"Picking the right star to wish on?"
Tristan Mallory jolted in his chair at Kellen's voice. He blinked, seeing again the moving starfield on the forward viewing screen. Kellen Votrain sauntered through the hatch onto the tiny bridge and plopped down in the chair beside him at the ship's command console.
"Or is it star intoxication?" Kellen handed him his beer.
"A bit of both." Tristan pulled the tab and waited a moment for the can to cool its contents then sipped.
Kellen grinned and leaned back, propping his heels on the top of the console. He raised his beer can. "To both."
"To both." Tristan sipped again.
"Picked out your star? Must have the perfect one if you want your wish to come true."
"Not the binaries. Fickle wishing stars binaries. How about that one?" He pointed at the luminous yellow star at the left bottom corner of the screen.
"Good choice. Trigellan. Like Poppa Sol himself. Earth colony on the third planet."
"Beautiful diseased Arden." Kellen's green eyes glimmered with seriousness as he examined Tristan's face, then he turned back to the starfield. "And your wish?"
Kellen rephrased his question. "What's wrong, Tris?"
"I'm not sure. Boredom. Emptiness when I should feel complete."
"Life as a megamind scientist isn't to your liking then?"
"No. Remember how it was with us after graduate school. Let's do that again. I'll plot a course away from that bloody dull conference, and you and I will sneak out of the known galaxy. We'll find the planets, you can figure out what makes them tick, and I'll figure out how to communicate with the local version of people. It's not as much fun playing Columbus without you along. And we haven't named a system after you yet."
"And probably never will."
"Is it my fault women have a weakness for me?"
Tristan mimicked, "Oh my dear, you're so beautiful. I'll name a star system after you." He snorted. "God, what a line."
"It works." Kellen jerked upright. "What the..."
Warning strobes flashed on the control console. Kellen fingered the controls with the skill of a concert pianist.
Tristan leaned forward in disbelief. "Another ship on collision course out in the middle of nowhere?"
Their ship bucked. Kellen's can sailed off the console, a tail of beer following it. Kellen swore and also stated the obvious. "They're shooting at us." He punched the communication switch. "This is The Helen of Troy, The Helen of Troy. We're not hostile. Repeat, not hostile. Hold your fire."
The ship shuddered as another force bolt hit.
Their eyes met, all questions and answers settled in a moment. Tristan grabbed the controls as Kellen charged toward the weapons bubble beneath the bridge. Tristan began evasive action, intending to get the hell away from the larger ship, a heavily armed fighter by the size of it.
A force bolt shimmered across their hull; the ship's structure groaned.
Swearing through his teeth, he dodged the next bolt. The ship's laser buzzed as Kellen shot back.
The Helen reared and bucked with a direct hit. Fire exploded behind him.
His fingers touched suddenly stiff controls. All power gone, the ship wallowed then floated sideways like a dead whale caught in a current. Even the ship's weapons were gone.
He glanced back at the holocaust and the automatic fire sprinkler fighting the flames then hit the communications button. "We surrender. This is The Helen of Troy. We surrender. Acknowledge."
Not even static answered. Either they weren't replying or couldn't hear him. He shrugged and considered the identity of their enemy. The Helen was in a peaceful trading zone in human space. Pirates rather than aliens.
The weapons system screamed with disintegrating metal and buckled.
"Kellen!" He ran toward the weapons bubble and peered down. Acrid smoke flared upward. Flames around him, Kellen sprawled at the base of the ladder.
Some tiny, reasonable part of Tristan's brain told him it was suicide, but he shimmied down the ladder and knelt by his friend. He sought a pulse.
At his touch, Kellen swore violently. "Get the hell back up, you idiot."
Returning the compliment, Tristan threw the other man across his shoulder and began to drag them both up the ladder. That tiny voice told him his hand was scorching on the ladder, but he paid no attention.
The journey up was ten times longer than the journey down. He dumped Kellen onto the floor of the bridge and crawled up beside him.
The ship shuddered again, the wall behind them beginning to bulge. The tiny voice told him to run, but he threw himself over Kellen's body as the propulsion system exploded.
Pain and darkness. He swam up through miles of darkness and pain then opened his eyes. Tears streaming down his smoke-blackened face, Kellen leaned over him. Eerie red emergency lights shimmered in the smoke. He forced his voice up through the darkness between them. "You okay?"
"Nothing major." Kellen blinked tears. "Oh, Tris. You damn fool."
He didn't ask how he was. The terrible pain and his friend's eyes, sea green with grief, told him. He smiled. "Guess I made the wish on the wrong star." His body shuddered.
Kellen's hand found his and held. "You damn fool."
"Love you too, Kell. Only brother my parents didn't have."
