Close Orbit

 

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

with Velvet Belle Tree

A valentine to the Aurora Universe on its 15th anniversary

“You take strange forms,” their leader said. “Yet still we know you. We have long awaited your return, and wish only to serve you.”

The tall blond man bowed obsequiously to the Scalantran delegation, trying to hide both fear and wonder – that was what the Ishtari advisor on wire was telling Kubala at any rate.

It had taken weeks for the Scalantrans’ computers to decipher the rudiments of the language, based on intercepted radio traffic. That had been barely enough to send out a message and get them to parley.

It had taken further weeks to worry out the details of the language, enough to explain about the shuttle, once contact had been established – especially since the natives found it hard to believe that their visitors didn’t already know the language.

It seemed strange that an analysis of the recorded radio traffic intercepts had made no mention of the Farsailer. Surely such a huge ship had been visible from the ground, even through the haze, as it caught the light of the local sun. A mystery; but then this journey had been filled with mysteries.

Now the native envoys were aboard the ship, still stubbornly holding to their belief that their hosts were in fact their people’s creators. Even their lesser weight and greater strength under the artificial gravity when they disembarked onto the Farsailer they had taken for some sort of special favor.

“We saw your sign in the heavens,” their leader had said. “Yet we knew not its purport, and thus we awaited further signs. Have we been found worthy, O Galen?”

* * *

The whole journey was a waste of time and, worse, money. That was how the trade captain saw it. Kubala had said as much to her mate-group, and anyone else who would listen, too many times to count.

Now here they were, in close orbit, entertaining a delegation of what had to be the most primitive Terrans she had ever encountered. She knew they must have been futzed, to survive the crushing gravity of their homeworld – but that was all they had to recommend them.

Kubala had seen futzed Terrans before, on Tanzrobi and Olympia, and she knew of the Galen, who themselves had not been seen in some generations. Galen engineers must, of course, have been involved here. But even the gods must nod once in a while; she was sure of it, looking at these fruits of their labors.

They were dressed in crude garments of some rough fabric, evidently hand-made – no style or design, undecorated but for odd symbols that the Velorians said signified caste and/or office. The men were representatives of the local governing body, the women their clerks – scribes, they called them – who recorded the proceedings on some sort of paper. With writing instruments!

Travel Captain Marsalom had brought them here, to the system of a hellish planet called Velor, on the strength of an appeal that had originated on Ishtar – one of the First Generation Worlds, from which surrogate Seeders carried on the task begun by the Galen to populate new worlds with Terrans.

It had been the Farsailer’s misfortune to have made its scheduled call at Belside, a Second Generation world seeded by Ishtar with its unfutzed brethren, shortly after the appeal had reached the Scalantrans’ Factor General there. The Factor General had taken it seriously, so seriously that she had taken them off schedule to send them on this errand -- accompanied by a party of Ishtari.

The Farsailer would be compensated, of course, but try to explain that to the people of the next two worlds on their circuit, who would wonder why they had missed their calls. Kubala couldn’t explain it to them, because the Factor General hadn’t explained it to Marsalom or to her. The Ishtari, claiming to have been dragged into this as unwillingly as the Scalantrans, would be no help either.

Humans were rarely seen on trade ships; neither Marsolom nor Kubala could fathom why the Farsailer should be an exception. The Scalantrans maintained contact with the Seeders, of course, supplying the ships with which they carried out their operations. In return, the Seeders opened the new worlds to trade with the Scalantrans – whom they deep-briefed on the local languages and cultures.

But those deep-briefings had always taken place under the auspices of one of the Factors General, at long-established ports on long-settled worlds. Here there had been no deep-briefing. That was irregular. The Ishtari brought aboard on “special assignment” had had nothing to do with the Seeding of the world they were to visit. That was highly irregular.

Could the Grand Factor have anything to do with it? It was unlikely. The Grand Factor’s world was very distant, even more distant than Ishtar, and he had never been known to exercise his authority on anything less than implementing general advisories affecting the entire League that were disseminated gradually from Factor General to ship to Factor General and on again to all ships within reach.

* * *

“You are not then, truly, Galen?” stammered Kar-zhi, president of the Senate.

It had seemed to take forever to make that simple point.

