licked her lips and swallowed hard. As much as the prospect of meeting new humans excited her, opportunity was a two-edged sword. This opportunity could let her group prove its worthiness to advance to the next level of training or it could prove that they were a failure. And if that was the case, her masters might consider her group no longer viable. She bit her lip. Rumor had spread that her masters wanted to cull two groups and she didn’t want to give them due cause to consider Orange Spiral With Green Tips as an option.

“Thank you, Master,” she said at last and tried to feel confident. After all, who was she to question her master’s faith?

“They arrive tomorrow. Instructions will be sent so that your group can prepare for them.” With that, her master reversed back the way he had come, tentacles dancing in the air as if celebrating. Nearby, Rodar, First Master for Purple Spire With Yellow Aura, scowled at her. Once again, her group had bested his. That would teach him to keep his opinions to himself, the ugly little runt.

Phillipa sagged back against the sill and stared at the groups of ten, either all men or all women, who were hard at work training in the central open area. Some exercised, some fought and some sat huddled around other h’Slaitiarr masters, studying images suspended in the air. Now and then, red and orange flickering caught her eye and an accompanying burst of soft screeching punctuated the general din. This was her world. It was all she knew and it was all that mattered, but try as she might, she couldn’t hold back the worry. What if she—?

No! That was fear and she had trained to overcome fear.

She sucked in a deep breath and fought off the bad feeling gnawing at her as she turned to trudge toward the female dormitory on the other side of the dome. If Orange Spiral With Green Tips failed, so be it. Others would take her place and the colony would go on. Deep in thought, she ambled past the last of the columns of cubic storage containers that were stacked twenty rows deep around the edges of the open area. That was the way it was, and besides, her time was almost up. A squeal cut the air from close by and she looked up as a cheer erupted from the crowd of onlookers surrounding the fenced-off mating area.

Phillipa smiled to herself as she listened to the giggling and teasing banter and wandered over. A girl had just become a woman.

With luck, in six months there would be a child to help maintain the colony. And perhaps, if it were a girl, it might be assigned to Orange Spiral With Green Tips from the crèche and one day rise to be First Master and thus honor her. But first, Orange Spiral With Green Tips had a test to pass. She tapped some of her group on the shoulder and waved them after her. There was much to be done if she wanted to stop her masters approving a rash of mating rituals.

The airlock doors slid apart. Eleven disheveled faces peered out into the dome and then as one, eleven bodies shuffled forward with delicate movements, wincing as the three masters herding them, waved Zharaits back and forth, the three dispersion blades of each, glowing a faint blue to show they were set to maximum. A shiver danced across Phillipa’s shoulders and she found herself mesmerized. Despite their appearances, these humans were the most beautiful people she had ever seen, especially the man leading them. He wasn’t the biggest — an over-muscled giant took that honor — but his body took her breath away. All the men in the colony paled in comparison.

She blinked and regained her composure, then glanced down at Fifth Master from the h’Terzai Group. “I thought there were seventeen.”

A few ragged whorls, mixtures of purple and tan, pulsed across her master’s flanks, accompanied by staccato squeals that popped as dashes of blue cut through and faded to green. “Six prisoners tried to capture the shuttle bringing them here, but they were repulsed and killed. Sixth Master from the h’Sliviarr and Eighth Master from the h’Zhorrrian died in the attack.”

Phillipa stifled a gasp. Sixth Master from the h’Sliviarr was an expert in tentacle-to-hand combat that out of the whole colony only she and Rodar had managed to reach a level where they could fight the master to a stalemate. Barely. Blue Spiral With Pink Flickers would be devastated when they found out they had lost their master and the colony would share in their sadness. “But how?” she managed to ask.

“The six had smuggled three dispersion knives onto the shuttle by hiding the components in mating or fecal orifices. We have discovered four more knives hidden within these prisoners. Be careful.” Her master reversed away a few meters and stopped to study her actions.

Phillipa squared her shoulders, then strode past the prisoners and waved at them to follow. “This way,” she snapped. But it was stupid to be angry. That dulled one’s wits and led to mistakes. Her master wanted her to learn what she could from them and she couldn’t gain their trust if she hated them. She reached a corral next to the mating enclosure and turned to wait. After some pushing from the guards, the group shuffled over.

A female prisoner with lopsided hair on her head and not a single hair on her muscular body turned to stare at the crowd gathering. “What is this place, a nudist camp?” she said in a strange accent. “No wonder they took our clothes.”

What were clothes? Phillipa wondered. And why did she want to look so odd and why didn’t she have any hair under her arms or on her groin and legs? Phillipa swallowed to moisten her throat. So many questions threatened to swamp her and yet she didn’t know which were the right ones to ask?

