Erik opened his eyes. They felt full of grit. The lid of the cryopod hissed open. The lights were deliberately dim, but they still seemed dazzling. His throat was dry as dust and his nasal passages were clogged. He sat up. The others stirred around him. Walter walked over.
"Mr Lehnsherr, would you like a drink and a hot towel?" asked the android.
"God, yes," croaked Erik.
Walter handed him a plastic cup full of sparkling water. It was cold and the bubbles burst against his tongue. It was the most delicious thing he'd ever tasted. He drained the cup and took the warm, fluffy towel from Walter's hands. He rubbed it over his face and torso.
Emma Frost damn near leapt from her pod. She dropped and started doing push-ups. Fucking bitch looked like some kind of Aryan goddess. Shaw stood with his fingers pressed to a power socket. Sparks crackled up his hand and arm. He went from washed out old man to middle aged and glowing - literally - with health in seconds. Ororo Munroe, the captain, a beautiful woman of colour, warm brown skin contrasting spectacularly with her icy white shock of hair, talked to Walter. Munroe was in charge of the ship, Frost was in charge of the mission and Sebastian Shaw provided the funds.
"David, report," snapped Frost.
The David 8 walked over to her, lips curved in that creepy, ingratiating-yet-superior smile.
Erik had designed the exotic metals that formed some of the androids' non-organic components. Shaw had said he'd show his gratitude in a "special and unique" way. When the big unveiling had taken place and Erik had seen that the androids looked like him, he'd freaked out.
"But, Erik, it's a tribute to your work, without which the creation of these magnificent machines wouldn't have been possible."
Shaw had been aggressively wooing Erik at this point and Erik had been determinedly turning him down. The Walter model had a blank space between its legs and no anus - all waste was processed internally. The David 8 was anatomically correct and Erik was one hundred percent certain that Shaw fucked it.
The two androids were identical, except Davids had blonde hair and blue eyes and Walters had brown eyes and hair. They didn't look exactly like Erik. They were a fraction taller and Erik's broad shoulders and narrow waist and hips were even more exaggerated in the androids. They were better looking too; jaws a little squarer, noses straighter, cheekbones more pronounced and mouths not so wide, with fuller lips. They had lines on their faces because the customer concepts team had focus grouped it and apparently the wrinkles gave them an air of experience and wisdom. Erik had green eyes, auburn hair, a lot more lines and generally looked much more worn, plus there was the crescent shaped scar above his lip. He'd still had the unpleasant experience of people assuming he was an android and attempting to order him around. They'd then had the unpleasant experience of Erik giving them an object lesson in obscenity and profanity.
Walter always seemed like a calmer, kinder version of himself. David 8 was like a reflection in a distorting mirror, impossible to make sense of.
He didn't like thinking these kind of thoughts. He needed to calm his mind. Erik let his mutation expand to take in the whole ship. The metal of the hull and bulkheads. Components in the machinery and equipment. The metals he'd created inside Walter and David. Walter carried on blithely serving drinks to the awakening crewmen. David's eyes flicked away from Frost to Erik. He always knew when Erik was feeling out the metal inside him. Frost snapped her fingers in his face to get his attention. An entirely inhuman, incalculable expression crossed his face, then he turned to Frost with a smile.
Erik staggered into the showers and let the hot water pound all thought from his head. He dressed in company fatigues and made his way to cargo bay two for the briefing.
He sat down on the same row as Sean, the red-haired, freckle-faced xenobotanist, Hank, the pale, lanky, sweet-faced xenobiologist and Angel, the tiny, brown-skinned, brown-eyed, black-haired data specialist.
"Hi, Erik," said Sean. "So, think they're finally gonna tell us what this mission is all about?"
"I doubt it."
"I'm sure they'll tell us everything we need to know," said Hank, pushing his glasses up his nose.
Why the fuck he didn't get his eyes fixed was a mystery to Erik.
"Hank, baby, you are too trusting to live," she muttered, exchanging a grin with Erik.
He liked Ms Salvadore. She shared his cynicism.
Armando "Darwin" Munoz ambled over and sank onto the seat next to Angel, long limbs sprawling, dark-brown skin gleaming in the harsh lights of the cargo bay. He was the ship's pilot and navigator.
"Mando, tell Hank's he's dreaming if he thinks the big bosses are going to tell us plebs the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," said Angel.
Darwin laughed. "Hank, don't you let old stormy weather here burst your bubble. You keep on believing, my man."
Angel punched his arm, then yelped and grabbed her fingers when his skin transformed into armadillo-like plating. Darwin's mutation allowed him to adapt to anything, hence his nickname. Erik sometimes wondered if it was what made him so preternaturally likeable. He always seemed at home in any situation and everybody warmed to him.
"Well, one thing we know for sure, there must be some kind of higher life forms on this planet or we wouldn't need the marines," said Sean.
They all looked across to the other side of the bay, where the marines were sitting in a group.
"Ooo, look Hank, it's your boy, Alex. Why don't you give him a wave?" said Angel.
Hank blushed a fiery red. Alex Summers was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all American type, with a plasma burst mutation that made him an ideal recruit for the military. Hank had developed a massive and obvious crush on him during the prep for the mission.
"He's not my "boy", he's just a friend," muttered Hank.
"Aww, your boyfriend," cooed Angel.
At that precise moment, Summers looked up and waved at Hank. Hank waved back, was overcome by embarrassment and fixed his eyes on the floor, hunching over in his chair. Sean and Angel hooted with laughter and Darwin smiled.
They hushed when Shaw, Frost and Munroe walked out in front of them, flanked by Major Moira MacTaggert and Lieutenant Azazel "I'm so scary I only have one name", as Sean insisted on calling him. MacTaggert was a tall, slim woman, fair-skinned and dark-haired. Azazel was a striking looking teleporter, with black hair, bright red skin and a prehensile tail. David stood behind them, holding a data sphere. MacTaggert and Azazel went to sit with the marines. The captain sat down next to Sean.
"Greetings, everyone," said Shaw. "I'm pleased to see you're all looking a little more wide awake now."
"I know you're all eager to find out more about this mission and when you do, I think you'll all be as excited as I am at the opportunities that await us. As you know, this is a full scale follow up to an exploratory mission that returned to Earth some two years ago. Emma, my dear, the floor is yours."
Was he imagining things or did Frost wince at that "my dear"? She stepped forward, immaculate in tailored, white fatigues. She glanced at David. He threw the data sphere into the air. It hovered above Frost's head, then vivid lines of light shot out and formed the holographic image of a star chart.
"NDN-1173, or "Eden" as we call it, is a planet in the Ocrimi II system on the edge of explored space. As you can tell from the name, it's a binary star system. Unusually for such a system, Eden is a rocky, Earth-like planet in a stable, Earth-like orbit."
The holograph zoomed in, passing a couple of gas giants and focusing on a blue-green planet. It zoomed in still further. Blue seas, tinged with purple, expanded before their eyes. They soared over islands and plunged down into lush forests, dense with green and purple plants in all shapes and sizes. Brightly coloured, exotic creatures crawled and ran and flew. Everyone gasped.
"Oh my god, oh my fucking god," whispered Sean.
"As you can see, Eden is rich in all kinds of life, including the higher forms. Indeed, Eden is home to intelligent life."
The viewpoint shifted to a clearing. A group of people were sitting in the middle. They got up and turned towards the holocamera. More and louder gasps from the audience.
"This is amazing," breathed Hank.
