Subjugation 3 - Unification.jpg

Subjugation 3

Unification

by James Galloway (aka Fel)

 

 

 

ToC    1

 

 


To:   Title    ToC            2

Chapter 1

 

         Daira, 25 Shiaa, 4400 Orthodox Calendar

        Saturday, 30 November 2013, Terran Standard Calendar

        Daira, 25 Shiaa, year 1326 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical  Reference Calendar

        KMS Abarax, en route to cooridanates CM117 212X-334Y-105Z, system designation Exile

 

        Jason was not a fan of extended hyperspace travel.

        They couldn’t make the jump all at once, because the planet Aura named Exile was halfway across the galaxy.  It would take nearly 47 minutes of continuous hyperspace travel to reach the planet, and none of them could have handled such a long journey in one stage.  So, Sevi and the Abarax, carrying the Grand Duke Karinne, Meya and Myra, Aya, Shen, Ryn, Deri, Suri and 10 others of the Dukal Guard, First Lieutenant Kyva and 4 other Gladiator pilots along with their mecha to serve as major ground power in case of an emergency, and Chieftess Aura of the Exiled, made the journey in 15 stages of three minute jumps and a final two minute jump, with twenty minutes of rest between each jump.  They were in a hurry to get there, but so much hyperspace exposure so fast was not worth the risk, that was something that was only done in emergencies.  So, they were enduring long jumps, and then taking a break between so everyone could recover from the long jump.  Jason spent the time between jumps getting updates from home, for they were still giving him regular hourly reports on repair status, and now interdictor status.  The interdictor was now their utmost priority, even over getting their fleet back in fighting shape, so he wanted regular reports on how the construction was going.

        Slowly.  None of them had ever built one before, and they were having to build many of the components that it ran on from scratch.  Myleena was all but living in Kosigi now, personally overseeing the construction of those components with her entire engineering team, except for Jyslin.  Jyslin was staying at home, watching Rann and Danelle.  Jyslin and the Marines often looked after each other’s children, so Jyslin was more than happy to look after Myleena’s daughter while she was busy.  The interdictor would be done in about three weeks, and those were three weeks that Jason would barely sleep.

        When not keeping track of what was going on back at home, Jason learned much about Exile from Aura.  They sat in his cabin, him and her and five of his guards, as she showed them the city using images the Scimitar had taken when it landed, pointing out all the important landmarks.  The city was built on the shore of their island on a terraced slope with a highly salty brine lake on one side and farmland and plantations of fruit-bearing and utilitarian trees on the other.  There were three flat areas with very gentle slopes between them, and the larger buildings were constructed on the flat terraces while the gentle sloping land between them was populated by private dwellings.  They had industry in their town, located at the top terrace near the Hall of Council, their government building, consisting of what automation they had, their small factory that made silver wire on one side and their mills on the other, both textile and grain grinding mills.  All of their factories were powered by steam generated in copper boilers; the only metal resources the Exiled had were silver, copper, lead, and zinc, and none of them were sturdy enough for heavy industry.  They had made due with the four metals they had, alloying the copper, lead, and zinc together to form a metal that, while nowhere near as sturdy and effective as steel, was nevertheless just sturdy enough to allow them to build a few things.  There were hot springs at the top terrace and a large stream that bubbled out of the ground nearby and then flowed down to the sea, which served as their main source of fresh water and source of energy for several mills, which used waterwheels.  They used large windmills for producing electricity, located on a high knob above their farms and plantations, and then their hand-made silver and copper wire spread it through their town along hand-cut and shaped poles.  They utilized steam power, using massive boilers built using their alloy that was thick enough to contain the pressure, and that steam power was conducted through copper piping to drive machinery in their small factories, but instead of cutting down their forest to get the heat, they used their advanced knowledge of chemistry, mining elements out of the mountains and combining them to produce intense heat.  They didn’t have an abundance of metal resources, but their island was rich in many other elements like phosphorous, sulphur, and carbon, which was put to good use by their advanced knowledge of chemistry.

        The island was very large, about half the size of the Japanese island of Kyushu, and could support a population of millions, but the Exiled remained in their one small area, leaving the rest of the island to nature.  Their island had four active volcanoes on it and a very small yet rugged chain of mountains running from east to west across its center, effectively bisecting the island.  There had been reports and rumors that the Gruug, their main competitors and enemies on the planet, had spread to their island on the northern side…but how, they had no idea.  Aura said that the Gruug were primitive and violent, but Jason suspected it was possible, given the images he saw.  The northern tip of their island was only about three days from the mainland in a canoe, only about sixty miles away.  It was entirely possible that the primitive Gruug had built boats and settled the island.  The city was built in a natural harbor, for there was a fourth, much steeper terrace that dropped down into the water, deep enough for the Scimitar to land and pull up to one of the wharves they’d built for their fishing vessels, which were as intricate as any one would see, sailing vessels utilizing electricity generated from fans on the masts.  It had to be frustrating for them to have the knowledge to build steam-powered ships, but not having the resources to do it.  Their copper-zinc-lead alloy was sturdy enough to use as a boiler, but only when it was so thick that the weight made it impractical to use on a ship.

        After Aura showed them the island, she discussed her people with him.  She explained that, like any Faey anywhere, they couldn’t be grouped together.  She was sure that most of the Exiled would want to return to Karis, but there would be some that wouldn’t entirely be enthusiastic about it.  Some would go only because of their spouse, some would go only to fear being left behind, and there would be some that would absolutely refuse to leave their home.  Those called themselves Exiled, but to them it was just an empty title.  Their world was their home, and they would not leave it.  Jason and Aura discussed what they would do for those who left behind, since Jason had no intention of just leaving them to fate.  There were supplies to be left behind, and the main ones would be industrial replicators capable of replicating titanium and heavier elements that they could use to build machines and equipment that had previously been denied them.  Other equipment would be given to them, but out of protection for his own people, nothing that was Karinne technology.  There would be no singularity power plants, no pulse weapons, no interfaces, nothing of the sort.  They would be left with Faey technology, not Karinne technology, all of it stock Imperium equipment, bought right off the shelves.  They would leave them a threaded hyperspace communicator that would let them communicate in real time between Exile and Karis, hoverpods to move heavy equipment, farming equipment, water reclamation equipment, replicators, medical equipment, basic equipment that a colonizing ship might need.  And they would also be left weaponry.  They would be left not with MPACs or the inferior hot plasma weapons, but with railguns, since they’d have a replicator on hand to manufacture unlimited ammunition for them.  Railguns were actually rather low-tech as tech went, they were just an ingenious adaptation of that low tech to match higher tech weaponry.  Jason was willing to supply them, but he could not leave them anything that could be captured and used against the house.  They could have no technology that Karinne protected, nothing that anyone could not get by walking into a store on any Imperial planet and buying, except the railguns.  They would also be left 20 Karinnes that would train them in using the new equipment, who would stay for three months before returning to Karis, and then those who remained at Exile would basically be on their own.  Exile was too far for the KMS to quickly respond if they were attacked, and Jason would make sure to impress that fact on them.  If they called for help, that help would not arrive for nearly 67 minutes, given eight 6 minute jumps, the longest jump time usually permitted to Faey, with just a couple of minutes of rest between them.  For those 67 minutes, they were on their own.

        But there was only so much they could go over before they had everything covered.  They were in their last rest cycle before jumping again, and it was only natural for them to drift into personal conversation.  Aura had already met Jason’s family and seen his friends and his life, but she had more questions, some of them quite insightful.  So, you have a wife, an amu dozei, and an amu dorai, but you have five children by neither your amu dozei or amu dorai?

        Yeah.  Before we found Rahne, everyone thought that I was the last human descendent of the Karinne nobles.  The girls didn’t like that, they felt that one accident would make my line extinct.  So, they baked up this harebrained scheme to give me children from multiple mothers, to protect my line.  I have five kids, Aura.  Rann is the oldest and is the heir, then there’s Kyri, the daughter of Yana.  Then there’s Aran, the son of Maya.  Then there’s Sora, the daughter of Zora.  And my youngest is Zach, the son of me and Ilia.  I admit I wasn’t too happy with their plan, but I can’t deny that I’m not ecstatic with the result.  I love my children more than life itself.

        I remember them from the dinner, she mused.  The one with green hair was Aran, yes?

        That’s him, though it’s been darkening lately.  My son Rann, he was born with orange hair, then it turned red, and now it’s slowly turning blond.  I wish it’d make up its mind, he sent with an audible chuckle.  What about you?

        Well, I was married and had a child, but they walk with Trelle now, she told him.

        I’m sorry.

        It was years ago, she told him, a little dismissively.  Since then, my duty to my people has made it hard for me to devote myself to the family life.  How many Karinnes—true Karinnes—are there left?

        Well, if we include the Exiled, there’s about two thousand, he answered.  We’ve been tracing bloodlines to find the descendents of the Karinnes still in the Imperium, those whose ancestors married into other houses, and we’re trying to reconstitute the blood descendents.  But they don’t have any special place in the house, he warned.  The descendents of Karinnes are the equal to those we’ve invited into the house when we first reclaimed it and started working to repopulate Karis.  It doesn’t even mean very much to have a noble title in the house, he chuckled.  Our nobles roll up their sleeves and work, probably even harder than the commoners.  I’d expect nothing less from them.

        It is the duty of the rulers to provide for the needs of the ruled, she nodded in agreement.

        Well, we tend to let the house members rule themselves, he told her.  Every city has a mayor and town council, and we let them basically run things.  Each city handles its own affairs, taking care of the small things and the things that matter to them.  They only bring the important things to the Dukal government, and it’s us that also deal with the unclaimed land, planetwide changes in status like marriage permits, hovercar licenses, and birth certificates and such, and the central government provides power and water to all cities.  Outside of that, the other main duty of the Dukal government is defense.

        How do you pay for everything?

        Well, on the planet itself we don’t really have to pay for anything, he answered.  The Dukal government operates outside of money.  When something is needed, we supply it.  If something needs to be built, we build it.  Outside of that, where we do need money, we have three main sources.  First, we have the Academy.  It does turn a profit, and half of those profits go to the house while the other half goes to the Academy for expansion.  The second source is through the contract with have with House Suralle for farming Terra.  The contract actually favors Suralle heavily, they get the lion’s share of the profits, but it’s a good contract for us in that all the responsibility is also on the Suralles. Third, well, let’s just say that the house is heavily involved in commerce.  We don’t tax our citizens, instead we make our money through wise investments and selling goods produced by the house’s manufacturing companies.  One of our biggest sellers is precious metals like iridium, tungsten, silver, and copper.  We have replicators that can make them where the Imperium doesn’t, so we replicate the metals and sell them on the metals market under a front mining company.  The Dukal government also manufactures and sells some common household appliances in the Imperium from factories on Karis, then we filter it into the Imperium through Terra.  We actually do a pretty good business, since Karinne technology lets us manufacture faster and cheaper than most of our competitors.

        You sell Karinne technology?

        He shook his head.  We make what you’d find anywhere in the Imperium, we can just do it better and cheaper.  We sell under several brand names, Vultech being the biggest one.  So, Karinne makes most of its money off good old fashioned capitalism.  The Academy and our contract with the Suralles is guaranteed low return income, where our business ventures are our primary source of income.  We pay for everything literally by selling copper and tungsten, cutting knives, house cleaning robots, and a type of sonic generator that drives insects away from a back yard so you’re not bothered with pests.  Those are our three biggest manufactured products.

        Clever.

        Thank you.  Karinnes were always good at science, so now the house uses that bent to make its money.  Oh, how the Trefanis hate us, he laughed.

        Who are they?

        He didn’t have to explain the structure of the nobles houses of the Siann to her, since that was part of the education she received from her ancestors and it was all still viable, so he explained what some of the nobles houses were up to.  He told her about the ambitions of the Highborn houses, particularly the Shovalles now that the Trillanes were completely crushed, and the unique aspects of some of the lesser houses, like the Trefanis, who all but owned all organized crime in the Imperium.  He explained how the Karinnes danced around the Trefani stranglehold on non-noble commercial shipping due to the utter fear the Trefanis had of Jason, fearful that he would turn his creative mind to ways to disrupt their criminal enterprises, of which he had almost traitorous knowledge.  The Trefanis knew that somehow, the Karinne Grand Duke had way too much knowledge of their schemes and plans for him not to have a spy somewhere in their organization, and that knowledge of their operations made them give him a wide berth.  He exercised that power by chasing them away from Karinne-backed businesses, preventing them from taking their pound of flesh from his house through their control of so many aspects of general business and commerce.  The Trefanis had their claws in the spheres of cargo transport through non-noble companies, mercenaries, illegal arms sales, and they owned the black market of inter-civilization trading, and through that, had a great deal of control over the legitimate trade that passed between the Imperium and its neighbors.  The Trefanis controlled both the normal markets and the black markets with the Skaa and the Alliance, where they controlled the food and raw materials bartering between the governments on the surface while goods and technology were bought, sold, and moved in back room deals.  It was jokingly said that in order to get a bottle of Bari-Bari juya wine, one should just give half the shelf price to the Trefanis.  That wouldn’t be an incorrect saying.  The Trefanis were the most powerful of the lesser houses, and more powerful than about half the Highborn houses, but they actually preferred staying in the background.  They made much more money controlling the shadows than they ever would walking the lit path.

        Ah.  We don’t have that problem.  We use favor at home.

        Favor?

        Favor.  Ours is a barter economy.  We trade goods or services with others for what we need.  A woman’s wealth is measured by how many favor slips she has collected from others, promises to do a service or promise of goods.  She who is owed the most is the wealthiest.

        Well, that would work for a small society like yours.  What happens to the poor?

        No one is poor, she told him.  Any woman can pick up a hammer and swing it, and so she always has something to barter for the goods she needs.

        True.  I hope your people can adapt to the idea of money.

        We understand the concept.  It will be new, though.  So much will be new, but I am looking forward to learning.

        We’ll enjoy teaching you.

        She looked him up and down.  Why did they put you in that armored suit when it takes us so long to get there? she asked, sending privately.

        You are, he answered honestly, also privately.  Aya will never let me leave the house unarmored if I’m not completely safe, and she considers you a security risk.

        Really! she huffed, offended.

        Aura, Aya considered the Empress a security risk, he sent bluntly.  Aya does not like me out of armor unless she has complete control of my environment and is absolutely sure I’m safe.  When I took the Empress home just before you arrived, I was in armor, even though I never left the ship.

        Well, I guess I can forgive your guard captain if she is always so careful.

        She’s worse than a nanny, Jason complained.

        I’m sure she’ll love hearing that, Dera teased.  Dera was like Symone, capable of hearing private sending, and her skill was one of the reasons why she was with them for this trip.  Dera would pick through all the private sending to ensure nobody was planning anything underhanded.

        If she finds out, I know who to spank, Jason shot back privately at her, which made her giggle silently.  Anyway, look at the situation I’m about to enter from Aya’s perspective.  An alien world filled with unknown Faey who might not like me swooping in and destroying the entire society you’ve built over the last thousand years.  As to her putting me in it when we left, well, it’s how she makes sure I stay in it.  And it’s also how she tells me to be careful.  Any time she makes me armor up before I even get out of my house, it keeps me on my toes.

        That would focus you on the task at hand, she agreed, then she started sending openly again.  How much will my people be allowed to bring?

        Anything but heavy equipment, I’d reckon, Jason answered, scratching his cheek.  They won’t need anything big, but we’ll have plenty of room for all your people’s possessions.  This is big ship, Aura.  It has plenty of room.

        I can almost not believe how big it is, she told him, her disbelief at seeing the ship for the first time bleeding into her thought.

        This one isn’t the biggest.  The Aegis is nearly five times bigger than the Abarax.  I would have sent it or one of the heavy battleships, but they’re all in spacedock being repaired.  This is the biggest ship I have right now that’s functional, and it’ll be put in for repairs when we get home.  Besides, if this ship isn’t enough, we have a task force with us.  They’ll have extra room, just in case.

        And for extra protection.

        The Grand Duke wanted to come with three ships, Aya sent, a little accusingly.  After what happened at Karis, the Grand Duke isn’t going anywhere without a task force to protect him.

        All sections report jump readiness! an open sending boomed through the ship.

        Time to strap in, your Grace, Aya called.  This is our last jump and then we’re there.

        Thank God, Jason grunted as he and Aura got up and went to the secured chairs.  Jason’s backplate of his armor sealed with his chair, immobilizing him, while Aya and Shen helped Aura strap into her chair.  They locked themselves down as well, and Aya nodded to Ryn.  The Dukal party is secure and ready to jump, Ryn called over the sending chatter as sections reported in to the bridge.

        I do understand your aversion to this travel, Aura sent openly as she took a deep breath.  It’s like being poisoned by a mindwrack snake.

        I’d give my hair to the person that invents a way to jump hyperspace without the effects, Jason grunted as he leaned his head back against the headrest.

        Thirty seconds to jump! the first officer’s sending called.

        Be glad you’re not a Marine, then, Shen told them.  Hyperspace training is mandatory for them.  They have to be able to handle a six minute hyperspace jump.

        Well, they’re braver than I am, Jason replied, which made the guards grin at him.

        He hated jumping.  He kept his eyes tightly shut and tried his best to ignore the cacophony of sounds and smells, even the sensations that rippled through his body, as his three-dimensional senses tried to decipher multi-dimensional space, and failed miserably.  It went on, and on, and on, feeling like it was taking forever, and for an irrational moment he had this terrifying flash of being trapped in hyperspace, being driven mad by the environment.  Two minutes in hyperspace was an eternity, and not even gripping the hands in his gauntlets into fists so tightly that his knuckles cracked registered to him.

        And then, after an eternity, it was over.  The sounds snapped away, and he felt normal again, if a little disoriented.  He opened his eyes and felt his senses try to realign themselves, saw the room swim to his eyes, and then everything came back into focus as his mind cleared.  He had his gestalt release him from his chair even as he reached out for the glass on the table across the cabin.  It rose up from the table and floated over to him quickly and effortlessly, and he grabbed it in his gauntleted hands and took a deep, cleansing drink, getting a sandy taste out of his mouth that had persisted through most of the jump.

        I cannot get used to seeing that, Aura told him.

        You actually won’t see it often, he answered.  I don’t practice often enough to suit my teacher.

        Who is your teacher?

        I can’t tell you.  She keeps her talent a secret.

        Ah.  Well, I can respect that.  She gave him a curious, sidelong look, her gold hair tilting with her head.  You keep many secrets, don’t you?

        Way too many, he answered honestly, going over to the table and opening the sliding shields on the port windows.  Aura’s planet, blue and green and white, filled the window, some twenty or so thousand miles ahead.  As was normal, they had to jump outside the planet’s gravity well and travel to it, which would take about a half an hour.  The bow of the Aurora, one of two destroyers assigned as primary escort to the Abarax, was just visible at the edge of the window, slowly sliding into view as it took a lead position in front of the heavy cruiser.  The destroyer had a nasty black scar on its flank, starting right at the bow and extending nearly sixty feet, and there was a rough scar that looked worse than it really was in its amidships, from where debris had struck it and bounced off, debris from a Consortium vessel that had tried to ram but had been destroyed.  The destroyer couldn’t get out of the way of the debris fan, and had been struck by a sizable piece.  The Veriven, named for a past Empress, ghosted into view on the right, and it had a series of patches on its bow, impacts from a torsion weapon, but was otherwise remarkably undamaged.

        Evidence of the ferocity of the battle that had taken place just days ago.

        There were 14 other KMS vessels behind them, cruisers and destroyers that were part of the task force to defend the Grand Duke Karinne while he visited Exile, with the Abarax serving as the flagship of the formation.  Jason had originally scoffed at the idea of mobilizing every single ship that could function, but both Aya and Myri flatly told him that he was too important not to go around without all the protection they could give him.  Aya almost didn’t let him come because she didn’t think they had enough ships, but Jason had talked her into it.

        Jason looked at the planet, and was amazed at how much like Earth and Draconis it looked.  This, he realized, would be an outstanding planet to claim for House Karinne.  It was all by itself way out in the galaxy, known only to Karinne and to the Consortium, and it was an arable planet, a farming powerhouse.  There was no technologically dominant race on the planet, just the Gruug, which he could probably approach and offer to accept into the house if they wished it.  With Exile as a base of operations, Karinne could claim the planet as their own.  They’d just need a Stargate and some planetary defense systems.

        That would have to wait, though.  Right now, protecting House Karinne and Karis took priority.  They could come claim this planet after the threat of the Consortium had been neutralized.

        That’s your planet, Aura, he told her as she came to the window and looked out, her eyes wondrous.

        No longer.  My home is now the home of our ancestors, she sent strongly.  I’m just here to bring my people home.

        Jason put his gauntleted hand on her shoulder.  She looked at him and smiled.  Well, to be honest about it, I look at Exile as the newest world belonging to House Karinne.  Your planet is rich and beautiful, Aura.  I think I’m going to secure it for the house.  I can put a Stargate right over there, and we can build a nice little colony on your island, as well as a few other continents.  This planet would be an excellent farming colony.

        You think so?

        Oh, yes.  Arable planets with a climate like this are very rare in the galaxy.  And nobody else is around to claim it.  So why not us?

        Why not indeed? she smiled.  How long would it take you to claim this planet?

        Well, it won’t be immediate.  We’re way too busy right now recovering from the Consortium attack, there are too many things for us to do. But in a couple of years, when we get a Stargate built, we can put it here that gives us immediate access to the planet.  When we do that, we can move in and claim it for ourselves.

        That sounds wonderful.  My people who remain behind will truly come to be part of the house.  How long until we arrive at the planet?

        Probably about a half hour, but lemme check.  He expanded his sending to reach the bridge.  Sevi, how long until we’re in orbit?

        About twenty minutes, your Grace.  I’ve already got the landing bay preparing your dropship.  You can go there at your leisure.

        Thanks, Sevi.  Do your people know you’re coming back?

        Of course they do, Aura told him.  Mistresses Meya and Myra promised my people to have me back within five days.

        I hope they’re ready, Jason noted.  That they don’t think you vanished forever or something.

        Many were very excited about our return, she told him.  I’m sure that they’ll be ready.

        I just hope we can convince them, Jason sent uncertainly.

        You are a silver-tongued devil, as the Terrans say, your Grace, Ryn sent cheekily.  I’ve seen you charm your way into anything you want.

        Those are Faey I know and understand, Jason returned.  The Exiled are very different.

        They still know a handsome face and a warm smile when they see it, Dera told him.  Just be yourself, your Grace.  It gets you very far with Faey.

        Yes, like into the Empress’ bed, Shen sent with a teasing grin.  How much further could he go?

        I’m about to make you walk home, Shen, Jason threatened, looking back at her.

        I wish I could have met the Empress, Aura sent.  I would like to meet this woman that is your amu dorai and take measure of her.

        Why?

        A man can be measured by the women who woo him into their bed, she answered.  It’s often a window into his mind.

        Jason laughed.  Please don’t hold Symone against me.

        Against you?  Symone is a wonderful woman, you could do much worse than her.  She is earnest, fun-loving, charismatic, and kind.  She is an ideal amu dozei.

        Thank you for seeing what I see in her, he sent with a smile.  And why are you trying to look into my mind, hmm? he asked with a playful undertone.

        I’m about to place the safety and well being of my people in your hands, Grand Duke Karinne, she told him seriously.  I would be a poor leader of my people if I didn’t try to learn everything about you I can.

        I can’t argue with that, he agreed after a second’s thought.  Am I passing the test so far?

        So far, she answered with a smile.  So, when will you make the Empress an amu dozei?

        Well, that’s not really my choice, now, is it? he answered, a trifle uncomfortably.  That’s an issue between Jyslin and Kellin, not me and Dahnai.

        Oh, your Grace, your Grace, your presence is required in the landing bay so we can fall down and worship you, Myra sent tauntingly.

        Woman, you’d better hide by the time I get there, he warned.  Better yet, I think I’ll leave you behind.  I can turn Exile into the place I send all the troublemakers.

        Why Jason, if you did that, you’d be the first one you’d have to banish here, Meya sent lightly.

        I think someone wants to keep her sister company.

        Sevi owes me too many favors to leave me behind, Meya teased.

        I’ll just threaten to take her off the Abarax, Jason sent with a sly twist.  She loves this ship more than she owes you, Meya.

        Damn you, evil man, Meya laughingly sent in response.

        Of course I’m evil.  Look at who keeps me company.

        It’s so nice to be appreciated, Aya sent dryly.  Now let’s move along, your Grace.  You can make empty threats when you’re in the landing bay.  I want to get you on the dropship so we can launch as soon as we’re in orbit.

        Bully.

        Always.

        They went down to the main landing bay, where a wingless dropship had its rear hatch open, and Dukal guards running all over the place.  The dropship and two Raptors were preparing to depart, along with a single Gladiator wearing an external harness that would let the mecha fly with more speed and control than they usually had.  Gladiators were capable of flight, though not very fast and very clumsy in the air, but for something like a landing on a planet from an orbiting ship, they didn’t have enough control to descend safely.  The harness looked like a giant backpack containing a gravometric engine with short, stubby wings over the shoulders.  When attached, the external engine was the one that produced the flight power while the engines in the mecha concentrated on stability and flight control, which stabilized the mecha in flight and made it controllable at high speeds.  Myleena had built the external flight harness a year ago for the Gladiators for making planetary landings without a mecha dropship, and it had been tested, but they had never had any reason to use one of them until today.  Today, a Gladiator would be making the first non-test descent to a planet, and there was no better Gladiator pilot to do the drop than Kyva.  Meya and Myra were standing by the ramp talking to her.  She had a golden phoenix on the shoulders of her armor, the emblem that she had been awarded the Dukal Medal of the Champion, the highest award a member of the KMS could receive.  It was just outside her Lieutenant’s insignia, and would forever be a part of her military rank.  Why the war machines? Aura asked.

        Protection, Aya answered.  They may be our people, but you know the history of our people, probably better than most Faey.  I want more than enough on hand to protect the Grand Duke in case someone attacks him.

        You worry too much, Mistress Aya, Aura sent dismissively.  Do you really think we would attack those we have waited for for over a thousand years?

        I take no chances with his Grace’s well being.  Empress Dahnai would slaughter me, she sent forcefully.  Let’s get moving here, ladies!  I want the Grand Duke on his way as soon as we’re in stable orbit!

        Jason kissed Kyva on the cheek on the way into the dropship in greeting, then went in and took his proper seat in the pilot’s chair.  Aya seated the copilot’s chair, and Dera and Aura sat in the chairs behind them.  He started the engines and got the dropship ready to take off with practiced ease.  Is everyone aboard? he called, his mind ready to raise the stern ramp.

        Hold up, I’m almost there, Myra called.  He looked through the rearview camera, which pointed down the ramp, and saw her rushing up into the dropship.  She closed the ramp herself using her interface, then hurried out of the camera’s view.  Stern ramp closing, and we’re all in.

        Sevi, the dropship is ready to go.  He used his gestalt to contact the controller through gravband.  [Abarax control, this is Karinne One, ready for departure.]

        [Understood, your Grace, we’re three minutes from orbit,] came the controller’s response, translated into communion by his gestalt

        “Everyone get locked in back there!” Jason called over his shoulder.  Kyva, stop playing around and saddle up, he sent to the Gladiator pilot, who was standing by the leg of her mecha.  I swear, woman, two days and those bars are already going to your head.

        I am going to get you for promoting me, she sent in retort, a bit indignantly, as she put on her helmet and then floated up to the chest of her mecha using the flight engines in her Crusader armor.  They want to give me command of a squad of Gladiators!

        You’d do very well at it, he told her as she locked herself in place, and then the heavily armored chestpieces of the unit folded over her, all but entombing her inside.  Jason had piloted that very same mecha, and he knew what it was like in there, the pilot literally could not move, literally encased in a heavily armored box inside the chest, the most heavily armored part of the mecha in order to protect the pilot from injury.  The mecha was flown using the interface, it did not even have manual controls.  While Kyva piloted the device, she literally was the mecha.  Her mind moved it the same way it moved her own body, with the same grace and agility.  Unfortunately an interface could only transmit such things, not receive, so she still had to rely on her eyes and ears for sensory information during combat, all presented to her on a heads-up display transmitted into the visor of her Crusader armor, a display she controlled utterly by interface, letting her see anything around her mecha she wanted at any time.  But still, even with that, any ship or mecha piloted by interface could outperform anything controlled manually.  You’re nasty enough by yourself.  Put five other of my best Gladiator pilots with you, and that’s one nasty fighting squad that would scare the piss out of any enemy.  Actually, I like that idea.  I’ll talk to Sioa about it when I get back.  I’ll have all your Gladiators painted black, so the enemy knows they’re about to die.

        That’s asking for trouble, your Grace, Kyva sent mirthfully.  If you build a squad full of aces, you’re just concentrating the estrogen.

        Pft.  I’d also have a crack ground squad that could do anything.

        Flatterer.

        You know it.  I’ll call you Karinne’s Baddest Bitches.

        Well, I do like that name, Kyva mused, which made Jason laugh.

        [Karinne One, Control.]

        [Control, Karinne One, go ahead.]

        [You’re cleared to depart, your Grace.  The lane is loose.]

        [Understood.  We’ll be taking off in just a second.]

        [Be aware that heavy mounts will be tracking you down.]

        [Understood,] he said, having the computer take friendly computer locks off the alert, so the computer didn’t go nuts when his own ship locked weapons on him as a means of tracking him and keeping their weapons focused on his area.  If he was attacked, the weapons would immediately switch targets and be able to fire almost immediately.  The engines gave that high-pitched whine as they were brought up to power, and then settled into a soft hum.  Sound off when ready to move, he sent through the landing bay.

        Gladiator One ready, Kyva called.

        Raptor One ready.

        Raptor Two ready, the two fighter pilots answered.

        Follow me down, ladies, Jason told them.  [Control, Karinne One.  We’re departing now.]

        [Trelle be with you, Karinne One.]

        With practiced ease, Jason lifted the dropship off from the deck.  The two fighters and the Gladiator also rose up from the deck, and they followed the ship through the airskin shield that prevented the landing bay from decompressing.  Jason followed the vector supplied by the dropship, through his gestalt, then the five craft entered an entry vector that would bring them down through the planet’s atmosphere at a speed that was slow enough to prevent heating but fast enough to get them down in about twenty minutes.  Aura, we’ll be coming down out to sea and approaching at sea level.  As soon as we’re in range, you need to warn your people that we’re coming, and not to panic when they see the Gladiator.  Make sure to tell them it’s there just as my escort.

        I’ll make sure of it.

        They made a nice controlled descent down into the blue sky of the planet, and while they did so Jason kept an eye on the Gladiator.  Kyva did a perfect job of flying the unit out of her normal element, flying along with them at Mach 4 and rock solid in the formation, bringing up the rear as the Raptors flanked the dropship.  The flight harness looked to be another Myleena success, and it opened the doors for the Gladiators to be used in an entirely different manner.  With those harnesses, Jason could even see them used in space as fightercraft, landing on the enemy ships and wreaking havoc.  After all, in space, there was no air resistance, and the engine in that external harness would give the Gladiator speed and agility.  They leveled out about twenty miles from the island and then turned towards it and slowed down, to give Aura a chance to contact her people without them coming up on them too fast.  At about seven miles out, Aura received a reply from her continuous sendings.  Seven miles, that wasn’t bad, they had some strong telepaths.  Chieftess, we are so happy to hear from you!  Did they bring you back? a female replied.

        Orri, yes!  The Grand Duke Karinne himself has come!  Tell everyone that they are bringing flying machines to Exile, and not to worry.  Just to warn you, one is in the shape of a giant Faey, it is one of their land defense machines.

        Why did they bring such weapons?

        Just as a precaution.  They were attacked by those who attacked our ancestors, so they are keeping protection with the Grand Duke.

        Ah. Understandable, but it worries me that they might bring our ancient foes back here.

        Orri, we are leaving Exile.  We are going home!

        Not everyone wants to leave, Chieftess.

        We’ll discuss that when we get there.  We should appear over the sea any time now.  Please tell everyone that they should send to our guests, their spoken dialect is different from ours..

        I’ll pass the word.

        Jason slowed them down to a crawl as they approached the island.  The city of Exile was exactly the same as the images the twins took of it, a nice town with buildings made from stone and whitewashed wood with white tile roofs to reflect the sub-tropical heat, a sea of white nestled in green trees that looked like a cross between palms and willows, rising up in three distinct terraces from a blue sea with about fifty sailing ships.  Each house had a flat tilted roof that pointed downhill, where gutters poured rainwater into cisterns at the corners of each house, and every house had a small garden behind it.  Jason saw an open area on the middle terrace, some kind of park or square, so he slowly swung out over the town of about a thousand Faey, then gently and slowly set the dropship down.  When the ship was fully settled, he shut down the engines as Aya ordered the guards to prepare to disembark.  The Faey of Exile were surrounding the four ship, flinching and backing up a couple of steps when Kyva shifted the Gladiator to face the dropship; she would remain within the Gladiator.  Aura hurried out into the large hold of the dropship as the stern ramp was lowered, then she hurried past them and down into town, hurrying towards several Faey wearing white robes, where most of the Faey were wearing wraps around their torsos with only one sleeve…and some men and women went topless in the summer heat as quite a few of them were completely nude, mainly the younger ones.  These Faey had the same concepts of modesty as the rest of the Faey.

        That was an important signal to him.  These may be Faey who had lived in isolation for a thousand years, but they were still Faey.  They had clung to their beliefs and culture, but not Imperial culture, Karinne culture.  That was an important distinction.  The guards filed out as the Raptor pilots opened their canopies, and Aura greeted her people by touching hands, kissing cheeks, and sending strongly enough to overpower all the chatter going on around them, almost a cacophony to his mind.  She was reassuring her people, telling them that the Grand Duke Karinne had come, and she was sure to warn them that their new Grand Duke was not entirely Faey, only part Faey, but he was the one to which the fabled living computer gave homage.

        It’s safe to come down, your Grace, Aya told him from outside, while Shen, Ryn, Dera, and Suri stayed with him.  Meya and Myra joined him as he walked down the ramp and was gawked at by several hundred faces, since he didn’t have his helmet on and they could see his human face.  He heard quite a few sendings commenting on his strange pink color and round ears, but also picked up quite a few comments on how handsome he was from the women.  Even the Exiled considered him attractive.  Jason was escorted by the six women as he stepped out onto a grassy lawn in the center of the city, a city that had stone streets that looked like cement, power poles with electrical wires running along streets, and carts being pulled by huge bipedal bird-like creatures, the Exiled’s beasts of burden.  He could see the factories with their hundred-foot tall stacks wafting out steam and smoke from their chemically-induced fires that generated steam for them, and he could see a small waterfall towards the lake which was the stream as it tumbled from the top terrace down to the middle terrace.

        Jason drew up his thoughts as he stopped, then sent openly with enough power to cover the entire town.  I am the Grand Duke Jason Augustus Fox Shaddale Karinne, he told them.  I, like you, am a long-lost child of the house, descended from the line of Sora Karinne, the product of my noble line and the indigenous race on the planet to which my ancestors fled after the Third Civil War and the destruction of our house.  But we are lost and destroyed no longer.  The House has been reformed, and even now, we scour the galaxy searching for the lost children of Karinne.  On behalf of the house, I bid you greetings, give you my joy in finding more of the scattered remnants of Karinne, and I welcome you, our long-lost kin, back into the House if that is what you desire.

        As I’m sure Countesses Meya and Myra told you when they left, I have come here to offer you a chance to end your exile and return to Karis.  We will welcome you with open arms and allow you to take your place among us.  But, if leaving what you have built here is more than you can bear, we do understand.  It’s hard to leave everything you’ve ever known for an uncertain future.  As my own ancestors can attest, sometimes what you are forced to call home eventually becomes home, and you may not want to leave it.  So, for those who wish to go home to Karinne, we will welcome you.  Those who wish to remain here, we will help you.  No matter what you choose, know that House Karinne will do its best to see that you are happy.

        So, that’s it.  The truth.  I know I’m not exactly what you expected to see in a Grand Duke.  I’m not even fully Faey, he smiled.  But, I am a Karinne.  I know my heritage, and I work to restore many of the Karinne ideals.

        People of Exile, Aura sent strongly, let us welcome our long-lost kin to our homes.  Everyone, please, consider this day a day of rest and celebration while the council and the Grand Duke meet to discuss his offer to take us home.  And everyone, please, think about what you want to do.  Think about it carefully.  If you wish to stay here, the Grand Duke has agreed to leave us machines to make our lives easier and a means to communicate with Karis.  If you wish to return to Karis, he has already built us homes and has our kin waiting to show us the wonders of which we have only read and dreamed.  So consider what it is you wish to do.

        If we don’t like it there, can we come back? someone sent.

        Jason smiled.  You may have to wait a while, but yes, if you really, really want to come back here, I’ll make sure it happens.  You deserve a choice, and you also deserve the right to change your mind.  So, if you go and decide you want to come home, you may.  If you stay and later decide you’d like to go to Karis, we’d be happy to help you move.  Just keep in mind that it’s a very long way to Karis from here, so if you decide to move back or forth, you may have to wait a while until a ship is coming here, and then make the journey.  And, understand one thing.  Just as our ancestors did, we guard technology the rest of the universe hasn’t yet attained.  If you decide to stay, and you learn the secrets of the Karinne technology through training or education, you can’t come back here.  You’ll be a permanent part of House Karinne and sworn to keep those secrets from both friend and foe alike.  So please don’t think you can run back and forth between Karis and Exile whenever the mood strikes you.  It’s a choice you should carefully consider, just as your Chieftess has suggested.

        We’ll discuss this in more detail at a meeting of council, and the councilors can tell you what was discussed, Aura sent.  Your Grace, if you’d follow us, we’ll retire to the council building.

        Jason turned.  Kyva, wait here.  You’ll knock down all their wires if you try to walk around.

        I’d rather stay close to you, your Grace.  I can’t protect you from here.

        I have the others for that.  Just protect the ships.

        Alright, your Grace.

        A child hurried up to the foot of the mecha and stared up at it in surprise, a little eight or nine year old girl wearing nothing but a little sari wrap around her waist.  “It’s a giant metal Faey!” she exclaimed.

        No, there’s a Faey inside it, Kyva answered, sending in the manner that children could hear.  What you see is just a machine, sweetie.  There’s a living Faey inside, she added, touching the chest of the Gladiator with a hand.

        “Woah!” the child gasped, gaping up at the seventeen foot tall mecha.

        Jason was escorted with Meya, Myra, and nine of his guards along streets paved with what looked like concrete, for it was definitely not natural stone.  His boots clacked along it as Aura and nine others walked with them, led them up a terrace with quite a few Faey following behind them, sending excitedly among themselves.  They were led to a large three story building with large glass windows and a balcony that ringed both the second and third floors.  They were surprised when Aya held them outside and sent her guards in the inspect the area, to which Jason apologized rather contritely.  I’m afraid they take my safety very seriously, he explained.  I’m amazed Aya didn’t insist I wear my helmet.

        That is armor of some kind, your Grace? one of the others asked.  I thought it was some kind of decorative metal suit.

        It’s armor, he nodded, rapping his knuckles on his chest, right over the Karinne crest.

        Your Grace, that crest, it’s different from the one we know.

        The crest was changed when I reclaimed the house, he explained.  The bird here is a symbol of how I came to claim the house.  The Empress made a gift out of my new signet ring, now that I recall.  I’ll explain it to you later.

        She made you change the crest? one of them asked, a bit scandalized.

        Well, to be honest, I was the one that wanted to change the crest, he told them honestly.  I didn’t just walk into the palace and claim the house, I had to fight for it.  This bird is the symbol of that struggle.  It’s also a symbol of change.  I adhere to many of the tenets of those who held the throne before me, but there have been changes.  This change in our crest reminds us of who we are and where we came from, but also reminds us that we are not the Karinnes whose footsteps stretch behind us in the sand.  The fact that a part-Faey man sits on the throne is just one of the biggest pieces of evidence of it, he sent with wry amusement.  When I told the Empress of my desire to change my crest to add the Legion Phoenix, the symbol of those that followed me before I took the throne of Karinne, to the Karinne crest, the Empress did it before I did.  A member of the house drew the design, which I think is rather nice, he added appreciatively.  It fits almost perfectly between the waves and under the star.

        Aya finished her sweep and allowed them in, and they did so.  Aura led them all to a large audience chamber with a long table on a dais where the councilors sat facing rows of wooden chairs, and the original Karinne crest on a large flag behind the center of that table.  Instead of going up to their table, they instead rearranged the chairs in a rough circle.  Jason, Meya, and Myra sat down with the Chieftess and her nine council members, whom she introduced one by one, while Aya and her eight guards took up defensive positions at the three doorways leading out of the room.

        For nearly two hours, Jason, Meya, and Myra explained their plan to the council.  Jason stressed that they were not forcing anyone to do anything, and now that they knew about Exile, they were going to make sure that those who did decide to remain behind would be very well cared for.  Jason and Aura explained their plan, and Jason used sending to show them images of the town that would be theirs, a nice town surrounded by green and with mountains in the distance to the north, a modern place still sealed in bioplas and waiting for them to move in.  He explained how they would be cared for, how volunteers would teach them everything they wanted to know, help them integrate back into House Karinne.  He had a detailed plan for that, a plan of education and training for everyone and advanced training and formal education for anyone who wanted it, as well as an offer from teachers on Karis to work with their own teachers of the kids here on Exile to work out a new education plan for the kids to help teach them about Karis and their new lives.

        After what was awaiting them was explained, Jason went on to explain what would happen here on Exile for those who remained behind.  He explained the machines he intended to leave to help them improve the quality of life and the twenty volunteers that would remain behind to train them in how to use the machines.  He told them about the communication device they would leave here that would let them talk with Karis, but he also stressed that it would take many hours to travel from Exile to Karis, so if they had some kind of an emergency, help would take a while to reach them.  For that time, they would be on their own.

        I don’t understand what you mean by replicate, one of the two male councilmen, a tall blonde Faey named Harel, sent, his confusion swirling in his thought.

        The term isn’t used as a literal description of the device, it’s just a term for what it does.  What the machine does is rearrange matter at a subatomic level to produce raw elemental material.  For example, you could pour waste from your kitchen table into it, and it would use that matter to create, say, pure silicon.  It does have a limit, though, it can only produce lighter elements.  It can’t produce iron, but it could produce anything the atomic weight of  titanium or lower.

        I thought you said— Aura sent privately to him, but he cut her off.

        I told you, we couldn’t leave them any Karinne technology.  What we’re leaving is a standard Imperium replicator.

        Ah, I see.

        What use would it provide us? Harel asked.

        The main thing you don’t have here is access to strong metals.  Well, one of the metals that the replicator can make for you is titanium, Meya answered.  Titanium is extremely strong, and you can use it to build many of the devices you keep in your history but never could because you don’t have the right materials.  The replicator can only produce one element at a time, but remember that it can create it in almost any shape you want, so you wouldn’t have to forge and shape it yourself.

        Another advantage is you can produce pure hydrogen, sulfur, phosphorous, and quite a few other combustible or useful chemical elements like sodium, which you could use to power your furnaces or use in your chemical shops.  No more mining sulfur and phosphorous from the volcanoes, Jason added.  It can also produce different structures of elements, which lets it replicate an extremely hard crystalline form of titanium, or diamonds for industrial use, or isotopes.

        Yes, that would be useful, he nodded.

        But that’s just what we’re leaving.  For our own safety, we’re not leaving anything that has technology in it we keep from the rest of the universe.  Those who come to Karis will see much more powerful machines, and may even learn of them, if they decide to foreswear the chance to come back here.

        That condition may not set well with some, a female councilor, Devanne, told him.

        It’s an unavoidable necessity, he answered seriously.

        We can’t teach others our secrets and then let them go, Meya agreed.  You know what the ancestors were like.  We’re no different in that regard.  The secret unspoken remains a secret, as the cousins say.

        That produced quite a few nods of understanding.  They again returned to Karis and the town and discussed things more, like food, energy, recreation, and education, but one councilor brought up something Jason hadn’t even considered.  It’s a lovely place, your Grace, but it may not suit us.

        You mention that now, after we’ve talked about it for five hours? Jason asked, a bit tartly.

        Well, it serves our needs, but…it’s not on the sea.  We have lived by the sea for nearly seven hundred years.  To live in a place without smelling sea air or hearing the waves, well, that might unsettle some of our people.  If we can, we should live by the sea.  To keep at least one feeling of continuity, if nothing else.

        Jason was about to send in reply, but came up short.  He thought about it a moment, then finally nodded.  Well, I can see that as a potential necessity.  We’ll let the people decide.  We’ll ask them if they’d rather live by the sea, or in this grassland town surrounded by ample arable farmland.  We can let them vote.  Whichever side wins is where we settle your people.

        I think they’d like that.  It would give them much more of a feeling of control, Aura nodded.

        I think this would be a good place to stop for now, Jason offered.  I’m hungry, for one, and I’d like to take a bath and spend a little time out of my armor.

        We have a wonderful hot spring not two hundred paces from this building, Aura offered.  And we would be honored to prepare a meal for you, your Grace.

        A hot spring, you say?

        Oh, it’s quite popular, Harel noted.

        Could you show Aya where it is, so she can inspect it?  She won’t let me out of my armor unless she feels I’m safe.

        You’re right, I won’t, she sent strongly.

        I’ll take you there, Harel offered, standing up.

        Very good.  Ryn, Dera, Uva, Shiri, come with us.  Shen, you have command here.

        Yes ma’am, came several replies.

        Jason chatted amiably with the councilors and Aura as the guards checked out the hot spring, hearing about how fishing, shellfishing, and hunting large creatures that looked like gigantic seals for their blubber combined with agriculture, tending fruit plantations, and hunting large wild herbivores that looked like hairy armadillos and other smaller game fed the entire town, with a surplus every year that was saved for times of bad harvest.  They even had access to oil in the form of a natural well a ways from the village, which they had somehow managed to refine into a plastic, as well as tar, kerosene, gasoline, and lubricants.  Their refinery was a surprisingly small little complex about four kathra from the village—to keep the smell away—that brought the finished products to town on carts and wagons pulled by those large bird-like animals, which they called striders.  The sending image of the refinery showed him a small complex of copper tubes, vats, and towers, where oil was vaporized and recondensed to separate it, then it was converted to tar, a rough and unrefined form of plastic, combustible liquids like kerosene and gasoline they used sparingly.  Their ingenuity with only having copper and zinc available as hard metals in any real abundance was quite admirable.  It showed they were truly children of Karinne, not primitives.  All they lacked were resources; if he supplied them with all the resources they needed, he had no doubt they’d have PPGs and fusion powered devices here within twenty years, since all the instructions for building and maintaining them were still in their records.

        The Exiled were amazing, in his opinion.

        Aya reported that the hot spring was safe, so Jason found himself going with Meya, Myra, his guards, Aura, and two council members, a tall redheaded man named Zeran and a willowy young white-haired woman named Luza, as the rest went out to spread news of their first meeting through the town.  The hot spring was a spa of sorts, a large wooden building with a large fence around the back, containing the hot springs.  They passed down a long hallway that bisected the building, and then Aura led them into the last doorway on the left, into a large room filled with simple benches and little shelves on the floor with many legs under it.  There was a folded robe on the top of the shelf, and a pair of slippers in the nook under it.  We commonly undress and leave out clothes and shoes here, then step out to the spring, Aura explained, already reaching for the tail of the tee shirt she’d been given on Karis.  They’ll bring us dinner out at the spring.  It’s often quite relaxing to enjoy a light meal while soaking in the hot water.

        Aya, can I take off my armor? Jason asked, a bit cheekily.

        Go ahead.  We have the spring area secured, you’ll be safe.

        Jason was helped out of his armor by Meya and Myra, then in turn helped them out of their armor as Aura, Zeran, and Luza removed their clothing and waited, quite comfortable standing there nude.  Jason also couldn’t help but notice the appreciative stares he got from Aura and Luza after the twins helped him completely out of his armor, and he couldn‘t help but notice that Aura was stacked.  She had a body much like Dahnai‘s, both pleasing curves and sturdy muscle, the body of a sexy woman who also did a lot of manual labor.  She wasn’t as tall as Dahnai, and her legs weren’t as long, but she was still very nicely proportioned.  Her breasts were larger than normal for a Faey and also resting on a platform of muscle, just like Dahnai, but Aura had slightly narrower hips that Dahnai.  Their pubic hair was similarly eye-grabbing, though.  Dahnah’s bronze hair just dragged one’s eyes right to her genitals, and Aura’s brilliant gold pubic hair, almost glowing with its vibrant sheen just like the hair on her head, did the same thing when contrasted to her blue skin.  His eyes were locked right on her female equipment for several long seconds, captivated by that golden attention-getter.  He could not help but admire her handsome body a bit longer than what was normally good manners among Faey, gone from admiring to staring, and Aura seemed to notice his look.  She just gave him a slight smile and moved her hands, allowing him to see all of her he wished to see.

        Why Jason, you little slut, Myra sent privately to him, though she did include Meya in her sending, giving him a teasing look.  Stop fucking Aura with your eyes.

        I am not.  I was just admiring her.  Her body is similar to Dahnai’s, and that caught my attention.

        Given how hard you were staring right at her pussy, I think something got your attention, Myri teased.

        Well, he has good control, Meya noted dryly.  I don’t see his dick even twitching.  I guess that was mental sex, not physical.

        Oh, push off, you two, he retorted, but he kept his eyes on Aura’s handsome body as he did so.

        You wear nothing under it? Luza sent, a faint undercurrent of desire lurking under her sending, something she might not even have realized was there.

        Jason blinked and broke his long, assessing stare of Aura’s sexy form, and chose to ignore that undercurrent.  There’s no room, he explained.  The exacting fit of the armor is absolutely critical for it to protect us.  There is no open space inside it, it minimizes the chance that any kinetic energy is absorbed by the body inside.  This gel backing fills all space inside the armor not taken up by my body.  He flipped over a piece of Myra’s armor and showed her the gel backing on the inside of the piece.

        What is this gel?

        It’s a very soft material that also holds its shape.  It cushions the armor without sliding out of position, but when its struck by a powerful blow, it stiffens up to help prevent any transfer of kinetic energy to the wearer.  It’s soft and comfortable until you hit it, then it congeals quickly to the same hardness as leather.

        It also makes the armor comfortable to wear, Myra added as Jason and Myra unlatched her breastplate and backplate for her and helped her take them off, leaving her naked from the waist up. It’s like being surrounded by cool silk.

        I wonder what it’s like to wear it, Zeran noted.

        We can’t show you, you wouldn’t fit in his Grace’s armor, Myra sent to him with a smile, boldly looking him up and down.  His Grace is a bit bigger than most males.

        Yes, we noticed, Luza sent with a light smile.

        Jason blushed slightly.

        The hot spring was indeed very nice.  The water was heated by geothermal activity, and had a strange smell that wasn’t unpleasant, smelling of minerals.  The water was hot but not scalding, and the water came up to his ribcage when he sat down on the sandy bottom.  A meal of roasted meat and strange purple fruits was offered to him.  The meat tasted like venison, and the purple fruits were quite tangy and delicious.  Wow, these are good.  I wonder if they’ll grow on Karis, Jason mused, taking another bite.

        We call them bitterfruit, because if you eat one before its ripe, it’s very bitter.  And I’m sure we can take some seeds or saplings back, Aura told him.

        You definitely need to bring seed and any animals you want along.  I think your bitterfruits would be very popular on Karis.

        I’m glad you said that, for anyone who owns a strider or a chechi will definitely want to bring them.

        What is a chechi?

        Luza showed him an image of a feline animal with striped black and gray fur, that had a very long tail and large, eerie blue eyes.  That’s a chechi.  They’re our pets.  Them and the striders are the only animals we’ve ever domesticated.

        Why didn’t your people ever try to domesticate the large animals you hunt for meat?

        Because they’re very, very bad tempered, and there’s a lot of them, Aura answered.  And they’re stupid.  There’s no need to domesticate them, since they’re abundant, and no rancher would have the patience to try to manage them.  We domesticated the striders when we first arrived.  They’re very intelligent animals, and easy to care for.  They’re omnivorous, so we can feed them whatever we have at hand. They eat almost anything, from roots and berries to meat.  They can even eat bones.  She accepted a tray from a young girl with a nod and a smile, and the girl, nude, gave the guards a frightened look as she hurried out of the spring chamber.  I’d like to hold a townwide meeting tomorrow at noon, she told them.  Our people have had days to think about it since I left with Mistresses Meya and Myra. I’ll give them one day to make up their minds after the word is spread, and then they have to choose.  I’d like us to be finished with the packing and on our way back to Karis in five days.

        That’s not much time, Luza noted.

        If we give our people all the time in the world to decide, some will take all that time without committing, she answered.  I want them to choose, not walk in circles and make everyone wait for them to decide.

        It’s going to create some friction.

        I’m not going to please everyone in this, so I’ll just look to cause the least inconvenience to the fewest people.  So, do you like our spring, your Grace? she asked him.

        He leaned back against the wooden walkway around the pool, using it as a backrest, and nodded.  We have artificial bathtubs that let us soak in hot water, but there’s something to be said for this place.

        The water is good for you, Zeran told him.  It invigorates the skin and soothes away tension.

        I know all about that.  I’ve spent hours soaking in my tub back home.

        Are you married, your Grace? Zeran asked.

        He nodded.  I have a wife and five children.

        You sound like a busy man, Luza smiled.

        He laughed.  I guess I am at that.  But my wife isn’t the mother of all of my children.  He explained the plan that they pushed on him, how four of the nobles in his house bore children to bolster the numbers of the Terran Karinne nobles.  It turned out that I’m not the only Terran descendent of a Karinne noble, but we didn’t know that at the time.  We only just found Rahne a couple of weeks ago.  My wife’s been trying to get pregnant again, though. She’s been trying ever since we had Rann, but no luck yet.

        Just be patient, and Aris will grace you, Zeran sent confidently.

        So you and this Rahne are the last of the Karinne nobles? Luza asked.

        He shook his head.  There are exactly two hundred and seventy four of us, including infants.  All of us are directly of Sora Karinne’s line, but I’m the one that discovered that truth first and reclaimed the house.  That makes me the Grand Duke.

        But what if one was of a higher generation?  Would you not stand aside?

