Well, my stories always start with an image, and “Nose to the grindstone…” brought something to mind.
A Sun In Its Womb
Aja Paz wasn’t the only person to lend voice to his surprise. The plexi-dome of the recreation lounge provided an unobstructed view of the perimeter of New Berks’ restricted space and the object that had suddenly appeared within it. Translucent, blue-green, shape-shifting into coils and then a final shape—long, finned, beaked—it slid precisely toward the docking tubes. Aja didn’t hear alarms, meaning Operations had known it was coming.
“What the holes is that?” he exclaimed.
His companion’s commanding parabola of a nose twitched just above her upper lip. Despite the proboscis, Jordy Gardaniel had a pretty mouth and seductive dark eyes, set in a face round as a moon and dusted with freckles. “A ship,” she said, in response to his question. “A Ferract stele, to be precise.”
Aja knew then what it was to feel blood run cold.
“I thought they never came to our space anymore. I thought we had a fucking agreement.”
“Fucking agreement. Cute. No, the agreement is Ferra may enter human space when they have vital business—and that they stay away the rest of the time.”
Which was most of the time, apparently, because New Berks had not seen a Ferract ship in decades. Mercifully. “Considerate of them. What vital business could the Ferra have with this half-forgotten collection of bolts?”
Together he and Jordy watched a thick blue tentacle unspool from the ship to engulf the terminal portion of the docking corridor. The blue cord stiffened and retracted, arresting the ship at an angle that cut a bold blue line against a star-pointed sea.
Jordy did the thing with her nose again and drained what was left of her drink. “Me.”
* * * *
Humans didn’t mess with Ferract stelae. When a stele appeared, Earth ships, commercial and military alike, vacated sectors and yielded space lanes. Diverse Earth authorities on a hundred self-governing stations and colonized planets granted access to their space, opened security, allowed boarding and passage. They did so because old spacers remembered the first and only attack Earth had ever launched against a stele, when the immense, disturbingly tentacled ship had refused to leave colonized space as ordered. The stele had simply reduced the five-ship Earth task force to plasma. The Ferract had then, to make the attack reciprocal, done the same to one of Earth’s largest free-space arcologies, snuffing out close to three million lives.
After that, humans didn’t mess with Ferract stelae. They let them come; they prayed they’d go.
It was an arrangement the Ferract found acceptable. They had been civil, if enigmatic, neighbors for going on eight decades.
* * * *
“She’s an analyst.” Aja hoped if he repeated the words often enough, they would obscure what he had just learned about Jordy Gardaniel.
Station Director Lauri Rowe fixed him with an ice blue stare. “She’s Ferra.”
“No.” Aja refused to believe it. Jordy shared his office. Jordy shared his bed. “She passes the scans.” He turned to Operations Chief Zielinski. “Tell me you didn’t alter the fucking scans!”
“We didn’t have to.”
“The Ferra… are human?” He clung to that, the way he had clung to Jordy’s body—her soft welcoming body—while thrusting his cock within her hot tight… dear God, let her be human.
“Only if they want to be. She—”
“Aja, are you all right?”
Norm Zielinski had a big hand on his shoulder, giving him a shake.
“Yes,” he said, then corrected himself, “No. I worked with her and… I never guessed.”
“Only I knew, and my predecessors.” Rowe tapped up the links and fed direct knowledge into their work memory. “A silent amendment to the treaty. The Ferract installed larvae in two of our facilities where they could learn to interact fluently with our species. We were to provide the larval Ferra with ordinary employment and activities. It was at all times in contact with its parent pod, so the Ferract would know the larva was safe. Naturally, we saw to the larva’s safety and conducted any and all tests on it respectfully. Jordy has, in fact, complied with most of our requests. Her tissue samples don’t seem human—they are human. She wrote her own genetic program using human DNA.”
Aja listened to the report, aware diagnostic teams elsewhere on the other side of the monitors were recording his vital signs. What were they making of the tightness in his chest? His dry mouth and distracted responses? His fucking psychology. Did everyone know he had screwed her? That his funny-looking lover was a destroyer of worlds…
But everyone liked Jordy. She wasn’t beautiful, but she drew men to her. Her rich laugh and vibrant smile invited interaction. She was alive in the way of a woman completely at home with her body, with her spotted skin and enormous nose and masses of untamed curls. Making love with her was like discovering the missing half of sex itself, a wonderful completion.
What was it she said every morning as she rose from their bed and he gazed in adoration at the beautiful freckles spread across the small of her back like the patterned skin of some exotic serpent? “I smell trouble. Time to put my nose to the grindstone…”
That nose. It twitched and flicked with dislike or amusement. He’d kissed it a thousand times. He wanted to kiss it again. He wanted her lips to open to his so he could taste the pure sweetness that was Jordy Gardaniel and hear the lilt of her laughter when she called out his name.
This time it wasn’t the Director or Chief who said his name. It was her. He turned along with the rest of them to look to the door of the conference room and saw her standing there, dressed in work trousers and a shirt, framed by light. His heart rolled over and leaped toward her.