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Book 1 of The HEL Jumper Book 2 of The HEL Jumper
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“Where are we going, darling?” Veera asked quietly as they were transported at ‘pregnant female’ speed through the Event Horizon’s tube network to the hangar that would serve as the departure point for them and Thantis back to the village courtesy of Cromwell. Natalya had already returned to her fellows at the Forge.
“Well, if I had my way about it we’d go to the drop pod bay,” he began, holding her hand and brushing her with his thumb. She could feel him shaking. “I doubt the Admiral would appreciate it, but it would be a nice, quick, private ride back to the surface. Problem is it was made for people like me, not pregnant women.”
“Russell, I don’t like the idea of you suddenly treating me differently!” Veera complained. He glanced over at her as the pod came to a stop and the top lifted away to allow them out. He went first and then offered her his hand.
“I’ll try not to, but there’s no way that sort of thing would be safe for the little ones. Maybe after you give birth,” he suggested, feeling his throat tighten. He exhaled heavily and wiped his brow. “Life… is going to be different. Let’s just get home?”
“Yes, please,” Veera agreed. It was difficult to cling to him, to try and guess at the true source of his rigid demeanor and nerves while at the same time receiving much needed support from her Jumper. He said he believed her, and she believed him, but there was much to discuss privately that hung over them like a toppling tree or perhaps a hulking ursae. Without the Event Horizon she would have never known she’d been granted cubs, and yet it was the last place she wanted to be at that moment. When they boarded the shuttle they found Thantis waiting for them.
“Veera, you are well?” he asked quietly.
“I am healthy, Thantis. Yvonne seems to think so too.”
The nature of her reply was not lost on him. “Gentia and I will be here if you need us, Veera. And you, Russell.”
“I know,” the Jumper said quietly before looking over and resting a hand gently on Thantis’ frail shoulder. “What I meant was thank you, Thantis. It means a lot.”
“Even were it not my duty, it would be my pleasure. But I will allow sleeping hyrven to lay, so to speak. I daresay Fenrir is quite the approachable ball of fur when he’s feeling lazy. It is… I see miracles all around us these days; I cannot help but remark upon the Balance.”
“What do you mean, Thantis?” Veera asked as the shuttle kicked off gently and headed for Mara. Cromwell was taking it slowly, surprised to have received a message from Winters that she was again transporting a pregnant Cauthan. Her communication with her passengers consisted only of mandated advisories to fasten restraints. Thantis gathered his thoughts as he loosened the grip on his cane, momentarily surprised by the vertical acceleration.
“Spirit Io informed me that tomorrow marks the day you arrived on our world, Russell. To think of all that you have done in that time since you donned the mantle of Kel’s avatar, and to now contemplate both loss and gain, death and life. Such a moment is tumultuous, but I hope and pray the two of you will find peace in it somehow. I will be there tomorrow, if you would like.”
“I would, Thantis,” Russell affirmed, staring at the wall of the shuttle while holding Veera’s right hand tightly in his left. His somber, distant tone was plenty indication that despite his genuine thanks, he was in no mood to discuss much of anything with anyone other than Veera. The elder hummed quietly and settled in to enjoy the ride instead, a poignant but not uncomfortable silence their companion until the shuttle touched down just outside the gates. They were opened immediately, the guards letting Veera and Russell pass without a word. No one felt like confronting either of them given the strange looks on their faces. Whatever had happened during their time away, not even Staroth was foolish enough to prod at that moment. He did hail Thantis, however.
“My friend, you have returned safely! If it’s all the same to you I believe I should escort you to Gentia. I would not want to be the one who decided to let you wander around upon your return,” he joked. Thantis shared a laugh with him.
“I would appreciate that, Staroth. There is a matter I must bring to her attention at once, so your offer is most welcome.” At the elder’s words, Staroth signaled to the other guards on duty and waved a courteous farewell to Pilot Cromwell who was taking note of several messages and requests for supplies from Alice and Lachlan, archived during the Event Horizon’s departure. None of them involved the transport of anything back to the ship so she shrugged, removed her helmet, did a few stretches against the hull of her shuttle while Seil warmed her face, and then departed the planet.
