Question of Faith
Overlooking the Royal Lunatak fleet from the his office in the command tower, Cameo saw that it was its usual flurry of activity. Between the mechanics, dressed in grease spattered overalls, and the pilots in their pristine purples and blacks, there seemed to be constant movement. From this vantage point the half Icewalker half Solarian man could see everything. He could see two mechanics arguing with a pilot, and recognized the red hair and knew that they were chewing him out over how hard he was on his ship. He saw a pair of pilots hugging each other and remembered the report that had come in saying that one of the routine patrols had lost a ship.
On the far side of the landing pad Cameo saw a cargo ship from the Graviton Moon being unloaded; food stuffs and liquor mostly. Soon enough another cargo ship would be arriving, this one carrying the most precious cargo of all, his soon to be bond mate. Icewalkers had peculiar customs, ones which only a select few really fully understood, but one of them indicated that when two people loved each other enough that the one could take part in a bonding ceremony with the other and join the same House. Cameo tried not to think of the 'House' situation, it brought too many headaches. Typically the Houses on the Ice Moon were arranged in order, from the most powerful House to the least. The eldest blood member of the House, that is one who wasn't bonded into it, was the sire of the House and their word was law.
Cameo and Psikaris had agreed that his standing as sire of House Mymekon was higher than hers as second to her twin brother of House Myntaello, and so she would be bonding into his. It hadn't been an easy call to make, and only his position as commander of the air force made it easier. Not that either of them really cared, per se. As long as Psikaris could play with the latest in mechanical equipment she was happy, and her happiness was the only thing that mattered to Cameo.
It boggled his mind that a guy like him could actually get the girl in the end. They had been neighbours for years and years, friends soon after as they discovered that people with mixed genetics weren't exactly popular on the Ice Moon. He actually suspected that changing that philosophy was part of why Luna had promoted him to this high rank. He wondered, ultimately whether he would have gotten the girl if it hadn't been for that one night.
He had been exhausted after a long day, and she had been positively giddy about the test flight on an engine she had designed. They'd cracked open a bottle of fine Darkling wine, and soon found themselves in love's embrace, their first night of passion as a couple, and her first time overall. It was only after the haze of lust died down that they realized what they'd done and sobered up quickly. To their shame and horror they discovered that their tryst had had an unexpected consequence.
On most other women, something like that would have been mortifying, but they would have gotten over it. For Psikaris it was worse. While she wasn't likely to be inclined to do so anyway, her brother's notorious promiscuity amplified for her the behaviour that she should avoid. He was known on all five moons and, so Cameo understood, a number of other planets. He once claimed that he did it to show her how disgusting men could be; Cameo doubted that to be true.
Which reminded him; Psychro was late. He turned on his heel on found that the man in question was occupying a chair across from his desk. He wore his trademark white pants with black vest, which was pretty much the only thing he wore when he wasn't out seducing women. "About time," Psychro said, smirking as only he could. It was the kind of look that made you want to reach across and slap him most of the time.
"I was busy, as I hear you've been. Mandora now, the scuttlebutt says," Cameo noted. He had overheard one of his air traffic controllers talking about how Psychro had managed to sleep with the famed evil chaser only two weeks before. The story was backed up with holographic proof. While Cameo was curious to hear the tale, finding it difficult to believe that someone with Mandora's reputation could end up with someone with Psychro's reputation, he wanted to get to other business.
"You'd better not have been as busy as I am," Psychro said, a vein in his neck throbbing slightly. And then Cameo realized what he had said. Psychro had been in the system for several weeks and had been blatantly avoiding Cameo. He was very protective of Psikaris, and the prospect of violence still lingered in the air.
"I haven't. 'Karis would have killed me long before you got here. You got my message, obviously. You're her sire, how much of a role do you want in this?"
"You mean the blood duel," Psychro sighed and rubbed his face, thinking on the ancient traditions. Typically the bonding couple would take part in hand to hand combat, though either partner could assign a champion on their behalf. With Psikaris four months pregnant there was no way she would be fighting. "Are you asking me to fight you?"
"Look, if it were my call I would do away with it, but we're high enough rank that people are going to insist. We fight, I'll let you cut me to make the whole thing official and we'll get on with the rest of the ceremony. I swear, given all the fuss being made, I wish she and I had gotten bonded before I got this promotion, it would have been so much simpler. But now all the major Houses want to look important, invite the happy couple to their home to curry my favour or some garbage." Cameo sank back in his chair. He knew, deep down, that it wasn't just that that was bothering him. As commander he couldn't just hop in one of the fighters down there and cruise around, he was too important to risk his life in some deathtrap like that. It was one of those things that gnawed at him every time he saw a ship take off. The only time he really got to do any flying was when Luna needed a royal escort.
"And the trek?" Psychro asked, referring to the ceremonial visit to the holiest site on the Ice Moon, where couples would go to receive the blessing of the priests of Lunis. The tone of his voice suggested that he didn't want his sister going, and with good reason. The traditional trek was long, and through vast open wilderness. The mortality rate for couples was about twenty-five percent, but those that braved it were proven to last forever. Psikaris' pregnancy would complicate things if they chose.
"We're going for it," he replied. "She's not too far along, we should be able to do it. Don't worry. I'll take care of her. I love her just as much as you do, and it's my child she's carrying. We'll be fine."
