Read an Excerpt
THE NINE WORKS OF SCIENCE FICTION IN MARY ANN STEELE'S SERIES
Listed in the order in which they should be read:
Warrior-Woman: The Forging of the Legend
Master of Intrigue
Partnership of Equals
Birth of a New Breed: Genesis
Birth of a New Breed: Attainment
Trial By Fire: Survival
Trial By Fire: Final Reckoning
Dangerous Adversaries: Battle Joined
Dangerous Adversaries: No Turning Back
To Find, and Not To Yield: Calculated Risk
To Find, and Not To Yield: Daring Rewarded
Master of My Fate: Ashes of Wrath
Master of My Fate: A Ship Takes Shape
Master of My Fate: The Phoenix Rises
THE STORY THUS FAR:
Four Earthyears before Signe throws Norman's force of invaders off Gaea, Michael, Captain of a six-man Columbian military scientific team, docks a mortally crippled ship on an isolated Gaean space station occupied by a team of civilian researchers. The Columbians capture the woman, but fail to force her to reveal the location of the lone escape vehicle before her comrades lift. Cleo's feat provokes bitter anger in three of the six men now marooned on the isolated outpost.
Michael makes Cleo a member of the team he persuades to work at transforming a section of the station into an escape vehicle. He also arranges to share her, sexually, with his five crewmen. Cleo handles a stressful situation with dauntless courage. She succeeds in overcoming the hatred Nigel, Michael's dangerous lieutenant, initially harbored for the enemy responsible for marooning him. Later, she defuses a rivalryoriginating in jealousy that threatens the safety of all seven castaways. Seven talented researchers, welded now into a unique multiple marriage, spend Sunday evening rejoicing at having survived a harrowing week in which they made technically difficult, exceedingly dangerous alterations on the hull of the huge, spinning station. Seven people now sleep soundly, no whit daunted by the thought that the dangerous liftoff of their carefully crafted escape vehicle from the spinning station now looms ahead.
WEEK EIGHT: MONDAY
The sound of her alarm galvanized Cleo into leaping out of bed. My perishing soul, but that noise grates on my nerves! she groused as she fumbled for the control. But don't complain, she chided herself. You got eight hours of sleep. That must be due to knowing that Michael got the tether strung, and the work outside finished, with everyone still safe. What a relief that is, even if we all know that lifting could still end in our dying together!
Launch won't be far off, now. All that's left at this point, is finishing the necessary changeovers that'll make Eleven independent of the station, and seeing whether our life-support system keeps us eating and breathing. Perhaps now we'll learn to what use Michael intends to put all the empty space on the upper deck of Eleven. Well ... I'm in no hurry to lift on a trajectory to Columbia!
Selfish of me, that mental foot-dragging. Don't think about what will happen when we arrive there. Time enough for that worry after we survive lifting.
Having thus sternly admonished her alter self, Cleo finished dressing, made the bed, and went to breakfast, her now-constant anxiety firmly relegated as far to the back of her mind as she could force it.
Upon arriving at the table bearing a plate of spicy fishcakes and browned, grated, leftover baked potatoes in one hand, and a large cup of steaming coffee in the other, Cleo greeted the others.
"Dump two-thirds of that coffee back in the pot, woman," the Captain ordered.
Startled, the recipient of that crisp command stared for a few seconds before mutely obeying. On her return, she observed that the issuer of the order himself sipped an abbreviated eye-opener.
"Nigel and Leonard, limit yours as well," he added. "Nigel, you and I will strip the tanks of gas off the strut, and then descend in the platform Leonard lowers, to inspect the cable that wrapped around Ten. But before we do that, the pair of us will give Cleo a lesson in wearing a suit, and maneuvering outside in one."
"Michael!" Shock melted into utter delight. "I've been wishing that I could ... How generous of you! Thank you!"
The man tossing out that bombshell thrust an oversized green pill on the novice. "Wash this down with what coffee you've got," he ordered.
"Confident as I've grown in the spaceworthiness of Eleven, Michael, I regard what you intend as a prudent move," Nigel drawled, effectively concealing any surprise he entertained. "There's always the remote possibility of some emergency's arising. Have you ever worn a suit, Cleo?"
"No. We had none. Wallace said that the section normally stocked a goodly number, but that Signe commandeered all the suits available, quite a while back. He originally intended to ask her to return six, but we left unexpectedly when Wallace learned that that Norman's spacers planned a maneuver that might lead to their discovering our orbiting section. That news led to his risking our lifting off without suits."
"Hm." Nigel raised an eyebrow, but passed no comment.
Gutsy bastard, Wallace, Michael acknowledged grudgingly. Though why in hell he'd recruit women for as dangerous a mission as he launched, I'll never know. At least--women who were noncombatants. I could understand his rationale better if he had recruited female combatants trained to fight. Women like Signe.
Well ... Gaeans don't think the way we do. Perhaps they consider women so fully the professional equal of men that it never occurred to Wallace to make any distinction between women and men, when all he had to choose from were noncombatants. I wondered why in hell he'd come at all, given the danger, but if he thought Norman might confiscate or destroy their only means of returning here, I can see why he'd chance making the transit.
Scientist, Wallace. Priceless national treasure, this station. Likely he couldn't bear the thought of Norman's finding out about it, and plundering or destroying it, so he did what he could to protect it. He calmly planned a non-military scientific expedition in the midst of a bloody rebellion, and focused his crewmen's minds on research, while he hid his world's irreplaceable vehicle. Damned if I don't admire his cool nerve! But I sure as hell wouldn't want the cognizance that I'd left a female noncombatant to face death alone while acting as my rear guard weighing on my conscience, though. Damned if I would!
Rising from the table when Michael did, Cleo waited for his orders. Observing with satisfaction that she radiated eagerness, the Captain exulted at noting that not a trace of fear, or even mild apprehension, showed on her beaming face.
She'd make a spacer, damned if she wouldn't, he silently conceded.
"Justin will help you suit up, Cleo, in your cabin. The three of us will change on the bridge. Marvin, you and Conrad can assist us, before you integrate the new gear into the board. Justin, man the board while we're out, and then take the rest of the day to catch up on the chores in the food-chemistry laboratory."
The man charged with a delicate task retired to his workspace, and emerged bearing the suit he had modified upon awaking, after discovering that Michael had arisen even earlier, and had volunteered to help Conrad with breakfast. Bracing himself, he followed the Gaean into her cabin, where found her looking askance at him.
"Shed your uniform, girl," the medical technician ordered briskly.
Generating no especial embarrassment at the prospect of undressing before Justin, Cleo shrugged out of her tunic. Letting her pants fall, she stepped out of them.