"God watch over you." Tristan closed his eyes and stopped fighting the darkness' pull. Images drifted past. His parents, brothers, his sister, and little Peter. He'd never hear his nephew pronounce his name correctly. He smiled at them. They'd be all right. They had each other. Then he saw beautiful, loving Dorian. He pleaded to her image, "Please forgive me for leaving you, too."
Kellen was calling his name, but he drifted deeper in darkness until his friend's voice faded away. Finally, he settled so deep even his tiny voice couldn't be heard.
Patta stamped her foot with anger then stalked up and down in front of Mara's couch. "You have as little sense as a man."
Mara's eyebrows rose at the childish insult, but she said nothing. She leaned back on the couch and watched her rab-cat dancing and playing with the sunlight motes from the living room oriel window. His long ears waved and fluttered in intricate patterns of thought and emotion.
"Are you listening to me, Mara?"
"Yes, I am." She forced her eyes back to her friend.
Patta plopped down beside her and smoothed her long fashionably curly black hair. "I only want what's best for you."
"I know. I don't feel a male is what's best for me. Artificial insemination is the perfect way to have my child. Jorel always—"
"The Goddess take your mother's soul." Patta sighed. "I didn't mean to say that. Your mother has been dead three years, and yet you still try to please her."
"She was eminently sensible, and I agree with her thoughts on this point. I want a healthy child. With a man I risk having a boy, and I don't think I could bear..." She lowered her eyes.
"Having a boy and losing him in a few hours is a terrible possibility we all must accept, but... It's not just the child we're talking about. You've won a chance to own a man. A man in your bed for a year. Don't you want that?"
Patta howled with frustration. "You are strange, Mara d'Jorel. Bizarre. We all dream of the chance, and you refuse it. Don't you like it when you buy a night at the Common?"
Mara reddened. "I've never gone."
"You've never..." Patta closed her gaping mouth. "You can afford the outrageous price. Why?"
"It seems wrong to me. Plus, I've researched breeding, and it sounds unpleasant."
"It's not unpleasant. At first it's painful, but it becomes pleasant."
"The harem is a filthy system. I won't have any part of it, or the poor men within it."
"I hear Jorel's voice coming from your mouth. Crackpot Jorel and her manhating words. Men aren't hurt by it. They go willingly into the harem for the sake of Arden. They enjoy breeding, and you know they don't have the ability to do anything else."
"That's untrue. They're not allowed to do anything else because of the harem."
"Do you want humans to die out here?"
"No, but I believe we can find better options than the harem and places like the Common."
"Get up and make a speech about it."
Mara winced at her friend's contempt.
Patta squeezed her hand in apology. "Can't you at least look at the selection of men. It would be good for you to have a man. There is more to life than your scientific studies, and maybe a man's a good place to start. Live a little, Mara. You aren't a computer terminal."
"I'll look at them to please you, but nothing more. I've already determined the proper genetic pattern to complement mine for my child, and I won't risk less because of some pretty face and body."
Her friend crowed with triumph. "You admit finding men pretty."
"Some pictures have aesthetic appeal."
"You sound like a vocabulary test sometimes, but I like you anyway." Patta rubbed her hands together. "Let's look at the pictures and drool."
Mara strode into the study section of her bedroom suite and sat down at her computer. She entered the government computer and began to type access codes. With the final secret code she'd gained through the lottery win, she opened the harem catalog available at present.
Staring discreetly out at the pink lufta tree in the walled garden, Patta stood at the French doors. Mara flourished her hand in offering. "Help yourself."
Patta pulled a lattice chair up against her and sat down at its edge, but insisted, "No, we're looking for you."
Sighing, Mara studied the first file. "Roger." She glanced at Roger's naked full body holograph then carefully read the physical statistics.
"He's huge! Right where it counts, too. Wouldn't he be interesting in bed." Patta squawked when Mara flipped away from the picture to the intelligence and genetic statistics.
"He won't do at all. Look at that intelligence quotient. I wouldn't have a dog that foolish. And he'll give a child heart problems."
"Oooh, look at that one. What wonderful lips and the cute little nose, and his p—"
"Statistics even worse than the first." She flipped to the next male file.
"Let me do this. You're not in the spirit of this thing at all."
Smiling to herself, Mara let Patta take over. Soon her friend was engrossed in the holographs.
After a dozen files, Patta groaned. "They're right. The prettiest ones are in the lottery, not in the Common. Oh, Mara, look. Green eyes. I've never even heard of green eyes before. He's the prettiest man I've ever seen. I'm in needing of breeding with that one."
Mara's rab-cat tapped her pants leg with his ears. Bending, she brought Floppy into her lap. He curled up and purred as she stroked his black fur. She glanced toward the computer screen as Patta flipped to the next file. The green-eyed man had a two-word name, and the second name wasn't in Arden matriarchal form. She almost asked Patta to flip back so she could look at the name and the file, but she bit her tongue to avoid more of Patta's goading. Later, she'd go back and examine that file.
