By Brantley Thompson Elkins
Everybody thought it was a joke when they assigned the Twins here. But nobody thought it was funny.
We'd just been liberated from Aurean occupation a couple of years before, and it had been bad, really, really bad. We were still cataloguing the mass graves and had barely begun to turn them into proper cemeteries. Most of the planet remained without permanent power and the industrial base was a joke. Sure, we had stuff to eat, but few would call it food -- had to make do with mostly enriched soy until we could reclaim more agricultural land and get more diverse crops into the ground.
The thing is, we were working our tails off trying to get Jordan's Hope back into shape, worrying about a possible counterattack by the Empire -- not a chance, said the Fleet, but we only half believed them -- and the Twins didn't seem to be taking anything seriously. They acted as if this were some sort of resort and they were on R&R.
Okay, so this is an open world. Always was, even before the occupation. And maybe things have laxed up on Velor since this Theel'dara Initiative. But Protectors should at least observe the formalities, look like theyre here for business -- have some proper headquarters, wear the proper uniforms.
Bar'bi and Bam'bi -- where do they get these names? -- lived in the once and future capital of Clear Lake, batching in part of an old Aurean barracks that passed for a hotel because we didnt have anything better. They went around in matching bikinis all the time, showing off the tans they got from diving in the sun, shopping or taking in the sights -- such as they were. Smiling at passers by.
That was what galled a lot of us. Galled me, for sure. We'd all lost family and friends during the occupation, lost more in the liberation. I'd had a wife once. Gone. Children, too. All but one gone. And here the Twins were acting as if nothing had happened.
We didn't have time for fun and games. Work, work, work. Housing was short, what with the enemy having blasted so much of the city before they pulled out. Some people were still living in tents; as fast as we could, we were moving them by lot into new homes of rough concrete: nothing much to look at, but they kept out the rain. We fixed up any old houses that could still be fixed up; the original owners (if still living) got them back -- but they had to take in boarders assigned by the Reconstruction Authority.
We'd have gotten everybody out of the tents a lot sooner. But even housing took second place to food and power.
We had to decontaminate farmland, cleanse poisoned water supplies. The Enlightenment had supplied genetically-modified microorganisms to handle that. They'd also sent frozen embryos and artificial wombs, but we couldnt use most of them at the beginning because livestock needs something to graze on, and soybeans came first. Other crops came second, and they were grown mostly in back yard vegetable gardens in those early years. Meat came third, but we produced some anyway, just to provide a taste of things to come.
Windmills and solar panel farms. We had to build them, set them up, string power lines. The Enlightenment sent templates for the components, and we had to manufacture them in makeshift plants powered by biomass generators. They were smoky and inefficient, but they were all we had. We melted down abandoned Aurean military materiel and anything else we could scavenge for the power systems. Ditto for the cable. Once we had electricity, we could build other things.
We had to put it all together. We had a planet to put back together. When we weren't in the field, we were in the new Government House -- another ugly structure of rough concrete -- hashing out plans and priorities.
And what were the Twins doing?
I'm not saying they didn't do their jobs. It's the way they did them.
Take the day that ice bunthok got loose.
Chan Davies had been offworld when the invasion struck, and had struck it rich trading with the Scalantrans during the occupation. He'd brought the animal home with him after the liberation, parked it at his estate a few miles outside Clear Lake, where he'd built himself a mansion, almost a palace. We didn't have anything against that; the guy had put a lot of his personal fortune into the reconstruction effort, after all, and we were grateful for that.
Still, we thought the bunthok was a stupid idea. Jordan's Hope just doesn't have the right climate for an arctic creature, at least not anywhere near Clear Lake, and the environment was bound to aggravate the beast's temper, which was none too good to begin with. Plus, we didn't like the idea of him buying up a lot of the local meat supply to satisfy the thing's appetite -- meat being so scarce.
Well, Chan thought he had the bunthok penned up pretty well, but we figured something was bound to go wrong. Sure enough, it did.
If you've never seen a bunthok, they're huge -- nearly twice the size of a Terran elephant, with mouths big enough to swallow domestic animals whole, although their usual thing is to tear off huge chunks with short but very muscular clawed forelimbs. Their guts can expand to digest their prey, kind of like snakes, only they look nothing like snakes.
Bam'bi and Bar'bi got word on their cell phones, and went out to intercept the runaway, which had already eaten its way through several farm animals and a few pets on the way to town. They caught up with it, or it caught up with them, at a recreation area on the outskirts. It was rather barren then; our crew was busy planting shrubs and seedlings.