        Jason started a little at that, but then he remembered that that was how the Generations identified themselves within the house.  The generation mattered.  Jason was known to Cybi officially as Jason Karinne of the 97th generation.  The commoners had no idea what that meant, but they had picked it up as a means of identifying nobles over time.

        I am of the highest generation, Luza, he sent carefully.  I’m of the ninety-seventh.  Almost all of us are.  Some are ninety-sixth or ninety-fifth.  By rank or blood, I’m the highest ranking of the leftover Karinnes.  The ancestor that came to Terra and created the Faey-Terran line was a member of the Royal family.  Cybi says so.

        Cybi?

        The living computer, Aura told her.  It exists!  I stood before it and it welcomed me to Karis!

        I can prove my rank easily enough, he sent casually, wrapping Luza in his power.  He lifted her out of the pool with his telekinesis.  Luza gasped when she was pulled into the air, then she laughed as she hung there, suspended against gravity.  Is that good enough for you, Luza?

        I suppose it is.  May I get down now?  I’m feeling just a tad bit exposed here, she sent with that same desirous undertone, and Jason realized he was looking up in a manner that showed him everything she had to offer.

        I never expected a Faey to complain about being exposed, Jason teased as he put her back down gently.  I guess the Exiled are indeed different from other Faey.

        Oh, we’re not different, she smiled.  I’m sure you noticed when you arrived, but we consider clothes an adornment, not a necessity.  Many refuse to wear them at all.

        Yes, I noticed that.  It’s not far from Faey society today, so you aren’t much different.

        Well, I think maybe we hit a little snag in our thought there.  I didn’t mean exposed so much as vulnerable.

        Ah.  Yes, those two words have a similar meaning in my native tongue.  I must have assigned the word to the thought, then took it for its alternate meaning. Sorry.

        Not even talent is infallible, Luza smiled. But, I must say, your Grace, you are the strongest telepath I have ever met.  Even stronger than the women!

        It’s true proof that you are a Karinne noble, Zeran nodded.  Only a male Karinne could have such strength.

        I’m nothing compared to my wife, he sent honestly.  She can tie me in a knot.  I may be a Karinne noble, but I’m still a man, and that means I’m weaker in talent compared to the Karinne women.

        Your wife is of your generation?

        Actually, she’s a commoner from the Imperium, he answered.  In the years since the Third Civil War, I think the basic power of the average Faey has increased.  Some of the strongest talents in the house are only Karinne by title.  Yana is the most powerful telepath in the house, maybe one of the strongest alive, and she’s not a Karinne.  But our daughter, he sent, then he shuddered.  She’ll put us all to shame.  I’m the father of Yana’s daughter, he explained.  Her name is Kyri.  I guess it was a good match, our daughter was born with her talent awakened, and it never faded.  She’s been expressed since she was in the womb.

        Wow! Zeran sent with an audible gasp.

        Yes, I’m very proud of Kyri, Jason sent with a smile.  My oldest son, Rann, just expressed last week, at the age of five.

        Congratulations! Zeran and Luza sent in unison.

        Thank you.  My wife is very happy, she was a bit jealous of Yana’s daughter’s talent already being expressed.

        I see Faey competitiveness has not dimmed over the years, Luza laughed.

        Not one tiny little bit, Meya agreed with a smile and a nod.

        It actually gets them into trouble sometimes, Jason sent teasingly, giving Meya a sly smile.

        We don’t get in trouble!  We just never get caught, Myra corrected him roguishly.  You’re the one that always gets caught, Jayce.

        You’re just asking for it.  I think after we prank Kumi, I’m gonna come after you two.

        Anytime, anywhere, baby, Myra sent mockingly.  You know we own you.

        Not for long.

        Why do I feel we’re missing half of this conversation? Zeran asked with amusement.

        You are.  The Grand Duke and us go way back, Meya said, reaching out and patting Jason on the shoulder.  To long before he was anything.  So we get --to-- be meaner than you do.

        Oh gee, thank you so much for that, Jason sent darkly.  And I think it’s time to pull out the toy box for you two.

        Oh joy, we get special toys! Myra sent with a snarky tilt to her thoughts.  You never did build My Little Pony, Jayce.  I wanna ride your pony!

        Eh?  I didn’t understand some of that.  What are you going to ride?  Your small…what? Aura asked.

        Jason supplied an image of the ancient My Little Pony toys.  A child’s toy from my home planet.

        How can you ride that?  It’s too small, Luza protested, which made the twins burst into laughter.

        The twins were more than happy to explain some of Jason’s background to them as they all got out of the pool and dried off with towels offered by young teenagers that worked at the spa, who were also nude.  So, we’ve known him a long time, way back to when he was just hiding out in the wildlands of his planet.  We’ve been friends a very long time, Meya finished up, kissing Jason on the cheek fondly as he dried his hair.

        Is she your amu dorai, your Grace? Luza asked.

        The twins?  Nah.  We’ve never really felt it was necessary to go there.  We’re just good friends.

        Well, we’ve thought about it, Myra winked at Jason.  But we kinda like our friendship the way it is.  If we show him what a real woman is like we’ll change our friendship, and also ruin him for his wife and his lovers.

        So sure of yourself, Jason murmured mentally.

        Jyslin and Symone and Dahnai, even Kumi would be so jealous if we seduced you, Meya mused, giving Myra a sly look.

        This is the perfect place.  All by himself, no one to protect him from us.

        He’s certainly not hard to get horny, she noted, giving Aura a cursory look.

        We do know all his buttons, Myra agreed.

        Girls, you can’t call it a seduction when you’re standing here planning it in front of me.

        Alright, let’s plan his rape instead, Myra grinned.

        Hmm…if he gets it up, can we really call it a rape?  I mean, he’s willing at that point, Meya sent, quite seriously, which made Jason laugh helplessly.

        God, I missed you two.

        We know, they sent in unison, smiling at him.

        That was so much the truth.  The twins were always a delight to be around, for Myra was sly and teasing, playful and bold, where Meya was more intellectual, more cerebral, more acerbic.  But when they were together, they were nothing but fun.

        Jason returned to the dropship after they were dressed, walking down in the warm afternoon sun.  I’m going to send down a dropship to replace us and wait until tomorrow’s meeting on board the Abarax, he told Aura.  That way you can contact me if there’s an emergency, and the team staying behind can get a head start on looking over the city.

        But we can—

        Aya won’t let me stay down here overnight, he cut her off.  Thank you for the meal and the wonderful soak in the hot spring.  I really enjoyed it, and talking with you in your territory.  You’re much different when you’re not constantly amazed, he sent with a sly smile.  It was nice to talk to you.

        She laughed.  I’ll do my best to amaze you tomorrow, your Grace, she answered.  And I’ll do my best to have everything ready for you tomorrow, she promised.  We should know by tomorrow how many are going back, and how many are staying.

        I know you will, he assured her as they reached the dropship.  I’ll be back about an hour after sunrise tomorrow morning, alright?

        Fine.  We’ll probably hold our meeting about an hour after that, so you can attend.

        Works for me.

        Jason said his goodbyes to Aura, the council, and waved to those citizens who were still at the square.  Aya herded him and the guards into the dropship, and Jason took the pilot’s seat with Meya beside him, Myra behind him, and Aya in the fourth seat.  Well, that was interesting, Jason noted as Kyva and the Raptor pilots prepared to depart.  This place is very interesting, and the Exiled are impressive people.

        They did do a great job here.  I wonder how many will want to leave, Meya mused.

        From hearing Aura talk, almost all of them.  But from hearing the council, I’m not quite so sure, he answered.  About half of them were more interested in what we were leaving than what preparations we were making for them on Karis.

        I noticed that as well, Aya agreed.  We’ll debrief up in the landing bay and get an idea of how the citizens were like.  Kyva and the guards we left at the dropship should be able to fill that in.  They interacted with the common citizens, where Aura restricted you to the politicians.

        “Yeah,” Jason said aloud.

        Meya laughed.  “Sending all the time does kinda make you keep doing it,” she noted.

        Well, it is the best way to communicate, Aya sent with a sly undertone.

        “You are so biased, Aya,” Jason teased as the Raptor pilots got back into their ships and closed the canopies.  Everyone call out when you’re ready to depart.  [Control, this is Karinne One.]

        [Karinne One, this is Control, go ahead.]

        [Sevi?  What are you doing sitting in the comm chair?]   

        [I was waiting to hear from you.  You haven’t reported in since you descended!]

        [Well, I was having fun.]

        [Oh really?  And just who were you having fun with?]

        [You’ll never know,] he teased.  [We’re preparing to take off.]

        [Hold on, let me pass you on to the comm officer, since you’re gonna be all mean to me.]

        [Such a flirt,] Jason laughed.

        [Karinne One, Control,] came a new voice. [ You’re cleared to ascend.  The lanes are loose, so approach at your discretion, call in at ten kathra from the bay for landing instructions..]

        [Understood.  Have the engineering team come down, meet the town council, and start their surveys.]

        [They’re all ready to go, they were just waiting for your orders.  They’ll pass you on the way down.]

        [Understood.  Be home soon, guys.]       

        [We’ll be waiting,] came the light yet earnest response.

        Back up on the Abarax, Jason met with the Sevi, the Raptor pilots, Kyva, and the guards who remained with the ship to get their impression of the people.  On the whole, they had nothing but good things to say.  They said that the citizens were curious, friendly, inquisitive, and charitable.  They were all brought food, offered places to rest, were even offered a ride on one of their sailing vessels.  All in all, those who had interacted with the citizens were quite pleased and impressed by them.   Jason told them about meeting with the council, and his misgivings about how many might remain behind, but there really wasn’t anything they could say.  There was nothing but waiting until tomorrow to find out how things went.

        Jason returned to his cabin after the meeting to catch up with things.  His first call was to the command center, and he got Shey instead of Myri or one of the command staff.  “Shey, what are you doing on duty?”

        “I traded shifts to get tomorrow night off, your Grace,” she answered.  “Did you receive my report on all of my evil activities?”

        Jason laughed, for she had indeed sent one.  It was full of all sorts of laws she broke and such, but it was all presented in a very serious manner which made it even more funny.  Shey’s subtlety extended to her writing.  “I did.  You are a bad girl!”

        “I’m certain we already established that fact days ago, your Grace,” she said mildly.  “Did you want a progress report?”

        He nodded as he unlocked his gauntlet from his armor and pulled it off.  “Shoot.”

        Jason removed his armor and put on a soft knee-length robe as he listened to Shey tell him what progress had been made on the interdictor and the repairs to the other ships.  “The Kimdori report the Dreamer will be back in service tomorrow morning.  It’s been ordered to jump to your location with the Raena and the Dela’s Star.  The San Diego, Liberty, and Defiant are being scheduled from release from drydock tomorrow afternoon, but no plans are yet being put up to have it deploy.”

        He sighed.  “Who’s taking the chair of the Defiant?”

        “The first officer of the battleship Trelle’s Gift was awarded the chair,” she answered.  “Commander Hiae Joralle.  She’s already received her field promotion and been given the flag.”

        “I’ve always loved her name,” Jason chuckled.  Hee-ay.  It just rolls off your tongue.”

        “Too bad it means evil omen.  I wonder what possessed her family to name her that.”

        “What are they saying about the Aegis?”

        “No change in the estimate, your Grace.  Two weeks.”

        Jason grunted.  “Thanks, Shey.”

        “Thanks for undressing in front of me, your Grace.  It almost felt like one of your middle of the night calls there for a moment.”

        Jason laughed.  “I hope you were entertained.”

        “Oh, very much so, thank you,” she said with a light smile, and then Jason cut the comm.

        He called home next, and was greeted by a hologram projected into his cabin of Jyslin, Symone, Tim, Rann, Danelle, and Kyri, all sitting around the dinner table.  “Daddy!” Rann called, waving.  “Are you coming home yet?”

        “Not for a bit, little man,” he replied.  “How are things going?”

        “Fairly well,” Jyslin answered.  “Miaari is keeping us all up to date with what’s going on.  Myleena’s up on the moon right now, and Yana asked us to watch Kyri tonight.  She’s working with Myri on something.”

        “Well, it sounds like a slumber party tonight,” Jason smiled.  “I wish I could be there.”

        “Then come home, papa!” Kyri stated.

        Jason laughed.  “I should be home in a few days.”

        “What is it like there?” Tim asked.

        “The Exiled are amazingly resourceful,” Jason answered.  “You wouldn’t believe some of the technology they’ve set up here, and without any heavy metals or rubber to form an industrial base.  They have an agrarian society, but they also have electricity and use steam technology to power a couple of small factories.”

        “How long will it take to move them?”

        “I’m more worried about how many are gonna move,” he answered.  “I didn’t get the feeling that as many want to come as Aura was saying.  They’re supposed to have a town meeting tomorrow to discuss the matter.”

        “Well, Aura is really excited to come here,” Jyslin noted.

        “Yeah, I hope that her enthusiasm isn’t clouding her judgment about her people.”

        “It can happen.  I don’t think you’d ever think badly about any Karinne, despite the fact we have a few in jail right now,” Symone smiled.

        “At least they’re only in jail for little things, nothing like murder,” he replied.  “From what Kyva said, the people of Exile are polite and friendly.  She was with them most of—“

        Jason stopped and turned when a powerful sending boomed through the ship, the klaxons blared, and the red lights began to blink, warning of a general quarters exercise.  Battle stations! Sevi called in a powerful, urgent sending.  All hands to battle stations!  This is not a drill!

        What’s going on, Sevi?

        Six Consortium ships just jumped out of hyperspace behind the planet and are moving this way! she replied.  They haven’t detected us yet because the planet’s in the way.

        “Fuck!” Jason gasped, jumping to his feet.  “I have to go now, everyone, we got trouble!”

        “Jason?  What trouble?  Jason!” Jyslin said urgently, standing up.

        “The Consortium has come to Exile!” he said.  “Six ships!  I’ll call you later!” he said, ending the call with his gestalt as he sent to Sevi.  Six ships?  What classes?

        I’d call one a battleship, with two cruisers and three destroyer escorts.  Our hyperspace probes picked them up the second they jumped into the system, and they still haven’t detected us.  They’re no match for us, but there’s no telling how many are behind them!

        Jason thought furiously as he rushed back to his armor.  Sevi, form up a strike force of the Abarax and ten ships.  I want the Shemali and two destroyers to enter the atmosphere and defend the Exiled’s city from a possible surface attack, and the rest to stay in orbit over the island.  Go destroy those ships before they can escape!

        But you’re on board, your Grace! she protested.  I am not going into battle carrying my Grand Duke!  Are you insane?

        That order was not up for negotiation! Jason barked harshly.  Send down the orders now!

        But—

        OBEY MY ORDERS! his sending absolutely thundered across the ship, and he sent openly.

        There was a startled silence.  At once, your Grace, she sent, fear tingeing her thoughts.  She wasn’t afraid to fight, but it seemed she was terrified of going into battle carrying Jason on board.

        If we’re going to go through with this insanity, your Grace, then I insist you go to the deepest part of the ship, Aya sent urgently, and openly.  He had no doubt the entire ship heard her.  Where you have the most protection.

        Yes! Sevi sent in agreement, along with about two hundred others on board.

        I will, he acceded openly.  As soon as I get my armor on.

        Right now, your Grace.  And that’s an order from the woman who is responsible for your safety.

        Jason had to laugh.  Alright.  Take me where you feel I’m safest, Aya.

        We are going into battle carrying our Grand Duke, Sevi’s sending flowed over the ship, urgently, almost desperately.  We must defeat the Consortium quickly!

        Jason listened as frenzied sending rippled through the ship.  Aya, Dera, Shen, Ryn, and Suri escorted a robed Grand Duke along passageways where Faey, human, and Makati crew ran back and forth, preparing for battle, Suri and Ryn carrying his armor as they hustled him into an elevator.  Jason listened as the first officer relayed what was going on to him through sending.  She shared an image with him of the fleet breaking up, as ten others ships followed the Abarax and moved away to circle the planet, a cruiser and two destroyers descended into the atmosphere, and the three ships took up a low synchronous orbit over the island as an extra layer of defense should any Consortium ships break through and attack the planet.  The elevator let them off at a middle deck, and then the guards hurried him deep inside the ship, as deep as he could go, until he was in a small maintenance shop that repaired and cut conduit.  Jason disrobed and was helped into his armor by Aya and Dera as the others cleared all small objects that could fly around from the shop, securing them.  With the Imperial guards helping him, he got fully armored up in two minutes, as he saw a sending image of the six Consortium ships on the viewscreen on the bridge.  There was one really large ship of the same design as all others, crescent bow, narrow neck, spiky wings on a flared aft section, but Jason also saw that instead of accelerating to attack, the ships were instead turning.  They were trying to escape!

        Don’t let them jump out! Jason sent urgently.

        They’ve probably already warned the Consortium that we’re here, Aya told him, keeping her sending in the room.

        I know, but if we destroy them here, that’s six fewer ships that might come back, Jason sent grimly.

        Through the first officer, Jason watched.  He saw them closing on the Consortium vessels, and closing, and closing.  He could sense her anxiety as Sevi kept calling out time until in range, then best guess as to how long until they were far enough out to jump.  Those two numbers were almost identical.  [Every ship coordinate to target all of the enemy ships, we only get one shot at them!] Jason heard through gravband once he ordered his gestalt to listen in on KMS gravband command and tactical frequencies.

        At full speed, the eleven ships charged down the enemy vessels, which were picking up speed instead of slowing down to jump, then they turned around again.  [All ships slow to one quarter and watch for enemy attempts to ram!] Sevi called.  Jason saw why.  Ships that used gravometric engines had to be all but at a dead stop in order to jump or the engines disrupted the hyperspace jump, they could only be going a maximum of .1223 engine power to safely jump, and they’d never make it before being attacked by the KMS ships with their superior weapon range.  Those ships also used gravometric engines, and they had to slow down before they could jump out, which would let the KMS ships catch them before they could escape.  Since they knew they couldn’t run, they were turning to fight.  And since they were heavily outnumbered by ships that would get the first shot, they would try to ram or conduct other suicide attacks.  The insectoids that manned those ships would not allow themselves to be captured alive.

        Jason could never fault the Consortium’s insectoids for nearly insane bravery.  They charged right at the Karinne ships in a curious single-file formation, literally lined up stern to bow, with the biggest ship leading…shielding the smaller ships so they could get in weapons range before they were destroyed.  Sevi correctly deployed a counter-strategy, having the ships spread out to give them a very wide arc of fire to prevent the battleship from protecting the cruisers and destroyers behind it.  Jason looked a the tactical, then saw something interesting.  He had his gestalt open a channel to the Veriven, directly to the captain’s chair.  [Captain Koye, this is Karinne One.  You see that destroyer at the end?  See how it’s got its nose all but up the ass of the destroyer in front of it?]

        [I see it, Karinne One,] Captain Koye answered.

        [Do you think you can hit the destroyer in front of it directly in its engines in such a way that it causes an engine breach?  They use gravometric engines the same as we do, you know.]

        There was a brief pause, then Koye laughed.  [That’s devious, Karinne One!  Yes, I can do it!]

        [Go sic ‘em.]  He switched over.  [This is Karinne One.  I want a detachment of marines assembled on the Resolute to prepare to board an enemy vessel!  I want crack troops, ladies, this is going to be dangerous!  Commander Resolute, I want you to swing wide to the starboard of the enemy formation and prepare to grapple the trailing enemy vessel!]

        [At once, Karinne One!] the captain of the Resolute, Captain Joni, acknowledged.

        What are you up to?  Aya asked.

        “It’s simple, Aya,” he said aloud as the squadron closed on the Consortium ships.  “Koye’s gonna hit the engines of the second to last ship with a particle beam right in the engines, which will cause a breach of the engines, and that’ll unleash a gravometric shockwave,” he explained.  “That’s a wide sphere of wild gravometric flux.  The insectoids in those ships are low gravity organisms, and they’re very vulnerable to high gravity effects.  If this works, they’ll be killed by the shockwave and we’ll capture that ship intact.”

        Aya gave him a startled look, then grinned viciously.  I knew there was a reason I liked you so much, your Grace.  That’s a pretty damn clever idea!

        Well, I am known for a certain amount of ingenuity, he sent with false modesty, grinning at her.

        Jason watched through the eyes of the first officer as the enemy rushed into range.  The KMS ships folded around them like an attacking army as the Abarax opened fire with its five particle beams.  The five beams crisscrossed through the lead battleship and effectively cut it to pieces, an explosion in the stern scattering the huge sections in every direction as the ships behind flew right through the explosion.  The other ships opened fire as well, but Jason had Giya, the first officer, focus her attention on the Veriven.  She complied, and he saw the destroyer surge forward, hooking around the formation just enough to get in range of its target.  Its single particle beam fired, sending a deadly white lance not through the ship, but focused on one point.  The particle beam punched through the aft section of the destroyer, and it was right on target; thanks to Myleena and the engineering team, they had a detailed understanding of the layout of Consortium ships, so Koye’s weapon officer knew exactly where the engines were.  The stern of the destroyer seemed to buckle, then it swelled, and then it exploded violently, sending a dull wave of shimmering distortion before it.

        A gravometric shockwave.

        The shockwave washed over the destroyer behind it, flowed over and through it until it dissipated to nothingness about a mile beyond the stern of the ship, its power weakening as it expanded.  The lights of the destroyer shuddered, then blinked out and remained out.  The destroyer itself was pushed back by the force of the explosion, knocked out of formation, and what mattered most to Jason, it did not try to correct.  He saw the Resolute charge forward as the right side of the formation curled around, then turned his attention back to what was clearly a turkey shoot.  The Consortium ships couldn’t close to firing range before being sheared apart by Karinne particle beams, though their tactic of lining up very nearly let them do it.  The last two ships probably would have been able to fire their torsion weapons, had the second to last not been destroyed and its explosion knocking the two ships on either side out of position.  The ship in front of it had seen it coming and broke formation, then it seemed to understand what they were doing.  It turned on the drifting ship as if to fire on it, but a brilliant white beam erupted out of its bow as the Resolute ripped into it with its particle beam.  That beam raked all the way through its bow, cutting the bow off just behind where the crescent attached to the rest of the ship, and then the entire ship exploded in a massive greenish-red fireball.

        In less than thirty seconds, the firing was over.  A cloud of debris drifted towards the formation, which moved to evade it, while troop dropships launched from the Resolute and raced at the tumbling Consortium vessel.  The Resolute was right behind them, and it used towing beams to stabilize the ship, stop its tumbling drift and bring it to a stop.  When the ship was stable, the troop ships moved in.

        That would never have worked had they not been stacked one on top of the other.   A shockwave of the kind that came from breached engines only had real power at close range.

        Jason could only wait anxiously as Giya sent him images of four separate boarding parties of marines attaching portable airskin shields around different sections of bulkhead at different parts of the ship, cutting into it to form large holes, then disappearing inside.  The four parties had invaded the ship near where they were fairly certain the bridge, engineering, the computer core, and primary landing bay were located.  Her view switched to the view of the Lieutenant commanding the boarding party nearest the bridge, broadcast from her helmet cam as Jason found the frequency they were using on his gestalt.

        [I found one, Lieu!  Eww, it exploded!] he heard, and the Lieutenant’s camera fixed on a what could only be called a pile of green gore splattered all over the deck of a narrow, low-ceilinged passage that almost had the feel of a hive’s tunnel.

        [We’ve found one of the crew,] the Lieutenant called over the command frequency.  [It looks like it was crushed by a giant boot.  There’s also no power in here, just some emergency lighting.  Orders?]

        [Search the ship for any survivors,]  Joni ordered.  [Quickly!  Remember, any survivors will try to destroy the ship rather than let us capture it!  So your asses are on the line, ladies!]

        [That’s why we get the big credits,] the Lieutenant answered calmly.  [Push in, ladies!   No pulse weapons, MPACs only!]

        [I think your plan worked, Karinne One,] Koye called over command frequency, with a chuckle.

        [Well, it hasn’t worked until the boarding party has that ship.]  Uhh, Sevi, can I come out now?

        Not til you apologize for putting my Grand Duke in danger! she sent back, a little heatedly.

        I’m sorry, and you’re forgiven.  Now let me go back to my cabin.

        As soon as I get some distance away from that enemy ship, yes.  Wait just a moment, your Grace, I’m backing us off from it as we speak.

        Now that the panic was over, Jason grimly realized that the Exiled no longer had a choice.  The Consortium had come back, come back to the planet they’d visited a thousand years ago, but why?  Were they looking for more information?  Checking to see if there were any Karinnes left here?  Or was it part of a plan to lure the Karinnes to this planet, far, far away from any reinforcements?  No matter why they had come, he had no doubt that the Consortium now knew that the Karinnes were here.  Those ships had plenty of time to send a warning, they had the same ability to communicate through hyperspace in real time as the Karinnes.  Now it was going to be a race.

        Sevi, call Karis.

        I did that ten minutes ago.  A Kimdori task force should be here in about fifteen minutes.

        Good girl.

        I’m not a fool, your Grace.  I’m not hanging my naked ass out in the open without plenty of people to look at it.

        Jason chuckled.  Well, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of appreciative viewers.  It’s a very cute ass.

        Why thank you, your Grace, Sevi sent with a teasing undertone.  Want me to swing by your cabin later and show it to you without my armor getting in the way?

        I don’t think that’s necessary, but thanks for the offer.

        While Jason waited for the all clear to return to his cabin, he pondered what to do.  There was no choice now, all the Exiled had to be evacuated.  They just could not guarantee their safety, and Jason was not leaving them there at the mercy of the Consortium.  With the Kimdori protecting them, they would have time to evacuate all the people and whatever they wanted to bring, but they couldn’t linger.  Jason wanted everyone away from Exile and back at Karis in five days.  He didn’t want to do it, both because some of the Exiled wouldn’t want to leave and also because this was a very rich planet in resources and was fully arable.  If he could secure this planet, he’d have a good farming planet, and also many of the plants and animals could be transplanted to Karis to help the planet return to life, the same way they’d been bringing plants from Terra, Draconis, Makan, and several other Imperium worlds and introducing them into the ecosystem, to see how they shook out and what kind of ecosystem developed from them  Sevi, I want you to warn the engineering team to stop what they’re doing and pull back to the dropship, and send down another dropship big enough to carry twenty people.  Tell the team to find Chieftess Aura and the council, get them in the dropship, and get them up here as fast as possible.  The Consortium remembered Exile.  We can’t leave anyone behind now.  We have to tell them that they all have to leave.

        Yeah, I figured.  I’ll send the orders, your Grace.

        Good girl.  Oh, have them tell my wife and family I’m just fine.  I think I might have scared them.  Tell them I’ll call as soon as I’m back in my cabin.

        Will do, your Grace.  Oh, you’re free to go back to your cabin now, we’re far enough away that I feel it’s safe.

        “Alright, let’s go back.  And someone get my robe!” he called as Aya formed up the guards.

        Jason listened to gravband on the way back up, and heard what he wanted to hear as soon as they were back out in the passageway.  [Resolute, this is Lieutenant Yoe.  We’ve secured the bridge of the enemy ship.  All the crew we’ve found so far are dead.]

        [Good work, Alpha Team.  Beta Team, Gamma Team, Delta Team, report.]

        [Beta Team, Lieutenant Xeri.  We’ve found engineering and are securing it as we speak.  There’s no power down here either, not even any emergency power for their consoles.  That shockwave must have blown their power system.  All we have is emergency lights.  All enemy combatants we’ve found are dead.  It looks like someone came in here with a giant fly swatter and smashed them all.]

        [Gamma Team, Lieutenant Rora.  The main landing bay is halfway secured.  There are sixteen small ships in the bay, and we’re searching them and the command center one by one for the crew.  So far, all crew we’ve found are dead.  Lieutenant Xeri’s description is pretty much how they look here, too.]

        [Delta Team, Lieutenant Weah.  We haven’t found the computer core yet, but we’ve found what looks like a major control center, it might be a secondary bridge or a computer control room.  I have one squad securing it now while the other keeps looking for the computer core.  There’s no power here either.  Same here as to the crew, they’ve all been squashed.]

        [It looks like our clever Grand Duke secured us an enemy ship,] the comm officer noted.  [Can’t we give the Grand Duke a medal?]

        [I’ll recommend him for one,] Sevi answered with a chuckle.  [In the meantime search that ship from bow to stern, make sure there isn’t a single bug alive.  Resolute, Veriven, sweep the ship with sensors.  Start a data log the engineers can use when we get it home.]

        [Understood, starting a complete sensor scan,] Captain Joni answered.

        [Beginning sensor scans now,] Koye acknowledged.

        Back in his cabin, Jason immediately called home.  Half the neighborhood was now crammed into his dining room, the Marines and their kids with his family.  They all sighed explosively when the screen came up showing them, which meant his face was now in the screen by the table; there were too many in the room to use the holographic projector.  “I’m alright,” he said right out.

        “Jayce, what the fuck happened?” Symone asked.  “What’s going on?”

        Jason summed up what happened.  “They’re searching the ship now, and I have the ground team rounding up Aura and her council.  I’m afraid they have no choice now.  I’m not going to leave them here, and I can’t spare ships to defend a thousand Faey in a defenseless colony.  I’m afraid that whether they like it or not, they’re coming to Karis.”

        “Is the ship intact?” Jyslin asked.

        “I think its power system got fried, but outside of that, it seems intact.”

        “Well, that might cause some friction to force them to leave, but at least you got a prize.  Myleena’s gonna kiss you when you bring that home,” Jyslin smiled.

        “Kiss?  She’ll do a lot more than that!” Symone laughed.

        “Eww,” Jason intoned, which made most of them laugh.  “Anyway, let me get ready to talk to Aura, and break the bad news to them.  I’ll call tomorrow when I have more to tell you, okay?”

        “Be careful, my love,” Jyslin said, blowing him a kiss.

        “Always,” he answered with a nod, then he cut transmission.

        Careful?  Grand Duke Jason I’m going personally into battle Karinne? Aya accused.

        Oh hush, you forget how I came to be Grand Duke, haven‘t you?  I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty when it’s necessary.  Let’s monitor what’s going on while the ground team gathers up the council.

        The Kimdori task force arrived a few minutes later, as Jason and his guards listened in on the command frequency.  They had sent nearly a hundred ships, from small, sleek destroyers to a broad-beamed behemoth of a command ship with three nacelle-like wings in a triangle around a beefy hull that settled in over the Abarax like a protective mother, literally putting the heavy cruiser between the two lower nacelles.  Jason used the same screen to talk to the Kimdori commander of the task force, a tall, slender female with reddish fur.  “I am Jeyaar Ixtmerr, Task Force Commander,” she called, saluting him sharply.  “Are you unharmed, your Grace?”

        “I’m fine,” he answered.

        “I see you have captured an enemy ship.  My congratulations.”

        “Thanks.  I have a team of Marines in it as we speak searching it.  What I’d like you to do is spread out some of your ships and form a perimeter around the planet.  I have about a thousand Faey down on the planet I need to evacuate, and we’re going to need time and space to get them ready.”

        “Understood.  I will coordinate with your task force commander.  Your commander will hold the flag for this operation.”

        “I know, you won’t initiate combat without orders,” he said with a nod.  “Thank you for getting here so fast, Jeyaar.”

        “We protect our own,” she said simply.

        Jason watched on as the Kimdori surrounded the planet, powerful warships armed with Karinne weaponry, deadly adversaries for any Consortium ships that jumped into the system.  The marines searching the ship finally reported in that there none left alive, and when they evacuated the ship, it was thoroughly scanned for any life signs to ensure that no insectoids had evaded the search., a process that took nearly five minutes.  Outside of microbes, they found none, which meant that the ship was theirs.  A horde of dropships rushed towards the ship, filled with engineers and technicians, waiting outside as a group of technicians installed a temporary airskin shield over the entire bay doors, then technicians went in with marines to discern how to get the doors open to let the dropships in.  It took them about five minutes for them to figure it out, manually unlocking the doors and having a dropship pull them open with a grappling arm, the dropships drifted into the bay so the Karinnes could start inspecting the ship.

        When the ground team called up that the council and Aura were on their way up, Jason went down to the landing bay to meet them.  He reached the bay just as the dropship landed, and Aura and the council came down the ramp.  The council members were a bit awed at being inside the ship, looking around with amazed faces, but Aura’s face was locked on Jason’s, and it did not bode well for her.  My Grand Duke, why did you call us here so quickly?

        The plans have changed, he told them.  Let’s go to a council room so we can talk.

        What happened?

        The Consortium showed up here, he sent openly.  Not an hour ago, we chased them down and destroyed them before they could escape.  Aura, they knew your people were here from when they came and captured some of your people and took your original ships, and they came back.  Why, I don’t know, but they came back.  It’s not safe here for your people anymore.  I can’t defend a planet so far from Karis without fatally dividing my forces, because it’s just too far away.  They have to go back to Karis, Aura.  All of them, at least for now.  I‘d like to keep this planet for Karinne, but right now it‘s just too dangerous.  Until I can get a solid foothold here on this planet, the Exiled have to leave.

        She gave him a long, sober look.  We do need to talk, she nodded.

        The council members were herded to a room, and Jason, standing there in his armor, laid it out to them in a very blunt manner.  He made sure to be ready with a recording of the battle viewed from the Abarax’s cameras, showing them the Consortium ships.  About two hours ago, those ships tried to approach the planet.  They are the same aliens that attacked your ancestors, Jason stressed.  The ones that kidnapped some of your people and took your landing ships.  They attacked Karis a few days ago, but we repelled them.  And then they show up here.  They know you’re here, he told them.  They know you are here, and that means that you are not safe.  And I will not leave you to be captured by the Consortium.  You are Karinnes, and it’s my solemn duty to protect you.

        What do you mean, your Grace? Zeran asked.

        I mean that there will be no one left behind, he told them directly.  Anyone who stays behind faces certain capture by the Consortium, and that’s a death sentence.  I want to secure this planet for Karinne, add it to the house, but given everything that’s going on right now, the attack on Karis and the depletion of our military and the need to protect our homeworld against another Consortium attack, I just don’t have the resources to spare to Exile right now.  This planet is too far away for us to protect it, we can’t possibly leave you here.  So, I’m not going to ask your people who wants to go, I’m going to order them to.  They are Karinnes.  I am their Grand Duke. They may hate me for it, but they will obey.

        Many will be very unhappy, another council member warned.

        I know, but I’m not changing my mind.  I’d rather them be pissed off at me and alive, than happy I left them and dead.  This isn’t a matter of choice.  I have no choice but to take them all home, and they have no choice but to obey.  Believe me, I’d leave them here if I could, but I just can’t risk it.  I won’t leave my people in that kind of danger.

        Are you sure about this, your Grace?  Are you sure they came to make war?

        Oh, I’m sure, he sent darkly.  They know about the Karinnes and our power and our technology, and they want it for themselves.  They tried to capture the living computer when they attacked Karis.  They are our enemies, and I will not leave my people defenseless in the face of our enemy that knows you are here, he stressed.

        But we should be given a chance to—

        “No!” Jason growled, making sure to speak using the same archaic words they used, drawing on the encyclopedic knowledge of Faey that Jyslin had given him.  “Don’t you understand?  Let me say it out loud to you.  They will kill you if I leave you here!” he said hotly.  “They will destroy your town, take you from this planet, torture you for information, and then kill you!  I will not let that happen to my people!  I know you don’t like it, I don’t like it either, but I have a duty to protect you, and I cannot protect you if I leave you here.  It’s that simple!”

        But some will choose to take that risk, the councilwoman sent with calm dignity.  To some of us, this is our home.  You’re asking us to abandon our home in the face of an unseen threat.  What proof do we truly have that we are in danger?  All we have is the word of a man that claims to be the new ruler of our house.  For all we know, the promises he made to us just hours ago were never meant to be kept, that this was his plan all along

        Janu!  I have seen the living computer!  I have seen Karis! Aura protested.  I know he speaks the truth!  Didn’t you see the black scars on the ship we are in when we came up?  That is the mark of a ship that has been in combat!  Or were you too busy gaping at that tremendous ship that sits over this one like a strider warming an egg?  Why is it protecting this one, Janu?  Perhaps, to keep us safe?

        Let’s put this in very simple terms, Jason sent, giving the woman a hard stare.  Are you a Karinne?

        I am, but—

        No buts.  Are you a Karinne?

        Yes, I am a Karinne.

        Then you are duty bound to obey the ruler of the house.  Jason took off his gauntlet and showed her his signet ring.  This is the signet ring of the House Karinne.  Who would wear this ring?

        The Grand Duchess.

        Or the Grand Duke, Aura added.

        Thank you, my wife would be very angry if she found out she married an ugly woman, he sent, which made Aura splutter with laughter in spite of the grave situation.  Now, if you are a Karinne, and I wear the signet ring of Karinne, then that means that you are my subject.  That means that you will obey me, and I am ordering you to leave this planet and return home..

        I detest pulling rank on people, and you seem to think that I enjoy this, but I assure you I don’t.  There’s not a single person on Karis that doesn’t want to be there.  I loathe to bring people to Karis that would rather be somewhere else, because it goes against one of the basic tenets upon which the new house has been built.  But I simply have no choice.  I will not leave you here, because I can’t protect you, and the enemy knows you’re here.  They will come back, and when they do, they will destroy everything you’ve built.  I can’t say it any simpler, or enough times.  You have only two choices.  Come with me and live, or stay here and die.  And I’m not going to let my people commit suicide.

        When he saw their angry faces, he blew out his breath.  Let me tell you a little story about a young man who found himself in a similar situation.  He was a simple young man who found himself living under the rule of an oppressive invader.  Instead of accepting his lot, he instead ran away and hid, and then rebelled against the invaders occupying his homeland.  He had a little success, because he was lucky, and because he had some support from friends and other rebels like himself.  But in the end, he ended up captured by his oppressors and forced to make a choice.  If he continued to rebel, then not only he would die, but so would quite a few others, and his homeland would remain in the clutches of the oppressive invaders.  But if he joined, he could force the invaders out of his homeland and free his people.  In the end, he chose to sacrifice himself to save his people.  He joined them, and in the end, the invaders were forced out of his homeland, and his people were freed.

        I know that doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with this, until you learn that that young man was me, and I came to take the house of Karinne not entirely by my own choice.  It was the only way to save my people from the tyranny of another Faey noble house who were occupying my home planet.  I won’t bore you with the specifics of the story, but I will tell you this one simple truth.  I know what it feels like to be forced into a situation you would not have otherwise chosen because it was your duty.  Because I know what it’s like, believe me, I would be the last person to ever force another into the same situation I’m in right now, forced into a life you didn’t choose because of hard necessity.  But dammit, I’m in this chair now, and I’ll be damned to hell if I don’t do everything in my power to save you, even if it means uprooting you and taking you back to Karis with me.

        I know you’re going to hate it.  I know you’re going to pray to Trelle that my hair falls out or my skin turns green or something.  I can live with that.  But you seem to be forgetting, this isn’t a permanent situation.  I want to return to Exile and claim it for House Karinne, and when I do so, the Exiled will be free to return.  This move is just temporary, because I can’t protect you right now, we just don’t have the resources.  It may take a few years, but you will eventually have the chance to come back.

        He gave them a steely, adamant expression.  So.  Listen to me now, subjects of House Karinne.  Your Grand Duke is ordering you to prepare the people of Exile to move to Karis.  We have five days to get you and as much as your people can pack up onto ships and away from here.  Five days.  So, we’re all going back to your city, you are calling your people together, and then I will tell them the bad news.  I will make sure they understand it’s all coming from me, and you objected, so they won’t hate you.  Then, after we’re done, all of us are going to be up all night hammering out a plan to get your animals ready, collect your planting seed, your personal possessions, your art, and your important artifacts.  Once we have that plan set up, we carry it out.  In five days, House Karinne is leaving Exile, and all of us are going home.  Do you understand?  And mind, that is a question that only has two answers, yes or no.

        His eyes dared them to make any other comment, and they couldn’t stand up to that withering stare for long.  One by one, they lowered their eyes and nodded or sent that they understood.  Good.  I’m sorry it had to come to this.  I hate using my title like a club, but this is not a situation where I have any choice in the matter.  I must protect you, even if you object to that protection.  To walk away and allow you to die would violate the sacred vows I made to myself and to the memory of our house when I became Grand Duke.  There are too few Karinnes, and it would be a crime to allow you to blindly walk into death.  So.  Stand up.  We’re going to the city, right now.  He looked to Aya.  Do what you have to do.

        She gave him a look that said she was proud of him, and nodded.  She started barking orders via sending, orders that went through the entire ship, calling the Dukal guard, Raptor pilots, and Kyva to duty to go down to the planet.

        He knew that they were angry with him, and felt betrayed, but they didn’t understand the full situation, and he wasn’t about to leave anyone behind.  Anyone who stayed behind was going to die.  It was just that simple.

        It was a quiet and tense ride back down to the city, and he saw that the entire town was gathered up in the square.  Jason landed the dropship in almost the exact same spot as five Raptors and Kyva’s Gladiator landed around him protectively, and as the three KMS ships he’d sent down still hovered in the air like giant birds, blatantly visible to the citizens, since the three ships were in a defensive position only about ten thousand feet up.

        Jason wasted no time.  As soon as the ramp was lowered, he stepped out and beckoned to the council, then addressed the gathered citizens.  He sent powerfully, and he also sent in a way that would allow the children to hear him.  This was news that everyone needed to hear and understand.  Sending in that manner with that much power was going to give him a headache pretty quick, but it was necessary.

        Hear me, people of Exile, he called.  As I’m sure that many of you have come to notice, something has happened, he noted, pointing up into the twilight sky, where three triangular ships hovered overhead.  About two hours ago, our ancient enemy appeared here at your world.  They are the aliens that attacked your ancestors and stole the ships you came here in, and also the same aliens that attacked Karis itself just a couple of days ago.

        He ignored the sudden fearful voices and sendings, moving forward.  Because it’s clear now that our enemy knows you are here, that they remembered where they found your ancestors, it changes everything.  Let me say this plainly and from my heart, people of Exile.  I can’t protect you.  I told you that before.  This planet is too far away from Karis for me to defend.  And since it’s now abundantly clear that our enemy knows you are here, I cannot in good conscious leave you here.  I’m afraid all of you must leave Exile and return to Karis.  I didn’t want it to be this way, but I won’t leave you here defenseless.  Let me make this clear; anyone who remains here will be attacked by our enemy, which calls itself the Consortium.  To stay behind is a death sentence, and I’m not going to let any of you commit suicide.

        Your council and your Chieftess have argued quite vociferously against my decision, he stressed.  They don’t want me to force those who wish to stay here to leave.  But I’ll tell you the same thing I told them.  I am your Grand Duke, and your safety and protection are the most sacred of my duties to you.  I cannot protect you if you stay here, and this planet is so distant, if I were to try to split my forces to defend this planet, I would be fatally weakening the defenses of both Exile and Karis.  To try to protect both planets would cost us both planets, and destroy House Karinne.  The only way I can protect you is to bring you to Karis.

        I know many of you will hate this decision, and hate me.  I understand.  I accept full responsibility.  This was not the decision of your council or your Chieftess, it was mine, and mine alone, and it was not a choice that I wanted to make, but my duty to protect you overrides my desire to accede to your wishes in this matter.  But I am not going to change my mind.  In five days, we will leave this planet and return to Karis.  The Chieftess and the council and I are going to return to the council chamber and work out a plan to evacuate the city, which we’ll initiate tomorrow morning.  What I want you to do is go home and consider what you want to take with you.  You are free to bring anything you wish except for things like tools and machines you use in your day to day chores and work.  New tools and machines will be provided for you on Karis, so follow this simple rule when you pack; if you can get a new one on Karis, don’t bring it with you.  But everything else is going.  Your striders and chechis are coming, all the contents of your houses is coming, and we’re even going to pick up and move your statues of art and other important landmarks and artifacts.  We have plenty of room to carry your things, so bring everything you can manage to pack except for those tools and machines that you won’t need to bring with you.

        I will make you this promise, though.  This move is only temporary.  The house simply cannot protect you if you stay here, but the house also is not going to just abandon this planet.  Right now, we don’t have the resources to defend both planets from attack, since they’re so far away from each other.  We can get around the distance problem, but it requires us to build huge, complicated machines that are very expensive and take a long time to construct…but we don’t have the resources to devote to it right now.  Our factories that could build this machine are too busy reparing our damaged ships and building new ones to protect us from our common enemy, who are called the Consortium.  But, when we are suitably equipped to protect ourselves from our enemy, we intend to come back and claim this planet for Karinne.  When we come back and reclaim this planet, you will be allowed to return, when it is safe to do so.  I know this is going to inconvenience you, to leave and have to come back and fix everything that broke down from neglect, but there’s just no other way.

        So, I swear to you, people of Exile, that when Karinne comes back to this planet, you will be allowed to return to this town, your home.  But you won’t be alone, for the House Karinne will be returning with you to claim the planet for the house.  You can help us when we return, for you know this planet.  You know the plants, the animals.  We could definitely use your help.  But until then, we simply have to do what is safest, and that is remove you from the planet until we can come back and protect both it and Karis.

        He looked around at startled and sober faces, even has the headache from such prolonged, powerful sending so kids could hear started to affect him.  So, hate me if you must, but understand, I am only doing what I feel is best for you.  So everyone, please.  Go home.  Go home and start planning on how you are going to pack, what you are going to take, keeping in mind that we have room to take anything you want to bring, but we only have five days to get it all done.  We will help you in any way we can to get your possessions ready to move.  Your Chieftess and your Council and I are going to go work out a plan to get everything we can moved onto the ships in those five days, and we’ll tell you about the plan in the morning.

        Again, let me say that I’m sorry.  I didn’t want to have to do this, and I know I’m uprooting you from your homes.  All I can do is promise that you will be coming back, as soon as it’s safe to do so.

        Everyone do as the Grand Duke commands, Aura called strongly.  We’ll discuss it in greater detail in the morning at a town meeting, when we tell you of our plans.  Until then, please, no questions, no demands.  Let’s save the discussion for tomorrow.  Tonight, go home and consider what you wish to bring and how you’re going to go about getting it ready to move.  Until tomorrow, this town meeting is adjourned, she sent with strong formality and finality, which caused muttering and dark-faced townsfolk to disband and disberse back into the city.

        “Thanks,” he said gratefully.

        “I am happy to help you, my Grand Duke,” she smiled in return.

        Jason and the council did exactly as he said, they returned to the council chambers, but not alone.  Sevi was summoned down with the captains of the cruisers to help, and Jeyaar also came down.  She entered with two Kimdori in the guise of Faey, but they returned to their normal shapes once inside, which cause gasps and exclamations of astonishment from the council.

        “These are our cousins, the Kimdori, who have come to help us,” Jason said aloud.  “Because they cannot send, we must do our best to conduct this meeting by speech.  I know enough of the old language to keep up with your discussion, and I can send to explain to those who don’t comprehend your words.”

        “From our very legends!” Zeran gasped.

        “Truly.  To meet a cousin, it is an honor!” Orii gushed, bowing to Jeyaar as she came up to Jason.

        “It is unseemly for us not to be properly introduced, and then we can continue with the conference,” Jeyaar said with a nod to Orii.

        Jeyaar did more than anything else so far to convince the council that Jason was the real deal.  The council seemed awestruck by her and her two officers, the almost mythical Kimdori, and their deference to Jason was solid, concrete proof that he really was a Karinne noble, really was the Grand Duke he claimed to be.  The Kimdori only acted with deference outside of their race to the Karinne nobles, that was a fact plainly stated in the history they had of the house.  They didn’t know why, but they knew it was a fact, and that fact helped the council accept that Jason really was their ruler.

        The council, Jason, his commanders, and Jeyaar talked all through the night.  They worked out a detailed plan to pick up virtually everything in Exile and move it onto ships, leaving behind only empty buildings.  They would even pick up and move the machines that they wouldn’t need on Karis, if only to keep them out of the hands of the Consortium.  They had even worked out a plan to pick up their sailing ships, stepping down their masts and storing them in the landing bays of assorted vessels.  They worked out a schedule where ten different moving teams would systematically move through the town, coming to a house, helping the residents pack everything up, then moving both the items and the people out.  The items would go to storage on one of the destroyers, and then the people would be taken up and given comfortable quarters to await their return to Karis.  When a ship was filled to capacity, it and two escorts would begin the journey back to Karis, along pre-planned and determined stops where Kimdori ships would be guarding the rest points.  It was decided that one council member would be going with each ship, and the first would be the most senior member of the council, Orii.  They were going to maintain a presence of authority among the Exiled, there to calm them and answer their questions, and also they would be there on Karis so they could help their people and coordinate with the volunteers at Karis, but Aura would be the last to leave to maintain a presence on Exile.  It would be an around-the-clock operation, packing up and moving the factories and other public buildings at night, so as not to disturb those residents still awaiting their turn to be moved.  They even had plans to pick up all the crops planted and many of their orchard trees, scooping them up right out of the ground and moving them within their native soil, then placed on ships under artificial sunlight that would exactly mimic the characteristics of the system’s yellow star and keep the plants alive while they were transplanted to Karis.  The astrobiology department was already hard at work determining if the plants of  Exile would be able to thrive under Karis’ blue sun, or if they’d need to be put in greenhouses under lamps that would emulate the yellow sun of Exile.

        While they were talking, the ships above were also busy.  The entire area was saturated with hyperspace probes, covering literally the entire end of the galaxy‘s arm, which would give them a good ninety second warning if any ships entered the covered area in hyperspace.  The ships were also busy building weapons platforms, temporary ones they would recover when they left that would serve as additional defense of the city in case the Consortium returned in force.   The planet was also being patrolled by flights of Raptors, on constant alert for any sudden appearance or attack.  The fighters had proved themselves in battle against the Consortium, for their pulse weaponry gave them powerful weapons that could do real damage to the enemy’s ships.  He had seen a swarm of fighters cripple a Consortium cruiser during the battle, all by themselves.   The Raptors were a force to be reckoned with.  Stellar Cartography was hard at work calculating the possible route the attackers had taken to reach Exile, to try to ferret out whatever base they were using.

        By sunrise, they had their plan.  The ships above were already preparing, and a fleet of dropships with nearly a thousand workers from both fleets, pulled off the ships, was on its way down.  The Kimdori were going to help them pack up the Exiled and move them.  Jason was tired, but he felt satisfied that everything would go according to plan.  They emerged from the council building to find most of the town outside, waiting anxiously for word of what was discussed.  Jason let Aura explain to them what was going to happen, how they were taking everything but the buildings, even taking the ships, and she explained the plan of dividing the town among ten different teams that would help the citizens pack up their belongings and move them to the ship, then send them on to Karis one ship at a time in a constant stream that would last five days.  They were assured that all their animals would go, that the crops, even many of the trees, were going to be picked up and moved in their native soil, which should save their crops.

        If everything goes as planned, everything will be ready to move in five days, and I mean everything, Aura sent.  Our factories, our machines, our possessions, our animals, our ships, even our crops and trees, they will all be picked up and stored for the move.  When we leave, we take everything with us but our houses.  A printed schedule of the moving teams will be distributed to everyone in the city by noon.  So, that’s it, my people.  When you get the schedule, find out when the movers will come to your house and be ready to show them how you want everything packed.  When your house is packed, then you will be flown up to their big ship where you will stay in a comfortable cabin and wait to be taken to Karis.  Councilwoman Orii will be going with the first group to go to Karis, to serve as a liaison and assistant to the Karinnes on Karis who will receive us and help us settle in at the city where we are being taken.  There will be a council member on every ship.

        The townsfolk didn’t look entirely happy, but they at least nodded in understanding of the plan, and they disbersed to begin the tasks…grudgingly.  Jason blew out his breath and scrubbed his hair with a gauntleted hand, but Aya tapped him on the shoulder and made him look at her.

        It’s done now, and this is a potential battle zone, she told him sternly.  You are going home, your Grace.  I absolutely insist.  I will not let you stay here now that your presence is no longer required.

        But they might need me.

        No.  They know what’s going to happen, and I’m not letting you stay here.  You can protest all you want, but you will do it from the safety of Karis.  And I’ll ignore you no matter where you do it.

        Jason chuckled in spite of himself.  Such the bully.

        Where your safety is concerned, yes, I am a bully, she sent with complete confidence and unwavering resolve.  Now say goodbye to Aura, for you, you silly man, are going home.

        “Yes, mommy,” Jason said teasingly aloud, which made her flip him off, an entirely Terran gesture of defiance and insult.  That made him laugh.  Aura, Aya has just told me that I am being sent home like a misbehaving child, he sent with a slightly offended undertone, sticking his tongue out at Aya, which just made her laugh silently.  She feels that me being here, where the Consortium might appear at any moment, is too much to risk.  She even pulled rank on me, he sent, bristling slightly.  And I know better than to argue with her.  If I defy her, she’ll just tie me up and lock me in my room until we’re back on Karis.

        Damn right I will, she confirmed, which made Ryn, Suri, Dera, and Shen grin mischievously.

        Aura gave him a strange look.  Was it regret?  I understand, your Grace.  This is not the place for you.  I will do my best to ensure that all goes smoothly in your stead.  Will you let me come to see you when I reach Karis?

        Of course, he agreed, impulsively taking her hand, then kissing her on the cheek.  They’ll tell me when you arrive, and you’re welcome to come have dinner with me and my family.

        I would be honored, your Grace.

        Captain Sevi, I want ten ships prepared to return to Karis, carrying the Grand Duke, Aya called to Sevi, who was about to board a dropship and return to her vessel.  The ships will be going back as quickly as possible, Captain Sevi.  Six minute jumps.  I want his Grace’s vulnerability limited as much as possible.

        Oh joy, Jason grumbled mentally.

        You like to say you get your hands dirty, your Grace.  Now you get to do hyperspace jumps like a woman, Aya grinned.

        I think this is when I claim male softness and whine to get the jumps reduced, he teased, which made Aya laugh silently.

        We’ll give you a treat when you get home, your Grace, Dera winked.  We’ll all dance the Beya naked for you.

        A reward?  A reward for who, Dera?  I’ve already seen all of you naked, what more can you possibly show me that I can’t get a better look at from my wife and Symone? he sent teasingly, which made Dera laugh, a soundless wheeze.

        Well, variety is the spice of life, as humans say, Ryn winked.