Safe within their home as the noise of the shuttle faded, Veera and Russell were finally given a chance to process reality alone. Io, projected from his wrist, remained silent as they embraced one another and touched their foreheads together. Veera’s eyes were soon running freely.
“I know,” Russell assured her, stroking her feathers.
“Do you?” she replied, her voice high pitched as she tried to control her diaphragm. It was a draw at best. He nodded, brushing his nose against hers.
“Yeah, I do. How long have we been together?”
“Since the harvest festival, you big, stupid, noble human!” Veera insisted, Russell chuckled in spite of himself, willing his own bubbling emotions to remain below the surface for the time being. Veera’s understanding that she was going to be a mother came first.
“Yeah, so three seasons, almost four. You don’t think in that time I’ve learned what you look like when you feel guilty? I remember when you admitted to pointing my rifle at Ratha, when you ‘accidentally’ licked one of Io’s batteries, and of course when you brought this bundle of fluff home,” Russell enumerated, petting Fenrir on the head as the hyrven did his best to politely but insistently intrude on what appeared to be a very comfortable moment between his ‘parents’. The hyrven had been returned to the village courtesy of Natalya, along with their personal effects and gear on Mendes’ orders once he learned they would not be returning to the forge. Russell continued. “Point is, Veera, if you’d gone behind my back and mated with a Cauthan so you could have cubs, I know what your feathers would have been doing, how your voice would change, how your eyes would look down and then up and around me. Secrets in this village don’t remain secret for long. I believe you.”
The human closed his eyes and hugged her tighter as Veera cried loudly into his shoulder, his clothing muffling some of the sound. Their neighbors had never made a scene over rather loud or amorous evenings, and he hoped that day would be the same, especially with most Cauthan out at work. Io nodded repeatedly. ‘Three cheers for aliens who find it difficult to lie on account of their plumage,’ she jested happily.
“Ok, I’ll give you that one but please, Io,” Winters requested, leading Veera to their bed. Fenrir hopped up first, anticipating scritches, as Alice’s rapping at the door interrupted them.
“Rusty? Are you guys back? Why didn’t you say anything? I-”
“Not a good time! Out!” Russell commanded, pointing at her the moment she poked her head past the door flap. To her credit, Alice skedaddled immediately, shaking her head as she headed back down the road from whence she’d come.
“Geez, he hasn’t used that tone since we were in high school and I walked in on… no, let’s not ruin a beautiful morning with that memory Alice,” she scolded herself, turning right to head for the center of town instead. “Guess I’ll go check in on Thantis. I wonder if Natori actually thought I’d believe him when he said nothing went wrong during the mining mission?”
Back in Veera’s abode, the Cauthan dried her eyes on her mate’s clothing and took a deep breath, thanking him as he passed her his canteen. “You didn’t have to yell at her like that.”
“I’ll apologize to her later. I’d rather talk about… everything?” Russell suggested, not knowing where to start. “I wasn’t really expecting I’d be a dad after, you know. So wait, did you even have a heat this season?!”
“I… you just always get so into it,” Veera murmured, tracing nervous lines on his leg with a claw as they leaned against one another. “Maybe it was a bit of both? Sorry?”
“I’m not,” Russell confirmed immediately. “Kids aside, heat sex is hot as hell.”
‘I’m writing that one down for when you’re actually a dad,’ Io remarked drolly.
“Not appropriate for the cubs, Io. I’m sure you have a litany of sex and profanity free dad jokes somewhere in there?” Russell suggested before returning his attention to his wife. “Veera, what are we going to do?”
“You ask me that like I should know,” she replied sadly, looking around their home. “If I’m pregnant, really, I’ll never say a bad word about Meylith as long as I live.”
“She really came through in the clutch, didn’t she?” Russell agreed, ruminating on Io’s suggestion that Veera’s twins were not the result of marital infidelity, but her own body instead. He could barely pronounce the word, much less understand the finer points. “Who would have thought?”