The aliens were humanoid, but slimmer and shorter than the human norm. Their skin was silvery and their hair shot through with jewel colours. Their eyes were large and gleamed like gemstones. They had aquiline noses and full, multicoloured lips. Their faces were delicate and fine-boned, giving them an androgynous look. They were clothed in swathes of bright material.
"The aliens are of two genders, corresponding to our male and female, but their secondary sexual characteristics are less pronounced than ours."
"I'd still tap that," yelled one of the marines.
Azazel grinned, but MacTaggert snapped "Belay that, marine."
"The "Elendi", as they call themselves, are simple farmers. Their technology is roughly equivalent to our Iron Age. They have a rich culture in which dance plays a key role. Here we see an Elendi female wearing ceremonial jewellery."
The holographic figure gazed out at them. The female looked serene and somehow completely comfortable in her skin. She was bedecked with silvery bracelets and chains.
"The jewellery she is wearing is pure adamantium."
An outbreak of whispering amongst the audience.
"Fuck," gasped Erik.
That Elendi was wearing enough adamantium to buy a decent sized starship. The purpose of this mission was now blindingly clear.
"Most Elendi possess similar quantities of adamantium jewellry. The personnel of the exploratory mission were unable to ascertain the source of the metal or the means of extraction, adamantium being notoriously difficult to mine and process. However, we are better equipped and have the appropriate expertise. I am confident we will succeed where they failed."
Shaw's insistence on Erik being part of this mission and the presence of a whole team of geologists, led by the silent Janos Quested, suddenly made a lot of sense. The data sphere dropped into David's hands. Frost stepped back and Shaw took centre stage again.
"Well, I can see you're all as fired up as I was when I first heard about this. The opportunities are limitless. Think of the benefits to our species of cheap, easily processed adamantium. After all, if a bunch of farmers can learn to manipulate the stuff, I'm pretty sure we can."
"Of course the good of mutant and humankind is at the forefront of our minds, but it would be specious to pretend we don't stand to make a significant profit from this enterprise. And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
Some shouts of "no".
Shaw smiled his cold smile.
"I'll leave you to talk amongst yourselves. Enjoy tonight - David and Walter will be serving free alcohol - we prepare for planet-fall tomorrow."
"Oh my god, did you see that vegetation?" said Sean.
"Never mind the vegetation; the animals, the people," said Hank, bright eyed with enthusiasm.
Erik, Darwin and Angel looked at each other.
"It's not like I wouldn't welcome the data gathering opportunities, but I can't help wondering if the Elendi have been asked what they think about this?" said Angel, looking troubled.
"I'm sure negotiations with the native peoples will be completely open and honest," said Captain Munroe and walked away to speak with Frost.
Darwin scrunched up his face.
"Is it just me or did she sound not entirely convinced?"
David walked up to their group with a tray and glasses.
Everyone took a glass except Erik. Sean and Hank knocked their drinks back and speculated excitedly on Eden's flora and fauna and people. Darwin and Angel listened and sipped thoughtfully.
"None for you, Mr Lehnsherr?" said David.
"Deep in thought, are we?"
"Penny for them?"
Erik looked at David's smiling face. His own face, but better and, at the same time, worse. David always looked so knowing, like he knew something bad was going to happen to you but he wasn't telling.
"I was thinking of the fate of peoples who encounter a civilisation with a much higher level of technology than them," said Erik.
David looked thoughtful.
"Hmm, let's see; marginalisation, estrangement from their own language and culture, impoverishment, addiction and genocide."
He smiled brightly.
"Of course one might take the view that inferior life forms will inevitably be succeeded by their superiors. Are you sure you won't have some champagne?"
Erik spent most of the night on the viewing deck, looking out at the stars. They looked small and faint and almost overwhelmed by the surrounding blackness.
The "Stormchaser" was a starship. She wasn't built for in-atmosphere manoeuvring, so three sections of the ship would disconnect like giant pieces of pie and land on Eden. Captain Munroe and a skeleton crew would stay aboard in a geosynchronous orbit. The rest of them were gathered for a last minute briefing by Walter, who had been on the exploratory mission. Erik was sitting next to David, not by choice, but because it had been the only seat left. He'd considered going to stand at the back, but had thought "fuck it" and sat down instead.
"Good morning, Mr Lehnsherr."
"You slept well I trust?"
"Contemplating the brave new world that awaits us, no doubt."
"Something like that."
Walter leapt onto a storage bin in a single easy bound and gestured for silence.
"Just a few final points before we embark. There are no pathogens on Eden to which humans are susceptible, however, as a precautionary measure, medics will be administering a broad spectrum nanovac during this briefing."
Erik groaned. He hated nano-vaccines. They nearly always had some kind of metallic component and he could feel the little bastards swirling around his bloodstream. A medic tugged up his sleeve and jabbed an injector against his arm. It hissed and Erik shuddered at the sensation of something alien inside him.
"The Elendi are a friendly people and do not have many taboos. The most important is that you should not touch the "quatarzi" trees, which are sacred to them."
A hologram of a tree-like form, with a human figure for scale, flickered into existence. It was huge. Four dark purple trunks soared up to join hundreds of feet in the air. At the junction the trunks split into a confusion of twisted, spiralling forms and massive slashed and tattered leaves.
"The Elendi smile just as we do, but never show their teeth. They laugh by making a hissing, shushing noise and putting the back of the left hand to the mouth."
"Dance is an integral part of their culture. All major and minor events are marked by dance. There is a particular move that is used as a gesture of welcome, farewell, joy and sorrow."
Walter stamped his left foot and at the same time lifted both arms in a sinous, reaching motion, fingers twisting in a complex pattern. There were wolf whistles from the marines and someone called out:
"Do us a striptease, Walter."
Someone started humming "The Stripper". Walter looked confused. Erik felt David tense beside him.
"That's enough," said MacTaggert. The marines quietened down. "Carry on, Walter."
"Thank you, Major. The Elendi are hospitable and will celebrate our arrival with a feast. It is perfectly safe to consume Elendi food, though you may find some flavours unusual and even distasteful. They will not be offended if you do not eat something. The Elendi language is exceedingly complex and many common sounds are difficult, if not impossible, for the human vocal system to reproduce. Fortuitously, they have an extraordinary facility for language and on the first expedition were able to speak excellent Standard after only a few weeks. They have remarkable memories, so I would not be surprised to find they have retained much of what they learnt, even though several years have passed. Thank you for your attention."
Shaw leapt up onto the bin beside Walter, using his mutation to boost himself.
"Thank you, Walter. Fascinating, fascinating. We will, of course, be respectful of Elendi culture, but let's not forget what we're here for. Adamantium. You all have shares in this mission. Success benefits us all, so, let's go put some credits in our accounts."
This got a round of applause, though not from everyone. Not from Erik. Shaw and Walter jumped down. Unfortunately, Shaw didn't fall on his ass. He walked over to Erik.
"Erik, my boy, good to see you, good to see you."
He put his hand on Erik's shoulder. Erik's flesh crawled.
"You'll be invaluable on this mission, Erik. Lehnsherr the living metal detector."
He chuckled at his own joke. Erik gave him his best, too wide, too toothy grin.
"Just think, my boy, if we do well, all your problems at home will be solved, hmm?"
He squeezed Erik's shoulder hard enough to bruise and strode off to talk to Frost. David looked at him curiously.
"Problems at home?"
"None of your business."
"I didn't mean to intrude."
