Sleeping Beauty

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

With aid from Evelyn Y, Alternate Histories and WordMouse

Also with essential Vendorian inspiration from Shadar

And shopping tips from Aurora Universe Readers

In response to a "commission" by Ed Howdershelt

Dedicated to Mandi Steele and the Steele Family


"I want to go home," she told them.

Most of the time, she just cried. When she did speak, that was all they could get out of her. Not that they really cared what she had to say.

When her captors spoke, it was in Velorian. She could not understand the language, nor could she understand that she was not even meant to understand.

She had no voice in these proceedings, any more than an insect pest in the spraying of a farm or a lot of infected meat in the cleansing of a slaughterhouse. Charmin was not regarded as a person; only as the forbidden fruit of a genetic crime.

She was cuffed in gold and kept in a golden cage. But worse than that cage was the one she fashioned in her mind. She had been in a state of shock since her extraction. She had been denied food; not that she really needed it. But worse was the denial of the slightest hint of humanity, of human kindness.

Charmin withdrew into herself. Even if she could have understood them, she would have ignored the ritual formalities: the reading of the charges against her impure DNA, citation of offending gene sets; the explanation of the law, and why it forbade exa-born people like her.

"This becomes a responsibility," intoned the Chief Assessor. "A thing we are now called upon to put right, and put down."

She could not understand the words, could not fathom that they were a prescription for legal murder. That the outcome was certain, the sentence automatic.

But the ship’s alarms: she could understand those. She was an Earth girl, after all; she’d watched Star Trek. And she could understand the panic in the faces of the assessors and the crew. What she still couldn’t understand was why they were in such a hurry to remove her from the cage, manhandle her to the airlock, and cast her into the cold darkness of space.


He was just a poor miner, a lone operator at that. Alex Silvstedt had his own ship, something valuable beyond the wildest dreams of pre-space cultures, and the resources he mined were of great value, too. Yet still he was poor.

Poverty is a relative thing. An inner city apartment on Earth with a refrigerator and a color TV would have seemed an emblem of fabulous wealth to an ancient Assyrian, but not to the actual inhabitants of that apartment. So it was with many miners, especially in a system like Shalmirane’s, where planetary citizens enjoyed their wealth and left the means of production essential to that wealth to a largely migrant labor force.

Alex hadn’t always been poor. He’d been born to upper middle class parents on a rich industrial planet, and he was studying offworld to be an engineer when the Aureans came. He alone of his family escaped. As sole heir, he could claim the family’s offworld assets. But he could find no peace in the Enlightenment, and had looked for someplace else to live. Someplace as far from his memories as possible.

It was by chance that he chose the Shalmirane system. It was by chance that he met Piet Edshelt there. Piet was an Abintran, and the Abintrans were known for their strange luck, good or bad. Diaboli influence? Perhaps some of that strange luck had rubbed off on Alex. Piet had staked a claim to an asteroid about 25 kilometers across that turned out to have rich deposits of nickel, iron and other metals, plus organics and even volatiles.

Asteroids were more plentiful in the Shalmirane system than most places, and most of the mining operations preferred the smaller ones because they were the most common and the easiest to deal with -- the big combines could break them up and process them whole, one after another. Even so, it was strange that nobody else had scouted and surveyed this particular chunk of rock and metal. Strange luck.

Piet had lacked the investment capital for a pusher ship and a processor, but Alex had just enough for both. Strange luck again. He was willing to take a gamble on that strange luck, so he and Piet became partners. They’d headed out for the asteroid, tethered their ship. They’d unloaded and assembled and properly anchored the processor and the mass driver, and set to work.

After that, it was all a matter of routine: scrape the surface, let the processor sort the metal from the silicates, melt down the iron and nickel nodules and cast ingots stamped with their logo. The rest they’d cast aside, except for titanium ore. When they had enough of that on hand, they’d refine it. Titanium was a lot more valuable than nickel and iron, but never found in native form.

As for the ingots, they’d load them into the mass driver to shoot them to one of the orbital factories. Try to keep up a steady stream, keep the factors happy. Shalmirane’s factories were all in orbit, of course; the citizenry didn’t approve of industry planetside, – only the material blessings that industry brought.

Alex and Piet had done well, and looked forward to the day when they could afford a larger processor and the excavating equipment to tap the larger nodules well beneath the surface that the deep-imaging scanners had revealed. Meanwhile, they’d splurged on a few luxuries. A mini-version of Velor’s World Brain with videos and music as well as raw data that could be updated automatically by message bursts from Adara Station.

They’d fitted out part of the ship with a hydroponic garden to stretch their Station-bought fare with fresh fruits and vegetables. They even grew flowers. Neither the gardens nor the flowers added much to the oxygen supply, but they afforded the illusion of a living world as opposed to a mining ship. The illusion appealed to them; it might even appeal to women, they thought, if they could ever persuade any to come out this far.

But then his partner was killed in the crossfire when a fight broke out at the Red Twister bar. Strange luck had taken a bitter turn. The brawlers had been arrested, of course, but let off easy. Fights were no big deal in Red Section at Adara Station, people should know enough to stay out of the way. Anyway, the brawlers in this case had been Scalantran Adopts, and Scalantrans ran most of the business there, legal or otherwise, through their Adopts.

Alex had raised a stink about the killing, so much of a stink that he got on the wrong side of the Scalantrans. The word went out that it wouldn’t be wise for anyone on Station to sign up with him as a new partner. Those willing to ignore that advice were the kind of people nobody would want for one. As for the experienced miners out in space, they had partners already. Alex had a listing on the board, but he wasn't expecting a response -- a death in space might free someone up, but not necessarily to team with him.

Mining was at least a two-man job, especially when it came to things like uprooting the processor, moving it to a new location, and then securing it again before it could get loose and drift off into space. But he’d had to work alone, anchoring the winch ahead of the processor, deploying the cables between them, programming the attitude jets to hold the huge machine just above the surface as the winch pulled it forward, then setting off the self-drilling pitons to lock it to the new position.

The processor might weigh little here, but it had all the hundreds of tons of mass and momentum it would have on Shalmirane itself. One mistake, one breakdown, and things could go seriously wrong. The machine might suffer serious damage, go into a spin, flip over, even tumble uncontrollably into space. There were all kinds of things that could go seriously wrong. And if Alex were in the way, he could end up seriously dead.

It wasn’t easy putting the shipments together, either. Alex fell behind, and that meant less income. The processor showed signs of wear, needed new parts. So did the ship, and that meant more outgo. He’d had a good deal on parts from one of the factories, but if he couldn’t get shipments back on track that deal might go sour. He’d had to cut back on nonessentials as it was -- no vacations, no visits to Station and its tawdry but appealing pleasures. But he refused to give up. If he had to give up the mine, he might as well end it all. He had nothing else left.

Then came the day when he was awakened from sleep in the Wheel of the ship by the sound of the collision alarm. He didn’t know it, but his own strange luck was about to befall him. He never thought of that way until much later, and even then he couldn’t figure it out. His mind was focused only on the cause of the alarm. He checked the scanners: there was some sort of drifting object out there, headed right for the processor. Damn!


There wouldn’t have been that drifting object if Major Terri Raul’lan had gotten her way. But she hadn’t. The best she could have said later, if she’d been allowed to, was that the people she was working with hadn’t gotten their way, either.

Major Raul’lan had been assigned to detached duty, something very hush-hush. Internal Security had belatedly awakened to a scandal in the Genetic Enforcement branch, a cell that had exceeded its authority in pursuing cases of alleged violations of genetic purity.

Genetic purity was a foundation of Velorian ideology; loyalty to that purist ideology had led to the rupture with Aurea and all that ensued. But like all ideologies, it was often honored more in the breach than the observance. Leading families would tweak the gene sets of their own children, going beyond the parameters programmed into the Maternity Engine. There were numerous cases of Protectors enhancing humans on distant worlds. Such things were winked at.

The rogue Enforcers were aware of this. They might be fanatics, but they knew their limitations. They were technically within the genetic law, but they knew better than to pursue violations by first families or Protectors in good standing. So they satisfied their puritanical dedication to racial purity by pursuing only the defenseless. Charmin had been one of those defenseless, a lucky break, brought to their attention by some fool on Earth. But their hubris had led them to overreach themselves.

Charmin herself wasn’t a special case. But Earth was a special case, very special.

That was why an Internal Security force from Velor itself had been sent to track them down. Thanks to a tip, they’d been traced to the Shalmirane system. A good choice for them: neutral territory, where they wouldn’t expect to encounter anyone else from the Enlightenment or the Empire. A place where they could do their deadly work in secret.

Major Raul’lan had been told she was here to help capture them, Although she was only P3 class, she was almost as tough as a P1 Protector. Tougher than any of the Enforcers, tougher than anyone on the Internal Security team. Only things weren’t as she’d been told. They were supposed to approach the rogue ship with caution; instead, the Internal Security chief had broadcast a warning, and the Enforcers had taken flight.

"What is the meaning of this?" she demanded.

"The meaning of this is that we don’t want these people captured," the security chief explained. "The meaning of this is that bringing them to trial would prove embarrassing to a number of people in high positions, The meaning of this is that we want these people to disappear. As long as they never come back, they won’t be a problem."

Major Raul’lan was furious. These murderers were headed for a wormhole, and Internal Security wanted to let them go? Intolerable!

Without warning, she shouldered the Internal Security chief aside, seized control of the ship’s heavy GAR, fired a burst at the fleeing ship. Not enough to destroy it, just enough to ensure that it would enter the wormhole on the wrong vector, and never come out.

"How dare you?" shouted the Internal Security chief.

"What’s the problem? I’ve made your problem disappear, haven’t I? By the way, I see they dumped the victim. We should turn about and recover her."

"We’ll do no such thing, not if you don’t want to face immediate retirement at a far lower rank than you now hold. Your record already speaks against you. If we too speak against you, your career is over. You can depend on that."

"But why?"

"If the girl is alive, she could be a witness. We don’t want a witness. The Senate won’t want a witness. Everyone concerned wants this whole affair to disappear. You’ll keep your mouth shut, or be shut out."

"I could take you with me."

"Perhaps. But what good would that do either of us, or the Enlightenment?"

Major Raul’lan hated to admit it, but the bastard was right. She had to save herself, not for her own sake, but for the sake of the Enlightenment. There was that business at Reigel Five. Very dangerous business. Business where she’d be needed, and needed badly.

"Anyway," the Internal Security chief reassured her, "the Earth girl is probably dead."

"Probably," she agreed.

There were other leaks back on Velor. A garbled version of the affair reached the public, after all. The Senate was forced to carry out a cursory investigation, but managed to bury the matter again.


It was a woman’s body, floating naked in space.

Alex couldn’t believe his eyes. But he knew he had to act quickly. Anything massing 60 to 70 kilos could do serious damage to the processor. But that was what the alarm was for; to give him time to prevent it.

Normally, he’d have used an energy beam to destroy such an object, or at least deflect its approach. But this was a human being. She deserved better. Moreover, she was almost certainly evidence of a crime. Probably a lottery girl come to a bad end; he’d heard of such things. Such stories had always made his blood boil, and it was boiling now.

It couldn’t be an accident. He refused to believe that. It had to be murder most foul, by some sicko whose number had come up in the lottery. The gold cuffs on her wrists - her killer must have had expensive as well as perverse tastes -- were proof enough of that. He wished he could do something; wished that the sick bastard could die by his hand. Only with his luck, he’d more likely die by the killer’s.

That thought sobered him. There was nothing he could do for this woman, not in terms of justice or vengeance. The Station authorities might take a report, make a pretense of investigating, but in the end they would do nothing for her. Perhaps, however, he could at least find out who she was, see to a decent funeral, try to locate her kin, if she had any.

There wasn’t time to warm up the ship, move it into position to grapple her. But she was light enough that he wouldn’t need to. He checked his emergency jetpack, suited up, and headed out the airlock. It took only a few minutes to intercept her, well short of the asteroid and the processor.

It was trickier getting the body back to the ship; he had to guesstimate her mass, and he was off just enough to be forced to make some quick course corrections. But he was an able spaceman; he made it. He eased her into the airlock, then himself. It had been less than 15 minutes overall since the alarm had sounded.

Only after he’d laid her out on his bunk in the Wheel did he take a close look at her. He’d already taken in that she was blonde and well-endowed. That fit the profile of a lottery girl. House girls usually didn’t look like much, and didn’t have to. But lottery girls were always beautiful; otherwise, nobody would play the lottery for the remote chance of winning a day, or a week, or even a month with one of them.

Lottery girls could make a lot doing nothing but look beautiful in promo holocubes. That was the upside. The downside was that they took pot luck when it came to their liaisons. The man who played a winning number might be the answer to their dreams, or a nightmare, or anything in between. Some lottery girls found husbands, and were never seen again. Most returned to Station, none the worse for wear. A few just disappeared.....

But looking at her now, Alex knew that this was no lottery girl. It wasn’t her golden hair and blue eyes, nor her firm breasts, nor her long legs, nor the perfection of what lay between them. It was what he didn’t see: the telltale signs of death by decompression, the burst capillaries, the puffing, the bruising, the dehydration. Her skin had taken on an icy pallor, and yet it was otherwise unmarked.

Velorian. She had to be. But how?

Even if Alex had never met a Velorian, he’d have known that. Anybody would. Only, who could she be, and how could she have ended up dead and drifting in space?

When he had thought her a lottery girl, he had been enraged at the thought of the kind of man who could be capable of this. But even the worst scum in this system could not have harmed a Velorian, let alone killed her. Now it was a matter of physical rather than moral capability.

Were there Aureans here? Had the war come to Shalmirane? Were the Enlightenment and the Empire violating the system’s neutrality, the very neutrality that had drawn him here? The mere thought gave him the shakes.

The woman had to be a Protector, but what had a Protector been doing here? He had to find out. Turning from the bunk, he sat at his console, programmed a search of all the news archives, all the recent ship-to-ship and ship-to-Station chatter. It would take at least two hours to get a response, given his distance from the databases at Adara Station.

Meanwhile, he searched space as far as his scanners could reach for anomalous ships. Nothing -- only other miners, easily recognizable by their signatures. Nothing anomalous in their current traffic, either. Still unsatisfied, he messaged the nearest fellow miner, light minutes away, about any anomalous events in the last few days or weeks. Again nothing, came the delayed response. Except a police action against smugglers a couple of months ago; the smugglers were reported lost in the wormhole.

