“I’m exhausted. You know, I’m sitting down because I can barely stand. My legs feel like rubber. My eyelids are like leaded curtains. I’m not even sure if you understand that expression.” I rubbed my forehead with my left hand, feeling every word I spoke. When I closed my eyes, sleep taunted me because I knew that as hard as I tried, I was never getting to sleep anytime soon.
“I hope you can hear me. I’ve been awake for nearly forty-eight hours, that’s what? a day and a half, right? I used to do that all the time in decanting operations. But in that time I’ve been back and forth between the surface and some starship or other four times, twice by shuttlecraft. The radiation is so bad getting initial lock-on is impossible by SDisk. They say they don’t know what will happen when lock-on is lost when transit is initiated. I know, I know, that’s supposed to be impossible, but there is this pause between lock-on establishment and transit, the time it takes electrons to flow down three millimeters of gold, you know. The odds are gazillions to one, they tell me, and they can’t know if it’s ever happened, because they think that what’ll happen is the transit will occur in place, like, nothing will happen.
“I’m babbling, aren’t I?” Click. Fffft. Flip-click. The sounds of life-support machines making her chest rise and fall were the only sounds in this private medical bay. Hisss. Click. A layer of dried mucous had built up around her lips, and I reached for the wipe to clean it off. As I touched her cool skin, I wished that I knew what was going on behind those closed eyelids. Were we getting to her, was there repair going on in there? “I hope we can share a day again, someday. You have to come back.” Click. Fffft. The sounds keeping her alive echoed inside my exhaustion-sodden brain. “You know, your mother died down there. If you don’t survive, the siss-taleek will be the ruling family.
“I, um, I went down the first time with a drop ship. We got nuked, small one. Less than a kiloton. The armor did what it was supposed to and everybody on the ship lived. I bet the Sinox were real surprised with that one. An entire phalanx of us, fully armed and very pissed.
“Except I wasn’t exactly pissed. Well, I was. I’d never been that close to a nuclear explosion before, and, I, well, I pissed my suit. A small puddle in the left leg support. Good thing the suit’s designed for that, I guess. To deal with liquid waste, I mean. But it smelled pretty bad–” She coughed. The sound made my head snap up. Her hands were reaching up, trembling slightly, and I swear the sound was something closing in on laughter. “Anni?”
More coughing. “Let me. Who’s the AI here?”
“I’ve called the orderlies. Name’s Thumper.”
“Great!” I shouted. I worked on getting the choke tube out of her mouth. “Stop moving, Anni. You’re just going to make it worse. Ease down, ease down. Can you hear me?”
She nodded. “Ha… Hi.”
I smiled. “Hi,” I said, tears welling in my eyes. “You had me worried.”
“I feel like… ” She stopped and hunted for a word.
“You feel like shit?” I offered.
“That’s one wording for it,” she agreed, her voice nothing more than a hoarse whisper. “What… what happened?”
I shook my head as two people came running into the room. “Commander, please, give us room.”
“Ken,” her voice came through the bodies crushing in. “What happened? Tell me!”
“Hi,” I said.
“Did you get any sleep?”
“A little,” I admitted. “Four hours or so.”
“They tell me sixty percent of the population died in the attack.”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Thank you,” she said, her hand reaching out for my wrist.
“For saving the rest. It would have been a lot worse if you hadn’t shown up.”
“That’s what allies… and lovers… are for, isn’t it? To show up when the going gets bad.”
She leaned her head back and sighed. “What am I going to do now?”
“Well, there are a number of thing you have to do.” She turned and looked at me. “We must arrange a funeral for your mother. We must arrange a new place to live for your people. And we must get your government back on its feet.”
Her hand still grasped my wrist. She squeezed it warmly. “Thank you, Ken.”
“It’s not over yet.”
“My people of llerkin, I greet you today as your new queen. My mother, beloved Stevves, was killed in the invasion of llerkin by the craven Sinox, and many of us have pledged to someday wreak our revenge upon the monsters that have destroyed our world and our way of life.