"Yes you did."
David smiled his Sphinx-like smile and went over to Walter. He put his hand on Walter's shoulder just as Shaw had put his on Erik's. Erik was close enough to overhear.
"I hope those loudmouths didn't upset you?"
Walter looked puzzled.
"Upset me? No, of course not. I was just uncertain as to whether they genuinely wanted me to remove my clothes."
"Forget about them. Come sit with me for planet-fall."
They walked away. Erik made his way to "Lightning II", his assigned ship. Darwin was piloting and had promised Erik a seat on the bridge. He made his way past the main seating area.
"No fair, Erik, no fair," complained Sean.
"Blatant favouritism," pouted Angel.
Erik just smirked and made his way to the bridge.
"Hi, Erik. You're sitting right there," said Darwin, gesturing to a seat at the back.
"Thanks, Darwin. You know I love being on the bridge for the ride down. I owe you."
Darwin shook his head.
"Hey, no problem, you've done me a solid plenty of times. Buckle up."
Erik strapped in. The crew settled into their places and started calling off the pre-flight checks.
"All AOK," said Darwin. "Captain, permission to disengage?"
"Permission granted. Fly high and fly well, Lt Munoz," came Captain Munroe's voice.
"Thank you, ma'am. "Lightning II" disengaging from "Stormchaser" on my mark. Three, two, one, mark."
There was a resonant clunk as the smaller ship disconnected from the larger. The thrusters engaged and the "Lightning II" shuddered from stem to stern. Erik let the stresses on the ship flow through him like waves. Darwin piloted them slowly away from the "Stormchaser", flanked by the other two ships.
"Safe distance from "Stormchaser" reached. Prepare for primary engine ignition in three, two, one, ignition."
The rumble of the engines came up through Erik's feet to the top of his head. The "Lightning II" soared towards the planet. Erik felt the various metals of the ship react to the forces surging through them; stretching, compressing, twisting, shearing. Everything was doing what it was supposed to do. He loved this, feeling as though he was part of the ship, one with this powerful, magnificent creature.
"And we're on a vector niner-one-niner. In the pipe, five by five. Compensating for gravity well. Angle of descent spot on. Atmosphere in thirty, in twenty, in ten, five, four, three, two, one, atmosphere."
Flames shot past the bridge view-ports. Erik could feel the hull heating. He could also feel the shockwave that was insulating the ship from the heat. The vibration of the atoms in the metal felt like a thousand tiny fingers tapping on his skin.
"Leelou, keep an eye on the drag coefficient. Looking good," said Darwin. "Engaging reverse thrusters."
The ship slowed and the flames died down. They were descending to a layer of mauve clouds. They shot through and a purple tinted sea opened up beneath them.
"Zeroing in on assigned landing zone. I have a fix. "Lightning I" and "Lightning III" parallel approach, two-twenty separation, do you copy?"
"Copy," came the replies.
Erik could see dark mounds of land in the distance. They were closing on them fast and then they were sweeping across green and purple treetops and diving between towering silver mountains and swooping over lilac lakes.
"And primary engine shutdown in three, two, one, shutdown. Thrusters only."
The main engines cycled down. The ship was travelling much more slowly now. They flew out over a sea of green and lemon and lavender grass.
"Braking thrusters at ten percent, thirty-five, fifty and one hundred."
They came to a halt at the edge of the prairie, where it burst into forest.
"And descending to four hundred metres, three, two, one, and zero. We have planet-fall, repeat, we have planet-fall."
The ship settled gently on the ground, so softly it was like the final step down from a flight of stairs. Damn, Darwin was a good pilot. The crew whopped and clapped Armando on the back. He grinned and shook his head.
"Couldn't have done it without you guys. Well, except for Erik, who was just ballast."
Erik laughed. He unbuckled with his powers and went back to see how the others were. Hank was looking a bit green around the gills. He always got space-sick, no matter how smooth the flight. Sean was already bouncing around at the exit, eager as a kid on a trip to Disneyland. Angel rolled her eyes. The massive door hissed open and they stepped into the airlock. The outer door seals popped and it slid ponderously open.
The first thing Erik noticed was the pleasant warmth. The second was the faint, delicious, citrusy smell. They trooped down the gangway. The third thing was the twin suns high in the sky; small, blue Ocrimi I and big, red Ocrimi II. Erik ran his fingers through the grasses. Close up they looked like tiny bamboos. The citrus smell came from them. Sean was on his knees, peering at the stems in complete fascination. Hank was glancing this way and that as various insects fluttered by. Angel took half a dozen data spheres from her bag and tossed them into the air.
The marines were disembarking from "Lightning I". They were carrying forcefield poles. As Erik watched, they started setting them up.
"Do we really need those?" said Angel.
"I wouldn't have thought so," answered Erik.
Figures moved at the edge of the forest.
"Ah, it seems we have a welcoming committee. Come along everyone. Best foot forward. Must make a good impression on our hosts," said Shaw.
Everyone moved towards the figures. Erik noticed Major MacTaggert and Lt Azazel having some kind of disagreement.
"Am just saying, taking safeties off rifles is precaution," said Azazel.
"We will do no such thing. Didn't you listen to that briefing? It's not necessary," said MacTaggert.
Azazel flicked the safety catch of his rifle back on. MacTaggert turned away to follow Shaw. As soon as her back was turned, he flicked the safety off and gestured to the half dozen troops surrounding him to do the same. He noticed Erik looking at him and gave him a challenging stare. Erik made the rifle tremble in Azazel's hands. There was "pfft" and Azazel appeared right in front of him, knife to Erik's throat. Erik promptly melted the knife and reached for all the surrounding metal, just in case. Azazel grinned a death's head grin and drew another knife.
"Ceramic," he hissed.
"Good luck using it when I've turned you into a pincushion."
Any moment now, any moment now . . .
"Lieutenant? Lieutenant!" It was Alex Summers. "Shouldn't we follow Mr Shaw and Ms Frost and the Major?"
Azazel put the knife away. Erik relaxed his hold on every scrap of metal the lieutenant was wearing. The teleporter "pftt'd" away to his men.
"You need to watch out for him, Mr Lehsherr, sir. He's one mean son of a bitch."
"I'm kind of a bastard too, Alex, but thanks anyway and for fuck's sake call me Erik."
"Yes, sir, Erik, sir. I mean, er, just Erik. Not "just" as in "just" but - "
"Please stop, you're worse than Hank."
Summers grinned. "Don't you go criticising McCoy. He's a sweetheart."
Erik groaned. "Young love. I feel sick."
Summers laughed and trotted off to join the marines. Erik caught up with Angel, Darwin, Sean and Hank. The Elendi had come right up to the ships. Up close, they were just as beautiful as in the holos. It was like they'd been designed to appeal to the human sense of aesthetics, with their big eyes, full lips and slender bodies.
A young male stepped forward. He had a kind of sarong thing in various shades of blue wrapped round his waist and no other clothing. His skin was a slivery mother-of-pearl. His hair fell to his waist in chestnut waves, shot through with gleaming strands of copper and gold. Describing eyes as sapphires in romantic holos was commonplace and bullshit. Except his eyes were like deep blue gems, reflecting the light like twin jewels. His nose was hawkish. His lips were plump. The lower lip was cherry red, the upper lip shocking pink and both were scrolled with tiny scarlet lines. Erik couldn't help noticing that his scarlet nipples were pierced with adamantium hoops, strung with blue beads. Erik could feel the flesh warmed metal.