        Two minutes surfing viddy channels and I can get all the variety I need, he retorted, which made Ryn smile broadly.  It is absolutely impossible to surf viddy for more than two minutes without seeing at least one naked Faey.

        But that’s not live, your Grace.  That’s viddy!  And you get to choose your vantage point when it‘s live, you don’t always get to see the good parts of a girl on viddy unless she bends over or sits down and spreads her legs.  Girls are lucky, the good parts of the boys are hanging out right where we can see them easily, she winked.

        True, but viddy offers much better closeups, fast forward, reverse, slow motion, and pause, so a man can savor a really, really nice closeup, he remarked dryly, which made all of them, even Aura, laugh.

 

        He didn’t want to leave, but he was, quite simply, bullied into it.

        Ten ships took the Grand Duke home, led by the cruiser Demir’s Sword.  The Demir’s Sword was commanded by Drae Feralle Karinne, the wife of a human telepath, a tall, skinny woman with long chestnut colored hair and large rose-colored eyes, almost the same hue as Myleena’s eyes.  Drae put Jason in her personal cabin, which was just off the bridge, through the ready room that served as her official office for ship business.  Drae’s cabin was cluttered with all kinds of books and old artifacts; Drae’s hobby was Imperial archaeology.  Jason didn’t get much chance to explore her old artifacts, though, for his guards had him strap down and prepare for his first extended jump almost as soon as he was in the cabin.

        He didn’t like short jumps, and he found that he liked maximum exposure six minute jumps even less.  It felt like an eternity in hyperspace, and when the first leg was over, he felt a little dizzy and disoriented.  Aya made Drae and the task force wait to give Jason a little extra time to recover, nearly fifteen minutes, and then they jumped again.  By the time they were nearly home, Jason had to admit that he was at least able to tolerate it a little better.

        It’s like anything, your Grace.  Training and repeated exposure can help you build up a resistance to it, Aya told him as they prepared for their last jump, which would take them to Karis.

        The final leg was only a minute or two, and he had managed it fairly well as he blinked to clear his head, and the familiar continents of Karis were visible in Drae’s window.  “Home,” he sighed in contentment.  “Do they know I’m coming?”

        Aya nodded.   I called ahead.

        “Good.  It would have been nice to surprise Jys, but that’s fine.  What time is it at Foxwood?”

        About five in the morning, she answered.

        “They should be up, then.  Good.  I think I’m going to take Jyslin right back upstairs when I get home.”

        The guards gave him sly smiles.  You were only gone two days.  Such a weak will, Shen teased.

        “What can I say, I’m weak,” he said blandly, which made them all laugh soundlessly.  “You forget, I’m used to having a woman available to satisfy my lust at all times.”

        You’re the Grand Duke, just grab some woman subject and ravish her, Ryn winked.

        “Ravishing is only fun when you ravish the willing,” he answered her.  “That way you don’t walk out with scratches, bruises, and bite marks all over you.”

        Well, you can if you do it right, Ryn grinned.

        “I’m no bondage boy.  I’ll leave the rough stuff for people braver than me,” he said blandly, which made her laugh.  “I’ll leave the extent of my kinkiness to sharing my bed with our amu dozei.”

        Pft, that’s not kinky, Aya protested.  That’s an entirely proper and healthy relationship.  An amu dozei relationship between two couples should definitely be celebrated together, in the same bed.  To separate it would be little more than having an amu dorai.

        To Faey it’s a proper and accepted practice.  It’s considered kinky to humans.  Couples don’t commonly share beds with other couples, and certainly not when both couples are married.  It’s considered kinky just to have two partners in bed with you at the same time. One couple is the accepted practice, and in many cultures, that couple is only being proper if they’re married.  Sex before marriage and out of the marriage, with a partner not your spouse, is considered improper in many human cultures.

        Trelle’s garland, no wonder Terra has such a violent history.  Such sexual repression must inevitably lead to frayed nerves and tension that has to be released somehow.

        Jason chuckled.  “You know, I’m not going to argue that point.  But I can say that the Faey don’t have any kind of excuse.  You’re just as violent as the Terrans, and it’s not an issue of sexual tension.”

        True, but at least we’re much more relaxed and happy when we’re making war on each other.

        Jason laughed helplessly.

        Jason was home about an hour after the ship arrived at Karis, mainly because Jason stopped over at Orbital One to talk to the command staff about the progress of repairs and the interdictor.  When he finished, he returned to Foxwood, and found Ayama waiting for him with a plate of eggs.  “Welcome back, your Grace,” she said, sitting him down.  “I’m afraid you’re the only one here, your Grace.  Lady Jyslin is over at Symone‘s house, and Rann and Danelle and Kyri spent the night at Maya‘s.  Go ahead and eat before going over, I know you must be hungry.”

        “You’re a lifesaver, Ayama,” he smiled, sitting in a padded chair he often used when sitting at the table in his armor.  “Can you go lay out some clothes for me please?  I’d like to get out of my armor before going over to see Jyslin.”

        “Certainly,” she smiled.  “I’ll put out a robe for you, and pack your clothes in a bag to carry with you.”

        Jason laughed.  “That would probably be safest,” he said mildly.  “I’m not entirely sure when we’ll be back.”

        “I have to go to market this morning anyway,” she smiled.

        After a light breakfast, Jason went up and took off his armor, stored it away in its special locked --closet-- cloet to keep Rann away from the dangerous weapons, put on the robe, picked up the little canvas carry bag, and headed out for Tim and Symone’s house.  They lived next door, and the garden behind the house connected Jason and Tim’s houses together.  That was the path he commonly took to their house.  He entered through the back door and went upstairs, confidently navigating the dark halls since he spent enough time here, and found Jyslin, Symone, and Tim asleep in the master bedroom, Jyslin nuzzled in between Tim and Symone.  He couldn’t resist leaning over Symone and blowing lightly in her ear.

        Symone’s eyes fluttered open, then she looked up at him and smiled broadly.  “Jason!” she exclaimed, twisting to a sitting position and giving him a strong hug as Jyslin and Tim stirred.  When did you get back?

        “Just now,” he answered, sitting on the edge of the bed.  Aya forced me to come home, she said it was too dangerous for me to stay there.

        Well, she was right, Jyslin told him, leaning over Symone and giving him a loving kiss.  Why didn’t you call ahead?

        I didn’t want to bother you, and besides, I figured that Myri woulda told you I was coming.  She knew I was on my way home.

        I guess she didn’t want to disturb us, we were just a little busy last night, Symone laughed.

        Well, I’m just glad I got here in time, Jason sent with a smile.

        In time for what?

        Before you began the morning session, he sent, letting his desire and ardor bleed into his thoughts as he looked down at Symone’s bare breasts, then pulled down the bedspread to gaze at her platinum blond pubic hair, and the delights hiding just beneath it.

        All three of them laughed, and both Jyslin and Symone grabbed hold of him and pulled him down into the bed, stretched over both of them.  Well, c’mere you horny boy, let’s see what we can do about that, Jyslin sent with lust swirling through her thoughts, kissing him quite passionately.

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    1      3

Chapter 2

 

      Brista, 27 Shiaa, 4400 Orthodox Calendar

      Monday, 1 December 2013, Terran Standard Calendar

      Brista, 27 Shiaa, year 1326 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

      Foxwood East, Karsa, Karis

 

      His family would have probably disapproved, and he knew that most of the people of Earth would have, but they just didn’t understand.

      They couldn’t.  Only a telepath could understand.

      Jason lounged almost lazily in bed, glancing at the clock that Tim and Symone kept on the wall, and saw that it was nearly noon.  He wasn’t alone in bed, however, for they were still there.  Jyslin was cuddled up against his back, and Symone slept with his arm thrown over her stomach, and Tim’s arm over her chest and his hand resting lightly on Jason’s elbow.  He didn’t want to get up, despite the duties he knew were waiting for him.  Being here, surrounded by love and acceptance, hearing the breathing of two women he loved and a friend he would call brother, a man with whom he was so close that he shared his thoughts, his wife, his very life with him, and the feeling of telepathic union that surrounded them as they kept light touches on each other even through sleep, it was simply impossible for anyone who was not a telepath to understand.  Jyslin…God, how he loved her.  She was the focus of his entire life.  Symone, wonderful  Symone, so happy and cheerful, so full of life, she was impossible not to love.  And Tim, his best friend, his brother, the only man who shared his life to such an extent that he could look on and watch Tim make love to Jyslin and only feel happiness for them both, a man who had, in the way of men, imprinted onto Jason.  Jason loved Tim.  It was that simple.  And he knew that Tim loved him in return.  There wasn’t any sexual attraction between them, but there was a kind of familiarity between them that made some barriers dissolve.  There was no attraction, but there also was a lack of barriers between them.  Jason could, and indeed had, hold Tim’s penis in his hand, and had had fondled him, and had cupped his scrotum.  And he felt absolute no trepidation at the idea of it, a boundary that was usually taboo among men.  He could reach over right now and grab Tim’s genitals and not bat an eye, and neither would Tim.  And it would bother him a bit if Tim did the same.  Jason was absolutely certain he could kiss Tim full on the mouth, and mean it, and not feel any kind of shame or revulsion at the idea of it.  More than once during threesomes or during their full groups, Jason had caressed Tim with his hands, and had been caressed in return.  Jason was certain that he could masturbate Tim and not bat an eye at all at the idea of it.  He would even go so far as to say that if it did come to it one day, he could have sex with Tim.  He’d feel uncomfortable at the idea of it, but it wouldn’t change things between them.  If Tim came to him one day and asked him to give him oral sex, Jason would, if only because he loved Tim.  In that respect, Jason was at that same point that Jyslin had been when she first started exploring her attraction to Symone, where she was awkward with sensations she had never had before.  Jason didn’t have those same feelings that Jyslin had, but there was also a lack of resistance to the act if it was asked of him.  It wasn’t his cup of tea, but if Tim wanted gay sex, Jason would give it to him.

      That was how close they were.  There were no boundaries between them except for a simple lack of sexual attraction between them, and if that were ever to change, then he could admit to himself that he could willingly have sex with another man…but only Tim.  The idea of having sex with Tim did not repulse him as it did if he had the same thought about any other man.  The feeling was one of…neutrality.  A certain distaste for the idea of it, a lack of enthusiasm, but no bells and whistles in his head telling him not to do it.

      Which, he had to admit to himself wryly, was exactly how Jyslin had started down the path of her new relationship with Symone.

      He considered that a moment.  Would it bother him if he and Tim ended up imprinted to that degree, that they became willing partners?  The idea freaked him out a little, he could admit that, but there was no aversion to it in his mind.  To him, if it happened, it happened.  So long as it was what both of them wanted, then so be it.  He loved Tim too much to deny him what he wanted, and if Tim wanted Jason, then so be it.

      But that was an issue for another time, a situation that would come later.  For right now, he was just having too much fun living in a way that would give an evangelical pastor a heart attack, living in delicious sin with his wife and lover, and his lover’s husband, giving and sharing equally, reveling in a feeling of unity, of an uncomplicated, pure love that was shared among all four of them.  It was the bond of the amu dozei, not the casual love between a man and woman outside of the marriage, but deeper, more personal, encroaching on the bonds between him and his wife.  But he only allowed one to enter Jyslin’s territory that Jyslin loved in return, and where Tim and Symone reciprocated, letting Jason and Jyslin into an intimate part of their lives usually only reserved for husband and wife.  Jason had gone to that level of intimacy that would only belong to Tim with Symone, and Jyslin had done the same with Tim.  Theirs was all but a marriage of the four rather than the two.  The fact that they lived in separate houses was a mere formality.

      That was what it meant to be amu dozei.  When it was two couples, it was a joining of couples, not a joining of individuals.  When it was a single joining a couple, it was a complete acceptance of the individual into the pair-bond of the couple, literally the taking on of a second spouse.  Because Jason and Dahnai both were married, Dahnai would forever be amu dorai unless Kellin and Jyslin entered into the bond as well, grew to love each other with the same passion Jason and Dahnai loved each other, forever denied a part of Jason she had often tried to take when they made love, that realm reserved only for Jyslin…and also for Symone.

      Amu dorai and amu dozei, known simply as “the amu,” was probably one of the most common subjects in much of Faey literature and poetry.  Jason found it oddly curious that the love between a man and woman seemed to not catch the interest and passion of writers and poets as much as the amu.  Entire operas were written about it.  Books by the score had been written about it.  And Faey history was rife of instances of amu either starting or ending wars.  It was one of those interesting little personality quirks of the Faey that made them so curious, that they found a multiple relationship much more interesting than “old fashioned” love.  But then again, for a telepathic race, the concept of the multiple relationship probably would be one of intense curiosity and inspiration, because of the overwhelming power of the telepathic pair bond.  It took a lot to cause that to change, and the inclusion of a third or fourth into that powerful bond between two would certainly set fire to a poet’s muse.

      He felt Jyslin stir against his back, then she hummed softly in her throat and wrapped her arm around his side, gripping his shoulder as she kissed him lightly on the side of his neck.  Morning, my love, she sent softly, delicately, so as not to disturb Tim and Symone.

      Afternoon, actually, he replied, barely having to send at all since she was touching him.  Touch dramatically magnified their telepathic bonds.

      You should go on trips more often.  You’re such an insatiable beast when you come back, she teased, running her hand across his chest, caressing it.  I thought you were going to bend Symone in half there for a minute.

      She certainly didn’t seem to mind, Jason noted lightly.

      Fuck no, I didn’t mind, Symone agreed with a satisfied tilt to her thoughts, patting Jason’s hand on her stomach.  That was unbelievably hot.  I felt like a Barkan whore, and Trelle, did it make me horny.  But we have to have a little talk, babe, she sent, looking over at him with a sly smile.  Why did I keep getting flashes of Aura running through your mind while we were fucking?

      I’m honestly not sure, I don’t remember it, he answered.  We bathed at a hot spring on her planet, and I did notice that her body is somewhat like Dahnai’s.  I thought she was sexy.  I guess that’s why.

      What, you don‘t get enough pussy at home, love? Jyslin accused playfully, slapping him lightly on the shoulder.  Between us and Dahnai, you’d think we’d keep you too tired to let your eyes wander.

      You said it yourself, love, I was away for two days.  I escaped the power of your pussy, he retorted, and that let me start noticing another woman.

      Well, we’ll have to make sure that doesn’t happen again! Symone declared, sitting up, pushing him onto his back, and swinging a leg over him, sitting on his stomach.  We’re just going to have to wear you out so much before you leave that you can’t walk, so you don’t get a chance to recover before you come home, she winked.

      You two and Dahnai very nearly pulled that off, he accused.

      I think I need to find an amu dorai of my own, Tim mused as he woke up.  Then I’d get three women in bed at the same time, too.

      It’s an overrated experience, Tim.

      Overrated?  Overrated? Jyslin sent with mock outrage.  We rock your world in a way it’s never been rocked before, and that’s overrated?  What an utter ingrate!

      Tim sat up and gave Symone a long, loving kiss, making sure to get himself a healthy handful of her breast while doing so.  Oooh, is my Tim-Tim getting a third wind? she asked with a bandy tilt to her thoughts.

      Good grief, woman, can’t a husband feel up his wife without having to have sex?

      Not when it’s a husband as hot as you, Tim-Tim, she replied, giggling as she grabbed hold of him and pushed him to the bed, kissing him passionately.  Symone knew how to push Tim’s buttons, knew exactly how to send to arouse him, and Jason saw that Tim was committed.  He turned and wrapped his arms around Jyslin, giving her a loving kiss and then rubbing the tip of his nose against hers with a gentle, contented expression.

      I guess I should get up, I have a mountain of work to do today, Jason sent with a sigh.  But some of it I can’t do for a while yet.

      Don’t go looking for work today, love, just relax for a little while, she told him, running her hand up and down his side languidly.  Since the Consortium attacked, you’ve been running yourself ragged.  You deserve at least a little time to rest, or maybe pay attention to your wife and your amu dozei, she smiled.  If it’s important, they’ll call us.

      I think someone’s listening too much to the other side of the bed, he accused with a light smile as Symone groaned.  Tim was on top of her, and they had begun intercourse, judging from the shaking of the bed and the sensations they were sending, which both Jason and Jyslin were receiving.  Symone’s certainly frisky today, he noted dryly, which made Jyslin laugh.

      She’s been especially frisky since yesterday afternoon.  She went and saw Songa about a little problem.

      What problem?

      Jayce, Symone’s the only one of us girls who doesn’t have a baby, she reminded him.  She finally broke down and went and saw Songa about it.  Songa gave her a detailed checkup focusing on that part of her, and found what she called a minor imbalance.  She gave Symone a treatment for it and a medicine to take for a couple of weeks, and sounded hopeful that fixed it.  So, Symone’s looking to get pregnant.

      Ah.  Well, she shouldn’t have come after me, she should stay with Tim.  Tim should be the father of their first baby.

      Well, she’s not in her fertility phase yet, Jyslin winked.  She’s just practicing.

      Like she needs any more practice, Jason noted dryly.

      Like…I could…have you in…my bed…without fucking you, Symone sent in a disjointed manner, her thoughts disrupted by bursts of pure sensation and pleasure and encouragement.  I’ll…stay with Tim…when Songa says…I’m close to…my window.

      Just tell us when, and we’ll stay clear hon, Jyslin assured her.

      Love, wait til she’s done.  You know she’ll never remember anything you say when you send to her while she’s having sex.

      True.

      Jason was content to kiss and caress Jyslin while Tim and Symone finished up, the two of them more than happy to just lay there and let Tim and Symone’s pleasure flow through their minds, revel in the joy of their amu dozei.  Usually, the sensations of one couple drove the other to sex, but sometimes there was much to be said of just laying there and experiencing it through Tim and Symone rather than do it themselves.  Symone jokingly called it sex by proxy, but no matter what they called it, it was a wonderful thing.  When they were done, Symone reached out and put her hand on Jason’s back, then she slapped him.  I remember enough to be get you for saying that about me! she sent, which made Jason and Jyslin laugh.

      Mommy!  Where are you? Rann called.  Jason was startled; it was the first time he had ever heard his son send.  In just a few days, he had learned enough about sending to reach out for his mother, and while his sending was a little fuzzy and hesitant, it was still strong.  Very strong.  Rann was going to match his father in power, at least.  Maybe even exceed him.  Power he had, but power was not the only part of sending.  Many men were weak in talent, but masters of sending, capable of far more than stronger but lesser trained women.  Rann would learn that power may come naturally, but clarity and speed would come in time, as he mastered the art.

      I’m over at Uncle Tim and Aunt Symone’s, baby, she answered in a nurturing manner, sending slowly and carefully in return.  I’m having some private time.  Can you be a good boy and wait at home with Ayama and Surin?

      I can, Mommy.  I was just worried, you weren’t home when we came back from Aunt Maya’s.

      “They grow up so fast,” Jason said, then he chuckled.  “He’s gonna be so strong.”

      “He certainly walked through Trelle’s hair,” Jyslin agreed with a proud smile.

      Is Daddy with you?  Miss Ayama says he’s home, and Captain Aya is here.  Did he go see Miss Miaari?

      I’m with your mother, little man, Jason called, using the same slow, careful sending.  We’re not quite ready to come home yet, but it won’t be long.  You just wait there at home and we’ll be over to see you real soon, okay?  Go do your exercises with Captain Aya while you’re waiting for us, she‘s back home too and she‘s probably waiting for you.  If Aya says you’re really good, we’ll take you and Danelle to the boardwalk.

      We‘ll be really good! he promised, enthusiasm bleeding into his thought.  The boardwalk was Rann’s favorite place in Karsa to visit, because of the rides and the games.

      Now you’re neglecting your child to pursue your sexual whims, Symone teased.

      Rann can wait just a little bit, Jason noted, kissing Jyslin languidly.  Promising to take him the boardwalk is the ultimate form of bribery.

      It works, though, Jyslin agreed, giggling against his lips.

      He could only shirk duty in the arms of his wife and lover for so long, though.  The pull of duty, the thought of what can I do today to make the lives of my people better had taken control.  There were reports to read, people to see, plans to make.  He had to find out how the repairs were going, how promotions were being handled, how the people at Exile were doing in the plan to uproot them.  He needed to talk to Miaari, he needed to send a report to Zaa, and he needed to get an update on the progress of getting that Consortium ship back to Karis.  If they couldn’t get it going on its own, then the Dreamer would have to tow it back.

      He gave his wife a final kiss, then regretfully left the comfort and inclusion of his amu dozei’s bed and wandered to the shower.  He reached out, reached all the way to Karsa, using his impressive power to touch on many minds, searching for someone he knew.  He finally contacted Sioa, and then reached out to her.  Sioa, he called.  Can you reach me?

      Of course I can, she answered, a bit testily.  Where are you?  We’ve been trying to get in touch, but Ayama’s stonewalling us.

      I needed a little time, I was very tired, he answered.  What’s going on?

      The Dreamer as at Exile, she told him.  They had another brush with the Consortium, but no shots were fired.  Fifty-three Consortium vessels jumped into the system, but turned and jumped out before we could engage.  Hyperspace probes show that they completely abandoned the sector, they didn’t just jump some distance away and wait.  Military intelligence has a theory.  Well, the same theory we had, just with more substantiation now.

      Well, what is it?

      We think they don’t have any more ships close enough to assist, she answered.  The Consortium used the Urumi to help attack Karis, we think it’s because they didn’t have enough military force to do it themselves.  We believe that they’ve depleted their forces in this sector, and must wait for reinforcements.  We believe those fifty-odd ships are all that’s left of the Consortium fleet in the sector.

      I hope that’s not just wishful thinking.

      It does have some solid evidence backing it up.  But Zaa has still deployed an additional two hundred ships to Exile as a precaution.

      I’m going to have to bring her to Karis and give Zaa a big kiss.

      I’m sure she’d enjoy it.  The Kimdori are actively searching for the Consortium, hunting for their base.  Those ships had to go somewhere.  If we can find them, we can attack them.  We’ll deal them a serious blow and disrupt their attempts to continue operating in this sector.

      They’re from Andromeda, so the logical place to look is the closest point between this galaxy and that one.

      That happens to be the arm of the galaxy where Exile is, Jason.  No, they have a base somewhere else.  The Kimdori agreed to search for it, and help us attack it.

      Well, another reason I need to kiss Zaa repeatedly.  This isn’t the Kimdori’s war.

      I think you underestimate how angry the Kimdori were about the Consortium attack, Jayce.  Not only did they get blindsided by something they never saw coming, Karis, you, and Cybi herself were directly assaulted.  You know how Zaa reveres Cybi.  You didn’t see Miaari when the Consortium appeared.  I’ve never seen her so furious.  This may not be a war aimed at the Kimdori, but this is definitely the Kimdori’s war.

      What’s the status on that Consortium ship?

      The main power was blown out, and the computer core might be beyond repair.  The technicians believe they can repair main power, but they’re pessimistic about the computer core.  They’re not going to do anything until they get it back here, and after they remove the computer core.  The Dreamer is going to tow it back, and might already be on the way, I’m not sure.  I haven’t gotten a status report.  They’re leaving it alone until they get it back here because they don’t want the computer to try to destroy the ship if they can repair it, and it’s brought back online.  Myleena’s clearing space in Kosigi for the ship.  She’s already drooling at the thought of taking that ship apart.

      She’s not the only one.  How is it going on Exile?

      Pretty smoothly.  The Exiled aren’t too happy about your decision, but they’re cooperating.  The first ship will be jumping back to Karis in about two hours.

      That fast?

      They’re not playing around, Jason, she intoned as he lathered up his hair and began to wash it.  When Sevi showed the Exiled pictures of the battle that took place at Karis, and then showed them the captured Consortium ship in orbit, they got the picture quickly.

      I should have done that, Jason grunted.  I just ordered them without really explaining why I was giving them the order.  I tried to explain the danger.  I guess it would have made more sense to prove my words.

      We all err, Jason.  Be glad yours was a little thing, Sioa sent supportively.  Given how rarely you do make a mistake, I think we can let you slide a little on this one, she added lightly.

      Gee, thanks.  Are the repairs still on schedule?

      All on schedule.  Myleena’s revised her completion date of the interdictor, she moved it up one day.  She wants two days to test it, then she’ll put it on line.

      Two days?  We may not have two days.

      If our estimates as to Consortium fleet strength is true, then we do have two days, she corrected.  Think about it, Jason.  If they had the forces to take on the Kimdori battle fleet protecting Karis, wouldn’t they be attacking right now?

      He could only send a wordless agreement to that.

      We have a tactical advantage, and we need to press it. That’s why the Kimdori are hunting for the Consortium base.  It’s better to put the enemy on the defensive than stay on the defensive ourselves.

      I can’t argue with that.  Sioa, word that we have a Consortium ship can’t leave the Karinnes.  The Urumi must have spies in the Imperium, and that means that the Consortium might still be getting information, even if the Urumi aren’t passing it on anymore.  That means we must keep our secrets.  Dahnai can’t know.  The secret unspoken remains a secret.

      Naturally.  That’s why the Kimdori deployed some devices that scrambled light and energy patterns that left the Exile system that will prevent any kind of passive observation, so they can’t just point telescopes or passive sensors at Exile and see what happened.  The Kimdori are pretty clever, Sioa sent appreciatively.

      Jason had to agree.  Light moved at a set speed, and what happened in the past could actually be seen by using telescopes aimed at planets, based on ships that would jump hyperspace to a predetermined point calculated to look at a specific time.  Using that trick, Jason could jump to a point in interstellar space and point cameras back at Karis, set the magnification, and then watch the entire battle, were Karis not protected from just such actions.  The Kimdori had probably deployed hyperspace-based units that scrambled energy passing through an area of real space, disrupting all coherent light and energy signals passing through.  Given that hyperspace was much more encompassing than normal space, a single device could disrupt signals in a huge area.  Those defenses were part of the ring of satellites that had been around the inner system, that disrupted light passing through to prevent telescopes from seeing what was happening on the planet, rendering any image of Karis fuzzy…which could be blamed on the intense radiation that was supposed to be present.  But now that Karis was no longer a secret, more substantial defenses were in place that completely disrupted all light and coherent energy signals passing through, isolating Karis from surveillance.  Kimdori were masters of hyperspace, knowing the secrets of the Karinnes from before their destruction, and that gave them powerful tools.

      Anything else to pass along?

      Not really.  We just wanted you to know about the Consortium.  I assume you’re fine with allowing Sevi to make tactical decisions there?

      I wouldn’t have left her in charge if I wasn’t.  There’s something you can look into for me.

      What?

      The Exiled seemed a little unsettled with the idea of living inland.  Look around and see if we don’t have a premade town big enough to hold them that’s on the ocean that most closely matches the weather conditions of Exile.  Probably northwest of Karsa, closer to the equator.

      Jason, all our volunteers are already in place.

      I know, but after what I heard, I think we might want to think about giving them something more like home to them.  It might make those who resent being moved maybe a touch less antagonistic.

      Always at the last minute with you, she accused, but not harshly.  I’ll talk to your interior cabinet and have them see what they can find.

      It’s how I keep myself interesting, Sioa.  I thought women liked unpredictable men.

      Not when they make the rules, I don’t, she sent playfully in reply.

      Keep up with me if you dare, Sioa, Jason shot back.  I’ll be home in a while, you can get me there.

      Alright.  Talk to you soon.

      Later hon.  [Cybi, can you link me to Myleena?]

      [Certainly.  Myleena, Jason wants to talk to you.]

      [Sure, Cybi.  Hey, Jason?]

      [It’s me.]

      [Babe, when I see you, I am gonna kiss you so hard!] she communed ecstatically.  [How did you do it?  How did you pull off capturing a ship?]

      [I remembered Songa’s report,] he answered, then explained how they had done it.

      [Brilliant!  Babe, you’d have been such an awesome member of Black Ops!  When is it getting here?]

      [Sioa said that the Dreamer is towing it back.  I’m not sure if they’re on the way or still preparing, you’ll have to talk to her about it.  She said you’re clearing out space?]

      [Yeah, I cleared out a destroyer bay and I’m getting ready.  You gotta be here, Jayce!  You can’t pass up the chance to get your hands in their intact technology!  If we’re lucky, we can restore their main power and get the ship working.  Imagine, using the ship as a decoy to slip behind their lines!]

      [I thought you were gonna take it apart.]

      [You bet your ass I am, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put it back together when I’m done,] she answered. [When are you coming up?  Oh, and bring Danelle!]

      [I have some other things to do, but I’ll see if I can’t find some time.]

      [Alright babes.  Let me get back to work.]

      [Sure thing.  Later Myli.]

      [Later Jayce.]

      Jason ended the communion as he rinsed his hair, tilting his head slightly to let the soap rinse off his gestalt.  The gestalt had, over the years, completely rubbed away the hair that used to grow underneath it, but that made little difference, since he never took it off.  He had become so completely used to it that he couldn’t fathom not having it bonded to his face, not having it tickling the back of his mind at all times.  Jason and Myleena were the only Generations that had such complete attachment to their gestalts, though.  Erinn and many others preferred to take them off when sleeping or bathing or when they didn’t need them, but Jason felt that it was a part of him, and he’d take it off with the same feel of unease he’d have taking off his left hand.  Jyslin was already used to seeing it on his face, and Rann had never seen his father without it.

      But it wasn’t the same gestalt he’d worn all these years.  This gestalt was 40% smaller than the last one he wore, the newest version just built last year, with the curved upper prong gone from the design.  That prong had once held the circuitry of part of the gestalt and had also contained the antennas for its communion, but Myleena had streamlined the design and worked out a way to use the case of the gestalt itself as the antenna.  The new gestalts did have slightly less power than the old ones, but that was a fair tradeoff for not having that upper curved prong digging into the side of his head when he was sleeping..  The new gestalts were thin and comfortable, and it was so easy to forget they were there, so comfortable, that never taking it off didn’t matter.

      Tim stepped into the large shower and took up a position at the other shower head.  Their bathroom was much more human than Jason’s, with a large shower and only the soaking tub, and the shower and tub both were big enough for two people.  Pass the shampoo, will ya? Tim asked.

      Sure.  What’s on your agenda today?

      Well, after Miaari bitches me out for being late for work, odds are I’ll still be working on the Consortium data.  She’s been having me work on the Consortium data.  I’ve been put on the team deciphering their alphabet and writing.  I’ve been spending most of my time looking at pictures and inspecting the wreckage, searching for writing samples to add to the database.  I guess my job will be a hell of a lot easier when that captured ship gets back, he noted with an audible chuckle.

      I’ll tell Miaari to give you a pass, Jason sent with a chuckle.  I’ll assert my Dukal privileges.

      That’s a new way to call a conjugal visit, Tim laughed.  A Dukal privilege indeed, he grinned, slapping Jason on the butt.

      Hey, hey, I’ll sic Aya on you for assaulting my royal person! he threatened, which made Tim laugh.  What did Songa say about Symone’s problem?

      That it was chronic but minor, and it was easily fixed, he answered.  Songa said the best time to try to get pregnant would be in about ten to thirteen days.  So, we’re gonna try.

      Good luck, man.  Children make life so much different.  And better.

      Thanks.

      Hurry up you two!  We wanna shower too! Jyslin called.

      Well, what’s stopping you?  Get in here, silly woman! Jason answered.  Aya.

      Yes, your Grace?

      We’ll be over in about twenty minutes or so.  Can you get the kids ready to go to the boardwalk?

      We’ll get started, she promised.

      I should be going in to work, but I promised Rann, and I’m not gonna break promises to my son.  It’ll set a bad precedent.

      You’ll have more fun with your kids anyway.

      Amen, Jason agreed as Jyslin and Symone invaded the shower.  It was a little cramped with all four of them, but Jason was done anyway, so he slithered out…but not without making sure to get all kinds of feels of both women while he did so.

      Such a fucking tease! Symone challenged with a grin when he groped her on the way out of the shower.

      I was just making sure you didn’t fall over as I squeezed by, Symone, Jason told her as he dried off.

      By grabbing my pussy?

      Well, it must have worked, since you didn’t fall over, he sent mildly, which made all three of them laugh.

      Keep your calendar open tonight, baby, cause you just got yourself an appointment.

      Promises, promises, he sent flippantly.

      Jason dried off, dressed, and went back home.  He picked up Rann and Kyri and gave both of them big kisses.  “And how are my two babies?”

      I’m no baby! Kyri challenged, but she did hug him around his neck.

      Alright, how’s my little man and my little lady? he corrected, sending slowly for Rann’s benefit.

      He’s the baby, he can’t even send right! Kyri taunted, giving Rann a smug little look.

      Hey, I’m just learning, and Mommy said I send really good!

      Good for a baby!

      That’s enough, Jason chided them, which made Kyri fall silent, Rann glare at her, and then Kyri stuck her tongue out at him.  Kyri! Jason barked.  Apologize right now, and you’d better mean it.

      I’m sorry I called you a baby, she sent, a bit sulkily.

      Better, Jason assured her, then he kissed her on the cheek and made her giggle.  I swear, I have no idea where you pick these things up.  That’s not even an insult in Faey society, it’s something that might get you in trouble for an entirely different reason when you’re older, he sent to Kyri.

      Mommy said it’s a way human kids tease each other.

      Your mother needs to teach you better things than how to annoy your brothers and sisters, Jason told her mildly, which made her giggle.

      What? Rann sent suspiciously.

      Nothing, Daddy was telling me something meant only for his daughters, she sent, a bit smugly.

      Yes, I was lecturing her on how impolite she’s being, Jason sent flintily, which made Rann sprout a smug smile of his own.  “Are you two ready for the boardwalk?”

      “Can we go now?” Rann asked excitedly.

      “Let’s wait for Mommy Jyslin,” he said, using Jyslin’s name because he had Kyri.  To his kids, their own mother was Mommy and Jyslin was Mommy Jyslin, but to Rann the other mothers were Aunt.  It was subtle, but a very telling distinction in how Jyslin asserted her authority as Jason’s wife and the Duchess Consort over the other mothers of Jason’s children.  All the ex-Marines had Duchess titles, but Jyslin’s official title of Duchess Consort was higher than a regular Duchess, which allowed his wife to outrank all the other Marines as more than just the wife of the Grand Duke.  “Where’s Danelle?”

      “Upstairs,” Rann answered.

      She’s changing into a new pair of shorts, Kyri elaborated.  Daddy, Mommy said that if we go to Draconis, we’ll turn blue.  Was she just kidding?

      No, it really happens, he nodded.  That’s why I try to avoid going to Draconis and staying a long time.  I come back home looking very strange.

      So it doesn’t stay?

      Only as long as you’re there.  It fades after few days when you come home.

      Oh.

      Why do you ask?

      I was just curious.  I was wondering what I’d look like if I was blue like Danelle is.

      You’d still be my little lady, he smiled, kissing her cheek and making her giggle.

      I can’t understand you two, Rann sent sullenly.

      Just keep practicing, little man, and you’ll be able to understand us in no time, he promised, kissing Rann on the cheek, then putting both of them down.  “Danelle!” he shouted.  “Get a move on, girl, we’re leaving as soon as Mommy Jyslin gets back!”

      “Coming!” she shouted from the stairwell.

      The car is ready whenever you are, your Grace, Aya reported.

      Thanks, Aya.  Jyslin, you about ready?

      I’m dressing now, love, be over in a minute.

      “Jyslin’s almost ready, so go ahead and go out to the car,” he told them.

      They hurried out to the car, and Jason swooped down and grabbed Danelle as she tried to run by.  Danelle giggled and hugged his neck.  Like the children of the other Marines, Danelle was almost like his own.  She spent probably a much time in his house as she did at home, because Myleena was so busy, but Jason didn’t mind at all.  Since Danelle’s father wasn’t in her life, Jason was more than happy to fill that role, for Danelle and for the children of Lyn, Bryn, Min, Sheleese, and Myri.  They, like the others, were trying to get pregnant, and Jason had found it strange that all ten women seemed to be having the same problem Symone was, a curious lack of conceptions since having their first child.

      That, Jason had heard, wasn’t unusual.  Faey women seemed to have this gap of two to three years between their children, some kind of biological issue with them that discouraged conception while the youngest child was still an infant, probably some kind of adaptation to their species that made them different from humans.  Perhaps the conception gap after the first baby was some kind of genetic assurance that the first child had plenty of time to develop without competition.  It also showed in Maya through her two daughters; they were almost exactly three years apart.

      But, it had been about four years since they’d come to Karis.  Perhaps the planet itself was having an effect on the women.  He’d have to have Songa go through the birth records and see if it was a consistent effect.  Until then, maybe all of the women should go see Songa and see if they had the same minor imbalance that Symone contracted.

      With Aya, Ryn, and Dera, Jason and Jyslin took Rann, Kyri, and Danelle to the boardwalk.  It was his first casual trip out among his people since the battle, and he hadn’t expected quite the reaction he got.  His people cheered when they realized he was on the boardwalk, and he was surrounded by well-wishers who clapped his shoulders, kissed his cheek, and shook his hand.  He even had one of the rare Kizzik that lived on Karis, one of the nobles, perform the kree’kthk, a ceremonial tasting of his blood so as to absorb what they felt were his noble qualities…and which almost got her head blown off by Aya when she pricked Jason’s hand with one of the spines on her armored wrist.  But Jason was aware of the ceremony, a ceremony meant to honor him, since the Kizzik was saying through the ritual I want to be more like you.

      The Faey were remarkably human-like, and their cultures and attitudes were amazingly similar, but the Makati and Kizzik on Karis reminded him that the House Karinne was a multi-species house, and species that were much different from humans and Faey.

      They played games, rode a few rides, and visited some shops on the boardwalk, enjoying a little rest and relaxation after a hard couple of weeks.  But real life had to intrude on his day out with his wife and some of the strip’s kids, while Jason and Jyslin were eating ice cream at a little parlor with tables set up on the boardwalk while the kids, watched over by Dera, watched a Faey juggler with amazement in their eyes as the brightly dressed young man made five red balls dance over his blurring hands.

      [Jason, Myri is trying to contact you,] Cybi communed with him.

      As it always did, any time Jason used communion near Kyri, it caused her to react.  She seemed to stiffen slightly and looked around, a hand to her head.  Kyri couldn’t yet hear communion, but she was definitely sensitive to it.  But Jason knew it was just a matter of time until she could.  Kyri was a Generation, and was probably the strongest telepath in the Imperium.  In ten years, once her powers fully matured and she had more experience, she would be the most powerful telepath alive.

      [Can you connect us please?]

      [Certainly.]

      [Jason?]

      [Go ahead, Myri.]

      [The Dancer just arrived, Jayce, and the Consortium ship came through the tow in perfect condition.  Two destroyers are towing it into Kosigi as we speak, and the Dancer is going to return to Exile as soon as the crew has a chance to rest.]

      [That sounds good.  Hand it over to Myleena as soon you can and let her get to work.  I’ll try to go up and take a look at it when I have a chance.]

      [Buried in paperwork?]

      [No, in butter pecan ice cream,] he replied with a light current.  [I’m spending a little time with the wife and kids.]

      [Never anything wrong with that, as long as you do it in moderation,] Myri chuckled in reply.

      The enemy ship just arrived, Jason told Jyslin, sending privately.

      She nodded.  They didn’t waste any time getting it here.

      That ship is the second most important thing we have right now.  Between the interdictor and that ship, we have real weapons now, concrete weapons to battle the Consortium.  As soon as we tear that ship apart, we might find some weakness in their technology we can exploit to protect ourselves, maybe even learn more about them to take the fight to them.  Who knows, we might get their computers intact, break into them, and learn all about their operations in our galaxy.

      It would be nice.  They know so much about us, and we know almost nothing about them.  It would even the playing field.  They captured the Karinne ancestors and their ships, and now we’ve captured theirs.  And when we learn all we can from it, we’ll come after them and show them you don’t fuck with House Karinne and the Imperium, she finished with an adamant set to her thought.

      Nor should they be fucking with the balance of power in our sector, Jason added.  Outside of the war with the Skaa a few years ago, things have been nice and quiet around here, and I’d like it to stay that way.

      What do you mean?

      When I sent that technology to the Academy, I meant it, he answered.  I want everyone to have access to it, because I don’t want anyone to be vulnerable to the Consortium, either militarily or tempted to enter into an alliance with them in exchange for their weaponry.  I also want everyone armed with the same weapons, so there’s no imbalance of power between the Imperium, the Skaa, and the Alliance.  If everyone has the same potential for destruction, it keeps all three sides nice and unwilling to get into wars with each other.

      And the Urumi?

      I’m sure they’ll survive.  If they get conquered, oh well, that’s the price they pay for dealing with the devil.  They’ve already lost their border systems to Dahnai, and their fleet was decimated.  They’re vulnerable, and everyone knows it.  Hell, even the Nine Colonies on the backside of the Collective might try to annex the Debarix system.  The Urumi are in no position to do anything about it.  I figure they’re gonna lose their ring systems but continue with their core systems.  They’ll lose half their territory, but the Collective will live on.

      And now there’s another race in the Imperium, Jyslin mused.  The Urumi did surrender.  Dahnai will probably keep the populations of those systems intact and just make them pay tribute, but she’d better be careful.  The Urumi will only behave if they’re treated fairly by the established rules of combat agreed to between the Urumi and the Imperium some three thousand years ago, at the end of our first war.  As long as she doesn’t mistreat the Urumi, they won’t rebel or fight back.  It would be the smartest thing to do to just leave them be and let them pay tribute, since tensions with the Urumi are going to be too high for our races to mingle for a while.

      I’m going to do something about that.  I haven’t gone into work yet because the first thing I need to do is talk to the Queen of the Collective, and I’m waiting for it to be morning on Uruma so I’m not waking her up.  I’ll have to talk to the Alliance and to Dahnai too.

      What do you have in mind?

      Well, the Urumi attacked us.  Doesn’t that mean we should get first choice of taking on the Urumi planets as Karinne holdings?

      Jason, the Karinnes have never held territory outside of Karis before.

      That’s the old Karinne.  I intend to keep Exile as it is.  I have an idea for Aurigae and the other border systems, a way the Urumi can help us and also not feel like they’re going to be punished by the Imperium for the treachery of their queen.  Like you said, they did surrender.  They deserve a little leeway for that.

      You really think Dahnai is going to give you an arable system?  She loves you, baby, but not that much.

      I think she might after she hears my idea, because the last thing we need right now is for us to fight among ourselves when the Consortium is lurking out there.  The Urumi could be allies, and they’ll probably jump at the chance to pay the Consortium back for their betrayal.  I need to contact the Collective queen anyway.  In fact, I should do that right now, because she’ll be in her window of activity in about an hour, he noted, having his gestalt bring up local time for the Collective homeworld, I have to make the call before Queen Sk’Vrae gets involved with other matters.  Love, watch the kids for me.

      Certainly.

      Aya, I’m going to the White House, he called.  The White House was the seat of the Dukal government.  It wasn’t a house so much as it was a complex of buildings, all painted white, in the center of the city.  It had started as something of a joke when Jason noted that he’d be in a white building as he looked at the plans for the complex, like the American President, and the idea took off to where it became official.  It was there that the municipal Dukal government operated, overseeing those planetary programs that dealt with the house as a whole.  It was there that land grants were issued, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, and other permits were handed out, where planetary systems like power, water, and waste reclamation were administered, it was the location of the military headquarters where Shey worked, and it was technically where Jason had the seat of his power.  In typical Faey fashion, Jason had a throne room there…which amounted a ten by ten room with a simple chair.  But, when he talked to other rulers except for Zaa and Dahnai, that was where he did it, from the official seat of his house, wearing formal robes.  Find me a car or something.

      Jason was there in half an hour.  He padded quickly through the polished halls, nodding to the administrators and secretaries as they bowed to him, until he reached his throne room.  Who’s running the comm today? he called as he stepped into the antechamber to put on a court robe.  Appearances were very important when dealing with the leaders of other governments.

      I am, your Grace, answered a young male named Gerin, who was a very proficient technician and knew all the various forms and customs when dealing with other races on the communications console.

      Good.  Get me the Academy, Gerin.  I want to talk to the Brood Queen Sk’Vrae of the Urumi Collective.

      There was a startled silence.  Uh, certainly, your Grace.  It may take a while, though.  Would you like to wait in the lounge?

      No, I’ll wait right here, he said, sitting in his polished walnut chair.

      It took about ten minutes for Gerin to finally get through to the Collective, having to go through the Academy, which gave Jason plenty of time to put on his blue court robe embroidered with the crest of Karinne over his left chest, and in typical Faey fashion, had one sleeve longer than the other.  The Urumi ambassador was still there, but he had all but barred himself in his office while the Urumi students tried to leave.

      Sk’Vrae was not a very handsome female.  She was Urumi, which meant she was an odd cross between a reptile and an insect.  Urumi were reptilian in appearance, like the Skaa, but they had bony plates on their outsides that almost looked vaguely like an insect’s carapace, bony armor protecting their sensitive areas, with tough scales between them, and no bony plates on the face or neck.  Urumi were formidable in unarmed combat because they were from a moderately high-G homeworld that gave them good raw strength in addition to their natural armor.  Sk’Vrae was a massive female Urumi with a bony crest over her eyes, the crest a mark of a female, and her plates and scales were all painted red, the mark of her royal station.  “What doesss the leader of Karinne want with me?” she asked, hissing at him in Faey.  “Doesss your bitch queen sssend you to make more outrageousss demandsss?  You have our border sssyssstemsss, what more do you want?”

      “I want you to send your Urumi students back to the Academy,” he told her immediately.  “I want your ambassador to remain, and I want to make you a deal.”

      “What deal?” she asked.

      “I’ve sent samples of Consortium technology to the Academy so their scientists can analyze and understand Consortium technology so all governments participating in the Academy can copy the technology and build the weapons themselves.  I’m doing this because the Consortium threatens all of us, so we all need weapons capable of fighting them.  That technology will not be held by any one government, it will be available to anyone who needs it, including you, your Majesty.  My deal is your scientists earn a spot at the table when the Academy starts that work so you can take part in the project if you provide samples of the armor they gave you, so we can also analyze that.”

      “And why would I do thisss?” she asked.  “We have thossse weaponsss.  We can take them apart and learn their sssecretsss ourssselvesss.”

      “Because the combined efforts of us all will make that happen much faster than if you do it yourself.  I guarantee you you’ll be at least two years behind, and all your neighbors will have those weapons while your factories are still retooling to produce the new technology.”

      She was silent a long moment, so he continued.  “I have a couple of other offers.”

      “Prossseed.”

      “I have something of an idea to try to reduce tensions between the Collective and the Imperium.  I’ll offer the neutrality of House Karinne as a buffer between you and the Empress.  I’ll make Dahnai back off, and I’ll make her give me the border systems she conquered from the Collective.  When she does, I’ll split the farm production from the farms of Aurigae with you.  I know you’re going to need the food, your Majesty.  I don’t believe you had anything against my house.  I think you got lured into an alliance by a partner that hid the truth from you and then tried to use you, and I for one am not going to punish the Collective for it.  Yes, you attacked my planet, but you were repelled, and as far as I’m concerned, that is a moot point in the face of the current situation.  I’m willing to let that go in the interests of a greater peace.”

      She glared at him icily.  “And what favor will I owe the Grand Duke Karinne for hisss generosssity?” she asked.

      “Allow me to recruit Urumi on the border planets into my military and into my house, those I see fit to invite.”

      “You would trussst them?”

      “We’re telepaths, your Majesty.  We’ll know if they’re lying to us.  I’m not going to induct them fully into the house, what I’m looking at doing is establishing a splinter house staffed by the Urumi who will oversee the border systems I control.  In short, your Majesty, I will allow the Urumi to govern themselves however they wish, even have agents of the Collective there on the planets to ensure the good treatment of your people, so long as they don’t actively oppose Karinne.  What I want from you is your blessing.  I know your people, Queen Sk’Vrae.  Their oaths of loyalty will hold them to the Collective unless you give them the option to forswear them if they so wish.”  He gave her a steady look.  “And you’ll get your chance at revenge against the Consortium,” he added.  “We intend to take the war to them, your Majesty.  I’m sure you’d like a little payback for their betrayal of you.  Your soldiers inducted into my house would strike a blow for the Urumi, and when the times comes, I’ll welcome Urumi ships among us as we destroy the Consortium for their dishonorable acts.”

      She stood up, and she hissed.  Jason knew Urumi.  They were very honorable creatures, no doubt carrying out their side of the bargain in good faith until the Consortium betrayed them, and the backstabbing they received from the Consortium would be like a raw wound.  There was that, and there was the fact that the Urumi could hold a grudge like nobody’s business.  They called it a matter of blood, and when a matter of blood came up, Urumi would devote their entire lives in the pursuit of justice.  They had nursed a thousand year grudge against Merrane and the Imperium over the destruction of the original Academy.  The Consortium may have power and technology, but they didn’t know the races in this sector very well.  If they had, they’d never had been stupid enough to backstab the Urumi, because now the Urumi would hunt them for the rest of time until they felt the matter of blood was settled.  “You have my attention, your Grassse,” she said seriously.  “You will plead the Collective’sss cassse to your bitch queen?”

      “I can make no promises, but I’ll impress her with the fact that the Urumi could be more useful as allies…if they agree to a written peace treaty, and you’ll finally forgive Merrane for the destruction of the Academy.”

      “Blood hasss yet to be repaid for that,” she said, sitting back down.  “But we can honor a temporary trussse in the matter, ssso that we might both focusss our attention on a greater foe.  Our fuedsss againssst Merrane and Trillane may resssume after we have avenged ourssselvesss againssst the Consssortium.”

      “She might go for that,” Jason noted absently, forgetting the formal forms for a moment.  “Trillane, you say?”

      “They broke a deal bargained in good faith,” she hissed.  “That isss a matter of blood.”

      “Well, far be it from me to get in your way with Trillane.  As you know, we have no love for them either.  I’d be happy to let you take big bites out of those bloodsuckers after we deal with the Consortium.”

      “At leassst in that regard, you and I do sssee the sssame picture,” she agreed.

      “So, you will return your people to the Academy?”

      She nodded.  “And I will sssupply sssamples of the armor which we were given,” she agreed.  “In return, you will include our ssscientisssts in the resssearch of their technology, and you will ssspeak on our behalf to your bitch queen.”

      “I make no promises how far I can get, but I will do my best.  Regardless of how well I do, your Majesty, we can’t afford to be divided right now.  The Consortium is a threat to all of us.  You, me, the Imperium, the Skaa, the Alliance, the Nine Colonies, the Zyagya, the Confederated Trinary, even the Kimdori.”

      She was silent a long moment.  “I will honor our agreement.  The contract will be drawn up and sssent to you ssso you may sssign and affiksss your ssseal.  Asss isss proper, it will be sssent to you with my mark and ssseal upon it.”

      “Have it delivered to Secretary General Kim of the Terran’s United Nations, and from there it will find its way to me.  I will read it, and if it matches our spoken agreement, I will sign and affix my seal and return it to you.”

      “Then we have a bargain in good faith,” she declared, touching her nose, her cheek, then her bony crest in succession wither her reptilian hand.  He clapped his hands together twice and gave a short bow in his chair in the response to her ritual act.  It was an old Urumi ritual giving “the bond of word” that would hold until the agreement was drawn up as a proper contract.  “I will contact my ambasssador at the Academy and give him the proper commandsss.”

      “And I’ll contact Empress Dahnai right now and see what I can do.”

      “Now, asss to thisss offer of government.  If you take control of the border sssyssstemsss from the bitch queen, you will allow them to govern themssselvesss?”

      “Yes.”

      “Would you permit me to sssend a daughter to each sssyssstem to act as Brood Prinsssesss Ruler?  The Collective isss quite lossst without a queen to rule.”

      “I…will consider it.  If your daughters suitably convince me that they won’t simply try to make the systems rebel against Karinne and rejoin the Collective, I’d probably permit it.”

      “If you were conquered by the Ssskaa, would you not yearn to rejoin your home government?”

      “I would.  How about a contract of years of service?  They agree to thirty years of loyalty to Karinne.  After thirty years, House Karinne and the Queen of the Collective meet to discuss the matter and the possible return of the border systems to the Collective.”

      “I…will ponder the matter,” she said slowly.  “It hasss merit, but I must ssseek counsssil with my advisssorsss before I agree to sssuch a contract.”

      “Fair enough.  We’ll talk about that after I talk to Empress Dahnai and see if I can get control of the border systems.”

      “Then until you know, our busssinesss isss done.”

      “Not yet.  Your Majesty, in three weeks from tomorrow, I’m convening a council of all parties about the Consortium.  It’s going to be so we can all sit down and talk about the threat, put our cooperation over Consortium technology in writing, and iron out any wrinkles.  I’d like you to attend.”

      “Persssonally?”

      He nodded.  “I’m going to extend the invitation to everyone, and it’ll be held in the Academy, a neutral site.”

      “I will dissscusss the offer with my advisssorsss.”

      “Then I believe we’re done, your Majesty.”

      “May Tr’Bakk blesss your path, Grand Duke Karinne of the Houssse of Karinne.”

      “Walk under the shadow of Grx’Vin, Queen Sk’Vrae of Uruma.”

      Her image disappeared from the screen, and Jason leaned back and sighed. That was easier than he expected.  He thought Sk’Vrae was going to fight about it.  She’d inform her council about their agreement, and then she would have the contract drawn up and delivered to Earth.

      Now came the other fight.  Gerin, get me Empress Dahnai.

      At once, your Grace.

      It took about a minute.  Her image appeared on the screen, dressed in her court robes and holding her crown in her hand.  It was midafternoon there, so she had probably just finished a court.  “Hey babe,” she called with a smile.  “Uh oh, you’re in your throne room.  Is this business?”

      “It has been, yeah,” he answered.  “I just finished an audience with Queen Sk’Vrae.”

      “That horny bitch?  What were you talking to her for?”

      “I got her to put her people back at the Academy,” he began.  “And I promised her a place when the scientists start working on the Consortium technology.  She even agreed to bring the armor the Consortium gave her people with her so we can analyze that as well.”

      “What?  Why?” she demanded.  “Babe, we’re at war with the Collective!”

      “No, you’re sitting with your fleets in the border systems making a lot of noise about invading the Collective core worlds when you have no intent to do so, trying to scare her into giving up more than what you’ve already taken,” he said calmly.  “But that’s not what I called about.  I want to make a deal with you.”

      “A deal?  A deal over what?”

      “I want the border systems you conquered.”