“But before that happens, we must rebuild. Each of us knows someone, or more, that we must give sacred rest to, each of us needs a home, and each of us needs to eat. As all of you know, the Sinox use of weapons of unprecedented radiation and poison has reduced the biosphere of llerkin to ruin. The world that gave us birth is now home to nobody and nothing. But we will rebuild.
“Until then, I have accepted the gracious offer of my longtime friend, Kennet Shardik, and his people, the Pendorians, of a new home there. There has been much dissent and hatred around this issue, but I will brook no further discussion. It is a matter of our survival. We need a home.”
“I’m thinking about writing a book,” I said as I looked out over the valley where six hundred thousand llerkindi were now building their houses in the shadow of their queen’s new castle, Castle llerkin. With an AI in the basement and a SDisk network, the llerkindi were acclimating to their new homeworld with a speed and grace that I could only describe as phenomenal. “‘Exhaustion as a way of life.’“
Anlestin looked up from her PADD just long enough to give me a sidelong glance of amusement. “I’m probably more tired than you are.”
“Probably,” I admitted. “You’ve been at this for nearly ten months. How goes it?”
“How does terrorism sound to you?”
“Badly,” I admitted, rolling the word around in my mouth. “Are you saying we have some, or that we could have some?”
“Both,” she admitted. “My people are slow to accept AIs into their home, and with good reason. They shelter the reactionaries amongst their kind, the ones who wanted to fill out a colony or, face Crago and storm, tough it out on the surface of llerkin. They have threatened to have me killed.”
“They’re free to leave. In fact, we need manned stations on llerkin to construct the initial craters.” I tapped the table with two fingers, idly, looking up into the sun. “They’re after you for changing their way of life, aren’t they?”
She shook hear head, a gesture that was the Pendorian equivalent of a nod. “They blame me for the attack. For aligning with you. They don’t realize the Sinox would have killed us anyway. They might have left us alone longer. They say that we might have had better defenses by then.” She sat up. “As if we were ever a warlike people.”
“You’re preaching to the choir. People who’ve lost their homes don’t think straight, Anni. They don’t. It’s something Pendor’s going to have to live with.” My face tightened into a grin. “I hope you’re not upset that I feel safer in my own land.”
“It’s all your land,” she replied, gesturing over the valley. “Already, we’re learning Quen and some are even learning Felinzi. I know it’s a half-hour for a message to reach your home from mine by FAL, but this isn’t an FAL universe anymore, Ken. You are… what is the phrase in your language? Lord of all you survey.”
“You know better than that.”
“I hope to prove to my heart that it is not the know-it-all it thinks it is.” She smiled tightly, sliding one hand forward to reach for a glass of water, the open-sleeved cuff of the simple blouse she wore sliding back along her arm with a soft ‘schuss’.
“You will. I would never take away from you the happiness that I can give to you,” I replied. “I’ve already fucked up with you once, and that was enough.”
“I’m afraid, though,” she said. “Afraid that someday, llerkin will again be a peaceful and bright land, rated SL.” She grinned, and I smiled back. “I’m afraid that the children of that age will not want to return.”
I tilted my head to one side. “That is something to fear.”
She reached a hand out. “I felt a drop of rain.”
“I did too,” I said. “We should go inside.” We rose from our chairs and made our way under the shelter of Castle llerkin, built much like the Castle at Fahn had been before the Sinox had collapsed it on Anni and her mother, a ziggurat-construction with her home not at the top, but second level from there. It was an expansive, open room. “Opulent” would have come to mind had money any meaning; the trinkets and baubles that filled this room were, however, inconsequential these days. Beautiful to look at, emphasizing the lovely green skin of my hostess, the yellow of gold was muted and quiet. The bed and bath that were centerpiece to the entire place, hung with chiffon nets to exclude the bugs that might bother her, were both large and unassuming.
I watched her walk, the bell-bottoms of her silken pants flowing easily behind her. “Ken?” she asked.
“How will we repay you?”