“We know of the Galen, but we are here only on our own account,” explained Kubala, once that issue was settled. “We are merchants and traders. We have much to offer.”

But what do they have to offer? was at the back of her mind.

There had been a delay in negotiations, as Marsolom and his staff met with the delegation to advise them n the strongest possible terms to take care in light of the lesser gravity on the ship -- and to get it through their heads that the Scalantrans were not who these Velorians thought they were.

They had arrived on the remote control shuttle; that should have been enough to convince them, Kubala thought, since they seemed to expect the Galen to land on the planet themselves, without any mechanical aids. Now that this basic truth seemed to have finally sunk in, however, Scalantran technology seemed to be piquing their interest.

She had seen the way they looked at the viewscreens that showed Velor below – a bleak world of vast ochre deserts and gray-green swamps -- and its moons in the distance. They seemed at once intrigued and intimidated by the light that emanated from the very walls of the conference room, the digital clock set flush in one of those walls, the morphing seats that changed shape to conform to Scalantran and Velorian bodies alike, even the food carts with refreshments tailored to the needs of both species.

“You are humans,” Kubala continued. “There are many billions of your kind on hundreds of worlds in this galaxy. We trade with most of them.”

“Humans... like us?” protested Kar-zhi. “But we are unique. So the Galen told us.”

None of the other Velorian men had put in a word yet. The women scribbled down the exchange nervously.

“That is indeed the case,” Kubala replied diplomatically. “The Galen are known to have modified humans in some cases. The surface gravity on your planet is about six times the average of human worlds, owing to the circumstance of what must be an incredibly dense core, so of course your ancestors were adapted to local conditions.”

“You are either a fool or a liar,” broke in another male of the delegation, who had been introduced as Jos’tin. “We are the chosen people of the Galen, whose daughters shall be their ...”

“Be quiet!” Kar’zhi chided him. “You have no leave to speak.”

The president of the Senate turned back to Kubala.

“He speaks of a promise that was indeed made to us, but never fulfilled,” he explained somewhat apologetically. “But the failure was ours, not the Galen’s. Even the Priests of Skietra concede this. In any case, since we are convinced that you are neither Galen nor representatives of the Galen, it is none of your affair.”

“It is indeed none of our affair,” Kubala agreed. “Our only business here is to open trade between Velor and other human worlds. We have taken notice that you are in need of... certain technology.”

Kar’zhi looked around him, then back at Kubala.

“Like glowing walls and magic chairs?”

“There is nothing magic about the chairs, or anything else aboard this ship. But we were thinking of more basic items. You did not bring with you any hand-held far-talking devices, nor any electric filing cabinets.”

Kar’zhi looked blank for a moment. Then he smiled.

“You mean pocket coms and computers,” he said, giving the Velorian names. “We have these. But they have become fewer since... the Galen left. They taught us how to operate them, but not how to maintain or reproduce them. Some of us have learned to remove a part from one device to replace the same part that has ceased to function in another ...”

“Cannibalization,” said Kubala, who refrained from sharing the root of that word in other human languages.

Kar’shi ignored that in any case.

“You are saying, I am to understand, that you would supply us such devices, along with the knowledge to maintain them and produce them for ourselves?”

“A basic technological package, we call it. Which brings up the matter of what you have to trade.”

“Trade? From what we have seen, I am afraid I can’t imagine. You have made it plain that you consider our world primitive.”

“Many other worlds -- worlds at an early stage of development - export items unique to those worlds,” Kubala assured him. “Foods and beverages. Arts and handicrafts. Things that seem of little value to them, but are extremely valuable elsewhere among those with a taste for the rare and unusual. We certify such goods for authenticity, of course, and the more evolved worlds we trade with severely discourage forgeries, lest they incur our displeasure.”

After a moment, Kar’zhi seemed to get the idea.

“Like... zark marinated in mitvom?” he ventured.

“Zark?”

Kar’zhi had one of the scribes sketch the animal. It looked rather like a cross between a rat and a lizard, only with its legs splayed to the sides.

“We cut it into cubes,” explained the scribe, Jas’min. “Then ...”