“Look at them,” said the giant of a man, “they’re all newbies! And look how ugly some of them are, they could make a fortune on Earth. I’m in heaven!”

Next to him, a woman patted his shoulder as she looked around. Phillipa had never seen a woman so tall or with such a slender body that seemed hard and soft at the same time. The woman shook her head and glittering gold and silver highlights moved in circles over her glistening red tresses. Phillipa stared at the dancing patterns, unable to pull her gaze away as she fingered her own mop of curt hair that felt tawdry in comparison. She had listened to the stories of a distant and alien Earth that had passed down the generations from the original seed stock of prisoners, but not even the most fanciful came close to what confronted her here in this meager group.

“Hey Kraal!” The woman flicked a finger at Rodar. “Look at the ears on him. If he flapped them, I bet he could fly.” Why flapping his ears would make him fly, she didn’t know, but Phillipa smirked, as with a puzzled frown, Rodar fingered his ears. Maybe they wouldn’t be so hard to like after all.

“Not in this gravity,” another prisoner sneered, one of three women who were shorter than the rest and not quite as attractive as the five other women. “Feels like one and a half gees. Filthy bugs! Why couldn’t they keep us on that moon?”

Another woman gawked at the crowd and didn’t bother to hide her disgust. “Look at them, they’re so hairy!”

A man snorted. “That’s not pubic hair, that’s a pubic forest! You’d need a machete to get through there.”

“Are they really human?”

“Can’t be. Just smell them. This whole place stinks.”

A master pushed his way through the crowd and flickered his annoyance. The prisoners fell silent. “Return to your duties,” he ordered and without a word the crowd dispersed, except for a few who were on free time. Many loitered, staring wide-eyed with dreamy looks on their faces, before managing to pull away, one reluctant step at a time.

The prisoners broke into animated conversation with each other.

So much for an easy task. Phillipa cleared her throat and spoke out in a loud voice. “Please be quiet. I am First Master from....”

They ignored her and kept up a barrage of conversation. Phillipa scratched her head and glanced over at Fifth Master, but the h’Slaitiarr just stood there, observing. She looked to her group, milling on the side, and drew a small horizontal circle in the air. The nine women fanned out to surround the prisoners.

Phillipa nodded. “Be quiet,” they shouted in unison except for a couple of voices, a fraction of a second behind.

Still, the prisoners ignored her. Phillipa nodded again and this time, her members lashed out as one, each punching the closest prisoner in the arm or back.

For a moment there was stunned silence from the prisoners and then they launched themselves at the circle like a wound spring suddenly released. Punches and kicks rained down on her members. The circle shattered. But the more senior members held their ground, parrying and blocking as the inexperienced younger members scrambled out of the way. Then they, too, were forced to back away, giving like h’Skarra and yet holding like Mardokiarn.

Phillipa caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. Fifth Master darted forward and plucked a Zharait from his back. Triple blades sprung from the cylinder in his tentacle’s grasp and then the blades shimmered as their dispersion fields activated. Likewise, two masters fanned out sideways.

She stepped across to block her master’s path. “Please, Master. No! Let us handle this. It is our task.”

“But your group is unable to contain them. Do not worry, this will not be counted as failure.”

“Please, Master. Watch.” She turned to the battle. The prisoners’ advance had been halted and the flood of blows began to abate. More and more, they just stood, weaving to and fro, watching their opponents and lashing out now and then with half-hearted kicks. “See. They tire quickly. They are not used to our gravity. We only have to wait.”

The blades of the Zharait snapped back into the cylinder and Fifth Master sheathed it on his back. “I am pleased. You have prepared well.”

Phillipa raised her arm and her members lunged forward. This was what Orange Spiral with Green Tips had trained for and she felt a flush of excitement course through her as all their preparation fell into place. Her master had to see that Orange Spiral with Green Tips was more than ready to progress.

The prisoners were no match as they fell back. Some slipped on the sweat and blood and fell, but were hauled to their feet by their comrades. They crowded into a tight huddle and sank to their knees, their arms thrown up to protect their heads as they moaned and gasped for breath. Rivulets of sweat streaked down their bodies and pooled on the floor. Phillipa waited until she was satisfied that there was no fight left in them and then barked an order. Her group stepped back and reformed the circle. Hopefully, her prisoners had learnt an important lesson.

The hulking giant grunted and raised his hand. For a moment his fingertips shimmered, but the perfect man grabbed his arm and hauled it down. “Not now, Kraal! You’ll get us all killed.”

Phillipa stepped through the circle. “I am First Master from the Orange Spiral With Green Tips Group. My internal name is Phillipa. You may call me that when addressing me. We have—”

“Can we get a medic,” a woman called out. “My ass is killing me.” Others agreed with a grunt.

“We were tentacularly raped by those bugs!” another cried out. “Isn’t that a war crime?”

