Sesh stood at the feet of the hand-carved stone statue of the Exan mega-engineer. The 3:1 scale, monochromatic representation of Dr. Mavin Vandos sat in a chair with his desk beside him. His left arm was extended into the air where the object of his attention floated: a model of the Vandos station rotating gently above his palm. The Zelnaran commander was among others there who admired the handywork and noble portrayal of this man appearing to cherish his creation. Just being in the middle of the museum upon that habitat alongside billions of people was more than enough to appreciate the man’s genius. This made Sesh feel that perhaps she should cut Xannissa some slack.
“According to this,” came a familiar voice. Sesh looked over and saw Naret standing before a lumigraph with her arms crossed. “Doctor Vandos was born in the Federation but immigrated to the Republic.”
“I never expected you to be here, lieutenant,” Sesh told her. “You like history?”
“A little,” Naret said, looking back at the commander. “My father was from the Republic and my mother was from the Federation. Most of my siblings joined the Republic Military. I was the only one of them who joined the Federation, so I feel an attachment to both.”
“I suppose that helps you relate to this gentleman more.”
“Where I’m from,” Sesh explained as she backed away from the statue to allow those around her to take a closer look, “we didn’t have all these sorts of technological marvels. All my brothers and I had was the sky, the plants and animals, and the soil.”
“What was that like?”
“You’ve never known peace like the peace I’ve known. Mind you, we lived in comfort, but you could go outside the house, and across the fields you could see the forest’s edge. The only thing you could hear was the wind in the trees.”
“Did you ever go anywhere?”
“Only the places we could get to on foot.”
“All on foot? Wow.”
“Our parents encouraged us to venture out and explore; to experience the natural world.”
“What keeps you sane?” Naret asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean being confined to starships so much.”
“You might think this is silly,” Sesh said, “but a good imagination is all I need—an imagination nurtured by past experiences.”
“And that keeps you from needing to get away?”
“It’s not that I pine to return to the far Frontier, or even to a natural setting, but it is something that I enjoy very much.”
“You know,” Naret noted, “you and Commander Cetalo seem a lot alike.”
“How dare you!” Sesh said in a tone that belied the statement being a joke to anyone but those to whom she was familiar. She followed plainly, “You’re right, of course, which is why we give each other a hard time. Xann was born on a Sister World…”
“…Yes, so technology and civilization are all the woman knows. Maybe one day I can actually show her that the world is more than just hyperwarp and omnium.”
“Have you ever gone with her to the simulators?”
“No simulators. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy them, but I want people to admire the things that have inspired the great minds of the past with their own eyes, and not through some lumigraph. Do you understand? That feeling of being so far away from civilization as to be at nature’s mercy—camping in a wilderness that you can’t just step through a door and leave from—to live with nature like our ancestors for just a moment.”
“Can I go with you sometime?”
“If you’re serious, I can take you to Akos Three when we get back. No Accellus.”
“That’s fine with me. I look forward to it.”
Cylenna’s brand of reckless hedonism was often difficult for others to understand, but this was her lifestyle. It was her subconscious understanding that the majority of pleasure was gained by skirting the boundaries of pain. More danger, more delight. Higher the risk, higher the reward. It wasn’t just actual threats to life that excited her. The feeling of vulnerability gave her the reward she sought when other means weren’t immediately available, but it often gave the people around her the false impression that she was an exhibitionist. Though, if you considered the mechanism of her pleasure, the attention she gained from exposing her nudity made her feel vulnerable, and this perceived threshold of peril was the place where she desired to reside.
Cylenna walked down those crowded, lumionically-lit Vandos streets showing to all that passed by her neutral gray flesh above her knees, including her breasts, which tried desperately to protrude from her open short jacket—her maroon-tinged nipples threatening to flash with every stride, often succeeding. But she wasn’t alone in her choice of attire. Many other women and men deep in the pleasure district liberally displayed various parts of their bodies. The roving Archangels kept the atmosphere one notch short of a full street orgy. At least once, she felt an engorged masculine appendage brush against her buttock, prompting her to turn around while she continued to walk. She looked down at the man’s penis, and then back at his face.
She told him with an alluring smirk, “Better watch where you’re pointing that.”
“Oh, I’m watching all right,” he told her, looking the Elestan up and down.
“Though with that tiny thing, I don’t have much to worry about.”
“Oh, well fuck you!” the man shouted.
“Not a chance,” Cylenna said, bursting into laughter as the crowd closed in around her and she slipped away. She passed the storefronts bathed in red light whose entrances were manned by naked sex workers beckoning clients and patrons. After following the crowd for several more meters, Cylenna paused while people flowed around her, all delighting in their debauchery and occasional skin-on-skin contact. Over the noise of erotic euphoria, she heard the characteristic sound of an aerobike pass gently overhead. The Elestan looked up and followed it with her eyes as the craft set itself down within a clearing in the crowd. Wanting to take a closer look, Cylenna walked toward the landed aerobike until she arrived at some kind of event.