On another moon, this one the Ice Moon, Psikaris was undergoing her preparations as well. She was in the process of packing up her meagre belongings, dividing them into things she wanted on the Royal moon, and things she wanted to take to the official home of House Mymekon. Luckily House Myntaello was located directly next door. She held up her old Mr. Spaceman doll, the plush doll having been given to her by a mother who was hoping she would grow up to enjoy more ladylike things. Her poor mother had grown up on the Psion Moon, and wasn't used to women being interested in things like mechanics. She had visions of her little princess growing up, getting married, raising a family like a proper woman should. She thought it should be tea parties and fancy dresses, not the grease and grime of an engineer.
Life on the Ice Moon had been such a culture shock for her mother, Psikaris reflected as she placed the doll in a box to take with her. She had been so thrown by it all that she had finally had a break down a few months before Psikaris' twentieth birthday and gone back to the Psion Moon, even though it had meant her incarceration, a place she had stayed for another ten years before her death. "Well, mom," she said aloud, "looks like I'm going to be raising that family you wanted."
A small socket set went into the box next, it had been a gift from her brother when she turned ten, mostly to keep her from constantly borrowing his, and he'd had it bronzed years later to her delight. Life was changing quickly. Four months ago she hadn't known where life would be leading her. She was an important figure on the Royal Moon, connected to one of the more powerful men. She'd had everything she could possibly want, and now... Well, she couldn't say it was worse. Psikaris was happy with her life, and she figured she probably would have bonded with Cameo and had a baby at some point down the road, it was just happening a little quicker. That was all.
Satisfied that the box was full, she closed it up and carried it out into the hall, surprised to see that amidst the clutter of their living room table was a carefully wrapped package with her name written in Psychro's messy handwriting. Curious she read the note attached. It was from her twin, all right, he apologized that he couldn't give this to her in person, but hoped she would understand why. Now even more intrigued she opened the package and found a book of sexual positions. On the inside front cover Psychro had written "I've done most of these. I'm told that number thirty-three is the best for women." She flipped through and blushed furiously, and promised to pay him back.
Psychro walked through the streets, his mind going over the potential dangers that his sister was about to face. The two siblings were closer than any two people, looking out for one another whenever they could, and nothing was kept secret. Were he in a more charitable mood he might have acknowledged that it was one of the reasons he had never liked Psikaris' boyfriends, as they created competition for his affections. He had wondered once whether she ever felt like that about the women he hung around, but she had dismissed his concerns. Their relationship would always be strong, she explained, and she would always be there for him. Their respective partners would intrude on that, but never break it. He wondered whether she would say the same once the child was born and made a note to bring it up.
The truth was, that he didn't like the concept of the 'trek'. He never had taken it himself, despite and he never would. But he liked it less now that 'Karis was taking it, she could die out there and there was nothing he could do about it. The only thing he could do was accompany the pair to the starting point and wait an agonizingly long time for them to return.
He rounded the corner and came to the café that Tug Mug had told him to meet him at. When Psychro had learned of the bonding ceremony, he had asked his friend to join him. It was a personal favour, and the man would keep him from going too stir crazy during the wait. The choice of location was strange, though. Usually, when Psychro got together with Tug Mug, it was in a place that served alcohol. Psychro didn't count himself as an alcoholic, he just tended to prefer the ambiance of a bar.
There was a woman with Tug Mug, Psychro noticed with some surprise. She had the pale complexion of a Darkling with a hint of gray stripes across her skin. Most shocking, perhaps, was the orange hair. Her presence also explained why they were meeting in a café rather than a bar. There wasn't really a formalized drinking age, but it was generally accepted that teenagers didn't drink as often as their elders, and the woman in question definitely looked like she was a teenager, from what he could tell.
As Psychro approached Tug Mug waved. "Thees ees Black Tiger," the Graviton said, pointing at the woman. "She's Stalker's daughter. He asked me to help her weeth some book she's writeeng."
Psychro knew Stalker all too well. The Darkling was commander of the Third Earth military, and had arrested him briefly. The charges were long dropped, but there was still tension between the two. Now that he thought of it, Psychro recalled hearing mention of a crossbreed daughter running around, he just somehow wouldn't have guessed that the other half was a Thunderian Tiger.
"Everyone calls me BT. Are you the Psychro I've heard stories about?" Black Tiger asked. He tried to gauge the question, wondering what stories she had heard and from whom. He had certainly slept with a few Darklings in his time, so it was possible he'd even slept with a family member, which would account for Stalker's attitude towards him.
"Probably. The name ees out of style thanks to heem," Tug Mug said with a chortle. "But I theenk you're a leettle young for hees tastes."
"Ew! No, I was just wondering. Um, nothing personal Psychro. Anyway, I hear you know Red Eye quite well. I'm writing a book on him, and dad suggested I talk to Tug Mug about him while he's here," she said, stinging Psychro's pride.
While Tug Mug was right that he liked his women to be a little more physically and mentally mature, the automatic rejection hurt. He also wondered if she should be asking him about Red Eye. The two hadn't gotten along well, being rivals for Chilla's affections, and their animosity had grown over time. Red Eye had won the first round, but he and Chilla had broken up a while ago now. Psychro, by virtue of sleeping with Mandora, had won a bet with Chilla that had earned him a shot at her heart. "Did you tell her about the bubble bath incident?"
"I was just about to. So, we had thees barrel of feesh..." Tug Mug began, as BT picked up her notebook and started writing furiously.
Psikaris stared at the bed in House Mymekon. In just three short days, was it so soon, she would be formally bonded and she would be sharing this bed. She wasn't naive in the ways of men and women but, apart from their one misguided night, she had spent every night alone in bed. She wondered what it would be like, waking up every morning and seeing Cameo lying there. He had been so gentle and patient with her, igniting feelings deep within her that were indescribable. It was like working on a new engine modification, the excitement mounting as she came closer to completion, followed by an astounding rush of joy when it worked.