“Whatever it is, we would have to have it evaluated,” Kubala interrupted. “We have other humans aboard this ship. From a world called Ishtar. They can judge better than we the potential of marinated zark or any other products you may have to offer.”

She found it hard to believe anything would come of this, but the protocols for trade missions were quite strict. It did not profit the Scalantrans to overlook any possibility.

So Kubala adjourned the meeting. The Velorians were to head back home by shuttle, and return to the ship in a “reasonable” time with samples of their wares.

* * *

Back in their own quarters, the Ishtari compared notes about the Velorians. It was mostly about their primitive culture and ignorance of the universe. Just imagine! Their leader hadn’t even known that there were humans on other worlds!

But the conversation also turned to their odd appearance. Ishtari were all black-haired and swarthy, like their Babylonian ancestors. The men prided themselves on their shaggy beards, and the women on their luxuriant dark hair - both on their heads and down below, where their legs met.

“Well,” Isiratu said. “What do you think of their looks?”

Isiratu waited for someone to speak. He saw the men glancing at each other, and then at their ship-wives, hesitating, as if reluctant to say what they really felt.

“The women are too pale,” Arshaka said.

“Too tall,” Nutesh said.

“Too slender,” Shamash said.

“Good chest development, though,” Isiratu said.

Banunu, his current ship-wife, reacted snottily to that.

 “The men’s faces are naked,” she complained. “Not very masculine, if you ask me.”

“They look like those Greek gods on Olympia,” Iltani chimed in. “Painted marble.”

“They look like Greeks,” Ninsuni, who had actually been to Olympia, said. “God!”

* * *

 A few days later, Isiratu, Arshaka, Nutesh and Shamash had gathered in a conference rooms, screening the Scalantrans’ session with the Velorians, when Yaninum, Kubala’s second-in-command, walked in.

“Why are you watching that again?” Yaninum asked. “What more information can you possibly obtain from it?”

Isiratu felt embarrassed and realized that neither of the other Ishtari men wanted to answer. But he was the head of the delegation and felt it his responsibility to answer. “We don’t expect to get any more information, Yaninum. We just enjoy looking at the Velorian women.”

“Why? If you want to look at women, why don’t you just look at those on the ship?”

“It’s hard to explain. Human males ... well, we just like to look at women. And the Velorian women are very fine specimens of human females.”

“Do you think they’re better than your own women?”

“Not so much better, as... different. They’re tall, blond, slender and pale skinned. Our women are shorter, with darker skin and brown hair.”

“And those blue eyes,” Shamash said. “I’ve never seen eyes like those.”

“Yes,” Arshaka said. “Those eyes make them seem so exciting.”

“Exciting?” Yaninum asked.

“What he means, is that we wonder what they’d be like in bed,” Isiratu said.

“In bed?” Yaninum said.

“I mean, what it would be like to have sexual relations with them. Look Yaninum, don’t you ever wonder what it would be like to have sexual relations with other Scalantran females?”

“Other females?” Yanimum responded. “I have had sexual relations with every adult female in my mate-group. And of course, I will do so with any other females who join our mate-group.”

“Every one of them?” Arshaka asked, his eyes bulging.

“Of course,” Yaninum said.

“It’s allowed in your culture?” Isiratu asked.

“Allowed is not the right word. It is expected.”

“But the other males, what do they do?” Nutesh asked.

“I do not understand your question,” Yaninum said.

“In some Terran cultures, there is a dominant male who has access to a large group of females, while the other, lesser males... well, they’re just out of luck,” Isiratu explained.

“What a horrible culture,” Yaninum said. “Our culture is not that way at all. Every male Scalantran will have sexual relations with all the females in his mate-group, and every female will have relations with all the males in her mate-group.”

“We have nothing like that in Terran cultures,” Isiratu said. “Isn’t there jealousy?”

“Jealousy? What does that mean?”

“It means that human males want exclusive rights to their females. And in monogamous cultures - that is, cultures where one female mates with only one male - the female expects her mate to have relations only with her. The society that you have would never work with us.”

“That is hard for me to understand. Our sexual relations - all males having relations with all females in the mate-group - is such an essential part of our society. It is what binds our mate-groups together.”