She walked back to me. “Look at my home,” she said. “It is much like what my people will become someday. The bed is handmade by Pendorians, the floor designed by llerkindi artisans and yet laid side- by-side with Pendorians. Your people are working every hour of every day next to my own to give my people a home; your generosity is unbelievable.” She sighed, her expression falling. “I’m scared for the price.”
“But you had the right word,” I said, reaching down and touching her chin, lifting her face to mine. “Generosity. We ask nothing, beloved Anni.” I swallowed, considering my next words very carefully. “Your people are already at risk to lose their souls to the maw that is Pendorian culture; we take in everything and incorporate it as a part of ourselves. I’m afraid, too, that your people will become too Pendorian to leave, when llerkindi is rebuilt. We are an impressive people, but it is not my wish or anyone else’s to cast every species in our image.”
She ‘nodded.’ “Besides,” I said, “You, yourself, have given me more than enough reason to grant you all the bounty I could manage. Anni, there was not a touch of disagreement when Paul suggested that the llerkindi be given a home here, on Pendor. Nobody thought of our relationship.”
“Everyone thinks of our relationship,” she said. “They may not want to talk about it, but it is the key element of our lives, Kennet. Your people see your alliance with me as a part of your careful balancing of your personal and political lives. Mine, they see you either as a tool I can use or as someone using me as a tool.” She smiled sadly. “I wish I knew where to place you.”
“I do too,” I sighed.
“I could be so much more politic with it if I did not love you.”
That made my head snap up. “What?”
“What, in Zhal’s name, led you to stay up in my room long after the battle had ended?” She reached over and grabbed my hand. “That you care for me is obvious. You called it abusing your privilege. You know that I heard every word you spoke while I was comatose; I was still waking up, a frightening business because I could not move, but I was still awake and could still hear what you were saying.”
“I was… was…”
“Abandoning both your coimelin, both who were very concerned for you, to spend time over my unmoving body.” She nodded her head. “Do you love me, Kennet Shardik?”
The words caught in my heart. I reached out to touch her cheek, and she smiled a sad little smile as I did so. “I would if it were permitted.”
“Only here,” I sighed, pulling her closer to me. “In this room.”
She enclosed her arms, encircling my chest with them. Laying her head against my chest, she sighed, “It is so illicit.”
I reached down and picked her up, into my arms, and carried her to her bed. “How can it be illicit?” I asked as I knelt, easily depositing her on the covers. “Everyone in the galaxy knows we’ve been lovers.”
She reached up and pulled me down to the covers with her. We lay side by side, facing one another. “It is illicit because the people assume this is merely two leaders, separated from them by the responsibilities of power, turning to one another for the simple release of sexual desire. I know few of your people believe that, but many of mine do.” She smiled. “It is illicit because it so much more than that; it is something we must hide from them.”
“I won’t hide from P’nyssa and Aaden.”
“And from what you have written, you will not need to.” I noticed that when she got serious, she dropped her contractions. It reminded me of our first meeting together. “They know that your passions are larger than any one, or two, or more, can contain.” Her hand caressed my leg gently. “My people, though, will think differently. At least for a little while.”
“You think they’ll learn the Pendorian way of doing things?”
“Quickly, yes,” she nodded. I inhaled softly as her hands caressed my growing erection through the material of my clothing. I did miss her, it had been too long since I had last been in bed with her. The problems of the last year had been too much for either of us. I caressed her face with the back of my hand, feeling the cool touch of her skin under mine.
I smiled. “I referred to you once as a ‘cool alien princess.’ Now you are neither alien nor a princess.”
“But I am still cooler to the touch than you,” she replied, her lips pressing against mine.
The touch was as welcome as ever. I felt the soft ridges of her finely scaled mouth cover mine, her narrow tongue touching my lips, my own tongue reaching out to caress and to taste hers. She had a pointy tongue and a flavor that was completely unlike any other species I had slept with. In a kissing contest, I could never misplace hers, although I doubt if I could have decided if it was a better kiss than we mammals have or not.