“Me too!” Kraal smirked at his comrades. “But I kinda liked it.”

“Oh shut up! You stupid third-juvers are so sick.”

“Quiet!” The perfect man eased into a standing position and turned to Phillipa. “I’m Squadron Leader Lendal Karoman. I guess I’m in charge now that Erika....” He squeezed his lips together into a tight line and his eyes narrowed. “Since the bugs killed Wing Commander Patresky when she tried to escape, er—” He peered at her for a moment. “Are you okay, uh ... Phillipa?”

A woman chuckled. “She’s smitten by you, Lendal!”

Another cackled. “But who isn’t?”

Phillipa blinked and shot a glance at her members to her left. She had been staring at him without realizing it. But so had they. A few looked down with apologetic smiles.

She swallowed and glanced back. What a man! Such perfect proportions. She felt a sudden desire to run her fingers over his broad shoulders before brushing over his squared and chiseled pectoral muscles to trace out the curve of each rib until the last let her touch stray onto his exquisitely defined stomach muscles so she could explore down to where his waist narrowed. And what a large.... She felt her cheeks burn. What a stupid thought. Fifth Master said mating was out of the question. With much difficulty, she drove that thought out of her mind and pulled her gaze up and over his sculptured cheekbones to stare into the motes in his green eyes. His lips curled up enough to hint at a warm smile. He liked her! Phillipa’s throat went dry and she couldn’t swallow.

He tilted his head and his smile changed to a smirk as he cocked an eyebrow and exchanged a knowing look with Kraal. “What do you think?” he murmured. Phillipa squirmed.

“Why not?” Kraal mumbled, so soft that she strained to hear. “She looks desperate enough and she’s hot for you.” He glanced at her and chuckled.

“I didn’t realize I’d have to volunteer for hazardous duty.” Lendal’s face broke into a warm smile as he pushed through his fellow prisoners and limped forward to face her. “I must apologize for our actions, but we’ve been treated harshly by the slaters.”

“Slaters?”

“The guards. The h’Slaitiarr.” He frowned for a moment. “How long have you been here? I don’t recall any news of a mass capture of marines. And you’re newbies aren’t you?” He looked around and his brow furrowed even more. “Why is everyone naked? I can’t see any first or second-juvers. Just what kind of prison camp is this?” Then his face paled as it dawned on him. “You’re not prisoners of war are you? You’re naturals.”

For a moment his face twisted with such contempt that Phillipa took a step back as if she had been slapped. Then his welcoming smile returned even though his eyes remained cold. This group of humans was so complex. How could she hope to understand them?

“This is a human breeding colony, part of the human research center on Bright Red One. We were all born here. What are naturals?”

“She’s right!” Kraal pushed past but her circle blocked him. “Look at them!” He pointed at where Merlo of Blue and Swirling Yellow Stars rested with her hands crossed on the top bar of the mating enclosure while Garree from Green Cloud with Pink Lightning mounted her from behind. Both stared at the prisoners, their faces lost in wonder as the mating act proceeded, almost an afterthought. “They’re into public sex! I love this place. Can I join in?”

“Breeding? Like animals?” Lendal asked. “Just what is going on here? What are you being bred for?”

“Our masters hope to breed human soldiers to help them in the war.”

A loud buzz broke out behind Lendal as the prisoners argued amongst themselves. Kraal roared with laughter.

With a wry smile, Lendal shook his head. “I have to hand it to the slaters for thinking outside the square, but...” he stared around the dome, “what have they got? Four ... five ... six hundred? And I can’t see any pregnant women; it’ll take centuries at this rate to breed a decent-sized army, and frankly, even though your fighting skills are good, we’re only pilots. And injured at that. But against marines or our front-line troops...?” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “No.”

Phillipa’s confidence wavered. With that assessment, Fifth Master would not approve her group advancing to the next level of training.

“Still,” Kraal turned and smirked at Phillipa, “if it’s breeding you want, I’m sure I can more than satisfy all of you.” He winked at Lendal. “If you know what I mean.”

“You haven’t been brought here to be part of the breeding program. Your genetic profile is of no use to my masters.”

Kraal stared at her, dumbstruck. “But you can’t. Those damned slaters! Trust them to dump us in the middle of a smorgasbord and then refuse to let us gorge ourselves.” He limped back and dropped into a sitting position by the other prisoners to sulk. Then he winced and wriggled his hips. “Damn gravity,” he muttered.

“Then what are we here for?” Lendal asked, his voice deadpan like his face.

“To take part in the cloning research.”

“If they don’t want us to breed with you,” Kraal called out, “what’s the point in cloning us?”

Lendal stared at Phillipa, massaging his cheek in slow circles.