When the archive search results began coming in, they were equally disappointing. No references to Velorians or Aureans in the system, other than diplomats; certainly none to Protectors or Primes. The only hits relating to the war concerned distant events; there’d been some especially ugly business at Reigel Five. He didn’t want to think about that; it only reminded him of other events, distant in time as well as space, that he also didn’t want to think about.

He’d tried to stop thinking about the body on the bunk behind him, but the image of the Protector kept invading his mind. What was he to do with her? If she were here illegally, as he suspected to be the case, the Velorian mission would not be pleased to hear about it -- not from the likes of him. If he approached the authorities on Station, or on Shalmirane itself, it could touch off a diplomatic incident, for which he might somehow be blamed.

Alex felt a chill in the air, and in his soul. He felt as if he were being watched, although that was impossible. He felt helpless, and unbearably lonely, more than he had felt since Piet died. Because there was nothing else left to do, he yielded to his morbid temptation, turned again to face the body on the bunk. She was beautiful beyond hope, and she was beyond hope. As he himself was beyond hope -- in his dreary, abominable womanless existence, in the looming failure of all his dreams.

Appearance was deceptive with Velorians, he knew. Even so, he couldn’t believe she was past her late teens. Protectors were recruited young; he knew that, too. Few lived to the Velorian equivalent of old age; the Enlightenment threw them away. It was tragic and, worse, utterly pointless. As pointless as Velor’s promise of support to Binkley’s World had been.

Now this Protector lay dead, as dead as the homeworld he tried not to remember. She lay cold on his bunk, held there by the spin of the Wheel that produced a semblance of gravity -- the same gravity that made his tears fall now, rather than drift haphazard as they would elsewhere on the ship.

It was the tears that gave him a start. They should have frozen instantly when they fell on her, and yet it took a few moments. How could this be?

He’d avoided touching her with his bare hands, fearful of injury, assuming that her body must be as frigid as space itself. But now he ran a temperature check: 225° K -- cold, but far from cold enough. Within polar range for any number of habitable worlds. There must be something relevant in the World Brain database. He did a quick word search, found what he was looking for:

Hibernation (Supremis):

Individuals of the Supremis races (ref: Aurean, Velorian) have been reported found in a state described (inaccurately) as hibernation. The condition is more accurately an autoinduced stasis, a reflexive extension of the Supremis invulnerability (ref) akin to the drowning reflex displayed by Terran mammals (ref). In this state, the individual has no heartbeat, respiration, or other biological function except for low-level brain activity (detectable by brain scans including EEG), and can survive for prolonged periods in otherwise inimical environments, including vacuum, extreme high or low temperature, entombment, and immersion in liquids including solvents and corrosives.

Revivication has to be initiated externally. The procedure requires stabilization of the individual’s body temperature within the normal range followed by application of external stimulus sufficient to trigger normal brain function.

NOTE The Aurean Empire requires that all individuals found in this condition be handed over to the nearest Imperial outpost or station.

NOTE: The Velorian High Council requests that all Velorians found in this condition be reported to the nearest Velorian Embassy, Consulate, or Planetary Protector for retrieval and medical care.

Report her? He didn’t want to think about that. At least, not until he determined whether she was indeed in a state of hibernation. Two words jumped out at him: brain activity. Could it be? He quickly warmed up the autodoc, extended an EEG probe and, with something between a hope and a prayer, made a reading.

Oh God, it was a miracle! She was alive! But what to do now? She must already be absorbing energy from the ship; the chill in the air had been no illusion, after all. Perhaps he should speed the process. The World Brain reference was reticent about the details, but indicated that warming came first, then some sort of action to stimulate revival.

He tried applying a heating pad, but that didn’t seem to do much before it shorted out. He didn’t want to risk the spare pad; he might need it one day. There was nothing like a space heater aboard, and a hot shower seemed even less adequate, not to mention a burden on the recycling system. But then he realized that he was still thinking in terms of humans rather than Velorians….

Alex didn’t have any hand weapons on board; he didn’t believe in them. But there was a cutting/welding laser. It wouldn’t hurt a Velorian, but it could set the bunk on fire and maybe damage the ship if he weren’t careful with it. So he was very careful as he played it up and down her body, especially careful with the arms and legs.

He severed the chain linking her gold cuffs, eased them off carefully. No energy burst; she had too little reserve. He raised each of her arms in turn with one gloved hand while applying the beam evenly around them with the other. He avoided her face, but when he turned her over to work the back of her legs, he also applied the laser to the back of her head, to warm her brain. Her golden hair fluttered in the heat, but there was no other response. Yet she was breathing now, he saw when he turned her over again.

Her color had returned: the golden color of a true Vel. He removed his gloves; her flesh was warm to the touch. So close, so warm, and so unattainable. As unattainable in life as in death; that’s how it had to be. He couldn’t afford the thoughts that came to him, but he couldn’t suppress them. Not after seeing what the laser had done to her breasts, to her nipples, recalling how they had grown before his eyes, his lustful eyes.

When he could still afford it, he’d made use of the house girls on Station. They were good at their trade; they’d been able to scratch his itch. But they could never assuage his aching loneliness. Now that same loneliness overwhelmed him; it was more than he could bear. Loneliness and yearning, a yearning that became a torment -- a torment swollen by the first hint of honey and wildflowers, by the first sign of moisture between her legs.

Forget that, he scolded himself. Think of your job. Your job here is to wake her up. Nothing more.

He returned to the autodoc, unreeled the defibrillator. She already had a heartbeat, he knew, watching the gentle rise and fall of her magnificent chest, but perhaps the electric shock would finish the job the laser had started, bring her back to consciousness. Only it didn’t. She jerked; stirred afterwards as if in normal sleep, but did not awaken.

Alex had run out of ideas. All possibilities stated or implied by the World Brain were exhausted. He stood by the woman's side helplessly. Until another thought, a thought he tried to fight off, crept into his head.

It wasn’t from the World Brain, or any other legitimate source. It was from the dirty jokes he’d heard in Station bars, from the pornography he'd encountered. He wanted to believe that he was above such things, but of course he wasn’t. No man was. Especially when it came to Velorians and their legendary libidos.

What Alex yearned to do now was insane. Obscene. Even blasphemous. But her heady scent overwhelmed him, her pheromones overcame all reason. He was drawn to her intimate center like a moth to a flame.

IV (first draft by Evelyn Y)

She was dreaming about Chad. Or maybe it was Lance or Travis. He had been doing something delicious with her, setting her on fire down below and then making her explode. She didn’t know it was a dream until it began to fade. It had seemed so real that she felt it. Her muscles pulsed with the tension it created and the intense stimulation. And suddenly, she realized that it was just a very, very deep dream.

Slowly, very slowly her eyes began to flicker. Reality began to surface. She wasn’t back on Earth with the Beasley boys. She felt that she was floating, as if in space, and yet there was the tug of gravity against her. She was breathing, there was air about her, and through her flickering eyes she could tell that she was somewhere brightly lit. Like on the ship. She was suddenly terrified.

She must be back with them. The twisted memories of her abduction and ordeal made her writhe with mental anguish. A cold chill ran through her as she remembered where she had been and what had happened. In the half awareness of sudden awakening, the feeling still lived within her. The feeling of anger and helplessness still dwelt inside her. She began flailing in terror. And then her eyes opened.

Terror gave way to confusion. She was revolving slowly in mid-air; her arms were free, there was no sign of her cuffs. Taking an enormous breath, she smelled the sweetness of pure air for the first time in what seemed an eternity. Her surroundings were strange; she was aboard a ship, she knew, but it wasn’t the same ship. There was the scent of wildflowers, a feeling of warmth, as if she had just cum.

But the feeling didn’t just come from inside. It came from this place. She was drifting in what she realized from watching Babylon 5 back on Earth must be a rotating cylinder that maintained the artificial gravity she had sensed – although on a far smaller scale than in the TV series. "Above" her at this particular moment, past the spoke and held there by the same centrifugal force, were a number of planter boxes with exotic flowers in fragrant bloom.

As she spun slowly about, she saw more flower boxes amidst utilitarian furnishings, including a bunk. Past them a ladder leading to a hatch in the spoke, which she surmised must also serve as a passageway to the gravity-free sections of the ship. The walls to each side of the ladder were decorated with planetary landscapes and what appeared to be family pictures and scenes of domestic life.

She sensed that this was a good place. It was clean and warm. It had the feeling of human habitation. Whoever lived here, she thought, must be gentle and civilized. Charmin felt a sense of profound relief as the world around her gave the impression of safety. She came out of her spin, her thick blonde hair tossing about from the inertia. She let gravity take hold of her, settled by chance against what she sensed must be another bunk, stretched her back and tested long unused muscles.

The warmth from her center pulsed into her arms, her legs, throughout her body and finally into the ample firmness of her breasts. For reasons she could barely remember, Charmin felt a warm dampness from her center. The muscles of her lower abdomen were slightly sore from the convulsions that her dream must have put them through moments before. It felt as if she had had an orgasm, but the depth of her sleep had left only the physical evidence.

Blinking her eyes, Charmin looked about, down her body and past it. It was only then that she saw the man kneeling before her, his gaze intent on her. The sight of the stranger chilled her for a second. Yet only for a second. His face was strong and handsome. Although he was dressed in what she took for rough work clothes, there was nothing rough or crude about him.

Charmin sat up, squinted at the stranger. Penetrating his clothes with her X-ray vision, she smiled to herself as she mapped every inch of his body. Looking beneath his skin, she saw that he could not be of her tormentors’ kind, he was a mere mortal man. He was motionless before her, seemingly trapped now in her own gaze, like a jacklighted deer back on Earth.

In fact he seemed to have been caught in an act of subordination, his eyes tracking back and forth between her face and her breasts and her womanhood in abject worship. Charmin wondered what she had done to bring him before her so. It was only when he recovered himself, stood before her, his face no longer in close proximity to her nether lips, that she realized the scent of wildflowers was on him as well as her. Now she knew what had awakened her.

Before she could pursue that thought, the stranger began speaking animatedly to her in some language she couldn’t understand. It was beautiful, almost like music; yet after a few moments, Charmin felt a sudden chill again: it sounded like the language of her tormenters. The sound irritated her. It generated fear and alarm.

Using her X-ray vision she mapped his body once more to reassure herself of his true nature. Certain now, she slid off the bunk and got to her feet. Standing upright before him, Charmin again stretched her long dormant limbs, shook her long blonde hair from her shoulders and looked down upon him. Folding her arms beneath her breasts, Charmin breathed deeply and looked at him quizzically.

"Hu arr yu?" she asked. "Hau did ai get hier?"

His reaction made no sense to Charmin, and a feeling desperation and sadness raised itself within her. She felt tears forming in her eyes, a weakness that belied the power of her physical form. Did he know of her tormentors or what they had done to her? His looks gave her no more clue than his words.


Alex poured out his feelings, of how beautiful she was, what joy she had brought him, how she had made him believe in miracles again when he had long since ceased to believe in anything. Then he saw the look on her face; a look of puzzlement. After a moment he realized his mistake: he hadn’t even properly introduced himself.

"Tus nimya Alex," he explained. "Kai’l Binklyena. Und ské nimya?"

"Hwat?" she responded. "Ai dohn’t uhndurstand."

What was she saying? It didn’t sound like any Velorian he’d ever heard. Then it occurred to him that perhaps she was suffering from amnesia, babbling irrationally. After what she must have been through, who could blame her? But what could bring her out of it? Perhaps a reminder of home, the first lines of the M’atra Zar….

"Ské shule k’tek ind’tus’a Veloor,

U’sveer tuvé und sveer’tus a’flou."

("Your eyes have touched the skies of Velor

And drift on the winds of my words.")

Surely no Velorian could ever forget the Matra’Zar. Yet the blonde goddess only frowned and shook her head. If not a love poem, perhaps a reminder of her duty? It might seem cruel to address her so harshly, but perhaps it was necessary.

"Spra’twe Veloor!" he demanded. "Sk’l’zü protresk'e?" ("Speak Velorian! Are you not a Protector?")

She recoiled at the tone of his voice, her expression turned sad, yet still there seemed to be no sign of understanding. Even if she had forgotten who she was, could she possibly have forgotten what she was?

Of a sudden, after having said only a few words, she began babbling uncontrollably in that strange language. She seemed on the verge of tears again as the words poured forth from her lips. At last the tears and sobs broke free from her eyes and throat.

Alex was too startled to react for a moment, but then snatched a mike to input her words into the ship’s computer. Perhaps she had been on some top secret mission, deep-taught a new identity and a new language, programmed to forget her own until the mission was over. It didn’t make much sense, sending out a Protector that way: who would take her for anything but what she was? But nothing about this situation made any sense.

It didn’t take long for the translator search program to identify the language. Alex’s jaw dropped. English? And not just English, but Terran Ameringlish, rather than one of the dialects spoken in some sectors by descendants of abductees and those who traded with them.

She had stopped speaking when she heard the word "English" from the computer. He called for a translation into his own Binkleyan, forgetting that he had missed the first of it.

"… and then they took me away, the cruel people. They were people like me, but they weren’t like me. They were evil. They made me wear gold cuffs and put me in a gold cage and talked about me in that same language, but they didn’t actually talk to me, well, hardly ever. And then something scared them and they threw me into space and I knew I was going to die there but somehow I didn’t die and I woke up here, wherever here is."

She talked about some place called Deer Meadow and how happy she’d been there and about her mother Ingrid and the Beasley brothers she was in love with and working as a mechanic on ground vehicles in their garage. Her story veered back and forth between past and present, childhood memories and her recent trauma, pet rats and some Terran who had "ratted" her out to the abductors after she had shown him every kindness.

It was either the most insane cover story ever, or it was the truth, but at least now he understood. She recovered her composure as the story finished its long, sad telling.

"Hwat iz yur neim?" she asked him again. "Mai neim iz Sharmin."

The computer translated, although it could never match her voice in its sweetness.

"My name is Alex," he replied.

"Alex," she repeated, It was a beautiful name. He was beautiful, too, she thought. Tall, dark-haired. Well built, but not overmuscular. Well hung, too. With a nice ass to power his love tool.

Gazing at him, she tried to put the pain and torment behind her. This man had saved her, against all odds. She felt safe with him. He could help her, perhaps even help her find her way home. She probed him again with her X-ray vision. Especially the part of him that revealed he was interested in her. Very interested. It was a real mood enhancer.

Back on Earth, she hadn’t let on about that, except to Ingrid and the Beasley boys. It could have caused problems at school and in town if people had known she could see everything about them and what they were doing, even through walls. But thinking of the Beasley boys reminded her of her waking dream. She knew what she wanted now; and she knew he wanted it, too.