Isiratu looked at the other members of his group, seeing the same amazement on their faces that he was feeling. Then a thought came to him. “So, you’ve had sexual relations with all the Scalantran females - even Kubala.”

Yaninum made the strange barking sound that the Ishtari had come to accept as laughter. “Not Kubala. She is not in my mate-group.”

“You can’t have sexual relations outside of your mate-group?”

“Never, never. It is simply not done - ever!”

Isiratu knew that you couldn’t judge a Scalantran’s body language by human standards. But he could have sworn that Yaninum looked embarrassed. “Kubala?” he prompted. “What about Kubala?”

“Well, I would not say this to any other Scalantran ... I am glad that she is not in my mate-group.”

“Why is that?” Arshaka asked. “Is she so unattractive? We have no idea what makes a Scalantran female attractive.”

“Oh, no. All females are attractive. But it is just that ... You know I work directly for her. She is such a perfectionist and so hard to please. I have such a hard time pleasing her at work that if she was in my mate-group I would worry that I would not be able to please her sexually.”

When the Ishtaris finished laughing, Shamash said: “I don’t understand this mate-group. How many are on the ship? What are they for?”

“This is a medium-sized ship, so we have three mate-groups here. All mate-groups work together. But sex, and child-rearing and wealth-sharing is within a mate-group.”

Yaninum paused for a moment and then said: “I am puzzled about something. You said that in some human cultures, a man can have many females, and in some he can have only one. Do not all humans have the same sexual needs?”

Isiratu laughed. “Yes. Essentially we are all very much alike. I said that in monogamous cultures, the females expect their mates to be sexually faithful, I didn’t say that they always were.”

“You Ishtari... what type of culture do you have?”

“Back home, on Ishtar, we’re monogamous,” Isiratu answered. “Although, unlike some, we’re fairly free sexually before marriage.”

Then he paused and sighed. “But we’ve had to come to some real compromises in order serve on these ships. The journeys are long, too long for a man to be without a woman. We have wives back home, but they would not be useful on the journey and there is no room for anyone who can’t contribute. Ishtari men know commerce and technology, but the women know art and what goods other women would want. So we choose an equal number of men and women who can contribute their expertise to the delegation. And during the trip we form temporary liaisons. We don’t expect fidelity from each other, or romance, or emotional attachment. In fact, we try to avoid emotional attachment, since we’ll be returning to our spouses at journey’s end. No, all we expect from each other is sexual comfort and kindness.”

“And those back on Ishtar?” Yaninum asked. “What do they do?”

“They do what they have to, and we don’t talk about it.”

* * *

“You will, of course, speak and act with the utmost decorum,” Kubala advised the Ishtari when the Velorians announced their impending return to the ship. “These people are your cousins, however distant, and should be treated accordingly.”

Meaning, Isiratu realized, they should speak no ill of whatever the Velorians had to offer as trade goods, but give every appearance of approval and save the truth for the trade captain. The success of the mission, or the opportunity for a later mission, might depend on their performance.

He and the other Ishtari assigned to the mission watched the docking of the automatic shuttle on their remote screen, and the entry of the Velorians through the gangway. It was the same group as before, but this time they carried an assortment of containers. As before, the men’s glances focused on the women.

Ishtari and Velorians met for the first time at the refectory, where the Scalantrans had accommodated the humans by setting up a low table surrounded by cushions in the style of Ishtar. There were heating chambers set in the wall, and racked cabinets for tableware - the Ishtari were familiar with these from Seeding ships, although the dishes and plates and glasses and utensils were Scalantran size.

Isiratu politely inquired as to the Velorians’ needs as they opened their containers. The zark was to be served hot, Kar’zhi informed him, so into the heating chambers went the pre-packaged portions of brownish cubes that oozed some sort of greenish gel.

“This is one of our greatest delicacies,” Kar’zhi told him. “Created by the Priests of Skietra, and once exclusive to them. But secrets have a way of getting out. Including the formula for mit’vom, which is a blend of a number of oils and spices.”

“Indeed,” said Isiratu, reflecting that the secret of why he and the others had been sent here had not gotten out. Not to him, or anyone else on board.