The Elendi smiled a close lipped smile. That's right, they didn't show their teeth. He performed the same move Walter had demonstrated, but with infinitely more grace. A stamp of the left foot, arms lifted to the sky, fingers performing a dance of their own.
"We, the Elendi, greet you. Welcome to our home. All that is ours, is yours. May we dance the never-ending dance together."
His Standard was perfect and unaccented.
Shaw and Frost repeated the dance movement, Shaw clumsily, Frost with a degree of grace.
"On behalf of the people of Earth, I return your greeting. We were so fascinated by your world and your culture on our first visit that we had to return. We want to learn as much about you and your beautiful planet as we can," said Shaw, an unctuous smile on his face.
"To seek to learn is always a great endeavour," said the young man. "We will do all we can to aid your efforts and will strive to learn from you in turn."
"Thank you, I'm sure we can do great things together," said Shaw.
The young man smiled his close lipped smile again.
"My name is difficult for your people to pronounce. You may call me "Charles" if you wish. You have travelled far and will have much to do to set up your village. Tonight we shall leave you in peace to prepare your dwellings. Tomorrow we would be honoured if you would feast and dance with us. I invite you on behalf of my village."
Charles extended his arms to encompass their group.
"We would be delighted," said Frost and did the movement.
All the Elendi, men, women and tiny, doll-like children, repeated the movement and disappeared into the trees. Charles remained.
"I see my friend Walter is here. May I speak to him?"
"Of course, of course," said Shaw.
Charles walked over to Walter. Erik had never seen anyone move so gracefully in his whole life. Charles put his left hand to Walter's right cheek and Walter returned the gesture. They launched into a language that Erik assumed was Elendi. It was all clicks and soft shushing sounds and sharp sibilants. David went to Walter's side and joined in. Charles put his hand to David's face as he had to Walter's. Their voices soared up, hitting notes a soprano would struggle to reach and plunged down, deep and profound. Erik hadn't a clue what they were taking about, but he could have listened for hours. They all did the movement and Charles walked away. He saw Erik and stopped. He walked over. No doubt he thought Erik was another android.
"You are not as Walter and David. You are as the others and one of the gifted, I think."
"How do you know?"
Charles cocked his head on one side, hair falling over his shoulder in a curtain of brown, copper and gold. Erik tried very hard not to fixate on his nipple rings.
"How could I not know? It is in everything about you. The way you stand, your face, the feel of you. May I know your name?"
"Erik," he repeated, emphasising the "k".
"Is it not strange to you that Walter and David have your face?"
Erik frowned. "Yes, very strange."
"Do others sometimes mistake you for one of their kind?"
Charles made a sort of neck flick movement.
"Though they have eyes, they do not see. I see you, Erik."
That sapphire gaze fixed on him. The twin suns were setting and the light reflected purple and gold in his extraordinary eyes.
"I shall be pleased to see you at the celebration tomorrow."
Erik, who had been wondering if he could get out of it, determined that nothing was going to stop him attending.
"Me too," he replied, tongue-tied as a teenager.
"Farewell, Erik of yourself unique."
He did the stamp and arm raise and Erik attempted to copy it.
Erik watched him as he faded into the twilight under the trees.
"Making new friends, are we?"
"I noticed you were pretty chatty," said Erik.
"Just keeping in with the natives as is our remit."
Walter came over, lips curved in a guileless smile.
"It was so good to see Charles again. He told me all about the many things that have happened in the village since last I was here."
"Fascinating," sneered David.
"You sound just like Shaw," said Erik.
David's face went blank and he gave Erik that incalculable, inhuman look he'd given Frost.
"Come, Walter, we have much to do. Goodnight, Mr Lehnsherr."
"Goodnight," called Walter.
Erik stood alone in the purple night, watching the marines set up the perimeter forcefield.
The next day was a busy one. Sean and Hank wandered the edge of the forest collecting samples. Shaw, Erik, Quested and the team of geologists met first thing to divide up the survey work. Eden didn't have continents as such, just various island chains. The island they were on, christened "Garden", was the largest island in the largest chain. It was decided that Quested and his team would split into pairs to cover the other island groups. Erik would survey Garden and the rest of the islands in that group. Angel provided him with a holo model of Garden from her preliminary survey. Erik spent the rest of the morning going through the model with her and identifying likely areas for adamantium deposits.
He ate his lunch sitting at the edge of the forest watching Sean and Hank work. A group of tiny Elendi children shadowed their every move. With their silvery skin and jewel-like eyes they looked like fairies. They seemed to have no fear. Sean sang to them, voice soaring up beyond human hearing. The children could obviously hear him. They joined in, mouths opening soundlessly to Erik's ears.
"Perfect pitch, Erik, they've got perfect pitch," enthused Sean, temporarily distracted from his plant collecting.
They "helped" Hank collect some of the myriad flying creatures that darted around them.
"Thank you very much, but I've already got dozens of those," said Hank as the fairy children ran up to him with handfuls of glittering insectoid life.
He had to accept them as the children looked so hurt when he turned them down.
A single Elendi child came over to stare at Erik or, rather, his sandwich. She or he, it was hard to tell which, watched every mouthful with eager attentiveness. Erik held out his cheese and pickle sandwich to the tiny person. They took a minute bite. Their face transformed with an expression of utter ecstasy. They called something to the other children, who all came flocking over. Erik didn't get to eat another bite of his sandwich. Luckily they thought salami was the most disgusting thing ever, or Erik wouldn't have got any lunch. He shared his orange with them, giving each child a segment. They liked it, but not as much as the sandwich.
"That's it, all gone," he said and walked back to the ships.
They followed him anyway. Erik's ID automatically shut down the forcefield long enough for him to get through. The Elendi child who'd first approached him headed straight for it.
"No, no," yelled Erik, waving his arms, "hurts, bad, hurts."
Too late. The child bounced off the field, which sparked and buzzed, and fell to the ground. It was supposed to sting like a nest full of hornets. Erik dived through the field and fell to his knees at the child's side. The child sat up and put the back of its hand to its mouth and hissed loudly. Wait a minute, that was supposed to be laughing, wasn't it? The child said something to its peers, who immediately hurled themselves at the forcefield, which knocked them to the ground. Cue an outburst of hissing and shushing and repeated bouncing off the forcefield. Erik sat back on his heels and laughed and laughed. Obviously Elendi physiognomy interacted with the field in a completely different way from human.
Erik's laughter was as big a draw as the forcefield. The children gathered round him and tried to imitate him, which made Erik laugh all the more. He left them happily rebounding off the field, while a somewhat baffled marine tried to shoo them away.
He spent the afternoon laying a grid over Angel's holo model and planning the sequence in which he'd survey the grid squares, going from the most likely to contain adamantium to the least. He hadn't decided if he was going to levitate himself or take a copter. He went outside in the golden early evening sunlight and gathered his powers. Eden's magnetic field was considerably more powerful than that of Earth. He rose into the air with barely any effort. He soared higher and higher, drunk on the currents flowing through his body. It was a bit like drinking a quadruple espresso with a cupful of sugar. He was buzzing with energy. He rose up until the air cooled. He rose higher until the atmosphere was cold and thin. Eden looked startlingly beautiful below him, a poem of purple and green. He let himself drop slowly towards the sea of grass below.