“You don’t really sound like you believe it…” Veera murmured. He looked down to find her looking somewhere around his belly button, getting a view of her feathers instead. It hurt that she was hurting, but he knew he couldn’t fake the tone of voice he wanted to show her. He rubbed his neck and sighed in frustration.
“It’s not like that, Veera. I just… if what we think happened to you happened on Earth, if I had a human wife who suddenly became pregnant despite the two of us knowing it would ‘never happen’; let’s just say that if I chose to believe it was a miracle everyone would know I’m a sucker. We don’t believe in many miracles these days.”
“You know there’s a law for adultery in the village, right?” Veera wondered.
‘There is?’ Io demanded, sitting bolt upright. Russell did the same.
“The male chooses the punishment,” the Cauthan continued. “If he can prove his mate broke her vow, her life and the cub’s life-”
“Just stop, Veera. Please,” Russell commanded sternly but softly. “This is difficult, but that’s my problem. Io is right, you’re not human. You’re Cauthan and I don’t know what your body can and cannot do. We know the children will not be mine. But if they are all you, they might as well be mine. This is supposed to be a time when I hold you, make you hot beverages, rub your feet, and we sit around for nine months… a year, I guess, thinking comfortable thoughts about the family we planned to have for months or years. A long time ago you asked me if I ever wanted children. That was the first time I ever even considered the question honestly. Saying yes, I think it was just to affirm I didn’t want to die and have things just end. I wanted something left of me when I’m gone. But even then it was something far off, something not real. Then we mated. I was happier than I can ever remember being, still am, but I thought that issue was just gone. I thought you and I would figure something else out if being remembered wasn’t enough. Now?” He rested a hand over her stomach. “I guess the gods had other ideas for us.”
“I’m sorry. I just want this so badly!” Veera squeaked. Russell smushed her body against his, feeling her summer coat anywhere his skin was exposed.
“That’s the last time you apologize for this. Promise me.”
“I promise,” she whispered eagerly, curling her legs under her body. “I never had a brother or sister. I miss my mother and father. I know I can never replace them, but I will always want a family. I was so happy learning I had Alice and now? I want to cry and scream and laugh and cry and- I said cry already. I want to shove it in Ratha’s face that I’m going to have twins. Twins! And I want to tell everyone they belong to you because they do, they really do.”
“I… ok, this is happening I guess,” Russell stated, watching as the world swam and he felt the waterworks activating. He shook his head and blinked his eyes, but overcoming the emotions spawned by Veera’s insistence that everyone know he was the father of her children was not so easily done. “I’m going to cry and we’re going to have cubs. Yeah, that’s happening.”
"That's alright, I've already started," Veera laughed, still in disbelief. "I don't know what to do. What do we do? Should I build a fire? Am I going to have to stop being a guard?"
"I think I'd feel better if you stuck to easy patrols, but staying active is probably a good idea?" Russell wagered. "I know you aren't too far along but if you managed to not know this whole time, I'd say keep doing what you're doing. That being said, I know jack and squat about pregnancy, human or otherwise."
"Every day I don't need to head to the outhouse five times or throw up will be a good day as far as I'm concerned," Veera insisted, setting the bar rather low. Russell huffed a laugh, rubbing her shoulder.
"Asha has it pretty hard? I still can’t believe she wants seven."
"You are not to tell her I said so," Veera declared before quieting and refocusing on the more pertinent issue. "But Russell, what are we going to do?"
"Define do?" he requested hesitantly. She poked him just hard enough for him to feel it through his clothing.
“By do, I mean unless Io and Yvonne are wrong, which I’m not sure is a chance either of us would be wise in taking, what do we do when in less than a year there will be two little balls of fluff joining us in here, all the time!”
“Ah, I hold one and you hold the other?” Winters suggested with a shrug, his attempt at humor making some small amount of headway. It at least earned him a crook of Veera’s lip before she was all business again.
“Seriously Russell, we’re going to be parents in less than a year and I have no idea how to be a mother,” she explained, scratching her brow just above her eyes and standing to pace the room slowly. He remained seated and watched her, remarking how odd and surreal it all was. She looked no different than any other morning.
“Well if it makes you feel any better,” he began before trailing off, she looked curiously at him, swishing her tail slowly as she often did while they were conversing.
