RICK JOHNSON

HOMECOMING 2


by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
85717
RikJohnson@juno.com

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OFF TO SUMMERISLE

George was away with his mother at the hospital where his father was recovering from his latest heart attack, an attack that ended happily with the intervention of George and Michael and their advanced medical technology.

Michael remained at home with his aunt Carol and Mary, the woman who had abandoned his father after his war service but now wanted to return to him. He thought about her for a while and decided that if she made his father happy, he may as well get used to it. He had no fear of her replacing his mother, that never happened on Drakonis where every marriage, divorce and re-marriage required family counseling to ensure that everyone was well-adjusted. Michael had heard stories about divorces on Terra and how they fought constantly, often abusing and using the children as weapons and that was totally incomprehensible to him and proof that the Non-Interference Policy was best.

Finally, he came to a decision and said to the women, “Honored Aunt Carol, Mary, I know you think poorly of my father because of your past with him but he is not the man you remember. Perhaps he has changed or perhaps he is the same but you remember wrong. But my father is a good man. He loves his children and cares for his former-wife and he does all that he can to make everyone’s lives the better. It is important that you understand this.”

Mary looked at this boy, still in his teens, barely seventeen yet already more of a man than any of her ex-husbands. The boy was unfailingly polite and smart. He did math that not even a college professor would understand and she understood that he navigated a starship across thousands of light-years as easily as she drove to the corner store. Plus, he loved his father, which was such a rare occurance in today’s world. What kind of alien world would, could produce such a person, could turn George from what he was during the Vietnam War into what he was now, only a few decades later, a man who could sire and raise such a boy.

“Michael,” she began. “I think I love your father. Maybe I never stopped but when he returned from Vietnam, he was a broken man. He even hated himself and our country at that time … well, we were not kind to Vets back then. I know it was wrong and George still is bitter over the treatment he received when he came home but he wasn’t then what he is now. Your world has made George Wagner into a wonderful father, a better man and I hope your mother appreciated him more than I did. I know they had problems but your mother must have been an exceptional woman to have helped make the George I knew into the George you know.”

Michael thought about this then looked at his aunt. None of them understood his life. Their world was so different and even now he had trouble comparing the planet he was now on with the world described by his parents and grandparents. Maybe if they knew how important he was?

He returned to his room and retreived the vid-projector and returned to the living room. “Maybe if you knew, you’d understand? I cannot understand how you can abuse such a hero who fought for you? We don’t do that, we honor our heroes. I don’t know how he was in your war but here, when father was recovering in the Lanai Med-Bay and the Third Shitai War was over, the Historians visited Sothis and made these recordings. You don’t have time-viewers so understand that the historians would arrive at a place and record what happened in the past. They would then put these recordings into a format we can understand. I’ve watched your vids and you seem to be afraid of sex, nudity and blood, things we take as normal so if you want to see my father on Sothis, you may be shocked but I hope you will respect him.”

Carol jumped in, “Michael, George raised such a wonderful son, he overcame his injuries, made a life for himself. How can we not respect him? But I’d like to see.”

Michael placed the projector on the table and touched a control and the room vanished. They were on an alien planet. Or they thought it was alien because the sky had a greenish tint and the vegetation was red. But if this was normal or a problem in the device for they could see the room dimly through the sights they didn’t know. The town they now saw was almost medieval in appearance. Houses ranged from slapstick to well-built, and construction was happening everywhere. Michael explained as they watched, “This is Sothis. It is a frontier planet that has only been colonized a few years. But the Shitai needed it as a jump-point before they could finish invading the Barony.” The people were mostly human but wore some kind of Japanese-American mix of clothing. They could faintly hear them talk in the same language Michael and George used and there seemed to be every race of people imaginable there. Black, White and Asian mixed freely and happily with humans and those monkey-people that were Georges daughters.

“I skipped much of the beginning so I could show you father’s part.” They heard a sound and when the people looked up, so did Carl and Mary to see a ship approaching. It was like a ball with spines all over it, lightening flashes crawling up the spines as it hovered over the town. The people began to scream in terror and run for cover but both women knew that those flimsy houses wouldn’t stop this ship.

Suddenly rockets struck the sides of the craft. The ship shuddered then more rockets struck as the ship was pushed by the force of the explosions to the side away from the village. Burning debris rained down, setting roofs on fire and injuring people. One child fell to the ground crying and Carol tried to pick it up only to have her hands pass through the image. A man, bleeding from a number of cuts ran out, picked the child in his arms and ran away in terror. Mary and Carol fell crying at the images. Both felt that they were in the middle of a battle and there was nothing they could do to help or even escape themselves.

The scene shifted to the side of town where the ship had fallen and from the wreckage came… they were definitely aliens but Carol could only describe them as insects crossed with cats and then bred with a tree. She had no frame of reference to understand this creature, but all were armed and were advancing on the town. Smaller ships, resembling combat helicopters with no rotors screamed overhead firing into the aliens until all were dead. Mary saw more aliens, another wave leave the ship and approach but the chopper-ships had used all their ammunition stopping the main craft and the first wave so they landed and discharged teams of soldiers. Despite the body armor they wore, it was obvious that the soldiers were women and almost human. They could see the tails each woman possessed and their monkey-feet but the women took positions to stop the aliens as others reached the village to bring civilians, men, women and children into their craft which took off and flew away. But there were too many people and the craft were too small so it was obvious that a number of trips would be needed. The soldiers took up positions to hold the line so the civilians could escape. Both women knew that this was what a soldier did but seeing it happen was different.

The scene moved further towards the alien craft where a battle was being fought. Outnumbered, the defenders fought bravely, some dying yet as they died they fought on. One of the defenders had no tail and almost together they recognized the lone man as George. He was behind some rocks shooting at the aliens to hold them off. Then something, maybe a rocket, maybe a bomb, exploded and when the dust cleared, George was on his back, screaming as his belly armor vanished and his intestines fell out of his body. Both Mary and Carol vomited at the sight and couldn’t look but the carnage of the man forced them to remember that somehow he survived.

They looked back and saw a tailed woman tie a tournaquet around her missing leg and tail, then, bleeding from a dozen wounds, including an ear for her helmet was missing, she dragged herself to George. She touched a device on his arm and George stopped screaming. Some kind of pain-killer they supposed. She spoke to him, he removed his helmet, bleeding himself from an ear and nose and said something back. He was obviously in pain but held on until the injured woman began to shove his entrails back into his belly. He gritted his teeth and cried out again then she bound his belly with tape and dragged him to cover.

Once there, they talked a moment and she helped to lean him against the trunk of a burning tree. Then she drove her bayonet into his head. Mary screamed but the woman had missed. The knife had penetrated the trunk and she looped a part of his harness over her knife handle. Now he was trapped there, unable to even fall over and under cover.

George said something, still bleeding and she handed him his rifle which he rested on a rock and began to place ammunition packs within reach.

The injured woman dragged herself to another position, trailing blood from her severed limbs and then lay facing the crashed ship, her own weapon at the ready.

Then the fighting began anew. The ground was littered with bodies of alien and tailed-woman with only George and the crippled woman alive but they fought on, killing the aliens as they approached.

Mary heard more screaming and turning saw the craft return, land and pick up more civilians and then leave. And all through this, George and that nameless woman fought on.

Again the scene shifted, it was dark now as the sun began to set and finally a large craft hovered over the battle field. Red and blue lights shone over the dead and dying then focused over George and the woman then they lifted, falling upwards to be taken by other women, tailed as was the first, away. Mary recognized a well-trained medical unit and she knew that the two were saved.

Michael turned the device off and said, “Father and that Lanai held the landing zone for four hours until all the civilians were rescued and taken to safety. Had he given up and died, hundreds would have died. On our world, we honor Warriors because they do this to save us. I wanted you to know how important my father is.”

The women sat there, the images gone from the room but never from their minds. Neither said anything but just stared at the floor, probably in shock, Michael thought. Well, Terrans weren’t as hardy as Drakonians and the Barony does take the best Earth has to offer. Pity the Terrans never understood that his father was one of their best. Finally Carol said in a hollow voice, “I have to clean the rug. Mother will have a fit if she sees what we did.” And with Mary helping, they slowly moved the coffee table and rolled the rug to take it away.

When they were done and had washed their mouths, Michael spoke again, “This is why my father fought so hard. Then the room vanished again to reveal an almost normal world. Terrified that more killings would happen, Michael explained, “This is my home, Gaea. My father and mother homesteaded that farm twenty years ago and farmed and were happy.” They saw George, younger with a woman who was obviously Michael’s mother. She was pregnant and bringing lunch to George who was returning from the fields. As George took her in his arms, Mary had a twinge of jealousy. Both looked around at the house, simple and nested among trees and animal pens, some of which were normal, sheep and pigs, but some alien, including one monster that looked like a buffalo on steroids. Its hind quarters were the height of a man and its shoulders an equal distance higher with horns that seemed to stretch forever.

The scene shifted again and now the woman was carrying a baby with two other children, the oldest probably Michael. The house was larger, the farm better organized showing years of hard work. Then another shift and George was there, looking as he now did but wearing a uniform of sorts. He was hugging Michael and two daughters, both with tails and pointed ears and all, including the woman and George were crying. “Father had to go to war and we were all afraid for him but we had to respect his desire to serve his nation.”

Michael touched the device again and they were in a town, the houses were well-kept, the streets clean and everything was decorated and painted. At first Mary thought it was some holiday but then she realized that these people just liked beauty. Behind her was a park where a number of children, some human, some tailed, played as their parents talked and joined in. It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, the perfect small town where everyone knew your name and everyone got along. Carol remembered how her own neighborhood looked like that as she was a child, before multiple recessions caused people to loose their homes and the neighborhood slid downhill into poverty and crime. She couldn’t walk down the street without stepping over trash and garbage, but there, children stopped playing to pick up trash that the wind had blown and return it to a recycle bin.

One of the disturbing things they saw was that some of the smaller children were naked but no one seemed to care. Over to the side she saw a young couple necking, half undressed and no one careing at the public affection or lust being expressed before the children. But no one was fat or crippled or even poor. Some of the people had worn clothes that showed that they weren’t as well off but these mixed freely and easily with people who were obviously wealthier. She saw one woman come to a man, curtsey to him, he looking to her but not responding, then they talked as if they were old friends with no difference in class or status. Then everyone stopped and faced a newcomer. Mothers called their children and everyone bowed or curtseyed to the women who walked past. The women were in uniform and obviously soldiers and the parents helped their children bow and curtsey to the soldiers. Mary looked carefully and remarked, “Carol, they aren’t doing that out of fear, they seem to really respect those women. See the gratitude in their eyes?”

Michael explained, “Our Warriors don’t receive pay for their service. They fight and die so people like me don’t have to. Since they receive no money, we give them respect instead. One of those, the woman with silver hair, served with father. See her service ribbon on her sleeve. The red band shows she was wounded in battle.”

They watched a bit more, seeing people always pleasant and happy and polite, bows and curtseys were common though often followed by a hug and small pubs had outside tables where the patrons ate as they watched and talked together. To the women, it seemed like the perfect society though the alien threat they had seen before marred the memories. Finally Michael replaced the viewer in his bag and returned to packing. Tonight, tomorrow night at the latest the shuttle would arrive to take them back to SummerIsle and their ship. Then they could load the chocolate into the hold and leave for home where people understood courtesy and manners and respect.

Michael had looked forward to seeing his grandparents for once his father had left Earth, family ties ended with the distance and for a people raised to respect Family, that lack bothered him. It was only because his father owned his own starship that he was able to show Michael what the planet of his birth was like and honestly, Michael showed them respect only because they were family and Drakonians were raised to respect their elders. Other than that, neither understood the other. These people were serfs who lived in a city so large it bred poverty and crime and the ensuing oppression by the police and they actually had locks on the doors. Locks! He never even knew the word until he took position on the starship for no one locked their doors back home. He almost wished that his Weir sisters wouldn’t come here for though they were now stronger and smarter than was he, he still felt that he was their big brother and wished to protect them. The air stank, the water tasted bad, the food was always too sweet and had a bad taste as if it had been stored for years and covered with chemicals to preserve it. Also no one smiled or was polite. Every time Michael smiled and greeted someone, they looked at him as if they were afraid. It would be nice to get back to civilization.

***

The taxi stopped at the curb and George exited, paid the driver and wondered what an acceptable tip was today. Well, 15% was normal when he left so he tried that, then seeing the cab driver’s look, added more. After twenty years or more, he had forgotten how to be an Earthling. When he entered the house calling out, “Mom is still at the hospital with Dad, he’s fine and will be home tonight. They think it was a false attack and they are amazed …. What’s wrong?”

Both flung themselves into his arms crying. “I never knew… I’m so sorry…”

George looked at Michael who stood there, and said, “I showed them the vid of Sothis.”