Which reminded her, there was an article she had been intending to read on the merits of a new style of wing that was supposed to cut through the air one point two nine percent better than the current design. She had brought it with her, intending to read it before bed and hurried to dig it out of her bag, all thoughts of Cameo vanishing in a heartbeat.
While it was nearing night on the Ice Moon, it was mid day on the Royal. Luna had opted for her larger audience hall today instead of the smaller office that she preferred to use. The proper audience hall was for more public meetings or for larger gatherings. She had had one of the latter in earlier with all of her advisors on hand to go over the month's reports. One of those was instructed to stay behind.
There was a strange satisfaction in watching someone at times like this. She could read it on Cameo's face, wondering what he had done wrong, or what secret mission she was going to send him on. She let him wait, noting the sweat forming along his hairline before its inevitable march down the side of his face. He hadn't actually done anything wrong, but a little power trip never hurt. "Send in Artemyn," she shouted, her voice echoing loudly off the walls. The room's acoustics had been designed so that words from the throne were projected better than those of the underlings.
Cameo jumped, and his thought process was evident. Artemyn was a high ranking soldier, moving steadily through the ranks, to the point where he was handling one of the space docks in the second largest city on the moon. She knew that Cameo was fearing for his position, at the very least. It made her wonder what he thought he'd done, and whether it was something that legitimately needed punishing.
The heavy steel doors at the opposite end of the hall opened and a thin Royal Lunatak marched down the heavy purple carpet. He stopped at the base of the stairs, a healthy distance from where Amok sat and almost parallel to Cameo. Artemyn saluted crisply, his yellowed eyes locking for two seconds with hers before darting to the side. "Cameo. This is Artemyn. He will be filling in for you here while you're away," she said, smirking when she saw the relief wash across his face. "I want you to show him the particulars of the capital and introduce him to the appropriate people. I don't suppose I can talk you out of the trek, can I?" She disliked people taking time off, even if she understood it. Stability made the empire run smoothly, and any possible risk of losing one of her ranking individuals was not stable.
"I'm afraid not. Customs dictate it," he explained. "You're not worried about me, are you?"
From anyone else she would have accused him of mocking her. Cameo seemed to say it with a hint of genuine concern. That was her experience with him, thinking of others over himself; it was one of the things that had endeared him to her. "It's a custom that half the population doesn't take part in, and has a one in four chance of death. It's a pain replacing people." She knew he would read between the lines. She did like the man, but she could never say as much.
"I know. But Lunis doesn't like it when people don't take it. The chance of a couple surviving three years is astronomically low if they don't." She knew that too. Well over half the couples who didn't weren't together three years later, including a disturbingly high number of mysterious deaths. Personally, Luna blamed the priests for creating this condition, but she'd never been able to prove it. Besides, it was entirely possible that it was true. Of the four Lunar gods only Lunis, goddess of fertility, war, and the Icewalkers, seemed to take an active interest in her charges.
"Bah. Well you'd better make sure you come back safely. Otherwise Artemyn gets a promotion," she finally said, dismissing them both. Amok plodded up the steps and looked at her comfortingly. He knew as well as she did that it wasn't just the thought of losing Cameo that had her on edge, it was everything his bonding brought with it. The last three council sessions had spurred conversation over Luna's marital status and how she should be working on producing an heir.
Marriage was the last thing she wanted. When she had left the moons she had had a husband. King Piscaar, a handsome man who had treated her like the queen she was. She had been his whole world, and he'd descended into madness when she didn't return. He had earned the nickname 'The Red' following the massacres and riots that had been the hallmark of his reign. Many members of the royal family, people with the same blood in their veins, had perished in the years that followed. It was this diluting of the bloodline that motivated people to insist that she conceive.
At least now there was possibility. Genetic engineering had made leaps and bounds since that time, and she could, theoretically, have a child if she wanted. Before the fateful voyage, the prospects of her surviving labour were slim to none. The problem was now that she didn't really want to get married for the sake of getting married. She had actually loved Piscaar, despite what many thought, that's what a good wedding was.
Then there were the prospects. There were so few of royal blood left, that her best option seemed to be Tycho, and he was happily with another man, governing Third Earth. Her royal treasurer had even dared to suggest a marriage to one of the Mutant kings to unite moons and planet. In her anger she had dug up dirt on him, enough to have him put to death and buried. That had quieted discussion, but not stopped it. She would have to give in to them eventually, just not right away.
Besides, there were other matters to attend to. She fed her Guardian a sugary sweet and turned back to the door. "Send in the next visitors," she called.
"Loona! Eet's me!" Tug Mug shouted, dragging a young woman in behind him. For once the smell of booze didn't announce his presence, instead it was... coffee? "Let me introduce to you Black Tiger, the daughter of Stalker."
Luna nodded. She knew Stalker well and heard him mention a daughter at one point. "I'm charmed. Why have you brought her?" she asked, watching as the girl shrank before her eyes.
"Eet seems she's writing a book about Red Eye and I figured that eef anyone knows Red Eye stories, eet's you," Tug Mug replied in that jovial way Gravitons tended to have. They were a laid back people, slow to anger and easy to please.
His comment brightened her up. If there was one thing she liked to do, it was talk. Most of the stories would paint herself in a good light, but that was to be expected. Luna was rarely wrong, it was her minions that screwed up her plans. "Why didn't you say so? I know plenty of stories. This one time we had a barrel of fish..."
"I told her that one already," Tug Mug said.
"What about the time he mixed up the Berbil brandy with the pao pao peppers?"
"Oh yeah, I forgot about that one."