Some of the townspeople had followed the Twins, and watched what went down from a discreet distance. Bart and I and the rest of our men retreated to the same discreet distance as soon as we realized what was going down.
Anyway, the Twins marched right up to the bunthok. Since it had never encountered any Velorians before, it had to figure they were food. Barm'bi and Bar'bi had to figure the same way, only to them it was all a big joke.
"You think it's hungry?" Bam'bi asked.
"Yeah, I really think so," said Bar'bi. "How about you go first?"
Bam'bi stepped forward; although she had her back to us, we could tell she was thrusting her chest at the creature, as if bunthoks were interested in such things. Sure enough, it made its move -- one of its forelimbs, as fast as a frog's tongue, grabbed her and began stuffing her body head-first into its maw,
You almost had to feel sorry for the bunthok, as it labored fruitlessly to dismember her invulnerable body with its razor-sharp claws, and its equally razor-sharp teeth ineffectually chomped on her head and chest. Several of those teeth soon broke against her incredible Velorian flesh.
With a howl of pain and rage, the bunthok disgorged Bam'bi. She landed on her feet next to Bar'bi.
"Better get him to a dentist," she opined.
"Needs a shot of novocaine," Bar'bi responded. "Only we don't have any. So ."
Bar'bi floated up besides the raging beast.
"Bad bunthok," she said as she gave it a knockout punch.
I figured they could have done that in the first place.
"Eeewww," she said to Bam'bi, after landing back beside her. "Talk about bad breath!"
"Yeah, guess I better get cleaned up," Bam'bi agreed. "And get a new outfit. But first "
Her bikini had been a casualty of the operation, but she wasn't the least bit embarrassed as she and Bar'bi trotted back to the crowd to take their bows, after doing a victory dance like a couple of scrumbles players whose team had just won the world cup. Indeed, Bam'bi was even more brazen than her twin; she got really high on proving that one of the deadliest creatures in the universe hadn't left a scratch or a bruise on her magnificent body.
But because the Twins did everything together, Bar'bi tore off her own bikini, prancing gloriously naked before the crowd.
"Hey, anybody want to join us in the pond?" she asked.
Bart and I had just finished working on that pond the other day. It had taken two years for the tailored bacteria to undo what the Aureans had done to it. A swimming and boating pond wasn't exactly a necessity, but the R.A, figured we needed a few social luxuries or we'd go crazy. We could raise fish there, too. That was a major consideration. We hadn't planned on a grand opening for another month; we were waiting on the boats. But it was out of our hands now.
Most of the crowd made a beeline for the pond, and were soon frolicking with each other and with the Twins. Bam'bi and Bar'bi were letting any guy who wanted to grope them. I guess none of them could have gone all the way, because they weren't wearing gold. But I expect a lot of bodily fluids were added to the water that day. We watched in embarrassment for a few minutes, then headed home. Didn't look like we were going to get any more work done that day; our crew was otherwise occupied.
The only good thing that came out of it, I thought, was that Davies got rid of the bunthok.
It went like that for the next several years. Nothing changed as far as the Twins' antics were concerned. If anything, they became even more outrageous. But we sort of got used to it after a while. Like I said, they did their jobs.
One day, there was a fire in the old music hall. We hadn't decided yet whether to tear the place down or repair it. Culture wasn't exactly a priority then, nobody had time to practice -- even if we'd had proper instruments. Canned music would have to do for now. Meanwhile, the building had been declared unsafe and boarded up, but that didn't keep a bunch of kids from sneaking in with mischief on their minds.
Yeah, they set fire to some of the furniture and it got out of hand -- two of them were trapped. When the rest raced out to cry for help, Bam'bi and Bar'bi were the first to respond -- good thing; we had only one fire truck, manned by volunteers. The Twins got the kids out, no problem. But since the engine hadn't gotten there yet, they went right back in to deal with the fire -- blowing it out with their super-breath, beating it out with their hands, rolling it out with their bodies.
At least the kids had been sent home or to the doctor by the time the Twins emerged. Their clothes burned off, they were wearing nothing but soot and ash. The fire truck had arrived by then, so Bam'bi and Bar'bi invited the brigade to hose them down. The fire captain nixed that, but let them have some damp towels -- with which they proceeded to wipe themselves off very slowly and very lasciviously.
"Mmm, that feels so good," moaned Bam'bi.
"I think I'm getting horny," Bar'bi chimed in.
"Anybody want to come home with us?"
"We'll go for the gold if you go for us."