      What?  The Karinnes never—“

      “We’re not the Karinnes of old,” he said.  “I want Aurigae and the other border systems, Dahnai.  That will put the Urumi under me, and I’ve already promised Sk’Vrae I’d treat her people with respect.  I can keep order there and their farms producing better than any other house, because the queen will tell her people to obey me completely.  She won’t do that for you.”

      She gave him a hot, unfriendly look.  “What deals have you been making behind my back, Jason?” she demanded.  “You say you’re not the old Karinne, but making your own private deals with other governments is a page out of the old Karinne’s book!”

      “I know I’m pushing things, Dahnai, but I’m looking at more than just what I can get out of you or the Collective.  The Collective was betrayed by the Consortium, hon.  They were backstabbed.  Do you know what the Urumi do when they’ve been betrayed?”

      She opened her mouth, then she laughed.  “They’ll go after the Consortium!”

      “Exactly.  So, me and Sk’Vrae have something of a common interest, and we’ve already agreed that when the time comes to kick the shit out of the Consortium, the Collective is in.  In a show of faith of our new partnership, I offered to try to talk you down, and that’s what I’m doing.  Sk’Vrae won’t fight over the systems you’ve already conquered, if you give them to me and let me handle it.  I’ll promise you here and now half of all food exports off the arable planets.  Karinne will run the planets at zero-profit.  We’ll take nothing but what’s necessary to make the systems self-sufficient.  My only interest is to put a cushion between the Imperium and the Collective, and I can provide that.  It will keep the peace, the border systems will produce for the Imperium, and you score some brownie points with Sk’Vrae.”

      “And Sk’Vrae gets the other half of the food?” she asked with a wry smile.

      “I’m not going to starve the Collective, hon,” he said simply.  “They’re going to need that food.  In return for that, you get half the food production of two arable planets that aren’t going to rebel on you if whatever house you give them to start doing to the Urumi what the Trillanes did to Terra.”

      She pursed her lips, then nodded slowly.  “Yes, that is a risk,” she agreed.  “I’ll think about it, babe,” she said.  “No promises.  Let me think about it for a while.”

      “While you think about it, consider just one more thing.”

      “What?”

      “Can you really afford to keep pursuing war with the Collective when the Consortium could come back?  This is your chance to keep what you’ve taken and get a peace treaty in the bargain.  Sk’Vrae agreed to sign a temporary truce with the Imperium until the Consortium is removed as a threat.”
      “A temporary truce?”

      “She said there’s still a matter of blood with Merrane, but also with Trillane,” he said with a wolfish smile.

      Dahnai laughed.  “Maeri’s gonna pay for backing out of her alliance with the Collective, I take it?”

      “Oh yes.  She violated a treaty, and the Urumi do not let that go unchallenged.  And I’m gonna pull up a chair, grab a beer and watch it with a big grin on my face.”

      Dahnai grinned.  “I’ll give the Collective one thing.  They’re consistent,” she said with a nod.  “Oh, by the way, your people that Trillane took are almost halfway returned.”

      “That was one of the things I needed to talk to Terra about,” Jason grunted.

      “What kind of condition are your people in?”

      “Most of them are functional,” he answered.  “the Trillane conditioning left their personalities and memories intact, they just programmed them with absolute loyalty.  The Marines stationed on Terra are reversing that conditioning.  It’s slow going, and it’ll take them a few months to heal three million, but at least the Terrans are cooperating.”

      “They are?”

      He nodded.  “The Trillanes ordered them to obey all orders from us as if we were Trillanes, and their programming binds them.  So they do as they’re told until we can get rid of the brainwashing.  It makes it a very orderly process.”

      “I can imagine,” she mused.  “It sounds like Maeri actually held her side of the deal.”           

      “She did.  I’m still gonna enjoy watching Sk’Vrae cut little pieces out of her, though.”

      “I think I will too,” Dahnai laughed.  “That bitch has been nothing but trouble since the day I took the throne.”   She gave him a smile.  “I thought I knew you, babe.  I thought you’d go after the Collective for attacking Karis.  I’m surprised you haven’t.”

      “I get the feeling that the Urumi got screwed by the Consortium, and while I’m not entirely happy with what they did, I’m more worried about the Consortium than I am angry with the Collective.  This isn’t the time for the governments here to be fighting each other.  Not when the Consortium is going to come back and fuck with all of us…and it will be all of us.  The Alliance, the Skaa, they’ve seen the Consortium in action now, and they’re not gonna cooperate with them, not after what the Consortium did to the Collective.  If the Consortium somehow conquers a part of the Imperium, then they’ll be surrounded by enemies, and not just the Imperium.  The Alliance, the Skaa, maybe even the smaller empires past them, they’ll resist the Consortium if they return.  And I’m going to make sure that all of us are armed and ready for them.”

      She sighed.  “I wish you would change your mind about that.”

      “I told you a long time ago, hon, I will not arm the Imperium and unleash them against their neighbors.  But the Consortium changes the rules a little bit.  So, instead of arming you and watching you make war on everyone, I’m giving everyone the same weapons so they can protect themselves from the Consortium and from the Imperium.  That keeps the balance of power without upsetting it too much.  Yes, whoever has the biggest fleet will have an advantage, but they’ll still face dreadful losses if they make war on another government.”

      “Mutually assured destruction,” she chuckled.

      “Precisely.  If you want to declare war on the Skaa, you’ll do it fully knowing they have weapons that can wipe out your fleet if you attack them.  And they’ll know the same thing.  Everyone will have all these deadly weapons, but will be afraid to use them against each other because whoever attacks first will lose their fleets trying to conquer defended planets.”

      “Sometimes you’re just too fuckin’ clever, babe,” she said sourly.

      “Thank you,” he said with a smile.  “Just so you know, I’m going to try to arrange a meeting of all parties involved to discuss the Consortium in three weeks.  State leaders, not just ambassadors.”

      “That might get tricky, but sign me up.  I’ll warn my schedulers to leave three weeks from today flexible until we have specifics.”

      “Sounds good.  You have any free time coming up?  I’d like to see you.”

      “A state visit?”

      “State?  Hell no.  I want to see you,” he said.  “I don’t have to hide Karis anymore, I want you back in my life.”

      She gave him a bright smile. “Oh, well, in that case, why don’t I clear some space next week?  Bring Dahnai and Symone and Tim.  I want to get to know them better, and of course, I have a promise to keep,” she said with a sultry smile.

      “You realize if I tell Symone that, she’s gonna go crazy.“

      “I know,” Dahnai purred.

      “Bitch.”

      “I love it when you call me names,” she said with a sly little smile.  “How about, um, Thursday by your calendar?” she asked, looking at a monitor under the camera.  “I’ll cancel court that day.  You can get here Wednesday night and leave Friday morning.”

      “Sounds good.  But I want you to think about my offer, and we’ll talk about it face to face next week.”

      “See you then.  I can’t wait.  First I’m gonna kick your ass for dealing behind my back, then I’m gonna fuck you til you can’t walk straight,” she purred, blowing him a kiss, then the communication terminated from her end without saying goodbye.

      Jason chuckled.  Dahnai wasn’t stupid.  She’d see the value in what he was talking about.  Jason could get cooperation out of the Urumi in the border systems if Sk’Vrae told them to behave.  And with the threat of the Consortium, lurking, stability was very important right now.

      But, he had one more call to make.  Get me the High Staff of the Council of the Alliance, Gerin.

      It may take a few minutes.  Do you want something to eat while you wait, your Grace?

      I’m good.

      The Alliance was composed of five different races; the Makati-sized Beryans, the huge simian Bari-Bari, the skeletal Jakkans, the avian Shurai, and the silicon-based Stevak.  Their form of government was a leadership council at the head of a bureaucracy that managed the 51 systems.  They had a Zyagyan and a race called the Veruta on their council as neutral observers during non-secret council meetings.  The Zyagyan was there since the independent system of Zyagya was completely encompassed within Alliance space, but the Veruta was invited as part of a peace treaty between the Alliance and the Veruta from a war they had over a hundred years ago.  There was an Alliance member in the Verutan Emperor’s advisory staff, so the two governments could try to avoid a second war.  The leadership of their council passed from race to race in 2.5 year terms in Terran years.  The current High Staff of the council was a Jakkan, Graith Meribial.

      Graith’s visage appeared on the screen.  It was like a large yet slender skull with skin pulled tightly over it and black teeth and eyes and an open-cavity nose.  The Jakkans were not a pretty race to humans, but they were very intelligent and remarkably kind despite their grim visage.  “Ah, your Grace!  It is good to hear from you.  Are things well?”

      “Well enough, High Staff,” he answered.  “I wanted to ask a favor of you.”

      “Certainly.  The Alliance is always willing to listen to the requests of the Karinnes.”

      “I’m sure you’ve gotten word of what’s coming to the Academy?”

      “Yes, yes, of course.  I’ve sent six additional experts on astrophysics and energy generation to the Academy to help analyze the Consortium technology.”

      “Good.  Well, as everyone knows, the Alliance is among the leaders of long-range sensor technology.  I’d like to ask you to search for something for me.”

      “For the Consortium?” he asked.

      Jason nodded simply.

      “I’m already searching for them,” he answered seriously.  “I want to know where they are, and what kind of potential threat they pose to our sector.  I would be glad to pass along any information we discover to the Karinnes.”

      “I’d like you to make it public through the Academy, High Staff.  We all need to know what the Consortium is up to.”

      He was quiet a moment, then nodded.  “Agreed.  I’ll inform my ambassador to make the arrangements to disburse any information we collect about the Consortium to a central office in the Academy we can set up for it.”

      “You’ll have a place to send it as soon as I talk to the Academy.  I’m going to have them create a department of cooperation where all Consortium information can be centralized and accessed by all necessary parties.”

      “Excellent!  I’ll make the arrangements, then.”

      They exchanged pleasantries before saying goodbye, then Jason leaned back in his chair.  [Cybi, could you get me Ayuma please?]

      [Certainly.  Just one moment.]

      [Jason?  Cybi said you want to talk?]

      [I do, and it’s business.  I want you to set up a new department at the Academy that’ll act as a central depository for all Consortium information.  Not just their technology, but something of a situation room where we can pool all intelligence about them and share it.]

      [Ah.  I think I know exactly what you want, and Kiaari already has something similar to that for her own spy network.  I’ll ask her if she can organize it for us.  A Kimdori would be best suited for such a task.]

      [She’ll probably agree to help us set it up and explain how to best run it, so long as we don’t try to make her run it herself.  The Kimdori won’t get involved like that without direct authorization from Denmother Zaa.]

      [True.]

      [In about an hour, you’re gonna get an official missive from me, announcing that the Karinnes are sponsoring a summit to debate the Consortium threat in three weeks.  If you could, please push it out to all the ambassadors. I’ll be calling them personally to invite them, but I want the public to know we’re working on the problem.]

      [Certainly.  You been practicing your TK?]

      Jason chuckled.  [When I think about it,] he answered.  [I’ll be coming to Terra in a couple of days to see Kiaari.  Wanna have lunch?]

      [Sure!  Want me to warn Temika and Mike?]

      [I’ll call them myself.]

      [You got it.  Let me get down and see Kiaari.]

      [Alright, thanks hon.]  Gerin, get me Emperor Assaba of the Skaa.

      Jason paid call on every leader of every government that had ambassadors in the Academy, some 34 calls.  Some got through to leaders, some were answered by ambassadors because it was off-hours there and their leaders were resting or busy.  He told each one about his summit and invited each one to Terra personally.  Most of the leaders he managed to contact agreed to come immediately, while the rest either said they’d get back to him or he’d reached representatives who had to deliver the message to them.  After he had that done, he went to his office in the White House, which he rarely used, and prepared the announcement and had it sent off to Ayuma.  Miaari joined him not long after that, and he told her about his plans and his idea with the Urumi, to which she nodded.  “I find it a logical and workable idea.  It will depend on if Dahnai is willing to do it, though, and she is under some pressure from the Siann about those border systems.  Merrane can’t keep them, and there’s already a great deal of jockeying to gain the contracts to them.”

      “Well, I have an advantage over all of them.”

      “Yes, and the Siann will believe your agreement with Dahnai is unfair, that you slept it out of her.”

      “They can believe whatever they want, they don’t concern me.”

      “They should.  If Dahnai angers the Siann, they can remove her from the throne regardless of your alliance with her.”

      Jason leaned back.  “Hmm,” he mused.  “Then I think I should head that off.”

      “How so?”

      “I’ll offer to split Karinne’s profits from the industry of the border systems with all of the Siann, and take no profit myself.  After all, I’m not interested in those systems for what they can make for me, I want them so I can keep Dahnai and Sk’Vrae from stepping on each other’s toes.”

      Miaari gave him a strange look, then laughed brightly.  Shingrha jhee, my friend, I forget how cunning you are sometimes,” she said in admiration.  “Such an act would undercut any kind of protest the houses could offer, while at the same time preventing any one house from gaining too much advantage from control of those systems.  And it also reinforces the image you pose of a neutral party not interested in the politics and machinations of the Imperium to those inside.  You will earn a reputation for wisdom and generosity.  Yes, I believe that would be a very effective tactic.”

      “Then let’s draw up some paperwork we can send to Dahnai to let her look over.”

      “Yes.  Bring in our legal team,” she called to the open door.

      Jason employed 14 legal experts for the house, his legal team, whose job was to write contracts and treaties and review offered contracts and treaties from others.  They listened as Jason explained the objectives of the agreements he wanted to make concerning the border systems, and then, after copious notes, they took them back to their main office and started working on the language of the contracts.  They were very efficient, and when they promised to have a first draft for him tomorrow morning, he knew it would be on his desk exactly when they said it would be.  He also warned them that a treaty would be en route from the Collective in the next couple of days, and be ready to examine it.

      There was one call he did need to make, though.  It was early evening on Draconis, so he was fairly sure that she was awake.  He had the call sent from his office, and with Miaari listening just outside the view of the camera, Jason leaned back in his chair as a face winked onto the screen.

      Yila Trefani.

      “Grand Duke Karinne,” she intoned, nodding slightly.  “And what do I owe the honor of this call?”

      “How would you like to go into a little business together, Yila?”

      She looked honestly surprised.  “And what business would that be?”

      “The Trefanis have many business contacts, and with those comes the almost unintended matter of gathering information.  I’d like to see if I can’t have you ask your trade agents to keep their ears open for rumors beyond the Imperium of Consortium activity.”

      “And how can we do what the Kimdori cannot?”

      “Oh, the Kimdori could find out, but the more ears are open, the better chance of hearing what might only be spoken once,” he said, to which Miaari nodded in agreement.

      “And what would you offer in exchange for me passing along certain tidbits that might cross my desk?”

      “I think I might be persuaded to speak on Trefani’s behalf when trade relations reopen with the Collective,” he told her.  “Unlike the rest of the Imperium, I’m still on speaking terms with Queen Sk’Vrae.  She sees me as a neutral party, like the original Karinnes.  I think I might organize a couple of meetings between Trefani and Collective business agents so you might get an early jump on lucrative markets over the Highborns and House Moyanne.”

      She pursed her lips.  “I’ll think about it.”

      “That’s all I can ask.”

      “I’ll call you tomorrow with my decision.”

      “Fine with me.  Until tomorrow then?”

      She nodded.  “Fare well, Grand Duke Karinne.”    

      “Fare well, Grand Duchess Trefani.”

      When the image of her vanished, Jason laughed.  “Got her!” he proclaimed, slapping his hands on the desk.

      “You’re so sure?”

      “I know Yila Trefani, my friend, and that was her I’m about to make some money face, no doubt,” he said confidently.  “What I’m offering is too tempting, given she thinks she’s giving me nothing I can’t get from the Kimdori.”

      “You could.”

      “I know I could, but like I said, the more people there are listening, the more you hear.  And it really doesn’t cost me anything to get it, I just have to ask Sk’Vrae to meet with Trefani agents to talk about trade agreements.  She’d welcome them, the Collective is going to need money after this disaster, and Urumi goods actually sell well in the Imperium.  They make very good metalworked goods, and people love their trimetal fountains that sing with harmonic resonance when the sun hits them.  They have a knack for it.”

      “Well, you’re right about it not costing us anything,” she said.  “And it benefits both Trefani and the Collective.”

      “And it never hurts to have a friend in the Trefanis,” Jason added.  “Ever since the Friendly Puppies, Yila’s given me the cold shoulder.  I wouldn’t mind getting off her shit list, the Trefanis can be very useful when you need them.”  Jason’s eyes glanced to one of those very Friendly Puppies, which now sat on a shelf on his wall, an Odie-looking toy that was actually a very cunning robotic device.  Beside it on the shelf was a plush Hello Kitty wearing a cute little pink dress and a powder blue My Little Pony with a silver mane, just waiting for their turn to be unleashed on an unsuspecting enemy.

      “I think we’re about done, my friend,” Miaari said, smoothing the white fur on her chest, the mark of the Handmaiden.  “I’ll pass on what we’ve done here today to Zaa.”

      “Please, I tried to call her to fill her in, but got her ambassador.”

      “I’ll send it along.  Are you going home?”

      He nodded.  “I’ve only been here like seven hours,” he grunted, looking out the window at the sunset.  “I’m hungry.”

      “Aya, prepare for the Grand Duke’s departure,” Miaari said, to which Aya and Dera nodded, then went from the room while Ryn remained.

      Jys, Jason called, reaching the twenty miles from his offices to the house.

      Yeah love?

      I’m on the way home.  What’s the dinner situation?

      We’ve already eaten, but I can have Ayama make you something.

      Could you please?

      Just tread lightly.  Symone’s looking for you, Jyslin sent with amusement.  She may not let you eat dinner if she catches you.

      Think I might be looking for her too, at least after dinner, Jason answered lightly.  Wanna join us?

      No, I have a date with Tim, she answered with anticipation in her thoughts.  We figured you two would be busy.

      Well, have fun.

      Oh, we will, no doubt, she sent impishly.  Besides, after we have our separate fun, we can get together and have even more fun, she added lasciviously.

      Symone corrupted you.

      She didn’t have to work very hard to do it, Jyslin noted nonchalantly.  And she certainly didn’t have to work at all to corrupt you.

      I guess I’m a pervert at heart.

      And I love it, she told him with a dirty eddy to her thought.

      Stop it or I’ll have to walk out of here with my hands in my pockets, he warned as Aya returned and nodded without sending.

      Then get home and eat so Symone can do something about it, she ordered.

      I guess I will.

 

      Jason woke up to Rann’s cheerful cry as he barreled into the room and jumped into the bed.  “Wake up!” he called, shaking Jason’s shoulder.  “Wake up, Daddy!”

      “It’s too early in the morning, you little rugrat,” Symone complained, pulling the covers over her head.

      “Aunty Symone!  Where’s Mommy?”

      “Over at Uncle Tim’s,” Jason told him, shaking the cobwebs out of his mind and waking up.  “She’ll be over for breakfast.”

      Rann was aware of the dual relationship between the two couples, but he didn’t entirely understand it.  What he knew was that his parents were very special friends with Tim and Symone, and that sometimes his father had private time with Symone and his mother had private time with Tim.  Unlike a human child, Faey didn’t hide sex from their children, even though they didn’t entirely understand it, nor did they hide the openness of their society.  Rann was fully aware that Jason slept with Symone and Jyslin slept with Tim, but he saw it as perfectly normal, because that was how he was raised to see it.  It wasn’t the first time that Rann had bounded into the room and found Symone in bed with Jason instead of Jyslin, or found Tim in bed with Jyslin instead of him, or even had come in to find all four of them asleep in the same bed together.  “Oh.  Can I have pancakes for breakfast?”

      “Go ask Ayama,” Jason told him.  “Now scoot, little man, and close the door so I can get a little more sleep.  I’m a little tired.”

      I wonder why, Symone sent in a bandy manner, reaching out and touching his shoulder fondly.  “I think your father and me are going to have some private time, kidlet, so go down and see Ayama about breakfast.”

      “I…that didn’t make any sense,” Rann said, screwing up his brow in concentration.  “I mean, there was a feeling in there.  I didn’t understand it.”

      “You will when you’re older,” Jason told him dryly.  “Now do as Aunt Symone says and go down and see Ayama about breakfast.”

      Rann left them and dutifully closed the door, but Symone chuckled and rolled over, pulling the covers aside and shimmying up onto him.  Hello there, she sent with a leering smile.  Can Jason come out and play?

      Such a morning girl, Jason teased as Symone’s lust bled through her thoughts and attacked Jason, trying to excite him.

      So is Jyslin, that’s why we’re such a good match, she winked, then kissed him quite seriously.

      They weren’t alone for long.  Just about when they were committed to it, Jyslin came in.  She was wearing a simple robe that ended at her thigh, belted so loosely and casually that her left breast was hanging out of it, showing it off to the world, and it was parted from the waist down, all but showcasing her red pubic hair between blue silk curtains to anyone who gazed upon her.  Jason, however, didn’t notice, since Symone was on top of him and aggressively making love to him.  Jyslin watched them for a moment, smiling, then padded past the bed and to the dresser, laying out the clothes she intended to wear.  She didn’t bother them, didn’t disturb them, was almost indifferent to them as they had sex, her thoughts touching on both of them to share their pleasure without getting actively involved.

      She didn’t actively take note of them until after they were done, after Symone collapsed on top of him with a satisfied, lusty sigh after they achieved their climaxes.  My, that was short, Jyslin teased.

      I like it hard and dirty in the morning, you know that, Symone answered, giving Jason a hot kiss.  And that was both.  Thanks baby.

      Any time, love, anytime, Jason returned, slapping her lightly and fondly on her butt.

      What’s on the agenda today?

      I’m going up to Kosigi to go look at the Consortium ship while I wait for Dahnai and Sk’Vrae to call me back, he answered.  So I’m gonna be busy most of today.  You know Myli’s gonna keep me distracted.

      Yeah, I’d better warn Rann you may not be home tonight, Jyslin laughed.

      Next week, we’re gonna go see Dahnai, Jason told them.  All of us.  She invited us over for Thursday.

      Nice!  I wonder if she talked to Kellin, Symone said, sitting up and licking her lips in anticipation.  I want all six of us in one bed in the worst way.  I could wrap my legs around that fine hunk of a Faey, no doubt about it.

      So could I.  He’s taller than most Faey men, and really buff, Jyslin agreed.  And of course, he’s got a really nice dick, she hummed, sending a memory of him at the beach, where Jyslin had taken a very long, detailed look at his genitals, all but studying him.

      I’ve only seen it limp, but it looks plenty big, Symone agreed.  You’ve seen him hard, baby, when you threesomed Dahnai with him.  How big is he? she asked Jason.

      You may find out someday, who would I be to ruin the surprise? Jason asked with a smile.

      You dare deny me?  I’ll have to torture you for the information! she challenged, attacking his ribs.  He laughed and squirmed under her, but her weight held him down as her fingers tore laughter out of him.  Talk!  Talk!  How big is he hard?  Huh?  Huh?  Talk or I tickle you til you throw up!

      She gasped in surprise when she was picked up off the bed by nothing, lifting her hands out of reach of her fingers.  “Now, you were saying?” Jason asked, putting his hands behind his head and crossing his feet casually, smiling up at her.

      She laughed.  “Oh baby, just imagine you doing me like this,” she grinned, spreading her legs in a vulgar manner.  “I’ve never been fucked while hovering in midair.  It would almost be like joining the Zero-G club,” she told him with a naked leer.

      “Leave it to you to even turn my talent into something perverted,” he accused with a laugh, setting her down gently, back in her original place.  She laughed and leaned down, then kissed him quite seriously.  Wanna come up with me?

      I will, Symone nodded.

      You know I’ll be there, I’m on Myli’s staff.  We should bring all the kids, Jyslin said.  They need more exposure to the workings of the house.

      Sounds good.  Jason expanded his power to send across the entire strip.  Everyone get up and get ready, we’re all going up to Kosigi today to inspect the captured ship, he boomed.  Including the kids.  So everyone get your breakfast and get dressed and we’ll meet up at the main gate in two hours, and remember that we have to wear our armor!

      Two hours, eh? Symone asked.

      Yup, that gives me a little more time, he remarked, grabbing both of Symone’s breasts and fondling them.

      Oho, so Jason’s still feeling frisky, Symone grinned.

      I seem to recall a certain challenge to keep me to where I couldn’t walk straight, he sent teasingly.  I’m nowhere near that exhausted yet.

      Jys, I think a certain overconfident man of ours needs to have his nuts shriveled, Symone called, putting her hands on his shoulders and pushing him down.  Come over and give me a hand.

      I do hope you’ll let me use more than that, she noted dryly as she unbelted her robe and came over to join them.

      Jason could walk after he came down for a quick bite to eat, but his legs certainly didn’t feel entirely stable…so it was a good thing he was in his armor and his powered armor could help his legs out a little bit.  They were all in armor, everyone but the kids.  Jyslin and Symone came down a minute after him, carrying their helmets and sharing a naughty little smile as Meya and Myra gave them a curious look.  What? Jason asked, giving them a little smile that made them look a bit irritable.

      That made his day.

      After breakfast, the entire strip piled into the Scimitar and flew up to Kosigi.  The lunar base was like a tennis ball inside a hollow bowling ball, reminding Jason of the old literary creation of a Dyson Sphere, an artificial construction that encompassed a star.  There was a real moon in Kosigi, but the moon that everyone saw was built around that very small rocky sphere, rendering the moon effectively hollow.  The real moon had become a foundation for the entire shipyard operation, which was suspended in zero-g because of a very exacting balance of mass between the small rocky core in the center and the heavy-metal exterior so that the space between the inner core and outer shell was balanced in mass at the shipyard zone which rendered a huge swath of volume inside the base zero gravity.  This balance wasn’t perfect, so it was augmented by gravity inducers here and there, which also created pockets of gravity here and there inside the base to give the workers places to work, rest, and have recreation.  The balance of mass was so detailed that the moon actually projected a gravity well one would expect from a moon of its size consisting of rock, and sensor jammers returned a false reading about the interior of the moon when being scanned, making it appear to be a solid mass of the same rock as that at the surface.  The Scimitar entered through the huge doors and passed down a tunnel that was nearly two miles long, bored into the solid rock and heavy metal that reinforced it.  It then opened into a vast empty void that was nearly ten miles wide, where bays were either built on the moon below, hanging from the roof above, or docks floated freely in the void.  There were 137 berths in the moon, where the rest of it was open and available to be developed, giving them room to build bays to build even more ships…and that construction was in progress.  The moon base could build anything except a capital ship and the heavy battleships, since they wouldn’t fit through the doors, and there was so much room inside, they could build a ridiculous number of ships if they only had the facilities within to do it.  The Karinnes had not yet finished building Kosigi when they were destroyed, so what Jason had inherited was a half-finished project that was very useful to them, but could also be much, much more once they finished building all the bays and built more floating docks.

      The ship flew past a two mile thick supporting column that attached the outer shell to the moon below, on the way one of the docks that floated in midair, which looked like some kind of gigantic spider that had wrapped its legs around the Consortium vessel.  The kids, who almost never got to come to Kosigi, gaped and stared at the wonder within with wide-eyed fascination, and that attitude infected a few parents as well.  Lyn and Bryn and Sheleese didn’t come to Kosigi often enough to be used to it.

      “Wow!” Zachary said in wonder.  “It’s like the inside of a dollhouse!”

      “There’s even air out there,” Meya told him, pointing out the window.  “We could open the door and you could breathe, but it’s cold outside.”

      “It’s cold?”

      “Just a bit above freezing,” she nodded.  “But it’s warmer wherever we do work, because we heat things up around the ships.  We even have clouds in here.”

      “Really?”

      “Yup.  The clouds form in the boundaries where we heat the air so we can do work without freezing.  It would rain if there was enough gravity to pull the water out of the clouds.”

      “And that’s what we came to see,” Jason added, pointing at the Consortium ship ahead, passing by the Jendra, one of the destroyers damaged during the battle, hanging in midair with a floating dock around it and workers repairing it.

      “It’s all so big,” Kyri said quietly, looking out the window.  “I thought it would be smaller.”

      “There’s a lot of space in here, little lady, but not much equipment.  That’s what restricts us,” Jason told her.  “We could build an entire fleet of ships all at once, if only we had the materials and facilities in here to do it.  The only limitation is we can’t build anything that won’t fit through the doors.”

      “Well, we should make bigger doors,” she decided.

      “We are,” he chuckled.  “On the far side of the base, they’re building a new set of doors big enough for any ship to get in and out.  It should be done in a few months, digging through the outer shell of the base is a very long process.”

      The Scimitar docked with the floating dock, and the Dukal party filed into a large staging room where Myleena and quite a few others waited for them.  They all bowed, and then Myleena ran up and gave Jason a hug, armor scraping against armor.  “Thank you for bringing me this toy, babes!” she grinned.

      “How far have you gotten?”

      “Not much. We’re still documenting everything and cleaning the remains of the crew out,” she answered.  “We won’t start really tearing it apart for a couple of weeks.  Everything has to be inspected first.”

      “What about the power and computer?”

      “Power, we can restore that,” she answered. “The shockwave blew out most of the plasma exchangers and shattered a fuckton of conduit, and their power systems aren’t too different from ours.  They use a kind of hyperphased plasma that’s more advanced than the Imperium, but behind us.  But their computer, well, we’re not sure about that.  The shockwave did extensive damage to it, and it’s a hardware architecture we’ve never seen before.  It’s some kind of cybernetic system using crystal nodes not much different from moleculartronic alignment storage, but it uses four states rather than three.  The shockwave destroyed much of its storage, and we’re not sure we can recover enough data to reconstruct their software.  If we ever put it back together and use it, we’ll probably have to replace the computer.”

      “But you can recover data?”

      “Bits and pieces,” she said, waggling her hand.  “I have Siyhaa working on it with her Moridon team, if anyone can comprehend their computer network, she will.”

      “That’s good.  So, is it safe for a tour?”

      “Safe enough.  There are some microbes still on the ship, so we can’t let anyone go in without an e-suit.  But, I have some just for the kids,” she smiled.  “So, let’s get the kids ready to go, and go take a look around.”

      The ship was very…small.  They entered through the landing bay, where teams from Songa’s medical service were decontaminating the ship one section at a time.  They were hard at work in the landing bay, bathing all surfaces with an energy field that killed the microbes.  Myleena showed them into low, honeycomb-like passages, hexagonal in structure and with doors in the ceiling and floor.  “Near as we can figure, the insectoids don’t use artificial gravity in the ships,” she said.  “The walls, floor and ceiling are made of this rough material, so their claws grip I would imagine, and all their rooms are low and set up in a way that makes it clear that they float around.  It looks like about two thirds of the ship is oriented in one direction, but then there are things like that,” she said, pointing at a door in the ceiling over them.

      “Songa said they were low-G.  I guess they had no gravity at all in here,” Sheleese mused, looking at the ceiling that was only a couple of inches over Jason’s head.

      “How much gravity would be in a ship like this naturally?” Ilia asked curiously.

      “Negligible,” Myleena shrugged.  “The ship doesn’t have enough mass, and it’s not centralized enough to produce enough gravity to matter.”

      “That’s a very strange way to do it,” Jason grunted.  “The crew of this ship couldn’t land on a planet.  They’d be killed.”

      “Well, they have exoskeletons, so I’d guess that that would give them some protection,” Myri noted.  “But these things couldn’t pilot their landing craft without some kind of gravity manipulator, or they’d die.”

      Myleena took them all over the ship, from the bridge to engineering, and again the design of the ship showed its operation.  There were no elevators in the ship, only long tubes with what looked like would be moving belts to move the crew back and forth.  The rooms and passages were all low and long, almost never any large empty space, except for the landing bay and a section of the ship in the bow that had higher ceilings and little or no equipment.  “I bet this is where those energy beings stay when they’re on the ships,” Jyslin mused as they moved through.

      “We think the same thing,” Myleena nodded.  “There’s no equipment of any kind around here, just what looks like a comm device.”

      Engineering was more cramped than a Karinne ship, but the engines found there looked remarkably similar to Karinne technology of a thousand years ago, which put it about equal to Imperium technology.  “They didn’t even change the casing,” Jason grunted, a bit offended that the Consortium would so blatantly steal Karinne technology.

      “Yeah, just gives you even more reason to hate the bastards,” Myleena growled.  “The engine is powered by a striated hyperphased plasma system, different from ours, but almost as powerful as double metaphased.  They’re about equal to current Imperium standards, a bit stronger.  But this is a damn big engine for such a small ship, so this thing has some serious maneuverability and speed in combat.”

      “Then they have to have some kind of gravity system in this thing, the G forces induced by a turn might kill,” Jason grunted.  “Maybe some kind of anti-gravity system, that only nullifies gravity effects to keep maneuvers from killing the crew.  I’ll bet it got blown out by the shockwave…too much for it to handle.”

      “Probably, but we’ll have to wait until we start gutting the ship to find out,” Myleena agreed.

      My Grand Duke, I’m getting a communication for you from the Academy.  The Urumi ambassador says that he has a message for you from the Collective, one of his administrative staff sent.

      Alright, I’ll take it in a few minutes, he answered.  “Afraid work is calling, kidlets,” he said aloud.  “An ambassador wants to talk to me.”

      “Aww, make him wait, Papa!” Kyri complained.

      “This is really important, so I gotta go, little lady,” he chuckled.  “Show them the rest of the ship, I’ll catch up,” he told Myleena.

      Jason took the call in a lounge in the floating dock, that gave nothing away.  All anyone could see was a gray wall behind him, and that anyone was the Urumi ambassador, the same one he’d pinned to the ceiling not two weeks ago.  “Your Grace,” he said, bowing fluidly despite his scales and bony plates.  The ambassador, unlike Sk’Vrae, could speak Faey without any distortion.  “My Queen has contacted me to relay her decision on a matter you discussed with her.”

      “Go ahead.”

      “I am not privy to the agreement, your Grace, so I can only give you her answer and hope you understand it.  She orders me to relay to you that she agrees, and a contract is on its way to the Academy as we speak.  She insists, however, on brood Princesses.”

      “Tell her that I accept those terms provided I can get the border systems from Dahnai,” he said.

      The Urumi’s black eyes narrowed, then widened, then he seemed quite pleased.  “Yes, yes, of course,” he said brightly.  “I’ll inform my Queen of your acceptance, and stress your condition.”

      “I’m confident it will reach her quickly, then,” Jason nodded to him calmly.

      Jason let the ambassador go, quietly relieved.  Keeping Dahnai and Sk’Vrae from butting heads along the border was critically important to the overall peace of the sector, and it was imperative to keep everyone focused on the real threat, the Imperium.  He couldn’t afford some war between the Imperium and some other empire to flare up because the Imperium would take advantage of it, and protecting the Faey was nearly as important as protecting Karis.  The Consortium would need Faey to create artificial Generations, if they held to the plan that Jason suspected they had, so defending the Faey was of critical importance right now.  It was why he was willing to give Dahnai interdictors, and why he’d do everything in his power to prevent another border war that might or might not be manufactured by the Consortium.

      They might even try for humans, but Jason had a suspicion that they didn’t think humans could be Generations.  He was sure that the Consortium knew that Jason was a Generation, and there might be other Generations on Karis.  Jason was a Generation, but he had Faey ancestors, so that was a commonality he felt the Consortium wouldn’t overlook.  They probably wouldn’t think to see if a human could be a Generation without Faey blood, unless they had no access to Faey in order to test.

      That would be an issue further down the line, but an issue he meant to address.  He fully intended to put an interdictor at Earth, but before he could do that, he needed to build a Stargate that went from Earth to some central point to all members of the Academy where they could put a Stargate, then defend that Stargate with so much fearsome weaponry that the Consortium couldn’t get through to the planet.  That would give everyone access to the Academy, but also protect his planet from Consortium attack.

      Instead of waiting, he had his staff call Dahnai.  She appeared on the monitor in the midst of donning her court robes, with her inner robe on and two maids helping her wrap herself in a shimmering ruby outer robe.  “Hey love,” she smiled.  “What, too impatient?”

      “Something like that.  You’ve had a day to think it over, Dahnai.”

      “So I have,” she said with a smile.  “And I’m inclined to give you what you want, but you have to pay for it.”

      “You know I’m broke, and you know I won’t give you any of our technology.”

      “What I want you don’t have to give me now,” she said.  “Which is more than I’d give about any other house.  You do have to offer me something, I don’t hand those contracts out for free.”

      “Well, what do you want?”

      “Ten percent of the gross product of the border systems, before you divide it up among the Siann.  And I want the ships you took from Maeri attached to the Imperial Navy.”

      “You can’t have them,” Jason said immediately.  “They’ve been dismantled and recycled.  I wouldn’t send my people out in those things.”

      And they had…almost.  All those ships were currently in Kosigi, hanging over on the far side as one of his teams worked on them.  They were using the ships as test hulls for new designs and ideas, a kind of working lab where prototypes were tested.  The ships had been decommissioned from active service after they got their own fleet going, but those ships still served Karinne by helping them test and experiment.

      “Well then, I want some of your ships attached to the Navy,” she said.  “I want one of your little attack groups in Draconis orbit at all times.”

      “As long as you don’t try to integrate my ships with Imperial staff, I could agree to that.  That’s extra protection.”

      “And I want one more thing.”

      “What?”

      “I want you, here, at least one day a week,” she told him.  “I want you in court again.  I want you to rejoin the living!”

      “Hon, look at this,” he said, rapping the chest of his armor.  “I’m not wearing this because it’s comfortable.  “I’m busy, and what I’m doing is very important.”

      “It can keep being important, but I still demand that you come to court at least once a week,” she declared.  “And I will not be moved.  You either come to court, or at the very least come see me once a week, or it’s no deal.  And I want it in writing.”

      “You’re serious?” he asked incredulously.

      “As Aris herself,” she stated, giving him a flinty look.  “You’re a member of the Siann, but you’re also my amu dorai, and I want to see you!” she told him.  “And if I have to write it into a planet contract, then by Trelle, that’s what I’m going to do!”

      “What, is Kellin making you unhappy?”

      “What kind of stupid fucking question is that?” she demanded hotly.  “I don’t have to be mad at Kellin to want to see you, you dipshit!”

      “Sorry, sorry,” he said placatingly.  “I just thought—“

      “No, you didn’t think,” she told him.  “So, if you want those border systems, you will be in court tomorrow morning my time,” she told him.  “And that is not up for negotiation!”

      He sighed.  “Any chance at all I just come see you instead of coming to court?”

      “No,” she growled.  “You will be in court.  If I have to go, you have to go.  Besides, I’m going to announce the contract award to you, so I want you there. We can go back to my apartment afterward and hammer out the details, then you can hammer something else.”

      “And the true motive is revealed,” he said, giving her an amused look.

      “What can I say, Symone corrupted me,” she said with a slight smile.  “Besides, I think I’d like another shot at you and Kellin, I don’t think my hubby will be quite so nervous next time.”

      “Well, I guess I won’t complain too much about that. Besides, if you’re too impatient to get in bed, I think I can bargain a better deal out of you,” he said with a light smile.

      “Conjugal visits will sweeten my disposition,” she winked in reply.

      “Well, I guess I’ll have to do something about that,” he told her.

      “You better.  Remember.  Here.  Tomorrow.  If you’re not here, I’ll declare war on you!”

      “I’m just surprised you couldn’t wait until next Thursday.”

      “I don’t have to share you if you come tomorrow.”

      “You will if I bring the others.”

      “Oh no, you’re coming to court on official business!  And besides, I want you to myself,” she said with a grin.

      “Greedy, greedy, greedy,” he teased.

      “I’m the Empress, babes, I’m allowed to be greedy,” she smiled.

      After she cut the transmission to get to court, Jason just chuckled as he reached for his helmet.  Thank God, Dahnai wasn’t going to fight him over it.  She saw his point, she saw that he could keep the peace and keep things calm.  Since he’d be distributing all profit from the operation of the systems to the entire Siann, and was letting the Urumi run things themselves, he was fairly confident that his plan would work.  He wanted stability and the Urumi to if not allies, then comrades in arms against the Consortium.  If he had to make a deal with the devil to get it, he’d haggle with Dahnai any day.

 

      That haggling took place the next day.  Jason had plenty of time to prepare, since he had 30 hours before court would begin the next day, and that was close to Karis’ 28.93 hour day. He spent that time going over reports, touring a few ships still in Kosigi for repairs, and then going down to tour the new town where they’d put the Exiled.

      The Interior department found what Jason felt was a perfect place.  It was a village built on a small island off the coast of the continent of Karga, about 47 miles west of Karsa and about 3 miles off the coast.  It was big enough to hold all of the Exiled and their volunteer helpers, and have enough room to store all of their equipment and machinery, and what Jason found most important was that it had a spectacular view of the town of Embraijn on the mainland, which was one of the recently populated towns, just opened within the last year.  The town had a couple of docks, but it had a natural harbor where the Exiled could moor their ships.  The ships would be nice to sail here, but since the ocean had no fish in it, they wouldn’t be fishing.

      There would be…eventually.  The fish would need an ecosystem, and Cybi had been working on that.  They were going to focus on the marine ecosystem first, and then move on to develop land-based ecosystems.  They could set one up on land now, since they had the plants, but a healthy marine ecosystem would sustain a land ecosystem better than a land ecosystem would a marine one.  They had already started part of it when they introduced several species of algae and marine plants into the seas around Karga, and they had seeded both critical species of marine bacteria and plankton from both Draconis and Earth into the oceans in several areas.  Plankton and bacteria could survive in the sea because the water had the minerals and nutrients the plankton needed, drawn up from the last place on Karis where life-sustaining nutrients could be found; the ocean floor.  The radiation that had blasted the planet had killed everything and destroyed virtually all organic material, but the organic matter at ocean floor had somewhat survived.  It wasn’t life, but it was organic compounds that bacteria and plankton could eat, and Cybi had had reclamation robots stirring up those nutrients from the seafloor for nearly a hundred years after the radiation was cleaned up.  Those robots had failed centuries ago, but they had at least started the work, and there were also natural currents that brought some nutrients up.  In the five years since the Karinnes returned, they’d restarted those organic pumps, and now they had sea life feeding on it.  Between the nutrients deep under the ocean and sunlight, they had a very small yet stable marine ecosystem going in seven “lifeblooms” in Karis’ oceans.  After they gave the plankton a chance to reproduce, giving them ideal conditions to spread like the plague, they would then introduce krill, tiny crustaceans that fed on both the same nutrients and plankton, and they would also create some artificial webwork and sink it, then introduce coral to that area.  After the krill, they would slowly start introducing species of fish, shellfish, mollusks, and crustaceans in a staggered pattern where each new stage could feed on something already there, but not allow “super-predators” from depopulating a lifebloom area and wrecking the ecosystem.  Their hope was that as they introduced more species, they would start spreading out, and eventually they’d have an ocean-wide distribution of life.

      And the backbone of the whole system would be plankton, coral, and krill.

      There were some unofficial land ecosystems already.  Part and parcel of the farming effort was livestock, and there were a whole lot of animals on Karis.  Food animals like pigs, cattle, sheep, joba, and keerits could be found on any farm, and bees had been introduced from Earth to help with pollination both on crops and in the wild.  Some joker had brought some rabbits from Earth and promptly let them escape, and in just one short year they multiplied to such an extent that they had to introduce coyotes, foxes, and vulpars to control their population.  There were dogs and cats and birds and griia lizards and the little simian peki that Faey favored in the cities, and the herbivorous griia had started to show up out in the wild as well.  The largest ecosystem they had was just around Karsa, and it was all of three organisms; rabbits ate the plants, and the coyotes, foxes, and vulpars ate the rabbits.  Vulpars, being the overly clever little animals they were, had already started raiding the managed beehives for their honey, which was vexing the beekeepers who sold that honey.  Jason had already forbidden them from killing the vulpars, since they were needed to control the rabbits, so his interior department was working up a way to keep the fox-like animals away from the bee farms.  But it would all work out.

      There were already Exiled there, and they did not greet him with complete happiness.  There were fifty volunteers there already helping them settle into their new houses, and while some of the Exiled greeted him with smiles, he got several scowls as well.   But, the all agreed that the village he found for them was nice enough, and it was on the sea, so at least it had an ocean to soothe them.

      He got up early the next day, ate breakfast with Rann and Danelle, then did something he hadn’t done in five years…put on court robes.  He chose soft charcoal gray robes with the pattern uneven sleeves, which had the crest of Karinne embroidered into each side and the crest done in brilliant silk threading on the back.  Rann laughed a little when Jason came downstairs in his court robes, but Jyslin, who was giving him a lesson in telepathy, swatted him on the knee.  Be nice, you’ll be wearing those too, she warned.

      They look itchy, he countered.

      They’re actually heavy, I’m wearing three layers of clothes here, Jason told him.  The outer robe, an inner robe, and a shirt and pants under it all.

      Well, why wear so much?

      Because it’s tradition, and I’d look strange if I didn’t, he answered.

      Well, don’t you already look a little strange, Daddy?  Didn’t you say you were the only human that’s a Grand Duke?

      Jason laughed.  Yes, but this is a tradition I can’t get out of, little man, he answered.  If I want the others to take me seriously, I have to observe their little customs.  This ridiculous robe is one of them, he sent with a touch of annoyance.  Aya, I’m ready to go.  Is the Scimitar ready?

      I object to you using that ship, your Grace, she answered.  It’s unarmed!

      It’s also heavily armored and defended and it can outrun almost anything that tries to chase it down, he answered calmly.  Besides, I’m taking a patrol group, remember?

      I’d rather you be on the cruiser, not the scout ship.

      I’ll be completely safe, Aya.  I used the Scimitar before, and I’m comfortable in it.  Just make it happen.  And that’s an order, he warned, cutting her off.

      I thought we established that I’m the bully around here, your Grace, she sent dryly.

      Only when I let you, he replied cheekily.  Now, I’m ready to go, so warn the Scimitar whether it’s ready or not.  They can get ready while I’m sitting there giving them all dirty looks.

      Despite Aya’s objections, Jason took off in the Scimitar with only two guards, Aya and Dera, who would be his escort in the palace; it was still considered improper for men to move about the palace without an escort.  Jason and Kellin were in a sort of gray area, since they did it all the time, but Jason tried to obey the custom when it didn’t inconvenience him.  Besides, nowadays, Aya would never let him out of her sight or let him roam around a potentially dangerous area without protection…and she defined dangerous area as virtually anywhere beyond the strip.  That was the only place she allowed him free rein.  The choice of Aya and Dera was deliberate; Aya would not feel safe about letting him loose without her there, and Dera’s ability to hear private sending would give them plenty of warning in case of an attack, or plotting.  Give Dera fifteen minutes in the throne room during court, and she could learn all kinds of interesting things, though never anything truly damning, since the Grand Duchesses were well aware that the Empress would be stupid not to employ jhemae, or listeners, as those who had the gift Dera and Symone had were called.

      It had been a long time since he’d attended court, nearly five years, and Dahnai certainly didn’t miss showing him off when he arrived.  As soon as she entered to begin court, she called him up to the throne and had him stand at her left as Kellin stood at her right, which meant that Jason had a place of honor for the day.

      After she called court to order, she stood and addressed the assembled nobles of the Siann, using sending, which meant that she was making an official announcement.  Court traditions called for Dahnai to speak most of the time, for it was long considered that sending would contain only the truth.  So, to avoid being caught in a lie, Dahnai only sent when she was making official announcements, when she was summoning someone in the palace to her presence, or when certain customs demanded it.

      I am announcing the dispensation of the four border systems captured from the Urumi, she sent, strong enough so even those still on the way to the throne room could hear her.  We have agreed to an operations contract with the House Karinne, she declared, which caused immediate hostile looks and dark whispers and private sendings around the nobles.  But, she continued, The Grand Duke Karinne has voiced, reluctance, to take and hold systems beyond his own.  So, in compromise, he has decided to share all profits resulting from his possession of the systems equally with all houses of the Siann.

      That caused some stunned looks.  This contract was reached for one simple reason, she told them.  The Imperium cannot afford to engage in a protracted war with the Urumi at this time, because of the Consortium threat.  The Brood Queen Sk’Vrae of the Urumi has agreed to allow the House Karinne, which she sees as a neutral party, to occupy the space between our two empires, to prevent the outbreak of war.  The Grand Duke Karinne, wishing to maintain his neutrality in all matters of the Imperium, has therefore decided to share all profits earned from the border systems with all the noble houses.  I see this as a fair and equitable action, since it both prevents further war with the Urumi until after the threat of the Consortium has been removed, and also allows the entire Imperium, allows every noble house be it Minro or Hightborn, to enjoy the spoils of war.  And it continues to show the Collective that since the Karinnes gain nothing from the operation of the captured systems, they will be fair and impartial administrators.

      The contract will be finalized after lunch.  Until lunch, then, let this court proceed as scheduled.

      It had been a long time, years, since he’d been at court, but he found it to be the same poisonous atmosphere he remembered.  He received all kinds of false calls of welcome from the women of the Siann, a place dominated by the women because the Grand Duchesses were much more prone to bring their daughters and nieces to court rather than their sons or nephews.  The few men that were there were the husbands or sons of nobles; the only male attending court on his own was Jason himself.  Jason drifted from group to group as Dahnai attended to mundane matters to which nobody paid any attention, formal readings and decrees that went on while the rest of them talked out in the throne room.

      The only real business Jason did was to have a long talk with Yila Trefani in one corner, as they discussed their deal for Jason to get the Trefani merchants back into the Collective before anyone else.  Jason fully intended to honor his deal, and he was already prepared to talk to Sk’Vrae about the matter when he talked to her about her sending Brood Princesses to the four systems the Imperium had wrested from the Collective.

      After lunch, the official contract was signed.  It was drawn up that morning and sent to his legal team, then when they sent their approval, he signed it in a little ceremony that afternoon.  It put the four border systems under the control of the Karinnes, to run as they saw fit, until such time as the Empress wished to renegotiate the contract, but for a term not less than thirty years barring activity that caused the Empress to withdraw the contract.

      Jason’s response to this was to take the rest of the afternoon off and contact Sk’Vrae, and inform her that she could send Brood Princesses to the border systems, and that in three days, he would meet with the Brood Princesses and the Urumi in command positions of all four border systems, so they could hammer out how the Brood Princesses would rule and what materials the systems would need to get back on their feet.  He assured her that Imperial ships would provide protection, because he made sure that Imperial protection was part of the contract.

      In all, Jason felt that it was the best solution to the problem.  Both Dahnai and Sk’Vrae would honor his neutrality and allow him to administer the border systems.  The Siann had their teeth pulled when they found out Jason was going to operate the systems at no profit to the House Karinne, which strangled any objection they could raise.

      He’d have plenty of time to get it all ironed out before the summit meeting about the Consortium.

      But it was an important step.  Just the first step in his plan to protect his house, the Imperium, and the entire sector for that matter, from the Consortium.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    2      4

Chapter 3

 

        Raira, 34 Shiaa, 4400 Orthodox Calendar

        Monday, 8 December 2013, Terran Standard Calendar

        Raira, 34 Shiaa, year 1326 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Foxwood East, Karsa, Karis

 

        Heaven.

        Jason was half asleep, and he was surrounded by children.  Rann and Kyri were cuddled in on one side of him, and Zachary and Aran were on the other.  Sora, his little Sora, was snuggled against his chest, exhausted and asleep, and very, very happy.  Jason himself was very tired, since it was the first day since the contract signing where he hadn’t been running around like a maniac.  He’d spent two days on Draconis, basically in Dahnai’s clutches, and she was very reluctant to let him go.  After he finally extricated himself from the palace, he went to the border systems to survey them, and to meet with the four Brood Princesses and their advisory staffs.

        There were four systems that had been captured, and two of them had arable planets.  Two systems also had more than one planet inhabited.  Aurigae was the jewel of the four, for it had a large arable planet and had an airless yet mineral-rich planet that was also inhabited, used for mining.  Skralla also had two inhabited planets.  One was an arid planet not too much unlike Makan IV, arable but not quite as productive as the temperate, wet Aurigae.  Skralla V was a tundra planet, where some farming could be done in special domed areas where the temperature was raised using technology.  The system of Bellar was only occupied because it had one of the largest terrestrial planets in the entire sector, and had huge deposits of various light and heavy metals.  The only problem was the planet was irradiated, due to one of its five moons that seemed to be all but made of radioactive isotopes, which bombarded the planet with radiation with every orbit.  The Urumi had set up radiation shield domes to build one city of size on Bellar, a city of about twenty million Urumi.  The topography and weather of the planet were the most unusual and unique Jason had ever seen.  Exposed heavy metal ore deposits had eroded over the billions of years by the savage windstorms that raged across the planet, and spread the metals over the surface in a film of metal ore dust that helped block the radiation.  The first couple of feet of soil of Bellar was so laced with metallic dust that it was almost a metal shell covering the surface, which could actually be mined by sifting the soil to separate the various ore dusts, and that shell both protected the interior, and also blasted the domes of the city with such powerful scouring metal-dust sandstorms that the outer dome of the three-domed structure was almost constantly in a state of repair.  The metal coating in the soil partially shielded the interior of the planet from the radiation, so they mined by digging down from the city and then branching out.  There were tunnels hundreds of miles long under Bellar’s surface, radiation-shielded tunnels that led to the deposits they mined, where miners wearing E-suits labored to mine valuable heavy ores, like the ores that were refined to form Vanadrium, Teratium, Adamantium, and even deposits of Uzerium287 and Allarium317, which were two of the core metals that formed the alloy Neutronium.  The fourth system was Immiran, a small red star with a single planet that was so close to the star that it had a year of only 46 days, but that proximity gave the surface enough heat radiation to be temperate…if for the fact that it was barren and airless. The planet had no magnetic field, which allowed the star’s radiation to rake the planet, and which had scoured away its atmosphere over billions of years.  It was also phase locked in its orbit, which caused it to rotate at exactly the same rate in which it orbited the star.  The planet always pointed the same hemisphere to the star, which was effectively an endless day where the red sun took up nearly half the sky.  The only reason it was inhabited was because the sun’s radiation made the planet a unique place to experiment with forms of non-standard farming; hydroponics and synthetic soil farming, all done under domes that filtered out only those harmful spectra of radiation that would kill the plants, but allowed all others to pass.  That abundance of solar radiation actually allowed the planet to produce prodigious amounts of food for its size.