“Why?” George wasn’t really angry, Drakonians rarely got angry with their children. At least not until they had the full story. He was, however, stern with disapproval.

“I felt that if Mary was coming with us, they needed to know about you.”

George pushed the women away, “I think it backfired. Earther reactions are different. Carol and Mary were raised differently and they don’t understand. You probably frightened them more than anything else. Well, the deed is done. Carol, we have to return to SummerIsle to arrainge for the cargo. It may take a few days or more so if you want to visit and play on the beach, you can come with us. Since dad is now healthy, he’ll be fine for a few days. Mary, I’d like you to come along too. It’ll give you a chance to see my ship and crew and decide if you want to leave with me.”

“How long should I pack for?” Mary stared at the two, her own husband would have blown up and beaten their son for doing what Michael did yet George accepted it as if his son had done something proper, though unpleasant, even if George didn’t want that to have happened. Both respected each other’s opinions and not one bit of love was lost between father and son. She wished her husbands and children could love and respect each other that way.

“Maybe a week. You need to bring everything you’ll want though since SummerIsle is a military base and doesn’t have a convenience store. All they can supply is food, sun and a beach. I’ve already cleared it with the Base-Captain so there will be room in the shuttle.” There are definitely advantages to being a Vet on Drakonis even though George wasn’t, technically, a vet. Drakonis didn’t have Veterans. Once enlisted, you remained in the military until you died. He was simply on Leave, a Leave that had lasted years so far, with everyone knowing that he could be called back to duty at a moment.

Mary ran home to pack, choosing and rejecting everything. Why didn’t this happen thirty years ago when she looked good in a swim-suit. Finally she had everything in a couple suitcases but had no idea of the security precautions she’d face. Going through an airport was hard enough to get to another city, what about going to another planet. Planet! She’d need her passport. Was it good for alien worlds? She giggled at that then repressed her hysteria. She was going on an adventure no one she knew, other than George, could even dream of.

***

His parents arrived an hour later so George convinced them to finish the dinner he had promised earlier. His father was bragging about his health during dinner, “A steak, with onions! The doctor said it’s a miracle and I have the heart of a man half my age so I’m eating something decent before he learns that he mixed my x-rays with the kid in the next room.” And he laughed at his own wit.

George explained that he needed to fly back to the freighter that night to arrainge for the cargo but he’d call as often as he could. Then he lay the bombshell. Pushing an envelope across the table he said, “Dad, I know times are rough. I needed to spend most of my VA money to fill the Amber Hope or I’d never be able to return. But I did manage to save some of it and… here!”

His father refused to even look at the envelope but his mother took it, then cried, “Phil, there’s a certified check here for $50,000! We can pay off the mortgage and even some of your medical bills.” Despite Ellen’s relief, Phil was fuming, “You think I can’t make it on my own! You think I need your charity!”

Just like old times but now, George refused to be drawn into a useless fight. “Yes dad, just like I needed charity when I got home from Vietnam and you took me in. Family helps family. You helped me and now I help you. And I refuse to fight with you over it, especially in front of my son so deal!” Then he turned to Michael and suggested, “Enjoy the steak, once we leave its back to ships stores.” Michael stared at his meal for what his father had done was expected and normal but his grandfather’s reaction was.. well it was wrong. You always helped out family and Clan and expected nothing in return though you knew that when you needed help, it would be given without the embarassment of asking.

Finally Phil calmed down and said, “George, you’re a good son.” Which George took to mean ‘I love you’, words that Phil could never say. Ellen and George both understood that Phil could never say the words and it made Ellen’s heart sing to hear her son so often tell Michael that he loved him. Apparantly, that country where George now lived was big on affection for George and Michael often hugged and George even kissed his son on the cheek daily with none of the embarrassment her husband would feel doing the same to George. Once when he watching his grandson go to bed, after being hugged and kissed by his father with the usual ‘I love you, sleep well’ comment, Phil commented to his wife, “If he wasn’t married and dating Mary, I’d think he was a fairy.”

They stayed up late, then as his parents went to bed, George and Michael hugged them, George saying, “I love you dad. I’ve never said it before but I always felt it. I’ll call when I get things settled with the Hope.”

Michael hugged his father who returned the affection and said in Spanglic, “Earthers are so strange. Why was grandfather so upset?”

“For the same reason he can’t tell me he loves me. They were raised differently with different values. Earthers are forced to be alone.” Michael laughed, “Then how do they build houses and barns?” Then in English, George continued, “The shuttle should arrive soon so we need to go.” And he led them to the front yard and waited in the darkness. Moments later, the lights along the street faded to darkness and a hatch opened in thin air to reveal a pale red glow. George and Michael rushed over and tossed their bags inside and encouraged the women to hurry, “They won’t hold this forever!”

Once inside the hatch closed and the red-lights brightened to reveal a number of seats and a woman at the pilot’s chair. George tossed the bags into the cargo area in the back and sat, encouraging all to follow, but Mary and Carol were too engrossed at the sight of the clouds below, neither had felt the shuttle lift off and they were moving so fast the clouds were being whipped to a froth with their passage.

It was only minutes before the shuttle reentered the cloud layer to burst free almost instantly into darkness. They knew that they were over an island in the Carribbean but below was darkness. Then small points of red and blue light began to appear and the shuttle landed under red flood-lights that illuminated the landing pad but didn’t harm their night-vision. Once the shuttle stopped, the pilot opened the door, shut the power to the shuttle down and waited for her passengers to leave.

Carol and Mary looked out, seeing nothing really unusual. There were high steel blast deflectors around the pad, the same kind that some airports use to deflect engine thrust. A number of the rotorless aircraft that they had seen in the vid were lined up along the tarmac, barely visible under the dimness. Then George pointed to a mountain that they could now see was a giant egg more than a dozen stories tall. “That’s the Amber Hope. We can look it over in the daylight but we have sleeping quarters by the bay. I’m sorry they will be primitive but this is still a new military facility.”

The two heard the shuttle door shut and turning, saw the pilot was of the same monkey-like race that had fought the aliens in the vid. She was wearing a jump-suit with shoe-like gloves for boots and a sleeve for her tail, the tip of which was exposed and turning, they saw her cat-eyes, wide open in the darkness, no whites showing. “I am returning to my quarters. If you wish to ride with me you are welcome. Otherwise it is a three-quarters-kilometer walk.”

George answered for them all, “If you would take our luggage, I would be grateful but it’s a nice evening and I want to explain to my family how to act here so the walk would be pleasant.”

The woman nodded and left them as George suggested, “Leave everything but maybe your purse. It’s a half-mile to the guest quarters. Don’t worry, there is no crime here at all.”

He first led them to his ship which he touched as if he were in love, running his fingers along the pitted hull as he looked it over. “We keep the hatch closed to prevent the local bugs from getting inside. When the first people were taken from Earth a thousand years ago, the Demons took everything, even the roaches and rats and now the Commonwealth has a big problem with both. The rats we cannot exterminate because they are evolving sentience and the roaches are just impossible to exterminate once they get a foothold.” Then with a last look, he turned aside and led them away from the landing field.

“These are Drop-Ships. Designed to be carried in the belly of a Cruiser then dropped from orbit to land troops and provide close-air support. There is a belief that when His Grace had them designed, he asked for something that would make the enemy wet their pants out of fear. There are three fire-teams to a drop-ship, three drop-ships to a unit, three units to a flight, three flights to a squadron. This Squadron here could have won WW-II without any help from anyone. When I was a Fire-Team soldier, we always knew we were safe so long as there were Drop-Ships in the sky.”

Both Mary and Carol saw some of the tailed women working on one of the ships by blue-light but the civilians were ignored as unimportant. Would we be allowed this close to a squadron of stealth-fighters? She wondered. Again, that lack of security, or maybe it was just that trust was as important here as politeness.

They left the tarmac and walked along a dark road, occasionally marked by red lights on the ground. Palm trees rustled in the warm breeze and they could smell the sea. Something scuttled across the road and Mary saw it as a large crab, bigger than any she had eaten in a restaurant. The thing stopped, looked them over then continued on to be followed by a number of others.

Both George and Michael had stopped and knelt to watch the monsters, again that father-son bonding that everyone wanted but no one had. No one that she knew possessed that bond, she meant. Michael reached for a crab but it turned to face him, pinchers ready, then the largest approached and the smaller ran off as the larger advanced, forcing the humans to retreat. Once the rest of the troop had left the road, the large one turned and ran off after its ‘family’? Mary had the image of a father defending its mate and children but crabs, she seems to recall, weren’t family based. Another divergence between these ‘Drakonians’ and Earth.

The two laughed then continued on, George explaining the customs here. “Lanai are warriors. Where Earth people can see them, they will appear human but alone or among us, they revert to their true form. We show respect to them by bowing as Michael does and curtseying as you should do out of politeness. I don’t have to because I am one of them. Around here, a good attitude, a trusting disposition and a use of manners will go a very long way. We are a dueling society too so a lack of manners could get you challenged. Also, we are a Clan and Family centered people. Michael and I belong to Clan Natalia, he by birth, me by adoption. We are a Peasant Clan of farmers mostly and I am one of the few who jumped Caste to Merchant and Warrior. Here Family protects family and Clan enforces the law. For example, if I do something wrong or illegal, my Clan will protect me and make amends and pay restitution rather than let the law have me, but they will punish me themselves for embarrassing the Clan. That’s one of the reasons we don’t have any prisons.

“We are also a Caste people with Serfs, those who work for others, on the bottom, Peasants, those who produce, next, Merchants, those who deal and sell next, then Servants, those who make life better like doctors, teachers, priests and warriors on top. But the Chaste system is fluid because Michael and I easily moved from Peasant to Merchant.

“Politically, we have a three-part government. The Devil is a political dictator elected for life but has no legal or military power. The Baron is the military head but is forbidden politics. The Speaker is like a combination of Congress and the Supreme Court and are elected for 3 year terms. We also have the Pillars of the Church which is the heart and the Media which is the watchdog of the people and they make certain that the government remains honest.”

“What happens if a leader does something illegal like Nixon did?” Mary asked, remembering how despite all his criminal deeds, he resigned, was pardoned and retired with a million dollars a year payment for life.

“We usually execute them in public, shave their families bald, in public, and execute the man and stick his head on a pike as an example to others.”

“That’s horrible,” Carol cried.

“Perhaps but our leaders are exclusively honest if only for fear of being piked. And we take Freedom of the Press very seriously. Any politician who denies a reporter access to any meeting or who tries to hold a meeting in secret is looking to be piked. ‘Off the Record’ simply doesn’t exist for us.

“Integration is absolute and inter-marriage common so no one cares what race your parents are since most of us are of mixed blood.

“There are very few laws here so the best thing to do is to ask yourself, ‘if I do this, will I hurt someone?’ If no one is hurt, then it’s probably legal. And littering is a criminal offence so use the recycling bins.

“What about marriage laws?” This was Mary who had an interest here.

“Very liberal. Counseling is required before you marry and you get Clan permission too or you risk loosing their protection. But we don’t care who marries whom so group and gay marriages are as legal as normal ones. Aside from that, anything goes.”

“Your adopted nation has a lot of good but some of it scares me. But if it can turn you into such a wonderful brother and produce a boy like Michael, I guess the good outweighs the bad.” Offered Carol.

About that time, the Full Moon crossed from the trees to bathe the group in reflected Sun-light. Both Michael and George immediately stopped, and did something that looked like touching their foreheads, then bringing their arms down then crossing their chests then out to stand facing the Moon with their arms and legs apart. George was never very religious before but Carol got the feeling that her brother had just done the alien version of crossing themselves. Both men then moved to the side of the road and lay down on the asphalt and stared at the moon for a moment, George then pointed out to his son the constellations and stars he remembered. Mary and Carol sat with them, trying to remember what they knew though here there were thousands more stars than could be seen in the city. Each was thinking how wonderful this was, relaxed, enjoying the moment and not worrying if they would be seen and laughed at or be late somewhere. After a few minutes of star-gazing, all had run out of names for the patterns so they stood and continued on, George explaining, “We have a slower-paced lifestyle so we enjoy taking time for Wa, what you call being at peace and harmony with the universe. We even have sunset watching get-togethers where dozens or hundreds of people will fill a stadium to watch the sun-set over the ocean. And when you spend so much time in a starship breathing re-cycled air and seeing the stars through a view-port, times like this are especially important.”

Soon after they entered a small group of buildings, mostly tents or pre-fab but some being built as a permanent facility. George looked around then led them to a long building, entered and looked over a wall-chart. Choosing a pen, he wrote his name in a cubicle marked on a wall map, then handed the pen to his son who did the same with another cubicle. “This is the same as a motel. No one is on duty so we choose the rooms we want, sign in and they are ours for as long as we wish.”

Carol added her name to a room asking, “Where are the keys?”