They'd been taking guys home all along, everybody knew that, only their invitations had generally been more private. Oddly enough, a lot of the men who got lucky -- there were reportedly a few women, too -- never bragged about it much. Some didn't talk about it at all, but you could tell from the light in their eyes and the smiles on their faces and the spring in their steps. One other thing: whatever their jobs were, they always seemed to do them better.
We figured wed seen everything in front of the music hall that day, but we hadn't seen anything yet. Having saved the building, the Twins decided that it ought to be restored and put back to use. There was nothing in the R.A. budget for that, so they started a lottery, sold the tickets themselves. You can guess what the prizes were.
"Bring back the music, and make music with us," Bam'bi would coo.
"Pick the winning number and soothe our savage breasts," Bar'bi would add, showing them to passers by and inviting them to cop a feel.
Except for the sample feels, they made clear, the freebies were over -- at least for all but a few favored steadies. The tickets sold like crazy.
If wed tried to impose a levy for the music hall, people would have screamed -- they still had little enough as it was, although at least we'd gotten them all out of the tents by then and had basic services up and running. But now they seemed willing to contribute to a worthy cause. That's how they put it. Anyway, the money flowed in over the next two years, and it was all put to good use.
Bart and I did a lot of the work on the building, repairing the roof, plastering and painting inside. Meanwhile, there was a search for surviving instruments and people who could play them; what we couldn't find here, we sent offworld for, now that we had the funding. There was a talent search for singers and dancers, talk of pop concerts, musicals, opera and ballet.
Somebody started up an Arts Society to support everything from painting and sculpture to architecture. Somebody else started a literary society. People contributed to those, too, even though there weren't any prizes. There was a budding theater company that performed in Clear Lake Park -- and on the Net for the benefit of outlying settlements, now that we could afford home entertainment centers. It was a welcome variation on imported holos.
Maybe there wasn't a specific moment, but looking back we realized that we had turned a corner. You could see the change in people, now that they had decent housing, a decent diet and other amenities. They were no longer living on the hard edge of necessity. Their souls were hungry because their bodies were fed.
Not that everything was highbrow. There was a scrumbles league starting up, and talk of an agricultural fair.
Sure I bought lottery tickets. It really was for a good cause. I even had a winning number near the end, but I gave the ticket to Bart. He was already 21, but he didnt have a girlfriend. I was worried about him. A guy has to be worried about his son.
He was still feeling survivor guilt I knew; his younger siblings had all been killed the day of the invasion, when the Aureans bombed the Central Elementary School. Unlike me, when Marisa was killed, he didn't the least deserve it. There was nothing he could have done. All I'd have to had to do was sign my name to their handover document.
Bart didn't want to take the ticket at first.
"You won it fair and square," he said. "You deserve some fun."
I didn't think I did. But I didn't want to say that, and I certainly didn't want to say why.
"I can't," I told him. "I just can't."
I tried to make out that I just didn't like the Twins, that I didn't approve of their life style. It took a while to convince him, and I'm not sure he ever was convinced, really.
Bart came back from his all-nighter trying ineffectively to hide his pride and joy in having lost his virginity to a pair of Velorian goddesses. I was afraid for a while that might turn out to be a bad thing, that he might become fixated on them. But before long, he took up with a local girl, and they have a daughter now. She came after the dedication of the music hall, and after what came after that.
The opening night concert was sold out, naturally, but people could catch it worldwide on the Net. We never did have that big a population, Jordan's Hope being a third generation Enlightenment colony. -- 15 million or so, mostly scattered in rural farming and fishing communities. Nearly all of them were watching.
The program was supposed to be light music, and that was how it started out. But we'd heard there was going to be some kind of surprise. There'd been hushed conversations and secret rehearsals. We didn't know what was up; we could have found out, but we didn't want to spoil it for the composer and for the singers who'd worked so hard.
It was listed on the program only as "Encore."
We were all surprised when Bam'bi and Bar'bi appeared on stage. For the first time ever, they wore formal gowns rather than skivvies or nothing. We thought they were there just to introduce the encore. But instead they stepped behind two music stands at center stage, and a full chorus followed them from the wings to take their places behind them as the chamber orchestra entered the pit.
"This work is entitled 'Out of the Ashes,' and it's about us," the conductor said, and that was all he said before he turned to the chorus and signaled with his baton to begin.
And it was about us, oh God, it was all about us: the hopes our forefathers had brought to this world and what they had wrought with those hopes, the terror of the invasion and the occupation, the tempered relief of our deliverance and the grim determination to rebuild. The music seemed to flow naturally from pastoral to dissonant to martial to elegiac. And the voices, the voices .