"You smell of honey and wildflowers," she teased, smiling at him. "Now why would that be?"

His face turned red at the translation. But he did not avert his gaze from her naked body. Nor did she avert hers as she somehow found the gold cuffs, slipped them on.


This can't be happening, Alex thought. It just can’t be happening.

But it was happening, This Velorian goddess was inviting him. Urging him. Begging him to do anything he wanted with her body. Anything.

He'd hesitated at first, until she gently yet firmly drew his face to her lap, letting him drink her juices to the fill. She bucked and moaned as he kissed all around her labia, and thrashed and screamed when he bit her clit as hard as he could. It was that kind of bite that had awakened her the first time; now it had awakened her passion. The force of her climax lifted her off the bunk, even with the gold to restrain her.

She had screamed in English, but he wanted to hear her words of love in Velorian, so he took a moment as she was coming down from orgasm to adjust the translator to match her voice in what should have been her native tongue. But she was already giving him a what-are-you waiting-for look.

"Kiss me," she invited him. Sofier'tu.

"Kai sofier k’frawn a’ské fiern," he told her. I kiss the lips of your face. The scent and taste of her nectar was still on his own lips, and they shared it eagerly. From lip kissing to deep kissing as their tongues met and caressed each other. His arms reached around her to her close, to experience the divine heat of her incredible body. He could feel her awesome breasts, her engorged nipples pressing against his chest.

When he came up for air, her hand guided his to one of her breasts.

"Feel me," she urged him. Lorn'tu

It was so real, Alex thought. Nothing like the house girls on Station. They could fake gasps and moans, but they couldn't fake the rest. You could feel their breasts and nothing would happen. They might as well be dolls. But Charmin -- God, he could see her nipples grow even larger, even harder as he ministered to them. He could feel her breasts swell in his hands as he squeezed them.

"Bite me!" she shoute. Kie'tu!

That would be plain kinky for any ordinary woman. But beneath their silken softness, Alex knew, her breasts were stronger than even Vendorian steel. Bullets would bounce off them, they'd soak up deadly energy fire like a sponge. There was no way he could harm them in the throes of passion. Taking each in turn, he squeezed her love mounds as hard as he could, took her nipples in his teeth and clamped down.

"More!" she screamed. Ta!

He tried. It wasn't easy. But he was finally rewarded with a shuddering climax. He put his arms around her, to feel her cum, felt himself cuming. That might have embarrassed him with an ordinary woman, but he knew he had nothing to fear with a Velorian -- surely not premature ejaculation. Her pheromones would never fail her, or him -- he didn't lose it for even a moment.

"Oh God, Oh God!" she panted. Oh Skietra!

She looked between his legs then, evidently pleased with what she saw.

"Fuck me!" she urged him. Forn'tu!

She raised her legs, pulled him into her. Her eyes lit up as she gazed into his. They lay motionless for a few moments as they savored the connection. Alex could hardly believe it, despite the evidence of his senses. He was actually inside this heavenly creature, this superwoman, this goddess. He could feel her divine flesh around him, so hot, so tight.

Neither of them could stand it for more than those few moments. Alex was soon pounding Charmin into the bunk, or trying to; but she wouldn’t just lie there and take it: she arched her back, matched him thrust for thrust.

"Harder!" she screamed. "Don't stop!" Koodor. N'ai nimis.

Alex couldn’t have stopped if he'd tried. Why should he? She wasn't made of glass. She was Velorian, She was invulnerable. He could lay her with a will, with the utter joy of knowing that no matter how hard he fucked her, he could bring her nothing but pleasure.

"Oh God, fuck me harder!" she pleaded again. Oh Skietra! Forn’tu koodor!

He was on the edge. He could sense that she was, too, as he plunged into her again.

Her words came like explosions.

"My God…Oh God… I'm cuming…I'm cuming!"

Tus Skietra… Oh Skietra… Kai'l mierda… Kai'l mierda!

"Kai'l mierda," Alex himself gasped as he felt himself explode inside her. "Oh Skietra, Oh Skietra, Oh Skietra, Oh Skietra…."

And then, more quietly, "Ské'l Skietra." Thou art God. Or in this case, Goddess. It was a trifle blasphemous, in this context. But not very. And Charmin wouldn't know.

In fact, she was flattered. Then turned on. She wanted to do it again.

So they did. Several times.


In the afterglow, it was time for conversation again. Serious conversation. Serious, and puzzling. The translator made things awkward at first, but after a time the lovers took it for granted.

Charmin had never heard of Velor. She had never heard of Aurea. She had never heard of the war. She could only take his word for it that she was a Velorian. Alex had to fill her in on everything, as best he could. But there were things he couldn’t explain. Like who her abductors had been.

"Velorians don’t act that way," he insisted.

"These did," she insisted just as strongly.

She was vaguely aware that there might be another of her kind on Earth, the one they called Supergirl.

"A Protector," Alex explained. "Assigned by the High Council. To defend Earth against the Aureans."

"There are Aureans on Earth?"

He hated the Aureans, she could tell. But he had seemed reluctant to talk about them except in the most general terms. He must be holding something back.

"Maybe not on it," he said after a moment. "Near it. Their warships."

"Shouldn’t somebody warn them?"

"Earth is a closed world."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that the Velorians are not allowed to reveal themselves openly there, still less to warn them about the Aureans. Something about their Prime Directive."

"And this one Protector is supposed to defend Earth against an enemy fleet?"

Alex shrugged.

"I don’t understand that either."

"I could warn them. If you took me to Earth. Their directive is silly. Anyway, they must have stolen it from Star Trek. Everyone back home knows there must be life out here. They’ve even had TV shows like The X-Files about alien invasions."

She had to explain about Star Trek and The X-Files. He could understand about that. But couldn’t he understand what she needed?

"I want to go home," Charmin pleaded. "Why can’t I go home?"

"I can’t take you," Alex responded sadly. "In the first place, I could never afford it. And in the second place, they would never allow it. They’d surely catch us if we tried. And even if we made it, thought we’d made it, whoever found you there once might find you again."

Charmin felt an overwhelming sadness. Was it true then? That she’d never see Earth again? Never see Deer Meadow? Never see Ingrid, the Beasley Boys, poor old Carl Rodd? She made hardly a sound, and yet her tears flowed.

Alex saw it, tried to comfort her.

"Earth is still there," he told her. "It’s safe, for now. And even if…. You can still have good memories of home to keep, to cherish."

Then his own face turned somber.

"My kind of memories, I don’t want to keep. I want to forget and… I can’t, I can’t."

Now it was Alex who was suddenly in tears.

"I wasn’t there," he wept. "I wasn’t there to be with them. To die with them."


That was the worst of it. He knew it was madness to feel, even now, pangs of guilt at having survived the destruction of his world. And yet he did.

If Alex had been home at the time, he would surely have died. But he’d quarreled with his parents. Instead of enrolling at the Central Metallurgical and Technical Institute on Binkley’s World, he had wanted to study abroad.

Abroad meant the Enlightenment, of course. Not Velor itself; the gravity there would have been too much for him. But there were accommodations for frails like himself. From virtual classrooms in orbit, they could attend the Artemis University as if they were there in person.

They’d given in, his parents. They’d always doted on him. If they indulged him in this, let him sow his wild oats, he’d surely return home to make his mark as an engineer -- hopefully with Varldrymd Farkostingsmedel A/S, where his father was chief technologist. VF was the industry leader in producing of Vendorian steel for starship hulls. It also had a reputation for quality second only to that of the Vendorians.

Wild oats hadn’t been what Alex had in mind when he traveled to Velor, although he managed to sow some just the same: Vels themselves were off limits, naturally, but there were willing women from a number of worlds, and the Silvstedt name carried weight with some of them. But what he wanted most of all was to learn, to immerse himself in the Enlightenment, to be a part of it. He had trusted in Velor as one might trust in God.

The night it happened -- rather, the night the news had reached the Velorian system --Alex had been up late studying for a midterm exam in Earth history, trying to make sense of the twentieth century ideological wars there.

The official Velorian version from the study cubes tried to suggest, without actually saying so, that the Aureans had played a significant role in the rise of both the Soviets and the Nazis and all that followed. Alex was doubtful; he’d consulted Earth’s own historians in works archived by the World Brain, and as far as he could see the Terrans had brought it all on themselves.

Anyway, he thought, the ideological wars of the twentieth century were hardly any different from the religious wars of the seventeenth, and nobody seemed to be blaming the Aureans for those. He could make a point of that in the essay portion, but he knew he’d have to get his facts straight if he wanted to impress the examiners. So he’d practically glued himself to his terminal, chasing down references, shutting out the rest of the world.

Without quite realizing it, he’d skipped dinner. When hunger became too insistent, he decided to finally take a break. There was nothing at hand in his quarters but nutrition bars, and he wanted something more substantial. Stiff from sitting too long, he’d gotten to his feet and headed for the nearest food court. No problem; night for him was alterday for the station, everything was open.

When he’d seen the images of death and destruction on the holoscreen, he hadn’t quite taken them in at first. But then he recognized parts of the capital -- what had been the capital. A commentator in a corner inset was explaining that the holo was supplied by the Scalantrans, which doubtless meant that it came straight from the Aureans. The newsnet didn’t seem to care about the source.

There had been a previous attack, Alex knew, beaten off by the superior weaponry of Binkley’s World. Velor had warned that another Aurean assault would not be tolerated, and that seemed to be that. The Enlightenment would stand by his world, and the Evil Empire would retreat -- or seek easier prey elsewhere. But there was no mention in the newscast of any Velorian involvement in the defense.

Alex had felt weak at the knees, sought out the nearest place to sit, hunger forgotten for the moment. A crowd had gathered under the holoscreen; people gestured towards the scenes from Binkley’s World and engaged in heated discussion. But a far greater number ignored the whole thing, jostling those in the gathering and hurrying past on whatever business they were bound for: shopping, entertainment, the fleshpots.

He missed the Earth History exam. He missed all his mid-terms. They were no longer of any importance. His professors were understanding; offering to let him take make-ups. He ignored them. One suggested he apply for a leave of absence. He ignored that, too. He spent most of his time in his room, shutting himself away from the seeming indifference of most Velorians to the fate of his world, but unable to shut out his own feelings of survival guilt.

Alex kept up with the newsnets. He still believed in the Enlightenment: surely Velor would mount a counterattack. But none came. In the days and weeks that followed, there were angry speeches in the Senate, but nothing more. There was no mention of it on the nets, but there were whispers from the few fellow students who came to look in on him: that Velor was in serious trouble from the loss of a major source of Vendorian steel, that risking its fleet had become an even greater concern than risking its Protectors.

The fellow students stopped coming after a while, but then he was discovered by his fellow Binkleyans, those that had escaped. He’d heard that a number of families had sent their children offworld after the first attack, but he hadn’t realized their numbers. They must be in the tens of thousands, but few of them had come to the Velorian system itself.

Those few were people he had never known, people he hadn’t even wanted to know, but who wanted his help now. They wanted him to sign their petitions to the Senate, to take part in their demonstrations, even to join a militia they were organizing. A militia! As if that would be any more avail against the Aurean Empire than e-mails or placards.


"So I turned my parents' holdings on Velor into a credit chip and came here," he told Charmin. "As far away from there as I could get. And I went into mining."

"But where is here?"

"Shalmirane. Well, the Shalmirane system."

"I understand. Shalmirane is the star."

"No, the planet. Diaspar is the star."

"And you live on Shalmirane?"

"No. None of us live there. The miners, I mean. The workers."

"Then who does?"

"The Designers. Those who take our steel and shape it. Only, they never touch it. They sit before their consoles at their estates, and create the designs that are turned into works of industrial art."

"At my high school, 'industrial art' meant things like making furniture."

"But Shalmirane's industrial art is famed throughout the Galaxy. The Designers take ordinary things and make them extraordinary. Not just furniture. Appliances. Machines. Ground cars. Watercraft. Even small private spacecraft. They are said to have designed the housings for the Fraul'isets. Not the works, obviously."

It wasn't that obvious to Charmin. Alex had to explain about the android warriors of Vendor. About Vendor itself, and Vendorian steel -- the strongest material in the universe, used for starship hulls and heavy weaponry. No one else could quite match it, even on Binkley's World. He told of the destruction of Vendor by the Aureans, of the gypsy fleet of smiths, shipwrights and weaponmakers called the Vauld that still roamed from system to system, wherever it could find the materials for Vendorian steel. Only then did he go back to the Designers of Shalmirane.

"They compete to make their work as exotic as they possibly can, to the very limits of functionality," he explained. "And the very wealthy on thousands of worlds compete to own them. The Designers have become very wealthy as a result."

"And you supply the steel?"

"Some of it. And titanium. Other metals. Sometimes ceramics."

"But you are not rich?"

"No, I am not rich. Especially not lately. Things haven't gone well, since I lost Piet."

He told her about Piet. About Adara Station. She was sad, and also puzzled.

"Why do the Designers allow this?"

"They don't care. They never come to Station. And Stationers aren't allowed on the planet. Let alone the miners."

"They are like the ruling class?"

"You don't understand. They don’t rule us. They're just not interested. They let the Scalantrans handle that. And the trading arrangements."

Charmin looked puzzled again. He'd have to explain about the Scalantrans, too, he realized.


She'd dreamed of what it might be like out here, but she'd never dreamed what it was actually like. Not just the ship. Not just this particular system. Everything.

While Alex was out working the processor, she immersed herself in the World Brain, trying to absorb as much as she could of the history of the universe. The greatest surprise to her was how widespread humanity was. There were humans on thousands of worlds, not even counting the Velorians, Aureans, Geheimites and other Futzed species that had once been human but had now evolved into something else.

She'd read of alien abductions back home in Deer Meadow, and never believed in them until she herself was abducted. Only not by the Grays. There weren't any Grays. There were weird species, to be sure: Kintzi, Tetrites, Pactrellians and more. But humans were by far the most widespread, the result of abductions that had apparently gone on for millennia.

Charmin didn't know how much of it to believe. Galens? Elders? Neither of them were around any more, or at least didn’t want to make themselves known, and they didn't seem to have left much trace of their existence beyond legends. The Old Galactics she could believe in; they had marked the wormholes. Without those, interstellar travel would have been impossible. Maybe the Old Galactics were behind the rest of it. Maybe they'd created both the Supremis and the Diaboli, then withdrawn to watch from a distance what would happen.