“There are none. No one locks their doors on Drakonis. Why do so when rape, murder and theft are unknown? Don’t worry, you’ll be safe. Safer here than anywhere on Earth.” He then picked his luggage from a pile near the wall and waited.

Mary took the pen from Carol, looked at the board, then added her name to the square with George’s room. “Maybe I should just jump in and get the shock over with,” she thought. Then she smiled at him and asked, “Where now?”

George opened a door and entered a hall, holding the door for everyone. Michael glanced at the numbers on the doors, stopping before one and writing his name on the plate, then he entered, said his good-nights, bowing to both Mary and his aunt, and closed the door.

Carol stopped outside her room and asked as she added her name to the ID Plate, “How do we pay for this? I mean who do we pay?”

“No one. The military cares for its own. Because I am a soldier and served my Barony, these are just some of the benefits. If you came here alone, they’d charge you but so long as you are my guest, it’s all free. Oh, if you get up early and are hungry, ask someone for the Dining Facility and you can eat there.” George them added his name to his own ID Plate and as soon as Mary followed, he opened the door, swept her in his arms and carried her inside.

***

The next morning Carol woke up early as was a habit she developed caring for her husband and children and now her father and wondered what to do when she heard children playing in the hall. Something so totally normal forced her out of bed and into her clothes in record time, then opening her door (it had no lock) she stopped and came face-to-face with two alien children. Both had that same monkey tail and feet, extra thumb and pointed ears and antennae the Lanai from last night possessed and both were obviously Asian with their cat-eyes possessing the Chinese fold and straight black hair. Both stopped playing, looked at her then the older boy bowed as the younger girl curtseyed. Not knowing what to do, Carol tried to curtsey and said “Good morning” to the children. Never curtseying before she felt foolish but the children laughed and bowed and curtseyed again, saying something that Carol assumed was their version of ‘good morning’.

Not knowing what to do next, she spoke up, “I, we arrived here last night and well…” she trailed off seeing that the children wanted to play but were too polite to interrupt an adult so she smiled and said, “My name is Carol Wagner. What is yours?”

The two looked at each other and spoke together and rattled something off until Carol interrupted, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you. Do either of you speak English or are your parents awake?” She felt foolish for of course they didn’t speak English and had no idea of what she was saying. But the older girl, looking about ten or so, changed and spoke in Chinese then when Carol shook her head no, changed to another language. After maybe a half-dozen different languages, the boy, appearing to be about five, touched his heart, said “Wing Man” and bowed. His older sister touched her heart, said “Wing Kim” and curtseyed. So Carol touched her heart, said “Carol Wagner” and tried to curtsey to the laughter of the children. She’d need lessons on this but joined in the laughter. Then, she rubbed her belly, pointed to her mouth and asked, “Do you know where I can get something to eat?”

The children argued a moment then both took one of Carol’s hands and led her from the building. For a moment she had a vision of being taken to slaughter by some alien monsters from a movie then repressed that thought as she felt the children shudder. It was almost as if they felt her thoughts. Then she laughed and apologized to them wondering again at a nation that could make children so trusting that they would go off with a total stranger and feel so completely safe.

She was led across the street, the children bowing and curtseying to any Lanai they met, Carol trying, and entered another building which was producing a mixture of foods that made Carol’s mouth water. It was obviously a cafeteria with a table filled with plates, glasses, flatware and trays followed by a serving line. Then Wing Man took a tray, placed it on the counter, added a plate, bowel glass and chopsticks with his sister and Carol following, though with normal flatware. With the children pushing both trays, Kim would point to something and a Lanai would place some on her plate. Once they got into a polite argument over something that looked like desert then the woman leaned over, said something and Man looked down, bowed and the argument ended. Obviously the child wanted desert first but unlike her own children, accepted defeat easily over the temper tantrums that any human child would throw. Man and Kim took their trays to a table, Carol carrying Man’s for him and the two sat, said a prayer and placed some food and drink into a bowel that Carol saw was on every table, then began to eat with relish, using their chopsticks as easily as Carol used her own fork.

Carol returned to the line and said, “I’m sorry, I just arrived last night with my brother George, George Wagner? And I don’t know your language or customs.” She didn’t expect much other than she hoped that someone here would fetch someone who understood English.

Instead the woman replied in perfect English with that same accent Michael used. “I speak English and know your brother. We served aboard the same ship though we never met. What can I do for you?”

Taken aback, Carol barely remembered to curtsey, which caused the woman to smile and she continued, “I’m sorry. This is all new to me. I didn’t even know you.. ah.. people existed until last night. So please forgive me if I, when I make a mistake.”

“Of course. We try to make allowances. What do you wish?”

“Well, I’m kind of hungry but don’t know the protocal. What can you suggest?”

“The food here is fresh and wholesome but bland by human and Terran standards. But take whatever you wish though please eat all that you take and leave your dirty dishes over there.”

“Thank you. Do you have coffee? I’m useless without my morning cup.”

“Coffee? I don’t know the word.”

“It’s a drink, brewed hot from a ground bean. It has caffeine.” Carol struggled to explain the word.

“Hmm, no, many of the Terran plants and animals didn’t survive our world. But we do have a large selection of teas, juices and milks.”

Disappointed, Carol mentioned, “Thank you but I’m lactose intolerant,” a confession that brought more blank looks. “I’ll settle for some hot tea..” Then while brewing her cup, called, “Is there any sugar or sweet-n-low?”

“Sugar?” The Lanai looked horrified. “No, we don’t have any sugar. I may be able to find some honey of you are a sweet-addict.” Carol saw the other Lanai in the room staring and realized that she had done the equivalent of asking for an illegal drug. Then their manners kicked in and they turned away to their meals.

“No, that’s fine. We Americans put sugar into everything. This is a good time to get off the stuff.” She tried to smile but knew that any status she had here was gone. She just hoped that her faux paux didn’t hurt her brother’s standing.

She then walked over to the children and asked, “May I sit with you?”

The two immediately, stood, bowed and curtseyed and Man offered her a chair, pulling it out for her. So she sipped her tea, listened to the children babble on in their language and looked around. The room was about half-full of women, all tall, all desperately well built and Carol wondered if implants were a military requirement. Some were in uniform, others in various states of casual dress though all wore some kind of name-tag/military patch wherever they could find a place. Many had scars here and there, testament to previous wars and Carol wondered if the woman who helped George in the video were here too. Against one wall were some wicked looking rifles in a rack, unattended as if the Lanai Soldiers had no worry about them being taken but all were casual and conversation was calm and quiet. Carol found herself humming along with the background music and realized, “That’s Brahms! Well, they have excellent taste in music here.”

Kim stood, gave Carol a brief curtsey and took her plate to the serving line where she called out. The Lanai behind came to her, glanced to the table to ensure that she had eaten her breakfast then placed a desert on the plate. Kim gave the Lanai a deeper curtsey and took her plate to the table where she handed one to her brother and they ate something that looked like ice-cream and fruit. Carol thought about this. There appeared to be three different curtseys. The deep elaborate one you did when introduced or confronted. A moderate one for normal conversation and a brief dip just to be polite. She’d have to practice these though her back would be aching after even a day of those.

George touched her shoulder and said, “Good morning, Carol. I see you’ve met some of my crew.” He nodded to the children who had stood as he appeared and gave a moderate bow and curtsey then returned to their deserts.

“These are your crew? They’re so young.”

“Well, their parents are my engineers. The Wings were boat people on Earth and saw no reason to change that. Only instead of living on a sampan, they live on a star freighter. Man here is becoming quite the engineer himself. Personally I think they work for me because I don’t mind the kids on board. And for me, I get a whole family when I only pay for the parents. Everyone is happy. Well, things here are different. Michael is seventeen and has an education equal to any Masters degree in America. He’s fluent in three languages and can communicate in two others plus can navigate a starship cross the galaxy. Man here is eight, and were he to attend school in Cleveland, he’d be in High School. His sister, Kim is twelve and can read and write on a college level and both are fluent in at least…” George had to count then, “five languages. In fact, between these two kids, they could probably design and build a space craft that would easily reach any planet in the solar system and do it in the garage from scrounged parts. Don’t think because they are young, that they are anything less than what they are.

“So,” he continued, “after breakfast, what do you want to do first? See the ship or play on the beach?”

Carol sipped her tea and said, “I’m a bit burned out by all that I’ve seen. I mean it’s a lot to take in at once. Star Trek is right and there are aliens in the galaxy. My brother lives on another planet, my nieces are aliens, no offence, I’d like to just try to relax for the day if I can.”

“Of course. Lanai understand recreation so take what you need and relax. You can get a pic-nik lunch here if you want too.”

“Can I get a cup of coffee anywhere? I’m dying for my morning fix.”

“Michael!” George waved his son over. “Coffee! I don’t miss it but I’m certain that there are a number of colonists who might pay for some. Chocolate, coffee and maybe alcohol for the Demons. We may just make a decent profit from this trip.”

Both Carol and Mary felt left out as father and son discussed the possibilities of their future cargo until Carol interrupted, “George, I don’t want to put a kink in your plans but they looked at me like I was a drug addict when I asked for sugar. Will coffee get you into trouble?”

“I don’t think so. Sugar isn’t illegal, just frowned upon. And we drink tea which has caffeine so coffee should be legal. It just doesn’t grow back home. Some things survived like cotton and sheep, others changed like pigs and people and some died out like cattle and coffee. But importing the beans is a lot different from trying to grow them. The secret is to diversify and bring a number of products so if one fails, another will pay the bills and the last will make a profit.”

“Then, dear brother, if I can, I’ve had a rough couple of years and laying on a beach sounds like heaven. Any rules I need to worry about?”

“No. SummerIsle is clothing-optional so don’t be shocked if you see someone naked or an alien wander by. Rape, theft and kidnapping is totally absent here so you are safe anywhere on the island so go, have fun. It’s small enough so you can’t get lost.” He then leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, something he had never done before but she found somehow, comforting.

***

Finding a deserted beach was easy. True, there was what looked like a gatling gun on the path but the Lanai manning it was laying naked on a blanket reading. She gave Carol a brief glance then ignored her as ‘safe’. And the beach was cleaner than anything had a right to be. Not even one bit of trash. So she lay her own blanket and while sunning, wished someone would bring her a mai-tai. She must have dozed when the screams of the Wing children woke her. She looked and saw them being chased by a man, but what a man. He was a giant and easily eight or maybe nine feet tall, dwarfing the children who barely came to his knees.

Frantically Carol looked for something, anything to protect the children though against such a monster even a shotgun would be useless. She picked up a rock and began to run to them when the giant caught Man, swinging him with one arm as Kim ran on then stopped and returned, jumping around the monster, his arms outstretched.

The giant reached down and Kim climbed his arm as if it were a jungle-gym, using those monkey feet and tail, laughing all the time. Then the giant walked in the water and stood there, the water reaching his waist, maybe five feet as he held his arms out and the children used him as a diving board, only to climb him again.

Carol collapsed with relief. Obviously the children knew this giant though the way they made friends with Carol could mean that they could have met the man only moments before. Looking closer she saw that the giant was really built. She had seen weightlifters who would be put to shame by the giant whose stomach was so flat and defined she had thoughts of using it as a washboard for her delicates. If he was built… down there… as he was everywhere, god look at those muscles, he’d put a horse to shame. The most amazing thing is that the man’s hair was mostly gray to imply he was at least, middle-aged and still in that shape.

Carol watched nearby just in case and Man swam to shore using his tail and feet in a way that she found strange. Then running to her, he sought to pull her to the water. The boy was strong, stronger than he had a right despite his being much smaller than any human child of the same age would be, but still weaker than she so she allowed herself to enter the water. The giant watched then waded to her and called out in a deep booming voice.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand your language.” Carol began. She’d have to learn that phrase in the local dialect soon. But the giant dropped Kim into the water, touched his head behind his right ear and spoke in the same language that the Lanai, children and Michael spoke, only now she could understand him. “I’m Case Coopersmith, and may I ask who you are?”

She noticed that he was the first person who didn’t bow and answered, “My name is Carol Wagner. My brother is George Wagner and owns a starship here. I’m sort of on vacation.”

“Captain Wagner’s sister. Welcome to SummerIsle. I’m the Loadmaster on the Amber Hope. I see you’ve met Man and Kim.”

“Yes, this morning. How do we understand each other? I’m speaking English, you seem to be speaking your language but I understand you perfectly.”

He touched his head, “Comm-implant. The Demons had us grow them when they changed us from Human to Mon during the War. I usually keep mine inactive as it gives me a terrible headache but sometimes we need them.”

“You were human? I’m afraid I’m lost here.”

He laughed and said, “Ask the Captain. I don’t think it’s my place to discuss interstellar politics to a pre-contact. Kids, go play, it’s hot and I need a beer.”