Bam'bi and Bar'bi were operatic sopranos. We'd never known that. They introduced each theme of the oratorio before it was elaborated by the chorus, leading up to the triumphant finale, "Joy we knew before, joy we shall know again."
As the final notes sounded, as the voices faded, there was stunned silence in the hall. But the performers could see the silent tears on our cheeks, sense the catharsis behind our faces, for they were feeling the same thing, Applause could mean nothing, applause might even be a travesty at this time and in this place.
The composer, we later learned, was Brion Johns. He'd been a wedding singer before the invasion, and had taken up that career again as soon after the liberation as people were up for weddings -- he sang for Bart and Jincy. He'd even composed a few songs. Yet we would never have imagined that he had an oratorio in him. Only, we were finding that a lot of us had things in ua we'd never have imagined.
It was a week or two after the concert that I found the Twins on my doorstep. Bart was out working that day.
"Bart told us about you," Bam'bi said. "About the ticket."
"He shouldn't have."
"He didn't want to, but we're very persuasive," Bar'bi responded.
"He's worried about you," Bam'bi continued.
"What did he say?"
"That you've never been with a woman since the occupation," Bar'bi said.
"We'd always wondered why a man who used to be planetary president would settle for heading a work crew now," Bam'bi added.
"To work is to pray," I said.
"And what do you pray for?"
"To get through the day. To get through the job. Sometimes to die, when there's nothing left for me to do here."
"Don't pray for that. Never pray for that."
Bam'bi was angry, the first time I'd ever seen her so.
Bar'bi looked concerned, even afraid.
"How could you allow yourself to even think of such a thing?" she asked.
"Seeing your wife tortured and murdered before your eyes can do that."
I couldnt believe I'd said it. I don't know why I said it. Maybe to shock the Twins. But it was out. Finally. The thing I hadn't told anyone, ever.
Did they pale a bit at that moment? It must have been my imagination. Nothing can affect a Vel, physically.
"Bart doesn't know, does he?" Bam'bi asked.
"He would have told us if he knew," Bar'bi agreed.
"And you'd better not tell him now. Or "
Or what? There was nothing I could do to stop them.
"We won't tell him," Bam'bi said.
"Or anybody. Not even the Institute," Bar'bi agreed.
"But you can tell us," Bam'bi ventured
"Like telling a priest, like going into a Confessional," Bar'bi elaborated.
So I told them.
It had been late in the occupation. That was the cruelest part. Resistance was futile; we'd known that from the start. Some of us had hidden in distant forests, living off the land, not to fight but only to escape. We hadn't tried to flee off-world; we thought we had a certain responsibility, because of our positions.
It was a futile gesture. Eventually, the Aureans had found us, whether through diligence or sheer luck or betrayal we never knew -- any more than we knew why they had chosen our planet in the first place -- we didn't have any resources to speak of, our wormhole wasn't of any strategic value. We later heard that it had something to do with the Battle of Klas'ten, and with the deployment of Protectors after that. We'd been assigned a novice; we knew that, and when a tset'lar made short work of her it was all over for Jordan's Hope.
Brutal as the Aureans were, they had this warped sense of legality. They didn't want to be seen as conquering worlds; they were offering the protection of the Empire. That meant they had to find somebody to "accept" the offer -- which, in this case, was me.
If I'd known that they never made threats but only promises, if I'd known what was going to happen to Marisa after I tried to stall them, I'd have signed on the dotted line without a second's hesitation. Instead, I was shackled to a high-backed chair, my arms tied behind my back, my head held in a clamp so that I couldnt turn it, my eyes held open with tape, while a Prime went to work on her.
The one thing they couldn't do, finally, was keep me from passing out. I woke up in my cell, my only thought being to sign whatever they wanted before they started in on Bart. But they never did; the Fleet arrived that morning and the Aureans fled -- after a spasm of random bombing and release of chemical and biological agents.
It had all taken place in that same barracks that had been turned into a hotel, although not in the same section that Bam'bi and Bar'bi later occupied.
They looked grave now, but they looked determined.
"We've heard your confession," said Bam'bi
"And now it's time to grant you absolution," Bar'bi finished.
I shook my head.
"You're a good man, Arthur Dowell. Your world needs you. Your people need the best of you. We're not going to let you cheat them of that." Bam'bi declared
"We're not going to let you cheat yourself," Bar'bi added.
