Hester's voice cheeped out of her phone. "Hey, Duvall."
She dropped the case of rations she was loading onto the relief truck and fumbled for her phone. "What's up?"
"Come over here when you got a second," he said. He was on the other side of the camp, instructing the leadership of the team here in how to assemble their new air purification systems. Repopulating Minerva Eight after the environmental destruction caused by the nuclear accident was a huge job, and the Intrepid staff were only here for two weeks, but they were in charge of most of the initial training. The El Dorado would be arriving soon, and they'd have to start the hand off to their reconstruction team then.
Once the rest of the supplies were loaded, and the driver (who was a local, and was none too pleased by Dub U's involvement in the cleanup) had been persuaded by generous application of bribery via contraband Amorti rum to actually take the rations to the distribution center, she walked over to go find Hester. He was standing outside the tent, poking buttons on his phone. "Is something up, Hes?" she called out?
"What? Oh, no. I was just playing Enraged Krurzples," he said, putting his phone in his pocket. "One of the guys told me there's a really cool view about a fifteen minute walk through these woods. You got some time?"
She checked her phone. "Yeah, I don't have to be dealing with the rest of the shipment for another two hours or so. Let's do it."
They talked as they followed the path past the tall ferns and bare conifers that made up what was left of the forest here. Hester had never done a relief mission of this scale before, and needed to process some of it. Duvall tried to be cool; she'd been working security for the peace negotiations on Holona when the hurricane had hit its capital city, and had been one in the first wave of responders, so seeing Minerva half-reconstructed was nothing for her. (Privately, she thought the Minervans were kind of being dicks, given that the Dub U was setting them up to recover their entire freaking planet after a disaster that was their own damn fault, but she was a soldier, she just did was she was told.)
They had moved on from processing and had started to gossip about Dahl's burgeoning romance with one of the newbies in Linguistics ("He told me he didn't swing xeno!" she giggled, as Hester described Dahl absolutely failing at buying her a drink, because Alskii can't metabolize either ethanol or sucrose) when they turned a corner on the path and stumbled into a clearing. "Oh, damn," Hester said.
Damn was just about right. They were about five feet away from a cliff that tumbled down in waves of green and blue, stark lines of exposed soil and rock glinting metallically in the light from the third sun, which was just over the northern horizon. The water here was high in manganese, and so the waterfall on the other side of the gorge was black and foaming, but the spray over its edge reflected dark, oily rainbows into the sky around it. There was a hush in the forest, no more tweeting krurzples, no more murmurs of little wild rodents making their way underfoot. Just the far-off roar of the water and the crackle of the wind.
They stood there until Duvall felt a lump starting to develop in her throat. "Cool," she said, trying not to show how moved she was.
Hester took her hand. "I'm glad I'm here to see this." She knew he was thinking about the kid he used to be, in his hospital bed on ancient Earth.
"Me too," she said, and squeezed his hand back.
"Oh, fuck," Duvall moaned. "I think I cut my scalp on one of the bits of flowerpot."
"I think I have some ground into my knees," Kerensky panted next to her. "And possibly also my elbows."
Maia pushed herself up to sitting, and then had to lay back down. "How did I rip my uniform there?"
"I am sorry to say that was me." Kerensky was rolling up his sleeves to check his elbows. "Oh, no, it was just friction burn."
"Yeah, my ass too." She managed to make it to sitting this time, and started to brush the dirt and bits of terra cotta out of her hair. "So, um, that was interesting."
"I think we should call xenobiology," Kerensky had. "That flower, the one that sprayed us with pollen. It seems to have had some kind of…an effect."
She arched an eyebrow. "An effect."
He blushed. "Well…you know that I have feelings for you, Maia. It is just that we do not usually copulate while we are actually on away mission."
"In the royal greenhouse," she continued.
"When we are supposed to be waiting for assassins to enter in order to obtain the materials for the poison they will use on the queen tomorrow." He nodded desperately.
She groaned loudly. "OK. Yeah, call bio. Man, nobody on board is ever going to let us hear the end of this."
"I have to say, Maia," he said awkwardly, "there is no one I would have rather been accidentally compelled to copulate with than you."
She was trying to think of something nice to say back when she heard the door open. "Shit," she whispered. Kerensky's eyes went wide and panicked. She jumped to a crouch and unholstered her pulse gun. Silently, she beckoned him over to follow her. They waited behind the pillar until they could see the assassin creeping near, sample bag in her hand.