“You have some beer here?” she asked with hope. “God I could use a cold beer right now.” They sat under a tree and he opened a quart bottle for her, a bottle that looked so small in his hands. “Thank you Mr Coopersmith. I needed this. Yesterday I was taking care of my invalid father, trying to get used to my lost brother returning after decades of being gone and today I find that the universe is crowded with aliens and all of them seem to be vacationing here.”

The giant took a drink and said, “This is the only alcohol on this island since the Lanai don’t drink.” Then, “I imagine it’s a lot to handle. So George is back. I hope he found us a cargo.” He picked up a coconut, peeled the husk with his fingernails and tossed the nut into the ocean as he would a tennis-ball as the children raced to catch it.

“Yes, he was fortunate to have some disability pay coming to him and used it to buy chocolate and coffee. He thinks he’ll make a profit and be able to come back.”

“I hope so, I’d like a pay-raise this year.”

“I gather that you don’t always make ends meet?”

He laughed again, “Not always. Most of the runs are by the bigger companies with more modern ships. We trampers are lucky to get the cast-off cargo and runs that no one else wants. That’s why Captain Jennings sold the Hope to George and retired, he couldn’t take the worries anymore.”

“So you came with the ship?”

“Something like that. Me, As-Tan and Thorpe stayed on. As-Tan did because he’d be returned to Earth if he didn’t, I because, well, George and I have an understanding. Thorpe! I don’t understand Thorpe. He’s a passenger and always has enough money to pay his passage. Sometimes that’s the only way we keep fueled. But he’s on some quest or pilgrimage or some religious thing. The rest of the crew left for better berths and the Wings came aboard because they couldn’t get a job with any other line, what with her being pregnant. Then the kids started to be born and George let them all stay. And when Michael arrived, can’t blame him. He’s a good kid but his younger sisters are so much smarter and stronger than he, George had to bring him before they totally destroyed his ego.”

“What were you then, Mr Coopersmith? George was a farmer and the Wings were boat-people. What did you do on Drakonis?”

“Drakonis? I’m not Drakonian. I’m from Kos. We used to own Drakonis before Obrien got it into his head to settle there and declare independence. We let them separate because it was useful to have the Shitai have to fight their way through them and give us time to arm up. Drakonians are human-colonists like George or human–descended Weir like the Wings. I’m a Mon. Almost everyone in the Commonwealth is Mon. But Drakonis isn’t Commonwealth. So you grew up with George. I’d love to hear stories.”

“It seems that my brother is three people at once. The brother-George I grew up with, the veteran-George that came home crippled from the war and the father-George he is now. Frankly, I prefer this George. I hope he isn’t faking it.”

“No, Drakonians are really into family. Hell, they execute people who commit adultery. No, I wish my father loved me like George loves his kids. They’re all like that. When they are grabbed by Colonial, they spend a year aboard that Ramship, being programmed to be family-type farmers. They can’t help it, they MUST be good parents and children. Those we brought back to Earth couldn’t take it. They hated the farm-life, they hated the family life. They just wanted to get back and party in a big city. Me, I enjoy a good party like the rest of them but these Drakonians think a party is sex, dancing and games. And I’m too big for the first two. Now Kos, we have night-life. Night-clubs that hold a thousand people on the dance floor. Bands so loud you leave deaf. That’s the life.”

“Then why stay here?”

“Got to make a living somehow.”

“I had a job like that once. I hated it and quit as soon as some asshole proposed to me. I should have stayed.” Then changing the subject, “I only met the children this morning and they don’t speak English so I have so many questions and no one to ask, but you that is.”

“Id rather not answer then if you don’t mind. StarFleet has a habit of wiping minds to protect the Commonwealth and although technically, Earth is a protectorate of Drakonis, the Fleet still has some jurisdiction.”

“A protectorate? What does that mean, that they protect us from invaders?”

“Something like that. It also means you fall under Drakonian Law and they harvest your people for their planets. Oh, it’s not that bad. They let you run your lives without interference and only volunteers are taken and can return if they want so they’re like a benevolent unseen dictator. But any Drakonian Warship has the authority to blow this planet into asteroids if they want to.”

She tried to repress thoughts of aliens kidnapping people along deserted roads and doing strange medical things to them. But George had been a cripple and they healed him. He said that he wanted to go when they offered and he was a much better man now so whatever brainwashing they did to him, maybe they should do to everyone. “Mr Coopersmith, you said you and George had an understanding. What does that mean?”

“George and I are both vets but different wars. I fought in the Kris Wars and was one of the ground-pounders that took Kentaurus 80 years ago at the end of the war. That still gives me nightmares sometimes. George fought in your Vietnam and the Pirate and Shitai Wars of Drakonis which I understand were as bad. So we have that army-buddy thing where we know that we are the only ones aboard ship that understands what we saw and did. George came to us as a black-holer… that’s someone with no skills but a willingness to do anything to get a job. So we had him clean the mess from between the hulls since he and As-tan were the only ones small enough to get inside. Neither complained, both worked hard and when Captain Jennings sold the Hope, George bought it. Everyone else got better jobs but I stayed on with As-Tan and we came to a deal.”

“What kind of deal?”

He sighed, lay back, took another beer then looked at it and put it back unopened. “The Kris didn’t surrender. We didn’t beat them. 500 years ago they burst out of the Holy Empire and killed everyone in their path. Dozens of worlds were sterilized before we managed to stop them and push them back. But they refused to live with us in peace and chose mass suicide on a planetary level. We had killed most of their men during the War and at the end they were sending boys at us in ships that were slapped together so poorly that half blew up in acceleration. The only ones left were women and children and old crippled men. So when we pushed past their final line at Kentaurus, the entire population went into their churches and killed each other then themselves. Hundreds of millions of women murdered their babies then each other then the last ones killed themselves.

“I was on the burial detail because the Kris had killed so many native Kentaurans that there weren’t enough to dispose of the dead. It took months to bury the bodies, months of rotting and flies and carnivore-roaches. That’s when I began to drink. At first it was only after a 16 hour day then it was during the 16 hour days and then it was instead of the 16 hour days.

“Captain Jennings took me on because he got half my pay given to him from the Fleet for hiring a disabled vet. That ended when George bought the Hope but no one else would hire me so George did. I work for him and stay sober and he gives me a job.”

“I’m sorry. When George came back from Vietnam without his legs, he tried to talk to us about what she saw but we didn’t understand and couldn’t help so he drank too. I’m glad he is there for you and you for him.”

The two watched the kids play in the water then she heard the giant snore. He hadn’t passed out after only one small beer, he was just napping so she recapped hers and put it back into the cooler and walked to the water. She tried to play catch with them but the coconut wasn’t made for that so she settled for making sand castles with the children until a shadow appeared.

The two were naked, a man, and a woman nursing a baby that looked newborn, and the kids ran to them instantly crying ‘mama’ which appeared to be a universal word. “Good morning, I’m Carol, George’s sister. I was just playing with the children.” She tried to not stare but the two looked 25 though the woman had three children and her breasts were not only large but showed no signs of sag and she saw no stretch lines anywhere. The man, her husband she guessed, was decently built with no fat but none of the muscles that Case had, though he was ‘designed’ decently. They talked with the children a moment then the women knelt, handed the baby to Man, wiped her nipple dry and said in poor but understandable English, “Thank you watch my children. They safe alone but eeya thank you you concern.”

“I’m glad to help. In my country we don’t dare allow our children alone like this.”

“I glad I not your country.” Then glancing over to the giant, “Case sleep. He worry so. Sometime more than captain.”

“He was playing with them earlier. I understand you are the ship’s engineers?”

“Eeeya!” a word Carol took to mean yes or “I” or maybe both or either. “We all engineer and teach children be.” She sat and watched Man run into the surf carrying the baby with the older sister in tow, both chased by their laughing father.

“You look exhausted. I recall when my children were babies, I was always tired myself.”

“Eeeya, too many babies too close together. Best five year apart. Zero gravity help but rob calcium from bones and milk.”

“Should you be working then?”

“We boat-people. We live on boat, work always. Grandparents boat people on Terra. Parents boat people on Gaea. We boat people in space. Much work must be on old ship.”

Carol watched the family play in the water. It was clear that this father loved his children as much as George loved his son and again Carol wondered at the society that could produce such a life. And again she felt cheated that her life wasn’t as wonderful and loving. Yes, there were problems, the nightmares that both Case and George suffered from war and the exhaustion that this new mother suffered but frankly, she’d gladly trade her own material life for this one any day. Gladly give up the TV and new car and house for a husband that loved her and took an interest in their children. Suddenly she envied Mary. Looking over, the mother was asleep on the sand so Carol fetched her towel, rolled it up and slid it under the woman’s head for a pillow then found some palm fronds that she stuck in the sand to shade the woman from sunburn.

She retrieved her beer and spent the rest of the day watching the aliens play in the water and the mother sleep, wishing that her life had been different.

***

Mary followed George and Michael around the base, barely remembering to curtsey to the women, often remembering only when Michael bowed to them. She listened in to their conversations with dealers from whom they purchased chocolate and coffee, never ceasing to be amazed at how George would listen to Michael and include the boy in the dealings. Then they visited the harbor-master, a beautiful woman in a floral bikini and short wrap-around, with whom George made arrangements to allow the shipments to land. Then they arraigned for trucks to take the cargo to the ship and finally, they had lunch.

The previous night had been wonderful, almost like the honeymoon they had never had. Both knew each other’s bodies but that had been thirty years ago when both were young, passionate and much better built. Now, older, wiser, calmer, they re-explored each other, desire mixing with … consideration. And, she was surprised that she had no need to force herself to be with a cripple for it appeared that the Aliens who had abducted George had re-grown his legs. Later, after, she lay there tracing the scar on his belly and asked, “If they could regrow your legs, why keep this?”

“A memory. War is hell and we need things like this to remember that it’s something to avoid. The scars are all superficial though, everything underneath works. It’s like a tattoo I guess, though we don’t believe in tattoos.”

Then the next day, all was, again, wonderful. George and Michael did their business and politely explained their dealings to Mary, an act that made her feel a part of their lives. After lunch, George commented, “Nothing else to do until the shipments arrive. So we vacation again. They have boats to borrow, beaches to play on and not much else. As I said, this is a military base, not a resort so they are lacking in anything we’d consider fun.”

The two were walking along the beach, George thinking that Mary had taken so much in stride so easily. She only stared a little when she met Case and almost didn’t stare at the Lanai any more. But the idea of leaving her family, her children, maybe forever, was probably eating away at her. Despite what they had before he had been drafted and sent to Vietnam, Natasha was George’s only marriage and Mary had three former husbands with four kids between them. Fortunately, all were married or gone so it wasn’t like taking the Wings on board. But still, he had a hard time remembering what it was like to be an Earther. He had lived more years on Drakonis than he had on Earth and now thought like a Drakonan. Family was so important to us, them, he corrected. He had left Earth because there was nothing left for him but Mary still had ties, a good life and she’d be leaving this behind, maybe forever.

She broke his thoughts then, “It’s so strange yet so normal. I always thought that meeting aliens would be an invasion by bug-eyed-monsters or a space-ship landing in Washington D.C. with human-looking people inside. Instead, you are all descended from abducted Earth-people and then changed. I feel jealous that you and Michael have the perfect father-son relationship and are closer than I am to my own children.”

“It’s not always that easy. In a couple years the girls might join me and that’ll be hard. Michael is still human but thinks like a Drakonan. I’m human and only sometimes think like an American. But his sisters are Weir and so are different, alien. They are more like the Wings than like me. Not only in appearance but mind. Sex is a big part of Weir life. If they don’t get it regularly, they die so when my daughters come aboard, I have to face the fact that they’ll need regular sex before they are adults and I have to deal with that and the thought I might have to hire men solely to sleep with my teen-aged daughters. I held them in my hand, they were so tiny when they were born. Weir are born early and take longer to grow than humans. Now, they are almost grown women.”

“That’s why the Wing children are so small?”

“Yes. Kim is twelve but so smart she’d be in college on Earth. Man is eight and equal to us when we were in high School. Mylinh is three and still nurses and looks like an infant but can speak a half dozen languages when she wants and is learning to read. They won’t reach human physical standards until they hit puberty at fifteen. Then they’ll grow slowly and take another ten years to become adults. But then, my daughters will still be young four hundred years after their brother dies of old age. It’s hard to get used to sometimes.”

“I’m sorry for you but I’d gladly trade all that I have for your life of family love. My husbands never told their sons that they loved them but you do it all the time and always hug. Michael is the son I wished mine were. For all your problems, you have no idea how wonderful you all have it.”

George held her close, wishing that they had done this thirty years ago. “Come with me, I want to introduce you to the medical people.”

At the Med-bay, George left her, “The Lanai are cold and clinical but very good at their job. They’ll find and cure any medical problem you have. But it’s embarrassing so I’ll leave you and wait by the bay.” Then he kissed her and left.