“I....” She wanted so much to take his hand and massage her cheek with it. And have him smile at her again. Her group fidgeted and shuffled. Now that the fighting was over, they were as affected as much as she was.

She glanced over at where Fifth Master stood, motionless except for the odd twitch of his tentacles. Oh well, it didn’t matter how much they knew. It was a one-way trip, going through the research wing’s doors, and in five months time she would pass through when her allotted time was up. Maybe she would see this Lendal again then. The thought made her smile.

“It’s to work out how to clone us, not you,” she said.

“But who’d want such an ugly army?” the tall woman asked.

“No, it makes sense,” said a shorter woman. “Think about it. If they were all second- juvers, none of them would want to fight. They might damage their looks—”

“Ha! As if first-juvers would have the guts—”

The shorter woman snorted and poked the taller woman in the ribs. “If you looked like that, wouldn’t you be mad enough to fight like crazy. I tell you, those slaters are brilliant. What an insight into the human psyche!”

The other prisoners burst out chuckling. Lendal smiled and shook his head. “What’s the point of cloning you? The clones still have to grow up and be trained.”

“But you do it on Earth,” said Phillipa. “Fifth Master told me. The people there change the way they look all the time, so you must do it by creating new bodies and transferring your minds.”

The chuckling died.

“Ah.” Lendal sucked in his cheeks and nodded as if it all made sense. “Well you can tell your masters from me they’ve got it all wrong.”

“Didn’t I tell you they were brilliant,” the shorter woman called out in a surly voice.

Phillipa hesitated and glanced at Fifth Master, but no blue or green tinged the colors drifting along his sides. “But ... but you do change the way you look, don’t you?” she asked in a hoarse voice.

“Only during a rejuv,” said Lendal. A condescending smile lit up his face as Phillipa frowned and then tried to hide it. “We rejuvenate our bodies, usually every fifty years or so — Earth years. I guess time units are a little different here. Anyway, when we rejuvenate ourselves, we can alter our DNA to change the way we look—”

“If you can afford it,” said Kraal and then he sighed. “Lendal you always were such a cheapskate.”

Lendal snorted and then looked past her into the dome. “So what happens now?”

“My group will look after you until preparations are complete in the research wing. Then you will be handed over.”

“And when will that be?”

“In five days time.”

“What? Earth days?” Lendal pursed his lips. “Oh, you mean days as for this planet.”

“Of course.”

“Hmmm, let’s see ... your days are about thirty hours—”

“No. Seventeen and a half.”

Lendal smirked. It was so disconcerting. “I was talking Earth hours, not slater.”

“That gives us about a hundred and fifty hours,” Kraal muttered and then scowled into the distance.

“For what?” Phillipa asked.

“Oh....” Lendal gave her a warm and knowing smile, then leant forward to whisper. “To get to know you better. You all fascinate us.”

She trembled all over with goosebumps and swayed as a light-headed feeling came over her. All he had to do was touch her and she would melt. It was crazy. She had never felt anything like this for any man in the colony.

“We want to get to know you too,” she managed to say in a gravelly voice. “We want to learn all about Earth and the other planets in the Interstellar Alliance. And the war. We are really interested in that.”

“I’m sure you are.”

“But ... er, but first I should get you all settled in.” With that, she managed to wrench free from his gaze and turn away. “Space is restricted and we have limited resources. We cannot put you in the dormitories, so this will have to do.” She waved her arm at the seventeen makeshift beds installed in the corral.

“What’s that in the corner?” asked the short woman.

“Toilet and shower. Merlay will show you how to use it.”

“What about privacy?” another asked.

Kraal crinkled his nose and grimaced. “It explains the smell.”

And then more questions and demands overwhelmed Phillipa and her group and it took the rest of the day to settle the prisoners in.

The days had passed in utter chaos. So much so that Phillipa gave up trying to contain the prisoners and ordered the members of her group to stay with them at all times. And yet none complained. Instead, at night in the dormitory, they all spent hours laughing and teasing each other as they discussed their charges. Dominica and Eeleen were merciless on the others. Even Phillipa wasn’t immune.

And now, once again, she had Lendal to herself. He was the only one left in the corral, leaning on the sill and looking out at the view. She ambled over and leant forward to rest her arms on the sill in such a way that her arm pressed against his. He shifted just enough to let her nestle up against him. It felt right.

“What a strange world,” he muttered. “Look there.”

He pointed at a flock of Heekariel that clambered up the side of a rock outcrop, jutting out over the nearby cliff edge. The wrinkled tops of their diamond-shaped carapaces shimmered blue and green in the afternoon sun as they buffeted each other while searching for footholds. The first scrambled onto the crest and squatted as if in need of a rest. Just below, an unfortunate creature lost its grip and fell back down, tumbling over the thick mass below and dragging others with it as tried to grab a claw hold. Lendal laughed at its antics. Then his laughter died as he stared at the wrinkled top that had begun to inflate on the first Heekariel.