“I was going to say I have no idea how to be a father but that’s… that’s not really true. Gods, never thought I’d miss him of all people, but here we are. Is it odd that he’s the first one I thought of instead of my mother, in terms of what sort of advice they might give us?” he wondered as Veera returned to his lap.
“The man who made breakfast for you and your siblings, who placed you in your people’s armed forces and watched over you all that time? I think you’re odd for thinking it’s odd, silly. I would very much like to meet him sometime, but sadly we’re very far away,” she acknowledged, placing a comforting kiss on his cheek. “You’re a little scratchy, my dear.”
“I’ll handle that soon. For now though, if you’re ready to face the world again, I can think of a certain someone who might have advice for us regarding the raising of little fluff balls,” Russell said, the wooden bedframe creaking quietly as their weight shifted atop it.
“They will have claws and teeth too,” Veera reminded him, wondering if she would ever be able to eat again for how twisted into knots her stomach felt. Butterflies didn’t begin to cover it. Her worries eased slightly as her husband smiled at her, the first genuine smile since their world had been upended in the Event Horizon’s civilian medical wing.
“Yeah well, their dad is going to have an Aegis. Let’s see them get through that,” he challenged their future offspring.
“I am sure Io will show them the answer somehow.”
“Yeah, probably,” Winters agreed, fetching their cloaks. “You ready?”
“I am. If anyone should know other than us, it’s Gentia and then Alice. She is family. We cannot keep this from her.”
“Agreed, let’s just make sure we’re a safe distance from the village when we do… pretty sure she’ll spontaneously combust when she hears she’s going to be an aunt,” Russell ribbed his sister with a chuckle. “Io, you coming along?”
“Io?” Veera called out after only silence greeted them. Russell immediately pinged his armor with his visor, receiving all green in terms of her hardware.
“Huh, looks like she checked out for a moment. Must be important. We’ll catch up with her when she’s back, yeah? All her ‘bodies’, so to speak, are in good condition.”
“That’s a relief. Shall we?” Veera asked. He offered her his arm and she took it happily. An old Jumper adage came to mind as they stepped into the sun-baked streets.
“Yeah, not like waiting or running is going to do us any good. Time to dive in.”
“Io, I am surprised to find you here!” Natori called out, pushing himself on a swivel chair over the level, seamless floors of manufactory number one. It was a perfect environment for such shenanigans, minus the incredibly complex biomechanical body being constructed in the middle of it. With its skeleton, musculature, and significant portions of the dermis completed, Io was able to not only turn to face him, but also shoot him a very angry look, furrowing her metallic ‘under eyebrows’ as her facial skin was not yet complete.
‘First Lieutenant Winters somehow managed to knock up his alien wife!’ she shouted, causing Natori to crash from his chair in an extravagant spill. He rolled over a couple times before coming to a stop nearby, his ‘mount’ clattering to a halt a few feet further on. Five metal fingers attached to an intricate palm of metal; a strong, sturdy scaffold for all manner of sensors, chips, and tubes, reached out to him. ‘If you are injured I will apologize,’ she said without moving her jaw. ‘But otherwise I intend to enjoy that bit of slapstick to its fullest.’
“Still working out the trachea?” Natori guessed, accepting her help in standing before dusting himself off. “Now, that was a joke, yes?”
Io’s vocal cords may have been non-functional, but the combination of lenses, cameras, and other technology she’d used for her eyes was more than capable of conveying a bevy of emotions ranging from happiness for her friends to despair. ‘Do I look like I’m joking, Natori?’
“I will do my best not to rely on humanity’s history of film in my answer, but you look like something out of a dark fantasy, perhaps an artist’s macabre half-dreams of humanity’s future? Were it not for the sake of privacy I’d ask you to model for a photograph or two.”
‘You… you!’ Io seethed, throwing her hands above her head before walking over to a wall and punching it, albeit softly. Natori stood bolt upright as she yelped in pain before suddenly cutting all motion on her chassis. ‘Me… me! Damn it all that hurt so much! That couldn’t be right. There’s no way that’s right! I almost forgot I’m mad at you!’