Holding the suit by its middle, her mentor ordered, "Back up to it, and put your feet into the legs. Now, hold it up around you. Your feet are small, but the boots feature a flexible, cushioned liner that's designed to expand to fit small feet, or squash to accommodate bigger ones. So your feet won't slide around inside. Once the outfit's on you, I can make some slight adjustments. But right now, I need to make a crucial one. These suits are designed for men, and contain a receptacle for urine. I've modified that outfit in a way that I think will work for you. Stand still, now, and I'll fasten what I engineered."
Justin's clinical detachment won Cleo's instant admiration, even as her cheeks grew warm. Watching as he deftly pulled up what felt like an elastic diaper, she heard him explain, "I made this out of flexible waterproof sheeting. It's got adhesive edges that stick to your skin. So. Does that bother you?"
"Not at all."
"Good. In the weightless state, a liquid won't run downwards into the receptacle. A man wears a sheath. His urine gets ejected with more force than does a woman's. His narrow stream enters a tube designed not to let any liquid back out easily.
"Well, your plumbing's different. Your stream's not ejected forcefully, so your urine will tend to collect in a floating, uncomfortable puddle where it emerges. I've positioned a highly absorbent wick to transport it to the receptacle, surrounded by an equally absorbent soft material, in the crotch of this shield. You'll likely feel as you would if you accidentally wet your pants, but no flood will occur, nor will the urine flow past the adhesive edges of the shield. It's the best I could do, girl."
A surge of grateful, admiring warmth rose to overwhelm the hearer. "Justin, you are without a doubt the most tactful, professional medic I've ever encountered," the Gaean breathed. "Thank you for rigging so ingenious a solution!"
"I'm glad to oblige. If you feel the urge, test the outfit. You won't be in the suit overly long today, but if some emergency arises aboard Eleven, we might have to stay suited for a much longer time. I'd feel better knowing that this modification worked."
"I'll do that."
"All right, now slip your arms into the sleeves, and duck your head to pop it through the neck-ring."
Having obeyed, Cleo looked down at herself.
"As I feared, neither your arms nor your legs are as long as those of the man who last wore this outfit," her assistant remarked. "I can take up the outer layers of fabric a bit. The suit's designed so that minor adjustments can be made. Motors move the joints. That inner, stretchy part that clings to your skin senses your muscles' movements. That part will retract to fit you.
"The bladder can't be adjusted, but it won't need to be. Too big's not a problem. Too small is. Hold out your arm ... good. See, the suit has two places with bands that close, leaving a pleat inside. You need both taken up.
"So. Hold out the other arm. Ahh, that'll serve. I'll make the same adjustments on the legs." Deftly, Justin pleated the fabric, and sealed the bands. "There. Now, let me fasten the front pack."
Cleo watched as the spacer lifted the pack, and sealed it to the oblong opening through which she had inserted her body to don the suit.
"It feels bulky and clumsy," she observed noncommittally, avoiding any appearance of offering a complaint.
"It won't feel clumsy once it's activated, or at least, not in the same way. All right, now listen. Under each of your big toes, there's a switch. Feel for them."
"I feel something that gives, when I push down with a toe."
"When the suit's activated, those switches let you release the electromagnets in the boots that hold you to a metal deck, or a hull. When you walk, you have to release the boot you lift, and then cause it to grip again, before you release your other boot. Take it slow and easy at first. After you get accustomed to working the switches, you'll walk without thinking, the way you type on a keyboard, or climb stairs or ladders, but you'll find it a bit awkward at the start."
The novice spacer's obvious delight in the prospect of going outside impressed the instructor.
"All right, let's see if Michael's ready. Once I fasten your helmet, you'll hear nothing but the voices reaching you from those in suits, or wearing packs. You'll feel isolated, but don't let that throw you, either. Listen to your instructors, and don't get nervous. You couldn't find two better teachers."
"Or a kinder, more understanding helper than you've been, Justin."
The recipient of that vehement compliment smiled into warm brown eyes as full of gratitude as of eager anticipation. "You'll get to view Whipple as it ought to be seen, girl. Marvelous, the sight. I'm glad Michael's doing this, for several reasons. Now, let's go."
Walking stiffly in the ungainly rig, Cleo followed Justin to the dining hall, where Michael awaited them, suited except for helmet and gloves. As Nigel emerged from the bridge, both expert observers appraised the fit of Cleo's suit.
"Ought to work, Michael, hm?"
"A trifle roomy, but it'll work. Fasten her helmet."
Slipping into a pack, Justin tipped Cleo's helmet over her head, and made sure that it had sealed. He then secured her gloves.
I do feel isolated, she silently conceded as she stared at the technician through the faceplate while exquisitely conscious of utter silence.
Justin's voice sounded in her ears. "Hold out your left hand. There's a switch on the back of your little finger ... there. Touch it with your thumb."
Having obeyed, the startled Gaean felt the suit move: crawl a bit, like a live thing, and then lift the bulk of its mass off her flesh. The air pressure in the bladder's adjusting, she assured herself. Numbers grew visible, seemingly hanging in space in the lower left side of her field of vision. Rapidly, those changed, even as her lungs filled with gratifyingly fresh air.
"Read me the figures you see, as soon as they stop changing," Justin commanded.
Watching intently, the neophyte relayed the information.
"You're ready," her mentor declared.
Justin now assisted Michael, and then Nigel. Leonard emerged from the bridge, followed by Conrad, who fastened Leonard's helmet and gloves.
Briskly, Michael directed, "Try lifting a foot, Cleo."
Utterly unable to move either boot, the novice marveled at the degree of magnetic force.
"Press down with the big toe of your right foot," her mentor ordered.
Obeying, she raised the foot, and took a step forward. "Justin told me how to work them," she exclaimed. "Let me try to walk." Thinking each move through, she slowly made her way across the dining hall.
"Not bad," Nigel conceded. "By the time she arrives at Central, she'll be walking automatically, hm?"
"That's why I figured we'd suit up here."
After fastening a maneuvering unit around his charge, Justin warned, "Don't mess with anything on this outfit until they tell you to, hear?"
"I wouldn't think of doing that!"
Having draped slings holding hardware across Michael's and Nigel's shoulders, Conrad helped all three men into maneuvering units.
"All right, let's go," the Captain commanded, eyeing Cleo's progress towards the door to the rim.
By the time the neophyte arrived at the elevator, she strode along without needing to think through each separate motion. After waving her into the compartment, Michael fastened himself opposite her.
"Tired?" he inquired.
"Not badly. The suit's not as heavy as I figured it would be."
"Suits are engineered of extremely light-density materials that are highly insulating, but strong. The bladder can withstand considerable pressure, it but won't take fraying. The packs are the most massive parts, but wide, flexible bands outside the bladder spread the pull of that mass over quite a few muscles, and make the suit easier to carry. Are your toes tired?"
"They are, a bit."
"You won't need to work them much, outside, and we'll unsuit in Central, when we come in."