Would they be proud of their work? She rather hoped not. The Velorians and Aureans, with their endless war -- all about reproduction. At least, that's how it had started. Like all such conflicts, she supposed it was an end in itself by now. She knew about birth labs from Brave New World and C.J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union series. The only strange thing was that the Velorians hadn't used their Maternity Engine to mass produce their kind and populate a host of other worlds. The Aurean naturalists seemed to be better at that.

She hadn't wanted to come here. She didn’t want to be here… except for Alex. But all things considered, she could have done a lot worse. She was in a neutral system, far away from the war. She should consider herself lucky.

"Actually, I'm from Phoenix. But, lucky me, I moved here." That was a line from a movie she'd seen on tape once as a kid. Only the kid in the movie didn't know that Santa Carla, the place his family had moved, was full of vampires.

She hoped there weren't any vampires here. Or whatever the equivalent of vampires were.

When she wasn't studying history, she was studying mining, thinking that maybe she could help out with the equipment. Later. Whenever. It didn't seem all that complicated. Not as complicated as the Velorian language, which she was also studying.

She'd stayed in the Wheel for the most part, venturing beyond it only when Alex was on board, to help tend the gardens -- that was easy to pick up, even if the vegetables and fruits growing there weren't all familiar. Tsu'maras were like a cross between potatoes and melons, if you could believe that. Well, she had to believe it, didn't she?

Alex had strung some cables in the weightless areas. Not for her protection, but for the ship's. She didn't have her space legs yet, and if she somehow made a wrong move, lost control and ran into something…

She hadn't been outside yet. Alex was afraid it might still be too traumatic for her. She didn't think so. She wanted to give it a try. But what if she panicked in the airlock, he'd asked, thrashed about, damaged the mechanisms? For now, she could watch through the scanners. She could see the processor and the mass driver, although not their operations -- except for the dust the excavation would kick up. Behind the processor was a line of pits: previous excavations, and the drag marks from moving the works.

She could see the stars. But not as well as she'd be able to see them outside, with her naked eyes. She wanted that. She was developing a severe case of cabin fever. She'd have to talk to him about that.


"Women don't have much to do with running things," she said.


"On Velor. I mean, you have this Senate running the planet. They're all men. And the Protectors are under the High Council. They're all men."

"That's the way Skietra set things up, or so they say."

"That's such a crock!" Charmin exclaimed.


The translator stumbled on that one. It didn't help much when Charmin tried again with "baloney." But she finally got her meaning across. That the patriarchy on Velor had nothing to do with Skietra. If there'd ever been a Skietra.

Alex mused. He hadn't ever thought about it that way. Hadn't really thought about it at all.

"It's happened before, on Earth," she continued. "I read about it. Things they didn't teach in Social Studies. Everything that's happened out here happened there before. Well, most everything."


"Like, Mary Magdalene was a mover and shaker in the early Christian community. Some even say she was the wife of Jesus. Muhammad's favorite wife Aisha and daughter Fatima; their voices were heard and respected by early Muslims. But it wasn't long before Paul was telling women to keep their mouths shut in church, and Muhammad's heirs put their women into bondage and dreamed up the sharia to justify it."

Alex wasn't really familiar with Terran religions. There were a few sects out here, like the Christla, related to them. Other faiths that weren't. But the closest thing he knew of to gods were the beings who had abducted Terrans and settled them on other worlds. Worlds like his own.

Records from early years of the diaspora had been lost or destroyed, and tales of the abductors had become mostly legend. Alex didn't know what to believe about them. But one thing he did believe.

"Religion is a 'crock'" he ventured.

"People believe what they want to believe," Charmin said. "Even you."


"Why haven't you let me outside yet?"

"We've been over this. You almost died out there. I thought it was too soon. That you'd be afraid."

"What if I am? If I were a man, wouldn't you be telling me to get over it? To confront my fear and overcome it?"

"But the danger to--"

"I'm wearing gold, remember?"

Of course she was. He knew what would happen if her gold were removed, especially in an enclosed space. So did she. Something that had happened to her back on Earth, a golden mesh she wore that some Terran had destroyed with a bottle of aqua regia.

Alex tried to resist for a few moments, but finally gave in. He suited up, led her into the airlock, cycled it. He checked her for a response: nothing. He opened the outer door. Again, nothing. She didn't even tremble.

"It was just like looking out any other door," she told him after they came back inside.

"It didn't even make you think of--"

"Of course it did. But that was then, and this is now. It was my choice to go in there and I knew I wasn't in any danger. I knew I was ready for this. Now you know, too."

"Tomorrow," Alex promised. "But you'll have to be careful out there."

"I'll be careful," she said, with seeming gravity. "I'll take care of myself."

Her tone changed.

"Just like I take care of you."

Charmin levitated above him as he pulled off his coverall, lay back on the bunk. She could see that he needed taking care of, just as she needed taking care of. She let him drink in the wonder of her body, even to drink of the fragrant juices that had begun to drip from her intimate center.

Here in the Wheel, she was familiar with the artificial gravity, familiar even with the slight correction she had to make for the attraction of the asteroid. Her aim was perfect; not a drop missed its target. She came closer, let him pull her in to cover her labia with kisses, to suck and nibble her clit until she screamed with delight and release.

When she moved back, to impale herself on his manhood, her aim was again perfect…

"Kai tamoor'sk," she told him. I love you.

"Kai tamoor'sk," he responded.


Charmin clung to the tether that first day outside. She wanted to see the mine, but she didn't know how to fly -- not here in space, at any rate. She'd tried flying a few times in Deer Meadow, with the Beasley boys, when no one else was looking. And once… she didn’t want to go there.

So she concentrated on the task at hand, held tight for the climb down, as she would have to for the climb back up. She could barely feel the puny gravity; "up" and "down" were more a matter of sight than sensation. She paused to look around. "Above" was the ship. "Below" was the grayish-brown of the asteroid and the metallic gray of the processor housing. Beyond that, the mass driver.

All about her… the utter blackness of space, broken only by the small disk of Diaspar and the pinpoints of stars and planets. A band of pinpricks: the Milky Way. She could recognize that; Alex had told her she wasn't that far from home in Galactic terms -- only a few thousand light years.


She'd grown up learning the stars and constellations and planets of Earth's sky. They had been her familiar friends. But nothing was familiar here. Some stars she had known at home were visible, but Alex had to point them out.

Shalmirane didn't bother with constellations, she'd learned, but the miners had created some. The only thing they had in common with those she'd known, she thought, was that the Angry Kintz and the Lottery Girl and the like didn't resemble their referents any more than Ursa Major or Sagittarius.

None of the planets were familiar, of course; although they fell into familiar types -- gas giants versus rocky worlds. There were only two of the latter here; between them and the gas giants were only asteroids, none larger than 2,000 kilometers. She couldn't spot any of them by naked eye, nor had she expected to. They were too small, too distant. Only in sci-fi movies back home were asteroid belts as crowded as suburban freeways at rush hour.

The blue dot of distant Shalmirane caught her eye. With her telescopic vision, she was able enlarge it to a small disk, but not enough to make out any surface details. She knew it was a watery world: small islands, rather than continents. These were the private estates of the Designers, Alex had told her. Private estates on a private world. A beautiful world, from all accounts. Perhaps even more beautiful than Earth.

But a world she'd never see.

Would she ever set foot on a living world again?

She was overwhelmed by sadness. Tears formed in her eyes, only to freeze instantly, blinding her for a moment before she brushed the ice crystals aside with her free hand.

Free hand? She was supposed to be using both of them, hand over hand.

Can’t have that, she thought. Have to focus.

She made it the rest of the way down. Alex was waiting for her. With her "handbag," The one he'd brought to hold the gold cuffs she'd shed when she was a safe distance out of the ship. He'd watched them fall slowly, actually caught them in his gloved hands. Not as easy as it looked, she imagined.

Alex could jump from ship to ground and back with the jetpack. He didn’t even have to use the pack jumping up, he'd told her; he had a feel for it by now: just the right spring to send him in just right direction at just the right speed to easily grab hold of the stanchion outside the airlock. Ironic, she mused; he's the flyer here.

That day, however, he played it safe. He wanted to be ready to use the pack to chase after her if she lost her grip and drifted away. Also, he was carrying a writing slate from ship's stores. A crude form of communication, but better than nothing, and he didn't want to lose it.

He gave her the grand tour: of what was concealed in the housing: the excavator, the conveyor, the processor itself. She'd seen NASA renderings of space mining operations. They were much larger, much prettier, much more elaborate -- even to monorails taking ore cars from the digs to the solar furnace. But this was just a two-man operation -- now a one-man operation.

How could he manage it? she wondered. The design was modular and, to a degree, self maintaining, but there was still so much to look after. The whole system was the size of an assembly line on Earth and contained thousands of moving parts, some so complex they resembled technological anthills. Even the components that weren’t too complicated to understand like the solar furnace were so dangerous that even approaching them was hazardous for ordinary men. The processing was automated, of course, and there were built-in diagnostics and fail-safes. But still...

She looked back at the nearest pits, at the groove marks that flanked them. She looked at the attitude jets, fed by small compressed fuel tanks, without which Alex could never have moved the works, even with the winch. She took a closer look at one of the tanks. Then a still closer look.

Charmin took the slate, scrawled on it, then showed it to Alex with one hand while pointing with the other.

Tank flawed. Could blow.

How? Alex wrote in response.

Tachyon vision.

Alex slapped his faceplate in a show of embarrassment.

He'd been the one to give her the proper name for it. She still wasn't sure what it had to do with tachyons. But she had it, and he didn't.

Better give works day off, Make thorough inspection, he slated.

So they made a thorough inspection. Actually, Charmin made a thorough inspection. Alex just showed her where to inspect. She found a number of weak spots in the scoop mechanisms, the conveyor bearings, even the furnace supports that the diagnostics hadn't caught yet. No immediate danger, but they'd have to be seen to.

Together, they dismounted the tank, carried it to a safe distance and bled it out. He'd have to haul a replacement out of the ship's cargo bay, he thought. Never an easy task, that sort of thing, even when he'd had Piet to help.

But he had help now, he realized. Better help. And another thing he realized.

Better see to better means of communication, Alex slated to her.


Alex and Charmin had unexpected company a few standard days later.

Strange luck. Again.

Visitors were rare. The belt was vast, and although the miners themselves were many their stakes were far between. They were more likely to meet on Station than in space. Between times, their contacts were more virtual than real.

They had a Beneficial Association, and that too was more virtual than real. With its members scattered across a light hour or more, it was impossible to have general meetings. Issues would be raised, discussed and decided by message board. Elections were handled in the same manner, with the candidates attracting their followings based on responses to their positions at the message boards.

Protecting independent miners' rights against the big combines was always a big issue, but the Association couldn't do much about that. Getting better prices for ingots was also always a big issue, but the Association couldn't do much about that either. What it could do was bargain with some of the suppliers for better rates on everything from equipment and spare parts to autodocs to insurance. And it tried to foster a spirit of mutual aid.

Miners were supposed to respond to dire emergencies of their brethren, but given the distances between them, this wasn't very practical very often. Still, it did happen: lives were saved, mines were saved. But social visits were a matter of happenstance, of being in the right place at the right time.

Alex Silvstedt's stake just happened to be in the path of Kelcic Manners' journey to Adara Station. Kelcic's partner was his wife, which was uncommon but not rare. He and Iara had had a run of lucky strikes, so lucky that they could afford a family. Now that she was pregnant, he was taking her to Station for prenatal care and delivery. There were limits to what the autodoc could do. Also, the Association had a medical plan, funded through a checkoff -- a plan Kelcic had helped negotiate.

When Kelcic messaged Alex about his plans, he was delighted.

Then he panicked.

He hadn’t told anyone about Charmin. He had no way to account for her presence on board. He was still teaching her Velorian; that was a lingua franca, even this far from its planet of origin. But her accent was atrocious.

Should he try to hide her? But where? He felt a stab of self-loathing for even thinking of it -- after all she'd done for him, after all she meant to him.

Her incredible beauty was certain to awe Kelcic as much as it awed him. How was he to explain that? Pass her off as an Aryan? But no Aryan would speak Velorian so poorly. As a courtesan from Eros? He could never afford that, and Kelcic would damn well know it. As for the lottery girls, they were all on record. So were the winners, and he wasn't one of them.

There was nothing for it but to tell the truth.

Kelcic didn’t even need a demonstration of Charmin's invulnerability to believe it, but she gave him one anyway. With the cutting/welding laser.

"And she says she comes from Earth?" he asked.

"She can speak for herself," Alex said, trying to conceal his annoyance.

So Charmin told it again, stumbling over some of the Velorian words, but there was the translator as a backup.

"I still don’t understand how you got here," Kelcic said.

"I don’t know, either. I was on the ship, it must have been a Velorian ship, and then I was in space, and then I was here."

"There was a report of a smugglers' ship lost in the wormhole," Alex added. "That's all I could find at the time."

"Do you know how many wormholes you passed through on the way here?" Kelcic asked.

"Is that when you feel this sort of pressure that seems to come from nowhere?"

Kelcic nodded.

"I'm not sure," she said. "At least half a dozen. I lost track of time. I was unconscious a lot of it. I'm not sure how much."

"It sounds plausible," Kelcic remarked.

His gaze was fixed on Charmin. Too fixed. Iara could see that. She was not pleased. Sensing her displeasure, he turned back to Alex.

"The question is, what do we do now?"

"Well, I'm not going to turn her over to the authorities."

"Nobody's asking you to."

"Not that the authorities could hold her."

"Perhaps the legation could. You said the High Council advises that cases like hers be tuned over to the nearest embassy. For treatment."

"It's not my High Council. Anyway, she's already been treated. She's fine. More than fine."

"Agreed. But unless you want to keep her hidden away here forever--"

"I want to see the universe," Charmin broke in.

"And so you shall," Kelcic promised. "But you'll need a cover story."

"She could pass for an Aryan," Alex said. "Once she learns the language better."

"I will," she pledged.

"But what would an Aryan be doing here?"

"We'll figure something out," Kelcic told him.

And to Charmin, he added: "We miners pull together. Nobody else is pulling for us. And we know how to keep secrets. Yours is as safe with me as it is with Alex."

They shared dinner in the Wheel. A simple meal, but miners were used to simple fare. Alex contributed his best fresh vegetables and frozen fish. Kelcic and Iara cooked.

After dinner, Kelcic shot some holos of Charmin, did a retinal scan. For a passport: name and planet of origin to be determined later. They'd have to fake the DNA chip and hope nobody ever noticed. Before he and Iara left, they worked out a private code for any communications regarding Charmin.