 “Now kak is made from the dried leaves of a rare water plant that grows only in the seaswamps of the southern latitudes,” Kar’zhi explained. “It is served at normal temperature; and the braf, which is derived from the exudations of female barafini in nursing phase, is sprinkled on at the table according to taste.”

The Velorian set out the braf dispensers on the table, beside those oversize Scalantran plates. Likewise the jugs of haask, which he explained was fermented from the juice of a fruit of the same name that was bitter in its natural state but became sweet and spicy as a beverage.  

Isiratu saw to it that the Ishtari were on their best behavior as they seated themselves on cushions on one side of the table once it was replete with the various courses of a Velorian meal. The Velorians took their places on the opposite side, appearing confident that their food and drink would be well received.

The Ishtari, following Kubala’s script, complimented them in advance in the politest manner possible. If they it turned out that they were not pleased with the meal, it would be left for the Scalantrans, later, to put their guests off with the already classic Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You ploy.

To Isiratu’s own taste, the fare wasn’t particularly bad - just not particularly good. But what soon began to bother him was that the Velorian scribes, who had been doing nothing more provocative than sharing a meal, were making him hot and bothered.

Isiratu glanced at his companions. The women seemed unaffected, but he could tell from the expressions on the faces of the other men that they too were distracted. There was something in the air, a flowery scent that couldn’t be coming from the zark or the haask. He adjusted his clothing as furtively as possible to conceal his arousal, while at the same time keeping up small talk about interstellar trade.

And then came the stunner from Kar’zhi.

“I perceive that the men among you would like to share our women as well as our food and drink,” he said. And at his gesture, the scribes began removing their clothing.

When they stood naked before all, their beauty was more than he could bear. Of a sudden, he thought of a classic erotic poem, ancient even at the time that his distant forefathers had been brought to Ishtar.

 

I would be taken by you to the bedchamber, where I would share with you all the goodly places of my body. My precious caresses are more savory than honey. In the bedchamber, honey filled, let us enjoy one another to the fullest.

 

Goodly places indeed... their ituri were perfect hemispheres, tipped with golden-brown nipples. Their bellies were taut, and their arms and legs muscled like those of a dancer or an athlete. And their urui - God, they were completely hairless, revealing the intimate folds of flesh, moist with invitation.

Banunu interrupted his reverie.

“I can’t believe this,” she said. “What’s the matter with you? It’s as if you’d never seen a naked woman before. And we made love just last night.”

“It’s... something in the air,” Isiratu said. “I can’t understand it myself.”

“And what kind of women flaunt themselves like that? It’s revolting.”

“Maybe it’s a custom, Like when our ancestors on Earth had temple prostitutes.”

Isiratu realized that didn’t help matters. Banunu glared at him and made her exit.

It was well that the Velorians didn’t speak Ishtari, or they would have gotten an earful from her and the other women. The meeting was breaking up in confusion, but Kar’zhi didn’t seem to notice that, because he proceeded to lay out the ground rules and pair off the scribes as if this were some sort of a game.

“Jas’min, would you like to pleasure Isiratu?” he asked.

Jas’min nodded her approval, and actually seemed to mean it. Isiratu observed that her uru was seeping.

“Does Jas’min meet with your approval?” Kar’zhi asked.

“Oh God!” was all he could say... or think.

“But what about us?” an Ishtari woman’s voice interrupted.

Isiratu was surprised to see Ninsuni walk over to Jed’sel, the third male of the Velorian delegation, and place her palm on his cheek. But then, she was known among the Ishtari as being bolder than the other women.

“I’ve never been with a beardless man,” Ninsuni said. “On Ishtar, any man without a beard would be too young to know how to please a woman.”

Jed’sel grinned. “I’d be very happy to show you that Velorian men, although beardless, know very well how to please a woman.”

What Kar’zhi made of this, Isiratu couldn’t fathom. But he apparently didn’t object as as Ninsuni left with Jed’sel - headed, Isiratu assumed, for somewhere private. Perhaps Kar’zhi was simply distracted; he had been in the midst of pairing off Jer’zel, the other scribe, with Shamash. Arshaka and Nutesh would evidently have to wait their turns.

* * *

That business with Nintuni and Jed’sel was a relief, Isiratu thought as he led Jas’min to another private chamber. If he was thinking with his... well, she was thinking with her...