"Well then. We had just gotten back from fighting the Thundercats when we decided we were hungry but none of us wanted to admit it. Red Eye was cooking that day, you see, and his glasses had been damaged. We weren't sure if that would improve his cooking or not..."
The streets of the royal capital were pleasingly calm. There were a few people milling about, but none seemed in any particular hurry. Psychro wasn't either, heading for a tailor's shop on the east side. It was amazing the effect Luna's reign had had on this proud metropolis, a city that had been marred by violence for years was now happy. Her reign, now over a year long, had created stability, and that was refreshing.
Of course, he had plenty on his plate to occupy the mind, so the diversion of a clear day was even more welcomed. He needed new clothes for the bonding ceremony, and there would be alterations to make now that he was certain of his role. He had made preliminary arrangements, measurements and whatnot, several weeks before and just needed a fitting to make sure he hadn't put on too much weight.
It was a shame, really, that he had to get royal moon wear as his people didn't believe in the concept of fashion. Icewalkers held the belief that clothing should hold two purposes, to keep one warm and to allow fluidity of movement, typically for combat purposes. If he'd gone traditional he'd have found himself in a plain white body suit with maybe a heavy animal hide cloak for decoration. That wouldn't do for his sister's bonding.
Psychro passed a group of children playing in the street, some elaborate game involving a ball and some sticks, and entered the shop. Instantly his senses were assaulted by the dazzling array of colours available to him, bright golds and greens intermingling with the purples and reds. He didn't consider himself to be a fashion snob, preferring a simple black vest and white pants for day to day wear, but the ladies seemed to like it when he dressed up, and he was all about impressing the ladies.
"Good afternoon," a cheerful voice piped from a rack of bronze and scarlet shirts. A woman, barely a day out of her teens if he was a judge, stepped out and smiled at him. The more he looked at her, the more he realized that she wasn't all that attractive, she wore too much makeup, and there was a little more paunch to her than he'd ordinarily like, but he was still stinging from Black Tiger's rebuke earlier. He was tempted to seduce her just to prove that he still had it, but firmly reminded himself that he was trying to court Chilla, a woman who didn't like being shared.
"Yes, I'm Psychro, I'm here about my outfit?" he said.
"Certainly. I'll go fetch Mr. Clarius," she said, trotting into the back of the shop.
A few moments later, while Psychro was inspecting a purple hat on the counter, another gentleman emerged carrying a purple and white outfit that was edged in red. The family crest, little more than a heavily stylized 'M' adorned the shoulder. Everything was of the finest materials money could buy, and it was only a shame that it would be damaged in the ceremonial fight. "Is it to your satisfaction, sir?" he asked.
"Yeah, it's pretty good. I'll let you know how it holds up."
"Ah, you were right then? Don't worry, just bring it back and I'll repair it for you, no charge. Just drop a good word for me with the happy couple," Clarius said, nodding.
Psychro knew what he meant. A happy customer was a repeat customer. A loyal customer told their friends and produced even more customers. Psychro had tried to take the same philosophy with the mechanic shop the family owned back on the Ice Moon, and had extended that to the bedroom. Over Clarius' shoulder he saw her fiddling with a machine in the back room, and he found himself drawn to her. "To hell with Chilla," he muttered to himself. "Tell you what, throw in this hat and I'll see what I can do with that machine."
Artemyn wasn't that bad a guy, Cameo thought as the two walked through the streets. He seemed to be quiet, but most of that seemed to be out of respect for Cameo's position. He understood the pecking order, was happy where he was, and knew that some day the bigger plum might become available. He wasn't sure where his counterpart would be staying, but figured that Artemyn would be using his office while he was away, and that was a good place to start.
The receptionist smiled and waved at Cameo, and they stopped to exchange pleasantries. "Erillis, this is Artemyn. He's going to be filling in for me while I'm away," he said. "She's very good, just make sure she's home in time to catch her soaps."
"Cameo!" the royal Lunar woman looked jokingly horrified. She had come on the job at roughly the same time, so the two had developed a great working relationship. Cameo could still remember the day he'd started, the previous receptionist refused to work for a halfbreed, and had quit on the spot. He was reasonably certain that he didn't want to find out what had happened to her afterwards.
"Don't worry, ma'am, I won't upset the way things are. It's going to be a change getting used to Cameo's hours. I usually work a later shift," Artemyn explained.
"Feel free to change it. Just because I do things one way, doesn't mean it's the right way. Maybe we should institute an exchange program just to find out some of this stuff." Cameo led the way into his office, making note of the few things he'd want to put away somewhere to get them out of Artemyn's way. A bulky Icewalker ship was lifting off, and he couldn't stop the grin. That was the same ship that just ten hours from now would be collecting Psikaris and bringing her here. Just thinking her name seemed to brighten the room. Wrenching himself from the window he turned back to the other Lunatak and continued the tour.
He hadn't been able to do it. Psychro stomped into his hotel room and forced himself to hang his new clothes up in the closet. The tailor's assistant would have been so easy to take too. He'd barely begun pouring on the charm before the was melting like butter on a hot summer's day. He had even stripped out of his vest claiming he didn't want to get it dirty. "What is wrong with you," he muttered, going into the bathroom and splashing some water on his face. "She's just a kid. Hell, she's young enough to be your kid." She wasn't, he was pretty sure. As far as he knew there was only one of those running around.
Growing older sucked. It meant an illusion of maturing, it meant trying to settle down and become responsible. Could he do it with Chilla? Was she the one with whom he could bond with? Psikaris had always subtly pressured him to give up his womanizing, but ironically it was her bonding plans that were spurring him on.