For a moment, Phillipa wondered why he was so amazed and then she realized how alien it must be for him, just like she had found his descriptions of life on Earth hard to believe.

Creatures that fly just by waving a couple of limbs?

When its skin had stretched taut, the Heekariel sprang into the air and drifted aimless, its eight legs dangling, but then flaps of skin extended out from its four edges and began to ripple. Wings. That was what he had said, and they were covered in stuff called feathers. At least the creatures called birds were. There were other types of flying creatures, but, he assured her, none needed to inflate to fly into the wild blue yonder as he called Earth’s sky. Blue? How could that be? She shook her head at the thought and watched the Heekariel flutter away from the cliff and then shoot skywards as a thermal updraft caught it. Another followed and within seconds the updraft was choked with the head-sized creatures.

“Amazing,” Lendal murmured.

“Why? They do that all the....”

But he meant the dome. With his finger, he prodded the membrane as it flexed when a gust of wind hit.

“It’s incredible to think that this is all that separates the oxygen in here from the methane out there,” he murmured to himself. “It’s like a thin film. And yet it’s so strong. It feels like one atmosphere in here, but it must be two or three times that outside. Imagine what would happen if this ripped and the methane flooded in ... just one spark.”

Phillipa studied his face. It amazed her how so many mundane things caught the interest of Lendal and his fellow prisoners. Unfortunately, it made interrogating them almost impossible.

“Can we talk about—?”

Much to her dismay, he broke away and turned to peer into the crowded interior. “Where are the others?”

“They have gone exploring, even though I expressly—”

“What a good idea!” He grinned and winked at her. “I can’t stand being cooped up with that watching me all the time.” He nodded at the white sphere, hovering nearby.

“The monitors? I hardly ever notice them.”

“But I do. It’s impossible to get any privacy. Hmmm, I wonder...?” He strode off toward the columns of stacked containers, the crowd parting to let him through.

“Wait!” Phillipa cried out and hurried after him. Why couldn’t he stay where he was? Already she missed the touch of his arm and the warmth of his body where she had pressed against him.

She caught up as he sauntered along the rows of stacked containers, peering into the narrow gaps in between. “Aha! I wonder what’s in here?” He turned sideways and edged between two columns of the chest-high containers.

“Oh Lendal, no!” Phillipa glanced up at the monitor trailing her and held out her hands in an appeal to show that it wasn’t her fault — not that her masters could recognize the gesture. But her reports said it all. The prisoners were impossible to control even though, on the surface, they appeared to cooperate. When she looked back, Lendal had disappeared. She slipped in after him.

“I thought so!” he called out. “There’s a small space in here.”

She pushed through into a gap where two columns of the cubic containers had once stood and only one container remained from the second column. Time and again he did this to her, inadvertently causing problems, like he was testing her. Just little things that made her bend the rules. And she had surprised herself. Had she surprised her masters as well? This time she didn’t want to. Still, she hesitated. This spot was better than back in the corral. “We should go back,” she said without any conviction. Maybe she could press up against him again. For a little while.

“What’s in these?” He felt along the top edge of the container as if looking for a release mechanism.

“Food basics, I guess. Maybe spare parts for the environmental controls. Please,” she grabbed his arm and tugged, “it is not important. We should get back. You were going to tell me about how Third Master from the h’Sleekiarrn’s attack on Eden was repulsed.”

He ignored her question and craned his neck to look up, then glanced back through the gap. “Good, it hasn’t followed us.” He grabbed Phillipa and spun her round, trapping her in his arms as he pressed her up against the container. “At last, some privacy.”

She savored his closeness and then pushed at his arms. She couldn’t bend any further. “Lendal, we—”

“Shush.” He pressed a finger to her lips. “Phillipa, I can tell how you feel about me and I feel the same.”

“I ... uh.”

“You are human, just like me.”

“I ... I know.”

“No you don’t!” He took her arms and squeezed her to him and his fierceness, his closeness, made her tremble. She wanted him to touch her and more. “This colony of yours is a prison — no, it’s not even that. The slaters treat you like domesticated animals. They’ve brainwashed all of you into thinking you’re little human versions of them. But you don’t belong here.”

Phillipa sucked in a breath and tried to calm her pounding heart. “Please ... please. Do not talk like that. If Fifth Master discovers us, he—”

He? Why do you call it a he? The slaters don’t have sexes. It’s an it, not a he! They are aliens. Don’t anthropomorphize them. It let’s them control you.”

She shrugged to calm him. There was so much he said that she didn’t understand. “They have always been called he as far as I can remember. Now ... we should go.”