For his own part, Alex posted an appeal for a female companion -- hopefully, one with engineering skills -- to the Association board. Not much use, ordinarily, but it would establish an electronic trail.

He signed it, "Dying for love."

It sounded appropriately desperate. He could still remember having felt that way -- before Charmin had come into his life.


Alex was teaching Charmin to fly in space. That was rich. Him in a spacesuit with a jetpack, her buck naked with her volatai. He'd rigged a bone conduction earphone for her; she didn't know sign language -- Terran or Velorian.

He'd had to read up on Velorian flight. Charmin hadn't done that much of it, even back on Earth where it had been easy to tell up from down. Now she had to learn to sense the subtle gradients of Diaspar's gravity well, to use the stars and planets as guides.

It wasn't easy. Couldn't be. Yet she was getting the hang of it.

"Ok that’s good!" Alex’s voice, grainy and distorted through the homemade earpiece, nonetheless still radiated pride as Charmin completed her first unassisted orbit of the refinery. "Now, you remember what I said earlier, about how natural flight should feel?"

Yes. She wrote back. But this is difficult. Not natural

"It shouldn’t be." Alex grimaced. "It’s because you’re thinking, ‘I Want To Go Left’ or ‘I Want To Go Up.’ According to this," he waved the only ‘guide’ to Velorian flight they’d been able to find; the journal of a rogue Protector who, shortly before her arrest and return to Velor, had made a small fortune on her assigned world by merchandising herself and her experiences. "It should be easy, ‘the most natural state for a Velorian to be in,’ is what it says here…" Alex paused, trying to find the best way to phrase what he’d read. "…On Earth, did you ever go diving,"


"Well it’s a bit like the moment after you hit, when you still have the momentum of the fall and can control your movement through the water just by moving your body. Do you understand?"

I think so. Charmin still looked hesitant. In spite of Alex’s assurances, flight in space wasn’t easy for her and she’d had to think hard to complete even the single wide orbit. Nothing made sense in zero gravity, her reaction to problems were either too severe so that she flew completely off course, or too minor so that she was forced to make abrupt corrections at the last moment.

Thrust had never been her problem, control was. And it wasn’t like she’d never dived before; Deer Meadow had some of the best water holes in the state. An embryonic smile began to form on her face. Yes. The more she thought of it, the more the concept made sense.

It wasn’t much of a start, and if Charmin was honest with herself, she had to admit it didn’t make that much difference to her "ability" but it was a foundation upon which she could start to build.


"Could we travel through a wormhole someday?" she asked after they were back on board the ship.

"You could, perhaps. Not me!"

"But in the ship?"

"Not my ship. It’s strictly an insystem job. No shields. No Vendorian steel."

"You told me about that. It’s what you used to make on your world. Could we make it here?"

"Not without xintanite. That, and tool-grade steel and titanium and certain ceramics. But xintanite is the most important. It's what creates the non-linear bonding between the other components, what makes the alloy stronger that any other known substance in the universe. But only if the xintanite molecules are perfectly distributed, which is very hard to do. And it can be done only in a vacuum."

"But you made it on Binkley's World."

"On orbital factories, like the Steele mill here. Smaller batches in vacuum chambers planetside, but only for the purposes that didn’t require the highest grade. And even our best orbital product wasn't up to Vendorian standards. They’re the true masters."

Vendorian. She'd heard him speak of the Vendorians many times. But she had a nagging sense that she'd heard the name once before that. From her captors? Where else?

"Have you ever seen a Vendorian?"

"No, and I don’t know of anyone who has either; with the Empire out to exterminate them they’re pretty rare these days. Whatever system they're working now is protected by Velor, you can depend on that. Especially after… what happened to my own world... Velor needs the Vendorians more than ever, but there has to be a limit to how much they can produce. And they won’t compromise on quality to increase their output."

Charmin was intrigued, but in the days and months that followed she never gave any further thought to the Vendorians. She continued with her flying lessons, and before long she'd have qualified as an ace -- if she'd been piloting a starfighter instead of herself. She also became an ace at mining -- after her own Velorian fashion.


It became a routine, and yet somehow they never tired of it.

Charmin would strip off her coverall, and head out the airlock. Alex would watch in rapture through the scanner as she flew naked in the bright sunlight, taking up position high above the surface. Then, as gracefully as a high-diver, she’d orient herself and plunge headfirst into the rocky ground.

The dust she kicked up behind her would drift slowly back to the surface, or out into space if it were fast enough. Sometimes the hole would still be there after the dust cleared; sometimes it would have closed over her.

She’d scoped out a lot of the interior with her tachyon vision, and Alex had taught her to recognize the chemical signatures of the resources they were looking for, from plain nickel-iron to rare earths and other valuable commodities. There was even some gold, but she knew enough to steer clear of that.

The nickel-iron nodules were the easiest to handle, but some were as large as boulders and she’d have to cut them up far underground with her heat vision. Then she’d push the chunks very carefully to the surface, coming up under the processor to deliver them for melting and casting. No more need to move the massive contraption, no more risk of accidents.

Alex would be waiting there by then; she’d have given him a pretty good idea how long she’d be taking on any particular dig. Then, it was up to the machinery. She could have run that herself; she knew it as well as he did by now. But she wanted him there, and he wanted to be there, even if they couldn’t embrace – she being naked, he encumbered in his spacesuit. But they could flirt in the strange ways of frail and Vel.

Sometimes she’d "accidentally" splash molten nickel-iron on herself to show off her invulnerability. The gravity was too weak for the metal to run very far before it froze, but she was skilled enough to direct it strategically to her erogenous zones. She always got a reaction, of course; she no longer needed her tachyon vision to be sure of that, but she used it anyway, because she liked to gaze at his arousal. Only she liked to look into his eyes, too, to see the wonder and the love there that never failed.

Work done, they’d return together to the ship. Charmin would be covered with dust from the depths of the asteroid. That didn’t bother Alex, but it could bother the ship -- the dust could get into delicate equipment, cause no end of trouble. So he’d vacuum her off in the airlock before they went inside. The vacuum did a good job; it had better. But more often than not, they’d pretend it hadn’t, so that he’d have an excuse to give her a loving sponge bath from head to toe.

Alex being sweaty after removing his spacesuit, she’d naturally return the favor, paying special attention to his manhood. But before long, the sponge would be forgotten in the rush of passion. Somehow, Charmin never forgot the bracelets, never denied him the joy of the unrestrained loving that was possible with a Vel only under gold, nor the ultimate release they would share when she took him into herself, surrounded him with her goodness, felt his goodness explode within her.


Thanks to Charmin, things were back on track. Better than they'd ever been with Piet. They had a whole string of ingot shipments on their way to Kelly Steele, enough to keep them flush with credits for a year, even allowing for the expense of repair and replacement that they'd face sooner or later. But thanks again to Charmin, that would be later that he'd have ever expected.

Still, it wouldn't pay to press their luck, strange or otherwise. Besides, they'd earned some time off. Charmin certainly had. As much as she loved him, he knew that she must miss the company of humankind. Alex certainly did.

They'd already made their plans the day she came to him with a strange piece of rock.

"What's this?" she asked.

Alex gave the rock a passing glance. Then a close one.

My God, he thought. He was speechless with excitement

"There's lots of it past the center. Tons and tons of it," Charmin said.

Alex found his voice.

"It’s going to change our lives, and more than our lives. Nothing's going to be the same here, ever again. That's what xintanite does."

"Xintanite," she repeated.

It was a few days later that the other shoe dropped. Only this one was expected, as Alex had had a coded message from Kelcic:

perspicuous cashew einsteinium exaltation expectation diachronic frivolity dis dynastic bowie spender beautiful constant farkas arrowroot governance mettle arrival furrow chalcedony pusan celerity obstruct disparage blenheim soonest hunch bladder vegetate keystone brazen magenta materiel inaction kirkland final axolotl….

The message went on for several hundred more words, but those in the 5-6-7-8 code were all he needed. Alex hadn't expected a legitimate response to his lonely hearts ad, but he had to be sure. If anyone intercepted the message, they'd assume in had to do with business. As, in a sense, it did.

I am far away, Alex, but I am coming. I wish to work with you and love with you. Do not die yet. Wait until I arrive.

Cassandra Spender was the name. She was a refugee from Reigel Five, where a recent military coup had put herself and her family in jeopardy. She was looking for a place to hide. She understood engineering, and was a quick study.

She didn't exist, Alex assumed. But she soon would. She had entered the system a few days ago, but rather than continue on to Adara Station, she had engaged a private shuttle. The shuttle was real. It had to be.


Cassandra too was real, as it turned out. She had welcomed the opportunity to change her identity. Alex didn’t ask the shuttle pilot about that; the less he knew the better. He didn't even ask the pilot's name. He might know Kelcic, or he might only know somebody who knew him. It didn't matter.

The pilot brought Charmin her passport. It was picture perfect. Also a biographical file on the real Cassandra, perfect except for the absence of a picture. She was a couple of years older than Charmin, not enough to notice. Her father had been the justice minister of Reigel Five, was presumed dead in the siege of Internal Security headquarters -- a siege that turned out to be part of a pre-emptive coup by the planetary president.

Details were in the file. Charmin would have to memorize it, to become Cassandra.

Cassie, she thought. Only the real Spender had called herself Sandra, she soon learned. Alex had told her that she'd have to pass for an Aryan, and Sandra was an Aryan. Alex had told her what little he knew about the Aryans, which wasn't pleasant. What she read in the file was even less pleasant.

The Aryans thought they were a master race, the peers of the Velorians themselves. What they actually were was a largely but not entirely Scandinavian-derived people that had been planted on Reigel Five by the Galens or whoever. No different from the people of, say, Binkley's World, except for their exaggerated sense of their own importance -- in which they reminded her of the Boers in South Africa.

The other peoples of Reigel Five, who called themselves Terrans of all things, hadn’t liked them much. But Terrans and Aryans had had a power sharing arrangement, they'd managed to get along, like the peoples of Earth's Yugoslavia under Tito. Had President Bergstrom ever read about Tito, or what happened after Tito died? Feared that the Aryans harbored designs like the Serbians, and decided to strike before they could? She didn’t know, and from the latest news of the civil war that had reached the World Brain, it didn’t seem as if anyone else did.

The strange thing was, Sandra hadn’t been a typical Aryan. She'd never believed in any of that racist crap. Her father hadn't been that bad, either, it seemed; he'd actually been trying to keep a lid on things. Or so Sandra had thought. Charmin might not want to be an Aryan, but she wouldn’t mind being Sandra Spender. So she devoted herself to becoming Sandra during the long journey to Adara Station.

Alex, meanwhile, devoted himself to exchanging coded messages with Kelly Steele at the Steele Mill. Subject: xintanite. Those messages would be of interest to the Vendorians, he thought, if there were any in the system. Alex doubted it. So did Kelly. Everyone knew they were allied with Velor, and Shalmirane was neutral.

Charmin wasn't so sure, especially after she remembered where she'd first heard the word Vendorian. It had been used on Star Trek. Not the original Star Trek, or even Star Trek: the Next Generation. There'd been an animated version in between. She found a reference in the World Brain, buried among millions of references to the real Vendorians. The ones on the show had looked more like Pacts. Just a coincidence of naming, perhaps, like the regions called Galicia in Spain and Poland.


"They have cloaking devices for ships, don't they?" Charmin asked one day.

They were on the bridge, rather than in the Wheel. Alex was strapped in, making a slight course correction. He could have made it from his console in the Wheel, but the view was better here. Or more real, at any rate: watching Diaspar and Shalmirane approach through the windows was more inspiring than watching it on a screen.

"They’re overrated," Alex opined. "You can’t hide a whole war fleet, if that's what you're thinking. And I understand the Aureans couldn’t hide a single cruiser in that business at Reigel Five."

"You mean the imperial Aureans. Not the Aryans."

"Right. The other kind don’t have any warships. Just tanks and other ground weapons, I guess."

"That's what Sandra said. Plus a few captured airplanes and missiles."

"Well, you’re Sandra now. You'd better know things like that."

"I do. But… what about the Vendorians?"

"Their weapons? They sell Klav'ens and other stuff to the Velorians. But they keep worse things for themselves. Or so I've heard."

"I meant, do the Vendorians cloak their ships?"

"If the Aureans ever found the Vauld, it would be too late for cloaking to do them any good."

"But if they had scout ships. Looking for xintanite. Or just listening for word of others finding it. They wouldn’t want to be seen."

"Not here, they wouldn't. You have to remember they’re allied with the Velorians. Anyway, they work only uninhabited systems, so it stands to reason they'd scout only uninhabited systems."

"But they used to work with the Designers."

"On the Fraul'isets, yes. But just on the designs; they weren't actually built here. And that was when the Vendorians lived and worked openly. On their own world. Before the Vauld."

"They must have seen the end coming," Charmin pointed out. "Like… your world."

She could see the pain on his face, but she persisted.

"Think how long it must have taken to plan and build the Vauld. A generation, at least. They must still be thinking ahead, preparing for every contingency. They'd have to have good intelligence. Maybe even better than the Aureans and Velorians. Maybe they still have contacts with the Designers."

"Maybe this, maybe that. You get all this from watching those 2D shows back on Earth?"

"No. It's just… those shows get you thinking a certain way."

"Well, you're way off. If there were any Vendorians near, we'd have heard from them already. You couldn't keep something like xintanite secret from them. Not for long. So forget about them. We have a deal to negotiate. We're going to have to trust Kelly on this. He's in touch with Shalmirane, using a code he won't even share with me. They'll know what to do. Before the Scalantrans get wind of the whole thing. They're the ones we have to worry about."

"But none of the Scalantrans are super, right?"

"Super shits, is all."

"Bring 'em on. I'll be your Protector. Your personal Protector."

Alex had sudden fantasies of Charmin taking bullets or beams for him. She could take on the whole bunch, he thought, more than likely. But he wasn't thinking with his brain at that moment. It was hard to think with his brain when Charmin was so near and so beautiful and so eager.

Anyway, the ship was dead on course for Adara Station. And his manhood was dead on course for her womanhood.

Things took their course, erotic and otherwise, during the remainder of their journey.

There was occasional word from Kelly as they approached their destination. So far, he'd kept a lid on things, he said. Shalmirane was cooperating in that regard.

"Have a nice vacation on station," he signaled from the Mill shortly before they docked at station. "I'm sure we'll have a lot to talk about afterwards."


Adara Station was nothing like Deep Space 9 or Babylon 5, Charmin thought. More like C. J. Cherryh's Pell Station. Only there weren't any warships in the vicinity. This was a neutral system, after all. And Adara Station existed for commerce rather than war.