But once alone with her and naked before her, he could think of nothing but Jas’min and how he ached for her. She gazed at his manhood and he gazed at her womanhood. Droplets of her juices had begun to run down her legs. Still, they took a few moments to take each other in, to engage in teasing banter.

“You are hairy down below,” she said. “Are all men beyond Velor like that?”

“I’ve never heard of any exceptions,” he replied. “It is the same with women. But to different degrees.”

“Do your men, then, have trouble finding their way?” she teased.

“None at all.”

 “It’s so exciting to look at you,” she said. “We make love all the time on Velor; I’ve had dozens of men. But you’re so... different. It’s almost as if I’m about to do it for the first time. To give up my virginity all over again.”

“I...”

“Enough,” Jas’min said as she lay back smiling. “I want you inside me now.”

Isiratu was on her in seconds.

She was incredibly tight; he feared for a moment that she was too futzed for him to enter. But she was incredibly wet, too, and within a minute he was able to pass her portal and plunge deep inside. Her uru embraced him greedily, tightening and relaxing, tightening and relaxing, even teasing his rock-hard usaru with rippling motions.

Isiratu felt as if he had fallen into a maelstrom, but a maelstrom of exquisite pleasure that he could not imagine wanting to escape. It was too overwhelming; he couldn’t stand it for long, and exploded with a cry of triumph, which she answered with a whimper of what he took to be having found some small joy in giving him great joy.

“Uruki, uruki, ermianu” he murmured in praise of her, comparing her womanhood to paradise, though he knew that she couldn’t understand. Jas’min had taken him to heaven, and he was enough of a man to want to return the favor, so he made it his business - now that he was more in control of his wits - to savor every bit of her incredible body.

He tested the springy flesh of her breasts, squeezing them as hard at he could and feeling them rebound instantly as he released the pressure. He sucked her nipples, bit them, chewed on them, ravished them every way he could think of as she screamed and moaned.

Isiratu ran his hands down her back, and caressed her arms. He kissed his way down her belly, then kissed all around her uru before moving in to drink her fragrant juices, to lick and to suck, taking delight in her shudders of orgasm, taking pride in the knowledge that he was giving as well as taking pleasure with this incredible creature. Before long, he was ready to enter her again - and to stay longer this time.

“Where do your people come from?” Jas’min asked when they took a break.

“Ishtar,” said Isiratu.

“I mean, before that.”

“There was a place on Earth called Babylonia, thousands of years ago. The Galen brought us from there.”

“You know the Galen?”

“Not any more. Not for many generations. Either they are truly gone, or they are very good at hiding themselves. We-”

“They have hidden themselves from us. There are still people of our first generation out of the Maternity Engine who-”

“Maternity Engine?”

“All Velorians are created in the Maternity Engine.”

“You mean, you aren’t born? Like other living creatures?”

Jas’min looked shocked.

“That’s horrible!” she exclaimed. “Are people like you actually born?”

“Everywhere,” Isiratu said quietly. “Except, it seems, here.”

Jas’min was silent for a moment.

“There are some on Velor who would change that,” she finally said. “I hate them. We all hate them.”

Isiratu said nothing, sensing that nothing good could come of pursuing the matter. In another moment, Jas’min took up her previous thread.

“We came from a place on Earth called Scania. The Originals came from there, and the Galen kept them to raise our first generation, but they are all dead now. Those of that first generation say the Galen could take whatever appearance they desired, and could fly through the air. I really don’t know how that could be. Nothing else has ever flown on our world... does anything fly on your world?”

“Of course,” Isiratu said, glad to get off matters of the Galen. He silently thanked her for interrupting him when he had been about to talk about the Seeding program. There were things about that he should have known better than to even think of sharing.

Jas’min stroked his beard, seemingly fascinated with its strangeness.

“Are all human males bearded?”

“Not all. It’s a matter of choice. Many men, perhaps most, shave them, in whole or in part.”

“Shave?”

“Remove the hair with sharpened metal tools.”

“Your hair can be cut?

“Yours can’t?”

Another unexpected revelation.