Even as the sight of the crestfallen face behind the faceplate set Michael chuckling, Justin's voice, utterly expressionless, filled the Gaean's helmet. "I'll bring your uniform, Cleo, and unsuit you in private."
"I appreciate that. I'm sorry to be a nuisance."
"My pleasure, girl."
Michael's wink failed to lessen the relief produced by Justin's assurance.
Floating in the inner lock, Cleo watched as the Captain snapped a small safety hook on the end of a long, thin line, into a ring on the front of her suit. The other end formed a coil fastened to his suit.
"Safety line," he informed her. "Novices tend to overestimate how much of a push they need in free-fall, to set them moving. I'd hate to have you fly off out of reach, and then panic. We could lose you. If I bark 'Hands off,' let go of the switches that activate the nozzles, hear?"
As Nigel and Leonard floated out of the elevator, the youthful spacer shot the neophyte an impish grin. "Tummy calm, Cleo?"
"Tummy's placid as can be. Those green giants work."
"Vomiting in a suit's nothing to joke about," Nigel asserted a shade grimly. "Puking in a helmet could kill a person. You sure you're not nauseated, Cleo?"
"I'm fine, Nigel. Truly."
"We'll emerge through the upper lock, Nigel, and feast our eyes on an unobstructed view of Whipple."
"Pleasure, that'll be."
Floating out the door of the upper lock into the vast, star-strewn, hollow sphere of the void, Cleo let an audible gasp escape her. "Oh ... how magnificent!" she breathed, stricken with awe. "Screens simply don't do the reality justice!" Raptly, she stared at the luminous bulk of the giant gaseous planet directly ahead of her, and then looked down at the station spinning below her. "Beautiful!"
"Cleo, listen to me. I'll give you a lesson in maneuvering, and then let you rest, and gaze at Whipple. I'll then hand your leash to Nigel, who'll show you how to intercept the axis, and land on the center of the strut. The sensation of weight the centrifugal force gives you feels wholly different, even this close in. You'll experience how your body reacts to the way the converging lines of the strut fool your spatial sense. If you develop the least dizziness or nausea, you tell us, hear?"
"I will, Michael. But I'm not sick! I'm feeling an otherworldly lightness of being! Enjoying the marvelous sensation of freedom!"
"I'm glad to hear that. All right, listen now. Grasp the control on the front of the unit--that's right. You control two jets that'll propel you forward. Get through your head before you ever try maneuvering, that you release a jet of gas, and then coast. You don't keep your finger on the release-switch! If you do, you'll develop too great a velocity. The upper touch-switch is forward. The bottom is reverse. Reverse will act as a brake on your forward movement. To turn, you twist the control away from you for right, or toward you, for left.
"Now, give a small push forward. Good."
As the trainee's silvery form accelerated briefly, and then coasted, Michael maneuvered so as to keep up with her. "Nice easy pace, that. Now, see if you can give the same push to slow yourself."
Feeling as if she just hit an invisible wall, the novice floated lazily backwards.
"Too much, woman. Just a touch forward, now. That's right. Good. Give yourself a slow forward motion. Good. Now, turn right. Right! That's better. Now, turn left ... good."
Intently focused, Cleo maneuvered, noting that Michael's bulky form effortlessly matched the movements she gave herself.
He does this without thinking any more about it than he does about walking in his suit, she conceded admiringly. Well, his proficiency's the result of Earthyears of practice. How thoughtful of him to bring me out and show me the sights. Whipple! I haven't even ... It's above me ... behind my head. I need to flip upside down! He'll get to that. Don't grow impatient. Concentrate.
Having put his charge through a number of maneuvers, Michael acknowledged, "Not bad at all. Light touch, you've got. All right, twist your control like this," he directed as he demonstrated. "Give a tiny push to invert yourself, and follow that with a tiny braking puff. Try that. Too far, woman. You turned a full circle. Do that again. Ahh ... much better. There. Like the view?"
To her delight, Cleo now stared directly into the brooding dark-and-ice face of the visiting body. Whipple loomed so close that it seemed as if she could drift over to touch down on the jagged, frosty rim of a crater.
"Oh, my soul," she gasped, sweeping the marvel with eyes gone wide. "It's ... spectacular!"
"Words simply don't do it justice!"
"Interesting rock, that," Michael declared judiciously.
Leonard breathed softly, "I'll say."
Four silver forms floated in free fall, drinking in the details of the mysterious body looming so tantalizingly close.
I see what Michael meant, Cleo admitted to herself. This is pure enjoyment! Exhilarating ... humbling. On the scale of the galaxy, we're as diminutive as subatomic particles are compared to us. And the wide, wheeling galaxy's a speck in the vast expanse featuring countless such aggregations.
How insignificant we are ... how impotent! How isolated! Could we really be surrounded by sentient beings we can't perceive ... wrought of light ... formed of electromagnetic fields? Or ... made of something else ... some ghostly third manifestation of the stuff of the universe ... neither matter nor energy? Something of which minds constructed of those interchangeable entities can't conceive ... and could never contact? I wonder.
Look at that solid carbonaceous rock up there. Nothing ghostly about Whipple, is there? Sturdy, it looks. Survivor. Was it once a fearsomely gigantic comet, clothed in thick ice that vaporized to form a glorious, glowing coma when its wearer neared the star? Wore its gaudy garment out, it did, if that theory's correct.
Or was it a dark, restless asteroid, one of countless thousands jostling each other in orbits between Hawking, a rocky planet, and Einstein, a giant gaseous planet, only to experience some traumatic upheaval that hurled it into far-flung isolation? Solo flight? Or did it endure an improbable series of strange perturbations and once-in-a-millennium chance impacts, which buffeted Whipple into the erratic orbit around the sun that it travels now?
Are its adventures over, for a long time to come? Or just beginning?
Does this face-to-face meeting between me and this rock represent the culmination of my adventure? A last glimpse of wondrous beauty ... of untrammeled, unimaginable depths of open, beckoning, alluring space ... before I get incarcerated for good in some dismal prison, or forced into some frightful, punitive, brutalizing life of back-breaking labor? That could happen. Don't think of that. Not today ... not out here. Enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime sight. Imprint it on your mind. Etch it into your memory. Treasure it!
Turning his eyes from the view riveting the others, Michael stared at Cleo. In the spectral light of the giant planet, augmented by the weak rays of the distant star, he watched her face change from awe, to wonder, to fascinated interest, and finally to a bleakness for which he intuitively sensed the cause.
Damn! Reveling in free-fall reminds her of what she faces at the end of this venture. Your wild notion has to work! Surely it will. Everything has gone superbly. The worst lies behind us. It'll work. It simply must!
His voice reflected none of the emotion gripping him as he drawled, "Well, Cleo, ready to sample a taste of cliff-hanging?"
"I'm looking forward to it!"
Michael chuckled, and Nigel laughed. "Glutton for sensation, you are," the Lieutenant observed, smiling the wicked smile. "Eager to milk the experience for all the thrills possible. Well, hand me the leash, Michael. We'll see how good a head for heights our recruit sports."