        Jason was reminded of one of the ways he was truly different from both humans and Faey while he was there at Immiran.  The Generations were part Kimdori, and the Kimdori were utterly immune to radiation.  Jason himself wasn’t completely immune to radiation, but he was much, much more tolerant of it.  The DNA-damaging aspects of radiation didn’t affect him, since his DNA could repair itself…and that was why radiation therapy had done nothing to help Jason’s father when he was battling cancer.  Jason’s DNA couldn’t be damaged or mutated by radiation, but it was actually much more prone to the self-mutation that caused cancerous tumors, which was why cancer was so prevalent in his family, and Songa screened him for cancer, which she could easily cure, every three months.  Jason could withstand doses of radiation that were dangerous to most other living things, but his resistance to radiation ended when it reached the point where the particles started doing actual physical damage to him.  Unlike the Kimdori, Jason couldn’t just heal those microscopic wounds, so exposure to heavy radiation or excessively long exposure to light doses of certain kinds of radiation were still dangerous to him.

        After the tour, he met the four Brood Princesses of the Urumi.  They were all about Jason’s height, smaller than their mother, and had the same effete, royal attitude.  They had all been raised to rule, for every Urumi planet had a Brood Princess there to govern.  These four were the same four princesses that had been here before the Imperium invaded, and were simply returning to their duties.  Jason actually favored that, since that meant that he was dealing with four Urumi that already knew all about their planets, and already had a governing system in place that the Urumi on the planets would respect.  The first thing he made them do was swear fealty to him and to obey the terms of their contract, which was thirty years of dutiful and honest allegiance to the House Karinne, at the end of which they would meet with the Brood Queen to discuss the return of the systems to the Collective.  “I’m not here to assimilate you into the Imperium.   And I’m not here to try to make you go against your mother,” he told the four, speaking the guttural language of Urumi, which Miaari had imparted to him before the meeting.  Jason wanted no chance of misunderstandings, so he was speaking their language.  “All I ask for is what you agreed to, thirty years of service to Karinne.  And I guarantee you, I will work to make your colonies thrive, and try to return them to the Collective better than they were when the Faey invaded you.  You’ll have access to the Academy and all the science and support it can offer.  Just ask, and they’ll send teams to your worlds to help you with any problem, and the Makati are only a call away to help you build.  I seriously think you should contact the Makati master builders who teach at the Academy, Sk’Xhree,” he told the governor of Bellar.  “They can probably help you come up with a more efficient dome system that doesn’t require so much repair.  Probably some kind of energy shield system, I don’t know, but the engineers of Makan are definitely the ones you want to see.”

        “But the cost,” she protested.

        “You’re Karinne planets now, Sk’Xhree, for thirty years,” he said bluntly.  “And in Karinne, we don’t separate costs.  The cost to replace the dome comes out of the total budget, not only yours.  You’ll only have to pay for a portion of it, about one tenth the cost of the project, which I’m sure you can manage.  So work it out with the Academy.

        “Remember that.  In Karinne, we work as one.  The needs of one planet are the needs of the whole house, so the house attends the matter.  You will not simply be put aside and forgotten, left to fend for yourself.  As long as you can pay your share, think about what projects you’d like to undertake for the next thirty years.  We’ll help you upgrade your infrastructure, build, expand, increase your industry.  Sk’Varra, I noticed that Immiran has no orbital base outside of that hundred-year-old hulk that looks half broken down.  Have you needed a new one?“

        “Yes, your Grace, I’ve been trying to get an orbital station to replace that rusted hulk we have for five years.“

        “Then we’ll take care of it.  I’m sure the master builders of the Academy would love to build one for you, they enjoy a challenge.  I want your planets not just to subsist, but to grow and thrive.  You have the resources of both House Karinne and the Academy at your disposal.  I want the Brood Queen to be impressed with the worlds she gets back when the time comes, not planets that have been milked dry and then cast aside.”

        That one statement earned him their immediate and honest loyalty, for that was exactly what they were afraid would happen.  When they sat down for conference, they saw that he meant it, for he discussed the agreement in place in the Imperium that took a portion of their profits and split it equally with the houses of the Siann, but also ensured that each planet also turned a profit as well, which they could use to expand and improve, and would also earn the Brood Princesses a nice salary; that was how they earned their money, through the prosperity of the planets they governed.  The system he described would allow each system to grow, expand, even thrive, at little actual cost to themselves.  They had to surrender about half their food yields and were taxed by the Imperium for about half of their profits, but backing them up was House Karinne, offering them services at a fraction of the price it would usually take to get it done.  Under the Karinne plan, each system would actually earn more than it had in the Collective, because the Grand Duke wanted to overhaul their entire planets with better infrastructure, more efficient factories, strong defenses, and the ability to do business cheaper and earn more profit at the same time.  The Brood Princesses realized quickly that Jason was sincerely concerned about the well being and profitability of their planets, and he would not be a tyrant.  “Also don’t forget, you’re not being isolated from the Collective, either,” he told them.  “As soon as Empress Dahnai gets her ships out of our space, trade and contact with the Collective will reopen.   You’re citizens of the Karinnes now, but you’re more than welcome to return to the Collective to visit, and have your family from the Collective come to you.  Our border with the Collective will be open, because I trust your mother to keep her word and honor our contract.  I just want your thirty years to be happy ones, and when it’s all said and done, I don’t want you to regret being under my flag.

        “As far as things go, each of you will have a strong measure of autonomy,” he told them.  “I want you to run things as you see fit.  All I ask is that you meet the quotas, don’t try to cheat the Imperium, and take advantage of the services I’m offering you.  You’ll have authority to make your own budgets, institute your own laws and mores, and even create independent trade agreements beyond the forced trade imposed on you by the contract.  So, if some Imperium house approaches you and offers you a lucrative trade agreement for something not covered by the mandatory quotas, take it.  I want the Karinnes to be as unobtrusive as possible when you govern your worlds, but be available for you when you need us.  I’m sure you can see that this is a system that benefits you far more than me, and I’m aware of it.  But what I want from you and your systems isn’t money or resources.  All I want is peace between the Imperium and the Collective for so long as the Consortium threatens us all, and I’m willing ot pay for it.

        “Now, there is one thing that I will ask of you,” he said.  “Brood Queen Sk’Vrae has given me permission to extend invitations for Urumi to permanently join House Karinne.  These volunteers will be inducted into the house, and will stay with Karinne when the time comes for us to part when you fold back into the Collective.  I’m going to organize some informational viddy shows and open information centers in your major cities, but I will tell you this right here, right now.  House Karinne does not induct those who do not want to be in the house.  We do not conscript, we do not kidnap.  We are happy to take Urumi into the house, but only those who truly wish to join us.  That’s what the information centers will be there for, and to let you know, being inducted into the house will be a year-long process where the Urumi are educated about Karinne, and given ample opportunities to withdraw.  But, on the other side of that, the house also does not take those who have ulterior motives.  After the year-long induction phase, the Urumi has to submit to telepathic verification to ensure he will give his loyalty to the house, and is not just attempting to enter the house to be a spy for someone else.  Like I said, we only take those who truly wish to be part of the house.”

        In all, it had been a very productive and promising meeting.  The Brood Princesses would actually do most of the work for him, and all he had to do was help them with those things they couldn’t do for themselves.  If things worked out as he envisioned, the border systems would thrive, everyone would be happy, and peace would be maintained.  It was more than worth the cost of helping build the border systems up.

        The others were cleaning up from Sora’s passing party.  His little cutie had expressed two days ago, and Zora was so proud that she could walk to Kosigi.  Maya and Ilia were starting to look a tad bit annoyed, for their children with Jason had yet to express…but they shouldn’t be too uptight.  Jason figured that all his children had strong telepaths for mothers, so Zachary and Aran would be expressing any time now.  Maya and Ilia were just as strong as Zora, so it was just a matter of time before his two other sons were telepathically expressed.

        Surin had outdone himself yet again.  The party had been done to the theme of The Imperial Rangers, Sora’s favorite viddy show, which was actually an educational animated feature that taught Faey children math, science, critical thinking, music, and art appreciation.  It surprised him quite a bit that the Faey had such a comprehensive approach to education, considering art and music just as important as math and science.  There had been cake, and games, and rides on airsleds pulled by the Dukal guards, and Kyva had even come and given Sora a ride in her Gladiator, carrying her in the Gladiator’s hand.  There was even a live performance by actors in Imperial Ranger outfits.  Every child in the whole area, both in the strip and outside, among the Generations and others living nearby, had attended, and it had been quite a fun party, even for the parents.

        Jason was almost dreamily content, with his little blond daughter sleeping on his chest, one of her cute little pointed ears poking up out of her hair.  Sora had inherited her mother’s ears but had Jason’s eyes and skin color, and she was already looking like her mother.  She was clutching one of her gifts, an action figure of the Math Ranger from the viddy, who taught both normal math and algebra in a way that made it like a game; in fact, that was how the Math Ranger called it.  “Algebra is a game, it’s a puzzle where you have to find the hiding number!” he would say in his formula.  Jason marveled at his darling little girl, seeing that she was going to be the more beautiful of his two daughters.  It wasn’t that Kyri wasn’t cute, but Sora was going to be a absolute heartbreaker.

        He did wonder how long it would be before Aran and Zachary expressed.  Aran’s hair had darkened to a kind of leaf green, which looked a little strange but was also rather striking and didn’t look bad at all, and Zachary’s black hair was still black.  Now that Jason thought of it, Zachary’s hair was the only child of his whose hair hadn’t changed color.  Rann’s hair started orange but was now reddish blond.  Kyri’s hair started out shocking white, but had darkened to the platinum blond it held now.  Aran’s hair had started bright, almost neon green, but had darkened to the pleasing summer leaf green it held now.  And Sora’s hair had been strawberry blond when she was born, but it had lightened to lovely golden blond, a blond not too different from Aura’s hair.  Zachary’s coal black hair was the most unusual of his children, but also made him the most handsome to Faey girls.  Among the Faey, the darker the hair, the more rare, and thus the more exotic and attractive.  Where human men loved blonds, Faey men and women both went ga-ga over someone raven-haired.  And there wasn’t a hair anywhere in Zachary’s head that wasn’t jet black.  That black hair was going to make him very popular with the girls.  Yana was proud because Kyri had been born expressed, Jyslin was proud that her son was the heir, Maya was proud that her son seemed much smarter than the others, Zora was proud that her daughter could already fly an airbike, and Ilia was proud that her son had black hair.

        Damn Faey, having to make a competition out of everything.

        Sora stirred and opened her eyes, then shifted and looked at him with her beautiful green eyes.  She had already had three days of sending lessons, and Zora said she could already send, that she had learned fast.  Jason decided to test that.  Well, my little lady is awake, he sent slowly and gently, letting his love for his daughter shine through his thoughts, which made her smile brightly at him.  Feeling okay?

        I’m happy, she sent, trying to focus it only on him, but not doing very well.  She slid up and wrapped her little arms around his neck and kissed him on the nose, then put her forehead against his.  Mommy is happy too.

        It’s very important for us to see our children’s talent wake up, he told her seriously.  Because yours woke up so early, it means you’ll be very strong.  That makes your mother and I very, very proud of you, my little lady.

        Not as strong as Kyri and Rann, though.

        You’ll be stronger than Rann because he’s a boy.  You’ll be stronger than me when you grow up, he admitted.  Girls are naturally stronger talents than boys.

        I won’t tell anyone, she sent seriously, which made Jason chuckle.

        We’ll make it our little secret, he sent lightly in reply.  You send very well for only being able to for three days, little love.

        Mommy makes me practice from lunch til bedtime since I started hearing it, she told him.  She said it was how her mommy taught her.

        Well, don’t let it make you hate it, he told her.  Once you learn how to send, you’ll find it to be easy, and even fun.  Truth be told, I’d much rather send than speak.  It’s faster, It’s easier, and people can understand me better.

        Why do you talk then?

        Because I want my children to understand me, he told her.  And not everyone can hear me send.  When I talk with some of our human friends, I have to talk.  When I talk with my Makati and Kizzik friends, I have to talk.  I can send in a way that it lets them hear, but that is very hard to do, and never fails to give me a headache.  But when I talk with Miss Miaari, I must speak.  She can’t hear sending, no matter how I try to do it.  Her race is completely closed off from sending.

        Why is that?

        I really couldn’t tell you, he answered.  But her people have nobody with talent, and we can’t touch their minds to send our thoughts to them.

        It was close enough for a child.  The honest answer was, Jason could send to Miaari, but only if she allowed it.  Kimdori had such powerful mental defenses that he couldn’t even send to her, his thought couldn’t penetrate her defense so she could hear it.  And a Kimdori would rather bite off his own leg than lower his mental defenses.  They saw telepathic communion as a threat to the secrets they carried, and absolutely would not permit any chance that a telepath would break into those parts of their minds and take what they didn’t want to give.  A secret unspoken remains a secret was more than just a saying with the Kimdori, it was a way of life.

        I like Miss Miaari.

        So do I.  She’s one of my best friends, he agreed.  So, did you enjoy your party, dove?

        Did I! she sent excitedly, and her excitement made her thought fuzzy and hard to comprehend, almost overwhelmed by her exuberance.  Did you see the airsled that Miss Temika bought me?

        Yes I did, he answered.  You should thank her a whole bunch of times, those aren’t cheap, dove.  She must really like you to give you a present like that.

        It was nice to have Temika home.  She was sitting with Mike over at the picnic table, catching up with the girls.  Temika was home now, since the fall semester just ended at the Academy, and she only had one more semester to go.  But that semester would be done here, on Karis, in Kumi’s office.  It was her internship, but in reality it was just Temika doing her transition from school to work.  Temika had trained in business to help Kumi at her many schemes and business fronts, and now she would be trained in the dirty underside of business, where she’d been trained in the clean veneer business showed to the world.  Temika was actually very good at business.  She had a nose for it, and had been very successful back among the squatters.  She seemed to have a knack for knowing what would be valuable where, and those instincts had proven to translate into the realm of galactic business.

        Mike had already graduated from his plasma systems course, and was ready to join Myleena’s staff as one of her technicians, but he’d waited for Temika to graduate.  He spent that extra year learning the basics of plasma systems engineering working for the Makan Builder’s School, the engineering college at the Academy, taught by seven living legends, Makati who had earned the titles of Master Builders.  It had been quite a coup when Ayuma had lured those teachers from various engineering schools on Makan, seven of the most respected in various fields of engineering.  Those seven collectively could, quite simply, design and build anything, from a house to a capital-class starship.  Each one was a master of a different field of engineering, and together, they were comprehensively the best teaching staff anywhere.  The students at the school would be the ones doing the building for the border systems, since the Makati would turn each project into an active learning experience for both the engineering academy and the business school.  The engineering school would survey the sites, develop the plans, make the blueprints, and execute the instruction, while the business school would have to manage the operation.  It wouldn’t be the first major project undertaken by the Academy, for they had built a new orbital station for Terra using the same tactic, making it a school project where students drew up the plans, then the business school managed the actual build, which was done by a mixture of Academy students of various schools and Makati construction companies.  In that way, the students got actual experience doing the real thing, not working up plans and using simulations.

        It was just more reason for various races to send their students to the Academy, which had, in its short tenure, already earned a reputation for outstanding teachers, comprehensive and effective education, and was already considered to be one of the premier centers of learning and research.  And when the Consortium technology started to be analyzed next week, then it would be the research center in the whole sector.  They were almost ready to begin, getting their research methods and recording systems set up, and all the data loaded into the mainframe supplied to them just for the task.  Kiaari had built them a situation room, but was not the one running it, and it was there where both technical information and strategic information would be disseminated out to the participating governments.

        Their plan was to divide up the research into six main areas; energy generation and distribution, computer interpretation, weapons systems, propulsion systems, other systems, and metallurgy.  Other systems would be the largest section with many sub-sections, where each one focused on a different system the Consortium used, including the very important section that would study the brain devices implanted into the insectoids to puzzle out their exact operation and maybe find some weakness to exploit.  Jason knew that by spreading highly advanced plasma power generation, he was weakening Dahnai’s advantage, but in the long run he saw that it was for the best.  The Urumi had already been provided smaller plasma power plants to power the weapons that the Consortium gave them, as they demanded much more power than the Urumi’s ships could provide, so it was just a matter of time for plasma power technology to filter down to the other governments.  Most governments already used plasma as a primary power source, but they weren’t even half as advanced as the Faey.  Most still used hot plasma, and had not yet mastered the techniques of phasing plasma to make it safer and make it more powerful.  Parity was absolutely critical to keep the Faey from trying to conquer the rest of the sector, because at the moment, the Faey had a major advantage with their advanced plasma power systems and their fearsome MPAC technology.

        Jason had plans that far exceeded the short term threat of the Consortium.  His plans would take maybe a century to come to fruition, but in the end, it would be for the best.  In a way, he could almost thank the Consortium for coming along and giving him a jump start on executing his plan, for they provided the perfect focus to get the ball rolling.  If only they weren’t such a terrible threat to Cybi and his house, he would almost be happy they were here.  But the simple fact of the matter was, so long as the Consortium was out there, Karis and the Karinnes were in great danger, and he had to focus everything on keeping his house safe and Cybi untouched.

        Sora raised up over him enough to look him in the eyes, and he felt his heart melt a little looking up at his beautiful daughter.  My little lady, he sent tenderly, disengaging an arm and stroking her hair.  It seems like just yesterday you were so small you’d fit in my hands.  You’re growing up so fast, he added, a touch wistfully.   I wonder how much you’ll grow in the next year, how much more beautiful you’ll be.  I love you, my little Sora.

        I love you too, Papa, she sent, her affection for him bleeding through her thought as she hugged him around the neck.  Want to ride on my sled?

        “Papa’s too big for your sled, Sora,” Aran said sleepily.

        Jason started, then laid his head back and laughed so loud that he startled all his kids awake.  He sat up and kissed Sora affectionately on the cheek, then picked up his green-haired son and held him up at arm’s length.  “All my little ones are just growing up too fast!” he said with another laugh.

        “Papa?” Sora asked.

        What color is your hair, Aran? Jason sent, slowly and gently, and he held Aran out so he couldn’t see Jason’s mouth not moving.

        “Mommy calls it forest green,” he answered.  Kyri’s eyes widened, Rann grinned, and Sora gasped.

        “Aran!  Daddy was sending!” Rann said exuberantly.  “You woke up!”

        “I did?” Aran asked in confusion.

        “Yes you did, my little man!” Jason beamed.  “I’m so proud of you!”

        “Aww, that means I’m gonna be last!” Zachary complained.  “Now they’re gonna tease me!”

        “Then you need to wake up too,” Kyri said imperiously.  “Then we don’t have reason to, and I don‘t have to jabber at you like a baby!”

        Maya! Jason boomed, so much so that just about everyone looked in his direction.  C’mere quick!

        Maya was only a few feet away, so she hurried over with Vell and Yuri, her oldest daughter.  “What is it, Jason?”

        “Our son expressed!” he announced, holding Aran out to arm’s length and swinging him back and forth, making him giggle.

        “Really?” she gasped, then she giggled and snatched Aran up.  “Oh, my son, I’m so proud of you!” she said with a happy laugh, hugging him tightly.

        Vell gave him his own big hug.  “Now that’s our big boy!” he said with a smile, kissing Aran on the cheek.  Jason could not be more grateful to Vell.  Vell was unbelievably kind and giving, acting as a father to Aran in the house, but acceding to Jason.  Aran had two fathers, and he called both of them Daddy.  Vell loved Aran as much as his own daughters, showing just how wonderful and kind Vell was.  Jason couldn’t have asked for a better stepfather for Aran.

        Everyone,  Aran has expressed! Maya sent, at maximum power…which meant that Faey 20 miles away probably heard her, since Maya was deceptively powerful in her talent.  It made both Sora and Aran flinch, and Rann put his hands over his ears, which made Jason laugh.

        A flood of congratulations roared in, which made Sora wince as her undeveloped talent tried to make sense of everything assaulting her, so Jason put his hand on her shoulder and shielded her with his own talent, cutting off the voices.  “Better?” he asked.

        “Mmm, thank you, Daddy!” she said, hugging him again.

        “Don’t let Aran take away from your special day, though,” Jason told her with a grin.  “You’re still the most important little lady on the strip today!  Aran will get his day when it’s his passing party.”

        It was even more reason to celebrate, and Jason made sure to pay extra attention to Sora so she didn’t feel like anything was taken away from her with Aran’s expression during her party.  Jason saw that Maya had already pulled Surin aside, and was deep in sending with him, no doubt organizing Aran’s party.  Remember I’ll be off planet Wednesday night, Thursday and Friday morning, Jason warned.

        Then we’ll have it on Wednesday morning, Surin answered calmly.  Is that good for your schedule?

        Nothing I can’t postpone, he answered.  My kids are more important than Dukal business.

        The amusing part of it all was Zachary.  Jason could empathize with him, for now he was the only child of Jason that hadn’t expressed, and he looked both annoyed and uncertain.  All his brothers and sisters were now in a world still denied him, and it was as if he felt like it was separating him from his siblings.  When Kyri and Rann told Sora and Aran all about the lessons they did, Zachary was left out.  All he could do was listen and feel like he wasn’t part of the group anymore.  He looked so mopey that as the party broke up, he took his son aside and sat with him at the picnic table.  “Don’t let them upset you, son,” he told him gently, a hand on his back.  “Just be patient.  Your mother is just as strong as Maya, so it’s just a matter of time before your talent wakes up too.”

        “It’s not fair,” he complained.  “Why did I have to be last?”

        “Why did Kyri have to be first?” he asked simply.  “It’s just the way things are.  Don’t ever think that there’s something wrong with you, and don’t let your brothers and sisters tease you over it.  If they do, come tell me.  I won’t stand for that, it’s totally rude.”

        “But then I’ll be a tattle-tale,” he said seriously.  Zachary was the son of Ilia, and Ilia had very strong views which showed in her son through her teachings.  Zachary was a very serious little boy, and already had a very strong sense of right and wrong, and he was definitely the most well-behaved of his children.  Ilia didn’t tolerate lying or disobedience.  She raised Zachary with a firm hand, but it was also a loving one.

        “Well then, I’ll just have to ask you every day, because I know you won’t lie to me if I ask you a direct question,” he said simply.  “And I’ll warn your brothers and sisters that I’m going to, so they can’t blame you when they get in trouble if they do it.”

        “No, I won’t, Papa,” he agreed, looking quite relieved that he could stop his siblings from teasing him without being accused of ratting them out.

        Being politically savvy often had fringe benefits, such as dealing with his competitive and rather sneaky children.

        “Now, just be patient, son, and you’ll get your turn.  And you know what?”

        “What?”

        “I’ll make sure your passing party is much bigger than anyone else’s,” he said with a conspiratorial smile.  “Since you got stuck with being last, it means it’ll be the last passing party for a while…so we have to make it a really good one.”

        Zachary smiled at him and nodded enthusiastically.

        “Now go have fun, and I’ll see you at dinner.”

        Zachary ran off and joined Zeri and Jora, the daughters of Sheleese and Min, and the three of them ran down to the beach to fly a kite.

        Ilia put her hand on Jason’s shoulder and looked down at him.  Thanks, babes, I’m glad you did that.

        I feel sorry for him, and for you, he replied.  He’ll feel left out, and that’s a terrible feeling for a child.  And I’m sure the others are gonna rag you ceaselessly til he expresses, he told her.

        She laughed ruefully.  You know they will, she agreed.  But I don’t think it’s going to take long.  There are some times when I think he’s able to hear me send, but not when he actively tries.  So I’m sure he’s right on the threshold.

        I don’t doubt it.

        A little floating camera drifted up to him, which was Cybi’s remote camera that let her watch the party.  She was very much interested in his children, because she considered them to be the first children of the 98th Generation.  Even though the program was long gone, the fruits of that program were meticulously tracked by Cybi.  [How is the camera working, Cybi?] he asked, communing with her.

        [Very well, Jason,] she answered.  [It makes me wonder when they will be able to commune.]

        [I don’t think Kyri’s very far from it,] he answered.  [She has enough experience, she just hasn’t quite figured it out yet.  I really should see if I can teach her how to do it.]

        [Please.  I’d love to be able to talk to her.]

        [She’ll need a real gestalt, and not just the interface she uses now.  I‘m not sure I want her to have a gestalt quite yet.  There‘s no telling how the computer linked to her mind will affect her development.  For one, it would let her cheat like crazy in her lessons, she could just access her gestalt.  She wouldn‘t learn anything.]

        [Precisely why we didn’t permit gestalts to the young,] she agreed.  [But we could design an interface that permits communion, or use the system the Karinnes used before their destruction, a remote commune sensor network.  Before, there were enough remote sensors that allowed Generations to commune with the CBIM in command of Karga, Carra, without needing a gestalt.  But you haven’t installed remote commune transceivers,] she added, a bit tartly.

        [Everyone who can commune with you has a gestalt, I didn’t see the need.  But, I think you proved your point.  I’ll have Myleena install a remote network through the area so all of us can commune without a gestalt if needed.]

        [Thank you, that makes me content.]

        [I do have a question to ask you.]

        [Yes?]

        [Myleena’s almost to the point where she believes we can build another CBIM.  Would you want this?]

        [Jason, that is a silly question.  Do you know how vulnerable I feel knowing I am the last of the CBIMs?  If I were to go offline, the loss of my data would be a tragedy to the entire universe.  I have been pushing Myleena to build another CBIM, both to protect the Karinne secrets and also because CBIMs are needed.  You need a CBIM to run Karga, and there should be a CBIM at the Academy.]

        [No, there will be no CBIM off Karis,] Jason told her.  [If a CBIM were captured, it would be devastating to the Karinnes.]

        [Jason, no enemy could possibly capture us.  We would self-terminate long before they managed to get anything from us.  We will not permit ourselves to be captured.  That is what happened to the CBIM of Draena, the southern continent.  She survived the initial attack, but self-terminated to prevent the Merranes from capturing her.  That’s why that large crater is in the center of the continent is there.  She triggered an explosion in her singularity power plant, which vaporized everything that the Merranes may have been able to use.]

        [God, I hope you never have to come to that,] he told her earnestly.

        [I would be unhappy to do it, but I would.  The secrets of the house are more important than I.  I will take them into oblivion with me before I surrender them to our enemies.]

        [I’d rather not dwell on things like that.  And you can forget trying to foist off running Karga on some other CBIM.  I wouldn’t feel happy with anyone other than you.]

        [I am not as adept at the task as a CBIM you build specifically for the task will be.  My function is emergency response, not operations.]

        [Well.  I have another question for you.]

        [Yes?]

        [If we build everything you need, could you transfer yourself to the hardware of another CBIM?  I mean, if we move your core memory to new hardware, would you be able to make the move?]

        She was silent for a surprisingly long time.  [An…intriguing idea,] she noted.  [My core isn’t designed to be moved out of this facility, but it is designed to be mobile, which is why I can withdraw myself into the mantle.  I was the only CBIM built with such a feature, which makes my core more, ah, modular than other CBIM cores were.  I believe that it just might be possible, if my entire core module, the part of me I withdraw into the mantle, is moved as one, I have extensive remote transceivers to maintain connection to my non-core systems during the move, and I do not lose power.  If that can be done, then yes, I believe I could be moved to Karsa without harm.  I’m not sure if such an engineering feat could be accomplished, though.]

        [But, if I find a way to do it, would you be amenable to being moved to Karsa and being placed in a more powerful system?  I’m serious, Cybi, I won’t accept another CBIM.  I want you.]

        [Your loyalty to me is touching, Jason,] she communed with warmth.  [Yes, I would be willing to try, but not until there is another CBIM online.  I will take no chances that an accident destroys me while I am the last CBIM in operation.]

        [Alright then, we build a CBIM in Kosigi first, then we move you to Karsa.  Now, on to the other question, which I believe will make you see how this is possible.  What if I said I wanted a CBIM installed in the Aegis?  Could it be done?]

        She was quiet a moment.  [Yes, I see where you’re going, Jason, and I’m impressed,] she answered brightly.  [Yes, the Aegis would have enough power and is big enough to accommodate a CBIM.  You’d have to install another singularity plant just for the CBIM, but a CBIM could definitely be installed in the Aegis.  It could be installed in a battleship as well, a battleship would be able to hold one.  But anything smaller than a battleship would not.]

        [You just answered my next question.  So, get in touch with Myleena and distract her away from the Consortium ship long enough to think about that.]

        [That will not be easy.  She loves that captured ship nearly as much as Sevi adores the Abarax.]

        [When she starts having sex with the ship, I’ll start to worry.]

        Cybi laughed lightly.  [She has made much progress.  She estimates that they’ll begin to dismantle the ship in four days.]

        [Good.  Where is the interdictor at?]

        [Still on schedule.  It should be complete in six days.  Myleena will want two to three days to test it, then it will be installed on Karis and activated.]

        [Good.  I still don’t sleep well knowing that the Consortium can jump in on us by surprise.  Any information from the Kimdori or the Alliance?]

        [Nothing yet, Jason.  They have found no Consortium bases thus far.]

        [Damn.  They have to be out there somewhere.]

        [Given the great distances the Consortium traveled to get here, I would presume to guess that their bases are very far from here, exploiting their ability to withstand extensive hyperspace exposure.  Songa already theorizes that that is one of the functions of the brain implants.  A filter, if you will, to reduce the psychological strain of hyperspace travel.]

        [That’s possible, I suppose, but I don’t think so.  But I’m no medical specialist.  Once we build a duplicate of the power broadcasting system in the destroyer and we can actually turn those things on, we’re doing nothing but guessing.]

        [Yes, that is Myleena’s primary goal right now, to dismantle that broadcasting system and learn how it works.  It is the one true advance the Consortium has achieved that we have not, so it is her main focus.]

        [That’s why she’s such a smart girl,] Jason communed with a chuckle.  [And I think that’s the one thing we won’t share through the Academy.  I want us to thoroughly analyze it and find a way to counter it, maybe improve it, so what we pass on isn’t a threat to us.  I don‘t want some enterprising government to build a slough of attack ships powered by a central command ship and attack us with them without some way to shut them down.]

        [Always wise,] Cybi agreed.

        As soon as the party was over, Jason attended the matter of remotes.  He figured that Myleena would be too busy to bother, and Jason did have experience with such things, so he and Jyslin sat down and designed a remote sensor network that provided full coverage for the entirety of Karsa and all suburbs.  It was actually rather easy to design, since it was just a series of remote transceivers placed at set distances apart, all connected to a biogenic controller computer that linked to Cybi, that they’d place in the main communications complex at Karsa.  Cybi would be the one to program the controller to her satisfaction, so all they had to do was provide her the hardware to handle it.  It took them about six hours to plot the locations of the remote transceivers and set up the controller system which gave them total coverage with a minimum of resources, and when Cybi checked over their work, she found it to be viable.  Jason put in the work order for it and put it on priority status, which meant that his Makati building unit would begin work on it the next day.  Given the efficiency of the Makati, it would be built within a week.

        Mama, Papa!  We’re ready for our bath! Rann sent through the house, his sending much sharper than it had been just days before.  Rann was quickly learning the art of sending, and could now send with clarity and strength.  He hadn’t quite yet mastered private sending, but he could send clearly, and he was starting to develop speed.  He could understand much more than he could before, could comprehend sending at normal speed most of the time.  Just as Jason and Jyslin told him, he was learning sending quickly, and all he needed was practice.  It would take him months, or even years, to approach the level of mastery of his parents or Kyri, but he would soon be proficient enough to be able to understand and participate in an adult-level telepathic conversation.

        Alright, sweetie, we’ll be right up, Jyslin answered him.  Go ahead and fill the tub, but do not get in it!

        Okay, Mommy.

        They got up, and Ayama swept in and picked up their glasses as they went upstairs and to the bathroom.  Rann and Danelle were in the bathroom.  Rann was filling the soaking tub, nude and with his towel around his shoulders, standing on his tiptoes looking inside, and he looked rather cute like that.  Danelle had just finished pulling the seat in the shower out from under the water, and she too was nude.  Jyslin sat on the bench near the toilet and started undressing, pulling off her shoes.  “Okay, kids, go scrub,” she told them.  Rann put his towel the rack and went to the flat, low-walled washing shower as Danelle turned the water on.  Danelle stood in front of the seat and started soaping herself as Rann stood under the shower and wet his hair as his parents undressed.  Jyslin finished first, standing up and smiling lightly as Jason looked her up and down with an assessing expression, admiring his wife’s lovely body.  “Did you enjoy the party, Danelle?” she asked as she stood beside Rann and started soaking herself.

        “It was fun!” she said excitedly.  “I know how Zach feels, though, cause all his brothers and sisters‘ talent woke up.  I hope it doesn’t take me long to wake up.  It makes me feel…left out.”

        “Well, judging by how strong your parents are, dear, it won’t take long at all,” she said.  “Your mother is one of the strongest talents on Karis, and your father’s almost as strong as Uncle Jason is.”

        “I wish my Daddy would come see me,” she frowned.

        “He’s on Terra, dear, doing very important work.  He loves you even if he can’t come see you as much as he wants.”

        “I know, but I still wish he’d come see me.”

        Danelle’s father was Kohnn Karinne, who Jason had brought into the house.  He was a commoner under the Aralles, and had been one of her Black Ops team, one of three she’d stolen from the Imperium to lure into Karinne.  She had chosen Jenn to father her first child because he was a powerful telepath for a male, and had minor telekinetic ability, able to lift about 200 grams.  As telekinetics went among non-Karinne Faey, that was about mainstream.  Jenn was about 55 years old, just into his middle age and older than Myleena, and was a doctorate in plasma systems engineering.  He had been transferred to the Academy to work on the Consortium technology, and would be heading the power systems research team.

        “Well, everyone’s busy right now.  I’m sure he wants to see you too, but it might be a little while before he can come home.”

        “I know,” she sighed, stepping out of the water and accepting the soap bottle from Rann, then soaping herself down.  Jason replaced her under the shower, running his hands through his hair to soak it.  “Uncle Jason?”

        “Yes, pippy?” he asked, using Myleena’s favorite pet name for her daughter.

        “Why does the Con-Con-Consorum want to fight with us?”

        “They’re called the Consortium, and I wish I could tell you exactly why,” he told her.  “But we think they want to take Cybi away from us.  And we won’t let them.  This is Cybi’s home, and she doesn’t want to go.”

        “Good.  I like Cybi,” she said, lathering her hair.  “And they must be really mean to try to take Cybi away from her home.”

        “We agree, Danelle,” Jyslin said as she stepped up behind the kids, sat on the stool, and started to lather the skin on her arms.

        In the typical manner of a child, her mind changed tracks quickly and mercurially.  “I wonder what Aran’s party will be like.”

        “I’m sure Surin will make it fun,” Jason chuckled.

        Jason?  Jason, are you home?

        Sure am, Songa.  We’re taking a bath.

        Can I come up and talk to you?

        Sure, come on up, he answered as he picked Rann up, who started giggling when put his son’s head right under the shower head, soaking him thoroughly.

        “Eww, the soap tastes awful!”

        “Then why are you eating it, you silly boy?” Jason teased, putting him down.  “Rinse up and into the tub with you!”

        “It ran into my mouth.  Yick!” he said, spitting, then holding his open mouth before the showering water, rinsing his mouth out.

        Rann had climbed into the tub by the time Songa got there.  She was wearing her lab coat and pants, and had her hair pulled back in a pony tail.  “Doc Songa!” Rann said with a grin.

        “Hello, Ranny,” she smiled at him.  “How are you?”

        “I’m okay.  Did you come to the party?”

        “Afraid I had to work, cutie,” she said, shaking her head and coming over to sit on the small bench.

        “How’s Luke and little Jari?” Jyslin asked.

        “Luke’s already getting ready to return to the Academy,” she sighed.  “I wish he’d come home and just take the classes by remote, but he’s so insistent.  He says it’s just not as good.  After he goes back, I only get to touch him two days a week, which isn’t nearly enough.”

        “When does he graduate?” Jyslin asked.

        “Next semester.  Jari’s just fine.  She’s about to start school,“ she said with a proud smile.   Jari was the daughter of Luke and Songa, and she was four now.  At four, Faey children entered what they called grade 1, which actually lasted about three years.  It was preschool, kindergarten, and 1st grade all rolled into one, but it taught a hell of a lot more than human schools.  Faey kids entered grade 2 with exposure to algebra and the sciences, since the Faey taught math and algebra concurrently rather than introducing kids to math first, and then algebra.  To the Faey, math and algebra were one in the same.  Rann and the other kids in the strip didn‘t go to grade 1 because they were taught the basics by Aya and the guards, but they‘d start attending public school at age 7, when they entered grade 2.  “Anyway, I looked into the problem you asked me about, Jason.”

        “What problem?”

        “Why Symone and everyone else seems strangely devoid of pregnancies,” she answered.

        “Oh.  What did you find out?”

        “I found out that there is a connection,” she said, putting her elbows on her knees as Jyslin moved back to the shower and started rinsing off, and Danelle joined her.  “I studied the records of pregnancies and births and came across a curious trend.  It seems that the closer to the ocean, the more the curve drops.  Pregnancy rates are much more normal inland, but here by the ocean, they’re lower than normal.  So, I took samples from several various women and found traces of Ditremazine, then scanned the ocean water and found even fainter traces.  It’s the compound I’m treating Symone for, the one that’s interfering with her ability to conceive.  It‘s something our scanners don‘t even look for when they scan, so we‘ve been missing it all this time.”

        “Is it natural?” Jason asked.

        She shook her head.  “It’s a usually harmless compound that’s a byproduct of the radiation cleanup Cybi’s robots did, which I guess built up in the ocean over the years with precipitation runoff.  It’s harmless by itself, but in sufficient amounts in a woman who has a potassium deficiency, it makes it more difficult for Faey women to conceive.  The more the potassium deficiency, the worse the condition is, and Symone hadn’t been eating a healthy diet and getting enough potassium, so the problem was pronounced in her to the point where she couldn‘t conceive at all.  Ditremazine coats the uterus walls and makes it hard for the fertilized egg to attach, and the more there is, the harder it becomes.  That might explain why none of the women here on the strip have conceived since their initial pregnancy, because nobody here has been getting enough potassium to overcome the Ditremazine they‘re exposed to every time they go for a swim in the ocean, which we do almost every day.”

        “So you know what‘s wrong!” Jyslin said happily.  “So, you can treat us?”

        “Easily, but I won’t have to do that for long.  Ditremazine is broken down by two methods, exposure to ultraviolet radiation and also by potassium, which acts as a catalyst that breaks it down, and there‘s plenty of potassium salts in the ocean water.  My calculations show it should be completely eradicated from the water in another seven years.  All we really have to do to fix it is to have all the women take a potassium supplement.  Potassium neutralizes Ditremazine in the body.”

        “That’s a relief,” Jason sighed as Danelle joined Jyslin in the shower.  “I was wondering why nobody seemed to be getting pregnant, and I know a few of the girls were trying.”

        “I’m a little upset with myself,” Songa said with a grunt.  “I hadn’t noticed the problem, because nobody had really brought it to my attention.  But I should have realized that nobody, not even me, was getting pregnant, and started looking into the problem.”

        “We’ve all been busy with what seemed were more important things at the time,” Jason told her.  “And I’ve seen the birth records.  We are reproducing, I guess we’re just not reproducing as much around the coast.”

        She nodded.  “There’s a thirty-seven percent decrease in births around the coast.  I think it affects us here at the strip the most because we’re literally on the beach, and we all swim in the ocean much more than others.  So it lets the Ditremazine build up in us faster.”

        “So, Doctor, what do I do to fix it?” Jyslin asked.

        “I know you take vitamins, so I’m sure you’re getting your daily requirement of potassium already.  So for you, take one thousand milligrams of potassium every day for four days to purge the Ditremazine already in your body, then two hundred fifty milligrams a day after that to prevent buildup,” she answered.  “Just be careful, an overdose of potassium can be harmful, so follow those directions exactly.  You can buy the supplement at any pharmacy or major store.  The potassium will neutralize the Ditremazine, and you should be purged of it and back to a healthy chance to conceive in about four days.”

        “That’s it?”

        “That’s it.”  She leaned back up on the stool.  “Mind if I join you?” she asked.  “I’m a little overdressed, and I could use a bath myself.”

        “Please,” Jyslin smiled as she padded from the shower to the tub, making Rann giggle as she started tickling him. Danelle joined them soon after, and Jason started washing off the soap.  Songa quickly disrobed and joined him under the shower, and it made Jason remember the brief few days that they had been lovers.  Songa had needed comforting then, and he had been happy to provide her that comfort, and he’d been just as happy to step aside and allow Luke to take over.  Luke and Songa were deeply in love, and helped fill the voids in each other’s hearts caused by the deaths of their former spouses.  Jason had known both of them, had known Mary and Rann.  Mary had died in the attack on Chesapeake, and Rann had died in Scotland when Jason and Songa had been captured by the Imperium.  Both of them had died because of him, and he was just glad that neither of them blamed him for it.  They had found each other, and he was happy that they were happy.  Ayama, Jyslin called.

        Yes?

        Can you do me a huge favor and run down the Demanne’s and buy me a potassium supplement?

        I can do that.

        Make sure you buy a supplement that comes in pills with two hundred and fifty milligram doses per tablet, Songa warned her as she sat on the stool and started lathering her hair.  It should say how much per tablet on the package.

        I’ll do that, Doctor Songa, she answered.  Isn’t this what Symone is taking?

        Yes, it’s the treatment for her pregnancy problem, Songa answered.  I tracked down the problem, and it’s rather widespread, linked to a trace chemical in seawater.  Potassium is the cure.

        Really?  That’s good to know, I’ve been wondering why I couldn’t get pregnant! she said with more animation and emotion than Jason had ever heard out of her.  Will this work for me too?

        Yes, it should, she answered.

        You should release a health bulletin to warn everyone, Ayama told her.

        I already did.  You just haven’t seen it yet,  Songa replied.  Just make sure you follow the dosage carefully, Ayama, an overdose of potassium can be dangerous.

        What’s the dosage?

        A thousand milligrams a day for four days, then two hundred fifty milligrams a day afterward to protect you from the chemical from then on.  Now mind that that dosage is based on a balanced diet where you get all your required nutrients.  If you’re not getting enough potassium as it is, you might need more.  Just drop by my office later, dear, and I’ll give you a checkup to see.

        Is tomorrow too soon?

        That’s just fine, it takes all of three minutes to screen you for potassium.

        “You know the clinics will be swamped by women looking for a screening when that bulletin gets circulated,” Jason noted.

        “I don’t mind work when it has a good result, and it’s a very easy thing to check,” she told him, standing up and joining him in the shower again to wash the shampoo from her hair.

        Jason joined his family and Danelle in the soaking tub, and Danelle wasted no time climbing into his lap.  Most humans would have found the idea of a naked man sitting with a naked child in his lap to be immoral, but they weren’t Faey.  Since Faey lacked human concepts of modesty, saw nudity as natural and beautiful, they attached no sexual overtones to such things whatsoever so long as the adult and child were related in some way.  It was entirely proper for an adult to hold a child when neither were wearing clothes so long as the two were related or close, and Danelle was definitely close.  Danelle wasn’t their child, but she was as good as, since she spent so much time with them.  That was why Jason didn’t bat an eye over having Danelle in his lap, since she was virtually his adopted niece, the daughter of a woman he considered as close as a sister.  She was also the child Rann saw the most, since Danelle slept over at their house almost half the time.

        It was amazing sometimes how thoroughly he’d been assimilated into Faey culture given how much he had resisted it…but Jyslin had made sure to convert him in the years they were married.

        Songa sat back down on the seat and started lathering soap in her hands, then started scrubbing her back with a handled louffah.  “I guess I’ll start seeing a boom of coastal babies in about seven months,” she laughed.

        “More like eight, since we’re coming up on the end of the year,” Jyslin amended.  “And I certainly hope mine is one of them.  I’ve been trying to get pregnant since Rann was born, and all this time, I thought it was just bad luck.”

        “Sounds like Jyslin is warning you, Jason,” Songa chuckled as she started washing her torso.

        “I can handle it,” Jason chuckled.  “I’ll have to stay clear of Symone for the next couple of weeks, so Tim can do his damn job, so that just gives Jyslin all my attention.”

        “True, true,” she nodded.  “Stop by my office tomorrow, Jys, I’ll screen you so you know when you’re fertile.”

        “I already know.  I just had my period last week, so it’ll be about two weeks from now.”

        “What’s a period?” Rann asked.

        “Something girls have when they’re older,” Jyslin answered him.  “It’s when a girl knows she’s becoming a woman.”

        “Yeah, but what does that mean?”

        “I could tell you, but it’s icky,” Jyslin told him, poking him in the belly and making him giggle.

        “Really icky?”

        “More or less, sweetie.”

        “It’s when girls bleed down where they pee,” Danelle told him fearlessly.  “Mommy explained it.  She said it happens every few weeks when girls get older.”

        “Does it hurt?” Rann asked in concern, looking at Jyslin.

        “No, sweetie, not at all,” she assured him.

        “Rann, it’s what happens when a girl doesn’t get pregnant,” Songa told him as she lathered her legs.  “Her body spends a lot of time getting ready for the chance that she gets pregnant by preparing a little bed of soft tissue for the baby inside her.  Well, when it doesn’t happen, her body starts over and has to flush away the preparations.  The girl‘s insides, her womb, wants a new bed for the baby, so it has to get rid of the old one.  So, her womb takes the bed and breaks it up into tiny little pieces, and then flushes it out of herself.  The girl doesn’t really bleed, the broken-up unused bed just looks like blood.  What she gets rid of has to come out, so it comes out the same place where the baby comes out.”

        “Why does she start over?  Why not use the same bed?”

        “For the same reason milk goes bad after a while,” she answered.  “The bed’s only good for a little while, because the bed is like milk that nourishes the baby, and just like milk, it isn‘t good after so much time passes.  So, when the girl‘s womb knows she‘s not pregnant, she gets rid of the bed before it spoils, and starts working on a new one.  That happens over and over until she gets pregnant, because when she gets pregnant, there’s a baby there for the bed to nourish, so the bed doesn’t go bad.  The baby drinks the milk, so the bed doesn‘t spoil.”

        Good explanation, Jason complemented.

        I have practice.

        “Oh.  I guess that makes sense.  Kinda.”

        “It’s not exactly what really happens, love, but it’s a good description of why it happens.”  Songa rinsed herself off quickly, then padded over and joined them in the tub.  It was big enough for four, so she settled in across from Jyslin, leaning back and putting her arms out on the lip of the tub.  “You have such a nice tub,” she said, sighing as she settled in.

        “I made sure to have them put in a real bathroom,” Jyslin said with a wink at Jason.  “Jason wanted a Terran bathroom, with just that combination shower and tub that only holds one and you can’t really soak.”

        “I’ve never been happier to be overruled,” Jason laughed.

        There was a knock at the door.  Jayce? Temika called.

        “Come in!” Jason shouted.

        Temika entered the bathroom, wearing a tee shirt and a pair of jeans.  Temika was still stacked and still built, and having two children had done nothing to ruin her figure.  Latoiya had been born on Earth three years ago, in her first year at the Academy, and her son Mike Junior had been born last year.  Mike had the kids over at their house, which they had finally come home to reclaim after years at the Academy.  It had sat empty, down at the very end of the strip, ever since they left.  “Jeezus, Jayce, you already got Symone and Dahnai, you takin’ up another woman?”

        Jason laughed.  “No, Songa’s just enjoying a bath.”

        “Why don’t you join us, Temika?  We have room for one more.”

        She laughed.  “Ah think you’d know mah answer bah now, Songa.”

        “That answer is yes.  Now join us.”

        “Ah need to get home an’ help Mike get us settled in,” she protested.  Years at the Academy had managed to dull her accent, at least a little bit.  Anymore, the only real stress in her accent was converting -y sounds to ­-ah­ sounds.  Her mangling of o sounds had improved considerably, since that particular accent made it very hard for people to understand her when she spoke Faey unless they knew her and knew about her bayou accent.

        “He can wait a half hour,” she said.  “We haven’t talked since I came to deliver your son, so come on!”

        “Ah aint’ no Faey, Songa.  Ah ain’t used to bein’ naked in company.”

        “Oh, and I haven’t seen you sunbathing nude on the beach!  We’ve all already seen you naked, silly woman!  Stop being a timid little skree and join us!” she teased.

        Temika gave Songa a hard look, then sighed and went over to the bench and sat down.  “Ah’d better not hear one word of this outside this room,” she said seriously as she pulled her shoes off.  Jason didn’t pay much attention as Temika undressed, but he did survey her when she came up to the tub.  She was still muscular, and there was absolutely no sign of her that she’d already had to children.  Her stomach was still flat and knotted with muscle, and she was both lean and curvaceous.  Temika was stacked, with large breasts and wide hips that gave her a killer figure, and he noticed that she maintained a very narrow strip of tightly trimmed pubic hair contained within her tan lines between her chocolate untanned skin and her darker skin, what human girls called a bikini wax and what Faey women called a noseburner, which was a rather crude term.

        “Wanna stop staring at mah goods, Jayce?” she demanded as she sat down across from him in the water, though she made no attempt to cover her breasts, the bases of them lapped by the surface of the water.

        “Well, I guess I should stand up and let you return the favor,” he winked at her.

        “Puh-leeze,” she snorted.  “As if Ah ain’t seen it a hundred times before.”

        “Then stop bitchin’, you weenie,” Jason teased.

        “Are you home for good, Auntie Mika?” Danelle asked, getting off Jason’s lap and climbing up onto hers.

        “Yes Ah am, dahlin’,” she answered, bouncing the blue-skinned girl on her knee.  “Ah go to work with Aunt Kumi next week.  You stayin’ over with Ranny and Uncle Jayce tonight?”

        “Uh-huh,” she nodded.  “I’ve been staying for a little while.  Mommy’s up in Kosigi for a while doing real important stuff, and Uncle Jason’s letting me stay over so Nanna can go visit her mommy.”

        “Well, that’s nice of him.  Are you gonna help Uncle Jason put up the Christmas tree?”

        “Yeah!” she said excitedly.  Christmas was one of two human holidays that Jason celebrated and Jyslin rather liked, the other being Easter.  In return, Jason celebrated Trelle’s Flower Festival and Faey New Year with her.  “We’re putting it up next week!  I wonder what Santa’s bringing me this year?”

        “Who knows, dahlin’,” she smiled.  “But if you haven’t been good, you know he’ll be bringin’ you coal!”

        “I wonder how he gets from Terra to here, all in one night,” Rann said seriously.

        “Never underestimate Santa,” Jason said with a smile at his son.  “He finds a way.”

        They caught up with Temika, hearing about their move back to Karis two days ago and how they’d worked to get their house back in working order, which wasn’t easy with a two year old and a ten month old.  “Ah swear, it seemed that Latoiya was buggin’ me for somethin’ every two minutes.  And if it wasn’t her, it was Mikey gettin’ into freakin’ everythin’.”

        “Children are both a trial and a joy,” Songa smiled.  “I would be lost without my little Jari.”

        “Where are Luke an’ Jari?”

        “Home.  I just stopped by to tell Jason some news, and they invited me to share a bath.  And I think I’ll demand that Luke remodel our bathroom,” she said with a contented smile.  “Our bathtub is entirely too small.”

        Luke and Songa also lived within the strip, at the very end on the other side.  Luke was at the Academy most of the time, and Songa spent almost every day off there so she and their daughter could visit Luke, to the point where she was on a first name basis with every ship captain that ferried goods between  Karis and Earth, since she was endlessly begging rides off ship captains, and they were all more than happy to give her a ride.  Because of that, they didn’t see Jari very often, but often enough for her to know everyone and be adored by most adults on the strip, for she was absolutely adorable.

        “Well, what are you doin’ here, woman?  You don’t get to see Luke often!” Temika told her.

        “He and Jari are napping, so what better time to come handle a little business?” she smiled.

        “He may have woke up.”

        “Mika, you know I’ll know if he does,” she smiled.  “I know you keep a touch on Mike.  Think I don’t do the same with Luke?”

        “Ah do it to make sure Mike don’t stray,” she said with a little smile.  “Mah man is too popular with Faey girls, so Ah have to keep him honest.”

        “Such a silly notion,” Songa teased.  “Marriage isn’t about keeping a man all to yourself, it’s about making sure he always comes back to you!”

        “Not among humans, it ain’t,” she answered.  “When we marry, that’s a commitment.”

        “Jason’s not quite so committed,” Songa grinned at him.

        Well, Jason’s a perv, Temika sent cheekily, looking at him and giving him a wink.

        What’s a perv? Rann asked.

        Temika gaped, then laughed raucously.  Ah forgot you can do that, Ranny! she admitted.

        Well, what is one?

        She’s teasing your father, sweetie, calling him something that’s not true, Jyslin told him.

        Well, what is it? Rann persisted.

        Something human women sometimes call men who live a Faey lifestyle, Jyslin sent delicately.  The best way to explain it is your father’s relationship with Aunt Symone.  Among humans, when a man and woman marry, they don’t believe in having private time with other people.  It’s something humans don’t really think is proper.  It’s entirely wrong, but we tolerate their backwards customs.

        It’s not wrong for us, Temika protested.

        Of course it is, Jyslin smiled at her.  Because you’re absolutely wrong about thinking sex has anything to do with love.  Sex is a biological process and a physical sensation.  Love is an emotion.  Your human religion’s roots in your ancient past when people thought the father of the child mattered stigmatizes your whole race about something beautiful and natural and tries to make it dirty and wrong, when it‘s nothing like that at all.  How can sex be wrong when you have it before marriage or have it with another man after you marry, but be right after you marry and only have it with your husband?  It just makes no sense!

        Let’s not start a holy war in the bathtub, Jason warned.  So drop it.  “I’m committed enough,” he said, picking things up so Danelle didn’t think they were ignoring her.  Given the whole conversation took place in about half the time it would have taken while speaking made the pause brief enough for Danelle not to notice.

        “Aunt Temika?” Danelle asked.

        “Yeah, sugah?”

        “Do boys really like you more than other girls because your boobs are so big?”

        Temika gave her a startled look, then flushed even as she laughed nervously.  “Whoever told you that, sugah?”

        “Mommy.  She said boys like girls with big boobs,” she said critically.  “Since yours are the biggest, I thought that made you the one the boys like the most.”