Before long, he had learned that hair on Velorians grew to a certain length and then stopped. That it was almost impossible for them to be killed or seriously injured - like the asaba class on Tanzrobi, or the rare and reclusive families of Ishtari protos, of whom ordinary Ishtari rarely spoke but often envied.

Somehow the idea excited him more than he would have imagined. In Babylonia, he knew, temple prostitutes had assumed the role of the goddess Ishtar, and thereby raised funds for the maintenance of the temples and their priests. But to have Jas’min... it was like having the goddess herself, to worship her body with his own.

When Jas’min beckoned him to make love again, he took her with a heady violence, knowing now that she was beyond harm and could take only pleasure from her. As he gave her his all, holding nothing back and pounding her without mercy, as he came hard deep inside her, he was thrilled beyond all measure: Nothing I do can hurt her body - only pleasure it!

So it went, until their lovemaking left him exhausted.

But it also left him thinking...

* * *

Ninsuni saw the expectant looks on Banunu and Iltani’s faces after she returned from her rendezvous with Jed’sel.

“Well, how was it?” Iltani asked. “Was it good?”

“Oh, yes,” Ninsuni said with a smile.

“Tells us about it,” Banunu said.

“When I first saw him naked, I was really astonished,” Ninsuni said.

“Why? Was his member unusually big?” Iltani asked.

“Oh, it was of a goodly size all right. But that’s not what I found astonishing.”

“Come on, Ninsuni,” Banuni said. “Tell us.”

“He was completely hairless. Not a single hair on his entire body!”

“Not even pubic hair?” Iltani asked.

“Especially not public hair.”

“What a shame,” Iltani said. “I do love to play with a man’s lower beard.”

“So do I,” Ninsuni said. “Then he looked at me. I had my arms raised, smoothing out my hair. He looked at my underarm hair and then at my pubic hair. And he made a face! As if he didn’t like it! Can you imagine that?”

“But Ninsuni,” Banuni said. “I’ve seen you in the showers and you have an absolutely beautiful pubic bush. How could he not like it?”

“That’s what I thought. So I said to him: ‘What’s the matter?”

“‘You have so much body hair,’ he said to me.”

“‘Don’t you like it?’ I asked him.”

“I could tell he felt awkward and didn’t know what to say and didn’t want me to get mad and leave. Besides, his member didn’t seem to find anything wrong with me! ‘It’s just that I’m not used to women with body hair,’ he said.”

“So I told him that Ishtari men liked women with very full pubic bushes. And that they liked to play with it, running their fingers through it, exposing what it hid.” Ninsuni paused and smiled. “Let’s just say that he caught on very quickly and things progressed very nicely after that.”

* * *

Kubala was beside herself. She thought she had a disaster on her hands, as far as the mission was concerned. But it wasn’t because of the couplings between the Velorians and the Ishtari. Humans were strange that way, and she’d never been able to figure them out. No, it was that none of the Ishtari had reported favorably on the Velorian meal.

She’d have to do her best to let them down easy. Scalantrans could be good at that, although they’d rather make good deals. She was considering the exact wording when Isiratu came in, and said that he urgently needed to speak with her - about salvaging the mission.

“I think I have the answer,” he said.

“Did that come to you while you were entertaining the scribe?” she asked.”

“Not exactly. But... after I’d recovered.”

“Say on.”

 “It is said that in our ancient homeland of Babylonia, once a year in every village, girls of marriageable age would be gathered together in one place, while the men stood round them in a circle. An auctioneer would call them each in turn to stand up and offer her for sale, beginning with the best-looking and going on to the second best as soon as the first had been sold for a good price. The rich men who wanted wives would bid against each other for the prettiest girls.”

“We are not in ancient Babylonia,” Kubala pointed out.

“Indeed not,” Isiratu said. “But there are men on some of the Seeded worlds who are rich beyond the imaginings of even monarchs on old Earth. You cannot imagine what riches they might offer for the companionship of women like these! They are not only incredibly beautiful, but have some sort of aura about them that we can’t resist. Chances are that it will be the same with other humans. You could make a fortune.”

“Surely the Velorians would never allow it.”

“Well, they did offer their women to us, didn’t they?”

“True. But that is not the same as sending them halfway across the galaxy, to who knows what worlds, where they might be subject to abuse.”