Kerensky jumped out. "Freeze, thief!" he yelled.
The assassins, who had seen him coming, clomped him on the head with her bag of samples. He went down like a rock on a planet with 3.5g gravity. However, the swing from her bag threw her off balance, and Duvall was able to dive out from behind the pillar and get her out at the knees. After fifteen seconds of tussling, she had her pinned, arms behind her back, pulse gun on her spine. "Got you," she said.
The assassin regarded her sideways. "Do you know you're not wearing any pants?"
Duvall dug the gun in a little harder. "I'm having a little bit of a day."
"Fucking ridiculous," Duvall said, pulling the blanket further around her.
"They've probably found our signal by now," Dahl said. His knee was chattering against hers, and his breath was starting to form icicles in his new, and probably much-regretted, mustache. "Figure in about twenty minutes to triangulate our position, two hours or so to get a shuttle craft, an hour to find us from the crash site. We should be toasty warm in sick bay by midnight."
She slid over to get closer to his arm. The cave entrance in front of them was nearly snowed over again; it was going to be her turn to go dig it out. "Wasn't this shit supposed to stop when we broke the Narrative?"
"There aren't any ice sharks. I think that's the concession to non-Narrativity," Dahl said prosaically. He wrapped that arm around her.
"Your superhuman monk-like calm is total bullshit in situations like this." Not for the last time, she was glad she was with him on this mission; Dahl was the one person on the Intrepid she could reliably count on not to try to pick her up when they were stuck in an ice cave after their shuttle engines failed during a xenobiologic survey mission. Kerensky would have found a way to lose his pants by now, definitely.
"You know, this reminds me of Forshan, actually," he said. "I couldn't do all the novitiate tasks, and I kept having to ask, when the other penitents went to do one, if I could. They'd always have to hem and haw for a while, to figure out what the procedure would be and if my biology could handle it. They'd never had a human come attempt any of it before."
"Sounds like trying to bend Dub U protocol in the field," she said, thinking of trying to get medical care for an undocumented group of refugees on Betelgeuse that one time.
"Yeah, it was definitely good preparation for service. Anyway, a bunch of the other novitiates had done the kabiir baariid ikhtibaar, which is an exposure test--you meditate in extreme weather conditions and try to use the physical discomfort to ground your spiritual exploration. You aren't allowed to talk much about the tasks, but everyone said it was the worst one. People left after not being able to complete it. But it was one of the ones that I was physically capable of doing, so I asked and asked and asked, and finally they said OK, they'd let me."
"And it was like this?" She closed her eyes and put the blanket over the end of her nose. Oh, five more minutes before she had to go dig out the cave mouth, she hoped.
"Funny story," he said. "They had me go sit in a lake."
"A thirty-eight degree lake. If you're Forshan, and your body temperature is 45 degrees, going to sit in a thirty-eight-degree lake for twelve hours is really torturous."
She's starting to get it. "But if your body temperature is a nice human 37…"
"I grew up in Minnesota. The lake I used to swim in as a kid was fifteen degrees. It was like taking a bath for twelve hours. I got really pruney."
She burst out laughing.
"It's not funny, really," he said. "Do you know how hard it is to concentrate on spiritual enlightenment when you're taking an extremely pleasant bath?"
She stomped her feet and laughed so hard she started coughing.
"Dammit, Maia, don't stomp, you're letting in the cold."
"Oh, go enlighten yourself," she said, wheezing to a halt. "That's amazing."
"I did get a pet Hypernian Lake Eel out of the deal. He sat on my lap and everything."
"Well, that's just perfect then." She glanced over at him. He was grinning. "You know, I think that story makes up for nearly freezing to death in a cave."
"Excellent," he said, grinning back. "So if I tell you it's time to go dig us out again?"
"I won't even charge you a handjob," she said, and slithered out from under the blanket.
"Hit me," Hester said. "So then what happened?"
"So Kerensky was sitting next to the niece at the banquet table, right? And he was totally living it up, because here was this totally hot green chick who was flirting with him."
"I am confused," B'nika said, moving the cards around in her hands. "Are not you and Kerensky involved? I was under the impression that humans had a moral preference for monogamy in their romantic pairings."
She waved her hands dismissively. "We're not that serious. Whatever, he wants to mack on green princesses, I'm not gonna cockblock, though I am also not going to play second string. So she keeps feeding him from her plate while whispering in his ear. And because his translator is in the other ear, he has no idea what she's saying, just keeps nodding and eating."