        “Well, Ah dunno if they do or not,” she told her.  “Ah don’t pay much attention to boys other than mah husband.”

        Such a liar, Jyslin teased, sending in a way to preclude Rann, to avoid more questions.

        Temika sent an image of herself flipping Jyslin off, which made Jason stifle a laugh.

        “I hope my boobs are big when I grow up,” she said clinically.

        “Well, we’ll just have to wait an’ see, sugah,” Temika told her, a touch carefully, afraid of what she might say next.  “Ah think you’re a little young to start worryin’ about stuff like that.”

        “Well, I’m a boy, and I like her boobs,” Jason said, giving Temika a playful grin.

        “Ah think you like any woman’s boobs, Jayce,” she shot back.

        “As long as she’s topless, I surely do,” he said honestly, which made Jyslin and Songa laugh.  “We’re going to go see Aura and the Exiled tomorrow, Mika.  Wanna come?”

        “Sure,” she answered.  “Have they moved in?”

        He nodded.  “They’re finally all here, and they’re still settling in.  Aura’s been keeping me up to date, but I’ve been keeping my distance because some of them aren’t very happy with me.”

        “Ah remember you sayin’ that we were gonna keep their planet.”

        “Yeah,” he answered.  “We have the whole sector there blanketed with hyperspace probes, watching for any sign of the Consortium coming back.  They did show up again yesterday, a single scout.  It approached the planet, then it jumped out.  So I’m sure they know now that all the Exiled are gone.  As soon as we get a pair of Stargates and an extra interdictor, we’re going to set them up at the planet, and the Exiled can go home.  I‘m going to make contact with the indigenous race there, the Gruug, and try to convince them to allow us to farm there.  I don‘t want to do to them what the Faey did to us, though.  So I‘m going to ask them rather than force them.”

        “What if they say no?”

        “I’ll allow colonization in areas where they don’t live,” he answered.  “And leave them be.  As long as they don’t bother us, we won’t bother them.”

        “That won’t work forever.”

        “I know, but I hope it’ll last long enough for them to accept us.  Eventually, I‘m sure we can convince them to join the house and allow them to live as they please with a minimum of interference from us.”

        “Primitive races are hard to predict, and this race has a history of hostility towards the Exiled,” Songa noted.

        “Yes, but hopefully we can smooth that over.  How did the medical screenings go?  I haven’t seen the final report yet.”

        “The Exiled are in excellent health, and they suffer from no diseases they themselves have not managed to cure or control,” she answered.  “I’ve opted not to screen out their microbial colonies or sterilize their animals or the transplanted soils, and introduced vaccines to their diseases into the next round of health screenings for all residents.  The interior department felt that the introduction of new microbes might help kindle the ecosystem.”

        “The shots you gave me before I went to Exile?”

        She nodded.  “The immunology and xenovirology departments refined the vaccines so they’re delivered in one shot.

        Jason just had to tease Temika when he got out of the tub with Rann and Danelle, sending don’t look at my butt! over and over as he got out.  Songa and Jyslin laughed, and Temika flipped him off when the children had their backs to her.  Jason helped the children dry off, scrubbing them with towels, then swatted Danelle on the rump.  “Get your robe on, pippy,” he ordered, then started drying off Rann.

        “Okay, Uncle Jason,” she said as Songa, Jyslin, and Temika climbed out of the tub, coming over and picking up towels.  Jason scrubbed Rann dry, and he joined Danelle at the bench.  She handed him his robe, and he pulled it on but didn’t belt it, leaving it open in front.  Songa and Temika dressed, but Jason and Jyslin just pulled on thigh-length robes.

        “Mike’s lookin’ for me, so Ah’d better go,” Temika said.  “Thanks for the bath.”

        “Thanks for getting naked for me, up close and personal,” Jason teased, giving her a wink.  “Step one of my nefarious plan to seduce you is complete.”

        “Ah’ll show you step two, buster,” she said, balling her fist, which made Jason laugh.

        “God, I’m glad you’re home, Mika.”

        “So am Ah,” she answered with a sudden smile.  She kissed him on the cheek, gave Songa and Jyslin kisses, then knelt down and hugged both  Rann and Danelle.  “Be good, you two,” she said. “Ah’ll see you in the morning’, ‘kay?”

        “Night, Aunt Mika,” Rann said.

        “Night, Auntie Temika,” Danelle mirrored.

        “I should get home as well, Luke won’t sleep much longer,” Songa said, kissing Jyslin on the cheek, hugging Jason, then getting her own hug from the kids.  “I won’t see you tomorrow, I’m not going to see the Exiled, so I’ll see you soon, sweetlings,” she told them.

        “Night, Doc Songa,” Rann parroted.

        “Have a good night, Doc Songa,” Danelle added.

        Jason and Jyslin herded the kids to Rann’s room, then snuggled them into bed, Rann in his bed and Danelle in a second bed they‘d brought in for her, since she didn‘t like to sleep alone when she wasn‘t at home.  Jyslin stayed to read them a story, and Jason went downstairs and caught up on the reports.  He saw that they moved the interdictor completion date up another 12 hours, and that the heavy cruiser Jefferson was back in service, as was the battleship Trelle’s Gift.  The Aegis repairs were still on schedule, and they’d have it back by the end of the week.  Ayama put a mug of oye juice in front of him, and set down a large plastic bottle.  “Her supplement,” she noted, for which Jason thanked her and sent her to bed.  The first reports from the border systems were good.  The Brood Princesses were reassembling the government, and the Brood Queen had given the public decrees that told the Urumi about the deal that they would remain in the Imperium for a period of thirty years, that they would serve to act as a buffer between the Imperium and the Collective and maintain peace between the two empires, and they would serve Jason as they would serve her.  Jason was glad to see that, for it made sure that the Urumi knew what was going on.  With the Urumi cooperating, they’d get the systems back in order quickly, and soon there would be quite a bit of activity there as Makati engineering companies moved in to start upgrading the infrastructure of the planets.

        Jason wasn’t kidding when he said he wanted those systems to return to Sk’Vrae better than when he got them.  He wanted them to be thriving and prosperous.

        The Academy would be beginning their analysis of the Consortium data in two days, according to the missive Kiaari sent to them.  She also made note that the Kimdori still hadn’t found any Consortium bases.

        Jason moved on to some mundane reports from his ministers, but Tim and Symone intruded on him a little bit.  They were at home next door, and from the feel of it, they were getting it on big-time.  Symone had entered what she considered her fertile phase five days ago, and she and Tim and had been having sex twice a day, and had remained exclusively to themselves, and would remain so all the way up until they left for Draconis on Wednesday, when Symone would have Songa check to see if she’d conceived.  Symone wouldn’t be coming to have sex with Jason for fear she would conceive by him, which would be a scandal for Tim not to be the father of their first child, and if Tim wanted sex, he’d go to Symone, to better the chance she’d conceive.

        Either way, she’d know Wednesday morning.  Technically, she was already out of her window of fertility, but she was taking no chances on being early or late.  She had devoted eight days to it, and Jason figured that it should be enough.

        Jason ignored them to finish going through the reports, signing several permits and applications, then he put his panel aside and went out onto the deck facing the ocean, leaning on the rail and watching the waves by moonlight.  It was a nice warm night, and Kosigi was half full.  The weather here at Karsa was what many would call perfect, for it rarely got colder than 60 degrees at night, and hotter than 90 degrees during the day, year round, though for a cold-loving Down Easter like Jason, that had been a bit too warm when he first arrived…but he‘d acclimated over the years to where he rather enjoyed the climate, since it was never oppressively humid except during the height of summer, and that was what air conditioning was for.  Wind patterns and their proximity to the equator kept Karsa in that warm weather pattern all year long, since they were within the planet’s axis of tilt that would be “between the tropics” back on Earth, between what one would call the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.  But here on Karis, they were the Tropic of Erra to the south and the Tropic of Mera to the north, which literally translated to “south tropic” and “north tropic” in English.

        The ancient Karinnes had not been not overly poetic when it came to naming things.  They preferred functionality.

        Karsa was about two hundred miles below the north tropic, which meant that the sun would shine directly down on them twice a year, days about 12 days before and after the summer solstice.  The prevailing winds off the ocean kept Karsa cool during the summer, and since they were so close to the equator, the winters here were extremely mild, barely more than a 15 degree drop in average temperature.  The result was being able to go outside any time of the day, any time of the year, wearing as little as one pleased.  And that was totally true, for he saw Min down on the beach, taking an evening stroll wearing nothing at all, strolling along with her daughter Jora.  It’s too late to get a tan, silly girl! Jason teased her.

        I’m drying off, we just got out of the pool! she answered.  Did you read that message from Songa?

        She came and told us, he answered.  You should get to the pharmacy early tomorrow, there’s bound to be a line.

        Yeah, she agreed with amusement.  But it certainly explains our run of bad luck…it wasn’t luck at all!

        Yup.

        So, you gonna grace the rest of the Marines with a child, Jayce? she asked teasingly

        Five was all I agreed to, and that’s it, he answered cheekily.  That was the deal!

        Oh, but you promised five by different mothers, and Rann shouldn’t count, since Jyslin’s your wife!  So you owe us at least one more!

        Oh, and you want the honor?

        Sure, why not?  Could a girl go wrong having your baby, Jayce?

        Maybe.

        Liar.  And I’d certainly enjoy the conception, she sent with a lustful undercurrent.

        Girl, there’s a whole town full of willing men right on the other side of that fence.  Go find one, he ordered.

        But they’re not you.

        If they were, then I wouldn’t really be needed, would I?

        She laughed through her sending as they walked further away.  Damn you and your male logic, she teased.

        It keeps you irrational women from blowing up the universe, he answered blandly.

        Jyslin came up beside him and leaned on the rail with him, looking down to where Min was.  Ah, so that’s who you’re bantering with.  Min!  Leave my husband alone!

        Why?  If I can steal a quickie out of him, I’m gonna!  We non-mothers feel cheated, you know.  Half the squad has wrapped their legs around him, and we’re on the losing side!

        Well, since he hasn’t laid you yet, clearly you’re not trying hard enough, she taunted.  That or you’re not woman enough for him.

        Oh, you are sooo gonna eat those words when I get my legs around your husband, bitch! Min challenged.

        Are you trying to start a war, Jys? he complained.

        Nah, just giving you a couple of playmates, she winked.

        I have enough at home.

        Clearly you don’t, which is why you’ve been fixating on your memory of seeing Aura naked, she grinned.  She really turns you on.

        Well, I guess I can’t deny that.  She reminds me of Dahnai, and you know I’m really attracted to Dahnai.  It’s attraction by association.

        If she excites you, love, go for it, she told him.  You know I don’t mind.  Experience her, then come home and share the memory with me.

        I’m not sure it’s a good idea to have a sexual relationship with her, since she’s the leader of her people, and her people are a bit honked off at me right now.  They might turn against her.

        Well, that might be true, but they’re also Faey.  So you never know.  But, either way, you know you have my blessing, because you always come home, she smiled, kissing him just under his ear.

        Practicing what you preach, eh?

        You know it, she grinned.  You could always go chase down Min and give her a turn, she winked.

        Such a bad wife, passing me around to all her friends.

        What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t? she asked impishly.

        Well, you could take me upstairs and do it yourself.

        I thought you’d never ask, she purred, taking his hand and leading him towards the door.

 

        It was one of the most heated arguments he’d ever had.

        Aya was furious with him, but he was not going to budge an inch in the matter.  When they took off to go to the Exiled’s island, he was not wearing armor, and Aya could not look at him with her teeth clenching, for she was absolutely opposed to it.  She saw the Exiled as a potential risk, and as such, she did not want him there without armor, without protection.  But Jason felt that him showing up in armor among them on Karis was sending the message that he didn’t trust them, so he decided not to wear it.  Aya exploded when he told her, and the argument lasted nearly a half an hour.  It only ended because Jason gave her a direct order to back off, and then they had another half hour of heated debate over just how many precautions Aya could take.  With Jason arriving without armor, Aya wanted to all but round up the entire population of the island of Exile, as they were now calling it, strip them all naked, and then hold them in an open area to ensure that none of them were carrying weapons.  They were having the equivalent of a sending shouting match over it, trying to drown out the other’s sending with more power, and just about everyone within ten miles of them were privy to almost the entire thing.  Jason was a man, but he was about equal in power to Aya with talent, so neither of them could really overpower the other.

        After that, nobody near the strip would ever doubt Aya’s devotion to her duty.

        In the end, Jason had more or less won the argument, and Aya was seething.  He wouldn’t even allow the guards to move in first to sweep the Exiled and search for any threats, and she was both furious with his disregard for his own safety and his blind trust in people who were not happy with him, and stunned that he was subjecting his family and children to the same danger, for most of the residents of the strip were going, including 12 children.  Aya’s anger was shared by his entire Dukal guard, and they were all jerky and stone-faced when they boarded a dropship and flew out to Exile.

        “Trust me, Aya,” Jason told her as they approached the island.  “The Exiled won’t do anything.  If they do, I’ll be more than happy to let you spank me.”

        She gave him a cold look.

        “Alright, you can spank me when we get home no matter what,” he sighed.  “Just don’t bruise me, and you can‘t wear your armor when you do.  I don‘t want to lay on that cold metal.”

        She glanced at him, and he saw Ryn, Shen, and Dera crack slight smiles.

        I use my gauntlet, Aya declared.

        “Fine, but no bruising.”

        I still object to this in the strongest possible terms.

        “I know you do, but you have to trust me, Aya,” he said.  “If I don’t show the Exiled trust, they won’t show any to me.  And if I show up wearing full armor and with my guards prowling all over the place, they‘ll believe I won‘t trust them, which will make them not trust me.  And if they don‘t trust me, then I may as well just send them all back to Exile.  This is a political matter, and sometimes you have to gamble in politics.”

        I still hate this.

        “I know, you’ve made that abundantly clear to half of Karsa,” he said blandly.  “And if you were anyone but who you are, I’d have spanked you for showing me such disrespect.  Be glad I trust you with my life, or I’d have beat you like a wayward kree for your impertinence.”

        You’d do no such thing.

        “Probably not, but it always sounds like such a good threat, and I don’t get to use it very often,” he told her with a straight face.

        That finally got her.  She laughed voicelessly, then gave him an amused, wry look.  Peace?

        “For now.  I’m sure you’ll put me over your knee and spank me when we get home.”

        You did make the deal, your Grace, Ryn sent impishly.

        “And I’m a man of my word,” he said grandly as they maneuvered to land near the ocean, on a flat area.

        Dera, Aya called, and the blond nodded and started listening for any trouble from the Exiled as they started milling towards the dropship.

        Jason, Jyslin, Temika, four Marines, and 12 children disembarked from the large dropship, loosely surrounded by the Dukal guard.  There were about 100 Exiled gathering around the dropship, and they looked as he remembered.  They wore the same clothes, some not wearing any clothes at all, but now everyone, from the oldest to the children, all wore interfaces.  That was a symbol of their transition from Exile to Karis, for here, one couldn’t even flush a toilet without an interface, and everyone wore one except for the Kizzik, Parri, and Kimdori.  Seeing the Exiled with interfaces over their left ears, extending over their cheeks, was a sign to him that they were already starting to adapt to life on Karis.

        Aura hurried down to them, and when she reached them, she bowed fluidly.  “Your Grace, welcome, welcome!” she said happily.  “Welcome to our island!”

        I came to see how you’re getting along, he sent, sending so even the children could understand him.  Would you like to show me around?

        Certainly, your Grace, Aura said, if you wish.  Lady Jyslin, she bowed.  Duke Rann, she sent with another bow.  Might I know your other guests before we begin?

        Jason nodded and introduced Aura to his friends, children, and his friends’ children, and he saw the Exiled look on with slightly less hostility.  His point seemed to sink in; he had come without armor, and he had brought his children to their island, and that was a show of trust if there ever was one.  But there were still many dark looks from the Exiled, those who had not appreciated being forcibly removed from their home.

        After the introductions, the Dukal guards did their best to stay ahead of the group as they toured the island.  Aura seemed to understand that, and went on a wide circular route, around the edges first and then working in as she privately sent to Aya to tell her their intended route, and Aya seem ready to kiss Aura’s feet for it.  Jason saw the tract-style housing along plascrete streets that made up the housing of the town, and then they toured a couple of the warehouses where their machines had been stored.

        As they walked, Jason overheard whispers and sending that amused him a little bit.  They had never seen anyone like Temika before, and they were quite taken by her.  To the men of Exile, Temika was very attractive, with her exotic skin color, her height, her build, her exceptional telepathic power, and her beauty.  Several men approached her when they stopped for Aura to show them something, and she’d gotten quite a few proposals for dates, which she rejected summarily with the response I’m married and my husband doesn’t like me to date.  It was a diplomatic response, and though it disappointed the men of  Exile, they didn’t press the matter.  Singular interest in a spouse wasn’t unheard of among the Faey, and Temika wasn‘t Faey, so they weren‘t entirely sure how she saw such things.
        They then went into Aura’s assigned home, just her, her council, and Jason’s family, and he toured a typical house.  It was typical in that Aura hadn’t demanded a grander house than the others, so she was in a nice three bedroom two story house with all the modern amenities, most of which Aura couldn’t use because she had no idea how.  Your volunteers have been teaching us how the machines work, she explained.  And they don’t turn them on in a family’s house until the family understands the machines.  They didn’t do that at first, until a child injured himself playing with the machine that washes dishes.  After that, they decided to disable the machines until they were sure that the family understood them enough to avoid harm.

        Well, that’s not a bad idea, Jason grunted, scratching his shoulder absently.  Has the island been acceptable to your people?

        So far, yes.   The climate is similar to our home, we are by the sea, and little red men helped us replant all our crops and trees, and they seem to have survived the journey intact.  How are they called again?

        Makati, Jyslin answered.  They are called Makati.  Makati,” she said aloud.

        Thank you, my Lady, she sent with a little bob.  My people are a bit unhappy that there are no fish in the water, but they do enjoy the lack of insects.  The month of the biting insects was about to start back home.  That’s never a pleasant time.  It’s very strange to look up and see a blue sun, but it’s not as startling as it was just a few days ago.

        Has there been much unrest?

        Just some grumbling, she answered.  About a tenth of the Exiled didn’t want to leave, no matter that you were saving their lives.  Some few don’t believe they were ever in danger, that it was a lie to force us from our home.  Thus far, they are keeping their discontent to themselves.  I warned that anyone spreading rumors and discord would be chastised.

        Has the food been alright? Jyslin asked.

        Oh, yes, my Lady! she sent with a happy smile.  They have been bringing dishes from the mainland unlike any we’ve ever had!  Spices and foodstuffs we didn’t have at home.  Every evening, it is like a banquet at the main dining hall, where those who have not yet learned how the cooking machine works or those who don’t want to cook.  They bring us many different kinds of foods and let us sample them.  I am quite addicted to oye juice!

        Yes, that’s a staple favorite in the Imperium, Zora nodded.  I’ve never met a Faey that didn’t like oye fruit or juice.

        I noticed that everyone here is wearing an interface, Maya noted.  The machines are interface controlled, or are they both interface and manually controlled?

        They are interface controlled, she nodded, touching the interface on her left cheek and ear.  It does make operating the machines easier, but it takes a little getting used to.  Many of us are quite overwhelmed, since the thought-controlled machines are out of our history.  We are living our history, and it is quite a strange feeling.

        It’s your future as much as your past, Temika told her.

        Truly, Aura nodded.  Would you like to stay for lunch, your Grace?  The volunteers will be serving it at the dining hall soon.

        Sure.

        The entire town of Exile joined them at the huge dining facility, capable of seating the entire town in two large, auditorium-sized dining rooms filled with long tables.  The banquet of food was no exaggeration, for volunteers brought out large numbers of dishes, enough to feed the entire town, and there were dishes of three different races to choose from, Faey dishes, human dishes, and Makati dishes.  Has there been any trouble with people coming over from the mainland? he asked.

        No.  We’ve seen a few boats come close, but nobody has landed.

        Good, because I told them to keep their distance.  I don’t want them upsetting your people, and they should not approach until you give permission.  But once you feel comfortable allowing visitors, I’ll lift the ban.

        I…would prefer you leave it in place, she answered.  There might be some among us that would see any visitors not escorted by guards to be unwelcome, and may show their unhappiness in ways I would prefer not to have happen.

        Then they’ll stay away, he assured her with a nod.  I’ll make another announcement making it very clear, and I’ll have the KMS watch the strait between here and the mainland from a discrete distance to prevent any unwelcome visitors.

        Thank you, your Grace.

        Have there been any problems with friction between our volunteers and your people?

        No.  Your people have been very kind and courteous, so much so that the angry among us cannot find fault with them.  Your Meya and Myra are well liked here, and with them acting as the liaisons, it has kept the peace. Will they be back soon?

        Tomorrow.  They wanted a day off.  They’re tending to a little…business.

        You seem amused.

        I am.  Remember when we told you about Kumi, and the running war of pranks?

        Yes.

        That’s the business they’re tending today.  They’re…relocating her house.

        What?

        They contracted a Makati company to pick up her house and move it, he said.  The whole thing, including her yard.

        Aura gave him a startled look, then laughed brightly.  You are serious!

        The twins will sink to any depths when it comes to a joke, he sent urbanely.  Kumi filled their houses with something that ruined their furniture and most of their possessions, so they’re retaliating by stealing her entire house.  And they’re going to make her beg to get it back.

        That is almost being too serious!

        Kumi deserves it for what she did, Jason sent with a chuckle.  She ruined almost all of the twins’ possessions, and they’re getting revenge for it.

        They stayed another couple of hours.  Aya tried to keep them all herded together, but Jason allowed the kids to play at a playground with Exiled children in the town’s central square while they went to go survey the farms the Makati had helped replant and the animals that were now on ranches inland from the town.  Aya left four guards with the children, and Maya and Ilia stayed with them to keep order.  Jason saw that the farm fields had been neatly deposited on Karis so effectively that it was hard to see the border between native Exile soil and Karis soil.  Their bitterfruit trees were planted in neat and orderly rows not far from their farmlands, and behind beside those were the strider ranches, where the birds seemed to have shaken off the trauma of hyperspace travel and were quickly acclimating to Karis.  Striders were omnivorous, eating fruits, berries, seeds, nuts, certain tender grasses, and also insects and any small prey that wandered close to them.  There were no insects or small game on the island, so they were bringing ground meat for them to eat to supplement their diets with protein.  The vets had already proclaimed Karis grass safe and digestible for them to eat, so they were happily milling about the pastures, sampling the tender grass shoots they could find, visiting the water trough, and pecking at the meat in a trough near the barn that had been hastily built for the ones that had eggs, for striders preferred nests in enclosed areas for their eggs.  Stalls in a barn seemed to make them very happy.  Aura brought them back down to the town as he discussed their needs with her and the council, and found that they were more or less content.  The volunteers that were with them were attending to all their needs, and her people were starting to experience the technology that their home planet had to offer.  That video device is almost addictive, she sent with a hint of complaint.  Once someone learns how it works, they spend hours sampling the many entertainments it offers.

        You’re not the only ones that are like that, Jyslin sent with an audible chuckle.  The Faey who create those entertainment programs try very hard to make them so entertaining that you want to watch them.

        Truly.  There was some initial displeasure about the programs, though.

        Why?

        She seemed to flush slightly.  The video device shows sexual acts and acts of violence, which are things not often seen by my people in public.  Sex is not so much a concern, since we don‘t hide sex from our children, but we also consider it taboo to engage in sex in a public space, therefore those too young to partake often do not see it performed by any but their parents, if then.  The violence is another matter.  That distressed several people, who believed that the images they saw on the video device were actually real, and that they had just witnessed someone’s death.

        There’s a way to filter those things out of the program Jyslin told her.

        Yes, your volunteers showed us how it was done after they explained that the images were just very elaborate acting using sophisticated props and make-up and machines that trick the eye into seeing what is not there.  Despite knowing it isn’t real, though, many of us find the images too disturbing, so your people showed us how to remove the images from the programs.  Once we were able to remove those things, the programs were quite enjoyable.  The program that brings news from all of the Imperium is especially fascinating, the, uh, INNprogram.

        That stands for Imperial News Network, Jason explained.

        Ah, that makes sense.  Many of us truly enjoy that program.  So many things to see, so many places, so much to learn! she sent with excitement.  And we saw images of the Empress Dahnai!  And we saw you, your Grace!  You were at court, standing beside her throne!

        Ah, that was last week, Jason told her.  During an official announcement that I had to attend.

        It was a wonderful moment, to see our Grand Duke standing at the side of the Empress, she sent, nearly reverently.  I’m sure the Empress was honored to be allowed to sit in your presence while you stood, she added, showing that even the Exiled had loyalty to Karinne first, and the Imperium second.

        Yes, she was quite…excited that I was there, he replied dryly.  I’m glad you enjoyed it, because I certainly didn’t, Jason sent wryly.  I hate going to court.

        Why?

        Court is both boring and dangerous, where if you’re not listening to boring speeches, the nobles all plot against each other, and it’s where a single misspoken word can lead to vendettas and war, he answered.  It’s a very stressful place, and I only attend because the Empress forces me to do so.

        I didn’t know it was like that.

        What you see on the video device is the happy face that the nobles want people to see.  In reality, court is a cesspool of intrigue, and I hate it.

        I’m surprised.

        Don’t be.  The Faey outside Karinne have not changed from the Imperium you studied before the Third Civil War, Aura.  They’re still the same.  Faey houses are still more willing to fight each other than they are an outside enemy.  The Imperium is fractured and balancing on a rope strung over an abyss, and it would take one small thing to cause the entire Imperium to disintegrate into civil war.  Most of my efforts to protect Karis and the Karinnes, before the Consortium came, were designed to protect us from the Imperium, not anyone outside.  What happened with the Collective demonstrates the Faey lack of unity.  House Trillane basically committed treason against the Imperium by joining in the plot that allowed the Consortium to attack Karis.

        What did the Empress do to them?

        Came one whisker from declaring war on them, but she needs Trillane, and she can’t afford a war within the Imperium right now.  So she punished Trillane severely and made their duplicity public knowledge, which makes them a pariah in the Imperium.  It’ll be years  before the Trillanes come out of the hole they’re hiding in.  Maeri Trillane was willing to risk plunging the Imperium into war just so her house could break away from the Imperium and become its own empire, but now she sees that she needs the Imperium to prevent her house from being conquered by an outside force.  If not for my vows of neutrality and my abhorrence of war, I’d be tempted to go after Trillane myself, but fighting amongst ourselves is the last thing we need right now.

        That’s very noble of you.

        I wish it was, he chuckled.  Aya is giving me the look, so I’d better get going.  I enjoyed our visit.

        Can you come again soon?  I enjoy visiting with you.

        I’ll be busy for the next couple of weeks, and I had to all but wrestle Aya to come today, he told her.  But you can always come visit me, if you have time.  Aya would be quite willing to bring you to Foxwood rather than me come here.  She doesn’t trust your people.  So just tell the twins you want to come see me, and they’ll arrange it.

        I will do that, she said with a nod, then she laughed.  At least when they come back.

        I wonder if they’re done, he mused.  I’ll send you some pictures of the gaping hole where Kumi’s house used to be.

        She laughed again, then kissed him on the cheek.  Let me walk you to your flying device.

        Aya looked almost ready to cry in relief when all the kids were gathered up, everyone was assembled, and then put back on the dropship to return home.  She brazenly took off her armor right in the cockpit, showing off her muscular frame before slipping on a soft robe…but she left on her right gauntlet as a stern warning of what would come when they got home.

        Jason laughed at her demonstration.  He wasn’t too afraid of it, and the act of submitting to punishment helped deflect Aya’s anger and would make the next confrontation less heated.  He was showing her that he empathized with her situation even if he was ruling against it.

        The other rank amusement came when they got home.  There, a few slots down from his house, was a gaping hole.  The sewer and water lines had been professionally capped, the power conduit professionally removed at the exchanger.  The Makati had scooped the house, the gardens, and the lawn up and left a cubic hole about thirty feet deep, thirty yards wide, and about fifty yards across, the hole neatly covered with plascrete to prevent the sides from collapsing.

        “Now that is how you get revenge,” Jason chuckled as he circled around and prepared to land on the large communal landing pad in the center of the strip.  “When Kumi gets back from Terra, she’s gonna be pissed.”

        I wonder how they did it, Aya mused.

        “Forcefields, an artificial gravity inducer, and a tractor beam,” he answered.  “They drive posts at the four corners, which use force fields to cut the earth on the sides and the bottom.  Then they use a gravity inducer inside the prevent anything from moving as a tractor beam pulls it out.  After that, they cap the lines and plascrete the walls to prevent the hole from collapsing, and they’re done.  I’ve seen them do relocations projects before on Terra, moving historical landmarks to do infrastructure work, and then putting them back when they’re done.  That way they didn’t risk damaging historical buildings and landmarks.”

        Clever.

        “The Makati invented the system, and they do it best,” Jason noted.

        Aya wasn’t about to let him out of his promise.  After they got home, she administered the punishment in the living room, attended by the majority of the 45 Dukal Guard, as many as would fit in his living room. He saw the whole thing as a game, and was rather irreverent when Aya sat down and demanded satisfaction.  He found out, though, just how much being spanked could sting without leaving any bruises.  It was still a game, though, and Jason still approached it in a cheeky manner that actually caused some of the anger the guards had with him fade.

        Jason had learned to play the game, even with his own guards.  He knew Faey, and he knew how to both stir them up, and calm them down.  The guards felt as if their fears had been addressed, and Jason apologized in a manner that allowed them to save face and even laugh a little bit, even at his own expense, and all it cost him was a red bottom and a little wounded pride.  But it also helped personalize the issue and remind them that they were protecting a person, not a title, and that Jason cared enough about them to give them a little of his own dignity to atone for wronging them.

        After Aya sent him to his room like a wayward child, all he could do was laugh.

 

        There was revenge, and then there was revenge.

        It was like the music of a thousand angels in his ears when Kumi got home.  Her sending blasted across the strip, a sending without words.  It was nothing but outrage, pure, unarticulated outrage.  Jason was home from going to the White House and conferring with the ambassadors of the Academy, organizing the summit that was taking place in two weeks, sitting on his deck facing the ocean and working on his panel, drawing up a speech he intended to give during the summit.  Miaari and Jyslin were with him, and Rann, Danelle, Kyri, and Aran were sitting at the table eating lunch as Aya and Ryn stood nearby.  All of them looked up when Kumi’s sending ripped through the strip, and Jyslin snorted to suppress a giggle.

        “Kumi’s home,” she said aloud, giving Miaari a bright smile, then Jyslin and Jason exploded into gales of helpless laughter.

        “And she’s hopping mad,” Jason added, wheezing for breath.  “I think she discovered the twins’ remodeling.”

        Miaari gave a toothy grin, then laughed herself.  “Maybe now friend Kumi will learn there are lines one does not cross,” she said with a surprisingly playful smile.  Miaari and Kumi were very close friends, and their friendship had not waned during the years they’d been on Karis.  “Especially when battling scoundrels such as the twins.”

        “She should know better, she’s known them a long time,” Jason said, recovering his breath.

        “I don’t get it,” Aran said aloud. “I don’t hear any words.”

        “She’s not sending words, sweetie, she’s sending an emotion,” Jyslin told him, still giggling.

        Jason glanced at the kids, and he saw the strangest look on Danelle’s face.  Her rose-colored eyes were wide open, and her mouth was half open.  “I…I can hear it,” she said haltingly.  “I can hear Aunt Kumi!” she said with an excited squeal.

        What color are Sora’s eyes, Danelle? Jason asked.

        “They’re green,” she answered, then she all but vaulted to her feet and jumped up and down.  “I heard you, I heard you, I heard you!” she screamed.  “I woke up!”

        “We may as well have poor Surin plan a passing  party a day,” Jason laughed as Danelle vaulted into his arms.  “Congratulations, pippy!  I’m proud of you!”

        Danelle ran and hugged everyone in turns, even Miaari, as Kumi stormed down the walkway and stopped in front of their house.  I KNOW YOU LET THEM DO IT! she thundered at him.

        Why Kumi, whatever are you talking about?

        WHERE IS MY HOUSE, YOU BASTARD?

        What? Didn’t you say the other day you were looking to remodel?  I thought that was your idea for your new design.  We dubbed it the inverted look.

        YOU! she raged, pointing at him.  I am going to kill you, Jayce!  If you don’t get those despicable twins in front of me by the time I reach you, I’m going to strangle you with my bare hands!   She stomped up the walkway to the deck, her eyes blazing, and her fists clenched.  When she got there, though, Jason swept her up in his arms and kissed her on the cheek…but it did little good.  Tell me where my house is right now, or I’ll make sure you never have another child again!

        I honestly don’t know.  The twins had a Makati firm come relocate your house.  I guess you’ll have to talk to them about it.

        You let them do it!

        After ruining their houses with crash foam, did you really think they were going to let it go without doing something momentous? he asked simply.

        She glared at him, then gave a slightly embarrassed look.  I didn’t mean to ruin their clothes and furniture, she admitted.  I thought the foam would decay cleanly.

        Well, they’re still honked off about it, so you’d better go be real sorry if you want your house back, he told her.  Besides, it was funny, he admitted, laughing in spite of himself.

        Maybe a little, she admitted, then she laughed ruefully.  I about had a heart attack when I saw my whole house, just gone!  Gone, just like that!  Do you know what kind of a shock that is?  I thought it was some kind of hologram until I nearly fell into the hole trying to get past it!

        I can imagine, Jason laughed.  I’m not sure where the twins are.  You’d better start looking for them, and remember.  Mean it.

        I’ll be contrite until I get my house back, then I’m really gonna get them, she said, fire in her eyes.  But I’ll make sure nothing gets damaged this time, she added.

        Always a good idea, Kumi girl, he chuckled, kissing her on the cheek.  If you need me to look the other way on something, just let me know.

        She gave him a wolfish smile.  We’ll talk about that.

        She padded off, back towards her dropship, and Jyslin gave him a surprised look.  “You’re gonna double-deal the twins?” she asked, then she laughed.  “Brave, love, brave!”

        “Watching them fight with Kumi is fun.  Think I’m ready to give over on one of my favorite forms of entertainment?” he asked, which made Jyslin and Miaari erupt into helpless laughter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    3      5

Chapter 4

 

        Raista, 36 Shiaa, 4400 Orthodox Calendar

        Wednesday, 10 December 2013, Terran Standard Calendar

        Raista, 36 Shiaa, year 1326 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Foxwood East, Karsa, Karis

 

        There had to be something in the water.

        In just two days, four of the strip kids had expressed.  Danelle had been first, and later that night, the strip rang with the joy coming from Min that Jora had expressed that same night.  Yesterday, right about the time the Makati were putting Kumi’s house back, Zachary secured himself from any teasing from the rest of his siblings by expressing at breakfast.  Not two hours later, Lyn announced happily that her son, Jenn, had also expressed.  Jason wasn’t surprised, for the other members of the squad who had children by others all had children by Generation men.  So, next week, they were going to have three passing parties, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, to give Surin and the mothers time to plan them.

        There had been other good news.  Rahne had finally been released by Cybi to join the rest of the Karinnes.  She had re-educated Rahne by communion, and since she had no family or friends, Jason put her in his guest house until she decided where she wanted to live.  Rahne was the same personality wise, but she was much more confident now, engaged, and was very personable.  She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do in the house, but the idea of going to the Academy intrigued her…and she actually needed to go, for knowledge gained via telepathy or communion would fade if it wasn‘t reinforced.  So continuing her education was actually necessary or she‘d slowly lose all the knowledge she gained from Cybi.  She wasn’t mechanically adept, but she was good at math.  She was personable and friendly, and she was a good judge of a person.  Jason rather thought she’d be good working with Kumi, that her qualities would make her good at business.  But he’d leave it to her to decide

        Last night, after the remote commune sensor network was activated, Jason took Kyri aside and tried to teach her how it was done.  He had been honestly shocked in how fast Kyri picked it up.  Just as Jason and Myleena had seemed to instinctually be able to grasp the aspect of communion and perform it almost perfectly, Kyri too had managed to embrace the idea of it within ten minutes.  He had never tried to directly commune with her before, but when he did, and explained it was a different texture of sending, she was able to do it, and do it perfectly, on her very first try.  Jason seriously thought, after that, that communion just might be an instinctive ability in Generations, since he had not met a single Generation that could not commune within ten minutes of being taught how it was done.  Their race was engineered, and it was no stretch to consider that the ability to commune was a programmed instinctive ability.

        That was unleashing a floodgate.  After that, Kyri no longer talked or sent to her father, she always communed with him, because it was much faster and much purer than sending.  She also was introduced to Cybi in a way she’d never been before, and she was absolutely fascinated by it.  She also was introduced to the first major responsibility of a Generation, absolute secrecy.  The only ones that knew about the ability to commune were the Generations and the women in the strip.  Jason also explained what a gestalt was, and naturally, she wanted one.  “Not until you’re older,” he told her firmly, “because a gestalt would allow you to cheat in your lessons, and we won’t allow that.”

        [But I can cheat now if I want, Cybi can help me!]

        [No, Cybi will not help you,] Cybi replied firmly.  [You will receive your first gestalt when you graduate from primary school, young lady, and not a moment before.]

        [Awww!] she protested, but she didn’t try to wheedle.  She knew that when her father said no, he meant it.

        Unleashing Kyri on the Generations might not have been a good idea, because she was a virus.  That morning, to Jason and Myleena’s utter shock, Kyri taught Rann how to commune.  All by herself, she explained what Jason had told her, and tried to commune with him.  Rann was able to commune back within three tries, and that was because he was still learning the basics of sending where Kyri was already a master of sending at the tender age of five.  Rann’s ability to commune wasn’t as good as the others, since he was still learning how to send.  His communion was slower, and it lacked the same bandwidth as the adults and Kyri.  But those were things he would learn with time and practice.  Jason had to intervene when she tried to teach Sora how to commune, since Sora was still learning the basics of sending.  She didn’t need the additional burden of trying to learn how to commune at the same time.  Jason was a bit irked at Kyri for teaching Rann, since Jason had to sit down with him for nearly an hour and explain the difference, and tell him to focus on learning sending first, and that learning sending would help him master communion as well.

        It was then, Jason saw, that Rann realized that he was different from other humans and Faey, when he explained that Jyslin wouldn’t be able to hear communion.  Your mommy wasn’t born a Karinne, little man.  I was.  And only Karinnes born in a certain family are able to commune or be able to hear communion.  So remember that you have to send to Mommy, but you can commune with me.  But I’d rather you send when talking to both of us.   We don’t want your mommy to feel left out, do we?

        [No.]  No, I don‘t, Daddy, he sent in correction.  Is our family really big?

        It’s pretty big, but if you look at the whole planet, it’s not really that big at all.  Most all of us are right here in Karsa.  The family doesn’t really live anywhere else.

        So, which of Danny’s parents is in our family?

        Aunt Myleena, he answered.

        Does that make Danny my cousin?

        No, the relationship is much more distant than that.  She’s like a fifth cousin.  The two of you could get married when you’re older, if you weren’t already going to be married to Shya.

        I can’t wait to see her! he sent excitedly.

        You really like her, don’t you?

        Yeah, she’s lots of fun!  And she’s smart, and she really likes me.  I just hope you’re right that I’ll think private time isn’t icky when I grow up, he sent seriously, which made Jason laugh.

        Trust me.  In about eight years, your opinion of private time will change completely.

        Daddy, is it true that I’ll be able to move things without my hands the way you and Kyri and Aunt Myli can?

        You should be able to, he answered.  Have you ever tried?

        Not really.  Can you teach me?

        I might be able to, but you may not be ready yet, he answered, scratching his cheek in thought.  Doing that is different from sending.  It wakes up on its own, and yours might not be awake yet.  But, we can always try.  You’ll have to wait until we come back from Draconis, though.  Are you all packed?

        Uh-huh, he nodded.  It’s gonna be a little scary being there without you and Mommy.

        We’ll be there, you’re just going to stay with Shya, and remember, Shya lives with her nanna, not with her mommy.  She’ll live with her mommy when she turns ten.  Then, when she’s fifteen, she’ll come to Karis and live with us until you two get married.  Think of it like a sleepover, except instead of going to Aunt Maya or Aunt Zora or Aunt Sheleese’s house, you’re going to Empress Dahnai’s house, and it’ll just be you and Shya.  And we’ll be close enough for you to reach us with sending, so we’re just a call away, he assured his son with a smile, tapping him lightly on the nose.  Now enough worrying, kidlet.  We’re gonna miss Danny’s party!

        They attended Danelle’s passing party, and had a great deal of fun.  Danelle opted for a much less complicated party, without huge rides, but just as big as Sora’s, and she too wanted Kyva to come with her Gladiator and give her a ride.  Danelle got a huge number of presents, and Jason wasn’t the only one feeling the pinch of having to buy so many passing party gifts so close together.  And they all knew that there were three more parties coming next week, for Jora, Zachary, and Jenn.  Jason and Kyva stood by the rail and watched the kids running around in a game on the beach, as Aya prepared for their trip to Draconis, and Symone was running late at Songa’s for her checkup to see if she was pregnant, something he was anxious to find out.  He rather missed Symone, and a week without her had been almost like forced abstinence in a way.  “So, like the new patch?” he asked Kyva with a smile.

        She laughed, looking at her right shoulder, where a patch with a silhouette of a nude Faey woman holding a sword in her hands was framed by the letters KBB, in a semicircle underneath her.  The letters stood for Karinne’s Baddest Bitches, or just the Bitches for short.  Jason had carried through with his idea to build a squad of the six best Gladiator pilots and put them in a special elite squad commanded by Kyva.  They were his delta force, his best fighters, the women who could get the job done.  “Yes, I do, as a matter of fact,” she answered.  “And I told you that it was a bad idea.”

        “So, whose butt did you have to kick?”

        She laughed.  “All five of them,” she answered.  “At once.  We had a free for all to see who‘s the best.  I won.”

        “Ouch.  Spanked,” he said, making a face.

        “Just about,” she grinned.  “But, after we got the pissing contest out of the way, we found out we actually like each other.  So, we’re starting to get used to working together.  I don’t really like command very much, but at least the girls I’m commanding know what the hell to do, so I don’t have to tell them much.  I just decide which tactic to use, and we go do it without me having to hold their hands.”

        “Sounds good.  Oh, yeah.  Mika!  Mike!” he called.  “Come meet someone!”  When they came over, Mike holding his son and Latoiya chasing Jora clumsily near the table, he motioned to Kyva.  “This is Lieutenant Kyva Karinne, my champion.”

        “Champion?” Kyva laughed.

        “You pilot my personal Gladiator, that makes you my champion,” he winked.

        “Well, then I’m your champion, your Grace,” she winked back.

        “Kyva, this is Temika and Mike Colbert.  They’ve just come back from the Academy.”

        “Oh, congratulations!” Kyva said, shaking their hands.  “What courses did you take?”

        “Business management,” Temika told her.

        “Plasma systems,” Mike added.  “Nice to meet the woman behind the face in the viddies.”

        Kyva laughed ruefully.  “I was so mad when they let that camera follow me around for a week!” she admitted.  “They didn’t ask me about it at all, I was ordered to do it!”

        “It’s good for morale, and you’re already famous,” Jason teased.  “They just got to see the woman inside the machine.  You are the only Karinne with these,” he said lightly, touching the gold crests outside each of her solid Lieutenant‘s diamonds. “And that’s also why you’re my champion.  Winners of the Dukal Medal of the Champion have that official title, you know,” he winked.

        “Can I give it back?” she asked plaintively.  “It’s been more trouble than it’s worth!”

        Jason laughed.  “No, you’re my poster girl now, no give-backs!”

        “What’s it like to pilot that robot?”

        “It’s not that hard,” she answered.  “It’s like controlling your own body, because of the interface.”

        “That’s my Gladiator pilots are the best in the galaxy,” Jason said proudly.  “They can outfight anyone, anywhere, any time.”

        [Jason,] Cybi called, [Siyhaa needs to speak to you.]

        “Give me a few minutes, guys, Cybi’s calling me.”  [Can you patch me in?] he asked, putting a finger to his gestalt.

        [Certainly.   Go ahead, Mahja,] Cybi called, using Siyhaa’s title.

        [Your Grace,] Siyhaa’s deep bass voice called.  [I finished the computer analysis you ordered for the enemy ship.]

        [Well done, Mahja.  What did you find?]

        [The computer itself is beyond any hope of reconstruction,] she began.  [The damage to its components is too extensive.  However, I believe we can build a replacement system using biogenic modules that can effectively control the vessel, and allow the ship to be converted to interface control.  As to the software, we’ve managed to recover about twenty-six percent of the data contained in the computer.  Much of it is fractured and disjointed, and it is encrypted, but there’s enough of it there for us to break their computer language and encryption and analyze the data we did recover.  I have my team working on that now, and since I feel that is the most important thing to do, I‘m working on it personally.]

        [Outstanding, Mahja!] he replied with honest joy.  [When they said you were the best in the business, it was no idle boast!]

        [I do try, your Grace,] she said with a bad attempt at humility.  [Breaking a computer language and encryption is not an exact process, your Grace, so I cannot give you a timetable.  I can just give you an estimate.]

        [I know you loathe such inexactness, but give me your best estimate,] he told her seriously.

        [My best estimate is three to five weeks to break their computer language and convert the data into a format our computers can understand.  Their algorithms are surprisingly advanced for a lesser race.  They impress me.]

        [I think that’s a fair estimate, Mahja, for if they impress you, then they must be quite advanced indeed.  I know I will receive your best effort.  Send Miaari daily reports on your progress.]

        [My best effort is yours, your Grace,] she pledged.  [At our usual bonus.]

        [You will earn an extra five percent bonus, Mahja,] he told her.  [You have exceeded my expectations, and you deserve a bonus for having to deal with the Kimdori more than usual.]

        [Thank Szhraa you understand, your Grace,] she told him seriously, which almost made him chuckle.  Miaari and Siyhaa respected each other greatly, but there was an ancient rivalry between their races that made it hard for them to like each other.  Miaari irritated Siyhaa, and Siyhaa was much too serious for Miaari…but that was what Moridon were like.  Not a single Moridon on Karis had even the most remote sense of humor.  [Again, you honor our decision to work for you.]

        [Thank you.  Now get to work, Mahja.  Our success will depend on your success.]

        [My will is your will.  May your horns stay sharp and your hooves unsplit, your Grace.]

        [Fire of Szhraa warm you, Mahja Siyhaa.]

        The big grin on Jason’s face got their attention.  “Whut?” Temika asked.

        “Siyhaa said she can break the Consortium’s encryption and computer language,” he said with a gleeful expression.  “She said it’ll take a while, but she can do it.”

        “Well, that’s good news,” Mike said.

        “That’s fantastic news,” Jason said happily.  “She could only recover about a quarter of the data in the ship’s computer, but that means we’ll be able to use that information.  And there might be base locations, long-term plans, recent orders, fleet sizes, all kinds of useful data in there that will help us.”

        “I didn’t think of that.”

        “We could use an advantage,” Kyva grunted.  “I hate having an enemy we can’t find, but knows exactly where we are.”

        “Fuckin’ A,” Temika said in English.

        The kids all moved down to the beach as Jason had a quick conference with Miaari and Myri.  They discussed Siyhaa’s information, and they adjusted their plans to take it into account.  “With the interdictor being moved up to three days, that’ll let us hunker down in our bunker and take our time planning our response,” Myri said.

        “Yes, at least a year, if they decide to launch a fleet at light speed and can circumvent the relativity principle,” Miaari agreed.  “If they cannot, then we might have as much as three to four years to prepare for them.”

        “Relativity?  I thought that only applied to hyperspace,” Myri said.

        She shook her head.  “Anything that has mass that moves at light speed suffers from relativity, an alteration of time,” she explained.  “To them, it would take but a year, but in reality, it would take them centuries, maybe even millennia to get here.  The fastest a ship of large mass can go without suffering a large dichotomy of relativity is one third the speed of light.  Any faster than that, and it will take it longer to get here.  Since the interdictor will protect us out to a light year, then we will have three years if they cannot manipulate relativity.  If they can manipulate relativity, then we have a year.”

        “Can they manipulate time backwards to get here faster?”

        “Nothing can make time go backwards,” Miaari said immediately.  “It is something that has been tried for millennia, but no one, not a single race or scientist, has ever found a way without killing himself and dealing catastrophic damage to his world.  The best any has ever accomplished is to stop time…and it is never done because of the dangers involved.  Devices that cause the manipulation of time from the inside cannot stop time because of a principle called spatial torsion.  The aggravated dissimilarity of time and space inside the effect and space outside torques the space inside the effect in such a way that matter within cannot follow its contours, which deals out physical damage and destroys the device.  The Torsion Principle is the fundamental principle behind Consortium torsion weapons and our own torsion shockwave generators.  These devices don’t manipulate space so much as they manipulate time, then they shape the area of effect into either an expanding sphere or a line of singularity that travels away from the devices.  Both of them operate externally, creating the effect from outside of the area of effect.  These devices that create the effect from the outside, however, are not exposed to the torsion effect themselves, but they cause an entirely different effect that is actually much more dangerous.  When an external devices succeeds in stopping time in an area of space, that space hardens, to use a term, and becomes absolute. When that happens, the space loses all velocity and motion and stops, it becomes anchored to the fabric of reality itself.  Now mind that at all times, everything is moving, Myri.  Right now, this planet is rotating about an axis, and moves around the sun, and the sun itself moves in the galaxy, and the galaxy moves within the universe.  When a device that causes the effect from the outside causes a piece of space to become absolute, that absolute space stops all motion,  and therefore it is ripped away from the device that caused it to freeze because that device is within space that is moving.  And naturally, since it is no longer affected by the device, it unsticks.  The problem with that, though, is that the separation of the absolute space from normal space rips the fabric of space, since you have just caused a section of space to stop moving while all other space around it continues to move.  These spatial rifts cause untold havoc, and thus the experiments that create them are banned by most sentient races.”

        “I never thought of that,” Myri said in contemplation.

        “The same fundamental principle that prevents anything from exceeding the speed of light also prevents time from moving backwards,” she explained.  “Once you reach that critical point where time stops within your temporal frame, then nothing more can be done either forwards or backwards to either push you beyond the speed of light or backwards through time.”

        “What happened to those who made things blow up?”

        “They succeeded,” she said.

        “Huh?  You said it was impossible!”

        “There is one principle that deals with space-time that seems theoretically possible to reverse time,” she explained.  “It is theorized that instead of trying to reverse time with speed or direct manipulation, it might be possible to reverse time by manipulating space, manipulating it in a way that forces time to react to space rather than space reacting to time.  It deals with causing space to become backwards yet still moving within the reference of normal space, reversing the polarity of space from positive to negative so to speak, which would mean that anything that moved through this negative space would actually move backwards in time rather than forwards, because its relative velocity would actually be negative, which is absolutely impossible within normal space.  Now, many races, including the Faey, are quite adept at manipulating space, so this theory inevitably comes up, and some scientist attempts to either prove or disprove it.  The problem with the theory and the experiment to prove it is that when you reverse the polarity of space, when you create negative space, it also creates reverse forms of energy and matter within it.  It creates anti-energy and antimatter, which is not contained within the inverted space, it is more than capable of leaving it and interacting with positive energy and matter.  As positive force can enter the inverted space, so negative force can leave it.  So, when you take a test vehicle composed of positive matter and using positive energy and send it into an area filled with anti-energy and antimatter, and if the experiment inverts enough space that creates enough negative force, it can create apocalyptic explosions, powerful enough to destroy entire star systems if the inverted space is big enough.  So, those who have tried to prove the theory end up creating cataclysmic explosions when the negative force generated by the experiment makes contact with the positive force either within or surrounding the test area, destroying everything.  An inverted area of space this big,” she said, holding her finger and thumb about an inch apart, “would create an explosion big enough to level Karsa.  Now imagine creating an area of inverted space big enough for a test object to move a great enough distance to prove that it moved backwards in time.”

        “Couldn’t they do it in a vacuum?”

        “The problem is not what’s there, it is with what is created when space is inverted,” she said.  “The anti-energy and antimatter are created as a matter of course within the area of inverted space.  The amount created depends on the size of the area of space inverted; the more space inverted, the more negative force is created.  Mind that any form of positive matter or energy can induce an explosion when it contacts either negative energy or matter.  Solar wind passing through the inverted space can trigger an explosion.  Even light can cause an explosion, for it is composed of positive energy.  So, Myri, it might be theoretically possible to reverse time, but as yet, there has been no way to prove it without creating explosions that make a plasma torpedo look tame by comparison.  The restrictions that would be in place to try to prove the theory are ridiculous and not worth the effort in light of the incredible danger such an experiment poses.”

        “That fits with everything I know about spatial technologies,” Jason mused.  “Time inside an area of manipulated space is different from time outside due to a change in relative velocity, but the difference is so infinitesimal that it doesn‘t even matter.  The time delay as plasma flows out of a PPG bubble is measured in a fraction of a picosecond, and the temporal shift caused by the change in relative velocity between the entry and exit points of a Stargate is measured in picoseconds, where the ship inherits the same relative velocity as the gate it leaves, violating the old human physical theory of conservation of energy.  In each case, space is linked to time and velocity, but velocity can change independent of space, which also can alter time.”

        “Yes.  Time and space are linked, but it is space that is linked to time, which can be affected by velocity.  Velocity itself is a relative variable and can be easily altered independently of both space and time.  Time can be altered in a proportion based on relative velocity independently of space up until time and velocity become zero, which creates absolute space, but space cannot be manipulated outside of time aside from the unproved theory of inverting the polarity of space.”

        “I feel like I‘m back in school,” Myri chuckled.  “I wonder if we could develop that idea into a weapon.”

        “No.  The amount of power and preparation required would be prohibitive,” she answered.  “The spatial warping device that would create an inverted space the size of a marble would have to be the size of the engines on the Aegis.  Space will allow itself to be folded and manipulated, but it strongly resists any attempt to invert it.  If you want to create a device to destroy things, you could achieve the same result with a plasma torpedo or a pulse weapon, which requires much less equipment and preparation.  The idea has been tried, by races long before the Faey.”

        “Where did you learn all this, Miaari?” Myri laughed.  “You know more than most astrophysicists!”