Don't I wish I were that in reality! A recruit learning to be a spacer, taught by six experts. Wistfulness dissolved in shock. My perishing soul, woman, you're not pining to join a Columbian military corps, are you? No! Never! Perish the thought! But still...
Having handed Nigel the slender safety line, Michael shot his second officer a grin. "I took the easy chore," he commented. "While you're shepherding Cleo onto the strut, Leonard and I will unclamp the elevator from the axis, and set it up."
Nigel hooked the line to his suit. His brow furrowed as he regarded the face looking eagerly out of the helmet. "I'll give you plenty of line, Cleo. Maneuver yourself to a point in space about three meters from the axis, above the plane of the strut. I'll be watching to see whether you've mastered what Michael taught. Carry on."
Acutely conscious that the eyes raking her studied her every move, Cleo jetted herself to a position above the plane of the strut sweeping out a circle below her, as the axis rotated. Turning her head to gaze at the axis, she studied the openwork.
Nigel's voice filled her helmet. "You'll find it easiest to launch yourself toward the axis on a tangent," he informed her. "The axis doesn't have a large linear velocity. Judge what speed you need, grab the openwork, and hold on. Look at your gloves, and nothing else. I'll gauge where you'll aim at landing, and point. Wait, now ... All right, go for it!"
Boldly launching herself, Cleo grabbed the openwork, and sensed a fundamental change. The axis now indeed seemed overhead. No longer weightless, her body hung from the huge open framework, which she immediately sensed to be "up." Mindful of the instructions given by her mentor, she stared fixedly at her gloves.
Nigel lit beside her. "Accurate estimate of speed," he commended her. "Keep looking at your gloves. Follow me, as I move along this member."
Gripping the metal with gloved hands, Cleo obeyed.
My hands are tiring, she acknowledged worriedly, even though I don't weigh much, here. My soul and honor, I've only just started! I hope my fingers don't give out!
Having reached the strut, Nigel gripped the face he now thought of as a side. Cleo pulled herself to a position next to him, and managed to gain a foothold on a cross-member. Standing as if poised on the rungs of a ladder, she stared through the openwork at the dark, massive wheel.
"My blistered body, Nigel, I can't believe that Marvin nudged that framework in here as neatly as he did! He had so little room to spare!"
"Amazing feat, that. Are your fingers tired?"
"They are, rather, but they're not numb yet."
"We'll rest here, for a time. I'll loop this line to the framework. That will tether you securely. Hold on firmly, and look around."
Gripping the metal, the novice turned her body to the left, to look outwards along the daunting length of the strut, towards Eleven, far away on the rim. The station now appeared motionless. The tug on her feet, small as it was, gave her an unmistakable feeling that "down" meant below her boots. Clinging to a slender, rectangular, 873-meter-long structure, standing on a rung on its side, conscious of the axis stretching perpendicular to the strut, directly overhead--to her perception, lying on its side--Cleo saw the rim rise vertically in her field of vision. Behind that huge, seemingly motionless arc, studded with sections and countermasses, the stars swept upwards in a rushing torrent.
Oh, my soul! A deep exhalation of breath escaped the startled viewer. Involuntarily, her grip tightened on the metal. Hang on ... You aren't going anywhere, she chided her scared alter ego. This fear's irrational. Forcing her eyes to focus on Eleven's bulbous middle, visible far off beyond the converging lines of the strut, she managed to calm her nerves.
There. Look at the rim, not at the stars sweeping by. That's better. Bravely, she turned to look in the opposite direction, past the boom holding the scan platform, down the opposite half of the strut, to Eleven's countermass. Now the stars cascaded downwards in a celestial waterfall.
Not any worse, she assured herself. Actually ... not bad at all. That majestic shower's beautiful!
Growing bolder, she let her eyes drop lower, to the now apparently motionless, slender, greenish lines of the tethers anchoring other sections to the axis.
That next section below the countermass must be Thirty-one, she surmised. And the one above, Thirty-two. Well. Do I dare look directly down? Brace yourself, woman. Nigel is watching what you dare.
Discovering that she could not look straight down at her feet, owing to the suit's allowing no bending at the waist, or any nodding of a helmeted head, she mused, Should I ... " I'll try it. I'll never experience what the others all did, if I don't. I'm tethered to this structure.
Holding tightly to the metal member, Cleo pressed one switch with a toe, freeing a boot. Bravely, she released the other. Pushing out and away from the face of the strut she sensed as its side, she let her body angle outwards.
The neophyte now stared directly down the length of a slender tether plunging to nothingness somewhere above the rim. Beyond it, she beheld Central's dauntingly small countermass, directly beneath her: incredibly, terrifyingly, far below. Clinging by tired hands, Cleo floated belly-down over yawning, gaping emptiness.
A wave of violent vertigo assailed her. I'm falling! she wailed in her mind, as blind panic overwhelmed her. Clutching with adrenaline-enhanced, terror-generated strength to the metal, she shrieked silently, Whatever possessed you ... Ohhhh!
Clamping her eyes shut, Cleo clung for dear life. Slowly, her buoyantly lightweight body drifted downwards, pulled by the gentle centrifugal force, and her toes touched metal. Frantically, she pressed a toe-switch, rejoicing as her boot gripped the solid member. Now the other ... there! Oh, my churning gut. Don't do any repeat of that maneuver, woman!
Nigel's chuckle sounded in her ears. "You couldn't resist the siren pull of the urge to try that, could you? Did you enjoy the thrill?"
"Nigel, that cured me of thrill-seeking!"
"You didn't panic."
"The hell I didn't!"
Her instructor broke into delighted laughter, which Michael, floating into view alongside the strut, echoed. "Is your curiosity satisfied, woman?"
"Utterly satiated. Overdosed! I'm cured of curiosity ... maybe forever!"
"That'll be the day, chief, hm?"
"I wouldn't hold my breath, waiting for it to arrive!"
Laying a gloved hand on Cleo's shoulder, Nigel conceded, "It took guts to try that. I expect your fingers feel numb, now. We'll push off. That won't take much of a push. We'll use the angular speed of the strut. Head that way, and whatever you do, don't keep your finger on the switch! Just a small puff, now. Brake your forward speed ... That's good!"
Bringing herself nearly to a stop, Cleo drifted. Weightless again, she watched the blur of the tethers below her, and marveled at the sweep of the sections as the rim rotated. Suddenly, unaccountably, she felt safe, floating under the reassuringly stable vault studded with unmoving stars. On impulse, she inverted herself, and gazed once again at Whipple.
Nigel lazily rose in an arc, to float slightly above and to one side of her, facing her. "No fear assails you, that you're suspended above the abyss, out here?"
"None. Amazing, that. I truly am falling, here, but I like what I feel!"