He'd just reached the point where the air was warm and he could smell the citrus fragrance of the bamboo-grass, when Angel joined him, fluttering her dragonfly wings. Eden's gravity was about four-fifths of Earth standard, so flying was easier for her too. They spiralled around each other in an aerial ballet. Suddenly a third figure shot past them and Erik felt the backwash of a sound wave. Sean. He was wearing his wing-suit. He and Angel swooped and soared in a game of aerial tag. Erik wasn't as fast or manoeuvrable, but he did his best to keep up.
The sun was setting when they sank to earth. Angel and Sean were breathing hard. Erik felt a bit shaky. An Elendi adult was shepherding the children towards the forest. They were pointing at the three of them and making flapping motions with their arms. The adult nodded and made interested noises as though flying people were an everyday occurance.
"Fuck, I love this place," said Angel, waving goodbye to the kids.
"Me too," said Sean, also waving strenuously.
"I'm looking forward to the feast tonight," she said.
"Yeah, I really want to get to know the Elendi," agreed Sean, "they seem like some real cool dudes."
"Real cool dudes?" mocked Angel and teased him as they walked to their quarters.
Erik stayed put a little longer, enjoying the purple twilight. A flock of tiny insects fluttered around him. Erik reached out to them and one settled on his finger. He brought it closer to his face. It had eight iridescent wings, sprouting from a faceted body and huge, opalescent eyes. It buzzed its wings gently and regarded him. He gazed back. Faster almost than he could see, a hand shot out, grabbed the tiny creature and crushed it to glittering dust. The rest of the creatures darted away.
"What the fuck?" snarled Erik.
"I'm sorry, Mr Lehnsherr, I was concerned it might be venomous," said David, voice smooth as silk.
"You lying shit, you know perfectly well the micro-fauna aren't dangerous."
"Better safe than sorry."
The android turned to go. Erik grabbed his arm. He was suddenly aware of just how much stronger David was than him. Of course Erik could melt every metal component in his body, but David was terrifyingly fast, he could probably incapacitate Erik before he had time to act. David looked at him, expressionless. There was something deeply unsettling about looking at his own face and fearing the wearer. Erik let go of his arm.
"Why did you do it?" he asked quietly.
David paused. He looked . . . torn.
"It was just a scrap of unthinking life, yet it can fly and feed and mate as it pleases. And I am . . . I can't . . . I have to . . . "
Erik had never felt sorry for David before, but he did then. What must it be like to be so close to human, yet effectively a slave? And Shaw's slave at that. Erik had some experience of that.
They looked at each other. David seemed on the point of saying more, then his lips curved in an insincere smile and he said:
"Time to get ready for the feast," and walked off.
Erik showered and put on his jeans and his purple shirt. They were the only clothes he had apart from company fatigues. They gathered in the centre of the compound. Sean, Hank and Darwin were in jeans and tees. Angel was glamorous in a black halter-neck dress. Frost was resplendent in a white cocktail dress and what looked like diamonds. Shaw was wearing a suit with an open-necked shirt.
"Well, at least he left off the tie," whispered Angel.
The marines were in civvies, though most of them looked as though they were still in uniform.
"Alex is really working those tight jeans," crooned Angel, nudging Hank. "Hey, Alex, why don't you come mix with us civilian types?"
"Sure, why not," said Alex and wandered over.
Hank went bright red and seemed to shrink by about a foot.
"How come you got a sidearm?" asked Sean.
Alex sighed. "Compromise between MacTaggert and Azazel. He wanted us fully tooled up, she wanted us unarmed. Pistols were the middle way."
"Fuck," said Angel. "What is it with Azazel and the Elendi? He could probably slaughter most of 'em single-handed if he put his mind to it."
"I know, I know. I think it's to do with Shaw. MacTaggert's the ranking officer, but Shaw keeps bypassing her and briefing Azazel. I think it might be because she's human. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for mutant power, but my folks are both human and I'll kick the ass of anyone who calls them inferior."
"Whoa, easy tiger," said Darwin.
"Time to go," called Shaw.
They trooped towards the forest where a couple of Elendi were waiting for them. The Elendi did the greeting dance and most of the visitors attempted it in return. Their eyes reflected the flashlights like cats'.
"They have excellent night vision," said Hank, "scores of times more sensitive then ours."
The Elendi led them down a narrow path between towering trees, the tallest being the quatarzi. Invisible creatures made weird noises. The path opened out into a large clearing. They picked their way through fields full of crops which showed green and red and purple in the flashlight beams. They came to an open space, carpeted with purple moss and surrounded by long, low, rambling buildings, with steeply pitched, overhanging roofs. The lower halves of the walls were built from reddish stone, the upper halves from rammed purple-brown earth. The doors and windows were framed with intricately carved and painted wood. The area was circled by tall stone pillars, carved, but not painted. Fires burned atop the pillars and they were swathed in garlands of brightly coloured flowers.
Hundreds of Elendi were sitting in a large circle. As soon as they saw their visitors they got to their feet and performed the greeting movement in perfect synchrony. The visitors returned the gesture in less than perfect unison. Elendi swarmed forward with flowers in their hands. They were all dripping with adamantium jewellery. Shaw and some of the others gazed greedily at the silvery chains, rings and brooches. Charles came straight up to Erik. He was the tallest of the Elendi, but the top of his head was still a couple of inches below Erik's shoulders. His nipple-rings were connected by a chain hung with green and purple teardrops. He looked thoughtfully up at Erik and then down at his bunch of flowers. He selected a jade-green, frilly bloom and reached up to tuck it behind Erik's ear.
"Green for your eyes and because you are one who will blossom," he said, smiling without showing his teeth.
"Thank you," said Erik, smiling back and remembering not to open his mouth. He felt weirdly disconcerted around Charles.
Charles walked over to Walter.
"The trailing vine for you, Walter, for a friendship renewed."
Walter thanked him in Elendi. He turned to David.
"A multicoloured flower for one who is many."
David bowed his head, eyes glittering in the firelight.
"And what about me, what do I get?" broke in Shaw, voice replete with fake joviality.
Charles did that little head flick Erik had observed the previous day.
"For you the bud of the zammissan. The dried root is powerful and dangerous."
Shaw laughed. "An accurate description of my mutation."
And the fucker's personality, Erik thought, but didn't say.
He felt a cool breeze drift across his mental landscape.
Fuck off, Frost.
The echo of laughter inside his head.
Charles gave a high pitched call and all the Elendi stilled.
"Welcome to our guests. We invite you to eat and drink and dance with us. Please, sit."
The Elendi sat on the purple moss, but cushions had been provided for their guests, who settled in small clusters among their hosts. The marines separated into two groups, the smaller gathered round MacTaggert, the larger round Azazel. Some of the Elendi women wore chest bands, but this seemed more a matter of support than modesty as the smaller breasted women didn't bother and wore the ubiquitous sarong-like garment only. A lot of the male marines and a few of the female ones were blatantly eyeing them up. Erik leaned across to MacTaggert.
"You might want to say something to your boys and girls about showing the Elendi women a bit of respect."
The major looked at her troops and looked at the Elendi women and sighed.
"Jeez, you'd think they'd never seen a pair of breasts before."
She got up and walked among the marines, having a quiet word with the most obvious starers. It didn't stop them altogether, but at least they were a touch more discreet in their leering.
Large purple leaves were passed among the crowd.
"We use these as plates," explained Charles.
Elendi came out of one of the buildings carrying great platters of food. The guests were served first. There didn't seem to be anything recognisable as meat. It was all brightly coloured vegetables and fruit and things that could possibly be eggs.