"We really admire you. We always have. That's why we're going to fuck you"
"Were going to fuck you silly. And you're going to fuck us silly."
I'd known what they must have in mind. After all, they'd arrived wearing gold necklaces and nothing else. But I'd tried not to think about it.
"You can't make me," I protested.
"But you can make you," said Bam'bi.
"Your life force," said Bar'bi. "That within you that wants you to live for yourself and for more than yourself."
"Feel the life force within us."
"We share it freely with you."
And with that, they took my hands. I couldn't resist. Bam'bi took my left hand and placed it on her right breast, squeezing it in hers just enough for me to feel the divine resilience of her flesh, to feel her nipple become erect against my palm. Bar'bi took my right hand and conveyed it between her legs, rubbing it against her intimate center so that I could feel the dampness and the magic nubbin within the dampness.
Something broke inside me. Or something healed.
Everything terrible that had happened suddenly seemed unreal. The only real thing, all that I valued, was the Twins and their bodies. I'd seen them for years and somehow not seen them. I had wanted them for years and somehow not wanted them; my shame and guilt had made me feel unworthy. And yet they knew that shame and that guilt and were absolving me.
I gazed at them in wonder, at the perfection of the flesh that was not marred by a single wart or mole, at the tans that came from bathing in the fires of our sun. And as they now allowed my hands and mouth to roam freely, I was overwhelmed by my first experience of how Velorian flesh could at once be as soft as silk and as strong as steel.
I marveled at the thought that the bunthok's claws hadn't left a mark on those breasts that now responded so eagerly to my ministrations, the mounds themselves as well as their tips swelling delightfully as I kissed and nibbled them, and I marveled at the scent of honey and wildflowers, and at what my tongue and teeth could do to and for those clits when I knew they were as invulnerable as their breasts or any other part of them.
When I came up for air, I saw the look on their faces, the look of arousal but also the look of kindness and benevolence. I took turns kissing them on the lips, then deep kissing them while holding them close, so that I could feel their breasts pressing against my chest, even feel their juices dripping on me down below. Down below was where they played with me while we were kissing, and where I played with them in turn with whatever arm was free as I pressed their faces to mine with the other.
That was how I came the first time. That was how they came. That was how we came together. And it was more than just coming -- for me, at least. There was a sense of absolute and utter rightness. That's the only way I can put it. And that's the way it was for the rest of our time together.
It was so right to feel Bam'bi kissing her way up my spine as I admired Bar'bi's breasts, and teased her nipples again with hands and lips and tongue. It was so right to be deep kissing Bar'bi while Bam'bi sucked me like a lollipop and eagerly swallowed every drop as I came. It was so right for Bam'bi to lower herself to my face, inviting me to nibble her nether lips drink my fill of her fragrant juices while Bar'bi lowered herself on my cock, taking it into paradise, holding me tight and then relaxing, again and again, moving up and down until I couldn't stand it any more. As I came again, as Bar'bi came, I bit hard on Bam'bi's clit and she too came.
I think they must have planned it that way. Along with everything else we did that night. In fact, I'm sure of it, in light of what happened a few weeks later. But at the time, all I knew was that they loved me to exhaustion, and that when I woke up the next day I was different. It was as if nothing could hurt me, ever again. I knew it wasn't true, but I felt that way, and it was good to feel that way.
When the new Protector arrived, it was a surprise to us, but apparently not to the Twins.
Her name was Kaimil'jar. She was in full uniform. She was all business. We assigned her an office in Government House, and quarters in one of the official houses nearby.
There was much speculation as to the reason for the changing of the guard. Was it for the Twins' violation of the usual protocols? The speculation became so intense that Kaimil'jar issued a formal statement.
"Protectors Bam'bi and Bar'bi have completed their assigned mission within the assigned time," it said. "Therefore, they are being reassigned. The Institute is pleased with their work here."
It sounded like public relations bullshit, and Kaimil'jar refused to elaborate. It wasn't until years later that we learned that the Twins had been an experimental team, carefully selected and trained to deal with worlds like ours that had suffered severe trauma. That made it all sound very cut and dried.
We knew it wasn't. We knew it was a matter of heart, and we knew that because of what they left behind, something they worked on the night before they left. Working with their bare hands, they'd sculpted the bare façade of Government House into a bas relief.
It was another talent we'd never known they possessed. And if we had known, we'd have expected the kind of historical or martial scenes typical of government buildings on many worlds. But they did nothing like that, just ordinary scenes of ordinary people at work and play. And above the entrance, they carved:
Joy we knew before, joy we shall know again.