"So do we all. One experiences an incredible sense of freedom, floating in free-fall in the limitless void. That's not a sensation one enjoys often, in a suit. Usually, we work standing on a habitat, or on the hull of a docked ship. Marvelous experience, this, especially with Whipple so close. Well, Michael, do you think our recruit passed the course?"
As the Captain floated alongside of the neophyte, he shot back, "She graduated at the head of her class, I'd say!"
"First out of a class of one!" That self-deprecating reply came accompanied by a giggle.
Leonard wafted into view. "You could have flunked, regardless, woman!"
"You did spectacularly well, for the first time out," Michael assured her, smiling. "We'll escort you to the lock. Justin, get Conrad to spell you on the board, and meet Cleo in the inner lock, would you? We'll float awhile. Tell us when you arrive."
"Will do, Michael."
Sighing to herself, Cleo turned to view the splendid sphere of the turquoise planet. "My word, but Einstein's a marvelous sight from out here," she breathed. "Such a lovely color. That small, bright dot must be Dyson ... or is it?"
"It is. And that other--less bright, and smaller, but bigger than a star--is O'Neill." As he spoke, Michael pointed with a silvery arm at the largest body in the O'Neill Group.
"Populated by a few bands of desperate renegades, isn't it?"
"And scattered, too-small forces of equally desperate Second Corpsmen hunting the outlaws holed up there. And on occasion, by teams like ours, occupied in solving problems on primitive outposts. Grim place, O'Neill. Ass-end of nowhere," Nigel asserted.
"I can't say I missed it, when we finally got home," Michael agreed.
Justin's voice sounded through their helmets. "I'm here in the lock, Michael."
My glorious adventure ends here, Cleo mourned. Well, Michael didn't have to treat you to this lovely outing!
"Michael, Nigel, thank you!" she exclaimed, as gratitude momentarily extinguished regret. "For a thrill-packed experience the memory of which I'll treasure forever!"
"Our pleasure," the Captain replied, touched by the fervor of her words. "Listen, now, woman. We'll unhook your safety line, but the three of us will surround you. Maneuver to the lock. We'll be observing how you do, on your own." As he spoke, his fingers unsnapped the line from her suit.
Concentrating on all that she had learned, Cleo maneuvered with flawless ease to the lock, and floated inside, awash in poignant regret that her expedition into free-fall just ended.
Leonard shot her a grin through his faceplate. "You passed your final exam, I judge," he assured her.
Michael touched a switch on the panel, closing the outer door. The lock filled with air, and the inner door swung open, to reveal Justin floating within the inner lock. As Cleo released a minuscule puff of gas, and breezed out, the door swung ponderously shut behind her.
Having followed her attendant into the elevator, Cleo strapped herself in, and braced for the unsettling feeling. As the conveyance halted at Central, she groaned as her body grew inordinately heavy.
"Justin, I mass a thousand kilograms," she wailed.
"It feels that way, doesn't it? Step out, and walk to the conference cabin." Following his charge to that sanctuary, Justin unfastened her helmet, and lifted it off. Shrugging out of his pack, he laid it on the table, and removed her gloves. "Did you try the modification?" he asked, his voice serenely matter-of-fact.
"I did, right before we came in. I feel a bit damp, but not direly uncomfortable. Your adaptation would work fine in an emergency."
"I'm delighted to hear that. I'll show you how to empty the receptacle, and we'll change the absorbent part. The receptacle's capacity allows a man to relieve himself two to three times, depending. It doesn't pay to slurp three cups of coffee before you go out. All right, that takes care of the pack. Now, wriggle out of the neck-ring."
Cleo emerged from her suit, and donned her clothing. Justin showed her how to seal and detach the glass-cloth bag from the receptacle, and peel the absorbent liner from the waterproof sheeting.
"I made a quantity of those, this morning," he assured her. "I'll hang a bag full of replacements on the suit, when we put the gear away."
Impulsively, the neophyte threw her arms around him, and kissed him full on the mouth. "You're such a comfort, Justin," she murmured, hugging him hard. "Thank you!"
His eyes twinkling, the improviser hugged her back. "Ample reward, that!" he exclaimed. "All right, let's get back. I'll pack the suit. I'll wager your fingers and hands could use a dip in the whirlpool."
"What a lovely thought!"
Sitting in the dining hall sipping orange juice, her fingers relaxing in the foaming bath, Cleo reviewed the wonders she had scanned earlier.
What an experience! she marveled. The memory of that sight makes the inside of Eleven look even more drab than usual. Color-starved, we are. Subconsciously hungry for a sight of far vistas, as well? As Michael said Earthmen were, when they first lived in as confined a space as we routinely do? We've managed to blot that hunger from our conscious minds ... but it lingers subliminally, I suspect.
I guess we can't truly erase millennia of evolution--adaptations to Earthly conditions--in a few Earthcenturies. Well, feast your eyes on the greenery in the tertiary tank, when your hands get restored. No one found time to check on it, all week. What time is it? My aching digits, it's only 0738. That jaunt outside took less than two hours. It seemed an age!
Ninety minutes later, Cleo looked up from her labors in the tank, to see Nigel and Leonard stride through the translucent door.
His brow furrowing, Nigel announced, "We three get to descend abruptly from the sublime to the mundane, Cleo. For the rest of today, we'll occupy ourselves in the chore of converting our waste-management system to independence from the station. We need to collect a wealth of ... shall I put it in crude terms, or do we preserve a seemly decorum?"
"So we draw the ultimate, culminating, shit-detail, do we?" Cleo replied, her eyes twinkling.
"That term describes to perfection what faces us. We'll start by emptying the waste tank in Two. Rather than use canisters, let's see if there's a sizeable tank somewhere, that we can haul on a wheeled platform to your compatriot's lyophilization unit in Three. You can give Leonard a lesson in using the outfit. Primitive type of apparatus, that, but ingenious, and it accommodates a considerable volume. We'll start a load drying, and then pump what we collect directly into our waste tank in Eleven."
"We'll need to mount a pump on the tank. Nigel, I know where there's a vessel that would serve. In Thirty-three!"
"Proceed to Thirty-three and detach it. Leonard and I'll bring the platform and the pump we used on the melt-water."
Peeling off her gloves, Cleo stowed those and her claw in the locker. Grabbing a tool kit, she set off at a trot to Thirty-three, where she gazed in satisfaction at the large cylindrical tank reposing on its side on a low platform.
They'll have to help me lift it off, but I can unfasten it, she surmised as she set to work. This outfit sports a small opening for its bulk, and a closely fitting lid. Smelly job, this will be. Ugh!
Having freed the tank of its fastenings, the inveterate scrounger gazed about. Idly, she made a mental inventory of what other equipment occupied Thirty-three, until the arrival of the two men pushing the platform refocused her attention on the unpleasant job looming ahead.