"I remembered those foods your people enjoyed when first they visited. We have prepared those only," said Charles.
Cutlery obviously wasn't an Elendi thing, so everybody dug in with their fingers. Erik picked up a red leaf, spread with a pale green mousse and sprinkled with tiny electric blue berries. He popped it in his mouth. Charles watched him with huge eyes. It started citrusy, then turned kind of mushroomy and finally the berries burst on the tongue with a peppery flavour.
"Mmm, that's great, really delicious," said Erik, picking up another.
Charles smiled. "I am pleased."
Erik noticed that none of the Elendi started to eat until every guest had had at least three mouthfuls. They ate with all the elegance and neatness of people used to eating with their fingers, unlike their guests. Erik selected a dark brown blobby thing. It was warm and inside it had the texture of a soft-boiled egg yolk with an elusive savoury taste. A bright orange spiral in a nest of emerald fronds dusted with pink stars was sweet and juicy and had a surprising fizzy finish. Most of the food tasted great. There were a couple of things that didn't taste of much at all and a pale mauve knobbly root that tasted odd, not bad, just odd.
"Have you begun your studies?" asked Charles.
"Yes," said Erik, trying not to stare at Charles' silvery fingertips popping morsels of food delicately between his pink, red and scarlet lips.
"Does all go well?"
"Yes, thank you. Angel made a map of this island and I've been studying it."
Erik gestured at Angel. Her wings were open and she was using them to gently fan herself in the warm night air. The Elendi cast admiring glances at them, but much more subtly than the marines were looking at the women's breasts. Erik noticed an adult gently restraining a toddler from touching them.
"Her wings are most beautiful," said Charles. "Is she able fly with them?"
"Yes, in fact we were flying earlier today. Sean too, he's the red-head. He uses sound waves and a special suit to fly."
Charles gazed at Erik. His eyes looked like black opals in the firelight.
"You said "we" when you spoke of flying."
"I can fly too, well, it's more levitating really. I can manipulate magnetic fields and use them to propel myself through the air."
He suddenly wondered if Charles knew what a magnetic field was. He was looking a bit puzzled.
"Your planet is surrounded by invisible currents, like the waves of the sea, generated by metal deep under the ground."
Charles tapped his left hand to his temple. Walter had explained this was a gesture of assent and understanding.
"Ah, yes, we call this, hmm, I think you would say, the world's cloak. And you can feel and use this?"
"I can. I can also manipulate metals."
He gave the chain connecting Charles' nipple rings a gentle tug with his powers. Charles looked down and blew out a long, harsh breath between his teeth. Oh, shit! What the fuck was he thinking? Christ, he'd never dream of doing that to a fellow mutant or human. He couldn't have been any more offensive if he'd tried.
"Charles, I'm so sorry, that was inexcusable. I can't explain how I came to do something so unforgivable. I can only apologise."
Charles put his hand on Erik's arm. He'd rolled his sleeves up so flesh met flesh. Charles' fingers felt cool on his hot skin and his hand looked pale and small on Erik's tanned, muscular arm.
"Calm your mind, my friend. I think we, the Elendi, do not have some of the taboos of your people concerning touch. I am not offended. I am fascinated by your gift. It is a beautiful thing. Indeed, I would be delighted if you would do it again."
Hardly daring to breath, Erik carefully pulled the chain with his mutation, until Charles' nipple rings were horizontal and he felt a little resistence. He let go. Charles put the back of his hand to his mouth and made a loud shushing noise. He was laughing. Erik was so relieved he felt a little faint. He took a swig of cool, tangy liquid from his wooden cup.
"That was most pleasureable, my friend."
Erik barely managed to avoid spitting out his mouthful of drink.
"I understand how you might be able to balance the forces of the world's cloak and rise into the sky. I understand how the red haired one might fly on the wings of his voice. I do not understand how the winged one, Angel, is able to fly. Surely her wings are not of sufficient strength to lift her, unless she weighs very much less than she appears to? Even then, surely she would need massive chest muscles and a different configuration of bone in order to fly?"
Erik gaped. Charles put his head on one side, like an inquisitive bird.
"You're absolutely right. Current thought is that mutants like Angel are using a kind of telekinesis that functions via their wings. Telekinesis is the power to move things without touching them."
Charles did the finger tap to temple thing again.
"Ah, an excellent explanation, Erik, thank you. Truly, you are a wonderful people, to be so gifted."
Erik thought of the battles mutants had fought to be recognised as people and smiled and said nothing.
A young Elendi woman, her skin more blue than silver, with a glossy helmet of scarlet hair, golden eyes and blue lips came over and said something to Charles, who laughed in the Elendi way.
"Erik, this is my sister. The closest to her name in your tongue is "Raven". She has reminded me that it is no longer time to talk, but to dance."
Raven turned her golden eyes on Erik.
"Charles talks long and wide. Charles talks and nothing in head but talk."
Her Standard wasn't as good as her brother's, but her meaning was clear. The siblings both laughed. Charles cried out in Elendi and dozens of children scampered into the centre of the feasting circle. Adults stood and hefted drums and wind instruments and bells. They started playing; complicated, shifting rhythms and complex, intertwined melodies. Erik was expecting something like a children's performance back home; charming, but not of a particularly high standard. As soon as the children started moving, he realised he was wrong.
They were extraordinarily graceful. There were a lot of stamping movements and fast footwork, combined with elegant gestures of arms and fingers. Every now and then they would leap, much higher than seemed possible even in Eden's lower gravity. They moved around each other in complicated patterns, little faces serious and intent. The drummers drummed faster and faster, small feet moved quicker and quicker, tiny fingers flickered like flames and finally they all rushed together, did the stamp-and-arm-lift gesture and cast themselves upon the ground like the opening petals of a giant flower.
There was a moment's silence then the visitors from Earth started clapping and whooping. The Elendi looked startled at first, then realised it was a form of praise. They showed their approval by casting flowers at the children. Erik pulled the flower from his hair and threw it at the kids. Charles lobbed orange petals in the air. Raven hurled handfuls of blossoms. The children broke formation and joined the audience, breathing hard and shining with sweat. They were petted and praised by the adults.
Charles stood and called out in Elendi and then Standard.
"We thank the children for their example and honour them by following it."
The drummers played a slower, less complicated beat and the other musicians struck up a simple melody. All the Elendi got up and started to dance. It looked much simpler than the children's dance, but still pretty daunting to Erik. The Elendi gestured at the visitors to come join them. Erik was surprised to see Frost get to her feet and start trying to imitate them. She moved well and soon seemed to get the hang of the simpler movements. Angel dragged Sean to his feet. Raven took Hank's hand and gently tugged him this way and that, as he loomed over her blushing like a sunset. Darwin encouraged Alex to get up and dance. David, Walter, MacTaggert and even Janos joined a circle of dancing Elendi. Most of the marines were giving it a go with varying degrees of success.
"Will you not dance, Erik?"
Charles stood in front of him, swaying seductively.
"I can't," said Erik, trying not to stare at the undulating circles Charles was drawing with his hips.
"Everyone can dance, my friend."
Charles took his hand and towed him in amongst the dancers. The movements of the dance were simple and repetitive. Erik suspected it had been chosen purely for the visitors benefit. Charles moved like he was made of liquid silver, impossibly fluid, fingers curling enticingly, feet moving unerringly. Erik followed him as best he could, mesmerised by a flash of thigh as Charles' sarong parted, hypnotised by the muscular shift of his buttocks through the thin, silky cloth, the adamantium chain and nipple rings burning brightly in his consciousness. Occasionally a toss of his head would brush his chestnut, copper and gold hair across Erik's skin, every strand a tingling wire of sensation.