***

She found him an hour later, watching the Lanai practice martial arts. The women were fast and never used padding and everyone was bruised and bloody from strikes. She sat next to her lover and saw the icepack against his eye, his arm in a sling, “I guess I’m not as young as I used to be. But then, no human stands a chance against a Lanai. I’ll heal. So how did it go?”

“I’ve had worse during my ob-gyn exams. She had me strip and move around inside some rings that moved around then spit and pee in a cup. Then she took blood and lymph-fluid and ignored me as she ran the tests. Finally she showed me some three-dimensional view of myself and pointed out everything that was wrong from my fillings to my near-sightedness to stretch-marks and things I never knew I had. It was a bit disgusting since I never really looked at myself that way. Then she gave me some injections and said I’d feel sick and irritable the next couple days as the drugs flushed out the toxins I’ve accumulated over a lifetime then I’d feel better.”

“I had the same thing when they took me. Only I was scrubbed down, de-loused and cleaned out inside and out. Then a few days of the runs, headache and cramps then everything changed and I felt better than ever before. It took almost a month for my legs to regrow and less time than that to regrow my teeth and tonsils. I had to do this to make certain that you were healthy before you left Earth. Once in space, we’ll be at least a week away from the nearest decent doctor so good health is imperative. I have basic first aid training which places me like an EMT on Earth and we do have some decent medical stuff on the Hope so it isn’t that bad.”

“Then why don’t you give this to us?”

“We tried. We offered you a cure for AIDS and Cancer and a dozen other diseases but your governments rejected them all. They wanted AIDS to eliminate the gays so refused that cure. They wanted to keep doing things that caused cancer and just take a pill to cure it when to us, healthy living is imperative to health. So we gave up.”

“That’s why there’s no sugar or alcohol or tobacco here?”

“Yes. Tobacco is criminal and bringing it in results in immediate execution. Alcohol is accepted but drunkenness isn’t tolerated and Lanai don’t drink. Sugar is frowned upon. I remember that I use less sugar in a year on Gaea than I had in a day in Cleveland. Goddess, Mary! You put sugar in table salt! No wonder tooth decay, diabetes, ADD and juvenal delinquency are so bad.”

She laughed to reduce the tension, “I guess then that I’ll have to get used to drinking my coffee black? Speaking of which… how do you.. you know, in space?”

“Do what?”

“Well, pee? For one thing.”

He laughed, “The same as on Earth only the toilets are different and use less than a cup of recycled water to Dad’s ten gallon toilet tank. We have artificial gravity on the Hope though the Wings keep it off in the lower decks. They pee into a vacuum cleaner in zero-g. Weir are engineered to work starships in zero-gravity so they don’t mind. Me, I get airsick unless I have a good g-field beneath my feet.”

“I guess I have a lot to get used to.”

“Not too much. With the exception of Thorpe, we all are from Earth or descended from Earth so the anatomy and desires are still there. Since the Hope was adjusted for Mon, it’s really big inside with high ceilings. Of course I had to replace a lot of the furniture since Case is the only Mon and Michael and I are the only humans. Don and Weir need adjustments for their tails but Don evolved in a forest while Weir were engineered for space travel.”

“And pirates?”

“We aren’t a warship and Case and I are the only real soldiers so if we meet any, which we never have, we’ll dump the hold and run while they pick up the cargo. I suppose I should consider mounting a gun or two if I’m going to keep doing this run. Some worlds understand that pirates exist but they have the really strange idea that if you surrender, they’ll leave you alone. People like that never met a mugger in an alley.”

Michael ran up and exclaimed, “Dad, this run just may pay off our Clan-debt. I think it all depends on how many people want that ‘kof-ee’ that you are buying. Even without that, the chocolate and alcohol will pay a big part of the debt and leave us enough to return and refill the hold.”

George hugged his son and said, “Good work. Case! When the shipments arrive, let’s see how much room we can make for extra cargo. If we can afford to fill the passenger quarters with cargo, I’d like to do that.”

“If we can. I’ll have to disassemble the furniture and mount tie-down rings but it’s doable. I doubt that we’ll have any passengers when we leave so that’ll be dead space. I’ll get to work on it tomorrow.”

When they were done, Carol asked, “Clan-debt?”

“When I was taken thirty years ago, they did more than re-grow my legs. They changed my DNA so my grand-children would be Weir like the Wings but they also kept me on that ram-ship for a year learning their language, customs, religion, everything. Drakonis is colonized by Earth but no one there lives like they did on Earth. We are a Family and Clan based society. Family takes care of its own and Clan takes care of Family. So when I needed money to buy the Amber Hope, I could have gone to a Merchant’s bank but I got a better deal from my Clan. We all Tithe to the Clan and that allowed me to borrow money from the Clan at a very low interest. So, Tasha fills my hold with fresh food so we don’t have to eat food pills and when the Clan needs something shipped, I do it for the cost of fuel. But like any bank, I still owe to the Clan the money I borrowed to buy the Hope and that needs to be paid off. The only difference between Clan and Bank is that the bank charges more interest than the Clan does and the Clan won’t repossess if I miss a payment or two.”

“If we had that system, Dad could have paid off the house in half the time.” Carol offered. “You said that your DNA was changed too?”

“We have a number of races on Drakonis. Earth-Human like me who were taken by Colonial, fixed and DNA-Engineered so our grandchildren would be Weir. Then there are Gaean-Human like Michael who were born there and are still Human but are Weir-Recessive so all his children will be Weir like the Wings. Then there are Weir like the Wings and my daughters and finally the Lanai who were Engineered to be soldiers. Plus the occasional Mon, Demon or Skree tourist.”

“You keep talking about being Engineered? What does that mean and why must you have alien grandchildren?”

“When the Demons abducted the first Earthers a thousand years ago, it was an accident and so they released the people and let them run free. But humans are warlike and 500 years ago Christianity started the Kris Wars to exterminate the Demons and Pagan-Humans. Faced with extinction, the Demons Engineered, changed, themselves and their human allies into soldiers. Case is the result. His human ancestors centuries ago were Engineered by the Demons to be soldiers and he’s the result. He looks like a weight-lifter but he doesn’t pump iron, he’s engineered to be that way. Bigger, stronger and faster than any human with no fear at all. The perfect soldier according to Demon thought.

“By the time they started to take His Grace, the need for soldiers was essentially over so they decided to Engineer humans into starship workers and the Weir are the result. Smaller than human to fit into crawl-spaces, expanded sight and hearing, tails and feet to grasp things in zero-gravity, they are created to be workers. That’s why Kim and Man and even Michael are so intelligent at their age. They were Engineered to be. It’s something I had to get used to when I colonized. If I couldn’t handle it, I would have remained on Earth in that wheelchair living in that alley. It was a trade-off, but one that I was willing to make. We had a few passengers who changed their minds and returned to Earth. It happens sometimes where people can’t handle the changes.”

“And how did you deal with alien babies?”

“Somehow, I knew that my children would be a mix of human and Weir. When Gina was born, I thought she was premature because Weir are born at four to six months and she was so tiny and helpless, I could hold her in my hand. I did. The midwife gave me that tiny alien girl who just lay there, wet and limp. Then she opened her cat-eyes, wrapped her tail around my thumb and stared at me, giggled and I fell in love. I never thought about it again.

“I admit that it takes some getting used to and I had a year on that Ram-ship to get used to Weir and Lanai and you’ll only have minutes when we reach Gaea. So we’ll try to help out as much as we can. Tash and Michael were born and raised knowing that would happen so they accept it as normal.”

Mary dragged George away and expressed her immediate concern, “George, I know that this is kind of late but… it’s been years for me. You are the first man I’ve been with since my divorce five years ago and, well, I’m not using birth control. I know it’s stupid, me being fifty and all but change of life babies do sometimes happen and…”

George started to laugh, “And you’re afraid that you may get pregnant with an alien baby. Don’t worry. Drakonans are promiscuous and even Michael is sexually active but unwed parents are a disgrace to the Family and Clan so we impress birth control. Both Michael and I have implants to repress fertility. It’s not mandatory but strongly encouraged. So long as you are with me, don’t worry. You might think about getting an implant yourself. They’re totally safe and perfect and they even prevent common diseases like the flu or VD.” This last with a grin.

Relieved, she added, “Thank you. It’s not that I have anything against… well, I’m certain that if your daughters are anything like Michael I’ll fall in love with them instantly, it’s just that…. Well, two days ago I was a divorced woman in Cleveland worrying about being burglarized or making the mortgage and fighting with my ex-husbands and worried about my children’s safety and today, I find that everything I knew is wrong. In the last forty-eight hours I’ve learned that we are not alone in the universe, that my former boy-friend flies a starship, that my future step-children are aliens and I’ve managed to meet in the last 24-hours at least three separate alien races. It’s a lot to deal with and I’m wondering why I haven’t gone bonkers with all that you’ve shown me.”

George held her then whispered, “You think this is strange, wait until your meet As-Tan and Thorpe or the Skree.” Then he kissed her and held her until she calmed down.

***

Mary took Carol for a walk along the beach that night. She needed to talk and so far, Carol was the only person who would understand. “I see George so capable and loving I almost wish that I had married him back then.”

“If you did, would he be the George you know today? Would your son be Michael? No, George needed this to get his life and even himself together. It’s a shame you had to loose the last thirty years but I think today’s George will make your marriage work. At least he includes you in the dealings with the ship.”

“Yes, that’s nice how he tells me what is happening and actually listens to anything I say. I almost feel like he is training me to be his partner in business as well as life. He never makes me feel stupid when I say something that doesn’t make sense which I love in him. I hope that by the time I meet his daughters, I’ll be so used to the Wings that I won’t see them as .. alien.” She looked around as if she were afraid someone would hear.

“Try to think of it this way. What if George had told you his ex-wife was a black woman from Africa. You’d have to get used to that too. Only instead of black skin, they have a tail. You have an advantage here though, they’ll be so damned polite to you, you won’t have a chance to find fault with anything they do.” They both laughed at that. “You know, when he first called, I was torn. I missed him but I also remembered how he was when he left. Then I saw him near the airport, still wearing the same clothes he wore thirty years ago and I was terrified that he’d ask for a hand-out. I couldn’t take that, not after the last years of taking care of dad. It took days for me to realize that he had changed. He and Michael have the perfect father-son relationship, they were so polite, they worked around the house but I could tell that George was worried.”

She paused, then continued, “I talked to Case, the giant, god what a body! I wish he were three feet shorter or me three feet taller. Did you know he’s almost a hundred years old? But he tells me that they don’t always make ends meet. Sometimes they eat only because his ex pays child-support in groceries and sometimes they have fuel only because their passenger pays his bills. I could tell when he arrived that he was worried about where he as going to get the money to pay for his cargo. Then when the disability check appeared, he relaxed a lot. When he figured out a cargo, he relaxed more. The man has a lot of worries on his shoulders. He is responsible for his space ship and the crew and all the business records and pay-checks. I think that you can help him there. Be his partner and ease his stress.

“God, think about it this way, if he can be so loving and caring and wonderful now while under so much stress, what will he be like when everything works out?”

Mary laughed, almost hysteric, “If this is George at his worst. My husbands at their best weren’t this wonderful. When the business was failing, Mark was always depressed. He drank, turned abusive and never let me help out. Karl was worse and the best with Karl was .. well adequate. I’m happy with George and if this is him under pressure that would break most men, I don’t know if I can survive him at his best. I could die from happiness.”

Carol rushed over to some rocks, “Here,” she pulled a quart beer bottle from the water. “I hid it here since Case seems to have the only alcohol on this entire island. Imagine a military base with nothing to drink. No beer, no wine, no coffee.”

Taking a drink, Mary commented, “At least if he fills the ship with coffee, I’ll have that problem solved. No sugar though. Damn, I’ll miss sweets. No candy, no sugar in my coffee, no sugar donuts.”

“No cavities, no diabetes, no fat on the hips, no cellulite!” Carol laughed. “Almost a decent trade-off.”

Mary took another drink and stared at the ocean. “Damn, I wish I still had a body that looked good in a bikini.”

“At my best I was nowhere near what these Lanai look like. Don’t any of them understand gravity? And those bellies and asses! You’d better keep George away from them or else.”

Mary laughed. “I don’t think they understand what a man is for. Michael drools over them, George ignores them and they don’t seem to know we are alive. I gather that they are bred to be soldiers and that’s all they do. I’m glad George does. That first time back home, I was so scared at what I might find. Now, last night…. The man looks good. Damn good!”

“And Case,” Carol sighed remembering her comment on his abs and her delicates, “and the Wings. That woman has three kids and still has a body that I’d sell my own children for. Do all these aliens spend their free time in the gym?”

“I don’t know but one thing bothers me. After seeing that Wing woman and these Lanai, I don’t know how George can bear to look at me. I mean I’m decent for my age and kids but…”

Carol laughed and handed the bottle back, “But he does look and more importantly, touches.”