        “I am a Handmaiden,” she said simply.  “It is my duty to learn everything I can, for there is no telling what I may be required to know in order to perform my duties to both my people and to Karinne.”

        “If you really want to make your head explode, go ask Myleena why our ships move through hyperspace in real time,” Jason laughed.  “It goes way beyond three dimensional space-time relativity and goes into an entirely different set of laws.  It’s way beyond me.  Myli’s much smarter than I am.”

        “More of a smartass too,” Myri laughed.

        “True,” he agreed, looking down at her as she helped the kids get a kite high into the air, no doubt explaining the physics of it to them.  “So, we have a year?”

        “At the least.  Three years at the most.”

        “I wonder how ready we can get in a year,” Jason grunted.  “Given that cranking out interdictors will be our primary goal.”

        “You might need to rely on us more for shipbuilding operations, or have us build interdictors,” Miaari told him.  “Denmother is ready for either eventuality.”

        “Actually, I think I’d rather have her build the cruisers and larger ships, and give us a chance to build something different.”

        “What?”

        “Kosigi,” Myri answered.  “There’s so much open space in there.  If we could focus on building docks and facilities instead of ships, and finish the new doors so we can build the big ships, we could increase our own ability to build.”

        Jason nodded.  It’s a short term loss for a long term gain.  If we can just build ten more docks, we’ll be able to produce more ships in the long run.”

        “I’m sure Denmother would be willing to help, if she forgives my arrogance to presume to think for her,” Miaari said.

        “She’ll forgive you, Miaari,” Jason chuckled.  “But that’s enough talk about business when we’re supposed to be having fun.”

        “Flying kites isn’t my idea of fun,” Myri noted.  “I’ll be engaging in my idea of fun as soon as this party is over.”

        “And what is that?”

        She just smiled.  “I bought my potassium tablets, and I have a lunch date with Erinn.”

        “Oh boy,” Jason sighed.  “Dealing with one pregnant woman is bad enough, but when there’s like ten of them all having hormone attacks at the same time, it makes us guys want to move back to Terra for a while.”

        “Isn’t he a bit young, Myri?” Miaari asked.  “He’s not even out of the Academy yet!”

        “That just means he has stamina,” she grinned.

        “A Kimdori is berating someone else about age?” Jason laughed.  “How old was your mate the last time your father gave you permission to have a child?”

        “Kimdori are different,” she said primly.

        “Humans have a saying, Miaari.  People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

        “Yes, and it only applies to you humans,” she said haughtily, sauntering off with her tail swishing behind her, which made both Jason and Myri chuckle.

        When the party wound down, another celebration began.  Symone landed in a small hovercar and was sending riotously.  I’m pregnant, I’m pregnant! she sent over and over and over as they approached, and when they landed, Symone and Tim were swarmed over in hugs  Jason gave her a huge hug and a kiss, then hugged Tim.  It’s a girl! Symone sent happily.

        I’m so happy for you, Symone! Jyslin sent, kissing her.  How long?

        Four days, and Songa said there’s almost no chance I’ll lose it.  It’s already securely attached to my uterus, and both the egg and I am perfectly healthy.  So, we’re back, babies, she grinned wolfishly at them.  And what a way to celebrate, going to Draconis and fucking the shit out of Dahnai and Kellin!

        That’s not why we’re going, Symone, Jason told her.  Officially, we’re bringing Rann to see Shya.

        It’s why I’m going, she answered with a huge grin.

        We have got to find you a hobby, girl, Jyslin laughed.

        Jason was honestly overjoyed that Symone was finally pregnant.  In about nine months, she’d have a baby of her own, and she and Tim would know the joys of being a parent…and would probably be running to Jason and Jyslin every ten minutes for advice.

        They returned to their houses and got ready to go.  Myleena was going to take Danelle with her to Kosigi for the next couple of weeks so she could teach Danelle about closing her mind and sending, so they wouldn’t have to worry about her.  They were only going to be there for two nights, so Jason packed two changes of clothes, his court robes, and his personal effects  Jyslin mirrored him, and they warned Tim and Symone to only bring what they needed, that they could wear borrowed court robes at the palace if they attended court.  Aya, Ryn, Shen, and Suri would be accompanying them, leaving Dera in command of the Dukal Guard, and Shen and Suri would be attached personally to Rann.

        Symone was all but dancing around when they met at the dropship that would take them up to the Trelle’s Gift, which was fully repaired and looking brand new, and would be the flagship of the task force of 14 ships bringing the Grand Duke Karinne to Draconis for an official visit between Heir Apparent Duke Rann Karinne and High Princess Shya Merrane.  Jason was willing to risk himself in the Scimitar, but he’d be damned if he protected his wife, children, and amu dozei with anything less than overwhelming, unstoppable force.  She could barely sit still as Jason piloted the dropship up to the massive battleship, surrounded by the heavy cruiser Abarax, 4 cruisers, and 8 destroyers, all completely repaired and formidable-looking.  Would you calm down?  You’re making me dizzy! he ordered as they prepared to land in the landing bay.

        I can’t help it, I’m just too happy! she answered.  I’m pregnant, Jayce!  Pregnant!

        Criminy, I need to unleash you on Dahnai and Kellin just to calm you down, he chided, which made Jyslin and Tim explode into laughter.

        Unleash? Rann asked.

        Don’t worry about it, kidlet, Symone told him with a grin.  It’s a private joke between your parents and me.

        Oh.  Okay.

        The captain of Trelle’s Gift was actually an admiral, Joint Admiral Jaiya Karinne, the lowest of the four admiral ranks, but she was still called captain on her ship.  The captains of the three battleships and the Aegis were all at least Joint Admiral in rank.  She was a tall and rather buxom Faey with her long, straw-straight blond hair tied back in a thick ponytail that dangled almost to her knees, knotted with rubber bands at regular intervals.  She was wearing her dress uniform, as was the entire complement of crew that had been assembled in the landing bay for his arrival, both the ribbons she won in the Imperial Navy as an enlisted woman who had earned a commission and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander before being lured to the Karinnes, and the ribbons representing the medals and awards she’d won in the KMS decorating her left breast almost up to her collarbone.  She saluted him sharply when he exited the dropship, then laughed and gave him a fond hug when he smiled and opened his arms to her.  “Hey there, Miss I Just Had to Have One More Medal,” he teased.  “You look good as new!”

        “Nothing two weeks in the hospital couldn’t fix, your Grace,” she told him with a laugh.  Jaiya had been one of the captains that had been wounded during the battle.  She had had a small shard of bulkhead actually penetrate her armor when a torsion blast went right through the bridge, which had miraculously went right between the captain’s chair and the navigation console without hitting either crewman.  It impaled her low in the left side, hitting in the only real vulnerable part of the Crusader armor, the mesh-like series of overlapping plates on the lower torso that allowed the torso to bend.  A redesign was already on the board to thicken the armor in that area, for most of the injuries had been suffered in breaches of the armor in the lower stomach, lower back, and joints, where the need to allow movement required thinner or pieces of flexible armor rather than solid plates.  “I’m good as new and ready to go, and happy to be back on my ship!” she said, patting her left lower stomach.  “We were both released from our respective hospitals nearly on the same day,” she winked.

        “Is he fully repaired?”

        “As good as the day he was christened,” she said confidently.  “Would you like to inspect the crew before we go?”

        “Well, real quick,” he said.

        Jason’s inspections weren’t really all that serious.  He walked up and down the rows, and instead of looking for anything out of place, he spent most of his time shaking hands and talking with the crew.  He didn’t shake every hand or talk to every one, he’d just stop randomly and do so, often at crewmen or women that caught his attention.  The Makati wearing the double-diamond of a Lieutenant Commander caught his attention, and remembered that this was the head of engineering on the ship, though he couldn’t remember the Makati’s name.  They even had a Kizzik on board, a Kizzik noble wearing KMS rank, whom he had to stop to meet.  “I’m surprised to see you serving on a ship,” he said, looking up at her compound eyes.  She was nearly a foot taller than he was, and she was nearly seven feet long.  She was very large, even for a Kizzik.

        “Temporarily, revered Hive-Leader,” the Kizzik replied, her interface unit resting on her shoulder translating her scent language into mechanical-sounding Faey, and Jason knew that her interface also translated his words into her scent-language, which was why it was located on her shoulder rather than her head.  Kizzik didn’t have windpipes, they instead had small aspiration holes along their backs and thoraxes that led to a series of many small lungs, each one acting independently and also each capable of detecting odors.  Her interface was most likely affixed directly over a few of her aspiration holes, which gave her an almost direct connection to the device’s ability to transmit scents to her.  “I am learning about ship operations with the engineers, so we might test bringing drones aboard ship.”

        “Have you been able to move about the ship without trouble?”

        “Yes.  The crew has been patient with me, and I fit in most of the elevators.  Thank you for your concern, revered Hive-Leader.”

        “No need to thank me, your well being is my responsibility as the Hive-Leader,” he answered.

        “Wow, a Kizzik!” Rann said excitedly, coming up to him.

        “Rann, introduce yourself,” Jason told him.

        He was quiet a moment, thinking, then he put his feet together, crossed his arms before himself, and bowed to her.  “I am Rann Karinne, humble son of the Hive-Leader,” he said, repeating what he’d been taught to say.  “I greet an honored daughter of the Hive.”

        She mirrored his movement, crossing her blade-arms as her hand-arms rested at her sides, bending at her waist since everything below that was a four-legged thorax with small chitinous wings folded on top.  Kizzik were like insectoid centaurs in that regard.  “I am Kt’Thr’Kxt, humble daughter of the Karinne-Hive.  I greet the son-Prince of the revered Hive-Leader,” she returned.

        Did I do it right, Papa?

        Exactly right, well done, little man, he smiled in reply.

        Why didn’t you greet her?

        I’m higher rank.  I don’t have to, he answered simply.  And I spoke to her before she could greet me, which released her from the responsibility of a formal greeting.

        Oh.  Do I really have to learn all this stuff? he complained.

        Afraid so, little man. It’s part of what being the Grand Duke is all about.

        Nuts.

        After the inspection, Jaiya settled them into a guest cabin.  Aya helped them strap in as the task force headed out away from the planet, to reach space not warped by the planet’s gravity well so they could make their hyperspace jump.  Symone was giddy, and Rann was a little nervous.  “I don’t like hyperspace,” he said as Aya secured him.

        “Me either, kidlet,” Symone agreed as Ryn helped her strap in.  “I just close my eyes and recite Trelle’s poem until it’s over.”

        Jumping to Draconis wasn’t bad as jumps go.  It was a very short jump, and his travel to Exile and back had toughened him up a little bit.  He wasn’t as bothered as usual with the wild sensory input, and then it was over.  Draconis loomed through the forward window, and the sections were already reporting in that jump checks were commencing.  Jaiya, when will we get there? Jason asked.

        In about thirty minutes, she answered.

        Call ahead and warn Empress Dahnai we’re on our way.

        They already called us, as soon as we jumped in, she answered.

        Well, I guess that works.

        Thirty minutes wasn’t long, really.  By the time they unstrapped and had something to drink, and they went down to the landing bay, they were nearly in orbit.  There would be ten Raptor fighters escorting them down, ten of his best fighter pilots…and one of them wasn’t typical for a Faey military outfit.  His tenth pilot was a human male, one of the telepathic Karinne humans, who had been a fighter pilot in the Navy before the subjugation.  He was 34 years old, had been a Lieutenant Commander back in the Navy, and had had quite a fight on his hands when a man entered what most Faey women considered to be no place for a man.  Jason didn’t permit discrimination, so Commander Justin Taggart had passed the tests and earned his position as a fighter pilot, especially since he was a telepath and was capable of the telepathic attacks required of a Faey fighter pilot.  He was unusually strong for a man, but where women were able to eclipse him in talent, he generally whooped their asses in dogfighting.  Taggart had adapted to vector-based zero-G combat quickly, and he had one of the most impressive run of scores for fighter pilots in the KMS because he was very consistent in either atmosphere or space combat.

        Faey women were generally easy to get along with, but the one button most of them had was for a man to be in combat.  Thousands of years of tradition were at war with Karinne policy there.  They had accepted men on Naval vessels because there was some measure of safety in a ship, that they had a better chance of survival.  But a male fighter pilot was alone and at high risk, and the women absolutely hated it, because they saw it as their duty to protect him from harm.  Taggart’s main problem hadn’t been proving he could fight, or dealing with rampant sexism, it had been making the women stop trying to protect him, which often put them at great personal risk.  The fact that he was an amazing fighter pilot certainly helped.  He had more experience than most of his fighter pilots, was a squadron commander that commanded the 76th Carrier Squadron currently attached to the battleship Dreamer.  Taggart was one of 18 squadron commanders of fighters and Gladiator squadrons on the battleship, but he was one of only 38 male fighter pilots in the KMS, one of only four human male pilots, and was the only male in a command position.

        In the KMS, being a squadron commander was not a desk job.  Taggart flew combat sorties right along with the rest of the squadron.

        It was a problem he had the most issues with in the Marines and Army rather than the Navy.  Jason employed infantry and Gladiator riggers of both sexes and of every race in Karinne; he even had Makati infantry, and had a special division of them who called themselves the Hammers, who specialized in tunnel and subterranean combat.  The Faey women who constituted 72% of his infantry and ground units had not been too willing to integrate, because of traditional views that men should not fight, and men should be protected.  They were most objectionable to men serving as line infantry, and their objections lessened the higher one went, where the women felt the men had more protection.  They had fewer problems with them in support roles like medics, even if those were on the battlefield, and were a bit more accepting of the male Gladiator riggers, since they were in the mecha and surrounded by heavy armor.  Generally, the “safer” the combat position, the less resistant the women had been to men serving in it.

        But, after 4 years, the women had finally come to accept men in combat, and Jason found it amusing that they didn’t mind having men in the unit at all after a couple of weeks of exercises.  So long as there wasn’t any actual fighting going on, the women loved having men around, especially since there was no division of sexes in the KMS, a fact that Jason had to be talked into by Myri and the generals.  Men and women could and did share rooms, they shared bathrooms, they shared everything.  There were no “men’s rooms and women’s rooms” out in the field or on KMS ships, so they weren’t trained any differently than how they would have to operate.  It had caused some problems at first, mainly from the human men and women who had joined the KMS who had been raised to believe in division of sexes in some regards, but they’d had four years to adapt to it.  He could imagine some humans having issues using the bathroom in a unisex latrine, or showering in a public shower with both sexes, but that was something they were fully warned about before they signed up.

        As soon as they were in stable orbit, they launched.  A squadron of Imperial Raptors joined the 10 Raptors escorting the Dukal dropship, with Jason himself piloting the dropship, and they made a slow, easy descent to the planet.  Jason flew over Dracora with Jyslin in the copilot’s seat and Rann on her lap, looking out the window excitedly, and they landed lightly on the main landing pad, where Jason saw the entire Imperial Family along with half the Siann, waiting for them.  It was almost unheard of to see the entire Imperial family together in one place at one time, and it was a reminder that Dahnai had three children, not just Shya.  Dahnai and Kellin stood with Dahnai’s three children with them, and thankfully, none of them were wearing official court robes. They, like the Karinnes, were wearing nice “casual attire.”  Dahnai was wearing a simple sleeveless vest and a pair of sleek trousers, almost looking like workout clothes, and Kellin was wearing a simple wrap that had no sleeves and ended at his thighs, which showed off his muscular legs.

        The Crown Princess Sirri Merrane stood at her mother’s right hand, wearing a simple red pair of pants that ended at her knees, which were a little scabbed, and nothing else, leaving her topless, which actually was not unusual for little girls in Faey society.  Young girls were much more apt to go topless than boys, but boys were much more apt to go bottomless, which was reflected in Kellin’s choice of clothing.  Girls liked to show off above the waist, boys below.  She was 8 now, and had inherited both her mother’s bronze hair and her handsome face.  She still lived away from her mother, for it was tradition that she enter her mother’s household at the age of ten.  She was very tall and serious-looking, the picture of a proper Crown Princess, the heir to the Imperial throne

        High Prince Maer Merrane Doyalle, her oldest child and ten year old son, stood in front of Kellin, Kellin’s hands on his shoulders, wearing a soft brown robe with the right sleeve so long and baggy it completely hid his hand and the left ending at his elbow.  Maer was tall for a boy, tall and gangly, and he had dark chestnut brown hair that marked him as very attractive among the Faey.  He was rarely seen outside the palace, and was by far the child of the Empress the press and the people had the least interest in.  Not only was he a boy, he was also already betrothed, betrothed before birth, so there was little news about him on INN or Courtwatch.  They wouldn’t really care about Maer until he was 15 years old.  He was betrothed to the fourth daughter of the Grand Duchess, a 10 year old girl named Alii Doyalle.  Maer had been living with Dahnai for about two months, and Dahnai was very excited about it, because she knew she would only have him for five years.  Noble men in Faey society were surrendered to the bride’s house at the age of 15, and they would raise him and prepare him for marriage to Alii, which would take place as soon as Alii was declared fit for marriage.  To be declared fit for marriage, she had to be sexually mature and physically capable of giving birth, which was usually around the age of 17, and her talent had to be trained to the level of an adult, which was usually done long before a noble girl reached sexual maturity because telepathic skill was much more important for nobles than for commoners.  This was much different from commoner marriage, which wasn’t permitted until both spouses were at least 20 years of age, had parental consent if they were under 25, and graduated from primary school, which was the Faey equivalent of high school.  Most Faey didn’t graduate from primary school until the age of 23 and weren’t considered adults with full legal privileges until age 25, so marriages before then were extremely rare.

        High Princess Duchess Consort Shya Merrane Karinne was being held by her mother, wearing only a pair of black shorts, leaving her topless as well, not even wearing shoes.  Her light hair had been pulled back from  her face and held there with a pair of combs, and she looked extremely excited, fidgeting and squirming in her mother’s arms.  Dahnai held her firmly until the dropship and the fighters had landed, and only then did she put Shya down…probably to keep her from charging the dropship and getting crushed when it landed on her.  She did hurry forward once the dropship was down, well in front of her family, and Jason called for Aya to open the hatch so the poor girl didn’t have to wait outside like a punished puppy, which no doubt would have been played for many laughs on INN in the evening broadcast.  Shya climbed in just in time to meet Rann, who had climbed down from Jyslin’s lap, and they hugged each happily other right at the hatch opening, and no doubt in full view of the cameras behind the Imperial family.  “Ranny, Ranny, Ranny!  I’m so happy to see you!” she said jubilantly.

        “Shya!” he said with equal joy, kissing her on the cheek.  “I told you we’d come!”

        “That was never in doubt, you silly boy,” Jyslin laughed, kneeling down and hugging Shya and Rann both, since Shya refused to let go of Rann.  “Now go take Rann to see your mother, Shya,” she smiled.

        “Okay!” she said with an exuberant nod, and led him down the stairs of the dropship by the hand.  Shen and Suri went out with them, and Jason joined Jyslin at the hatch, took his wife’s hand, and led her out into the shark-infested waters of public court, with Tim and Symone right behind them.  Aya and Ryn escorted Jason and Jyslin out, and they watched Dahnai pick up Rann and hold him high over her head, laughing as Rann sent to Dahnai in excitement.  Empress Dahnai!  I missed you!

        “Speak, honey, speak!  It’s custom to speak to the Empress unless I tell you to send or send to you first,” she told him with a bright smile.  “But I must say, you send very well, little spunky!  You’ve been practicing!”

        That sent a few twitters through the Siann.  They had no idea that the Grand Duke Karinne’s five year old son had expressed.

        “Mommy and Daddy make me practice every day,” he answered as Dahnai passed Rann to Kellin, who kissed him on the cheek.  “Hi Prince Kellin!  You been okay?”

        “I’ve been very good, little spunky,” he said, kissing Rann on the cheek before setting him down, where Shya took custody of him again.  She introduced him to her brother and sister as her husband, who had never met Rann before.

        “Maer, Sirri, this is my hubby Ranny,” she said, wrapping her arms around him.

        “You have funny colored skin, like the Terrans, but you have nice ears,” Sirri told him, looking at Rann’s pointed ears.

        “Daddy says I’ll turn blue if I stay outside here,” Rann answered.

        “Good!  Then you’ll look proper!” Maer told him.

        Dahnai gave Jason a warm hug when they reached them, and Jyslin embraced Kellin.  “We early or late?” Jason asked her.

        She laughed. “Right on time,” she answered, then she hugged Jyslin.  Tim and Symone reached them, and Dahnai reached out her hands to them.  Symone took her hands, and the Tim, as she greeted them in turn, as Kellin did the same.  “I’m glad Jason brought his whole family,” she smiled.  “Finally, Jason’s amu dozei is introduced to court.”

        “Jason always says they’re not ready for me,” Symone said with a wicked smile.

        “I’m inclined to agree, which is why I’ve canceled court during your visit,” Dahnai said dryly, which made Symone laugh.  “But, you can’t ever get out of it completely, so let’s at least do the introductions now, while my servants take your bags.”

        As cameras rolled, Dahnai first introduced her older children to Jason’s family, which only Jason had met.  Dahnai did not as a matter of custom introduce her children to outsiders until they were ten or unless they were relatives, and Jyslin had not been to court since Rann was betrothed to Shya, which made them relatives of the Imperial family by marriage; a betrothal was considered an official tie of marriage despite the marriage having yet to take place, and this was the first official meeting between the full families of both betrothed children.  Had Dahnai been greeting some other Dukal family, she would not have brought her children. Maer had been officially introduced to court on his tenth birthday, and had vanished from the public eye since then, for he was not the heir.  It would be Sirri that would attend court with her mother starting on her tenth birthday, standing at the right hand of the throne, but wearing a robe with no left sleeve to give her mother ample room to touch her and thereby send privately to her.  After the two older children met Jason, Jyslin, Tim, and Symone, the three of them were introduced around the present members of the Siann in a receiving line right there on the landing pad.  This told Jason much about Dahnai’s intent to get the public niceties out of the way so the private visit could begin.  Jason was blessedly exempt from the introductions, so he spent most of his time with the children.  Rann was more than comfortable talking with Maer and Sirri as Shya clung to him, as Jason knelt among them and listened with amusement as Sirri tried to be regal without being smarmy.  She didn’t do a very good job of it.  She knew she was the Crown Princess, but she was still an 8 year old girl who liked to play, and the scabbed condition of her knees proved it.  “Can you really send?” Sirri asked Rann in curiosity.

        “Uh-huh,” he nodded.  “And someday I’ll do te-kisis like Daddy too!”

        “Telekinesis, little man,” Jason chuckled.

        “Wow, I’ve never heard of being able to send so young,” Sirri said, a little jealously.  “You must have really walked through Trelle’s hair.”

        “My sister Kyri could do it when she was born,” Rann said with a slight frown.  “She makes fun of me and says I send like a baby.  All of my brothers and sisters can do it now, though.  My brother Zach just woke up yesterday!”

        Jason would have preferred him not to say that.  Rann, remember your lessons about speaking to strangers.  Remember, Empress Dahnai’s family are still outsiders, even if you’re gonna marry Shya, he cautioned.

        Sorry, Papa, he answered contritely.  Since he was still learning the trick of private sending, his sending was open, but very low power, barely going five feet.

        “You can really do telekinesis?” Maer asked.

        “Daddy says I will someday,” Rann told him, a bit more carefully.  “It runs in the family, he says.”

        Rann made no more mistakes, but he also managed to befriend Sirri and Maer in short order.  That was good, because Rann was going to be staying with Shya’s foster family during their stay, and they were in guest quarters in the palace.

        After about an hour, the introductions were coming to a close, and Jason noticed that Rann’s skin was already taking on a slightly bluish hue from exposure to the blue sun of the Draconis system.  He held up his own hand and saw that he too was starting to take on a dusky undertone that he knew was the herald of himself turning blue.  Rann seemed more vulnerable to the effect than Jason, probably because his mother was Faey.  Maer noticed it too.  “Look at your arm, Ranny!  You really are turning blue!” he declared.

        “I am?  Wow!” he said, then he laughed.

        “I think it looks funny,” Shya complained.

        “It fades over time, Shya,” Jason assured her with a chuckle.  “So if you don’t like him blue, just keep him out of the sun here on Draconis, and it’ll fade away.”

        “Good,” she declared.  “I like my Ranny just the way he is.”

        After the introductions and smalltalk, Dahnai took possession of them.  She separated them from the Siann and from the cameras by taking them back to her private apartments.  She had a second couch brought in to accommodate the extra people, and the guards and servants helped them settle in.  Dahnai’s apartment hadn’t changed much since Maer had come to live with Dahnai, but some of her habits had.  She still refused to engage in sex with her guards in the apartment, but didn’t make Maer leave.  But he knew that when his mother ordered the guards out, he needed to stay in his room.  He knew she and Kellin were having sex, be it in their bedroom or in the living room, and she really didn’t like to be interrupted or disturbed while doing so.  Maer was fully aware what sex was, like any ten year old Faey child would, and while Dahnai didn’t hide sex from her son, she did maintain her desire not to have sex in front of those not engaged in it.  In many Faey households, parents would have no qualms about having sex with their children in the same room, maybe even in the same bed, but Dahnai was much more conservative in her views because of her Imperial upbringing.  Dahnai’s entire life was watched by others.  She couldn’t even go to the bathroom without a guard there watching her wipe herself.  She kept her sex life as the one thing she had to herself, her one true privacy, and she defended it like a wolverine.

        Maer dragged all the kids into his room to show them around, allowing the adults to sit down.  “So,” Symone said, looking around.  “Are there any doors at all in here?”

        “None,” Dahnai answered.  “My guards think doors are obstacles.  The only doors in my apartment are safety doors that shut in case of an attack.  This apartment is probably the most heavily armored part of the palace,” she noted, waving her arm towards the wall.

        “I kinda like that idea,” she noted, looking at Tim.

        “Since when do we ever close the doors at home?” he asked.

        “I’m surprised you didn’t come in that command ship you have, Jayce,” Dahnai told him.

        “It’s doing something else right now,” he answered.

        “Being repaired?”

        He nodded.  “The Consortium focused on it during the battle.  It’ll be back in service by Maista.”

        “Well, that’s good news.  Now, let’s talk about this summit you’re calling.  I don’t want any surprises.”

        “It’s pretty straightforward, Dahnai,” he answered.  Symone, who wasn’t usually interested in politics, got up and wandered into Maer’s room.  “I’m going to propose an agreement of sorts that has us all share our information about the Consortium.  So, for example, if the Alliance gets intelligence about a base they discover, they warn everyone else.  I’m not going to ask for any military alliances or anything official, just what you might call an informal agreement to pool our information.  They’ll know I mean it because tomorrow, the cooperative research unit is opening at the Academy, and they start going over the Consortium data.  My main goal of the summit is to get everyone to agree that the Consortium is a threat to all of us, because I seriously doubt that the Alliance or the Skaa are going to enter into any agreements with them, not after what they did to the Urumi.”

        “Well, that’s not too bad,” Dahnai noted, tapping her chin lightly.

        “The High Staff has already agreed to help,” he said.  “He promised to pass any sensor intelligence his government finds to the Academy.  That’s what I’m looking for.  I want to know what the Consortium are doing, and it’s easiest if everyone is keeping their eyes open.  They’ll help me find them and keep an eye on them, and that’ll let me and Sk’Vrae deal with them,” he said in a grating voice.

        “And me,” Dahnai said.  “They attacked a house of my Imperium and tried to get another house to betray us, and I will not let that go unpunished.  Even if it wasn’t you, Jayce, the Consortium is just too dangerous to us to leave alone.  They’ve attacked the Imperium, and the Imperium will respond.  When it comes to war, the Imperium will be there.”

        “Since when did you say no to a war, Dahnai?” he challenged.

        “Hmm…never,” she winked.

        “That’s really all I’m trying to get,” Jason said.  “And I think it’s important for the leaders to be there rather than just ambassadors, so they can listen and see the recordings and understand what happened personally.  I was going to ask you to host the summit.”

        “Me?  Why not you?  It’s your summit.”

        “I’m not a ruler,” he said simply.  “I’ve asked for the summit, and I’m providing the location for it, but since you’re my Empress, you’re the one that should be the official host.  It would disrespect you not to be hosting a summit being held on one of the planets in your own empire.”

        “I’m so glad you remember that when it suits you,” she said archly.

        “When it suits me,” Jason said with a straight face.  “I had enough clout to ask for the summit and invite the rulers because of my neutral status, but I shouldn’t be the one hosting it.  They’ll listen to me as a Karinne, but they won’t respect me as a host.  After all, they all outrank me, and that matters in a summit where emperors, kings, and leaders of governments are rubbing shoulders.”

        Dahnai gave him a critical look.  “You really have learned how to play the game,” she told him.  “I can smell Zaa all over you.”

        “She does give me advice from time to time,” he admitted blandly.

        “So, your ultimate goal is cooperation?”

        “Don’t you think it’s a good idea?” he asked simply.  “If we’re going to war with the Consortium, doesn’t it behoove us to have our neighbors helping us find them and keeping us informed about them?”

        “I think it’s a great idea, but I’m surprised you didn’t try to get allies.”

        “I hope that they will eventually, but I’m not going to push,” Jason said.  “Once I get the interdictors up and running, I’ll feel more secure, and we’ll have more time to get ready for them.”

        “Where’s that contract you promised me?”

        “You’ll get it as soon as I’m sure the interdictor works,” he answered.  “But, I’m also here to talk to you about a little bit of business.”

        “Oh?  What business is that?”

        “How would 2M like to lease and operate Stargates outside of the Imperium?”

        She gave him a hard look.  “Let our greatest advantage outside our borders?  Are you fucking nuts?  The Stargates are the main reason why the other governments leave us alone!  They know I can deploy my entire fleet to any system inside an hour, so they won’t dare attack us!”

        “Think about this, then, Dahnai,” he said, leaning back.  “The other governments might be so afraid of the Imperium that they’ll see the interdictors and beg for them.  I might be inclined to lease interdictors out, but how will they move their goods in and out of those interdicted systems?  No other government has Stargate technology but us, and I won’t supply them without your permission because it’s not Karinne technology, it’s proprietary Imperium technology.  So, the government has a quandary, the only way they can protect themselves is to isolate their systems from interstellar travel.  Well, you and me make a deal about that.  I lease a Stargate to them, with ironclad clauses about allowing Karinne ships and automated defenses to guard them and whatnot, and offer them a very small fee per ship to use them, much cheaper than the standard fees for using Stargates inside the Imperium, which I give to you.  We link that Stargate to a central hub inside the Imperium, like, say, a recognized neutral planet like Terra, and not only does that allow you to profit from all traffic outside the Imperium that uses your Stargates, it also sends all ships to Terra, which becomes the trading hub of the sector.  Since that’s where everyone’s going to be, that’s where the businessmen are going to flock.  And I’m sure I could be persuaded to give you some sweetheart deals to let Merrane companies move in and corner those new markets.  2M, MAS, Merrane Consolidated, they could make a killing off ship repair services…and that’s just one aspect of the new business opportunities.”

        Dahnai gave him a long, narrow-eyed look, then she laughed suddenly.  “Good Trelle, Jayce, you are just too fuckin’ cunning!  And let me guess, you earn a little too because Terra is a Karinne planet?”

        “I’m not too proud to admit that it’ll earn Karinne some money,” he shrugged.  “I just think it’s a good idea to shut down the entire sector to the Consortium, and we can do that by making it impossible for them to jump hyperspace through friendly territory.  Every interdictor up and running in the sector is another obstacle the Consortium has to overcome.  We can build a system that majorly disrupts any attempt to jump hyperspace within our sector, and that gives us an inside track to earning some money in addition to increasing overall security.  And most importantly to me, it brings us all together in one place and lets us get to know each other a little better, so maybe we don’t get into stupid wars.”  He leaned back and put his arm around Jyslin.  “It won’t happen immediately, though,” he said.  “The other governments won’t trust the Imperium to gain total control over their trade, because no matter how neutral I am, they know that Karinne is still part of the Imperium. So we’ll have to build trust first, and then, when they trust us enough, we offer them that deal.  I think they’ll take it.  They’ll definitely take it if the Consortium comes back in force.  And when they do, we profit.”

        Kellin looked at her.  “It seems to have some merit, love,” he said.

        “Some,” she nodded.  “But there’s something hiding in there.  I know there is, Jayce, you’re too smart and this is a little too obvious.  The profit’s just there to lure me into taking it.  I can’t see what it is, but I’m sure there’s some secret objective this fulfills.”

        He just smiled slightly.

        “I knew it!” she said victoriously, pointing at him.  “But, I can’t see anything wrong with it on its face, and it does do everything you say it does.”

        “Well, from the way I see it,” Tim said, his eyes thoughtful, “it really benefits everyone.  Think about it.  Other governments have access to Stargates all over the sector.  They can move trade goods from the back end of the Alliance to the Nine Colonies in one day, hell, in two hours, when it would take weeks of going through trade customs of the Imperium and the Collective to get their goods from one side to the other.  Trade would explode in the sector.  The Imperium’s revenue would skyrocket because the governments will see the benefit and start using the Stargates as trade portals.  Each government would probably leave one system without an interdictor so they could explore or do secret things, but the main thing would be that it would seriously increase trade revenue for every government, not just us.”

        “The problem is Terra in that case,” Jyslin said.  “If it becomes the transport hub of the sector, it becomes the first target.  Take out Terra, and you force everyone to shut down their interdictors.”

        “Yes…unless it’s also protected by an interdictor,” Jason smiled.  “Which would spur governments to take our offer, else they have to rely on an outside government just to get to Terra and the Academy, where all the action is.  I’m within my rights to defend Terra, and that’s something I’m going to impress upon the leaders at the summit, that I’m worried about Terra because it’s vulnerable to Consortium attack, but take no action and make no declarations.  It’s my planet, and the Consortium attacked House Karinne, so I have to take reasonable steps to defend Karinne holdings.”

        “Devious!” Kellin laughed.  “You’re going to force them!”

        “No, not force.  Not force at all,” Jason said.  “When I put up the interdictor, I’m going to open a Stargate out in the neutral space just past Terra, about halfway between Sol and Alpha Centauri, and defend the holy fuck out of it.  I’ll allow everyone to jump to that gate and then use it to get to Terra.  I’m not going to rob anyone of access to Terra, but I’m hoping that after they see the neutral gate in action, they start seeing how much of an advantage it could be to have an interdictor and Stargate of their own.  They’ll see that the only way into their territory is through the most heavily defended system in the sector, which gives them one hell of a front door to their house.  They just have to trust someone with the key, and that’s going to take time.”

        “I have to admit, that’s not a bad idea,” Dahnai said after a moment.  “It solves the problem of how to defend Terra, and it gives them a taste of what we’re offering.  I’ll really have to think about that, babe.  I think it has some potential.”

        “That’s all I can really ask,” he said.  “Symone!  We’re finished with politics!” he shouted, which made the others laugh.

        “Thank Trelle!  Turn on the viddy, and let’s watch Bounty Hunter!” she answered, coming in carrying a giggling Sirri and Rann, with Maer and Shya hanging off her legs.

        It was a nice couple of hours.  Dahnai’s older children and the Karinnes got to know each other, and Dahnai and Kellin got to know Tim and Symone maybe a little better than they had during their visit.  After watching the viddy, Dahnai had a very nice dinner sent to he apartment, and they all sat on couches and chair enjoying warm cheese-tasting vegetables in a buttery sauce, white pork-like meat in a tangy gravy, and sliced oye fruit.  After dinner, the kids sat in the middle of the floor playing Seven Circles while the adults enjoyed glasses of Terran wine.  But, Symone being Symone, she also wasn’t forgetting her ultimate motive for coming along.  After the wine, when they returned to conversation as the kids played, she sat by Kellin and she took some pretty outrageous liberties with him.  She put her hands all over him, made sure to press her breasts against his side, made a suggestive comment about every fifteen seconds, and Jason counted six times he could see that she slid her hand up under his short robe.  Kellin certainly didn’t seem to mind at all, for he stole several feels of Symone’s breasts, and when he commented that Symone looked like she’d gotten a tan since the last time he saw her, he dared to muse if she had any tan lines.

        She made sure to show him.  She slid back a bit and pulled her shirt off, and proudly proclaimed that she was line free.  She then stood up and pulled her shorts down, letting him stare at her blond pubic hair for a moment before bending down to step out of them.  She then sat back down beside him, slid a hand under his robe to slide along his chest, and whispered something in his ear just before licking the outside edge, from lobe to tip.

        Jason could see where this was going.  Symone had found a reason to get naked, and she wasn’t going to stop.  And from the look of it, Kellin wasn’t going to either, for he slid his hand down her stomach and fondled her genitals.  Dahnai, he warned.

        Bria, why don’t you take the kids on a tour of the palace, and then take them to the entertainment arcade?  And I think all the guards in the room can go with you, she sent meaningfully.

        Bria gave her a slight smile and nodded.  “Kids, do you want to go tour the palace and go to the entertainment arcade before dinner?”

        “Sure!” Maer and Sirri said in unison.

        “What’s the arcade?” Rann asked.

        “A play place for us!” Maer said happily.  “There’s rides and games and climbing maze and all sorts of neat things to do!”

        “Oooh, can I go, please?” he asked his parents.

        “Surely you can, my little man,” Jyslin smiled, kissing him on the cheek when he came over to her.  “Now, after you go have fun, the guards are going to take you to Shya’s foster parents’ house for the night.  So, you be good for them and behave, okay?”

        “I will, I promise,” he nodded.

        “Maer, dove, did you pack your bag for your sleepover?” Dahnai told him.

        “Yes, Mother,” he answered.  “It’ll be weird being back with Nanna and Panna, but it’ll be like a slumber party this time!”

        “Nanna and Panna invited some other children over too, so it will be a slumber party,” Dahnai told him, holding her arms out.  Maer came up to her, and she kissed him on the cheek.  “Now you be good.”

        “I will,” he promised.

        Dahnai and Kellin said goodnight to their kids, as did everyone else, and they watched the eight guards in the room file out with them, leaving them alone.  When the door shut and the red light noting it was locked winked on, Symone blew out her breath and immediately started untying Kellin’s robe.  “Thank Trelle!” she said, almost trembling with excitement.  “Now we get to have that orgy Dahnai promised us!  And I’ve been wanting a shot at this monster since I saw it swinging on the beach back home!” she declared, pulling Kellin’s robe open and yanking his shorts down, exposing his penis.  Symone wasted no time grabbing it and fondling it, giving Kellin a huge grin.  “Now we see who wins the bet about how big you are hard,” she said with an eager glow in her eyes.  “And I hope you have good stamina, Kellin.  Me and Jys are gonna take turns with you.”

        “I hope he’s agreed to it,” Tim laughed.

        “What?  You think I’d pass up an invitation from ladies as sexy as Symone and Jyslin?  Please,” he laughed.  “I’ve been looking forward to this.”

        “Trelle, has he,” Dahnai chuckled, standing up and crossing over to Tim’s couch, then pulling her shirt off in front of him to free her impressive breasts.  “And so have I,” she said, looking right in Tim’s eyes.  “I’ve been looking forward to wrapping my legs around you, Tim.”

        “I’m honored, Dahnai,” Tim smiled, sitting up, reaching over, and grabbing the waist of her sleek trousers, and pulling them down.

        “I’d rather you be horny.”

        “That’s not a problem,” he chuckled, running his hands up her sides before cupping her breasts.

 

        That was about everything he expected it could be.

        It was intense.  It was highly erotic.  It was both new and familiar, but above all, it had been satisfying.

        Tim was much braver than Jason, and always had been, so he had absolutely no hesitation about having sex with Dahnai in front of the other four, and Symone about defined fearlessness.  Jason and Jyslin, however, had to kind of work themselves into the idea of it.  They had no trouble having sex with Tim and Symone, and Jason was a long-time partner with Dahnai, but Kellin was a new and different presence, one to which Jason and Jyslin had to grow accustomed.  Once they did, however, it became a night of shared pleasure.  It wasn’t the deep and intimate sessions Jason and Jyslin enjoyed with Tim and Symone.  It was compartmentalized, with defined couples or trios, not interacting with each other.  But despite the lack of interaction, they also managed about every combination of lovers, so that everyone there had managed to experience all the options available.

        Jason had enjoyed sex with each of his loves by herself, and then shared them with each of the other men.  He had had two of them at a time in all three combinations, and he had, at one point, had brief fun with all three women at once.  But Tim and Kellin got the same treatment he did, and Symone had also been something of a wild card.  Where Jyslin and Symone were lovers—and indeed, they drove Kellin wild at one point because he had never threesomed with women who were lovers—Symone was willing to engage in sex with Dahnai where Jyslin was not.  Dahnai still wouldn’t return the favor, but it created a couple of scenarios of couples and partners that kept things very interesting.  It was truly a group experience that lasted all night.

        Before he had deepened his bond with Tim and Symone to where they shared the same bed, he would have been way too nervous to be part of three couples having sex in the same room, but he figured that his conversion to a Faey mentality was complete.  After he and Jyslin got over their initial inhibitions, they had been just as eager and enthusiastic as Symone.  He had shared his wife with the husband of his amu dorai, and had done so willingly, because she was sexually curious about him, and for no other reason.  He had handed his wife off to someone other than Tim, and done it happily, just as she had often told him she was more than willing to let him experience other women.  And he did it without blinking, because he knew she loved him, and he knew she would come home to him.  So, he was more than happy to give her his blessing and send her to Kellin, because it would make her happy, and she would come home to him and share her experience with him in a way that only a telepath could accomplish.

        When he woke up, he was in bed with Dahnai.  From what he recalled, Tim was in bed with Jyslin, and he was certain that Kellin was again with Symone, because they were having sex in the living room, Symone’s panting and low moans audible to him.

        “Trelle, does she ever get tired?” Dahnai complained blearily, pushing herself up on her hands and looking towards the living room, where Symone’s legs were visible over the back of the couch where she and Kellin were entertaining themselves.

        “She’s a morning girl, and she’s been so excited about this little idea of yours, I’m sure she’ll spend all day today with her legs wrapped around someone,” he answered her.  “And if you don’t like it, remember, that’s your fault,” he noted, pointing at the living room.

        She laughed ruefully.  “I guess it was,” she admitted.  “But fuck, that was a very fun night.   My mother used to like group sex, she’d bring like ten people into her apartment every Brista, but I never quite understood why until last night.  I had a man handy whenever I wanted one, I could just sit and watch my husband and amu dorai fuck the shit out of another woman, and if all you boys were busy or I was in the mood for it, Symone was always there and ready to give me head.”

        Jason laughed.  “I thought Kellin was going to swallow his tongue when Jyslin and Symone started on each other.”

        “Symone’s a lot better at eating pussy now,” she said with a little chuckle.  “Jys has given her plenty of practice.”

        “She does,” Jason chuckled.  “Jys is completely into Symone now, there’s no hesitation or inhibition like there was when you were on Karis.”

        “I noticed,” Dahnai said lightly, watching Symone’s legs sway rhythmically.  “No wonder she’s so addicted to sex, with you and Tim around.  Trelle’s garland, can that man fuck,” she said with a satisfied little sigh.  “He’s almost as good as you and Kel.  I’ll get a better measure of him tonight, he’s spending tonight with me.”

        “What?  Not another orgy in the living room?” he asked with a wink.

        “Well, we might play around a little bit tonight, but I’m planning a little less crowded night with Tim.  The group thing was fun, new, and exciting, but tonight I want to experience Tim the same way I have you and Kel, one on one, right here in this bed,” she said, patting the bed.  “Tim satisfied my every expectation out there on the couch, but I want to experience him without anyone competing with me or him for attention.”

        “Well, Symone will be disappointed, but she’ll get over it,” he chuckled.  “I just hope she gets this out of her system,” Jason noted, returning to watching Symone’s legs wave in the air with Dahnai.  “I’d like to bring her to Draconis and not have to deal with a one-track mind.”

        “She seems to have nothing but a one track mind,” Dahnai said.

        “Not usually,” he defended.  “She’s usually not quite so obsessed with sex.  She just doesn’t have much to do at home, and she has lots of playmates in Tim, me, and Jys, well, that and her collection of porn she loves to watch, and you sure as hell didn’t help by putting this idea in her head,” he accused.  “Usually, she’s a sweet, charming, charismatic, lovely girl who’s got a wicked sense of humor and a big heart.”

        “But she loves sex.”

        “So do you,” he pointed out.

        “True,” she admitted with a rueful smile.  “And I can’t deny I that I have my own porn collection, I think every Faey woman does.  I’m sure as hell not sorry we did this, though.  Tim was awesome, and I got so turned on with you and Tim, knowing that Kel was watching us, that I almost creamed myself before we even got started.”

        “Don’t feel bad.  The first time I had sex with Jys and Symone when they’d touch each other, I barely managed to get it into Symone before coming.  And you’re lucky, if you come early, you don’t have to wait before you can go again.  That just means you get an extra orgasm.”

        “That’s a woman’s payment for having to carry the baby,” she grinned at him.  “We get multiple orgasms.”

        “It’s so unfair,” he teased lightly, slapping her on the hip.

        “What’s unfair is that you’re on Karis,” she told him.  “And I had to threaten you to get you to come see me.”

        “It was necessary.  And I’m here now,” he said, running a hand up her side, the cupping her breast.

        “You know you shouldn’t do that unless you’re prepared to deal with the consequences,” she teased.

        “I should when I want the consequences,” he purred, leaning over and kissing her neck.  “Want to give Kellin and Symone something to watch?”

        “Let’s put them to shame,” she said breathlessly, pushing him back down onto the bed.

 

        In honestly, that night did do a great deal to get it out of Symone’s system…somewhat.  Symone didn’t want to spend the entire day in the apartment reveling in her day of total debauchery, but she was also quite demanding.  Symone wasn’t usually a nymphomaniac, but Dahnai had done much to instill the idea of this “sex holiday” into her head, and she meant to enjoy every minute of it, both in and out of bed.  Symone calmed down quite a bit when they collected up their kids around 10:00, which was 10 hours into the 30 hour day, and Dahnai had some full family entertainments planned for them.  They went to a bachi game first, which was about two hours in the late morning, which Jason found to be very fun.  He’d never attended a live bachi game before, and it was high energy and fast-paced.  The Dracora Avengers, the home town professional bachi team, beat the Jovara Swords 21-19 in a very competitive and physical game that included two players being carted off on flying platforms and an ejection when the Jovara striker broke her bachi stick over the head of the Dracora center defender.  The presence of the Empress seemed to spur both sides on and play with a focus and aggression not usually seen in bachi.

        Symone revved back up, though, when they got back to the palace, though she also realized that she couldn’t do anything about it, because Dahnai had planned more public activities for them.  So, she decided to take a page out of her playbook way back when she first met Jason and Tim, and she tormented Kellin mercilessly.  She couldn’t touch him or act in an improper manner because they were in public and cameras were watching them, but she could send without the cameras catching it, and that was how she tormented him.  She sent dirty thoughts, images, observations, memories of sensations, she made all kinds of comparisons, she even asked how he gave oral sex to Dahnai so she could improve her technique.  Kellin had never experienced that kind of badgering before, and Symone got to him…and the more she got to him, the more gleefully she dug her claws in deeper.  Kellin had trouble sitting still on the rides at the entertainment arcade, which was literally an amusement park only for the children of the Empress and their guests.  Despite that, the park was often filled with the children of the Siann who used it to keep their young ones entertained when they were brought to court, and the Empress often opened it to commoner children for school field trips and on certain days of the year.  There were 24 rides, a small zoo, games and other activities, a pool with water slides, an extensive hands-on learning museum, and even a performing arts/hologram center where the children could see opera, concerts, plays, and holographic movies.  Symone attached herself to Kellin so that she might more easily torture him, and the poor man probably had a continual erection for about four hours, which mercifully was hidden under his rather baggy pants.  Dahnai had found it rather amusing for a while, at least until she realized that she could do her own torturing on Jason in her own special way.  She demanded they go for a swim at the park’s pool, and she demanded Karis rules.

        They actually weren’t much out of place as far as that went.  Jason wasn’t too happy about the idea of having to expose himself to the Draconis sun, but the smug look on Dahnai’s face told him exactly why she wanted it.  She liked seeing him blue, so she was going to do everything she could to expose as much of him as possible to the sun of Draconis.  When they reached the pool, they found that the majority of Faey there, of all ages, had forgone bathing suits.  Most nobles didn’t bring a suit from their personal houses in Dracora because it was a long standing custom that nobles could bring only what they personally carried to the palace, which came into being to prevent servants from carrying bombs or weapons into the palace grounds for their employers.  So when the nobles wanted to partake of the arcade’s pool when they didn’t plan for it, they simply removed their robes and swam or sunbathed nude.

        Jason glared at Dahnai the entire time they undressed in the changing room, as servants took their clothes and carefully hung them up, and she pulled him out onto the pool’s elaborate deck by the hands, dragging him into the sun.  Rann, Maer, and Sirri jumped right into the pool, but Shya sat on the edge.  Because they lived in an area where every house had its own pool and the ocean was barely 100 feet from the back deck, Rann already knew how to swim.  But Shya hadn’t learned yet, so she was reluctant to get into the water where Rann and her siblings were, over her head, but not wanting to be alone in the shallow end either.  And Jason was sure that every camera zooming in on them from far beyond the grounds was catching Rann urge Shya into the pool at the shallow end, offering to teach her how to swim.  Jason figured Dahnai was going to make him bask on the sunning chairs and turn himself blue, but she had another thing coming.  He sought the protective solace of the pool, where the water would greatly dilute the sun’s radiation and dramatically slow down the process.  He played with the kids for a while, getting Maer and Sirri to the point that they jabbered at him with the same smiles and enthusiasm they did their mother and foster parents, then he braved the sun to take the kids to the smaller of the two slides, the kiddie slide, standing in a shaded area by the slide created by the bigger slide above to cheer them as they slid down, then ran laughing back up to get back in line.  Dahnai and Tim joined him at the slide after a while, as Tim looked nervously at his own arm, which was taking a decidedly bluish undertone to it.

        “See?” Jason chuckled.  “Why do you think I’ve been avoiding the sun, Tim?”

        Tim laughed, looking down at his penis.  “I almost look like I have some kind of venereal disease,” he said.  “Leprosy!” he said in English.

        “What is this leprosy?” Dahnai asked.

        “A disease cured long ago that makes body parts fall off,” Jason chuckled.

        “I don’t think you want to lose that, Tim.  You’re going to be using it tonight,” she told him calmly.

        Tim laughed again, then waved as Rann came down the slide.  “I’m glad I got a second audition,” he told her.

        Dahnai chuckled, leaning against the rail herself.  “I hope you’ll forgive me for getting Symone so hyper.”

        “Eh, I like her hyper, and it’s not all you.  I don’t know if Jason told you, but Symone found out she’s pregnant yesterday morning.  So she’s been bouncing off the walls for two reasons.”

        “Really?  Congratulations!” she said with an honest smile, patting him on the shoulder.  “Jason didn’t tell me, as a matter of fact,” she added, giving him a cool look.

        “It wasn’t my news to give,” he shrugged.  “I’m shocked Symone didn’t blurt it out last night on the landing pad.  I guess she had something else on her mind,” he said with a rueful chuckle.

        “We’re gonna have a daughter,” Tim said.  “My first child, and hers too.”

        “You’ll find a child will complete your lives, Tim,” Dahnai told him.  “I’d feel like my life wasn’t worth living if I didn’t have my babies.”  She waved to Maer as he came hurtling down the slide, then stopped Rann as he hurried towards the steps of the slide, dropping down on one knee to look at him.  “You’re looking a bit blue there, little Rann,” she said with a laugh.

        “I know, isn’t it cool?” he said brightly.  “I wanna go home as blue as Danny!”

        “You need to convince your dad to do the same,” Dahnai said with a little smile.  “He looks much more handsome with blue skin.”

        “That’s your opinion,” he said archly.

        “I’m not turning blue everywhere, though,” he said, holding up the bottom of his foot to show them.

        “After you finish swimming, just lay down on a deck chair for a while, then turn over, and you’ll turn a nice shade of blue,” Dahnai instructed.

        “But then I can’t swim,” he protested.

        “We’re here as long as you want to stay, Ranny, so don’t worry,” she winked.  “Now go before Maer gets in front of you!” she urged, then she sent him on his way with a fond smack to his bare bottom.  Maer almost did, running by them, but Rann just barely beat him to the stairs, nearly running into the seven or eight year old girl in front of them.

        Shya came up to them and patted her mother on the thigh, which made her bend down again.  “Yes, sweetling?” she asked.

        “I can’t swim yet,” she complained.  “Can you take me on the slide, Mommy?”

        “Of course I can!” she said with a bright smile, standing up and taking her daughter’s hand.  “Come on, before we lose our place!”

        It was nice to see Dahnai like that.  She was the Empress, and had to show her royal, noble side to the world, which often had to be the appearance of ruthless strength and implacable resolve.  But she was also a mother, and she loved her children very much, so it was a joy to see her acting the role of the tender, loving mother, there for her children, making the most of the cruelty of her people’s tradition that separated her from her own children for the first ten years of their lives.  She absolutely adored all of her children, but she only got to keep them for one day in ten, and it was considered beyond the bounds of tradition for her to see them outside of that except for exceptional circumstances.  He knew she talked to them on the vidlink every day, but seeing your child on a video screen was a pale imitation of being able to hold and kiss her children.  If Jason was separated from Rann like that, he’d go insane with worry.  So it was an honest smile and hearty wave that graced Dahnai and Shya as they came down the water slide together moments later, Shya wrapped in her mother’s arms.

        She really is something special, isn’t she? Tim noted as the two of them splashed into the shallow pool at the foot of the slide, Shya laughing as Dahnai picked her up and swung her around in a circle.

        She’s everything I said she was, isn’t she?

        Oh yes, both in and out of bed, he noted with a sly smile.

        Well, she certainly liked you.  She said you met her every expectation, he sent with an audible chuckle.  And she’s claiming you for her bedroom tonight.  Jyslin is going to spend tonight with Kellin, and I guess I get Symone.

        That’s such a chore, Tim teased.

        Everyone else gets something new and exciting except for me.  You get Dahnai.  Jyslin gets Kellin.  I just get same old, same old, he said with an insincere sigh, which made Tim burst into laughter.

        Don’t ever let her catch you saying that, he warned with a bright-eyed grin.