"I've got it undone," she declared. "All we need to do is shove it off."
Three pairs of hands lifted the tank down onto the platform. "We'd better fasten it, hadn't we?" Cleo asked.
"A spill of its contents in Eleven or the rim doesn't bear thinking about, I'll agree," Nigel replied sardonically, raising an eyebrow. "We'll do the job right."
By the time the hour for lunch arrived, the ungainly tank, securely fastened to the platform, rested outside the entry to Two. The pump rose above the aperture, braced and bolted. A long length of flexible hose lay coiled around the tank.
"Let's eat," Nigel grunted. "Enjoy our meal without any nasty odor's clinging to our clothing."
"I can see where three of us will make dire inroads on our rations of water tonight," Leonard groused. "Wear the soap to a sliver."
"We could use a dash of perfume, likely, as well," Cleo declared wryly. "Give our noses a change of stimulus."
Bearing her plate of spicy casserole to the table, Cleo beamed upon Michael. "I'm still basking in a glow of pleasure from my adventure," she informed the man infinitely glad that he had initiated the excursion. "Not even the thought of what will occupy our afternoon served to banish it."
That reminder sparked a wide grin. "From the heights to the depths, you've plunged. I don't envy you three that job."
"Did the cable that wrapped around Ten get frayed?" Nigel inquired.
"Not a single weakened place did I spy. Tough stuff, that aramid fiber."
Frowning in puzzlement, Cleo inquired, "How is it that those non-conducting cables don't get vaporized by the fields of the hull?"
"Good question, that. The designers equipped them with a metallic conducting insert, which runs their full length. An extension of the field forms around each tether."
"Will fields protect Eleven, once it's separated from the station?"
"Marvin and Conrad installed equipment that will generate those, once Eleven and its countermass are reeled together, and coupled."
"Mmm. I find that reassuring."
"So do we all."
A long stretch of work followed, punctuated by dire assaults on the olfactory nerves of the three sufferers engaging in it. Having pumped the contents of the waste tank in Two through the hose extending up through the hatch, the trio pushed the clumsy vehicle to Three, and filled all the vessels of Marva's unit. After Cleo demonstrated to Leonard how that apparatus worked, the pair left four vessels freeze-drying.
Nigel returned to find them reinstalling the pump on the opening of their mobile tank.
"I've loosened the cover on Central's waste tank," he muttered, wrinkling his nose. "We'll help ourselves to what we need to fill Eleven's tank, and then pump out enough to fill the lyophilization unit a second time. We'll take Eleven off the station's nutrient stream just before supper, and make our changeover. We'll keep a close eye on the tanks tonight, and tomorrow."
Surrounded by a miasma of acrid fumes, the team pushed the vehicle to the main corridor of Central.
"The line won't reach from hatch to tank," Nigel grumbled. "I removed a grill and a ventilating pipe in the corridor outside your old cabin, Cleo. We'll lower the hose down through there. Leonard, drop down the hatch, and position the line we let down to you."
Two grimacing workers shoved the unwieldy vehicle into a spot next to the opening in the deck. Cleo and Nigel next unwound the hose, and dropped its end down to Leonard. Moments later, a daunting reek rose out of the aperture in the deck.
"Stinks, hm?" Nigel commented superfluously.
"My poor overworked olfactory nerves should have given out by now, but they're still responding to the stimulus," Cleo groaned, holding her nose.
A disgusted grunt arose from the depths. "You two ought to take a whiff down here!"
Twenty minutes later, Leonard climbed out of the hatch, and rejoined the pair fastening the cover on the tank. "Whew!" he gasped. "Fresh air!"
"Not as fresh as it was," Nigel growled, casting a frowning glance at his crewman. "Did you bathe in it?"
"No more than I could help, believe me!" Leonard retorted with unwonted heat, glaring at man posing that sarcastic inquiry.
Mirth got the best of Nigel, and he chuckled. "We're no models of wholesome fragrance ourselves," he acknowledged. "Let's get this load of oozing excrement moved to Eleven, hm?"
Pushing the unwieldy vehicle alongside of Leonard, Cleo smiled sympathetically at the man whose eyes still smoldered with indignation. "Shit-handling brings out the worst in all of us," she consoled him in a whisper. "Any one of the three of us would start a stampede in a crowded corridor, right now."
Mutely, Leonard glowered at her. Suddenly, mirth overcame him. "Damned if we wouldn't," he agreed, chuckling. "Nigel had better not put my self-control to the test by standing where I could drain the hose down his neck, though. Purely by ... accident."
That observation evoked a stifled giggle. "I owe him a return favor myself!"
His sunny good nature restored, the youthful crewman laughed aloud. Enveloped in a noisome reek, the expedition arrived at Eleven.
Roused out of his domain by the smell, Justin stood frowning as Leonard opened the hatch, and Nigel dropped down to reach for the hose that Cleo unreeled, and handed him.
Michael strode out of the infirmary to stand with hands on hips. "Suffering shades of the putrefied flesh of the ancients, what a stench!" he barked. "Justin, close off the lab, before the food rots on the counters!"
"A bit thick, the fumes, I'll agree," the head cook replied, sliding the door against the frame with a bang. "That load ought to be well-supplied with nitrogenous nutrients."
A blonde head thrust itself through the door from the bridge. "What in the hell...!"
Marvin yelled from within, "Death of Earth, Conrad, shut the damned door!"
Unable to restrain herself, Cleo gave way to a fit of the giggles. Having cast an appraising glance at his scowling Captain, Leonard boldly shot Cleo his most impish grin. "Stampede's the word, all right, woman!"
Glowering from one offender to the other, Michael muttered a highly regrettable phrase before retreating back into his office. Chuckling, Justin withdrew into his workplace.
Holding her nose, Cleo climbed up to run the pump, while Leonard knelt on the edge of the opening in the deck, and waited to relay the order to begin pumping.
A string of caressingly uttered obscenities reached his straining ear. At length Nigel growled, "Start the pump."
A stink of cosmic proportions arose through the hatch, accompanied by a blistering flight of imaginative invective, wholly and utterly unprintable. Leonard clamped one hand over his mouth, and pinched his nose shut with the other. Cleo, her hands occupied, watched the level in the tank drop, wrinkled her unprotected nose, and retched.
After what seemed an eon, the gasping Gaean heard the gurgle of air mixing with the slurry, and inferred that the last of the load had been pumped out. Her fellow sufferer rasped, "Shut it off!"
Holding her nose, still gagging, the Gaean climbed down to stand next to the issuer of that plea. As Nigel rose through the hatch, Leonard sniffed, audibly. "Did you bathe in it?" he inquired in a pleasantly inquisitive tone.
Dark eyes glittered ominously as their owner turned to face the man meeting his glance with unruffled directness. As Cleo held her breath for a reason wholly unrelated to the stench, the two men fronted each other, their eyes locked in a test of wills, for a few seconds in which time seemed to the woman to hang in stasis.