Still, his ego was soothed. He still could appeal physically to the next generation. He didn't evoke the 'ew, yuck' response from all seventeen year olds. Maybe it was Black Tiger herself. Maybe she wasn't interested in men like him, hell maybe she wasn't interested in men at all.
He was left with one problem now, he thought, moving to the bed and laying back. The whole seduction of the tailor's assistant, and the difficulties with Black Tiger, and Chilla's mental image had left his body frustrated, but that was nothing that a few minutes and an active imagination couldn't take care of.
Psikaris had an equally active imagination, only in a different direction. She awoke, quite happy, still experiencing the cozy feelings that her dream had stirred up. She had dreamed of nothing but the wing design; whether the numbers were accurate, what other effects it would have on a ship, and how it could be modified to be made better. She automatically reached for the notepad she kept by the bed for such an occasion before remembering that she was spending the night in Cameo's bed.
Her own bed, her mind corrected automatically, annoyed that it wasn't fully awake yet. She stepped over to one of the boxes she had left in the living room and rummaged around for a notepad and jotted a few quick notes. She would flesh them out more on the trip to the Royal Moon. It was the one point two nine that had bothered her most during the night. The article wasn't specific as to which moon that figure applied to, and her mental math suggested that it was most likely the Ice Moon. It had the thinner atmosphere of the five moons and would be more generous in providing a number to a seller.
But that wasn't the only issue, she thought wryly as she squeezed into a simple white and black outfit. She wore simple white pants and a white shirt with a black jacket. There was a butterfly at the collar, a creature Cameo had seen in the Sky Tomb files and been fascinated by. He'd bought her the jacket as a gift after he'd accidentally thrown out a pile of her notes.
The main problem with the design, as she saw it, was that the ability to travel more swiftly through an atmosphere was being gained at the expense of structural integrity. The configuration would require more joins, which would weaken the overall product. Any pilot worth his salt, someone like Cameo himself, would agree that the safety of the pilot shouldn't be jeopardized for such a slight gain in speed.
Of course, her brain had already come up with one possible solution, but it would have to wait. There was a transport that would be waiting for her soon, and she needed to be on it. It wouldn't be the end of the world if she were late, but Cameo would be upset, and she didn't want that; not so close to their bonding. Someone would be around shortly to collect the boxes of things that were going to the Royal moon, so she settled on a chair and worked on her notes.
Just as Psikaris was waking up Cameo was staring at the bed, trying to sleep. Just two more nights until he was on his way to the Ice Moon for the official ceremony. It felt like there were a million things left to do. Ceremony, combat with Psychro, more ceremony, retreat to their home, large party in the morning, and the trek. Each item brought its own host of emotions, ranging from fear to excitement. The ceremony was largely pointless, he figured, basically a way of letting everyone in the community know that the two of you were together, so back off. The secondary ceremony was more to let the goddess know your intentions and seek a blessing, which was also what the trek was for.
Would Psychro take it easy on him? Typically the fight lasted until one opponent was bloodied. It had been known to happen, in the past, that one or the other would die. Psychro was protective, but not that much so. He had to know that serious injury would upset Psikaris, and he didn't dare that. He figured a brief spar, followed by letting Psychro get a free shot. Though there was a part of him that really did want to win.
He chose not to think about the trek. No one talked about it, as it was said that each one was very personal, testing the faith and trust between the couple and the gods. And then there was the bonding he hoped they would do in the sanctity of their new home. He'd slept with her once before, an exquisite, if guilt ridden coupling, but now she would be more open to it. He was no stranger to sex, but he was no professional. He looked forward to learning her body, and teaching her the dizzying heights it could be taken to. With those thoughts on his mind, he slipped into a deep slumber.
Two things became immediately apparent to Tug Mug as he woke in the middle of the night. The first was that this was not his bed. The familiar groove that his body fit in on the mattress wasn't present, nor did it feel at times like the bed was moving from whatever lived inside it. The second thing that caught his attention was the strange combination of smells in the air; beer, vomit, sweat, lilacs. Of those, he was certain only three were coming from him. He opened his eyes slowly as dim memories of last night returned.
He, Luna and Black Tiger had spent many hours trading stories and eating and drinking. Oh, BT had protested at first, claiming not to be a drinker, but she soon relented and summarily passed out. He had brought her to his guest lodgings in the capital, having no idea where she was staying, and deposited her on the bed. He had intended to at least pretend to be chivalrous and sleep elsewhere, but the bed had been so inviting and he was so very tired.
That explained that, then. He was in his hotel room bed with a friend's daughter. She looked at peace in the pale moonlight, the faintest trace of a smile on her lips. She was laying on her side facing him, one hand draped loosely over his hip. He felt strangely aroused by this innocent display of affection and marvelled at it, turning the thought over in his head. She wasn't very old, but that wasn't an issue to Gravitons in general. His people lived a life that many considered decadent and full of excess. Food, drink, sex, all in the name of having a good time. Most other races found it to be disgusting, and to a point Tug Mug agreed.
On a Graviton, fat was considered a mark of prosperity and friendliness. 'The wider the girth, the wider the purse' as the expression went. But on those from other races fat seemed out of place, and his experience said that it was a mark of laziness and foolishness. He didn't get why it worked that way, but it did. So when he saw BT's slender body, and felt the touch of her hand, it stirred him. He wouldn't do anything, not to her, at least not without her consent, but debated taking his shirt off so that she would wonder in the morning if they had had sex. It was tempting, but it would mean prying himself free of her and he didn't want it to end.