There was commerce and commerce, of course. There were the bars and casinos and houses of various levels of repute that catered to miners and factory workers on leave. They were grouped, appropriately enough, in Red Section of the Great Wheel. Blue Section was for the tourists: a place of multi-star hotels, exotic restaurants and bars, fashionable boutiques and the greatest department store for a hundred light years around,

Mandi's Galactic Emporium was known for thousands of parsecs, its logo familiar from on-line catalogs and house brand apparel and other products. But it didn't ship any orders, even within its local system. It didn't have any branches, anywhere. Mandi's didn't come to you; you had to come to Mandi's.

The place was said to be owned by an actual citizen of Shalmirane. Business records were strictly confidential here, so nobody could confirm the story. But it was hardly a secret that the merchandise at Mandi's included Designer Originals with a capital D and a capital O -- items sold only here. As for the rest, it was widely boasted that if Mandi's didn't have it, it didn't exist.

This was something Charmin just had to see.

The closest place to shop anywhere near Deer Meadow had been Minnie & Moochies Dollar Store in Stevenson. You had to go some 25 miles to get to the Sears or the Wal-Mart in Hood River, and more than 30 to reach the nearest Target in Gresham -- she'd always thought Target was a lot better.

But Sandra wouldn't know about Deer Meadow, or anything much about Earth, for that matter. And she was Sandra now. Would Sandra be impressed? Of course. But not by such ordinary things as how the Circular Way gradually curved upwards before and behind them as they made their way through Blue Section.

They'd docked, of course, at Green Section; that was where all the bays and support services were located. There was also a Yellow Section, but that was closed to the general public. There the Circular Way became a tunnel, the only exits being to administrative and security offices. But here in Blue Section, it was like the main concourse of a shopping and recreational complex that must dwarf even the Mall of America.

Most of the shoppers were human, although some of these were futzed. How could the steelheads stand the implants and the reinforcing rods, she wondered. But she tried not to stare at them, or at the Scalantran traders. There were a few Indrans and false Pacts -- real Pacts couldn't live in oxygen environments -- and an occasional Womp. Rats but no cats; you didn't see kintzi anywhere outside the Empire, Alex had told her. At least, not on legitimate business.

The mix of businesses was at once like and unlike that at a Terran mall. Food courts, specialty apparel shops, toy stores, health and beauty care outlets, hair and nail salons, exercise centers. Entertainment systems and computers were pretty much the same thing, a trend already evident back on Earth. But there were also stores devoted to recreational singletons, which evidently catered to the same sort of people as motorcycles or off-road vehicles, except that off-road here meant space.

There were sex shops that advertised penis enhancement systems: were these for real, or were some of the men out here as gullible as those back on Earth? Only, there was also one shop that promised clitoris enhancement, along with breast augmentation. Charmin passed on by; she didn't need either of those.

But she paused in front of Beasties, a pet store larger than supermarkets back home. It had to be. The star attraction was billed as a breeding pair of ice bunthoks, larger than elephants and vaguely resembling the Id monster in Forbidden Planet, an old science fiction film she'd once seen on TV. Why anybody would want one, let alone a pair, she couldn’t imagine.

They didn't seem to be doing much until some kid pushed a button that apparently administered an electric shock. Then they started jumping around and making a fearsome racket, screaming at the top of their lungs and beating their fists against the plexiglass walls of their enclosure.

By design or coincidence, somebody on the store staff decided it was feeding time and dropped in some live animals -- vaguely like deer, but with patchy hair like giraffes. The bunthoks tore into them, shearing off huge chunks with their jaws and swallowing them whole. When the monsters were through, a high-pressure sprinkler system washed away the mess.

Charmin felt ashamed that she'd stayed to watch, and almost physically ill. Didn’t they have some sort of Animal Protection League here? She asked Alex. He didn't know what she was talking about. But, seeing her distress, he tried to interest her in the Istarian sand shrews. They made good pets, he said, if you tamed them young enough. And could stand the smell.

They set off again along the Circular Way. So far, it hadn't been a good day. But then the Way opened up before them, became a boulevard. And on both sides, the upper floors linked by catwalks, was Mandi's.


The first section Charmin wanted to check out was Entertainment, because the holo banner there said that it had billions of music recordings from across the Galaxy. "Most not available on the World Brain," the banner boasted. Did that include Earth?

Mandi's music section wasn't like anything she's seen back home. There were some displays of what were presumably Galactic hits, but most of the space was taken up by search terminals. There must have been at least a hundred, but she still had trouble finding a vacant one. Like a mall parking lot at Christmas, she thought.

Seated at last, she tried typing in "KoRn," and came up with a list of their albums, including one she said had come out after her abduction, Untouchables. She sampled a few of the tracks on the earphones.

"'Beat it Upright' is really awesome," she told Alex breathlessly. "Jon's vocals are amazing -- especially on 'The time is right' part. I just felt a new love for the guy. Wish I'd gotten to see him live, but there's videos of a couple of other songs. Guitar heavy and doesn't slow down once. Bass heavy too, and the drums are very good."

Alex, hating to be the spoilsport, whispered: "Is it something Sandra would buy? They track sales here."

"It's your account," she reminded him, and let him watch video clip of another KoRn song. He shook his head; his own tastes ran to folk music of various worlds. But what the hell, KoRn could be what passed for Terran folk music these days! The Scalantrans -- it had to be the Scalantrans, he supposed -- simply pirated everything indiscriminately.

Anything to please Charmin… er, Sandra. He put his credit chip in the slot, and they downloaded a whole bunch of stuff she wanted and a few things he wanted. Not so much music -- he had a pretty big collection aboard his ship -- but the latest holocubes of new worlds discovered by the Kelsorian Exploration Service. The Kelsorians always kept its new videos off the World Brain in order to collect royalties on them.

They strolled through other sections: furniture and appliances, including Shalmirane Designer Original that didn't look like desks or lamps or microwave ovens or hair dryers but were guaranteed to serve those purposes. Charmin looked at them doubtfully, and suggested they move on to apparel.

Alex had to explain the SymbWear: living garments that clung to the body and fed on sweat, dead skin and body hair -- saved wearers the trouble of shaving, that last bit. Of course, there wasn't any choice of color; they were all lichen green. Charmin wanted to buy a couple, just the same.

"Trouble is, they'd probably starve to death on you," he reminded her.

"I don't know," she said. "We sweat. Secrete skin oils."

"But no dead skin or hair. At least, none they could use."

"Maybe we could feed them table scraps."

Against his better judgment, Alex went along with Charmin again. But he had the SymbWear dresses packaged and sent back to the ship, insisting on something more conventional to change into here from her utilitarian ship clothing -- which didn’t fit right, being designed for men his own size. Alex' choice was of Aryan design, deliberately modest -- although nothing could really look modest on Charmin.

Alex was going to pass up the perfume section: how could any scent be more alluring than Charmin's own? But she held him up, started looking through men's toiletries. To her amusement, she found a cologne that purported to be Aurean Prime Musk.

"We've just got to try it," she said.

"But that's what Primes use to overcome Vels, to kill them," he pointed out. "Assuming it's for real."

"Only, you're not going to kill me, are you?" she cooed. "Except for le petit mort. And how would I know if it’s for real. I’ll just have to imagine…"

She surreptitiously brought her hand to his crotch. He was hard as a rock.

They bought the musk, locked themselves in a changing room back in apparel, and tried it out. Alex didn’t know if the Aurean scent was for real or not, but it sure did the job… He'd been afraid the sounds of their lovemaking might disturb other shoppers, or even Mandi's management. But apparently not. Maybe this happened a lot -- another eager couple was waiting to use the changing room when they came out.

It would have taken them a week to work their way through Mandi's, checking out everything from outlandish bed and bath fixtures to space scooters, which the more daring -- or foolhardy -- used for racing. Alex was hungry by this time, so they hit the nearest food court. Most of the fare was hydroponic vegetables and vat-grown meat, but there were fresh fish and seafood from the tanks (pricey) and even Shalmirane itself (pricier).

They blew some major credits on the latter -- something called trilobites, because that was what they looked like although they weren't related to the long-extinct Earthly versions. They tasted pretty much like chicken, but saltier.

After that, they hit the watering holes. The expensive ones, not the dives Alex was used to in Red Section. He'd never come here before, even when he could afford it. Alex and Piet -- they just hadn't belonged here. Alex and Charmin… They drank and listened to lounge singers and danced to whatever the music was.


They ended up at the Blue Moon, which featured Earth music, although not the kind Charmin was used to. Older stuff. Much older: blues, boogie, stride piano. []

If Alex hadn't been intoxicated by the buzz of the liquor as well as his love for Charmin, things would have gone down differently. For starters, he wouldn't have been so flippant when he was approached by the Scalantran. For enders…

The man wasn't a native Scalantran, of course. They were rarely seen off their ships. But he didn't even look like an Adopt. Just hired help, Alex figured, like most of the muscle here.

"Alex Silvstedt," was all the thug said as an opener.

"Whatever you're selling, we’re not interested," Alex responded.

"Now is that any way to treat an honest Scalantran?"

"That's a contradiction in terms."

"Oh, you're a funny one. Piet thought he was a funny one, too."

"You're about as funny as a black hole. Ever think of jumping into one?"

The Scalantran looked as if he were about to reach for something.

Charmin took his arm, held it to the table.

If he felt any pain, the thug gave no sign of it, only a questioning look.

"She works out," Alex explained. "You know how it is. Spends as much time as she can running the Wheel. Wouldn’t have much fun in normal gravity if she let herself go."

Alex felt something at his temple. He didn’t need to turn his head to figure out that it must be a second Scalantran hired thug, holding a gun.

"Let's take a little trip," the second thug suggested. "An educational trip."

Charmin looked at him, an appeal in her eyes.

"It's all right," he told her. "I think it will be very educational."

She looked at him again, puzzled but then trusting. Oh so trusting….

She let go of the first Scalantran's arm, joined Alex.

"Let's go," she said.

"She doesn’t have to come," the first Scalantran said.

"But she insists," Alex countered. "She's interested in education."

"Very interested," Charmin confirmed.


Everybody on Adara Station knew who Perry the Rodent was, but nobody wanted to meet him. Everybody knew where his headquarters were, but nobody wanted to go there. You didn’t have business with Perry, you were the business. If that were the case, you didn't want to be anywhere within a million klicks of him.

Alex didn’t have the luxury of being a million klicks away. But he didn’t have to – not with Charmin at his side. He'd come out if this all right, he figured. What he didn't quite figure was what that would mean to Charmin in the long run, even what it would mean to him if she had to expose herself here.

Perry the Rodent's office was sparsely furnished: a metal desk, metal chairs. Plain gray walls adorned with monitors, mostly showing scenes at gambling dens and houses of ill repute.

The two thugs had shown Alex and Charmin to their seats, then stationed themselves by the door. Perry blanked the monitors.

"We've heard you're looking for a new partner," he opened, without any ado.

He was morbidly obese, with a face so puffy that his eyes seemed buried in it. He had greasy black hair. He also had a severe case of body odor, which was said to result from a glandular condition rather than lack of personal hygiene. Nobody seemed to know why he hadn't had it corrected. Nobody had ever dared ask.

Alex ignored the implied threat and, as nearly as he could, the smell.

"Well, you've heard wrong," he said. "I've already got a new partner."

Perry looked at Charmin, then back at Alex.

"I'm not talking about fucking, I'm talking about business."

"She's my business partner," Alex said. "It's only fair, being that she was the one who discovered the xintanite."

Perry seemed startled, as much as his face could show it. He had apparently expected Alex to beat around the bush. And there was another reason.

"Rather precocious, isn't she?" the crime lord remarked. "She hasn't been here all that long."

"You might say that. Or you might chalk it up to beginner's luck. But chance favors the prepared mind, and her mind was very prepared."

"Xintanite is a strategic resource," Perry continued, ignoring the bit about the woman he knew as Cassandra. "We wouldn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands."

"It’s in good hands now," Alex said. "I have a shipment ready to go to the Steele mill. They’ll have to retool, of course, but that's no big deal; they can see the potential. I don't mean for the planetary market, mind you; I don’t think the good people of Shalmirane will have much use for Vendorian steel ground cars and the like. They'd rather take their cut of what the orbital shipyards will bring in."

"There aren't any orbital shipyards."

"Not yet. But there will be. And you won’t have a piece of the action. Any more than you do with the mills. Shalmirane may let you have the run of this place, but they won’t let you touch anything that's really important. No more than they'd let your stinking self set foot on their precious soil."

Perry's face turned red, but he struggled to retain his composure.

"You don't seem to like the way you're living," he remarked.

"I like it a lot. Things are looking up for us."

Alex knew he was being reckless, but he didn’t care. Charmin would come through for him. She knew about Piet. She knew about these criminals. She'd know what she had to do. His own personal Protector…

"I don't need this," Perry complained. "In fact, I don't really need the two of you."

That was the signal to the two thugs, he supposed. Alex winked at Charmin.

There were two snapping sounds, then a pair of thumps behind them. A third snap, and Perry's head exploded.

What the?

Alex and Charmin turned towards the door. There were three neat holes in it, and two dead thugs sprawled on the floor with nothing much left of their heads.

The door slid open, and a strange figure appeared. Small of stature, brightly colored like some exotic reptile. But Alex knew it wasn't a reptile. A Vendorian.

"Régime change," the stranger announced, as if that explained everything.


Vendorians weren't much for words, Alex had always heard, and the stranger was no exception.

"Not good," the stranger said. "Not good that you be here. Not good that she known to be here. But we have all in hand."

The Vendorian wore some sort of coverall, with deep pockets. He had some sort of X-ray or perhaps tachyon goggles over his eyes, and an energy pistol in his hand. Alex looked at the pistol. He couldn't recognize the make.

"Personal," the Vendorian declared. "Not for trade."

He placed the pistol in one of the pockets, which was designed like a holster to allow for easy access. He placed the goggles in another. His yellow eyes contrasted with the red and green pattern of his hairless skin.

Alex finally found his brain working again, found his tongue.

"What do you mean, you have all in hand?"

"We replace Scalantrans. Cannot allow Scalantrans around xintanite. Not good."

Charmin had been staring in wonder at the Vendorian. Alex had told her of them once, shown her pictures, but she'd never expected to meet one.

"This is one of the good guys, right?"

"One of the good guys. Relatively speaking."

The Vendorian ignored their exchange.

"Must leave here now," he said. "Let others handle refuse."

"Where to?"