“I don’t think abuse would be a problem,” Isiratsu said, relating what he had learned from Jas’min. “Whatever else the Galen did with them, whatever purpose they had in mind, they rendered them beyond harm - like many of the protos, and yet unlike them still able to have intercourse with ordinary men.”

“Yet we would be still be uprooting them from their own planet, cutting them off from their own kind. Do you not find that cruel and heartless? Would you have fellow Ishtari treated so?”

“They have been imprisoned on their own world, knowing nothing of the universe about them. I think some of them - and it need be only some of them, a very few in the scheme of things - might welcome the chance to experience what lies beyond.”

Kubala remained skeptical, but...

“Still... it does not hurt to ask,” she said.

“No, it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

To her surprise and astonishment, when Kubala later broached the idea to Kar’zhi and his colleagues, they did allow it. They were even eager to sign a contract.

“Perhaps they will meet the Galen somewhere out there,” Kar’zhi mused.

Back to that again? It was the Galen, always the Galen. What had their game been? Were they still playing it, wherever they were?

Kar’zhi could believe whatever he wanted about them. What mattered was that he had a deal with the Farsailer. It remained only for him and his to return to Velor and recruit the first consignment. 

She would have quite a story to tell at the next Meetpoint.

* * *

The pirate radio message came out of the blue. But then, so had much else about Velor. The recorded message, repeated three times, was very short, and very blunt.

 

Attention foreign devils! Attention foreign devils! We are the Naturalists. We are the true voice of Velor. Do not believe the traitors and idolators of the Senate. We have taken control of the main broadcast center in Vest’athy to warn you. We will have nothing to do with our daughters being sold into slavery. We will not allow it. We have destroyed your shuttle, and if you should send another, we shall destroy that as well. You and your kind are not wanted here. Leave immediately, and do not return.

 

After the third repeat, however, it appeared that the broadcast center had been retaken by the Purists, as they called themselves, and Kar’zhi himself came on the air to appeal to Kubala.

“We have put down the rebels,” he insisted. “They are of no account. We still wish to conclude our trade with you, as soon as you can send another shuttle.”

“The shuttle there is indeed destroyed?

“Damaged beyond repair, we estimate.”

“We do not have another, and we cannot land the Farsailer itself. Your gravity would kill us, Scalantran and human alike. I am sorry, but we can do nothing more.”

“But surely you can return with another shuttle?”

“I do not think you appreciate how long and expensive our journeys are. They take years - years that are not worth our while without a reasonable chance for profit. Your world seems to be divided. We do not know the details, and we do not care to know. But we have to know whom we will be dealing with, and to what end, should we return. I do not think you can assure us it will be your side.”

“We have a dozen volunteers ready,” Kar’zhi said.

“And no way for them to reach the ship, unless they can fly. I do not wish to seem harsh but, under the circumstances, there is nothing more we can do here.”

“We have seen what you can offer us. Surely you can appreciate our needs. It is fortunate that the main broadcast center remained undamaged during the... current difficulties. We would have had to strip the secondary--”

“I repeat, there is nothing more we can do here.”

Kubala cut off the connection. There was no point is listening to anything more Kar’zhi had to say. No point at all. And, after having come so far, after having had her hopes raised so high only days ago, no point to the mission.

* * *

“I still think it was a good idea,” Isiratu told Banunu the next day, as the Farsailer made its way towards the wormhole.

“Men!” she exclaimed. “Only a man would think of such a thing!”

Yet she had forgiven him. She would remain his ship-wife for the rest of the current term. After all, if she insisted on a change, she would have to persuade one of the other women to trade places with her. That was the rule. It would to be too big a fuss. After all, Nutesh and Nintunu hadn’t made trouble over their mutual indiscretions.

“It seems strange, but once I was out of range of her aura, whatever it was... I still knew she was beautiful, of course, but I knew that you were still beautiful in your own way-”

“My own way? I thought it was your own way. That’s how it always is.”

“There’s something really strange about the Velorians, though. I’m not sure even they know what it is, or why. Except perhaps those priests Kar’zhi mentioned. Priests are often keepers of secrets.”

“Secrets not worth knowing. Superstitions and rituals.”

“I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, in any case.”