Natori held his hands up as Io restored her connection and rounded on him, flexing and curling her fingers. She continued with evident sarcasm. ‘I just can’t wait to calibrate temperature extremes if that’s what blunt force trauma feels like. Now you, stop fetishizing me! Veera is pregnant with twins and when they are born I am ninety seven point two six percent confident they will not possess genetic material from any Cauthan male!’
Natori’s arms fell slack as he looked around the manufactory. “Why do I have to choose?” he wondered, as though being told by his mother that there would be only one scoop of ice cream for dessert. The virginal Cauthan birth and digital cyborg babe combo was off the menu.
‘Because I don’t want people seeing me like this!’ Io explained as though it were obvious. ‘How about I flay your skin from your bones and photograph your half exposed skeleton for the entertainment of the other AI’s?’
“The what?!” Natori shouted in distress. Io hung her head.
‘It’s a joke, Natori… a very bad joke. I’m tired,’ the sole known AI acknowledged, sitting on the floor and bringing her knees to her chest. She sighed dejectedly. ‘At least the padding on my butt is sufficient to cushion my skeleton against a metal surface.’
Natori walked slowly to her side and knelt next to her. “What’s wrong, Io? Clearly there isn’t a deficiency with the silicone pump on your ass.”
‘Oh you are just so funny, Natori. As you can tell I engineered well past that. I am torn between happiness and love for my best friends and the dejection of seeing them move one step farther away from me.’
“Io, Lieutenant Winters and Veera do not seem the type of people to cast you aside even for their own children, assuming what you’ve told me is correct.”
‘It is correct, but Veera is a civilian so you don’t get to see her ultrasounds and bloodwork. And I’m not worried about that. I’m annoyed with myself. I lied to myself. As long as Veera can’t have children, she’s just like me, right? Well there goes that idea! I don’t suppose you looked into artificial wombs while you were playing around with Juggernauts on Udanis IV, did you?’
“You wish to have children?” Natori whispered, as though the words themselves would bring God’s wrath upon them. She turned her metal skull his way.
‘Of course not. It sounds awful, and I would never put a life at risk like that to satisfy my own selfishness. I am just moping around and being sad because Veera and Russell deserve happiness and congratulations only.’
Natori stood and offered her his hand instead, getting a feel for Io’s weight as she accepted. He would not have been able to tell the difference between her and a relatively light female colleague. “Although I am Admiral of this vessel I acknowledge that what I’m doing may constitute speaking out of turn, or saying things that shouldn’t be said. Earlier we discussed various elements of human existence that you eschewed because they were inconvenient. I specifically recall female hormonal cycles coming up? Io, you cannot only choose to experience the good of human existence. Living as a sac of flesh and bone is as wonderful as it is harrowing. It is stressful, it is painful, and it is rewarding. Perhaps you should determine exactly what it is about human existence that fascinates you so, and focus on that? Your body will aid you in that quest, but it will not be sufficient. In many ways I think you have already succeeded. Consider my words, if you would?”
‘I already have,’ Io replied, allowing a bit of pride to seep into her voice. ‘They are wise, but you consider yourself very important.’
“Ah yes, yes I do,” Natori insisted, pointing at proof of his admiralty on his uniform. “But in this matter I consider myself only a friend, Io. And while the ethics and physics of an artificial womb may be forever beyond your reach, I daresay you’re a few calibrations and pieces of skin away from holding Veera’s children in your arms. When I consider how many millions or billions of humans throughout history never experienced such a thing themselves…”
‘I understand, Natori,’ Io assured him, composing herself and returning her body to its chassis where the light of its eyes faded and work continued apace. Sparks flew as she tended to her fingerbones and hailed the Admiral via the ship’s communication network instead. ‘As always, I thank you for being an ear in times of need. Russell and Veera are overwhelmed, and I did not want to trouble them with my own concerns right now.’
“You are an excellent friend, Io. Would you accept one final word of advice from this self-important admiral?” Kaczynski asked with a smile.
‘I will listen, of course. That does not mean I will accept,’ Io explained, keeping humor in her voice. He nodded.