“We should go. Back to Earth. That’s where we belong. Oh Phillipa,” he caressed her cheek with the back of his fingers and her pulse raced, “don’t you want to see what a blue sky looks like? Or lush green forests and fields full of flowers. And people. Billions of people. Plus all kinds of animals you can’t even begin to imagine. That’s where you belong, not in this sterile dome.”

“But—”

He smothered her with a kiss, and for a moment she fought to break free until she realized that she didn’t want to break free and she couldn’t stop herself as she kissed him back.

An age seemed to pass before he pulled away and cradled her in his arms. She nestled against his chest and savored the moment. Then he tilted her chin up and kissed her again. This time she didn’t resist, but sought his mouth with eager abandon, even when he broke away and nuzzled his way across to her ear. His hands caressed her body and an urge washed over her like a fever with a demand to mate. She had never felt anything like this before. So delicious. So overwhelming. She wanted to melt into him and let two become one. A moan escaped her mouth and then a little cry. Her body betrayed her. She writhed against his fingers and thrust her hips forward.

“I knew I was right about you,” he whispered and then his tongue drove her into a frenzy until he pulled away. “With your help, I’m sure we can find some way to escape from here and—”

Phillipa jerked back. “Escape?” she gasped and cold reality tried to quench her fire. “What are you talking about?”

“How else are we going to get back to Earth?” He reached out to stroke her hair and draw her back to him. “But we need your help to get out of the dome and—”

“But you cannot leave the dome. No one can.”

“Why not? Don’t you have suits for outside?”

“No. We have never been outside. And even if you could get into the airlock, there is only the transport container you came in and then you would be trapped. Assuming it is still there.”

“Oh.” The fierce desire on his face faded. He stared at her with sad eyes and chewed on his lower lip for a moment before looking away.

Phillipa put her arms around his waist and hugged him close. “We have such a short time. Let us not waste it.”

“Yeah. Sure.” He patted her head. “You’ll make some slater a great puppy.” He pulled free and turned to squeeze through the gap. “Or with those breasts, probably a cow.”

She stared after him and shook her head. None of his words made sense, but she wished he hadn’t let her go. The taste of his lips and the touch of his fingers still lingered, leaving an unfulfilled ache. They could have risked a few more minutes. Just so she could be kissed once more like that. She sighed and started after him.

What a crazy idea. Escaping? Fifth Master would not like that. At least she had made Lendal see that such an idea was pointless. As she worked her way free, the urge still remained, but the fire fizzled out and with that came the thought of how close she had come to catastrophe. What sort of First Master was she? A moment longer and she might actually have mated with Lendal. And the consequences of that ... she bit her lip. Just a moment longer....

Hands on hips, Lendal stood, scowling up at the monitor. “Yeah, what were we thinking,” he muttered.

Phillipa touched his arm, more just to touch him than to get his attention. “Let us go back to the corral.”

“We’re destined for the research wing tomorrow your time, aren’t we?”

“Yes, but—”

You know, I’ve noticed something strange.” He turned to her with a frown. “Where are all the old people?”

“Old? What do you mean?”

“Old people. They have gray hair and wrinkles. It’s what happens to you when you don’t have nanots to slow the aging process and you can’t be rejuvenated.”

“I have never seen anyone like that.”

“What about you? You look like you’re one of the oldest here? How old are you? Twenty- eight? Thirty?”

Phillipa laughed. “Oh no! I am only seventeen.”

“I meant in Earth years ... so I’m about right.” He frowned. “You look healthy, in which case you should be able to live until the ripe old age of forty or fifty in your years. So where are the people around that age?”

“No one gets to be that old. At eighteen, we enter the research wing to assist with their experiments.”

Lendal glanced at the entrance to the research wing. “And what happens in these experiments?”

“I do not know.” Phillipa shrugged. “I have never thought about it. But it is what our masters want.” Why did Lendal have to worry over that for which he had no control?

“They’re not my masters,” he growled and then strode off toward the entrance to the research wing. Phillipa hesitated and glanced at the monitor, then jogged after him, the little ball following.

“What are you doing?” she demanded as she caught up.

“I want to see what my future holds. Aren’t you the least bit curious about what will happen to you in one of your years?”

“Fifth Master has not discussed the details of the research with us, so there is no need to think about it.”

Lendal jerked to a stop and turned to glare at her. “We are human beings! Homo sapiens. We are a sentient species and we can think for ourselves. We don’t need some stupid bug aliens to decide what we can and can’t think. Just why are you so loyal to your masters, Phillipa? Have you ever stopped to wonder what will happen to all of those who come after you when the war is finally over? What will your masters do with their humans then?”