The shuttle ride took a few hours, and Psikaris sat in her chair, contentedly working on her project. There was little else to do, really. There weren't many passengers, and the rest of the space was filled with her possessions. She and Cameo agreed that they would probably be spending the bulk of their time on the Royal Moon, but that they needed to maintain their home on the Ice Moon. She looked up as the shuttle made its final approach on the Royal Moon and couldn't help feel awed by the sight.
Legend said that the other four moons were torn from the Royal Moon and it was obvious why. Sprawling deserts touched soaring jungles. Fertile plains mingled with forest and stretched towards the ice cap. There were vast cities down there, most of which weren't visible until they dipped closer. And there it was. The capital of the Lunar empire, the great city of Natak. Spires strained to reach the clouds while the great domed hall showed where the seat of power was. From the window Psikaris could see the poorer section of the city, tucked as far from the palace as possible and seeming to have grown larger. There were museums, shops, restaurants, and all the assorted bits and pieces that made a city run like finely tuned engine.
She smiled, knowing that Cameo would tease her for always equating things with machines. She liked people fine, she just didn't understand them the way she understood mechanics. An engine didn't lie, and power converters would never hurt her out of spite.
Gears couldn't hold her the way Cameo could either, her brain supplied as she shuddered at the memory, and she certainly couldn't be impregnated by a drive shaft.
The landing pad was in sight as daylight began to creep across the city. Soon Cameo would hold her in his arms again, and she could explain to him why the model XF-231 wouldn't work. He probably wouldn't understand, but he'd get caught up in her enthusiasm and he'd make the effort. And that was why she loved him.
Psychro was many things. A morning person was not one of them. Still, he hadn't had a good chance to sit down and talk to his sister, and he probably wouldn't get another until after the bonding ceremony. He watched as the shuttle's ramp lowered and she walked down, looking around. "Chro?" she asked, stunned.
He flashed his trademark smile, one that had charmed many a young woman's clothes off, and had gotten him out of more trouble with his sister than he cared to admit. "He was taking up too much of my dear sister's time so I killed him. Terribly sorry," he said, earning him a friendly punch in the shoulder. "Nah. Luna called him away to some meeting. He'll be two hours at least. You eaten breakfast yet?"
She shook her head and tried to hide the disappointment. He didn't take it personally, he knew her too well for that. She loved him and she loved Cameo; she'd been expecting one and had gotten the other. That was all. He led her to a little restaurant nearby, one she had been to before, and found them a table.
"You're looking good," he noted, pointing at her stomach which was starting to swell. "Hard to believe in another five months I'll be an uncle. You get my gift?"
"Yes, you horrible person," Psikaris said, stopping as a server came to their table and took their order. She tried to conceal the flushing of her cheeks but couldn't stop it. "I don't think we're going to be using it though."
"Not yet. Give it time, learn each other's bodies on your own and then, use it to spice things up. I can make more recommendations. Did you like number thirty-three?" It was part of the game. He enjoyed teasing her, and it actually felt good to be discussing her sex life for a change. Given a choice no man would ever see her naked, but he figured if she was going to do it, she might as well do it right; only the best for his sister.
The blush grew brighter. "It certainly looks interesting," she conceded before changing the subject. "There's something bothering you. You didn't come to see me to tease me about what I do in bed."
Psychro was about to protest his innocence, mostly to delay the inevitable conversation, but she knew him too well just as he knew her. He had speculated once that they had some sort of telepathic bond. They were part Psion, and telepathy among that race wasn't unheard of. He dismissed the notion. While there might be a grain of truth, they had grown up together for years, lived together, discussed everything, that was the reason they connected more than some ability which might not even exist. "It's the trek," he admitted.
"You're worried about losing me," she said. It wasn't a question, it was a statement of fact. "And you're scared."
"I am. Not just for you, though I don't know what I would do if you didn't come back. You're the most precious thing in my life, you're pregnant, and..." his voice trailed off. He didn't know quite how to say it without sounding insulting. She would understand and wouldn't take offense, but that wouldn't make him feel better.
The server returned with coffee for Psychro and a glass of juice for Psikaris. "And?" she prompted, swirling her straw in the drink.
"The trek is designed to test the couple, to see how much faith they have in each other and in the goddess. I'm not worried about the former, but you've never been much for religion. I just see that as being this big strike against you." Psychro didn't really feel like eating, now that he'd started the talk.
"That doesn't mean I don't believe in her," Psikaris pointed out. She couldn't hide the fact that she had considered exactly what he was saying, though. "My main problem is that people put too much stock in gods and not in what we Lunataks do. The extremists say that every thought that comes in our heads is given to us by the gods. I can't accept a world without freewill, that's not the way I operate. Do I think there's a goddess? Yeah, sure. I've seen enough to believe that, but I don't believe that she sits there and watches every single Lunatak at every single moment. There are too many of us in too many places, my head can't wrap around that concept. This trek? It's more about survival instincts than anything else. I trust Cameo, he's a good man and between the two of us, I know we can get through anything we encounter."
A long swallow of juice soothed her throat. "At least wait until after you give birth," Psychro started again.
"Chro." She said it like a parent talking down to their child. "I've thought of that. Tradition says it has to be after the bonding or the goddess won't like it, or something. For what it's worth, I've done my research, pregnant couples have a better success rate than non. It's because Lunis is the goddess of fertility, they say."
The food arrived, a delicious array of meats and breads. But Psychro could tell by the way his sister suddenly couldn't make eye contact that there was something else, something she wasn't telling him. He took her hand in his. "What is it?" he asked softly.
"They... The doctor thinks it's twins," she said as calmly as she could. Psychro rocked back in his chair, the weight of the words hitting him like a ton of bricks.