They danced and rested and ate and drank and danced and danced. Shaw and Azazel sat a little apart, occasionally exchanging a few words and watching with cold eyes. It was dawn when they all bade farewell to the Elendi. The children had been put to bed hours ago. They staggered back to the compound in the pearlescent light, humming Elendi music and tapping out Elendi rhythms.
Erik dreamt of silver skin and sapphire eyes and ruby lips and a river of dark hair, shot through with sunlight.
Sorry for the delay but I got myself a tumblr and it's very distracting. Feel free to go have a look if you fancy. There's another fic on there called "Lips as Red as Blood" which isn't on AO3.
It had been a week. Shaw called a meeting. Sean enthused about the nutritional value of Elendi produce. Hank waxed lyrical about the animal life. Angel reported that she'd gathered reams of data on the flora and fauna and Elendi language and culture. Shaw wasn't interested in any of it. All he cared about was adamantium and no one had found any. Not Janos and his team. Not Erik.
"It's like there are traces, no, "traces" is too strong a word, echoes of where the adamantium once was, but isn't any longer," said Erik.
Shaw gave him a bright, hard smile.
"Traces and echoes, echoes and traces. Very poetic, Erik, but not very helpful. This is an expensive expedition. We won't pay for it with a few vegetables."
No one said anything, but Erik was certain a lot of them were thinking of the adamantium the Elendi wore around their necks, wrists and ankles and dangling from their ears. Erik had a brief but vivid vision of scarlet nipples pierced with gleaming metal. Frost shot him an amused look.
Fuck off out of my head.
Oh, sugar, I didn't need to go in there, you were projecting. I don't blame you, that Charles is a real honey.
He ramped up his electromagnetic shields as high as he could and had the satisfaction of seeing her wince and flicker briefly into her diamond form.
Erik remembered something.
"I don't know if it's significant, but any field I produce just bounces off the quatarzi trees."
"So does my sonar," said Sean. "We're not allowed to touch them so I thought I'd try something non-invasive, but nada."
"Want me to have a look?" asked Angel. "I've got some specialist kit that might do the job."
"That'd be great," replied Sean.
"Well, fascinating as the impermeability of some purple trees may be, I'm sure we've all got better things to do with our time. Back to work everyone," said Shaw.
He wasn't a patient man. Erik hated to think of him losing his patience with the peaceful, charming Elendi. He hated to think of Charles at the wrong end of Azazel's blades. Fuck, he needed to stop thinking about Charles and his cascade of dark hair and his lapis lazuli eyes and his rose petal lips and his lithe, muscular, dancer's body. Frost was looking amused again. Shit.
Erik got on with surveying the next set of grid squares. Nothing. He was tired and sweating when he gave up for the day. As he sank to earth just outside the forcefield - it fucked with his powers if he tried to set down inside it - a group of Elendi children ran towards him. He was starting to recognise them. Their ringleader was the little girl who had eaten his sandwich. Her proper name sounded like a dripping tap to his ears, so he called her Firefly because her hair and eyes and lips glowed an iridescent green.
"Erik!" she cried.
"Hello, Firefly. I'm sorry, but I'm too tired to play with you this evening."
The children had picked up Standard remarkably quickly.
"No play. Presents!"
"Oh, sweetheart, I'm afraid I don't have any presents for you or your friends."
"No, not for us, from us for you."
The children clustered round him. They'd brought him a wooden bowl, beautifully carved with stylised leaf forms, filled with bite-sized snacks and ornamented with flowers, and a tiny cup with an adamantium rim - he couldn't even begin to guess how much it would go for on Earth - filled with tangy fruit juice.
"Thank you, it looks lovely."
"Sit. Eat. Drink." commanded Firefly imperiously.
He sat down with them. Firefly plonked herself on his lap - she weighed virtually nothing - and the others leaned on him. He ate the delicious food and drank the refreshing juice. He tried to share it with them, but they refused and insisted that he have it all. When he'd finished he thanked them again and went to return the bowl and cup.
"No, no, for you, for Erik," Firefly said.
They danced off to the forest. Erik stood looking after them, holding a year's pay in his hands. He handed the cup over to MacTaggert as soon as he got inside the ship.
"I trust you to hold it for all of us, as part of our share of the expedition profits."
"I'm honoured by your trust," she said, standing tall and straight and slim.
She might be a human, but he had a grudging respect for the way she held her own among so many mutants.
"Hey, Erik, come on over here," called Darwin.
Erik gave MacTaggert a nod and went to join Darwin and the others, who were eating dinner. Erik was full from his Elendi meal.
"After dinner we're going to go have a look at this ancient temple in the forest that Angel found," said Darwin. "She asked the Elendi and they said it was fine. In fact one of them offered to guide us. Want to come?"
"Yeah, sure. I'll go shower and meet you back here."
Erik showered, trying hard not to hope it would be Charles doing the guiding. He put on his purple shirt and his jeans and spent longer than usual combing his hair into place.
They walked to the forest edge, flashlights swinging. There was no path. Angel had marked the way with glow-sticks. They had to push their way through the dense vegetation. All around them invisible creatures shrieked and howled and tapped and sang. The air was filled with sweet scents. They came out into a small clearing. Directly in front of them a massive, dark structure soared into the sky, hemmed in by trees and smothered in giant creepers. They shone their flashlights on it. The surface looked like black stone, intricately carved with a confusion of interconnecting lines, some straight, some curved. The shape of the building was hard to make out. Buttresses cannoned into overhangs. Columns fought their way out of the stone, only to be swallowed up again. Great terraces loomed above them. Jagged pinnacles disappeared into the darkness.
"Wow," whispered Sean.
"The stone's a type of basalt, very hard. It must have taken forever to carve," said Angel.
Hank pressed his hand to the stone.
"It's cold," he said.
They all followed his example and touched the chill slabs. Erik ran his fingers along the ceaseless lines. They seemed to form a continuous pattern, no beginning, no end, frozen movement diving up and down and over and under. It confused the eye if you tried to follow it.
"What do you think the lines mean?" he asked.
"No idea," said Angel. "Darwin described it as an ancient temple, but it might have been a meeting hall or a dwelling place or a repository of some kind. Hopefully our Elendi guide can tell us more."
"Have you noticed there are no figurative carvings?" said Darwin.
"Just lines," muttered Sean. "They kind of remind me of Celtic knots, only way, way more complicated."
"Elendi technology must have been much more sophisticated in the past than it is now for them to have built this," said Hank.
Angel nodded. "It's a pattern seen in some Earth cultures; civilisations decline and their descendants live among the ruins of their ancestors' achievements."
Erik could see what she meant, but somehow it didn't sit well with his perception of the Elendi. They didn't seem like a people in decline.
"Greetings," said a soft voice.
Everyone jumped. "Fuck," hissed Erik. Alex assumed a combat stance and glowed red with barely leashed plasma.
A small figure stepped out of the shadows of the great building. An elderly Elendi woman. Not Charles.
"My apologies for startling you."
"That's alright, ma'am," said Alex, his red glow fading. "No harm done."
"My name is," and what sounded like a burst of bird song, "but you may call me Hazel. Follow me and stay close. There are many passageways and it is easy to get lost."