"Dock Green 66. Our ship. All will be explained."

Just taking the Way through Red Section to the opposite side of the Station revealed a lot. Police – the real police – were standing watch in front of Scalantran businesses, which seemed to have suspended operations. People were milling about in confusion, or looking at the newsnet screens for an explanation.

The official story came on screen when they were about a quarter of the way to their destination. Shalmirane had canceled its contract with the Scalantran League and signed a new agreement with something called Interstellar Master Traders -- a Vendorian front, no doubt about it as far as Alex was concerned -- for management of the station.

"Shalmirane?" Alex wondered. "How?"

"All same to them," the Vendorian replied. "They have no interest in space matters. We have no interest in surface matters."

There had to be more to it than that, Alex was certain. But he didn't press the point.


The salon of the Vendorian ship was covered with starscapes and planetscapes. The planetscapes must be of Vendor, Charmin guessed. The starscapes, she imagined, were of systems that the Vauld had since visited.

She'd seen pictures of Vendorians, but never expected to meet one. She didn't believe Alex had ever expected to meet one, either. Certainly not under such circumstances. That business in the gangster's office seemed to have sobered him up. It had been serious business, and it looked as if there was more serious business to come.

Alex had been foolish to bait the gangster that way. She was a Velorian, and Velorians, other than diplomats, weren't supposed to be in this system. He'd told her more than once. He'd gone out of his way to convince everyone she was an Aryan, the only possible cover story. But he'd wanted to show her off; he couldn't help it. He'd wanted to see the look on the crime lord's face when he tried to kill her. Or, better, if she'd had to step into the line of fire to protect her mate.

But, after all, she too had wanted to see that look. Velorians were all exhibitionists, she'd learned. She was perfectly normal for her kind. For months now, she'd had only Alex to show off to. Back on Earth, it had been different. She could show off her strength and invulnerability to the Beasley boys at the shop, and they'd show their appreciation in all kinds of delicious ways. But would even the Beasley Boys have understood why she needed to make that video, to show herself off to others?

Her thoughts came back to the present. That Serious Business. She'd better leave it to Alex. Alex would know what to do -- she hoped.

"Izaht," the first Vendorian introduced himself. "Nozan," he added, gesturing towards a second who had been waiting there when they arrived. The second Vendorian had the same Spock ears as the first, but darker colored skin. She didn't know what that meant. He appeared to be calibrating some sort of instrument. Like a Tricorder, she thought.

"Please remain still," Izaht said. "Must take reading."

With that, he pulled out another weapon.

As if by instinct, she leapt in front of Alex.

"Remain still, I repeat. Only test."

With that, he shot Charmin squarely in the chest.

She was startled but unharmed -- except for her dress, which immediately caught fire.

"Are you crazy?" Alex shouted from behind her.

The Vendorian ignored Alex' outburst, addressing only Charmin.

"Not necessary protect him," Izaht said. "Make reading only on you."

The energy beam was absorbed by her breasts, which swelled in response and began to tingle with delight. But it ended too soon; the Vendorian evidently wasn't interested in pleasuring her.

Nozan showed Izaht the reading, said something in Vendorian. Izaht turned back to his guests.

"P1," he remarked. "But unenhanced. Most irregular."

Charmin had beaten out the fire by now. Her breasts were bare, and a bit smudged with soot. But the aliens ignored that. So did she.

"I'm a Protector?" she asked.

"Should be, but not," Izaht pronounced. "Problem for her. Problem for us."

"What kind of problem for you?" interjected Alex, who didn't need to be told what kind of problem Charmin would have under Velorian law.

"Must inform Vauld. Must inform Vauld Protectors. Problem."

"Why tell them about Charmin at all? It's just the xintanite you're interested in, right?"

"Xintanite, yes. Necessary. But complete reporting also necessary. Matter of custom. Matter of survival. We learn hard way."

Alex began calculating the odds.

"How long will that take? To inform the Vauld?"

"Vauld thousand, four hundred ninety eight parsecs distant. Thirty-three wormholes must be traversed. Take many months, your time."

Time enough to make a run for it, Alex thought. More than enough.

But Izaht wasn't finished.

"Too long," he said. "Must make arrangements here now. Secure position. Have grant of authority from Vauld. Vauld must allow for contingencies. Matter of custom--"

"Matter of survival." Alex filled in.

"Matter must discuss. With you. Other miners. Mills. Want you work with us. Help things go smoothly."

"But we're newcomers ourselves," Alex pointed out. "Surely you want to deal with the Miners Association… The mill factors?"

"But you discover xintanite. No one else. Maybe others find more, but you first. That mean you have potential. Potential is resource but only if refined. We refine potential; make you useful to yourself, to us. Give you fame. Give you status. Give you standing. Standing with Shalmirane. Perhaps even Velor. Fix things for companion."

Charmin didn't think Alex was convinced, and she was right.

"You sure didn't need me fronting for you to get rid of the Scalantrans," he pointed out. "Not that anybody's really going to buy that IMT thing."

"Nobody care for Scalantrans. Everyone glad to see gone. But for all else here, need friends. Need good offices. Locals not know Vendorians, be more comfortable deal with people they know. People they trust. Like you. Your idea supplant Scalantrans. You tell all that. Please not contradict."

"I can't be just be a front," Alex said. "You'll have to take my advice."

"Will trust you. Will listen to your advice. Cannot promise always to take. But will do all we can. Only way people here trust you, you trust us. Cannot afford deception… except in matter of Station régime change."

"I think we have a basis for discussion."

Charmin was so proud of Alex. Between that and the effects of the energy blast, she was getting really horny.

Nozan was taking another reading, whispered something to Izaht.

"Sensor detect odor you call 'honey and wildflowers,'" Izaht announced. "Must give you time now. Make fucky. Then discuss further."

Charmin hadn't really paid attention before, but in addition to what she took to be the Vendorian equivalent of office furniture, there was a couch. Had they anticipated…?

Her train of thought was interrupted when Izaht handed her the energy gun.

"Please use carefully," he advised her. "Not damage furnishings."


"They must have been watching us," Alex said.

"No other way Izaht could have shown up when he did," Charmin agreed,

"Watching us make fools of ourselves."

"Are they watching us now?"

"Most likely."

"But not making fools of ourselves."

"Fooling around, though."

"Should we give them a show?"

Alex had been idly fondling Charmin's breasts, but now he pinched her nipples as hard as he could, evoking gasps of pleasure.

"I think they want something more," she suggested.

"The weapon?"

"Why not? They left it for us. It felt good, but Izaht didn't use it enough."

Alex picked up the device. Not heavy duty, he thought. Maybe a K-7.

Charmin stripped off what was left of her dress, posed standing for whatever hidden cameras there might be before disporting herself on the couch. Alex drank in her beauty from head to toe, while wondering if the Vendorians were tracking his eye movements. Could they track how hard his cock was growing?

"Don't just look," Charmin urged him. "Fire away."

"Not damage furnishings," Izaht had said. He'd try to be careful. He aimed the weapon at the center of her chest and pressed the stud.

The beam struck between her breasts. Alex remembered that first time, aboard his ship, with the welding laser. She'd been unconscious then; he'd been afraid she might never awaken. But today she was gloriously alive, sighing with pleasure as the energy of the beam was absorbed by her golden Velorian flesh.

He carefully played the beam back and forth across her breasts, which grew before his eyes as they turned red hot, the nipples like cherries on an exotic dessert. They gradually cooled as he set the weapon aside, but when he brought his hands near he could still feel the heat. Like a radiator. Twin radiators. He tentatively touched one. Hot, but not too hot. Like a roast fresh from the oven.

But Charmin's breasts tasted nothing like a roast. Alex suckled them greedily, sucked the hot cherries into his mouth and bit them.

"Koodor," she urged him, and he assailed them like a sex-crazed predator, biting and munching and ravishing. He had this crazy fantasy of a bunthok attacking her, trying to swallow her whole, only to choke on her invulnerable body. But he didn't think a bunthok would evoke the sounds of ecstasy that came from her now, came as she came.

There was a small pool of her nectar on the couch, between her legs. Did that count as "damage?" Probably not!

But it did remind him that he'd have to be more careful using the weapon in that area. Could he aim it at her tunnel of love without…

Charmin, sensing his concern, took the weapon from him -- took it into herself.

Oh Skietra, he thought as she pressed the stud, as the energy coursed into her. There was a small puff of steam as the beam vaporized her juices. She arched in pleasure as her labia and clitoris took on a rosy glow. She shuddered and screamed with multiple orgasms, but never lost her grip on the weapon.

As a matter of fact, she crushed it in her excitement.

She basked in the afterglow for a few moments, then looked at Alex with yearning in her eyes.

"Forn'tu!" she cried out.

"Is it safe?"

Her answer to that was only a broad smile. Still, he hesitated.

She arose from the couch, took him in her arms, threw him down on the couch, and leaped on top of him.

"Forn'tu!" she said again. And "Kai tamoor'sk!"

His eyes were fixed on hers, then moved lower, as inch by delicious inch she used her womanhood to engulf his manhood. Somehow she had timed it nearly to the second: she felt incredibly hot, but not hot enough to harm him.

Alex came instantly; the thought of being where the Vendorian weapon had just been was too erotic. But he remained hard, and now they began to fuck in earnest. She sat up as she rode him, to give him a clear view of her breasts. He squeezed them and mauled them, even as he thrust against her. She raised herself a bit off the couch, making it easier for him to fuck her as she fucked him.

They fucked and fucked and came and came and came.

"Kai tamoor'sk!" they cried to each other again and again -- first loudly and then, in the afterglow, softly.


"Izaht showed up just in time," Alex said afterwards, after they'd finally come down, after they were able to think rationally again. "Suppose we'd killed Perry."

"We wouldn't have killed him. Just scared him."

"But suppose we had. What then? Kill the rest of the Scalantrans? Tell Shalmirane we wanted to take over their contract? Tell them one of us is a Protector, in a system where Protectors have no business?"

"But I'm not. Not really. Izaht said--"

"Tell it to Shalmirane. Tell them it won’t bring the war here."

"But the Vendorians work with the Velorians. So won't their being here…?"

"Maybe they have a way around that. I don’t think they’ve shown all their cards yet. I don’t think they're fools, either."

"Are we fools?"

"Not any more... I hope.

It was at that moment that Izaht returned, with four others of his kind.


"Branch committee of the Vauld," Izaht explained. "Empowered to negotiate."

The other Vendorians -- introduced as Amokut, Mokoce, Teirat and Ualoce -- looked similar to Izaht, except that the skin of the females (distinguished by the names ending in e) came in various shades of blue and yellow. Skin color was their only secondary sexual characteristic.

"Must deal with Shalmirane. With factors. With miners," Izaht opened.

"The first thing you'd better deal with is that this is a neutral system," Alex reminded him. "Shalmirane has to know that you're allies of the Enlightenment. I'm amazed that you even managed to get the Station contract."

"Promise no violation. No Protectors. No warships, unless Shalmirane want for own use, own control."

"I don't think they're going to want warships. Unless the Aureans start getting antsy. You’re going to have to watch them. Or have them watched. They'll give themselves away if they're going to make a move, most likely. As for the rest, what about Charmin?"

"Not from Velor. Not go through Rites. Not violation. Can still be useful in danger. But must not be revealed."

"I'm going to be Supergirl, with a secret identity?" Charmin chimed in.

"Something like," Izaht assured her.

But that issue was cut short as Alex thought of another problem.

"What about the Scalantrans?" he asked. "They aren’t going to be too happy with you. Maybe not with the Enlightenment, either."

"Build new trading ships here. Best Vendorian steel. Invite Kelsorians install QED modules, keep in stock. Create hub for construction, refit and repair. Scalantrans happy. Kelsorians happy. Shalmirane happy for share of profits. But must first invest in mills. Buy out factors."

"You'll do no such thing," Alex objected. "Kelly Steele's a good man. So are the most of the other factors. You'll offer to buy minority shares. Forty-nine percent tops. They have a skilled labor force, and you're going to need it. Your capital can go to build the shipyards, a lot faster than they'd otherwise be built. And by the time they're ready, the workers will be too. Everybody wins."

"Could bring own workers."

"Could bring big trouble. Even if you aren't going to be building warships, you want to keep a low profile here. You don't want to make the Aureans nervous, which is just what you'll be doing if you have thousands of Vendorians running around. And why cause labor unrest here? Especially when the Vauld must be working overtime right now."


"They've been on a crash program for more warships, ever since that raid on the home system a dozen years ago. They can't get them from Binkley's World any more, and that means they've got to get them from you. More work than you can handle, maybe, unless you renege on some of your civilian contracts. That won't make the Scalantrans happy. Or the Kelsorians, or the Pacts or the false Pacts or anybody else."

"How you know this?"

"I'm just guessing. But I'm pretty sure I'm right. I'm also pretty sure you have agents like yourselves scouting out other places like this, ready to move in if there's any word of xintanite. You can't call yourselves a 'branch committee' and have anybody here believe that you're just a bunch of tourists."

"Time for truth," Izaht said abruptly. "Truth as you say. Investment terms and all else as you say. Already determined by us. But need to know you can make right choices, same as us. You represent us, make right choices when we not here. Must sign pact with Shalmirane ourselves. But you carry out in our stead. Same for agreements with factors, Miners Association."

"The Association?"

"Subcontract Red Section business operations to them. Bars and whorehouses of no interest to us. Look bad for patrons to see us running same. Revenues accrue to beneficial fund. Also, give preference to independents in xintanite claims. Allocate to them asteroids where xintanite most likely found. Combines get small rocks as before. Supply ordinary steel for shipyard structures, ship interiors."

Charmin was wondering what her role was going to be in all this. But mostly, she was full of admiration for her man. He could think on his feet, she saw. He'd won them over. But as he and the Vendorians wound up their discussions, one of the latter -- the female named Mokoce -- approached her with a package.

"Gift," Mokoce said. "Replace lost dress."

Charmin had actually forgotten she was naked. There hadn't been enough left of that dress from Mandi's to be worth putting on again.

She thanked Mokoce, opened the package. The material was white, but somehow shimmery. Also seamless, although it was like a tank top and pantyhose all in one. She had to step into it, pull it up over her legs, then her chest. As she did so, it began to cling to her, like a second skin. It also turned a golden yellow.

"Velorian mood dress, pure chal'mar," Mokoce explained. "Shows you happy now."

She was. She was happy.

She wanted to show it off to Alex, but Izaht was headed for the door with him.

"Need long-term relationship," she heard the Vendorian tell him. "Please come. One further thing required."