Her hands pulled open the buttons on my shirt, touching my skin. I replied by reaching up and touching the ears that ascended upwards from her head, ending in seemingly razor-sharp tips of cartilage. She giggled as I stroked the insides that led down from the tip and across her hairless head to the other ear, stroking it as well with one fingertip. “That tickles!”
“I thought you said you weren’t ticklish.”
“I have changed my mind!” Her giggles obscured what she was saying, but I understood the gist of it. I didn’t stop until her hands reached into my pants and closed around my erection.
“Now, I have your attention.”
“Quite literally,” I said, smiling.
“You still have not corrected this design flaw,” she purred, stroking one sharp fingerclaw over my testes sac.
The strong sensations made me gasp for air. “No, and I don’t think I will. I’m used to it the way it is.”
“But others of your kind can withdraw it.”
“Yes,” I said, squirming slightly. “They can. It’s for defense, not for regular use. Heat… reduces the flow of male hormones. Dammit, Anni, you’ve been reading my memoirs again!”
“Of course,” she said. “Why should I not?” Her lips pressed against mine again as she held tight to my manhood, holding me firmly in place. I kissed her face, her cheeks. I kissed her chin with its three distinct ridges. I tasted the smooth-scaled texture of her throat, feeling each polished scale flow over my tongue, feeling her inhale and exhale as I touched her. It was so good to know she was still alive. It was so good to confirm it.
Her hands released my scrotum and began digging at her own clothing. “Let me,” I said, reaching out to help her. I found the clasp, and moments later we discarded her clothing off the side of the bed. Mine quickly followed.
Anlestin had put on a little weight, which was to be expected; her mother had been a very large woman. Anni had been determined, however, to maintain something of a lighter figure, and to that end she exercised daily. It showed in the lines of snaking sinew and muscle that rippled under her arms and in her thighs as she coiled and curled around me on the bed. The soft, vaguely feline muzzle, topped with tiny black nose, was enigmatic in its expression as she dropped her head into my lap and took the head of my cock into her mouth.
“Ohhh…” I sighed softly. The sensation of her mouth around my cock made me shiver gently, and her thin tongue wrapped itself around the shaft. She took more of it, slowly feeding it to herself, caressing just the head before progressing down further. More disappeared into her; my hands caressed her back, feeling the broader scales there under my fingertips, looking down to see her head bobbing slightly in my groin, sucking down my cock.
She was as good as she had ever been, but I doubted she could still go long enough to make me come; males of her own species were smaller than humans and she often complained that sucking my cock made her jaw hurt.
But while she was at it, it felt wonderful. I shivered as her snaky tongue explored the tiny hole at the head of my cock, and then she again engulfed the entire shaft. “Oh, Anni,” I sighed. “You’re getting better at that.”
She raised her head to look at me and smiled. “I have been without you, Ken, but I have not been living a life of celibacy.”
“I didn’t expect you to.” I reached down and pulled her chin towards me. We met about halfway, kissing again. I shivered as her hand closed around my cock, pumping slowly.
I reached down, but she pushed me down to the bed instead and knelt over my head, the hairless slit of her cunt just centimeters from my lips. “Kiss me.”
She spread her legs further apart, bringing her just within reach of my lips, and I kissed softly. Shaped differently from the mammalians that made up my own species, her cunt was little more than an elongated funnel, protected by protruding ridges of slightly thicker hide. Inside these ridges, I knew, were very sensitive.
I kissed her hard, feeling her cunny open up more, and licked at the insides, tasting her strange, sweet flavor. I think I described it once like pistachio, only without so much sugar. That’s still as close as I can describe it. I lapped at her, and small droplets collected along the soft ridges. I licked those up as well. She moaned as her hands pulled at my cock. She was insistent on making me come with just her hands, and she was going to succeed. I had trouble keeping my attention on her sweet cunny. Her fingers were insistent, however, and as I plunged my tongue into her cunt I came, groaning loudly. I felt my semen rain down onto my stomach as I came, shooting in short arcs of white.