To her relief, Nigel broke the tension with a hearty laugh. "I showered lavishly in liquified shit," he avowed wryly. "Followed your sterling example. A pair of pariahs, we seem to have become. Cleo, knock on the door of Justin's retreat, and tell him that we won't move this offense to the olfactory nerves until he fortifies us with coffee."
Exhaling the breath she had held suspended until now, Cleo banged on Justin's door. "Justin, if you'd offer us coffee, your brew would give us strength enough to get this outfit gone!"
That appeal prompted the head cook to slide the door ajar. Warily, he thrust out a pot and a stack of cups. At the instant in which the recipient grasped the offering, he shut the door unceremoniously in her face, spluttering anathemas.
The reeking Gaean set three cups on the counter, and poured them full. Handing one to each of her equally noisome companions, she raised hers.
"A toast," she proposed. "To the end of a long endeavor. We've come full circle. We began in shit, and ended in shit. Let's drink to our indefatigable team, and our stunning accomplishments!"
Three cups touched. Three malodorous individuals drank, smiling in perfectly restored harmony. Chuckling, Nigel admitted handsomely, "Full circle, indeed. Both of you jabbed your barbs with expert skill under my thick hide, today. Well, I admire guts, and neither of you lacks intestinal fortitude, that's for damned sure. Drink up, and let's get this mobile miasma back to Central."
Pushing the odious load back down the rim, Cleo and Leonard exchanged wickedly impish grins.
When the conveyance stood once again on Central's deck, Cleo declared firmly, "It's my turn to drop the hose in the waste tank." Without waiting for any response, she headed for the hatch.
The two men watched her vanish through the opening farther down the corridor. Turning, they exchanged admiring glances as her voice floated up through the vent-hole in the deck. "Pass me the hose."
Twenty minutes later, Cleo emerged from the lower deck, pale, choking, and redolent of fecal waste. "Before either of you says a word, let me freely admit that I wallowed in it," she gasped. "The damned hose dripped all over me before I could catch it!"
"That's what happened to me, too," Leonard affirmed. "As nasty a shower as I've ever taken, that."
"Let's push this abomination to Three, and leave it there," Nigel growled. "We'll then wash, and change. Then we'll do the changeover."
Three reeking waste-handlers passed the threshold of the entry to Eleven, to hear muffled exclamations of outrage, followed by the slamming of doors.
"Not exactly the welcome conquering heroes ought to receive, is it?" Leonard griped sardonically.
"My perishing soul, I can't imagine getting clean without a shower," Cleo grumbled. "Or at the very least, extra water!"
"We'll each draw an extra liter," Nigel declared with adamant force. "On my authority. I judge that the safeguarding of public health demands it. Cleo, use the bathcabin first. Leonard and I will double up afterwards."
Swiftly, the Gaean peeled off her reeking suit. Holding her nose, she shoved the befouled garments into the adjuster.
My poor putrid person's never going to come clean! she fretted. Well, scrub, woman, and don't dawdle. Your two associate stinkers pollute the air outside, while they wait for you to finish.
Having drawn her extra liter, she scoured her skin, and shampooed her hair. I won't take time to step into the air jets, she decided. I'll borrow the air gun Justin used when I got doused with the acid. Hastily fetching her spare suit, she dressed, and emerged to gesture her fellow sufferers into the bathcabin while still rubbing her dripping hair with a spare pillowslip. Striding across the dining hall, she knocked briskly at the entry to the bridge.
Conrad opened the door only a crack, and sniffed warily. When no smell assaulted him, he opened it wide, and waved her inside. "You repaired the ravages, I see," he grunted. "What a stench!"
"You should have joined us on Central's lower deck, and enjoyed the ultimate in olfactory experiences," Cleo retorted tartly.
Clapping her on the back, the engineer shot her a grin. "What wafted by me I consider experience enough, woman. What can I do for you?"
"Lend me a hot-air gun, so that I can dry my hair. I had to vacate the bathcabin in a hurry, so that Nigel and Leonard could bathe."
"I'll do even better. Follow me into the recreation hall, and I'll dry your hair."
Mollified, Cleo dropped gratefully into a chair, and relaxed while Conrad wielded the air gun, and dried her wet locks to a fluffy tangle.
"You look as if something gave you an exceedingly bad scare," he informed her. "Do you carry a comb?"
Hastily digging one out of a pocket, she handed it to him. "I'll go easy," he promised. I'll try not to pull on the snarls." Suiting his action to his words, Conrad deftly combed out the wild disorder.
Marvin rose from the deck of the exercise area, where he had knelt while laying out some sort of circuit. Strolling over, he smiled down at the woman exhibiting a well-scrubbed look.
"No lingering whiff of that awful odor," he declared with obvious relief. "I don't envy you your day!"
"It wasn't the most pleasant afternoon I ever spent, I'll freely admit!"
Michael emerged from the bridge, wrinkling his nose. "Not a trace of that blasted stink," he grunted. "I sincerely hope that your foray into Eleven represents the only assault we'll undergo!"
"It was, but the three of us will need to unload part of a tankful into Three's freeze-dryer tomorrow, so we'll likely return needing another bath."
"We'll clear you a path to the facility, never fear." The rugged face creased into a grin. "You smell as good as you look, now."
"I hope so. My olfactory nerves got shorted out, there at the end."
Nigel strode on silent feet through the bridge, and collected his third crewmember. "We'll go below, and make the switch," he ordered. Clad in his spare uniform, his dark hair fluffed from a hasty shampoo and a turn under the jets of air, his coppery face scrubbed all but raw, the team leader emitted no faint trace of the fetid odor.
Leonard, equally cleansed, followed his teammates down the ladder.
A faint smell lingered on the lower deck.
"I closed the cover on the tank, but the ventilating system hasn't removed the last traces yet," Nigel muttered. "Damned stench! You two close off the Y-connections that allow the nutrient stream from the station to pass into the primary tank. I'll throw the switch to start the automatic process in our new waste system, and check to see that everything's working. Then we'll spend some time reading the monitors."
Half an hour later, three observers stood before the primary tank, assuring their anxious selves that the transition caused no immediate problem.
"Everything seems to be working, Nigel," Cleo declared in relief. "Those values remain within the normal range."
"So far, so good. We'll keep a close watch. Leonard, after supper, I'll give you a twenty-minute intensive lesson on what these figures mean, and what range of values can be considered acceptable. We'll all need to be able not only to read them, but also to interpret them. Cleo, if you'd make the readings after supper, I'll make them at short intervals thereafter, until late this evening."
"I'll be glad to do that, Nigel."
"Well, everything looks good so far. Let's eat, hm?"
Sitting down with a generous serving of baked stuffed eel, baked sweet potato, and vegetables in a spicy sauce, Cleo smiled serenely upon the assemblage, and dug in to her meal, hungry after her labors of the afternoon.