“It must be love,” Mary sighed.

Carol stopped and stared at her, “You are good for him. He’s happy with you. That Natasha may have helped turn him into a good husband and father but you can make him a success. Just remember to suggest, not push.”

“I learned that lesson with Mark. Let’s go back. I still haven’t seen the inside of my new home. Maybe we can talk him into a trip to Mars or something.”

***

There wasn’t much to do for the rest of the day but look over the Amber Hope. Somehow, growing up with TV and the Movies, you saw space-ships as a kid that were little more than a V-2 rocket with aliens in flying saucers. Then Star trek changed that all and space ships took on exotic looks. The Hope was.. .well disappointing. More than a dozen stories tall, she was a pointed egg standing on the blunt end. No fins, no guns, not even any exhaust tubes, nothing sticking out and a hull that had the occasional scrape or dent as if they had hit something… or a lot of somethings. George explained, “There’s a lot of junk in space and the deflectors can’t deflect all of it. Especially when you are moving at point-five light speed. But she’s fueled and ready to go once we get the cargo. But now is the hard part, we need to get the hold ready for the cargo and that means everyone helps. It’ll be a good way for you to learn the ship.”

Entering from the hatch between the six bulges that George referred to as ‘gravity-drive pods’, they climbed a short stairwell to a corridor that curved a bit to a ladder and elevator. George opened the hatch and found the Wings, still naked, working on something that Carol knew was the engine, though it was about the size of a decent RV. “These ships use cold-fusion hyper-atomics for power. That reactor can power New York City easily and runs on hydrogen gas we collect in space, though we need to start it with an H2-H3 mix from the fuel tanks. But once flying, we can refuel by skimming the surface of a Gas Giant like Jupiter. The Hope is over two-hundred years old and still running smoothly.” The man was obviously proud of the ship but Carol remembered the Wing mother commenting that an old ship requires a lot of work.

The next deck up was huge and Case was already there with Michael dragging cases of rings that they were bolting here and there on floor and wall and even ceiling though Case commented, “”I wish As-Tan would get back to help up there,” he pointed to the ceiling. And there were a number of these decks, all empty and waiting for cargo to fill her belly.

Then the crew Decks near the top. A kitchen and dining room and recreation area and above it a couple decks of bedrooms, small by her standards but George explained, “Freighters like this don’t have much room for luxury. We mostly sleep wherever we can find room.” One of Mary’s son’s had been in the Navy and showed her where he slept on a battleship. It was little more than a bunk shoved into a space so small that he hit his head on a pipe if he sat up too quickly. “But everyone needs a place of their own. It’s a security thing, people need to den so we make room to give everyone some private space.”

And finally the flight deck. “Michael sits there and navigates, As-Tan here and flies the ship. I mostly stand around and figure out where to go.” The chair he sat into wasn’t the center of attention that she expected from TV but sat into a corner where he could see everything but not be in the way.

Then they went to work.

Mary was suprised that a people that could cross the stars so easily did so much manual labor. But there wasn’t room for a fork-lift though Case strapped on something that looked like braces a cripple would wear, motorized enhancements George called them, and he turned into a human fork-lift, moving huge loads easily. Boxes stacked inside each other were moved to the main hatches where a crane rested against the ceiling and rings were attached to the deck and walls wherever Case directed for in this job, even George followed his orders.

Then when all the cargo decks were done, they moved to the passenger quarters and began to disassemble walls and furniture, stacking them and tieing them down to give another, smaller cargo area that required more tie-down rings.

It was long dark when done and everyone was exhausted and aching from the work. All Mary wanted was a hot bath but had to settle for the half mile walk to the base and a hot shower. Fortunately, there was no restriction on the amount of water she was allowed to use and no worry about a heating bill for that water. “On the Hope,” George advised, “water is recycled so the ten gallons you are allotted for a shower will be recycled and you may use that same water a dozen times in one shower. At least,” he laughed, ”aboard a freighter, the engines are so big and powerful we have an excess of heat and power.”

She stood in the shower forever, wishing for a good drink and a massage.

***

In the morning, still aching, she heard a commotion and left George still sleeping to find Carol in the hall being led by the Wing children who took her hand and ran outside.

Case was waiting in the back of a truck (he couldn’t fit in the drivers area) which was being driven by the Wing parents. Case’s booming voice called to Mary, “Get George, tell him As-Tan is back with company!”

Running back inside, she woke George and gave him the message which caused him to groan and roll over. “Not again. Who this time?” but she insisted so he got up, threw his coveralls on and allowed himself to be dragged to the truck which left for the SpacePort.

Michael rattled off in his own language as George translated for his sister and lover, “As-Tan is our pilot. He was born in Africa maybe thirty years ago then stowed away on the Hope when he helped Thorpe after a run-in with some lion or something. When we landed, he hopped a flight to his home to see if his family was still alive and visit his home. Michael says that they got a message asking us all to meet him and someone special.”

Case joined in, the two Earth-women hearing him speak in his native language that he shared with the others but ‘hearing’ him also in English at the same time. “Whomever he has had better be willing to work. We need those ceiling rings mounted and the Wings are too busy with the engines.”

The shuttle had already landed when they arrived. To the Crew, As-Tan (Sun-Warrior) was nothing unusual but to Carol and Mary who were expecting a normal black African with wooly hair, they stood there, dumbfounded.

Both had grown up around African-Americans. Both had lived through the sixties and seventies where the Afro-American had sought their roots with the afro hairstyle, the clothing from that Continent and even the invention of Kwanza as a black holiday. Both had seen the movies, both early Tarzan that showed the Africans as savages and the modern travelogues that showed Africa as simply another nation with cars, television, clothing and essentially as little more than people with a darker skin.

But both As-Tan and his companion knocked that image for a loop. Both were barefoot and nearly naked. As-Tan wore an animal skin about his loins and crossed belts over his chest that held a pouch and a club with a knife at his hip. The woman wore a similar animal skin loincloth but her breasts were covered with richly decorated golden plates.

Both were black, not the brown of the American Negro but dark ebony black. And both were covered with fur!

Both had a long tail and feet similar to the Wings but where the Wings had three fingers and two thumbs, these two had normal hands save their thumb was much longer. But, unlike the Wings, their ears and eyes were normal and they had no antennae. The contrast between the light skinned and almost hairless Wings and these black-skinned and hairy couple was striking. Mary leaned over and whispered to George, “I thought that you said that he was from Africa?”

“He is, he just belongs to a race in a country that you haven’t yet discovered.” Then approaching, the hairy woman obviously terrified at everything, George placed his left hand over his own heart and extended his right to cover the heart of the hairy man who repeated the gesture. Everyone that they saw on SummerIsle bowed and curtseyed so this must be some African custom. “Welcome back. And this beautiful young woman is?” George asked in Spanglic as Michael translated for them.

Neither Mary nor Carol thought that she was neither beautiful nor young but kept their own counsel as it was clear that the man was in love.

“My bride, Ro-Un-Tu (lit. flower-eye-bright but translates as Bright-Eyed Flower).” Then in a strange language he spoke to her, “Ro-Un-Tu, this is my Gund (chief), George Wagner.”

Nervous, staring at the strange clothes and lack of tail, she tried to greet George with the hand-movement but broke before she touched him and hid behind As-Tan. Carol spoke to Mary, “And we thought we were scared when we met these people.”

George smiled at the woman and then to As-Tan, “Well, I guess I should introduce my sister, Carol and my lover Mary. Mary will be joining us as I image your bride will too?”

As-Tan approached but bowed instead of touched them, and spoke in Spanglic, “Greetings to the lover and sister of my ShipCaptain.” The two curtseyed, glad they wouldn’t have to touch him. Things were just getting stranger and stranger. What next, some bug-eyed slimy tentacled thing?

Sighing, George offered, “I think that we need a break for breakfast. I’m starved and would like to know how you two met.” Then he turned, took Mary’s arm and led the group off but not before they heard Case mutter, “Everyone has someone but me. I am beginning to wish we had spent more time in Kos.” Michael just laughed.

Carol, Mary and Nguyen tried to make friends but the woman was terrified until Mylinh began to fuss and that caused Ro to smile. Nguyen smiled back, handed the baby to her and the infant relaxed to play with the black-woman’s fur. Ro seemed to not mind at all. Motherhood, Carol supposed, was the universal language and peacemaker.

The walk back was mostly George telling about Mary and his family, allowing Ro to relax with the strange group and strange it was, for Mary slipped behind to watch them walk.

George, a Human from Earth but now living in space.
Michael, a Human but born in space and ‘different’.
Case, a Giant from another world nearly nine feet tall and descended from Humans.
The Wing family, mother, father and three children, all descended from Humans but Alien Weir.
And now As-Tan and Ro-Un-Tu, Humans(?) from Africa but as strange in their own way as were the Wings.
And Mary would have to somehow fit in with these people. She hoped that she could or she and Ro would be taking a walk out an airlock to get away from it all.

Occasionally, As-Tan would jump in and tell how he returned to his home in Pal-ul-Don to find his family mostly long gone. He tried to fit in but the last decade in space made him uncomfortable with the primitive existence of his people, relaxing as it was. Then he met Ro, a widow whose husband had been killed by Ho-Don in a battle over slaves. As-Tan saved her from danger and slavery, fell in love and married her.

Michael explained that the Don were of two races, hairless whites who lived in cities and hairy black people who lived in caves. Both races were at a state of occasional and regular war and both also bobbed the tails of criminals.

So Ro probably saw the Wings and the others as the people who had killed her husband with the added complication of seeing George, Michael and the others as criminals. Then there was Case, a giant, and primitive peoples often had stories of giants of the enemy race who ate disobedient children.

Plus, instead of learning to use a modern First-World kitchen and such, she would jump from a primitive, possibly stone-age existence to a life beyond even America’s dreams.

Carol pitied the poor woman and all that she would have to accept. And accept it today!

Occasionally they met a Lanai on the road and to these, everyone bowed and curtseyed save George and Case who simply nodded. George because, like the Lanai, was a Soldier, Case because his people didn’t have that custom but understood that it was important and so tried. As-Tan tried but it was clear that he wasn’t used to bowing to them and Ro had to learn to curtsey along with Carol and Mary.

***

Ro relaxed along the way a bit. The baby helped and she didn’t even mind her fur being pulled for to a mother, any baby is worth the trouble. She did have some concerns entering the camp but the strange she-warriors glanced at her, satisfied their curiosity and then ignored the Waz-Don (hairy Black-Man). And the huts that the Jar-Ho-Don (Strange-Hairless-White-Man) and the Tand-at-Don (No-Tail-Man) (she could see that they weren’t true Ho-Don so had to call them something) were nothing like the white limestone buildings of the Ho-Don in her home of Pal-ul-Don. Plus the Tand-at-Don seemed to be naturally tailless as the Ho-Don believed Jad-Ben-Otho (The-Great-God) to be, though when the strange canoe began to fly, she worried that they were being taken to The-Great-God’s home beyond the Morass.

Her new husband had tried to explain to her that he paddled much larger craft among the stars (before she thought he was a liar, today she wasn’t that certain) and the wonders she would see and she went with him for a few reasons: She no longer had any family remaining alive so depended on the charity of others and had no other prospects for marriage, an older widow with no living children had no value as a mate save as a ‘last-wife’ which would be little better than a slave and finally it was the duty of a wife to support her man.

And besides, As-Tan, short as he was, was easily able to defeat the greatest and largest of the warriors of her tribe, even when he was unarmed and they armed. He was simply the best fighter she had ever seen and among the Waz-Don, that was desirable. She eventually realized that he preferred to fight unarmed or with that long curved knife because he wasn’t very good with a proper club. Still, when facing four brawny warriors, all armed, As-Tan simply struck and kicked and tossed them to the ground as if they were infants. And the way he had defeated an entire army of Ho-Don slavers and the Waz-Don from an enemy tribe…. And he chose her for his mate! Actually, his mother had chosen her but As-Tan could have argued and he didn’t but seemed happy with her choice which was important.

As scared as she was, she swore to try to be a good wife to him and if that meant associating with strangers, strange in body and mind and custom, then leave her home she would.

She would try to learn their language, so musical and so unlike the grunts of her own. So when the strange baby began to fuss, she offered to hold it and watching the baby play with her fur and seek her breast was very comforting. No matter what the skin, babies were still babies. So she smiled to the mother (none of these women wore decent breastplates, preferring to… bounce.. where the men would see) and touching herself with her tail, said “Bright-Eyed Flower”. The mother smiled back and said “Wing-New-Yen” which meant nothing. But she learned the baby’s name was Wing-My-Linh, the brother and sister were Wing-Man and Wing-Kim, the father was Wing-Fat (strange how they all had the same meaningless first name). Then the Chief of the group was George-Wag-Ner, his son was Mi-Kel-Wag-Ner, His sister was Kar-Ol-Mon-Roe and his mate was May-Ree-San-Ders.