"Twins," he repeated numbly. Pregnancy rates among Icewalkers was low as it was, leading to hardier children, it was said, and multiple births were considered to be given to those touched by Lunis. But a twin having twins was such a powerful omen, one whose meaning was wrapped in mystery and importance. While he didn't know what it meant, he shuddered at the implications.
"That's right," Psikaris said finally. "So you see why we have to take the trek. Don't worry, we'll be fine."
Cameo was sitting by the fire, a good book in one hand and a glass of fine Darkling wine in the other. All around him the squealing grandchildren ran about, while their dotting parents, his children, watched with the calm and patience that he had instilled in them. The one child was a champion fighter in the arenas, while the other was a leading scientist, both looked surprisingly like their parents. He turned his head as his twins gathered their offspring, hugged him goodbye and left him alone with his still gorgeous bondmate. Ah, though thirty years had aged her skin, the beauty and love he felt for her never dwindled. She regarded him through her eyelashes, giving him that look that suggested she wanted him. With a sway of her hips, still kept in peak condition with not a trace of fat on them, she sauntered over to him and slowly undid the top button on her shirt. "Oh Karis..." he murmured.
"Cameo!" the smack of riding crop hitting hand jolted the hybrid from his daydreaming. "If you call me Psikaris one more time I'll cancel your ceremony."
The fantasy world dissolved instantly. The book was replaced by a file folder, and the glass with a pen. The squealing grandchildren were replaced by a handful of Luna's closest advisors, people who did sometimes remind him of rambunctious children. Scariest of all was that Psikaris transformed into Luna, though fully clothed and not looking nearly as sexy. "Sorry," he said.
"If I'd known you'd be this useless, I would never have promoted you. Now, what preparations have been made?"
The threat was not idle, Cameo knew. Luna considered herself above all things and expected those around her to think the same way. She had declared, much to his surprise and dismay, that she would be attending his bonding ceremony. It was, she explained, because he was a public figure and a royal presence might help in making her appear more compassionate than she truly was. A royal visit meant royal headaches too. Lodgings, travel arrangements, added security, more food, all fell under his jurisdiction as both the commander of the air forces and as the groom to be. "We're monitoring transmissions from Plundarr, but if they suspect you'll be on the move, they aren't saying anything, or they don't care," Cameo said slowly, looking down at his notes. "To play it safe the fifth and eighth air squadrons will be playing escort to and from the Ice Moon. I've got my people screening additional Icewalker forces to be scattered throughout the crowd, as well as members of your royal guard."
Now that the embarrassment of being caught with his mind on other things was over he began to hit his stride. "I received a transmission from several notable Houses in the Froston Ridge who have offered to give you lodgings, and recommend House Neijin." He really didn't want to, but they were the most powerful of the factions in that region. He had a history with the family, dating back to when he and Psikaris had been on the expedition to find Luna. Their prize relative, Krystalin, had been murdered and the two of them, along with another hybrid, had been the primary suspects.
"Which ones are they? They're the ones who have that pet Monkian, aren't they?" Luna asked, causing a ripple of comment to go through the assembled advisors. Mutants weren't thought well of, and keeping one was disgusting.
"Ah, yes. I believe they use it for their experiments. Trying more genetic engineering, and letting the Simian be their guinea pig, as it were." House Neijin was fond of their scientific acumen, and were constantly trying to create new life. Krystalin had been the sole success thus far, an attempt at creating the perfect Icewalker to match the Guardians, such as Amok, that the Royal Moon seemed able to produce at will. Rumour had it that they were using Mutant fodder as the base for their experiments rather than trying to build from scratch.
"Disgusting creatures. Oh well, I suppose it can't be avoided. Maybe they'll keep it locked out of sight during my stay."
"I'll politely suggest it," Cameo replied. He risked a glance at the time, wondering what his bondmate and her brother were doing in his absence.
"Oh go then, find Psikaris," Luna said, exasperated. "Maybe I should declare love illegal." She continued talking, but Cameo didn't hear a word of it, running out the door.
Black Tiger's mouth tasted like she'd been sucking on a sweat sock all night, not that she had experienced that. She was in a strange bed, in a strange room, laying next to a strange man. It was a lot to process first thing in the morning, especially since the pounding in her head was making it harder to think clearly.
She was clothed, which was promising. She'd heard the lectures on the dangers of alcohol from her father and, frankly, disagreed with him on many points. Sure, it was embarrassing waking up next to someone and having no idea how you got there, but she trusted herself, drunk or sober, to have made a good decision and to have had a good time. The man beside her, she realized as the cobwebs began to part, was Tug Mug and he seemed to still be asleep.
Slowly, so as not to disturb him, she removed her arm from his hip, puzzled by how sticky his body was to the touch. It was, she thought, like placing one's hand underneath the oven and feeling the food residue there. It wasn't a wholly unpleasant feeling, but it wasn't the nicest either. She slipped out of the bed and padded quietly over to the bathroom to wash her hands and use the facilities.
She only had another few days before school resumed and it was going to be the hardest semester yet. Being seventeen they were working harder on weapons training because they felt that every Darkling should be able to defend the moon in an emergency, and she really wasn't very good with weapons. Stalker's legacy made life even more difficult, and the pressure to live up to his standards seemed to increase. Once she was done, she walked back into the sleeping area and began to gather her notes. She looked forward to her work being done. She only hoped that she would get to meet Red Eye himself to get his version on some of these events. Luna and Tug Mug had meant well, but most of their stories seemed outlandish, and focussed on Red Eye being a clutz. His being bedridden after a Snarf bite, for example, sounded improbable, as did a compromising encounter with someone named 'Mole Master.'