“I do not—”

But he spun on his heel and strode off. The entrance split in two to admit them and he charged in. Phillipa stopped at the threshold. It felt wrong. She didn’t have permission, but she couldn’t let him move about unescorted. For a moment she dithered, glancing at those pretending not to notice, and then gritted her teeth and crossed over. No alarms went off. No masters came charging in her direction. She sucked in a deep breath and let it ease out. At last the thudding in her chest faded. Up ahead, Lendal stood in front of the first of a line of transparent cylinders, his face strangely pale as he stared up at a vague shape floating in the hazy brownish liquid.

She ambled over. What her masters did was of no concern to her and it shouldn’t concern Lendal either. As she got closer she saw that the vague shape was a transparent bag in the form of a half-inflated human body with a human stick figure inside. Clumps of flesh and bone grew on the stick arms and legs and the torso was partially complete with half-grown organs sticking out from underneath.

Phillipa peered at the complete head on top and broke into a grin. “I know her! That is Marjoran. She used to be First Master for Orange Spiral With Green Tips. I took over when she reached eighteen.”

A halo of some kind of blue material crowned Marjoran’s head and from its inside edge, silvery wires sprouted all the way round and pierced her skin, while more tubes and wires entered at the top and bottom of the bag and disappeared within the torso. Here and there, movement caught Phillipa’s eye and she watched tiny multi-legged devices, some almost as big as the tip of her little finger, crawl about over the body.

Lendal moved along to the next cylinder. “There’s another one here.” He leant closer for a better look at the face. “This looks like the same person. And this one....” He moved along the row to check each cylinder, his bemused frown growing deeper. “They’re all the same, at least the heads are.” He stopped at the last cylinder and shrugged. “This must be the original.”

Phillipa grabbed his arm, more just to touch him than to steady herself, and stretched up on tiptoes for a closer look. Parts of the body were missing as if removed by surgery. “It is! See those scars? There. On her left shoulder? This is Marjoran.” She reached up and waved a hand in front of the haggard face. For a moment nothing happened, then an eye opened and looked down on her. The mouth trembled for a moment and said something, then the gaze drifted and the eye closed.

Phillipa broke into a smile. It was good to see her mentor again. “I think she recognized me!” She turned to Lendal, but he stared at Marjoran with an ashen face.

“She ... she’s still alive and ... and she’s still aware. What a horrible....” He looked at the rows of cylinders, stretching away to the far end where a host of empty cylinders gleamed in the reddish light. “And they want to do that to us?” He staggered back and looked up at the figure in the previous cylinder. “I don’t want to end up — shit!” He jumped back. “It looked at me.” He turned to Phillipa, his eyes wide with shock. “It looked at me. Its eye opened and it stared at me. It’s aware. Like the other one.”

He turned and stumbled for the exit. “I have to tell the others. We can’t let—”

The entrance split apart and two masters darted in. Lendal froze for a moment and then looked around, his face desperate. “You should not be in here,” the first one announced. “We are not ready for you until tomorrow.”

Phillipa hurried to catch up to Lendal and took his arm. “I know that, Fourth Master for the h’Slorviarl, but I could not stop him.”

She dragged Lendal past them. He didn’t resist, but stumbled along in a daze so that for most of the way she had to hold him up. For once, her group had managed to shepherd all their charges back to the corral.

Kraal looked up and frowned. “Lendal! What’s wrong?” With a fellow prisoner, he charged over and took Lendal from her. She stood there, helpless, watching the prisoners crowd round him, all whispering amongst themselves. To the side, several of her group cast anxious glances in her direction. A shuffling sound grew louder from behind and she looked round in time to see Fifth Master glide to a stop. The crowd melted away as two more masters broke through and hurried toward her.

“The prisoners appear to be agitated,” said Fifth Master. “Their actions have changed.”

“It is nothing to be concerned about, Master—”

“Well, I’m not going to be a guinea pig!” Kraal shouted. “I’ve always wanted to kill a bug.” He broke free of his comrades and turned toward Phillipa. She saw a faint shimmering dance over the tips of the fingers on his right hand, much like the blue aura of the dispersion fields on the blades of a Zharait.

“No, Kraal!” Lendal called out. “Use it on the dome.”

But Kraal ignored him and charged at Eighth Master for the h’Terzai. Dominica and Eeleen tried to block him, but he backhanded Eeleen and broke through. She squealed and staggered back, blood pouring from four gashes across her face. Eighth Master shuffled sideways, but Kraal dived onto him.

Phillipa stood, rooted to the spot as more prisoners charged her masters. Don’t, was all she could think. They would be killed. Lendal too. She couldn’t let that happen, but at the back of her mind, she knew she was First Master and should take charge. Orange Spiral With Green Tips needed her, but all she could think about was him.