The Giant was terrifying. Ho-Don were terrifying in themselves for they had numbers and were invulnerable behind their stone walls and could raid for slaves with immunity. She knew that the Ho-Don, like her own people, cut the tails from criminals to cripple them and the Waz-Don had stories about giant tailless Ho-Don who would creep to the Gorges and reach into the highest caves to steal away disobedient children for their dinner. She knew, from As-Tan, that this Case-Coo-Per-Smith was not such but still, the childhood fears were there.

Then they entered the Lanai village which had no walls and some buildings of rock (built, not carved or dug) and some of that strange animal hide the others all wore. They entered one house from which the smells of food emenated and when she entered, saw a number of tables and chairs and some of the strange warrior women.. what was their name.. Lanai! Sitting and eating. All glanced at her and her husband, then returned to their meals and conversations.

George-Wagner, she was beginning to learn how to pronounce the strange names that made no sense at all, led them to a line where each took a large plate then walked along a trough full of the most amazing foods. Almost more here than her tribe could eat. They would point or speak and the Lanai behind the trough would give them as if this were charity and even George was begging for left-overs. As-Tan tried to explain how the meal-line operated but she still felt as if she were still begging for scraps.

But what scraps! Everything was so well cooked, and there was so much and of such a variety. She saw all the others pray and place some food in a central bowl for the Gods, all save the giant and the Chief’s mate and sister so she added some “Thank you O-Great-God, for showing me such marvels and please protect me from evil” so as to not offend. As-Tan smiled back and added some food praying, “Thank you O-Great-God and Gods of my adopted people for giving me such a wife. To Thee do I share this meal as Thou hast shared thy bounty with us.” Then he kissed her! In public! Where everyone could see! Embarassed and glad no one could see her blush under her fur, she looked down and considered her meal. She knew knives and spoons but this fork and chop-sticks were strange so she tried to copy the others.

“As-Tan,” George commented as they ate, “Don’t forget to head over to the medics as soon as you are done, and take your bride with you. Then, report to Case as we have a cargo coming in and he needs your help.”

“Of course, Gund.. I mean Captain,” he laughed. I hope you don’t mind me showing my bride the ship and our room first?”

Everyone laughed at that, “Just as long as it doesn’t take forever. We need the ship ready by tomorrow afternoon.”

“What’s the cargo?” he asked, worried that it wouldn’t pay much. Trinkets rarely made money and there wasn’t anything on Earth that had value in Demon Space. The technology, despite it being beyond the dreams of anyone in his birth-home, was still as that of a Tor-o-Don when compared to a race that had possessed interstellar travel for millions of years. And filling the hold with ore, metals or oil wouldn’t even pay for the fuel to push it across the galaxy, even when fuel was almost free.

“Coffee and Chocolate,” Michael chimed in. then seeing a questioning look, George explained, “Earthers love coffee and tea to drink. But coffee doesn’t grow back home (he meant Drakonis as he rarely thought of himself as an Earther anymore) but many of the Colonists miss it. And the Demons love chocolate which also doesn’t grow back home.”

Munching, As-Tan asked, “How many trips can we do before some bigger company starts to send mega-freighters here?”

“Enough to build up a decent merchant’s balance. We can probably take the best Earth has, but every coffee bean or chocolate bar on Earth wouldn’t fill a mega-freighter so they’ll have to send smaller ships and that makes it easy for us to compete. And with luck, Earth will be under prohibition for enough years to keep the big companies out.”

Thinking, As-Tan added, “Which means that we may have exclusive rights for some time. Which also means we can visit our families more than once every couple decades.” He had little in common with his people but he DID miss his family and enjoyed this recent visit. Eventually, the Humans would discover Pal-ul-Don and destroy it for her gold and resources, putting his people into zoos or just killing them as inhuman. He knew how dangerous the Ho-Don were but add modern weapons, greed and the fact that Pal-ul-Don was in the middle of the Congo, the Land-of-Man would be decimated before word even leaked out to nations that cared enough to try to save them. But, His Grace had a soft spot for the underdog and with Demon technology, if he could come up with a plan, As-Tan could ask Drakonis to protect Pal-ul-Don and they would. Yes, a wife, a profitable cargo, the possibility of a regular run and visits home and even the chance of protecting his people forever… Jad-Ben-Otho definitely was thinking ahead when He arrainged for the Amber Hope and Thorpe to visit Pal-ul-Don those years ago.

As-Tan let his wife enjoy her meal, She hadn’t eaten well the last few years since her husband died so such a bounty would stress her stomach. For a people used to a plain diet of meat, vegetables, fruit and nuts with the occasional fish, the variety of SummerIsle, culled from a dozen worlds, and prepared from recipes of a million chefs across all of Human Space would astonish her. And even though Lanai ate meals that most people saw as bland, still…

Ro-Un-Tu spent most of her time looking down, trying to not stare at the creatures around her. Female Ho-Don warriors! Pointed ears with the eyes of a Ja. Two thumbs. Tailless Ho-Don. Giants. It was as of all the myths of all the devils of her people had come to life. The only reason she didn’t bolt and run was because her husband was so relaxed and she refused to shame him in public. Husband! She was, like all women over sixteen, married. But this time she enjoyed the word. Most Waz-Don men saw women as something to cook, clean, bear children (hopefully sons) and a vessel to slake their occasional lusts. If a woman were lucky, she’d love him and the first years would be pleasant. But a nation raised on virginity until marriage bred clumsy lovers and As-Tan was anything but. Maybe it was being older than a teen or maybe it was travel but the man did know his way around a woman’s body and actually cared for her pleasure. He cared for her comfort and he cared for her opinions and he cared for her! This is what marriage should be.

After the meal the two went to a room in a stone building which had one of the strange Lanai with breasts so large she must have had a dozen children but didn’t. As-Tan spoke to her a moment, then told Ro-un-Tu to ‘watch, this is a Healer who will examine us for bugs and injuries and fix what is broken.’ He then removed his loin-cloth, honestly embarrassed to her relief. No wife wants to know that her husband could undress so casually around strange women. He then stood on a platform as rings moved around him. Then he spit and peed (turning away) into cups and the Lanai touched him in the neck with a device which filled with blood.

When done, he asked her to do the same and she was torn between the desire to be so embarrassed alone and afraid to be alone, so she asked her husband to stay.

She kept her eyes closed and when the cups were handed to her, she went behind a large.. something… so no one would see. Then, horrified, she saw As-Tan’s ghost appear on the platform. She knew it was a ghost because she could almost see through it and his body was next to her, staring without horror but curiosity.

Then.. his fur vanished and he was as naked as a newborn, the Lanai seeing what only a mother or wife should see. She almost fainted at the next sight. His skin vanished and then his muscles as if someone were gutting him like an animal. All the while the Lanai would comment on something, pointing or touching a part of the ghost. “It’s only a painting,” he told her, “a very detailed painting that shows what we look like inside as well as outside. It show our injuries and sicknesses so we can heal them.”

Still, she stopped looking then he asked, “Do you want to see yourself?”

Her eyes closed tightly, she managed to shake her head no as she buried herself in his arms. It wasn’t easy as he was so short she was almost as tall as he. Fortunately, she couldn’t understand that.. woman.. talk about her like she was something the men had found. Then As-Tan moved and asked the Lanai something.

“Ro-un-Tu,” he said quietly, “I know why your babies died.”

She shuddered with the memory. Her husband almost cast her out after the third stillbirth. “I’m evil.” She whispered. “The Great God cursed me for my thoughts and .. I’m sorry, As-Tan, I should have told you. I’ll leave you so you can marry someone clean.”

He laughed at that, and she was almost angry. Hatred, anger, disgust at learning that your wife is evil, but not humor.

“No, nothing like that.” He looked at her, no mean feat as she tried to not look back. “Were you sick as you grew into a woman? The swamp fever?”

She nodded. A lot of people had that sickness that year. The Great God had become angry with the Kor for some reason for many people and babies had died then and for years afterwards despite the sacrifices they had made to The Great God. It was said that even As-Tan was small because of the fever but most knew that he was always smaller than normal.

“The fever damaged your womb as it was changing into womanhood. It did something I don’t know the words for to your lining. It prevented the afterbirth from fully attaching and so the babies starved inside or were born too sickly to survive.”

That was the one secret women kept from all men. The Long Walk. In a world where men prayed for sons, where women promised sons to their beloved, to have a deformed child was a crime for which the mother could be punished. So, when the baby was born, sometimes, the midwife would smother the deformed child and the mother and her closest friends would take the poor dead child into the forest to bury alone. Ro-un-Tu had done the Long Walk five times. Twice for her own children. Sometimes, the child was still alive and once, she had to return to the child to finish what the midwife had failed to accomplish as the mother was held back, screaming for her baby that would never survive anyway. Both Ro and the mother had nightmares for years about that and the mother never looked at Ro again. Then, something totally incomprehensible was said.

“We can fix it.”

She stared at her husband. He had married her knowing that she would never give him children. And now, she could. “But.. I’m too old…”

He laughed. “Nonsense. Out here, with our medical skills, women as old as forty can easily bear healthy children. Now I’m not suggesting that … but.”

She had never had normal menses. They skipped months or were constant and always the cramping sent her to bed until the other women beat her back to work. To be normal, to no longer have to wear moss in her loincloth for fear of an unexpected mense.. to perhaps, have a baby to nurse…. “Yes,” she whispered, fearing to hope.

As-Tan had no concept of ‘woman’s troubles.’ He barely understood that menstruation existed. He came from a race who would spit at a Ho-Don Priest who was in the process of cutting his still-living heart out. A race that could fall a half-hundred feet and grit his teeth as his broken bones were being pulled back into his body and set. The idea that a woman would have cramps or such was totally incomprehensible. Nor did he marry for children. He had plans to marry someone young enough to give him sons but that wasn’t the way things worked and with the fatalism of the savage, no matter how many years he had spent with a space-traveling society, he had accepted that he was lucky to have a wife of his own race and so accepted that he’d simply never be a father.

Ro was different. She wanted with every fiber of her being children. Children that she could bear and nurse and watch grow. That had been denied here and now, hope!

“I think I should leave you alone,” he said. “This could be embarrassing.”

After he left, the Lanai, who could not speak Don, which frustrated her for Lanai pride themselves on their ability to speak any required language, tried to figure out how to explain the procedure to the hairy woman before her.

The Waz-Don had no concept of language. For thousands of years and even longer, so long that not even their myths spoke of a different way of talking, all Don had spoken the same speech. So to suddenly discover that there WERE other languages left her totally unable to communicate with this woman who could help her have the children she so desperately craved.

Finally, the Lanai decided to use images and set the Imager to show what was wrong… in detail. Ro shuddered and turned away. Seeing her insides like that was disturbing. So she saw the ghost image, as if the Lanai felt her disgust, change. Now she saw the ghost was laying on a table, her legs spread as the Healer slid a tube deep into her womb and filled her with a milk-like substance that would heal her problem.

The cure was as disgusting as the problem so Ro ran for the door, then stopped. Children. Real children of her own. Plus the added advantage of never having to wear that moss between her legs all the time. She turned back and asked, barely speaking, “where?’

The Healer motioned to a table so Ro-un-Tu dropped her loincloth, picked the last of the moss from her lower area and with closed eyes, lay down. She tried to think of babies as she felt her legs pressed apart and her woman’s area spread open. It was uncomfortable but not painful so she almost relaxed as she felt the tube slide within. Then a sharp pain where her first husband, who was as long as a snake, would pound. As-Tan was smaller and far more comfortable she had learned. The pain ended almost as it began and then the tube withdrew and she was alone, trying to not cry in shame.

“Ro-un-Tu,” the Lanai called. Looking, she sat and was offered a drink which she took gratefully as the Medic picked up her loincloth. As-Tan had told her that all Lanai were Warriors and so did not understand emotions or consideration as did other people. The Lanai, whose name she did not know, removed the moss, looked at it and removed the plant, handing Ro some white material that was fluffy as a cloud and soft as a baby’s first fur.

She tried to explain but the lack of a common language stifled that so the Lanai wrote something on some white material similar to the papyrus the Ho-Don used and placed it in her hand, saying “As-Tan, something unintelligable, As-Tan.” Ro tried to smile but felt full, like when she was pregnant and left, afraid that whatever had been put into her womb would fall out and almost hoping it would.

She found her husband practice-fighting with the women warriors and watched. They were so fast a jato would be slow by comparison and As-Tan lost every time, only to stand laughing and congradulating the women who had shamed him. Well, she knew he was a strange one when she agreed to marry him. She waited until he saw her and ran to her asking, “How are you?”

“It was… I’d suffered worse. She gave me this to give to you. I think it’s writing but so strange. One symbol looks like a snake, another a hole, still another mountain peaks but makes no sense.” The Don had a written language but it was more akin to the picturegraphs of the ancient Egyptians using animal drawings and representations of actions.