Leaning back in her chair, she watched her friend drool over the files. Patta was right. Many were quite pretty.
Finally, Patta reached Roger again. "So many to choose from. I can't make up my mind. Probably the green-eyed one with the incredible build. How about you?"
Mara shrugged and caressed Floppy's ears.
"You weren't even looking at all those pretty men. You weren't even looking. You are a computer terminal."
"I was enjoying your pleasure. I won't pick with the same regard as I choose the color of a tunic."
"You can say that." Before Patta could begin her standard Mara you ought to pay attention to your appearance speech, Floppy thumped Mara's wrist with his paw to get her attention then wiggled his ears toward the data card on the console table.
"An excellent idea, Floppy. Patta, would you please insert the data card and request a search on the harem file."
"You don't listen to me, but you do that stupid creature."
"Rab-cats may be as intelligent as we are."
"Don't give me another lecture on the native animals." Patta inserted the data card and punched buttons. "What's this?"
"The male genetic profile I'm searching for."
"The perfect baby. Let's see if any of these beauties fit your exacting standards."
Not expecting to find a perfect match in the harem, Mara turned her attention to Floppy. The sperm banks sent from other worlds were a much better possibility.
"By the Goddess, he's blond! And blue eyes. I thought blond and blue exotics were extinct here."
"They're rare because there weren't enough recessive blond and blues on the colony ship, and..." She gazed up at the holograph and lost her train of thought and her mind.
Patta giggled. "You can close your mouth now. Aesthetically pleasing, isn't he?"
"He's beautiful!" Curly blond hair, eyes that blazed blue with intense intelligence and strength, oval face, strong, well-proportioned features. Unlike the other holographs, he was dressed and only his face and part of his chest was shown. An official picture for identity. Refusing to be swayed by appearance, she cleared her throat. "Flip to his intelligence and genetic profiles please."
She read them, read them again, then shook her head. "Incredible. I can't believe he could be in the harem."
"He wasn't in the regular catalog. I'd have remembered him. Does he fit what you want?"
"Better. I'd never dreamed I could..."
Patta smirked. "Ready to order him, manhater?"
"Flip back to his picture." Mara examined the holograph. "Where is the identification?"
"Here let me." Mara typed commands until she dredged out identification. "Tristan Mallory." She gasped with recognition. "I knew it. We've gotten into the off-world sperm bank. He's a respected Earth astrophysicist. Young, brilliant..."
"Your rival." Patta tapped the screen. "Then why does he have a harem catalog number?"
Mara dug further into the file for his location. "Rosalind Hospital, room 736. Ten miles away. Mother died at Rosalind. I was born there." She stared at the information, trying to assimilate it into her understanding of her world.
"Are you ill? You're green." Patta rested her hand on Mara's shoulder.
"I think Arden's shaking apart under my feet."
"What do you mean?"
"Why is an Earth scientist in our lottery?"
"His ship crashed here? It's happened before. The asteroid belt damages them, and we're the nearest habitable planet. Better the plague on Arden than death in space. What does it matter. He's here. Do you want him, or don't you?"
"You don't understand. He shouldn't be in the lottery."
"Why not? He's a man."
"He's not a man, he's a scientist!"
Mara couldn't stop the irrational pounding of her heart as she strode down the hospital corridor, but she smoothed her face into calmness. She might have been on a mad rush to reach this hospital since she'd found out Tristan Mallory was here, but she mustn't let it show.
Shoulders back, head erect, eyes guarded. Her best casual yet elegant city clothes to match that impression. She smiled, remembering how Patta had dragged her to the computer and forced her to buy these fine clothes when she wouldn't have bothered. She suppressed the smile. Cool importance to face the local bureaucratic dragons.
Stopping at the nurse's station on the seventh floor, she nodded to the nurse flanked by dozens of computer screens and terminals. "I've come to visit room 736." She turned as if it were beyond possibility that she would be refused and strode toward her goal.
His room was dully functional—a bath, one chair for visitors, empty white walls, and a bedstand by the bed. He floated on his back in an antigravity bed, a sheet draped over him up to his shoulders.
She whispered, "Hello?" When he didn't reply, she tiptoed up to him and stared down. He slept so deeply only the flutter of his throat and pulse told he lived. His strong features were softer without open eyes and intense awareness. His lashes and short curls were honey shining with sunlight, his skin honey several shades darker.
His shoulders were broad, the chest wide, the waist not so narrow as a woman's, the hips narrower than his chest, large thighs, long legs...
The holograph had shown his beauty, but it hadn't expressed his massiveness. The heavier bones, the denser weight. Natural male massiveness her studies had said. The male is larger than the female in humans. Simple facts known in the mind but not the gut until this first man. A man.