Some document to sign, she thought. But he'd be back soon.

The mood dress starting flashing around her breasts and hips in a kaleidoscope of colors. She hadn't expected that, hadn’t expected it to reveal that she was already feeling horny again.

That show they'd put on before. Kind of like what she'd done with the Beasley boys back on Earth. They'd understood that it was all innocent fun. She'd been so innocent then. She could never be that innocent again. But she could be happy.

Was that why she'd been content with Alex? Why she hadn't felt the need for a male harem, like back in Deer Meadow? She'd loved the Beasley boys; they were best buddies, and so understanding of her needs, so affectionate. But she loved Alex in a deeper way…


Izaht had led Alex down a corridor, shown him another door, indicated that he should go in. So he had.

It was only an empty room. No furnishings. No wall screens. Nothing.

What the hell?

Alex tried to leave. The door was locked.

Then the lights went out.

He yelled, pounded on the door. There was no response.

Absolute silence.

But then he sensed another presence in the room.

He hadn’t seen another door, but doors were easy to hide. He still didn’t hear anything. So how?

Then it came to him: the faint scent of honey and wildflowers.

But Charmin was… and they'd just…

The scent grew stronger. There was something else in the air, too, something he could not identify but something even more compelling.

Two arms reached out of the darkness to enfold him, then forced him to kneel, brought his face to the source of the pheromones, forced his mouth against…

His mind wanted to fight back, but his body refused to obey. He found his mouth on an invisible clit, sucking greedily. He heard a female voice moaning softly. He felt a spasm as the woman came in his mouth, the taste of her juices driving him mad, making him long to…

But then she was gone, as silently as she had entered.

After a few minutes, the lights came back on.

A few moments more, and the door opened.

"Please excuse," Izaht said. "Matter of necessity."

Then he handed Alex a wet wipe.

"Best remove scent," the Vendorian advised.


Alex had been reluctant to tell Charmin what happened. But a day later, back at their hotel, the evidence had become too clear to ignore.

She was angry. Not with Alex. With the Vendorians. Even the Velorians.

Alex was feverish. She knew what that meant. So did he. There was no use calling for a doctor, checking into a hospital. The process was irreversible. It would run its course. He would either die, or become something beyond human.

She'd read about enhancement. She knew how it was done, and she knew she had never done it. It had to be without gold, and she'd never made love without gold. It was something that had to be learned in any case. Like flying in space. Perfect control of her body -- for in enhancement, any loss of control could be deadly.

Alex had never asked her for it, never even asked her about it. But she asked him now.

"Of course I thought about it," he said. "But it was unworthy. You'd given me so much already. And there was always the chance that you'd kill me, or that it would kill me. It's very dangerous, you know."

"I know," she said. Then, after a pause, "If you die, they die."

"Don't," Alex pleaded. "There's too much at stake. For the miners. For the factors. And they have a Protector on board. Illegally, but they have her. You could never stand against her. She'd kill you in a moment. They have some hold over her, or this is very important to Velor, or both. She wouldn't have done it otherwise; it's against their law and tradition."

"Was it against their law and tradition when they kidnapped me?" she retorted hotly. "When they left me to die?"

"I still can't explain that," he admitted.

"Maybe you're too trusting. Can we trust them now? Can we trust the Vendorians?"

"What other choice do we have?"

She pondered that. She was Velorian born. Only a Supremis, Alex had told her, could wear the chal-mar dress, Ordinaries could not supply the energy required by the organic self-repairing molecules of the material, and it would reject them.

But it was Charmin who now felt rejected, who felt powerless. She could see through walls, dive through asteroids, fly in space, bathe in molten steel. But in what was happening now, she had no power. No choice.

The mood dress reflected her inner turmoil, shifting from red to mauve to pale blue and deeper blue, even to nearly black, then back to red. There was no hint of yellow. Not for a week.


Alex didn't die, although he felt as if he'd come damn close to it.

When he came to, Kelly Steele was standing there beside Charmin.

Kelly was a stocky man with a round face, a broad smile and a bushy beard to make up for most of his hair on top being gone. He was one of the richest men in the system, but he disdained any show of wealth. He usually wore work clothes, as he did now

"I told you we'd have a lot to talk about," he said.

"You were right," Charmin added, "You can't hide anything like xintanite from the Vendorians. You were also right about Kelly. He knew what to do -- including sending Izaht after us and shutting down the Scalantrans when word leaked to Perry."

They indeed had a lot to talk about. It was Kelly who had insisted that the Vendorians needed Alex as much as they needed him. They needed to have miners on board; it wasn't enough to have the factors. Izaht and the rest had been skeptical.

"Talk to him," Kelly had told them. "You'll see."

They had. They did.

"I couldn't warn you, of course," Kelly said now. "Your reactions had to be spontaneous."

"Was the enhancement your idea, too?"

"No, In fact, they didn't even tell me about it. Until afterwards. And when I asked them about it, they just told me about the necessity of long-term relationships."

"Could have ended up very short term."

"Not according to their bioscans. They're very thorough about things like that."

"And they brought, you know… just to?"

"Don't flatter yourself. They just look to their own Protection on missions like this."

"Don't leave home without one," Charmin chimed in. She seemed to have adjusted to the situation, now that it was a fait accompli.

"Still, they put you through some real pain. Hell, I put you through some real pain, much as it was necessary. So now I think it’s time for some sham pain."

With that, he presented a bottle. Charmin opened it; a tight cork was hardly a challenge for her. Further conversation took place over champagne.


The contracts had already been worked out, naturally. With Shalmirane, with the factors, with the miners. There were a few I's to be dotted and T's to be crossed, but it was basically a done deal. Alex and Charmin were on hand for the formal ceremonies, which were very public. Then came the task of putting the new system into operation, which was considerably less so.

Alex was a celebrity by this time, having been credited in the newsnets with not only discovery of the system's first xintanite but approaching the Vendorians for investment capital. Just how he had managed this was never made clear, but business matters rarely were. As for the xintanite, he always credited Sandra Spender. Few believed him.

They leased office space at Adara Station as Silvstedt & Spender Partners -- the Vauld was a silent partner, very silent. Silvstedt & Spender was, of course, just one component of an incredibly complex set of interlocking joint ventures between the Vauld and the mill factors, the Vauld and Adara Station, the Vauld and the Miners Beneficial Association, and Shalmirane itself.

Alex and Charmin didn’t spend much time at the office. They were too busy. Seeing to the construction of the first shipyard next to the Steele Mill. Seeing to the reform of Red Section, a fair deal for the working girls and others there as well as for the miners. Seeing to the search for other asteroids that harbored xintanite. They worked with Izaht to set up a Policy Board representing all the partners to handle everyday business and legal matters.

Meanwhile, they did some of the exploration themselves. Charmin could find deposits up to a kilometer inwards with her tachyon vision, and dive to any depth to pursue her search further. They'd always manage to come up with some rationalization for her finds, and since Alex assigned his claims to the Miners Beneficial Association and let it hold a lottery for the rights, nobody became suspicious.

There was another reason they traveled to the far reaches of the Shalmirane system: it was only here that they could find true privacy, only here that they could be themselves. As far Shalmirane and Adara Station and the factors and the miners were concerned, they were Ordinaries from Binkley's World and Reigel Five. They were not Protectors.

There were a few occasions when they could use their powers to rescue people, to save lives. But it was always risky; they had to be able offer other explanations, and hope that nobody would see through them. Izaht had supplied them a Kelsorian device for editing the memories of those rescued and any witnesses who refused to be sworn to silence. It was used sparingly, but it was used.

Matter of necessity, as Izaht would say, yet it still troubled them. But they could forget that out here, far away from everywhere else, communing only with themselves and the universe. Only here could they make love in space without fear of discovery. No more space suit, no more jetpack. Charmin took care of the flying now.

They'd pause whenever the spirit moved them, hold hands or take each other in their arms, spinning slowly as the stars and planets revolved around them. They could even speak to each other. Izaht had procured devices, perhaps of Velorian origin, that allowed for that. Their two components that, pressed against the lovers' vocal cords and eardrums, could transmit and receive a semblance of speech.

When they were ready, and it never took long, Charmin would take Alex into herself: another connection. Their minds and bodies were connected, and both were connected with the universe itself. They felt a sense of infinite peace together. Yet the universe was a savage and violent place, a place of exploding stars and colliding galaxies, things more terrible than even the great war of Velor and Aurea. And the universe did not love, was not amenable to love.

So Alex and Charmin did what the universe could not: loved furiously, passionately. Only they could hear and heed the words: Forn'tu! Koodor!

Afterwards, they would talk about the universe, of the journeys they might yet make together. If only…


Alex and Charmin had worked for the Vauld for seven years, but they'd never seen it before. They couldn't really see it even now; it was too vast. All they could make out as they approached was the immense mother ship of the gypsy fleet, docked at the hub of a vast structure called the Rudà-vauld, which meant something like "Fleet Complex."

A series of spokes radiated outward from the hub for dozens of kilometers in nearly every direction, and there were spokes connecting the spokes. Where the spokes met, the Nodes, were lodged the daughter ships that housed most of the Vendorian population, which numbered close to a million.

They could all be part of an extended family here, but in case of attack the daughter ships could break free of the Nodes, scatter in random directions, let the mother ship and the other warships hovering in the vicinity do their work. Meanwhile, they could travel freely through the spokes, and commute by a fleet of shuttles to the mines and factories of the local asteroids. The mother ship had enough power to keep the Rudà-vauld as close as possible to the center of industrial operations.

Alex and Charmin weren't supposed to know where the Vauld was, except that it was a system otherwise uninhabited. They'd been tranked for the last three wormhole transits. Matter of security, they'd been informed. Either of them could have worked it out from stellar observations, but they respected the wishes of the Vendorians -- and the Velorians. They were here, too: Protectors, diplomats, even guest workers for the most dangerous jobs at the factories and shipyards.

The summons had been a complete surprise.

The Vendorians had left Shalmirane soon after the regime change; all but Izaht, who represented them on the Policy Board and mostly saw to the accounts: credit transfers to the factors, the miners and the distant Vauld. When the first of the new Vendorian steel trading vessels began leaving the yards, there were a lot more credits to transfer. Izaht had visitors from time to time. They kept an even lower profile than himself. They brought reports and carried reports. Until the day one brought something else.

Alex and Charmin were mystified. Was this an emergency, some change of policy? The messenger hadn't said, nor had anyone else aboard the Vendorian ship that conveyed them here.

They were brought before some sort of convocation of Vendorians and Velorians, in the meeting hall of the mother ship: the largest ship in the Galaxy, if Alex was any judge, and the strongest -- a hull of the highest grade Vendorian steel, ten meters thick, bristling with klav'ens.

No emergency, no change of policy, Alex and Charmin were told. Quite the contrary. The Vauld had received reports on them. Good reports. Only good reports. The leaders if the Vauld simply wanted to meet them, to honor them for their good work. So honored they were. Endless introductions, endless exchanges of greetings, then a gala banquet.

At least there won’t be speeches, Alex thought, Vendorians aren't much for speeches.

He hadn’t reckoned on the Velorians….

He met some of the Protectors afterwards: Johr'dan, Cher'ee, Nov'ayen, Kaimil'jar. All statuesque blondes like Charmin, but with longer hair. All in the red and blue uniforms. They greeted him warmly, but none gave him any sign of recognition. There was, of course, no way he could have recognized the one responsible for his enhancement. She might not even be posted here any more. Still, he couldn’t help looking, and wondering….

But then one of the Vendorian dignitaries -- Amokot, once a member of the branch committee -- took him aside, said he wanted to talk about mining and metallurgical technology. The Vauld could supply better technology than anything in the Shalmirane system, increase extraction of xintanite, production of Vendorian steel. More shipyards. More ships. Matter of necessity.

So that's what this is all about, he thought. Another régime change coming. Only in the industrial régime this time.

This was going to take a while. A long while.

During the course of their technical discussion, Amokot dropped another bombshell.

"Cannot always remain at Shalmirane, you and companion," the Vendorian said. "Lack of aging attract too much notice. Must prepare Policy Board to assume duties, following technological upgrade. Serve elsewhere afterwards. With Vauld. Or Enlightenment."

"With the Enlightenment? But Charmin?"

"We fix. We insist. When time come."


While Alex was engaged with Amokot, Charmin had been wondering about another matter. She approached one of the Protectors, more or less at random, posed her question.

"This isn’t Velor," Cher'ee said. "Things are different out here. There are things that the High Council doesn't understand. So we don't tell the High Council about them. We don't put them in our reports. You will not be in our reports. Neither will Alex."

"Even though I'm still an illegal person? Even though he was illegally enhanced?"

"As for the latter, it is another of the things the High Council doesn't understand and never could. The decision was made here. Because the Vauld needed it. Because we need the Vauld. For their ships. For their weapons. They may not be enough. Machines alone cannot win this war. But we are lost without them. In any case, the matter will never be reported. Not by us, and not by you. Do you understand?"

Charmin nodded.

"As for yourself… Well, let me tell you a story. There was a young woman I met back on Reigel Five. Velorian born, a P1 like yourself, destined to be a Protector. She refused the rites, fled the system -- never mind why, never mind where. Years later, I met her by chance -- never mind when, never mind where. It was my duty to report her, even to capture her if I could. I did neither. And she was an outlaw by choice, not an innocent victim. Have I made myself clear?"

"Nixonic" Charmin said. "That was what my mother used to call it, after a president who always said he wanted to make things 'perfectly clear.' Only he did a lot of stupid and illegal things, and after a while it was perfectly clear that he was done for."

Cher'ee nodded, only half understanding,

"I want to send a message," Charmin suddenly told her. "To Earth."

"Earth is not my posting," Cher'ee answered. "And never likely to be."

"Do you know the Protector there?"

"I've never met her. Nor am I likely to."

"But you could send a Messenger," she insisted.

And, after a pause: "I claim Koral'ing."

"One does not claim Koral'ing. It is only granted. And in this case, it already has been."

Involuntarily, Charmin thought. Not that it matters any more.

"But not to me. And I discovered the xintanite. I know how vital it is to the Vendorians. To the Enlightenment. To you."

"Suppose I were to grant your wish. What would your message then be? That you have become a great heroine, a savior of the Enlightenment? Would you want the whole world to be told, knowing that it isn’t even meant to know about us?"

"No, just a private message. To some people in Deer Meadow. Where I came from. My mother, Ingrid Lynch. My friends the Beasleys. Chad and Lance and Travis."

"And what would you say to them?"

"That I'm alive. That I'm well. That I'm happy."