Being quiet still, Black Tiger slowly left the room and headed down to the landing pad, hoping to catch a noon-time shuttle back to the Dark Moon.
"So, have you thought of names yet?" Psychro asked. After the weight of their earlier conversation, the twins had mutually agreed to try and brighten the mood. They had finished their breakfast and were currently seated in Psikaris and Cameo's home on the Royal Moon. It wasn't too far away from the palace and even closer to the landing pads.
"We're not naming one of them after you," Psikaris teased. "Nothing's settled yet, we don't even know the genders of the babies, or what side of the family they'll lean towards. Cameo likes Camris if there's a girl, but he'll settle for whatever I want."
"Doesn't surprise me," Psychro muttered to himself. If there was one flaw that he saw in Cameo, it was that he tended to defer to Psikaris far too often. Given that most often she would prefer to do her own thing, he wondered how that would affect their personal life. She knew it, though, and shot him a scolding glance. It was like an entire conversation passed through them in the space of a few seconds. "Sorry," he finally conceded.
Whatever else he might have said was halted as the door swished open to admit Cameo. From his vantage point on the couch, he could see Psikaris' face light up at his arrival, a widening of the eyes, a subtle tug on the corners of her lips, those little things that she probably wasn't even aware of. "Well, I'll leave you two lovebirds alone. I'll see you on tomorrow's shuttle flight, sis." She stood and hugged him tightly. A 'thank you' and an apology for the tension passed through those loving arms. No matter what happened, Psychro knew, they would be there for each other. Forever.
Isilik stared at the picture in front of him. He had seen it hanging on the wall outside the arena. Every major city had one, and it served as a public forum and a place for warriors to test their mettle against one another. It could also, as the poster indicated, host special events like bonding ceremonies. He couldn't believe it, Psikaris was going to be bonded. For the six months they had been together she had constantly mentioned that she never saw herself being bonded, that she was happy with just her work. She had frustrated him at every turn, and finally gotten her brother to tell him to back off.
But if it was just that, then Isilik felt that he could live with it. People changed, and maybe he hadn't been the right man for her. No, it was the rumour he had overheard on his way that she was pregnant and now, looking carefully at the picture, he thought he could see a slight swelling of the belly. It seemed so out of character for her, after all the hoops he'd had to jump through just to kiss her, hell she had sworn that she would probably never have sex either. Something boiled beneath the surface of his skin, enraged that she would seemingly treat him like that, after all the good he'd done for her. He would have some words to say to her, he thought nastily, and the next time he saw her would be very soon.
There were people scurrying everywhere, Artemyn noted with some sense of satisfaction. Vencury was a fine city, located a little further north than he'd perhaps like, but it was nice. It never got this busy though, and he was certain that he could handle the mounting pressures. Once Luna left, it would lighten a little, he presumed, but until then he was happy.
He watched through the window as a fuel truck moved over to the royal flagship while crew members loaded Luna's possessions. Artemyn considered himself an ambitious man, he had envisioned the rank he wanted, and he worked diligently at getting it, and he certainly wasn't above digging up dirt on those he looked to replace when needed. But there was an art to it; make friends, be sociable, be the one people come to with problems and for advice. He was almost there, and then the trick would be staying there, watching his back for daggers.
Cameo's stock was on the upswing. He was loyal to Luna, and had even reportedly saved her life at least once, which meant that he wouldn't be replaced any time soon. He was a decent fellow, he supposed, a hard worker who never seemed to earn a bad word from anyone. In fact, he was the sort of person that Artemyn hated having above him, it made a promotion very difficult, and he often felt bad about it when he pulled it off. Cameo would be gone for several weeks, in all likelihood. There was plenty of time to find what he needed.
"Well, one more night after this," Cameo said, sitting down on the edge of the couch and gazing lovingly at Psikaris. The sun was long down and in the night sky they could just make out the Psion Moon. It was her other half and, though she'd never expressed a desire, he wondered if they should visit it some time down the road. He'd never been to Solaris either, the birth place of his father, and he wondered which of those clusters of stars it orbited.
"Nervous?" She asked, barely glancing up from the data pad in front of her. Last minute details for the ceremony, he knew.
"A little. I feel like I'm all grown up now. Bonding with a beautiful woman, raising a family, having a full time career. It sounds silly, doesn't it?" he reached over and touched her stomach. He couldn't feel anything yet, naturally, but he liked to think there was an extra energy there.
Her eyes met his and she captured his hand with her own. "You're just wanting the sex," she teased, though he knew her well enough that she was looking forward to it too. The thought lingered between them, the spark of desire glowing stronger.
"With a bond mate as attractive as you, why wouldn't I?" Their lips touched, fanning the tiny spark into a hot flame. The temptation to give in to the feelings was strong, and Cameo found his hands sliding beneath the shirt, caressing smooth skin.
She broke the link first, a look of frustration on her face. He understood the battle she was experiencing, he felt it too. They were practically bonded, it would be so right to give in to the lusts of the flesh, and yet they had held off this long; two more sleeps and there would be nothing stopping them. Self control met lust and, for an instant, it looked like lust might win out. But he had seen the consequences of lust winning that fight. Psikaris had cried the following day, and now she bore the mark of that tryst. He hated to see it, and he almost had to tear his hands from her body. "It's two more nights, two more sleeps. We can do this," he said, more for his own benefit than hers.
"I know," she stood and put the pad down on the coffee table. "I love you."
"I love you too." With that he retreated to his bedroom and curled beneath the blankets. These were easily going to be the longest nights of his life.
On to Question of Faith - part two
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