Her hand settled almost without volition in the bare hollow of his shoulder. Skin warm, smooth, not so delicate as a woman's yet pleasing, the muscle texture harder. She flushed, heat seeping up her arm, and jerked away in confusion.
He moaned, the sound deeper than any woman's, and thrashed.
Her heart aching from his obvious pain, she cooed as she would to a frightened infant and stroked his forehead and curls. He stilled under her touch.
His silk curls twined around her fingers. Before she could analyze the peculiar sensations creeping up her arm from his hair, she glanced down at his bare chest. His sheet had slid to his waist.
She gasped in horror. A mass of recent surgical incisions covered his chest, extending downward. Tubes and devices draped from his far side like tentacles.
The room fluttered before her. She closed her eyes and forced herself into calmness. It wouldn't come, tears came instead. She blinked them away and eased the sheet back up.
Sniffing, she swiped away her tears. The dark hollows under his eyes and the paleness of his honey skin finally registered on her overloaded senses.
"What are you doing here?" One of the bureaucratic dragons had finally found her.
Mara turned toward the nurse, a short stocky woman with gray brown hair and wrinkles of bitterness around her eyes and mouth. Mara smiled politely. "I'm visiting this patient."
"This isn't the Common. Move your rich, self-important little ass out of here. This is my territory."
"If I sought breeding, I'd pick a more lively subject than this, nor would I have sought him here. I came to visit. What happened to him?"
"Ship crash. The best surgeons spent hours on him for all the good it did. He won't even wake to full sense again. This pretty one will never see the harem."
The room fluttered again, but Mara refused to give in to the weakness or the grief. "May the Goddess watch over him."
"And I will too. Get out."
He groaned, the sound ripped out of him.
Mara spun and bent over him. He stared with wide unfocused eyes the smoky blue of the larra flower. She beamed at him. "Dr. Mallory?"
The nurse patted her shoulder. "Don't bother. He doesn't see or hear you."
"Dr. Mallory?" His eyes brightened as if the smoke was dissipating. She gaped in awe as smoky blue became bright pure blue, as confusion became intelligence and kindness. Somewhere inside her, a silver bell pealed, its song echoing to her soul.
His answering smile had the bell's song within it, too. His nearest hand lifted as if draped by huge weights. She caught it and held it within her hands.
Relaxing as if she'd given him what he sought, he mouthed, "Who?"
"I'm Mara d'Jorel."
Pride surged that he knew her work. "Yes, I wrote the article on quasars."
"Arden. A hospital on Arden."
Fear and sadness flickered across his face. He knew what Arden was. "My friend?"
Before she could say she didn't understand, the nurse replied, "Your companion is dead," then added more kindly, "He didn't survive the ship crash onto Arden. It was a very quick and merciful death."
His hand tightened around Mara's, and he closed his eyes, tears streaming down his face.
Helpless against his pain and the tumult inside her she didn't understand, Mara blinked tears.
After several minutes his hand relaxed, and his breathing slowed as if he'd drifted back into sleep. She eased his hand back onto the bed.
His hand clutched hers, and his eyes snapped open. "Don't..."
"I won't leave you alone in this. I promise you. We quasar experts stick together like binary stars."
He smiled, a brief quirk of lips at her feeble joke, and released her hand, trusting her words. Soon, he drifted into genuine sleep.
She stood for a long time watching him, his hand in hers. One of his hands engulfed two of hers. She wasn't a small woman, but he made her feel tiny.
The nurse patted her shoulder. She jumped, having forgotten the other woman's existence. "You'd better leave now."
"I'll be back."
The nurse sighed. "I can see that. Poor broken creature shouldn't die alone."
"Dr. Mallory isn't a creature. He's as human as we are."
"Why do you call him that? Him a doctor?"
Mara stiffened at the contempt. "He's a physicist and astronomer from Earth. He has at least two doctorates. Probably more that I don't know about. He's a respected scientist. He probably would have been... He will be one of the greatest when he becomes older."
"Don't you go planning his future. You've seen one miracle more than I expected when he woke up. He has no chance of recovery." The nurse shook her head. "Between his injuries and the stress of our higher gravity, he just doesn't have the strength to survive."
Mara recalled young Floppy the day she'd found him, ripped and broken by a large predator, his mother dead nearby. "Sometimes, you don't have the strength to go on alone by yourself, but if someone's there who cares, who can share strength, you can make it. Dr. Mallory has no sister or mother here so I'll give him my strength."
She leaned over and brushed Tristan's curls off his forehead. "He'll not die. I'll not let him die," then she added silently, "And he'll not go into that filthy harem either. Even if I have to take this planet and my life apart to do it."