        I’m not that stupid, Jason laughed.  Besides, she’s too busy right now, Jason chuckled, pointing to the pool.  Kellin and Symone were in the pool, water up to their waists, and she was hanging off of him with one hand while the other was suspiciously under the water.  Judging from Kellin’s expression, Jason had a pretty good idea where she had her hand.

        She’s being shameless, Jyslin noted with an amused tilt to her thoughts as she joined them in the shadow.  But she’s also having fun, so who are we to take her chaba pod?

        Poor Kellin, Tim laughed.  She’s going to drive him crazy before dinnertime.

        If she were human, I’d be nervous, Jason noted.

        Well, she only gets her shot at Kellin and Dahnai while we’re here, so it’s pretty clear where she’s focusing her effort, Tim said dismissively.

        Jyslin looked down.  You’re looking a little…gray, Tim.  Your dick looks like a week old steak.

        Guess all us human telepaths have the same vulnerability to the Draconis sun, Tim laughed.  I guess I should lay down and flip it over so it can tan evenly on both sides.

        Jyslin laughed, reached down, and checked the underside of his penis.  Yup, nice and pink.  I think you’re right.

        Such a flirt, Tim accused with a laugh.

        No, that’s flirting, she said, pointing at Kellin and Symone. Symone was now sitting on the edge of the pool, and she had her legs spread wide enough to give Kellin an unrestricted view without being overt about it.  One thing Jason had learned over the years was that Symone was a master of Faey flirting, and what she was doing was a tried and true flirtation among a species that considered nudity a proper thing.  She was displaying her charms in a seductive, sexual manner without being blatantly sexual about it.  Kellin waded up to stand inside her spread legs, his hands on her thighs as he looked up at her, and she laughed delightedly at something he said before sliding off the pool and into his arms.  But I’m not here to watch my amu dozei flirt with a guy.  I’m here to see if your balls are as big as my ovaries, she sent teasingly, pointing up at the top slide.

        I accept your challenge, wench! Tim sent in reply as Sirri ran by them, giggling.

        The top slide was a twisty, curvy, very high-speed slide that was restricted only to those tall enough to be able to use it safely.  They climbed up nearly a hundred feet to get to the entry, where a nude male lifeguard who was generously endowed, wearing nothing but a comm microphone and earpiece, smiled and helped them get ready.  He explained the rules of the slide to them in about ten seconds.  “Just keep your feet forward and stay on your back, my Lady, my Lords, if you please,” he said, offering his hand to Jyslin.  “May I help you into the slide, my Lady?”

        “Such a polite young man,” she smiled at him.  “I hope you two are paying attention!” she barked teasingly at them as he helped her sit in the water jets at the top of the slide that sent water splashing down the length.  He gave her a gentle urging push on her shoulders to let her know she could go, and she let go of the handles and picked up amazing speed before disappearing around a curve, her scream of delight chasing back up to them.

        Jason went next.  The guard helped him to sit in the water, which was warm, and he held the grips.  The slide was made of a plastic-like material that felt cool and smooth under his backside, which alleviated the worry of getting a friction burn in a few very sensitive spots.  The guard pushed gently on his shoulder, and Jason obligingly released the grips and let the water carry him out onto the slide.  Almost immediately, he felt like he was free-falling.  His stomach dropped out as he rocketed down the slide at amazing speed, sliding high up on the sides with the curves, even doing a barrel roll and sliding over the ceiling of the slide in one particularly twisty section.  He found the slide to be exhilarating, and he was laughing with delight as he hurtled down to the bottom.  He saw the frothy boundary where the slide emptied into the deeper side of the receiving pool, and he almost skidded over the surface of the water before sinking down.  He got his feet under him and rose up out of the water, shaking the water out as Jyslin pulled her wet hair back and over her shoulders, and she was still laughing.  “Demir’s sword, that was fun!” she proclaimed. “We have to build one of these, Jayce!  Let’s do it again!”

        Jason waded over to her as Tim raced out of the mouth of the slide, turning sideways, then sinking into the water with a splash that cascaded over both of them.  He rose up out of the water and spat a stream of water out, which made Jason and Jyslin laugh brightly.  “Damn, that rocks!” Tim agreed.  “Let’s go again!”

        “We were saying the same thing,” Jyslin grinned brightly.  Symone!  Kellin!  Come on the slide with us! she called.

        Sure!  Be right there! Symone answered.

        Aww, no fair!  I wanna go on the big slide! Rann protested, who had just come down the small slide and was in the wading pool, wading into the deeper water towards them.

        You aren’t tall enough, sweetie, I’m sorry, Jyslin told him with empathy in her thoughts, comforting him even as she broke the bad news to him.

        Why does that matter?

        It has a twist in it that would hurt you if you’re too small, Jason told him.  Just be patient, Rann, you’ll get to slide on the big slide when you’re older.

        It’s always when I’m older! he protested, which made the three of them laugh.

        You’d better get back to the side before you lose your place in line, Jyslin warned, which spurred their son to half swim, half run to the steps, then run around the side of the splash pool towards the stairs.

        Symone and Kellin joined them as they went up the slide, then they sent Symone down first.  She made a wonderful scream as she started down the slide, that went on for about ten seconds before she finally took a breath.  Kellin had ridden the slide before, so he was more than eager to go next, and he made no sound at all.  Jason went after Kellin, and again thoroughly enjoyed the twisting, turning slide, navigating the splash pool with much more grace the second time, able to skim the surface and sink down without going completely under this time, making a controlled entry.  He got his feet under him easily, and saw Symone laughing richly between coughs just a bit ahead of him with Kellin slapping her lightly on the back.  “I was so busy screaming I didn’t see the bottom, and tried to inhale the pool!” she admitted with a self-deprecating laugh.  “I think you’d get better results if you slapped my front, Kel,” she winked, thrusting her wet, bare breasts out at him.

        “No, you make different sounds when I do that,” he said urbanely, which made her laugh and wink at him.

        “If you feel like pounding something else, let me know,” she said, giving him a sultry look.  “I’d be happy to go into the bathroom with you and bend over.”

        “Not in public, Symone, or there’ll be pictures of me coming out of the pool with an erection running in every magazine on Draconis for a month,” he said lightly, which made her laugh.

        Jason was about to urge them to the stairs again, but a communion brought him up short.  [Jason,] Cybi’s voice touched him.  [Jason.]

        [Yes, Cybi?]

        [There has been an…incident back home,] she told him.  [It involves the Exiled.]

        [What?  What happened?]

        [Some of them used one of their ships to cross to the mainland.  There, they damaged several homes, assaulted some people, and attacked a Kizzik drone.]

        [Oh, no,] he communed, fear rising up in him.  [How many did it kill?]

        [One, and severely injured four others,] she answered.  [The drone was injured, but survived.  The Exiled are in a state of extreme agitation because of the death.  Aura requests you return to Karis to settle things down.  The Exiled are on the verge of open rebellion.]

        [Fuck,] Jason growled.  [I’m on my way,] he sighed.

        [I am sorry, Jason.  I know you were much looking forward to your trip.]

        [It’s not your fault, my friend.  Tell the twins I’ll be there as soon as I can.]

        [I will.  I will also inform Admiral Jaiya you are returning to Karis, so she is ready to jump back as soon as you arrive.]

        [Thanks.]  Aya, he called, a powerful sending that rippled across the palace, but also private.

        Yes, your Grace?

        There’s big trouble back home.  I have to get back to Karis fast.  Meet me at the dropship, but only bring enough to guard me.  I don’t want my family here without protection.  But stop by Dahnai’s apartment and pick up my court robes.  I’m going to need them.

        I’ll take care of it, your Grace.

        [Rann.  Answer me this way.]

        [Yes, Papa?]

        [There’s something very, very important I have to do back home.  There’s a problem with the Exiled so big that I have to go take care of it myself.  Tell your mommy that I should be back as soon as I can.  Do not send when you tell her this.  Speak to her, and only do it when you’re alone.  Can you do that for me, little man?]

        [I can, Papa.  Do you really have to go?]

        [Afraid so, kidlet.  Miss Aura said it’s really important that I come back, and she wouldn’t ask me to do it if she didn’t really need me there.]

        Jason hurriedly waded out of the pool, as the others looked at him in curiosity in Kellin’s case, concern on the others.  Dahnai, he called openly, I have to go home.  There’s an emergency.

        No! she protested suddenly and heatedly.  No, you can’t leave now!  You’ve not even been here a full day!

        Would you keep playing when your people needed you, Dahnai? he sent, a bit chidingly.  And only I am going back.  Everyone else is staying, and if things go well, I might make it back here by tonight.

        Well…in that case, I guess I can permit it, she sent, but she was bitterly disappointed, and it bled into her thought.

        I’ll be back as soon as I can, he promised, breaking into a run as soon as he was out of the pool.

        He didn’t have time to dress.  He just grabbed his clothes, wrapped a towel around himself, and startled quite a few Faey as he barreled across the grounds, running around the side of the palace grounds in a rarely-traveled area to get to the main landing pad, where his dropship would be waiting.  Aya was waiting for him on the pad, with his court robe garment bag over her armored shoulder.  Let’s go, he told her urgently, hurrying up the steps.  Is it just you and me?

        I’m all you’ll need until we get wherever we’re going.  I’ve already called back to Karis and I have a dropship with a full squad of Dukal Guard ready to escort us wherever we’re going.

        We’re going to talk about that once we’re out of range of Dahnai’s listeners.

        Wise.

        Jason explained it to her on the way up to the Trelle’s Gift with four fighter escorts, and Aya frowned when she heard what happened.  What insanity would possess Exiled to sail to Embraijn and commit acts of violence?

        I have no idea, but they were utter idiots to attack a Kizzik drone, he sent darkly.  They should know what Kizzik are, they had information on all the races of the Imperium from their history!

        I think the Kizzik joined the Imperium after the Third Civil War, Aya sent speculatively.  But still, I would be a fool to attack a nine shakra tall insect with razor-sharp blades for arms.  Would they not think that the insect would fight back if they attacked it?

        I have no idea, but I’m gonna be so busy deciding whose ass to kick first that I’ll probably stand there like an idiot for a good minute, he sent with a growl.

        Jaiya had been prepared, and the ship left orbit with two escort ships as soon as the dropship and Raptors were in the bay and a second dropship took off to replace it on the ground.  The ships set out at flank speed, 120% maximum engine output, which would get them to jump distance in about 9 minutes because of the exponential acceleration aspect of gravometric engines when they were shifted out of space translation mode and into a mode of operation similar to Imperium gravometric engines.  Ships had to scramble out of their way as they raced away from the planet, gaining velocity at a frightening rate, and then starting to decelerate so they could be at jump speed the instant they were far enough away to jump safely.  Jason allowed Aya to help dry him as he downloaded video of the attack in Embraijn, and he was disgusted.  The Exiled had sailed off to the south on their ship, circled very wide of the island, then came back and landed at the marina of Embraijn.  Marina workers came out to help them, and were pelted with rocks.  About 14 youths, 9 girls and 5 boys, then flooded into Embraijn carrying shoulder-slung pouches filled with rocks.  They threw them at pedestrians.  They threw them through windows.  They tore down plas-pole signs.  One young woman hit a child in the head with a rock, and the child had to be taken to the hospital.  Then, came the attack.  A group of 7 Exiled came around a corner and encountered a lone Kizzik drone helping two Makati at an unearthed trench, where they were installing a new spur line for the water system.  The 7 Exiled assaulted the three of them with rocks, and where the Makati dove into the trench, the Kizzik turned and attacked.  It all but tore the lone fatality in half with its sword arms, and inflicted multiple wounds on the terrified teens before the KMS finally responded.  They held off the Kizzik using their armor, not attacking it, and it had injured itself trying to attack the armored soldiers.  The noble finally came to calm it down.

        There was some blame on both sides, he saw.  The youths certainly carried the majority of the blame for doing something so stupid, but the KMS had failed to respond quickly.  Jason counted a 5 minute delay from the initial contact at the marina until the KMS finally got on the scene, and that had been just long enough to get one of the Exiled killed.

        After they jumped back, he scrambled into his court robes as they raced towards Karis, not having enough time to dress properly.  He forewent the underclothes and just had Aya help him get the outer robe on, which looked a little baggy on him without the inner robe to go with it.  Jaiya relayed his instructions to Karis as they approached, and there were quite a few of them.  He didn’t fly down in a dropship, he flew down in a two-seater Raptor trainer they sent up for him when they reached orbit.  The dropship holding the other Dukal guards joined him about ten miles out from Exile, and they landed to an ugly scene.  KMS infantry and two Gladiators were on the island, facing a shouting, angry crowd of Exiled that were gathered in the open square area just by the docks where their sailing vessels were tied up.  He saw one young male Exiled rush forward and throw something at an armored KMS infantry soldier, which bounced harmlessly off her armor.

        ENOUGH! Jason’s savage sending rocked across the island, making several Exiled almost fall to their knees. Jason used his absolute, gestalt-boosted power, and with the gestalt, Jason had tremendous power.  I want the Council, the Chieftess, Meya, Myra, and the Exiled who sailed to the mainland in front of my ship the instant I land! he thundered as the Raptor made a slow descent behind another dropship.  He saw in his mind’s eye the smaller dropship that would be carrying the Kizzik noble to which the drone from Embraijn was attached.

        He landed and opened the canopy, then swung over and dropped to the ground.  Without his armor, it was quite a jump, and the robe billowed up to show the whole town of Exiled that he wasn’t wearing anything underneath it.  Aura, the Council, the twins, and six young Exiled women padded hesitantly towards him, and he marched resolutely towards them.  They stopped, he stopped, and he cast a scathing glare across the entire host.  Now, someone explain to me what the hell happened.

        One of your monsters killed Hayr Zevarre! one of the young women sent angrily.  It killed a young man!

        Really?  And exactly why was he on the mainland? Jason asked, giving the woman who sent a withering stare.

        She was guiltily silent.

        Thought you’d jaunt over to the mainland, terrorize a few locals, deface a few signs, and make a nuisance of yourself so you could impress the boys you took with you, did you? Jason asked scathingly.  Strike a blow for the Exiled and their unjust imprisonment on this god-forsaken rock?

        The teenager flushed and looked away awkwardly.  No doubt, Jason had nailed exactly why they did it.

        But then you had the utter lack of sense to harass a nine shakra tall insect with SWORD BLADES ON ITS ARMS? he raged, which made her shrink back from him fearfully.

        It attacked us! one of the others sent in defense.

        Of course it did!  If someone threw a rock at me, I’d do something about it too!

        It tried to kill us! another sent in outrage.

        Yes, it did, Jason sent bluntly.  What you decided to annoy is called a Kizzik.  “Kizzik,” he said aloud.  Kizzik come in two varieties, nobles and drones.  You encountered a drone.  Drones are stupid and react on instinct when faced with a situation they can’t understand.  You acted in a way it construed to be an attack, and it attacked back.  The difference is, a Kizzik attacks for one reason and one reason only.

        To kill, Meya sent gravely.

        So, your merry little excursion to strike a blow for the Exiled against your evil captors GOT SOMEONE KILLED! he blasted.  You cost a young man his life!

        It wasn’t our fault, it tried to kill us!

        It wouldn’t have touched you if you’d HAVE STAYED ON THE ISLAND! he raged immediately in response.  Did you think I put you here because I wanted you to feel trapped?  Did you think I put you here to make this a prison?  No!  I put you here because there are things out there you do not understand, and on this planet, what you do not understand CAN KILL YOU! he sent savagely, glaring at the young women.  I thought that you, my own people, would have the sense to not do something so stupid!  And for such a childish reason!  I saw the reports, and I watched the recording of your little stunt over in Embraijn.  Breaking windows?  Throwing rocks at residents and tearing down signs?  You sailed across the strait to act like common vandals and thugs!  What explanation do you have for such outrageous behavior?

        You keep us as prisoners! the tallest of the young women challenged.  You tore us from our homes without justification, and now you imprison us on this island!  It’s a captive’s right to try to escape!

        Escape?  Escape? Jason sent incredulously.  If you were trying to escape, why did you make sure to terrorize the village across the strait and attract so much attention to yourselves? he asked scathingly.  Why didn’t you sneak off into the mainland?  As I recall, we have a forest reclamation project just beyond the town.  He looked out over the strait pointedly.  Yup, I can see the trees from here.  Why didn’t you land on the coast by the trees and slink off into the forest?  No, you didn’t do that.  I have some interesting video of you mooring at a dock at Embraijn, and when a couple of people came out to see what you needed, you threw rocks at them!  I should give you some points for preparedness, since you brought your own rocks! he snapped.  Then there’s this lovely footage of you running down the street with your pouches of rocks, throwing them at anything that moved, breaking windows, and hurting people.  Did you have fun?  And which of you mighty warriors was the one that hit the four year old boy in the head with a rock and sent him to the hospital?  Huh? he demanded hotly.

        You did this? Aura demanded with sudden anger.  You attacked a child?

        The young women were very silent, and fear was just starting to creep into their expressions.

        The other dropship landed, and the young women, Aura, the council, and many of the Exiled gasped and shrank back when a Kizzik noble.  She scrabbled up to him, crossed her blade arms before her, and bowed at the waist to him.  “I am Sk’Kr’Skt, humble daughter of the Karinne-Hive.  I greet the revered Hive-Leader,” the interface on her shoulder translated monotonously into Faey.

        “I greet the honored daughter of the Hive,” Jason returned.  The Grand Duke, or Hive-Leader in this case, did not bow or make any motion of humility to one of lower rank.  “I will speak so she may understand, since she cannot send, nor hear our sending,” Jason said, using archaic Faey that they would comprehend.  “What you have done is absolutely inexcusable!” he said hotly.  “If I could throw you in prison for causing the death of Hayr, I would!  But unfortunately, stupidity is not a criminal offense, and I follow the rule of law, not the rule of my own whim!” he said, looking scathingly at them.  “I will instead leave this matter in the hands of the council and your Chieftess, and allow them to dispense judgment upon you by the rules of justice of your own people.  But from this point on, nobody will leave this island without permission, and you will not be so childish!  If you have a problem with the rules I have set and the place I have given you, then take it up with me.  Do not sail to the mainland and throw rocks at innocent Karinnes who had nothing to do with your situation!  You talk to the Chieftess, and she will summon me.  Then you can throw rocks at me rather than being stupid infants!”  He glared at them a moment.  “Aura, remove them.  They are yours to judge and punish by the laws and customs of your people.”

        Aura, a bit pale, nodded and had the council remove the young women.

        “Honored daughter, I have summoned you here to help me with a different matter,” he said.  “I think it is wise to introduce the Exiled to the Kizzik.”

        “I am honored to be of assistance, Hive-Leader.  What of my drone?”

        “Was he badly injured?”

        “No.”

        “Then we will tend his needs and return him to you well and whole.”

        “That is satisfactory.”

        “What name do the Karinnes use to address you, honored daughter?”

        “They refer to me as Skrit,” she answered.

        “May I use this name for you?”

        “As it pleases you, revered Hive-Leader.”

        Jason marched up to face the angry crowd, moving past the KMS guards, standing there in his ill-fitting court robe, and his face was filled with grim resolve.  “People of Exile,” he boomed, “I bring before you a creature of the same species as the one whom your teens attacked, so you may hear from her why her drone reacted as it did.  I offer this in no way as any form of defense.  I only wish you to understand the full truth of this matter, and then judge for yourself.  Skrit,” he urged, motioning behind himself to her.

        Skrit ambled up past Jason on her four legs, then took a place in front of him, addressing the crowd of Exiled.

        “As you might notice, I do not speak.  I use this device of the Karinnes to translate the intent of my words in a way you can understand.  Nor do I have the sense that you call hearing.  I cannot hear the words you speak, instead this device hears your words for me and then translates it into what I may comprehend.  So understand that I will speak to you with this device standing between the truth of my intent and what you might here.  There may be…incorrectness in this translation, for this machine cannot understand the intent of the words I speak, it can only struggle to try to shape my intent into words you can understand,” she began, looking at the crowd, then she turned and beckoned towards the dropship.  Jason looked, and saw two Kizzik drones amble out, their chitinous legs clacking on the ramp of the dropship as they clattered up to the noble.  The Exiled shrank back a little as the two hulking brutes took up positions behind the noble.  These are my drones,” she explained.  “They are my workers and my protectors.  They are the hands and swords of the hive, where I am the mind of the hive.  This is what your pupae attacked.”

        Her word pupae means teenagers, adolescents.  She has no corresponding word in our language, and the device she wears translates her words literally, he sent quickly to explain.

        “Among my species, there are two branches of Kizzik.  There are the drones, and then there are we nobles.  My drones are not very intelligent,” she told them.  “They are workers and defenders.  They allow us to do their thinking for them, and in return, we work with them to make the hive prosper.  When left alone, my drones will do as I told them to do, but if they encounter something which they do not understand, they will react on instinct.  If your pupae threatened them, then they would react by meeting that threat.  And my drones do not understand the concept of a fight where they do not battle to kill.  They do not understand your ways.  Most Karinnes understand this about our drones, and treat them with peace and kindness.  When you treat them with respect and kindness, they are gentle and helpful.  But when you threaten them with violence, they respond with violence.  A drone will treat you as you treat it.  Your pupae reacted to them with violence, and they responded in kind.  I would admit that part of the blame for this lies with me, for I should not have left my drone unattended at his task.  But I did not foresee the possibility that Exiled would cross the water in a boat against the wishes of the Hive-Leader and accost my drone.”

        “Thank you, Skrit.  You may return to your duties.  The gratitude of the Hive-Leader goes with you.”

        She crossed her sword-arms in front of herself and bowed, then ambled back towards the dropship with her drones following her.

        So, now you know both sides of it, Jason sent to the Exiled.  Remember that you’re here for your own safety as much as to give you a place of your own while you either work to integrate into House Karinne or await the opportunity to return to your planet.  I didn’t think I’d need to do something as simple as tell you not to go to the mainland, but I see I was in grave error.  So, from this point on, no Exiled ship will be allowed to come within two kathra of the mainland.  You will stay on the island, where you may feel more safe, and where you can’t get into any more trouble, he sent, with a bit of a dangerous tone.  You will stay on the island until you prove that you will not allow another instance like this to happen again.

        What of my son? An angry, mourning sending sizzled through the air accusingly.  What of my Hayr!  What will bring that monster to justice for killing my son?

        Your son died not because of the Kizzik, but because he allowed himself to be talked into doing something foolish, Jason sent in reply, using a gentle and reasonable tone.  He was firm, but his sending also conveyed his feeling of responsibility and the sense of loss, with a hint of anger that this had happened.  You do not blame the well when a child ignores the rope around it and climbs over it, then promptly falls down into it.  The Kizzik was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and your son’s friends made a costly mistake in throwing rocks at it, which it interpreted as an attack.  If you do not believe my words, I will make available a viddy recording of your youths running amok in Embraijn, the attack on the Kizzik, and the Kizzzik’s retaliation, which were also recorded.  This, though, will not be available for the entire village to view, for it captured the death of Hayr, and I would not subject the Exiled to that image.  That somber recording will only be made available to the Chieftess, the council, and to the family of Hayr should they wish to view it, so they may see the truth of what happened.

        The Chieftess and your council have the authority to mete out whatever justice they feel is necessary in the matter, and so I will allow them to do so.  But I implore you, in the strongest possible terms, to listen to the decision of the Chieftess and view the evidence I present before you before you condemn me or the house for this incident.  As I said, I will not accuse or pass judgment here, I will leave that to you.  But I want you to understand that I’m not trying to keep you prisoner here.  I’m not trying to be a tyrant.  I need to keep you here where you’re safe from the things you haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn about and understand.  Had you time to learn of Karis, then you would have been taught about the Kizzik and introduced to them in an entirely different way, for the Kizzik are actually a peaceful and intelligent race, who fight only when they feel threatened.  Had your youths learned about the other races on Karis, they would have known better than to attack a Kizzik drone.  That is why I see this as a tragic and foolish accident, and not an act of aggression.  Because I do understand the Kizzik, and I know that a drone would never attack without provocation.  I provided you this island so you might feel comfortable and safe while you either learn about Karis or wait to return to Exile, not feel violated upon by Karinnes.  I did not place you here so you would feel like I have imprisoned you.

        He plucked at his robes.  This is how important I felt it was to address you.  I was on Draconis, at court, when word reached me of this, and I rushed home to straighten this out.  I didn’t exactly have enough time to look the part of the Grand Duke for you, he sent ruefully, lifting the robe enough to expose his bare legs, which produced a few twitters of laughter.  I was attending a party the Empress was hosting honoring my son Rann’s first visit to court and his first official state visit to his betrothed wife, Shya Merrane, the Empress’ younger daughter.  Empress Dahnai was holding the party at her swimming facility, to provide entertainment to the children present.  And we don’t exactly wear court robes to swim.  So, next time I come to Exile, please make it a pleasant visit where I might come among you and learn about you, celebrate with you, and come to feel closer to you, not when I get summoned back to deal with a tragedy that could have been prevented.

        He turned without another word and stalked back towards his dropship, but he pointed at the twins.  Come with me, he sent darkly.  They followed along behind him in trepidation, and as soon as they got back to the Raptor, he turned and gave them both a hard look.  “How the fuck did this happen?” he demanded.  “Five minutes!  Five minutes the Exiled were running wild in Embraijn!”

        “We never thought to put military units in the town,” Myra said contritely.  “They don’t really have the facilities.  And when it happened, when the surveillance warned us that they were approaching the town, we didn’t have any dropships on the island.  The one we usually keep here was ferrying a child with a compound fracture he suffered in a fall to Karsa, we didn’t have the facilities to repair that kind of damage.”

        “We also don’t keep any KMS here on the island, Jayce, you know that,” Meya said defensively.  “You made the order yourself, to prevent the Exiled from feeling they’re under military occupation.  So there was no one here who had armor or any antigrav that could cross the strait quickly to head it off.  All we had was a single Raptor pilot with armor in the area, and when she tried to stop the gang, it just split up on her and made it impossible for her to stop them all.  They had to scramble a response team from Treya, and that’s fifty kathra away.  We called it in as soon as we saw the Exiled sloop approaching Embraijn, and it took them nearly fifteen minutes to get troops here.  They didn’t think it was very important until the Exiled landed at the marina and started assaulting citizens.”

        Jason frowned, but he could see that it wasn’t really their fault.  If anything, it was his.  He should have put a garrison in Embraijn, and he remembered thinking about doing just that.  But he’d never got around to making the order.  “Alright,” he sighed.  “I’ll make sure that never happens again.”

        “So, you don’t blame us?” Myra asked.

        “I guess not,” he told them.  “As far as the lack of response goes, I think it’s my fault more than anyone else’s.  I never dreamed they’d do something like that.  I’ve been trying to see them as us so hard, I blinded myself to the truth that they are not us.  At least not all of them, and not yet.  I promise I’ll fix that.  From now on, you’ll be two minutes from armed intervention if it’s needed.” He glanced to where the council and Aura were, dressing down the seven young ladies.  Jason noted that the young men weren’t there.  “Cybi,” he said aloud, accessing his gestalt and communing in unison with his words.

        “Yes, Jason?” came an audible reply, as he put Cybi’s communion on the speaker of his gestalt so the twins could hear.

        “Relay this command to Central.  I want a temporary garrison of fifty infantry in Embraijn set up by the end of the day.  I want them armed with gear to subdue a possible riot without any harm to the rioters.”

        “I will relay the order,” she promised.  “Shall I make it a direct command, or a guideline from which they can alter the order as they see fit?”

        “They can adjust the order as they see fit, but remind them that we’re not imprisoning the Exiled on the island.  So I don’t want to see any armed patrols, no force fields, no Raptors or Gladiators hovering threateningly over the island.  If they want to station some mecha here, that’s fine, but they don’t make an issue out of being visible as some kind of threat to the Exiled.  Just make the preparations and keep them low-key.”

        “Very well.”

        “There, problem solved,” Jason sighed.  “But I see another couple of hours here coming,” he added when Aura hurried up to him.

        Your Grace, we wish you to attend our discussion about this incident, before we take up the matter with the children.

        That’s fine.  But I can’t stay here for days, the Empress is expecting me to return to Draconis.

        We only wish you attend the initial conference so we might understand the full truth of the matter.  After we know, then we would not wish to delay you any longer.

        Good.  So, let’s get this going.

        They retreated to a council chamber, and Jason spent nearly two hours with them.  He showed them the video surveillance of Embraijn, and after warning them of the graphic and disturbing nature of the attack on the Kizzik, he showed that to them as well.  After that, they discussed the attack, the repercussions, and the unrest the death had caused on the island.  The council was worried, but not because the Exiled might rebel.  They were more worried about bad feelings festering, and that it would cause most of the Exiled to return to their planet when Jason claimed it.

        He couldn’t refute that…and maybe, he started to realize, that was best.  He had falsely embraced the idea that the Exiled would want to come home, would happily return to Karis…and many of them would.  But the circumstances of having to move and the restriction of being put here were too much for them, and they were angry and resentful.

        Perhaps it would be best to keep the peace on Karis to get them off the planet as soon as possible.

        Jason took a moment as one of the council debated how to keep order and accessed his gestalt and had it check the schedules.  The interdictor would be finished in three days.  And what was more important, the next interdictor would be finished in about ten days.  As they completed the first interdictor, all the workers just didn’t have the room to work on it, so those who no longer had room to work on the first interdictor had started a second.  And the second and subsequent interdictors had the advantage of now having a system of construction in place.  They had available parts, they had assembly protocols, and they had the experience of having done it before.  Myleena estimated that they’d be able to build an interdictor every 10 days once they got into full production.  So, that put reclaiming Exile two weeks out.  There was still the need to put a Stargate there, but he could manage that.  He was the amu dorai of the Empress, and it was about time to abuse that relationship.  He would beg a Stargate from Dahnai, then claim Exile…and in so doing, he would send the Exiled that wanted to go home back.

        Jason stood up abruptly.  Tell your people that in two takirs, we can start taking them back to Exile, he announced.  By then, I should have the interdictor and Stargate we need to defend the system from the Consortium.  The interdictor needed for Exile will be finished in a takir and four days.  We have to take it to Exile and turn it on, and it will take it two days to fully activate.  This incident reminds me that there are people on Karis who do not want to be here, and that goes against the entire ideal of this planet.  I will allow all who wish to leave to return to Exile, and return to the original plan of opening ties to Exile for those who wish to remain, so they enjoy our assistance without having to live on Karis.  Those who wish to stay on Karis will be welcomed, with the understanding that those who remain here must stay here until such time that I am absolutely sure that we can hold Exile from the Consortium. I will not release those with intimate knowledge of the house into a position where they can be captured.

        Aura stood up, her face somber.  I intend to stay here, she announced.  So those who wish to return need to declare themselves and choose a new council and a new Chieftess to lead them.

        Leave that to your own devices, Jason warned.  I was hoping that by bringing you home, you might at least enjoy all we had to offer, but I see that some are so bitter over taking them from Exile that they will refuse any kindness we offer.  So, I’m changing our plans and securing Exile early, and then I’ll send those who wish to return back to the planet.  Those that wish to stay, may stay.  Those that wish to go, may go.  Now, if there’s nothing else you need me for, I’ll excuse myself and return to Draconis.

        Your Grace, please, remain, Aura sent to him privately.  I need to talk to you after this conference.

        Only if it won’t take too long.

        Our tradition is to hold councils of trial three days after the complaint is brought forth, so that everyone may prepare.  So after this council is done, we will adjourn.  You may wait in my home if you wish.

        Alright, but I’ll only wait an hour, he warned, then he sent openly.  Good day to you, he said in farewell, then Aya escorted him from the room.  “What a mess,” he sighed as they left the building.

        Is it wise to waste resources on Exile when we need them for the Imperium?

        I wanted the planet anyway, he answered her.  And since it’s already verdant, we could get to work farming there quickly.  I meant to go secure it after getting some defenses in place in the Imperium, but I also have a duty to my people.  A duty more important than a duty to the Imperium.  They’ve made it clear that they’re not happy here, and so I will allow them to go back to Exile if they want.  Dahnai will just have to wait a couple of extra weeks.

        A risk.

        No more than losing another innocent life here, he answered her.  And I won’t allow that.

        Jason waited in Aura’s living room with Aya and four other Dukal Guard standing silent guard with him.  He had them bring him some clothes from home, and Aya helped him remove his robe without tearing the cords.  Jason had wanted to look like he had been rushed to get here to create just that image, that he had dropped everything and came running when he heard what happened…which was the truth. But seeing it was much different than them just hearing him say it.  But now that it was over, he wanted to get out of his court robe before he tore it or stained it.  It hadn’t been cheap, it had been personally tailored just for him, and a good court robe was hard to make.  Jason was so used to Aya, and had become so used to Faey customs, that he really didn’t even think twice about standing naked in front his guards.

        Aura naturally chose that moment to enter, and he saw her eyes take him in from across the room, lingering on his lower half brazenly…or at least brazenly to a human.  Despite a thousand years of isolation, the Exiled had the same basic Faey concepts of propriety when it came to such things.  They too saw the nude form as beauty, saw nothing wrong with admiring a nude body, and her admiration of him was an entirely proper thing.  To pretend not to admire him could be construed as insulting.

        Enjoying the view? he asked idly as Aya carefully folded his robe for him, and Maena offered him a pair of underwear.

        You are very handsome, your Grace, she answered, and to Jason’s surprise, there was a hint of sexual desire lurking under her thoughts, almost unconsciously.  He had seen her admiring him before, but he’d never detected any amorous currents in her thought before.  Since he had an attraction to her because she reminded him of Dahnai, it seemed to catch his attention in a manner that wasn’t entirely proper.  She was interested in him, and interested sexually.  And Jyslin had already given him permission to sample Aura if the opportunity ever showed itself….

        He blinked and looked away from her, then took his briefs from Maena with a nod of thanks.  Not now.  He was expected back on Draconis, and he didn’t really have time.  He knew she was attracted to him now.  If he invited her to his bed, she very well may accept.  But when he came back, he was of a mind to summon Aura to some neutral location, take those clothes off of her, and find out just how much like Dahnai she really was.

        If you can’t wait to get back, you may use my house, your Grace.

        Huh?

        Her eyes drifted down, and he looked down to see that his penis was erect.  His musing of Aura had caused his body to respond.

        Oh, he sent, flushing slightly as Aya smiled at him.  Sorry about that.

        No need to apologize to me, your Grace, Aura told him.  You have honored me by giving me insight into your private life, and I understand you are going to return to your wife and both your amu dorai.  No doubt you’re anxious to return to the arms of a lover, as any virile young man would be.  If you can’t wait that long, though, you may take whichever guard who serves as your consort up to my room.

        Jason accessed the time on his gestalt.  It was 1917 hours on Draconis, and that was about midafternoon on Draconis, since days there were 30.04 hours long, and days on Karis were 28.92 hours long.  That was about five hours before sunset, and since Dahnai usually retired to her apartment for personal time with her family at 2300 hours and started court at around 0900 hours, that left a sizable window.

        He had an hour or so before time really pressed on him to return to Draconis.  And he already had permission to pursue Aura if he so wished.

        I think I will use your bedroom, Aura, Jason sent, pushing the briefs back at Maena.  He stepped up to Aura and grabbed her hand.  Interested?

        She gave him a surprised look, then her cheeks stained a lovely shade of violet.  I would be honored, your Grace.

        I’d rather you be willing.

        Oh, yes, I am most willing! she agreed with an excited smile.

        Then let’s go.  I don’t have much time, so I apologize in advance that this must be quick.  If that doesn’t bother you, that is.

        Aura almost dislocated his shoulder as she rushed towards the stairs.

 

        Wow.

        Aura had been very satisfying, and he did not regret having sex with her in the slightest.  She was almost as enthusiastic about sex with him as his loves, and since they didn’t have time to really enjoy it the way Jason was used to, she made up for it with vigor and passion.  She gave him a wild, hot, highly erotic ride, even when she was on her back and with her legs high in the air.  She too was a prolific sender during sex, but she wasn’t as invasive as Dahnai, more content to broadcast her pleasure to him without trying to push herself into the private domain reserved for Jyslin and Symone.  She was much more demure, and despite her strong body and tall frame, she was submissive, letting him do whatever he wanted, which was diametrically different from Dahnai, who liked to dominate even during sex.  Her body was sweet and erotic to him, but that was Dahnai’s fault, since her body had made him attracted to women with a little muscle on them, and Aura was certainly well built with both strong muscle and feminine curves.  That was what had caused his initial attraction to Aura in the first place, her muscular, tight little body.

        It took him a few minutes to regain his breath after they had shared an intense climax together, and Aura lay under him, her hands stroking his sides, shoulders and chest sensually, looking up at him with her striking golden eyes.  Did I please you, your Grace?

        Aura.  We just had sex.  I think that gives you the right to call me Jason now.

        She laughed delightfully and pulled him down into a kiss.  Did I please you, Jason? she asked even as she kissed him.

        Didn’t I just pump about a gallon of come into you?

        I believe you did, she sent impishly.  I thought it was wonderful, she sent in satisfaction.  Ever since my husband and child died, I’ve not shared in the joys of sex as much as others, nor as much as it has been offered to me.  It reminded me too much of my beloved Trannan.  But I’m glad I gave myself to you.  You were both gentle and strong, and you reminded me of the ecstasy I can find in the arms of a man I find beautiful.  She laughed.  I just hope your wife and amu dorai aren’t angry with me.  I’m not the consort they usually entrust to satisfy your appetite when they’re not with you.

        Jyslin gave me permission, he assured her.  I’ve been attracted to you since I went to Exile and we bathed together.  Your body reminded me of Dahnai, and I’m very attracted to Dahnai, so I became physically attracted to you.  I hide nothing from my wife, and I told her about it.  She already gave me permission to have sex with you if I had the opportunity.  And she’s the only one that really matters.  Symone wouldn’t care either way, and Dahnai doesn’t really have the right to tell me who I can sleep with.  When I sensed your desire when you were staring at my dick, I decided to act on it.

        I’ve never been happier to make a mistake, she laughed.  I was trying very hard to keep that out of my thoughts.

        I’m glad too.  You’re the equal of any of my women in bed, Aura.

        The result of months of abstinence, she admitted with a smile.  You took a woman to bed who hasn’t had an orgasm in months.

        Well, your hunger made it very intense, he sent with a teasing smile.  But now I have to get back to Draconis.  My wife and amu are waiting for me, and I’m sure I’ll be spending a while tonight telling them all about my sexual adventure with you.  They love to hear it when I’m acting naughty.  They actually encourage me to sleep around, because they love the idea that I’m embracing Faey values more and more.

        If you ever wish to be naughty again, I am always available, your Grace, she told him with a bright-eyed smile, taking one of his hands and placing it on her full breast, urging him to fondle her.  He did so, enjoying the feel of her full, responsive breast, then he leaned down and kissed her nipple, which made her sigh in pleasure and slide the inside of her thigh along his hip and leg.

        “Sneaky girl, you’re not baiting me into another session when I’m going to be scolded for being late as it is,” he teased aloud, bending down and kissing her nipple, then rising up off of her, which caused their genitals to separate from their sexual joining.  But there will be other opportunities, he promised, patting her on her lower belly, then running his fingers through her trimmed golden pubic hair.  I can’t offer you a relationship or regularity.  Our sexual relationship will be a casual one, Aura, but there will be one.  I do have a wife and an amu dozei, and they keep me satisfied.  But, on those days when you’re in the mood and I’m available, I’ll be happy to pay you a little visit, he told her, sliding his fingers below her golden pubic hair to grope her in a most intimate manner.  I found you to be a vigorous and exceptionally passionate lover, and I’ll happily kneel between your open legs and fuck this gorgeous pussy, he finished, assaulting her with graphic thoughts, images, and impulses as he stared right at her vulva

        You mean man, telling me there’s no time, yet fondling me in such an intimate manner while sending such erotic thoughts! she accused with a lovely smile.  I should demand satisfaction for that!

        Now that’s what I want, he sent.  I’m not just the Grand Duke, Aura, I’m also a man.  So if you start thinking of me as an institution instead of a person again, I’m gonna spank you…and not the fun way.  The next time you call me your Grace when we’re in private, I’ll do much worse to you, and then leave you hanging.  And trust me, I know how to leave you hanging in a way that makes you run out and rape the first man you come across.  I have practice in it.

        She laughed helplessly, then sat up and gave him a lingering kiss.  It’s not easy, but I’ll try, she told him.  And you owe me for that!

        Then you’ll have to come collect some day, he smiled, leaning down and kissing her.  But I have to get dressed and get back to Draconis now.

        Jason, if you had interest in me, why did you wait until now to act on it? she asked as they both got out of her bed, and Aya came in with a smug little smile, holding his clothes.  Surely you know that I would have submitted to you no matter what.  You are my Grand Duke, it would have been a matchless honor for you to be sexually attracted to me.  I would never deny your advances.

        That’s one reason why, he told her, taking his clothes from Aya with a nod of thanks.  I don’t have sex with women who consider it a duty, only those who come to my bed because they’re sexually attracted to me.  I never use my position to browbeat women into sex.  If I want sex, I have a wife and an amu dozei to give me all the sex I want, he declared.  I also gave you space because I wasn’t sure how your people would react to finding out you were having sex with me.  It might have undermined your position of authority.  But now that I’ve made it public that your people may return to Exile if they want, that’s a moot point.

        I doubt that would have mattered to my people, Jason.  Sex is not something one does in public space, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy it and celebrate the beauty of it.  One sign of friendship between a man and a woman is them exploring their sexual attraction to each other.  They would probably have seen it in a positive light, she told him.  If we had a sexual liaison, then they’d feel that you were closer to us because you found one of us attractive and desirable.  Your alien nature puts many of my people off, Jason.  But now, when I go out there and reveal we’ve had sex because we share a mutual attraction, it will Faeyize you in their eyes.  They will see that I am your friend now, and that might make them more at ease.

        I didn’t think of that, Jason admitted as he pulled his shirt on.  I’m still feeling out just how similar the Exiled are to other Faey.  Pretty similar, I’m coming to discover.

        I’m happy to hear that, she said, her eyes locked on his body as he dressed, watching him.  I’ll do what I can to prepare both those staying and those returning to be ready when the time comes, Jason.

        Good.  Work with Meya and Myra, they’ll help you in any way they can, he said as he sat on the bed and slipped on a pair of soft moccasin-like shoes he preferred to wear without socks.  He put his arms around her and gave her another kiss, making sure to grab her backside with both hands while doing so.  Thanks for a fantastic hour, Aura, he sent impishly.  It was worth the scolding I’ll get when I get back.

        I’m happy to have made you happy, Jason, she answered.  And as soon as we both have the time, we must meet again when we have more time to enjoy it.

        That we will, he promised.  Oh.

        What?

        What was it you wanted to talk to me about?  I don’t think I let you get that far.

        She laughed.  Well, I wanted to offer a personal apology to you.

        Well, I’d say I’ve forgiven you, and you’ve forgiven me, he sent dryly.

        I’d have to agree, she laughed audibly in reply.

        He left her in the bedroom, as Aya and Maena walked with him out of the house.  Meya and Myra were standing in the square nearby, and they hurried up to him.  “Whatever were you doing in there for so long, Jayce?” Meya asked, her eyes dancing.

        “And what were those sounds I heard?  It sounded like ‘Oh!  Oh! Ohhhhh, Trelle, yes!’” Myra called, doing a good job at really hamming up her moaning.

        “Me and Aura had a private conference,” Jason said dryly as they fell into step with him, heading for the ships.

        “Private, eh?  I didn’t know that all of your private conferences involved banging the dignitary.  I guess those private conferences you had with the Urumi Brood Princesses had to be…bony,” Meya noted.

        “Stop being nasty,” Jason chided.

        “May as well ask the sun to go out, Jayce,” Myra teased with a wink.  “So, was she good?”

        “Was she worth the hell you’ll catch when you have to explain to the Empress why you were here so long?” Meya added.

        “She’s better than either of you,” he retorted.

        “We’ve never had sex before,” Myra protested.

        “Thus she’s better than you,” he told them.  “At least she got me horny enough to do her.  What have you two done for me lately?”

        They laughed.  “Why Jason, are you propositioning us?” Myra grinned.

        “No.  I’ll forever leave you two untouched, so I can always tease you about how much better other women are compared to you without ever having to prove it.”

        They exploded into laughter.

 

        He knew Symone and Jyslin wouldn’t mind if he was a couple of hours late because he was fucking Aura, something they actively encouraged, but there was no telling how Dahnai was going to react.  She was very jealous of the rare time she got to spend with him, and he wasn’t sure how she was going to see it when he admitted he was an hour late because he was screwing some unknown woman back on Karis.  But there wasn’t much he could do about it other than offer to give her time in compensation.  He’d just have to be honest about it.

        Aya was almost insufferable, and he had no idea why.  She just kept smiling and grinning at him, so much so that he started blushing every time he looked at her.  “What?” he finally asked, a bit testily, as they approached Draconis in Trelle’s Gift, already in the dropship and waiting to be given permission to launch.

        My, my, my, are you in trouble, she sent with a sly smile.  The Empress is going to skin you, your Grace.

        I know, I’m already working out how to make it up to her, he replied.  I guess I’ll plead temporary insanity and throw myself at the mercy of the court.

        Empress Dahnai isn’t known for mercy, Aya sent teasingly.

        I have an advantage over most others.  I can offer sex as an apology and have a moderate chance of it being accepted.

        Aya laughed soundlessly.

        When he got back to the palace at 2437, he was directed back to Dahnai’s apartment.  Aya escorted him back, and then gave him a teasing smile when they reached the door, which opened for him.  Good luck, she sent lightly as she sent him into the apartment, and then the doors were closed behind him.  Everyone was in the living room, he saw.  Dahnai was sitting with her legs draped over Tim’s lap, sitting sideways on the couch.  Symone and Jyslin were sitting on the floor with Kellin and the four children, playing a Terran board game, Monopoly, with Maer and Sirri, while Rann and Shya played with several dolls just past them.  “It’s about time,” Dahnai said sharply, looking up from her handpanel.  “What happened?”

        “We had a…problem,” he said, blowing out his breath.  “I’m afraid I can’t really explain it to you unless you swear yourself to secrecy.  Actually,” he frowned.  “I need to tell you anyway, because I’m going to be asking you for a huge favor.”

        “Oh really?” she asked, putting the panel aside as he came and sat on the other couch.

        “It’s your turn, Aunt Jyslin,” Sirri prompted.

        “Oh?  Fine,” she smiled, picking up the dice and rolling them.

        “Well, you know I’m not going to tell anyone, babe,” Dahnai told him.  “So what happened?”

        “Remember when I told you I was gathering all the Karinnes?  Well, I found some descendents of the original house,” he began.  “They call themselves the Exiled, and they fled the Imperium and hid out on a planet halfway across the galaxy.”

        “Woah!” Dahnai gasped.

        He nodded.  “To make a long story short, the Consortium must have followed us when we went to go see them, so I had to collect them up and bring them back to Karis.  But they’re not…happy,” he sighed.  “I had to go back because there was a fatality among the Exiled.  Some of their disgruntled youths went to a neighboring town and were harassing people by throwing rocks.  Well, one of them threw a rock at a Kizzik drone.”

        Dahnai winced.  “Not smart.”

        “They had no idea what it was, and naturally it attacked them.  You just don’t do that to a drone.”

        “No doubt.”

        “So, I had to run back and put out the fire when the Exiled threatened to form a mob over the death of one of their own.  They’ve proven to be a headache to me, so I’m going to do something about it.”  He looked at her.  “I want to buy two Stargates from you, Dahnai, but I can’t pay for them right now.  I have to get them on credit.  Would you lean on 2M for me?”

        “You’re going to put them back on the planet where you found them?”

        He nodded.  “The ones that want to go.  Oh, I’m not going to abandon them, I’ll use them to establish a Karinne colony on the planet.  I was actually planning to claim the planet from the start.  It’s arable, Dahnai, and since Karinne literally has to buy its own food, since Karis is still mostly barren and we leased out Terra to the Surrales, we need a farming planet of our own.  I could really turn it into a farming powerhouse, but it’s literally halfway across the galaxy.  That’s too far away for me to defend, and since the Consortium already knows about it, I can’t very well just put them back or claim the planet without defending it.  They’re my people.  So, I’m going to put an interdictor there.  But, to do that, I need a Stargate.  Once I get it set up, I’ll allow the Exiled to return to their home planet, and I’ll also move in and claim the planet.  But I need Stargates, and I can’t pay for them right now.”

        “Well, it seems that I have something you need,” she said with a growing smile.  “And that means you have to give me something I want.”

        “Dahnai,” he warned.

        “I want a piece of that planet, Jayce,” she told him bluntly.  “Merrane needs house farming reserves.  We’re actually in the same fix you are the house consumes more food that it produces.  We need a secure and stable source of food.  So, you have a planet you can’t defend or reach, I need a food supply exclusive to the house.  Agree to share the planet, and we can reach an agreement over your Stargates.”

        “Unacceptable,” Jason said immediately.  “There’s a primitive indigenous race on the planet, and I’m not going to let the Merranes do to them what the Trillanes did to us.  I’m going to claim the planet, but I’m not going to conquer it.  I’ll make contact with that race and try to bargain an agreement with them, and if they refuse, I’ll move in and set up farming colonies in areas where they don’t live, respecting their territory.  If I give you access to the planet, you’ll just move in and enslave them.”

        “Well then, I guess you don’t want those Stargates, babes,” she said bluntly.  “This isn’t an offer up for negotiation.”

        “Yes it is,” he said.  “If you just want a secure source of food, then I’d be happy to arrange an exclusive deal with you for food we produce on that planet.  But the planet is mine.”

        She glared at him a moment, then she took on a thoughtful look.  “Exclusive?”

        “Exclusive.  And I’ll make it very cheap.  Basically just pay what it costs to produce the food, and it’s yours.”

        “Half the output?”

        “Half sounds fair to me,” he said immediately.

        “One more thing,” she said.  “I want access to the planet.”

        “No.  You—“

        “I said access,” she cut him off.  “If it’s halfway across the galaxy, then that means there might be some expansion opportunities,” she told him.  “I want permission to put up a second Stargate there at a later time that will let us use it as a base to explore.”

        “That might be hard, with the interdictor up,” he said.  “You won’t be able to jump out to set up a second Stargate.”

        “Well, we’ll find a solution to that problem when the times comes. If worse comes to worst, I’ll have it sent out sub-light and it just takes it a couple of years to get out to where we can use it.  But I want passage rights through the system, and the opportunity to colonize any other planets in the system for Merrane.”

        “That’s fine with me.”

        “Then it’s a deal!” she said quickly.  “You’ll have your two Stargates in two days.  That’s a promise.  Now, when am I going to sign that agreement for interdictors?”

        “As soon as I know they work,” he answered.  “The first one will be finished and tested in two days.  If it works, then we’re in business.  The second one goes to Exile, and after that, I set up to mass produce them and we start making the Imperium impenetrable to the Consortium.”

        “The sooner the better,” she said in agreement.

        “Now, is it too late for me to buy into this game?” Jason asked with a smile, sliding down to sit with the others at the game board.

        They spent about two hours together with the kids, playing the game out, then watching the viddy until Shya and Rann were both asleep on one of the couches.  Dahnai had servants carry the children off to Shya’s foster parents to go to bed, and Dahnai and the others said goodnight to Maer and Sirri, sending them off as well, all the guards in the apartment filing out with them.  And as soon as the last guard was out and the door was closed and locked, Symone immediately started stripping off her clothes.  “Now the real fun begins,” she said, giving Kellin a leer.  She was only wearing a haltar and a pair of shorts, so she managed to shed them in about two seconds, and knelt on the couch by Kellin and reached for the waistband of his shorts.

        “Hold it,” Jyslin said, “he’s mine tonight.  You had him last night.”

        “We both had him last night,” Symone grinned.

        “You also hogged him this morning, so find someone else,” she said, standing up and pulling her shorts down, basically sticking her shapely backside in Jason and Dahnai’s faces while she bent down to step out of them, then she walked over to the other couch, where Kellin and Symone were.

        “Ladies, ladies, I’m more than willing to share,” Kellin said with a bright smile as Symone pulled his shorts down to expose his penis, and Jyslin wasted no time sinking her head into his lap.

        “Bitch, that was mine!” Symone protested.

        Too late, Jyslin taunted as Kellin put a hand on Jyslin’s head, lacing her red hair between his fingers.

        “Don’t you dare make him come!” Symone warned as she got on her knees on the floor in front of the couch, sliding her hand down and masturbating Jyslin expertly, which was in full view of the three on the other couch.

        Tim, who was sitting on the far side of Dahnai, reached over and pulled her tank top up to reveal her breasts, then bent down to kiss and suck on them.  Mind a little company tonight, Dahnai? he asked.

        So kind of you to remember to ask after you start sucking on my tits there, Tim.  I’ll make sure to ask you if you’re in the mood after I already start fucking you next time.

        He laughed against her breasts.  Well, I kinda thought I already knew the answer, he admitted.

        Well, looks like Kellin’s going to play with your lesbo wives, so I guess I’ll solace myself by getting rocked between my human boytoys, Dahnai sent naughtily, pulling her tank top off.  After we have a little fun together, we can split up and spend the night alone.  I want to experience you the same way I’ve experienced Jason and Kellin, Tim.  Alone, in bed, and all night.

        I’m at your service, Dahnai.

        You’d better be.  I’m the Empress.

        I would be even if you weren’t, Tim sent lightly.

        Jason realized that he hadn’t made his confession, and it might be a little too late to do it.  Jyslin, Symone, and Kellin were already hot and heavy into it, and Tim had Dahnai pretty much distracted with his mouth on her impressive breasts and a hand moving rhythmically in her shorts as it explored her nether regions.  But, he also knew that if he didn’t come clean, he might have hell to pay later, when Dahnai finally found out.

        Dahnai.

        Mmm? she sent absently, the pleasure that Tim’s mouth and hand were giving her already bleeding into her thought.

        I was later than I had to be, he admitted.  I got a little sidetracked back home.

        What possible difference does that make right now?

        Well… he sent, then trailed off.  I was obeying one of Jyslin’s prior orders.

        Stop being roundabout and get to the fucking point, she told him, a bit tartly as she squirmed out of her shorts and opened her legs to give Tim’s hand total access to what he was exploring.

        Jyslin told me that if I had a