"Holy shit," Dahl says, throwing a card away. "Gimme another. How stupid is he?"
"In terms of intelligence, he's really, really good looking," she says. "I'm staying."
"Me too," Hester said. "I'll call."
There was a brief pause in the story while money changed hands, B'nika blushing a pale blue as she gathered the chips towards her. It was Duvall's turn to deal, so she shuffled the cards. "OK, where was I? The whispering, the feeding. Yeah. So the banquet is over, and Abernathy gives his speech, and the crew members all stand to leave. But then the green chick is all like, where are you going? We're married now."
"No. Fucking. Way," Hester said. "Married? I though she was just going to be propositioning him or something."
"Oh, no, dude," she said, shaking her head and dealing. "By accepting food from her hand while she said the sacred words of their chief goddess, he is bound to her in that most holy of states."
The laughter around the table took a minute to quiet down.
"So how did he get out of it?" Dahl asked, throwing some chips in the pot.
"Or did he?" Hester said, doing a fakey-fake ominous voice.
"Well, there was, you know. Some debate. Some wild, Russian gesticulating. Abernathy was all, I am the calm diplomat, blah blah blah, can't we all just get along. And the ruler is all, you have offended the royal bloodline, our treaty will never be signed now, yadda yadda." She put her money in the pot and starting picking which cards to dump. "Meanwhile, the newly appointed trade consul is looking back and forth between everybody, watching them get increasingly insane. At one point, Kerensky grabs a giant wooden pole from somewhere, like he's going to fight his way off the planet."
"That is a poor strategic move," B'nika, said, shaking her head.
"Seriously, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been there to see it. So then, just as it's about to come to violence, and I'm about to be called over as a security officer to save my boyfriend from the consequences of listening to his dick," Duvall said triumphantly, "the trade consul points out something very, very crucial that nobody had bothered to clarify for anybody." She took a little dramatic pause. "The Anersin don't distinguish between long-term and short-term couplings. They're all marriage, which has to do with some complicated theory of the proper legal authentication of bloodlines or some crap."
Dahl's eyes were huge and horrified. "So when she says they're married…"
"She means he agreed to bang her." She dealt out the next round of cards. "And that, my friends, is why Kerensky was a day late getting back from Anersa."
"I really don't know whether to be horrified or impressed," Hester said. "Goddammit, Maia, you give me the shittiest cards."
"Don't blame me," Duvall said, smirking. "Luck of the draw, bro."
"Wait, hold up, does this mean you're his mistress now?" Dahl asked, smirking.
"Oh, hell yeah," Duvall said. "I'm the homewrecker. Rawr."
They all dissolved into laugher again. Duvall lost all her money to B'nika before the night was over.
Breathing hurt, and her throat tasted metallic. The pressure of Dahl's hand on her shoulder is a sharp spike of pain anchoring her to her body. "You're going to be fine, Maia," Dahl is saying, quietly, with more assurance than she bet he feels. "The med team's going to be here in just a minute."
"Is the--" She coughed, and she could taste the blood move further into her mouth. "The ambassador?"
"She's fine. You saved her, Maia." He pressed down a little further and she moaned a little. "Good job."
"Yeah," she said, and panted through the pain a minute. "OK. Good."
"Just hold on," he said. "Security's starting to clear a path for them."
She felt dizzy. "You know," she whispered. He bent closer to hear. "If this is the Narrative. It would be OK. This is a good story."
"No, Mai, don't," Dahl said. "This isn't the Narrative. This is you being a hero."
"Thanks," she said. "But if the story is that I'm a hero. You know. I'll take it."
He laughed softly, and she thought she heard his epic calm breaking. "Egomaniac."
There was a rush of people around her, and she moaned again. "See you in sick bay, Andy, OK?"
He kissed her forehead as the medics took over the pressure on her shoulder. "Absolutely, Maia."
She let the rush of painkillers take her under, pretty sure she was being cried on.
When she woke up, she was alone, but there were a bunch of flowers next to her bed. One was from Kerensky, "with all my love." She rolled her eyes. The next was from Captain Abernathy, no message--she guessed she'd get a speech once he knew she was conscious. The last was a Forshan meditation bush. The tag read, "You are bigger than any story we tell about you."
"Andy, you sappy fuck," she said, and smiled.