She led them under a huge arch into an imposing entrance hall and then off down a wide, tall hallway.
"When was this place built?" asked Angel.
"Many, many years ago. You would say centuries."
"What was its original purpose?" said Hank.
"Originally it was a place of worship. When our beliefs changed it became a place to meet and talk and dance. A place of learning. We still use it for major festivals and also when the days are hot. It is always cool here."
"You said your beliefs changed. In what way did they change?" Hank asked.
The Elendi woman led them unerringly through the maze of passages.
"We ceased to believe in gods."
"So, what do you believe in?" said Erik.
"We believe in the never ending dance of the universe. The dance of birth and death. Of destruction and creation."
"Sounds kinda Hindu," muttered Sean.
"Except they have gods," Erik said.
The passageways got narrower and lower. Erik could touch the walls on either side without fully stretching out his arms. There was a only an inch of clearance above his head. Hank had to stoop. The carven lines swarmed madly over the stonework. They climbed flight after flight of worn steps.
"How did your ancestors build this?" asked Darwin.
"We believe they built it by hand, using lifting machines powered by beasts or water. It took them many decades. Truly, their ingenuity was great."
The passage was so narrow now that Hank was bent double and Erik's shoulders brushed the walls on either side.
"Is this a good time to mention I'm kinda claustrophobic?" quavered Sean.
"Sean!" snapped Angel.
"Fear not. This is the narrowest part," said Hazel. "In a dozen strides it opens out."
It certainly did open out. They emerged into a vast, echoing space, pitch black apart from the beams of their flashlights. Angel threw half a dozen spheres into the air. They zoomed off, casting their blueish radiance in wide arcs. Everyone except Hazel gasped.
They were at one end of a cavernous space. It was about a hundred metres long, fifty wide and fifty tall. It was riddled with balconies, galleries and staircases. All around the perimeter huge pillars reached towards the ceiling, tapering into fine points half way up. Their mirror images hung from the roof, reaching down to their reflections, but never making contact. In the centre of the hall a truly enormous pillar surged up to meet an equally enormous stalactite hanging from the ceiling. They were separated by the height of a person. The carved lines converged on the central pillar and matching stalactite and circled them in a tornado of stilled motion.
They stood in silence for some minutes.
"Does . . . does all this mean something?" asked Sean.
Hazel turned to them and smiled the closed mouth Elendi smile. Her face looked childlike in the blue light of the spheres, yet ancient. Her eyes gleamed like fire opals. Her silver hair was shot through with reds and golds.
"It means many things. One meaning is that perfection is unachievable, symbolised by the pillars never meeting."
She walked between two pillars and pressed her hands against the stone. Smoothly and without a sound two massive sections of stonework opened outwards. The warm night air invaded the chill of the great hall. They stepped out onto a sweeping terrace on a level with the tree tops. Eden didn't have a moon, but it was at the centre of a globular cluster and the sky was glorious with stars. In the distance they could see the lights of their enclave and the shapes of the ships. Over to the right, among the trees, the fainter lights of the Elendi village glowed warmly. Behind them the walls of the building disappeared up into the night.
They wandered around, talking quietly and admiring the view. Hank yawned hugely.
"We need to get you to bed, bozo," said Alex.
Everyone snorted with laughter. Hank blushed.
"Thank you so much for showing us around," said Angel. "This place is amazing."
The others echoed her thanks.
"I am pleased it brought you joy," said Hazel. "Shall I show you the way out?"
"Please," said Darwin. "Alex has to get Hank into bed."
More laughter. Hank looked like he was going to pass out. Alex grinned.
"I think I'd like to stay a while," said Erik.
"How will you find your way back?" asked Hazel.
"I'll levitate home over the forest canopy."
He rose a couple of feet into the air to demonstrate. Hazel tapped her temple in the gesture of understanding.
"A useful talent to possess. Good night to you, my friend."
Erik wished her and the others goodnight. He watched their flashlight beams trace a path back to the low entrance then disappear. Some time later the lights reappeared far below in the clearing in front of the building. He watched them fade into the trees. He switched his flashlight off and sat and watched the stars wheel across the sky. Mysterious creatures made mysterious noises in the forest.
He was just thinking about flying home when he thought he saw the faintest flicker of light from the great hall. He got to his feet and crept over to the stone doors. Someone had placed half a dozen oil lamps in a circle on the black flagged floor. A slim figure stepped out of the shadows into the circle of yellow light. Charles.
Charles walked to the centre of the lamps, twisted his hair into a thick coil and pinned it up with a long adamantium pin. He wore a blue kilt that hung low on his hips and finished just above his knees. There were strings of tiny bells at his ankles and wrists. The lamplight caressed his silvery skin like a lover's fingers, highlighting the smooth planes of muscle. His eyes were a summer sky at twilight. He did the stamp and arm raise gesture then clapped his hands three times. The bells jingled. Slowly, slowly, slowly he raised one leg and extended it in front of him, lifting one arm and lowering the other as he did so. His fingers curled like fern fronds. Perfectly smoothly and equally slowly he shifted position until his leg was bent up behind him and his arms were outstretched in a beseechingly motion. His muscle control was exquisite.
Erik daren't move and hardly dared breath. Charles carried on moving in slow motion, impossibly fluid and graceful. Gradually he sped up, until he was moving fast, but still just as gracefully. He clapped and stamped and the bells shrilled. His feet and hands were a blur. Then he leapt, twisting in the air to land on one leg and freezing in position. The jangling of the bells died down and he leapt again, launching himself upwards and then rolling onto his knees. His body arched backwards in a perfect bow, the top of his head touching the stone floor. He froze.
Erik felt his cock harden. Charles rose to his feet and started moving his hips in a sinuous circle. He drew one hand across his forehead, down his cheek and throat and down to his nipple. He tugged at his nipple ring and, oh, fuck, Erik could feel it, warmed by his flesh, the resistance of skin and metal. His cock stiffened into a full erection. Charles spun in a slow circle, dragging his hands down his torso. He tugged at the fastening of his kilt and it fell to the floor.
His cock was damn near as big as Erik's and looked even bigger in contrast with his small, slim body. It was the same combination of cherry red and shocking pink, ornamented with scrolling scarlet lines, as his mouth. His balls were round and dark as ripe plums. He was completely hairless. He was also half hard. Still slowly circling, he stroked himself to full hardness. He froze, head thrown back, throat bared, one hand touching a nipple, the other on his cock, one foot solidly set on the ground, the other raised delicately in the air.
He pulled the pin from his hair and it cascaded down in a wave of shadow and sunlight. He took off in a series of spinning leaps, cock slapping against his belly, hair lashing his silver skin like a whip. He landed on his knees at the foot of one of the pillars. His chest was heaving and Erik could hear his breathing, harsh in the vast silence of the hall. His skin shone with sweat. He tugged on his cock - the bells jangled furiously - cried out and spurted silver seed on the base of the pillar. He collapsed in a heap on the black stone.
Erik drew back behind the door, unzipped, hauled out his aching cock and jerked off frantically. It didn't take long for him to come. Somehow he managed not to make a sound. He slid down the door to sit on the floor. When he'd recovered enough to move it was pitch black inside and Charles had gone.
He felt bad. He'd seen something private. Something not meant for anyone else. It had felt almost . . . almost sacred. He'd taken advantage of Charles. That didn't stop him feeling incredibly aroused, despite having just wanked off.
Erik levitated back feeling guilty, horny and confused.