As-Tan read it, became embarassed and suggested, “I think that maybe someone else should read this to you. Let’s find the great-canoe.”

The two walked, he holding her hand easily, something no adult would do in public with anyone other than a woman he was engaged to, yet accepting of this as he talked about the island, describing the trees and animas they met, using strange words and names. Then, too soon, for she enjoyed these walking talks, they reached the place where they had arrived.

It was large, stone that stretched for such a distance she couldn’t run across it in more than a hundred heartbeats. The Amber-Hope that her husband paddled was huge! Larger than a Ho-Don building it looked like a giant egg on end. She had no idea of how he could move something this large but he did, and did it alone, so he said. He led her into an open door near the base and they climbed stairs to an open room where the rest of the strange beings were working. The giant boomed to him in his language that she could understand him but somehow she couldn’t understand the others who seemed to speak the same words. “As-Tan, we need you! I need a Three-Two pattern on the ceiling so you and your wife need to climb the ceiling.”

Her husband replied back but she couldn’t understand him when the giant went to a wall and called to no one, “Nguyen, can you please come to Deck two? As-Tan needs some advice of a female type.” As-Tan translated for her.

As-Tan was pulling out a belt that he wrapped around his waist and called his wife, “Do you mind helping?”

“Gladly,” she replied. “I feel so.. helpless here. I don’t know anything and I can’t cook or clean for you or my other wifely duties so…”

He was explaining how to wear the safety harness when one of the tailed women arrived, the one that carried the baby earlier. She was wearing that strange one-piece furless material that covered their entire body. As-Tan spoke to her and handed the paper which she read and laughed. “Wife, Nguyen would like to speak to you a moment.”

Nguyen started to talk then waved the men away. She sighed, took Ro’s hands and gazed into her eyes almost like a lover would. Then the alien spoke in a soft voice and Ro-un-Tu understood as images pressed into her mind. Images of her womb’s interior being scarred by the Fever, images of the medicine fixing her womb by removing the bad lining and allowing good skin to grow to allow a placenta to attach for healthy babies. Images of the bad stuff flowing from her womanly area like menstrual blood and images of Ro saving the white cotton to give to the Medic. And finally images of As-Tan and Ro-un-Tu being forbidden sex until the Medic said it was ok as if the medic were a midwife giving a new mother time to recover after giving birth.

Then she released the Waz-Don and called for Case and somehow Ro still understood. “Kneel down here, my neck hurts staring up at you.”

When the giant knelt, almost to her level, the Weir slapped him so hard the entire ship heard. “THAT is for being so insensitive! Ro-un-Tu is in a strange place and doesn’t understand any of our ways. Take things slowly and give her a chance to adapt!”

The giant rubbed his cheek and apologized, “Ok, I’m an insensitive boor. But she does need to learn or…” he backed away as she raised her hand again. “Can she do any work because we’re behind schedule.”

“Exercise will be good for her but be gentle. And don’t expect her to be a black-holer. She’s As-Tan’s wife and deserves that respect!”

Nodding, he turned to her and said, “I’m sorry for being such a boor. I guess I forgot how strange it must be for someone like you to be in a place like this where everything is so new.”

“And…” Nguyen threatened.

“And I should know better because I was there when As-Tan came aboard and had to be shown everything too.”

“Better.” She turned to Ro and taking her hands, “Call me if these foolish men try to take advantage of your good nature and I’ll turn the heat off in their cabins, backflush their toilets AND fill the hull with CO2 until their head is about to explode.” Then she handed Ro a thing that she placed in her ear, “This is a translator. It will allow you to understand what we are saying but you must work hard to learn the words so you can speak to us.” She them kissed the Waz-Don on her furry cheek, turned and walked away, an expression of a job well done on her body. It was clear that if the men weren’t afraid of the mother, they respected her and listened to her words. For all the different races here, they acted like a real tribe with George as Gund, Nguyen as the eldest woman and the others in their places.

As-Tan helped her into a belt which he clipped to her waist, “This will catch you of you fall” he clipped a coiled rope to the belt and handed her a bag full of clips. “Follow me please.” Waz-Don warriors didn’t ask, they demanded so her husband’s time away from Pal-ul-Don had made many changes to him. Some, like this politeness, she enjoyed.

She climbed the wall easily, her race having evolved for exactly this purpose, and asked, “What about the Ho-Don with the pointed ears and ja-eyes? Why don’t they do this?”

“We were made by The Great God to climb trees and cliffs, the Weir were made by the Demons to work in space so we resemble each other and if they didn’t have to work on the ship, they would help but the Amber Hope is old and they are always busy fixing things and making improvements that will make the Hope travel safer and faster. So, until the ship must leave, I do this. Here,” they had reached the roof and holding with feel and tail and one hand, As-Tan showed her how to clip the safety rope to the metal beam that ran across the ceiling. He gave it a jerk to test and walked across the ceiling, grasping the girders with feet and hands, Ro following with difficulty. Climbing a wall was easy, being a fly in the ceiling was not. Her body sagged and wanted to fall and she was worried that she would.

Then As-Tan stopped and took a clip from his pouch with his tail and set it into a hole in the ceiling. Then he released one hand and grasping the clip, pushed and twisted until she heard a click. “We need to place these in a pattern. Every other hole in this row needs a clip, then skip two rows and repeat. Push in and twist until it locks. If it doesn’t lock, we could loose cargo.”

She tried. She could use her tail as easily as her hands but the motions were different and unusual so it took her some time to force the clip in. Then she had to reach far to twist it but finally it clicked, she thought.

As-Tan said, “Are you certain it is secure?”

“I believe so.”

“Well, only one way to check,” and he grasped the ring, let go of the girder and swung free. He then shook and twisted and as she smiled, the clip released and her husband fell!

She screamed but then the safety rope caught and he hung there, a few feet below her until he laughed, “Safety is important. Remember your belt and twist the clips HARD!” Then he swung back up to grasp the beam as she heard laughter from below so she slapped him, “Do not ever do that again!”

He laughed back, “I knew it wouldn’t hold. The clips must line up with these lines on the ceiling. Here, watch how I hold the clip with my tail.” He took the clip and she saw how he wrapped it around the clip and set it in the hole. Then he pulled and the clip turned a bit so it wouldn’t fall out. He then took the clip with his tail and pulled to turn it more. Finally, he released the clip, wrapped his tail around the beam, reached out and pulled the clip until it clicked and lined up with the line he had described. “I can hang Case from this and it wouldn’t give way,” he commented. “Now you try.”

This one went in and he praised her, then watched her do another as he continued. “When we reach the end, if any are NOT in-line, that one must be redone, but if they are all in-line, they are set properly. Take your time. It’s more important that they be done right then fast.”

He moved to the next row and began to mount clips as she tried to keep up. But his experience and greater strength allowed As-Tan to do five to her one, he hanging from the clips he had set to reach the next in line, always moving his safety line as he moved.

After a half hour, Ro-un-Tu was getting tired and made a mistake. She removed her safety line and shifted wrong and before she could reclip, fell screaming to the deck below.

Her least image was of her husband frantically throwing himself to catch her, only to be brought up short by his one safety line then….

Case set her on the ground as As-Tan unclipped and dropped to the floor, running to her and pushing through the tand-at-don (tailless men) who were crowding around. The giant was breathing heavily as if he had run across the floor to catch her, which he had. And the strangers, all worried about her, suddenly ceased being aliens and she realized that this group was, really, a tribe and she was now a part of that tribe. As As-Tan held her, she shaking from the incident, she felt safe for the first time in years.

***

“I’m sorry, we expected too much from you,” the giant was saying as if from a distance. “Rest up for the rest of the day and let As-Tan finish.”

“No!” she started, embarrassed at being thought of as weak. She was middle-aged and not as strong as she once was, but still, she refused to show weakness. “I just need to be more careful.”

“No!” the giant voice boomed. “I am in charge of the loading deck and I decide when the work is too dangerous. So, you rest. That’s an order. As-Tan, when you are ready…”

Her husband nodded and took the woman to the side where he sat with her until she stopped shaking. “If you insist, then bring me more clips. I’ll drop a line and you can fill my bag. We’re almost done with this deck,. Then we can have dinner and start the next deck afterwards.”

“Why all this?” she asked.

“There is little to hunt here. So we must trade for everything, including food. These decks hold cargo that we will trade to other tribes but the crates must be tied down so they don’t shift and damage the Hope. We tie the cargo to these clips to ensure safety.”

“I’ve heard tales of men who spied on the Ho-Don canoes so understand a bit but why tie them so strongly? Surely they won’t fall over the side through these walls.”

“They can. The Amber Hope moves so fast and turns so tight that sometimes a person can be thrown against the hull with the force of a Gryf charge. Sometimes the cargo will break free with such force that it punches a hole through the side and we can be sucked out. Or the crate will break open and the contents bounce around like a thrown rock with force enough to kill anyone they strike. I’ve seen it happen so am very careful.” He didn’t mention that once, Case, when drunk, had failed to secure a strap properly and the cargo had killed someone and injured a half dozen others. This was the main reason Case worked for the tramp-freighter and not a larger line. None would hire him. “Ready? Good, I’d hate for my friends to think that we Waz-Don are as weak as a Tand-ho-don. Be careful of that for you, a she, are stronger than George or Michael. And George is a proven warrior.”

He took her to the locker for more clips and as he went to climb the wall and return to work, she asked, “If I am stronger than the tailless gund, then why do you, who are stronger than me, not take this canoe in a gund-bar (chief battle)?”

“Because, my lovely wife,” he kissed her, “I am very happy where I am.”

Shaking her head, she mumbled, “You always were a strange child and you are a stranger man. It’s a good thing I know you are a brave and strong fighter or I’d …” no, she loved him, she guessed, and she did respect him even though this refusal to be chief would be seen as a sign of cowardess in the Kor-ul-Lul. He wasn’t a coward. He was simply, strange. He belonged here, among these strange people. She laughed then, people! She actually called them people!

***

Dinner was a joke. Nguyen had to teach the Waz-Don and American women how to use the Ship’s kitchen. Mary, coming from a technical society had an easier time for she understood the idea of a microwave and toaster and freezer so could easily adapt to the alien versions. But Ro-un-Tu, whose life had been cooking over an open fire and a clay oven had to learn the simplest things like how to turn a light on. Nguyen was infinitely patient. “We take turns cooking but I am better by far than any of the men who I suspect of deliberately burning the meals to encourage me to do most of the cooking. Michael is a decent cook though and enjoys the art as much as do I. Fortunatly, the rule is that the cook never washes dishes.”

Mary had to learn entirely new foods. Being an American, she was used to a certain kind of food and when she wanted Chinese or Mexican, she would buy it already prepared. But Nguyen’s grandparents were Vietnamese from Indonesia and her husband’s grandparents were Chinese so she fed the crew a heavily Asian diet. “I suppose that the men will be happy to have white food for a change.”

Mary laughed at this, “White food. I would have thought you’d mention Earth food.”

“If we can get some. I’ve never been to Terra so all our food is what my grandparents brought with them. Some managed to grow on Drakonis, some didn’t. Rice is rice, though, no matter where it grows.”

Dinner was late. Three cooks, each with different ideas, didn’t work well together even though they tried. Mary wanted steak but there wasn’t any aboard. And Ro didn’t understand the idea of rice. Yams and meat were staples to her, always fresh. Fortunatly, As-Tan had managed to hunt and kill a deer before the shuttle had landed so Ro-un-Tu happily butchered the beast outside off the tarmac and they had some meat with the eternal rice.

“Get used to it. We eat a LOT of rice here. It stores well and is cheap. Meat is when we can find it, mostly when we reach Gaea. And fresh fruit is replaced by canned after a week.”

“I love to can,” Mary stated.

“Then teach the others because Nguyen doesn’t know how.”

Nguyen laughed, feeding mushed rice and meat to her baby who she was beginning to wean. “At least I can cook. These men will eat anything that comes from a can.”

“Well,” Case boomed, “Even George’s cooking beats the rations we ate in the war. Good thing Michael learned to cook on Gaea.” Mary assumed that on his home planet, being a cook for a family of women wasn’t as humiliating as it would be in America.

Mary and Ro looked at the dining room. Ro wasn’t used to chairs and Case had his own table but the crew was a mixture of everything. George, Michael and Mary (with Carol) were human. The five members of the Wing family were Weir. Case was a Mon and As-Tan and Ro-un-Tu were Waz-Don. Four races from a half dozen countries on a number of planets, each different but united. Ro found the idea strange, Mary found it comforting. “It means that if you all live in harmony with George, when Earth does reach out to the stars, there is hope we will do so in peace.”

END



To contact me or to request topics to be covered, send to RikJohnson@juno.com
by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
85717


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