Casting a thoughtful glance upon his second officer, Michael asked, "Nigel, did your changeover go without a hitch?"
"So far. I'll be monitoring late into the evening, and probably, at least once in the middle of the sleep-shift. I don't anticipate any severe problem."
"I'm relieved to hear that."
By this time tomorrow, spacer-captain, you'll be well launched along your chancy course. Enjoy tonight. Nine days from now could be our last!
Having completed her stint at monitoring, Cleo spent the balance of the period of recreation lying on her bed, relaxing. I just don't feel up to chess, cards, or any other activity requiring concentration tonight, she reflected. The memory of her sojourn outside rose to occupy her thoughts, bringing pleasure tinged with sadness. That was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, she acknowledged with regret, but better once than never.
Beautiful, the cosmos. Alluring. Men must indeed be programmed with a compelling urge to explore. I guess if we weren't, we'd have died off. I've always channeled my impulse to push out into new realms into research ... into investigations of molecular cell biology. I gained deeper understanding of the intricate workings of the basic unit of a life that evolved long ago on a distant world, in a far star-system. Life alien to this star's system: men and plants struggling to maintain a tenuous hold in this forbidding corner of the cosmos.
Well, that's not a bad way to handle your inherited drive. But I wish ... I can see what Nigel meant, now, too. Michael's crewmen combine the careers of researcher and spacer, and so they experience both sorts of adventure. They get to visit far places like O'Neill, while they solve scientific problems. They live lives full of danger, and run risks that add spice, variety, challenge.
My perishing soul, how will I ever settle back into a normal life, even if I get exchanged, and return to Gaea? I'm spoiled for that, now. I wonder ... will Signe ever take to space? Would she recruit a woman with my scanty experience, seeing as she and her fighters have none? That's a thought. Keep it in mind, and thrust the other fears out.
The door slid open, revealing her partner for the night. Impulsively jumping to her feet, Cleo ran to throw herself into his arms. Enfolded in a crushing hug, she forgot all notions but the joy the venture outside had afforded her.
"Oh, Michael," she breathed, when his grip relaxed a bit, "you can't know how deeply I've longed to do what you arranged for me to do, this morning! You simply can't! I appreciate what you did!"
"I enjoyed it as much as you did," he replied as fingers busily unfastened his tunic, and hands slid around him inside it. Pulling Cleo close, he smiled down into her upturned, vibrantly alive face, and lifted her bodily. "I didn't even manage to peel off your tunic," she protested, her arms encircling his neck.
"You just lie there in bed and stimulate my senses, while I beat all records for shedding a suit, woman," Michael ordered. His eyes raked every curve in her shapely body as he stripped off his uniform. She held out both arms to him as he dropped on her. The passion that had built all day to a final crescendo now rocked him to the core. Exerting himself to control that surging ardor, Michael used his every skill, his every art, to raise this woman he loved to a heat of passion equaling his.
Roused to an abandon exceeding any to which he had yet stirred her, Cleo gave herself wholly, inviting and then responding to his most intimately daring caresses. Those she returned with reckless hands and warm, moist mouth, finally achieving a climax that sent her into trance, and her partner into a triumphant hot blaze of satiety.
Sliding off her to lie with his arm around her, and his cheek pillowed on her yielding, soft breast, Michael drifted into a luminous, hazy twilight of the mind: a nebulous realm in which his rational faculties ceased to function. Conscious of happiness, he passed no judgment on its cause, nor pondered its effect. Awash in joy, he engaged in no debate with his alter self on the ephemeral nature of so blissful an emotional state. Time bypassed him. Caught in a lazy backwater of the scouring turbulent flood, enjoying the gentle rocking of the quiet eddy, he sensed that for a precious, minuscule interval, the onrushing tide of time had forgotten him. Contentedly, he enjoyed his anonymity.
Cleo drifted back into the universe she normally inhabited, to feel Michael's cheek pressing one breast, and his hand gently kneading the other. Her fingers ruffled his short brown hair, and traced the creases in his neck.
"Michael, that was ... my second flight today, into expanded awareness."
Michael turned her to face him. "Woman, I spent the whole damned day trying to focus my mind on my work, and off tonight. Wore me to a formless nub, the struggle, but that exchange exceeded the most teasing visualization that slipped by my guard."
"I must confess that my afternoon's activity kept my mind as fully occupied as was my nose, but I'm glad I managed to make you a return on this morning."
"You paid me back with interest."
"Part of it's my relief that you're all alive, after what you battled all week. That seven days seemed an eternity. What an accomplishment! You can take pride in what you've wrought."
"It wasn't all my doing. Team effort, our triumph. Seven people achieved that transformation together."
"Your leadership made the difference between success and failure, Michael. Without that, your team would have fragmented long ago."
"I can feel my ego inflating, woman. Nice sensation, but dangerous. Easy to grow overconfident ... develop a badly swelled head."
"Better overconfident than timid and vacillating, not that you'll ever know what either state feels like!"
"You've got me purring like the proverbial cat. Kiss me, woman. Quickly, before I crash to a cold, unyielding deck, back in the real world."
As Cleo kissed him, she felt passion stir in him again. His tongue inquisitively explored her mouth, and played games with her own tongue. When he withdrew his lips from hers, he whispered, "Back up, and tease me into getting hard again."
Languidly, slowly, Cleo slid downwards, and kissed Michael's shoulder, and then his chest. Her lips caressed his nipples. Her hands kneaded the hard-muscled, flat stomach. Her tongue investigated his navel. Having found his stiffening shaft, her fingers formed a ring, massaging his manhood. His long-drawn-out sigh of pleasure set her smiling, even as her eyes darkened with renewed passion. With both hands, she stimulated his now rigid member, and rose to sink over it.
Thrusting upwards, Michael pulled his partner forward, straining upwards to kiss her breasts. His hands slid over her upper body, and pressed her hard against him. Straightening her legs, she moved rhythmically, thrusting her pe lvis against his, driving a groan of sheer pleasure out of him. His hands spread across her buttocks, assisting her thrusts. Warmth radiated from her loins. New climactic contractions began.
Exerting herself to please this virile lover--to afford him the sensual bliss her strenuous movements gave her--Cleo raised him to a peak as draining, as fulfilling, as shatteringly intense, as his first: as hers now became. Spent, she sprawled above him, her cheek on his chest, her hands grasping his muscular shoulders.
For a time, neither partner moved. When the Gaean slid off, Michael gathered her into his arms, and whispered, "Woman, that was as nice an end to a harrowing week as a stressed-out spacer-captain could wish."
His arms full of warm, yielding femininity, his mind ineffably calmed, his worries for the moment submerged beneath the plane of his awareness, Michael lay happily savoring his languid drift across a boundary so imperceptible that sleep claimed him without his realizing that it beckoned.