Three aerobikes hovered centimeters above the duralithic street. A fully-clothed Zelnaran man sat upon the vehicle that had just landed, and it didn’t take long to recognize who he was: the Republic Navy’s racer, known by his callsign, “Hammer.” Cylenna watched him dismount the bike from the crowd’s edge, arms crossed and nonchalant in her nakedness. Hammer approached a shorter man who looked like a lumigrapher as he scanned the crowd, only for his eyes to rest on Cylenna’s gray skin. Curious as to what was holding his attention, the lumigrapher and his assistants turned around and spotted her. Before Cylenna knew it, the lumigrapher was in her face asking her something over the murmur of the crowd.
“What’s your name?” the short lumigrapher asked her in a shout.
“I’m Cylenna,” she said loudly.
“The Cylenna? Cylenna Cetalo?”
“The very same.”
“Well I’ll be fucked!” said the lumigrapher rather flamboyantly. “What are the odds?! I’ll pay you for some shots right now if you want to pose for some. I’ll have an assistant of mine contact your agent.”
Cylenna dropped her arms and said, “Sure, I’ll humor you.” Under her breath she mumbled, “And the money’s nice.”
“Spectre?” Hammer asked her as he watched her form drift toward them. The lumionic lighting above highlighted her slender body. “Come to haunt my PR gig?”
“Absolutely,” Spectre said in jest.
“Even after you beat my ass in Metro Aero?” Hammer held out his arms to hug the naked Elestan racer. Cylenna eagerly reciprocated but soon realized that the lumigrapher was already capturing lumes.
“You taking shots already?” she turned and asked, quickly releasing Hammer.
“That’s the stuff!” the lumigrapher shouted. “A little tenderness between two fierce rivals! Love it! Lo-o-o-ve it. Spectre, drape your arms on his shoulders, and Hammer, put your hands on her hips. Move a few steps that way so I can get the bikes in the shot! Spread your legs out just a bit, there! Great!” The lumigrapher took several shots as he orbited them. “Now, how about you be brave, big guy? Think you can bare all with Spectre?”
“You sure?” Hammer asked reluctantly as the two racers let go of each other again.
Cylenna, recalling her short jacket, teased him, “You can’t compete with this,” as she rubbed her sleek feminine genitals, then dragged her hand upward across her tight abdomen and over her right breast.
“So that’s how it’s going to be, huh?” he asked. Hammer recalled his blue racing gear into his civilian REMASS, and after they both removed their boots, the both of them were fully undressed. Cylenna ran her eyes across the Zelnaran’s hairless, masculine figure; a smile forming on her face. Hammer took note, causing him a little unease. “What’s your problem?”
Cylenna’s eyes shot away from his privates. “What do you mean?”
“I want to keep with a sort-of erotic innocent theme,” the lumigrapher told them. “Spectre, do you mind if Hammer picks you up and holds you like a princess?”
“Sure thing,” she said, letting Hammer lift her up with one arm under her knees and the other behind her back.
“Now, wrap your arms around his neck. Remember, sex sells! Don’t smile too much. Let it come naturally. Keep her up for a few more seconds, there! All right! How about we take some with the bikes? I’m sorry we don’t have yours here, Spectre, but we do have a Nessin.”
Cylenna’s mild-mannered younger sister waited in a dim chamber. A lumigraph showed the status of the connection that the simulator was attempting to establish across a few thousand lightyears. Xannissa’s anticipation grew as the transmission began. A simulator-quality world unfolded around her, and she found herself standing within a spacious room lit mostly from the OPEL windows. The sunlight cast long rectangles of light upon the ground, and Xannissa couldn’t tell if it was morning or evening. Either way, standard time was the same for Vandos as it was on Lanan: about 2200.
“The sun’s been in the same spot since yesterday,” Aedan’s image said to her as he stood in the sunlight behind a sofa. “It’s going to take me a while to get used to this. Hi, beautiful.”
“Hello, handsome,” she said through her smile. She drifted slowly around the sofa to stand next to him. The bright sunlight highlighted one side of his body. The Elestan was eclipsed by his form for a moment. Glancing at the OPEL, she spoke softly, “Yeah, Lanan is like that. But let me show you something.” She took him by the hand to the OPEL window. Touching the panel prompted a lumigraph to appear. “If you want,” she continued, tapping through the menu, “the panels can give you the illusion of night.” Xannissa engaged the OPEL’s timesync mode which enabled them to alter the appearance of the outside world to mimic a certain time of day—specifically, the day as it should appear for a particular hour in standard time designating 0000 as midnight and 1200 as noon.
“I appreciate it,” Aedan said, “but I’ll try to experience Lanan’s day-night cycle for what it is, even if they are long days and nights.” Undoing the changes Xannissa made, he told her, “It makes the sunrises and sunsets that much more precious.”
Xannissa said, “You’re so sentimental.”