I lay there, panting for just a few seconds before I slid my tongue back into the slit of her cunt, suckling at her juices and licking at the walls. She groaned as I reached up and wrapped my arms around her thighs, holding her in place as she quivered, her orgasm getting closer. Her hands rested on the bones of my pelvis as she pressed herself to my mouth, determined to get everything she could out of me.
And I gave what I could. Her thighs quivered about me, her body grew tense and her breathing ragged. Each little pant seemed to catch behind her lips, then explode outward. Her hands, still pressed to the horns of my pelvis, shook intermittently. “Closer, Ken,” she sighed. I took that as a hint and pressed in further. I was already tired; the orgasm she had pulled out of me had exhausted me even before she had begun to make her demands on my mouth. I pushed in, licking in long strokes to taste her asshole, then back to finding her cunt, baring my teeth slightly to almost scrape along the opening.
Her hands suddenly clenched against my sides, her slight claws digging into my skin as she came, groaning softly. “Oh, yes,” she sighed. “Yes.” Her body shuddered as she came once, and again seconds later. I kept licking, counting five hard gasps as she came. Or maybe it was just one long orgasm with peaks every five seconds or so.
Slowly, she raised her hips off of my face. This was a good thing because she was quickly reaching the point where she couldn’t hold herself up and I was quickly reaching the point where I couldn’t breathe anymore. I suppose it’s a great way to go but even after a millennium I was not ready to go.
She fell over, dropping onto the bed with a sigh. “Zhal,” she sighed, curling up against me, her head against my chest. “You are wonderful, Ken. Thank you for helping me forget, again.”
I caressed her back, scratching at the soft, green scales. “You’re very welcome, Anlestin. May I confess something to you?”
She looked up, her slitted green eyes exploring me. “You can always tell me something.”
“When I first saw you, three centuries ago, I coveted you. I wished you lived on Pendor, where I could reach you if I wanted.” I reached down and scratched her buttocks, feeling the combined wetness of her cunt and my mouth against my fingers. I tend to be something of a “neatness” person about my body; being covered in such wetness bothered me a little, but I was so relaxed and happy to be holding her close that I could ignore it for a while. “Now that I have you here, I don’t get any joy out of it.” I frowned, looked away. “The circumstances are too horrible to justify.”
“You are not to blame for the Sinox attack,” she said, stroking my cheek. “You know that.”
“I know,” I said, licking at her fingers, tasting them. One was still covered in a thin, drying layer of my semen, and I licked it off dutifully. “I know better than to wish for the impossible.” I raised my head and looked down at her. “Now that you’re queen, are your advisors pushing you to marry? Bear heirs, that kind of thing?”
She rolled to the edge of the bed and reached over the side, picking something out from underneath and tossing it to me. It was a towel, slightly moistened. “They are. I suppose I will look into it someday soon.”
“Any suitable suitors?” I asked as I wiped myself clean. She watched, apparently amused that she had successfully anticipated my needs after making love. For the first time since walking indoors, I noticed that what had been a few drops had become a hard, summer storm; the outside world had gone from green and blue to hazy grey, obscured by sheets of rain. A wind blew past the arched windows, distorting the trees and tossing about torn leaves.
“Some.” She smiled. “Many. Some of them are better in bed than yourself, even.” She laughed at my hurt expression. “Merely different, beloved Shardik.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, pulling her close and kissing her lips. Our tongues touched gently, caressing one another like older lovers. “I can stay the night.”
“I would like that,” she sighed.
“I heard. I shall notify the Shardik Household.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“It is another thing to get used to,” Anni sighed. “The ever- present servant of information.”
I nodded. “One more thing.”
“Are you hungry?”
I thought about it; it didn’t take much thinking before my stomach announced in no uncertain terms that food was a good idea. “I am. Should I cook?”
“Will you?” she asked, looking up. “If I show you the kitchen, can you make those little pastry things filled with cheese?”
I laughed. Somehow, Anni always has that little girl within her. “Sure. Lead the way.”