“Try to get a Zharait,” a prisoner called out. Another tried to brush past, but Phillipa stopped her with a knee to the stomach and then stunned her with a punch. It was an automatic reflex. And yet she had never felt like this, like she was out of her body, watching it move to block and jab, kick and parry. Some of her group were injured and some of the prisoners had broken free and tackled a couple of masters. Others lay in pools of blood, slashed through by Zharaits. But she couldn’t see Lendal—

A ragged shriek pierced the air.

She spun round to see orange blood squirt into the air and fizz on contact with the oxygen. Again, Kraal stabbed his right hand into the joint between Eighth Master’s second and third segments and another geyser spurted into the air. Eighth Master arched up and shuddered, then staggered sideways as he held Kraal overhead in his tentacles. Then another master darted over and sliced through Kraal’s arm with a Zharait. Kraal screamed and grabbed the stump of his arm, its bright red blood flooding out to coat the Eighth Master. The other master wrapped Kraal up and dragged him away. In seconds the rebellion was over.

Was Lendal hurt? Phillipa scanned the area, checking each body scattered about. She caught sight of a figure stagger to its feet and saw his perfect body silhouetted against the dome. In his hand, a Zharait glowed with its telltale faint blue.

“Lendal?” she cried out. He turned to look back at her and shrugged, then pushed past the milling crowd toward the dome, hacking at any who tried to stop him.

What was he doing? Then it hit her. If methane mixed with oxygen, a Zharait’s dispersion field would trigger one big explosion. “Stop him!” she yelled and dashed forward, hurdling those on the ground and pushing others out of the way.

Three of her group tried to tackle Lendal, but he slashed at them with his Zharait. Then, as he raised his arm up to slice the dome’s membrane, she dived at him and caught his arm in a lock.

“No!” He struggled to pull his arm free.

“But you will kill us all!”

“I have to. Don’t you see? If the slaters create an army of humans, it could tip the balance in the war.” He strained to twist the Zharait’s blades toward the membrane. She could disable him, but she couldn’t bring herself to hurt him.

“Please, Lendal, think of the others.”

“Your masters?” He glared at her. “What about your race? What about me? I thought you loved me.”

“I do, I do.” Tears welled up in her eyes and she sagged against him. He jerked his hand free and pulled back to stab the membrane. “No!” She blocked his arm, then jabbed him in the jaw. He stumbled, but she caught him and heaved him over her hip. He crashed to the floor and the Zharait slipped from his grasp, its blades slicing out neat divots in the floor as it hit.

“How can you betray your race?” he whispered. “You are human. Like me! At least kill me. I don’t want to end up like Marjoran. Please ... if you love me.”

“I cannot.” She sat up and wiped away the tears with the back of her hand. “You do not understand.”

“No!” he snapped. “I understand only too well. You’re a traitor to your own kind, but you can’t even see that.”

Fifth Master darted to a stop, scooped up the Zharait and sheathed its blades while another master wrapped his tentacles around Lendal and dragged him away. Phillipa stared after Lendal, but he refused to look at her. Maybe, in a few months when she entered the research wing, he might forgive her and if she asked, perhaps Fifth Master would allow her to be placed in the cylinder next to him.

“Are you injured, Phillipa?” Fifth Master asked. “Your eyes are expressing tears.”

“No ... no, Master, I ... I am afraid that I have failed you.”

“On the contrary, your group has surpassed itself far beyond our expectations. This was a test of your loyalty.”

“Oh?” She watched the doors to the research wing close behind Lendal and an aching void opened up in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t feel like she had passed any test.

“So pleased are we with the results, we have decided to extend your life by two years and we will mate Orange Spiral With Green Tips with selected males to create a group that can move on to the next phase of training. You will mate with First Master for Purple Spire With Yellow Aura.” With that, Fifth Master charged away, tentacles dancing in the air as if to celebrate.

Phillipa sagged to her knees and leant back against the dome wall. No, no, no! Not Rodar. Not any of them. Not after Lendal. She clenched her fists as she watched the members of her group clean up and tend to the wounded, moving to and fro with a sullen apathy. They knew. Orange Spiral With Green Tips had been tested, yet there was no victory in its success. But Lendal was wrong.

As much as she loved him, and as much as she obeyed her masters without question, there was one group of humans she could never betray. And if that meant mating with Rodar to ensure the survival of Orange Spiral With Green Tips, then that was what she would do. But she didn’t have to like it. She sighed and clambered to her feet, then wiped away her tears and moved to join the rest of her group. They were her family and this small dome was her home and in the whole infinite universe, it was all that mattered.

She glanced over at the mating enclosure and watched Garree mount Merlo. “Let it be a girl,” she whispered silently and hoped that it might be assigned from the crèche to Orange Spiral With Green Tips and one day rise to be First Master and thus honor her as she honored Marjoran and all of Orange Spiral With Green Tips’ First Masters that came before.


The End