“Speaking of,” Aedan said, “I brought this home from my office.” The Terran picked up a framed photograph from the coffee table and showed it to her. Xannissa’s face lit up when she saw the two of them at his old office tower’s observatory a couple of days after his marriage proposal. She reached out to grasp it and bring it closer to her face. Aedan kept one hand on it at all times, leery of Xannissa’s lumions dispersing at any moment.
“Ever since that day,” Aedan said, still helping hold the picture, “I was worried that I’d placed too much of a burden on you.”
“What would make you think that?”
“The pressure of this engagement tacked onto your service.”
Xannissa laughed as she let go of the picture. “No. You gave me something to look forward to. This is my last mission.”
“What will you do when you get back?”
“Go back to instructing.”
“I can see if Klade would take you in as a Military engineering consultant. They’re always in need of more of those.”
“I’ll think about it,” Xannissa told him. “In the meantime, show me around the apartment.”
“Sure,” he said. “I didn’t get much of a raise for coming out here, but the income I was making would only allow me to live with Rom and Deya. That’s Earth’s housing market for you. Here, do you want to guess how many rooms this place has?”
“Six. Living room, dining room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms.”
“Where are we?”
“About a twenty-minute gravidyne trip from Lanan Sector University.”
“Farence metro area, northeast side.”
“That’s a very nice place,” Xannissa told him. “You have a good eye for real estate.”
“I’m just planning for the future,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I want to live a good life with you, and for our children.”
“Are you sure you’re okay with me not carrying them?”
“Xann,” he said softly. “You know how I feel.”
“I want you to answer yes or no.”
“It’s your body, Xann.”
“Yes, that’s why it should be my decision.”
“But the research says that exgest kids…”
“Then you carry them.”
“What? But I can’t.”
“Then why should I, if the technology exists?”
“I just want our children to be healthy.”
“They will be healthy. I’m proof of that, and that technology was less sophisticated when I was an infant than it is now.”
“My mother was pregnant with us,” Aedan said. “She made that sacrifice for us.”
“I’m in the Military,” Xannissa said with a heated tone. “Don’t talk to me about sacrifice.”
Aedan sighed before saying, “I’m sorry, Xann.”
“No, I’m sorry,” Xannissa told him. “I’m the one who brought it up.” The Elestan’s tangible lumigraph clung to him. “I’m still so far away, and I just want to be home.” Aedan moved a hand under her short jacket and rubbed her bodysuited back up and down.
“You’ll be back before you know it,” he assured her. “And then I’ll be Aedan Cetalo.” The Terran tilted his face down and kissed her blue hair.
Atara, Kyora, and Admiral Relex continued to converse within the private booth at the Shattered Star.
“I’ll give you a chance,” Relex said, “to right the wrong of your superiors. Leave part of that ecksivar here on Vandos.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Atara asked, sharing a look of agitation with Kyora.
“Have you bothered asking your Admiral Aesho that? How could you, or they, sleep at night when the only known sample of ecksivar turns up missing because of the thieves of the Thalassia Orionis? Wouldn’t you want the assurance of having part of it kept safe here on Vandos?”
“I have my orders.”
“You have your orders. Fair. You have no reason to trust me. I could just turn right around and sell it to the highest bidder. But in the long run, in what way would that profit me? The Federation is a rational actor. I would much rather all ecksivar end up in their hands, but definitely not Domina or the Three Brothers or whoever. Can’t you see that carrying all that ecksivar on one ship is inherently disastrous?”
“If you care so much,” Atara told her, “give us escort.”
“If I gave you escort,” Relex said, “we would attract the syndicates en masse. We would have the largest engagement this side of the Saraian Range in a hundred years.”
“So your hands are tied?”
“Not with regard to what I proposed: holding part of that sample.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, admiral,” Atara said. “If you would allow me to pay for the drinks, the colonel and I will be on our way.”
“It’s on me, captain,” Relex said. “I do appreciate your time. Not often do I get to hear the Federation’s current perspective.”
“We enjoyed your company,” Atara stated, “and thank you for your hospitality.”
“My offer still stands as long as you’re docked,” Relex told Atara and Kyora as they moved through the open OPEL door and left the private booth.
Both of them stood outside as the mist started to move in. The lumionic lights of the streets and buildings bloomed in the condensed microdroplets of water that floated on the chilly breeze. Atara was still wearing the short jacket she fabricated earlier as she looked down the street. Kyora, in her phantom combat configuration, stood in front of her captain and said, “I’m going to shroud myself and shadow you.”
“You still feeling bad?”
“Worse,” said the Elestan phantom.
“Alright,” Atara said, scanning one end of the street and then the other. The phantom disappeared into the night. “I’m going to meet up with Sesh at the museum.”
Atara strode off toward those busy streets, past the ethereal lights glowing overhead. Though the night wasn’t exactly frigid, she could see her misty breath mix with the humid air when she exhaled. She knew Kyora was keeping watch over her from the shroud, but she couldn’t shake her loneliness. The towers were titans, and the stepped terraces canyons, all enveloped in a night as artificial as the station itself.