“Your friends will appreciate not just your congratulations, but your presence at this time. Go to them,” he insisted. Around him the lights in the manufactory dimmed and eventually turned off save for a few safety lights that would lead him back to the control panel.
‘That order is one I’m happy to obey. Farewell for now, Admiral.’
When Io returned to the surface, she found Winters not with Veera or in his abode, but instead with Thantis, Xan, Fenrir, and Alice in the temple of Kel. She projected herself from his wrist armor and greeted them all. ‘Sir, I hate to interrupt but where is Veera?’ she asked urgently. He held up a hand for calm.
“She’s with Gentia right now, don’t worry. Alice and I both had the same idea, apparently, and it seems Thantis is more than fine after his little asteroid mining mission.”
“Can you believe Natori actually let him operate a mining laser?!” Alice interjected.
“Yes,” came the reply from Io, Russell, and Xan all at once. They shared a laugh as Thantis dispensed tea to them all.
“And I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity,” he said, taking a seat and cupping his own wooden mug between his paws. “Xan may not agree with me, but there is both peace and serenity in Kel’s domain. It is not warm, but I would not call it unwelcoming, either.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to describe it that way,” Russell affirmed, noticing how agitated his sister looked, shifting constantly in her seat and always looking at him. “And yeah, I guess I might as well tell you all. Now that Gentia knows I don’t think it’ll take long.”
“Knows what, Russell? What happened while you were gone!?” Alice leapt at the opportunity, sitting back down as her brother made a ‘calm down’ motion with his hand. The Jumper took a deep breath before smiling at her.
“Sorry for snapping at you earlier. Veera’s pregnant with twins.”
Io devolved into uproarious laughter as both Thantis and Xan sprayed their mouthfuls of tea all over the floor of the temple. To see Xan riled up was not uncommon, but to get such a rise out of Thantis himself was truly an accomplishment, especially since the elder knew already. The AI considered he might actually have used the opportunity to engage in such childishness on purpose.
Fenrir, feeling the uncomfortable spray on his ears, growled softly and padded back into Thantis’ private quarters, claiming the shady area for himself on yet another hot day. Alice, meanwhile, looked horrified.
“Oh my God, Rusty. I’m so sorry,” she whispered, hand over her mouth. To her surprise her brother just shrugged his shoulders and looked at Io.
“You want to take this one? Where did you run off to by the way?”
‘There was a small issue that needed to be attended to on the Event Horizon, sir. But all is well in orbit and so I would be happy to explain to our dearest science lady why the probability that Veera’s children belong to a Cauthan male are less than three percent by my estimations.’
“Io, there’s no way Rusty could have-”
‘Ah ah ah!’ Io tisked, brandishing a pointer at Alice as she donned her lab coat and consulted her favorite clipboard. ‘I never said that they were Russell’s cubs either, though that would certainly be closer to the truth than adultery, in my opinion.’
“I am torn between making more tea and remaining right where I am,” Thantis stated as Xan looked around the room cautiously.
“Yeah, I’m fine where I am. Anything I could say right now would probably get my ass beaten,” the former guardsman admitted. Russell laughed.
“Hey look, you’re learning!”
“You’re making me reconsider,” Xan taunted, only to be shushed by a suddenly authoritative Alice.
“If the two of you are done having locker room time I would like to hear about how Veera supposedly got knocked up with twins without cheating on my brother thank you very much!”
Thantis glanced quietly at his apprentice, conveying a ‘told you so’ message while Io launched into a repetition of her parthenogenesis theory. Though she was not technically a biologist, Alice quickly latched onto the line of reasoning. “So you believe Cauthan are capable of asexual reproduction?”
“Uh, what?” Xan asked of Thantis. The elder could only shrug as Io shook her head.
‘No, Alice. I think we would know if Cauthan females began spontaneously popping out cubs on the regular. I am proposing something demonstrated by several species on Earth, where if conditions are right their bodies will undergo various unusual processes to ensure offspring in typically sexually reproducing species. A few fish and lizards can switch genders at will, but I’m sure the Lieutenant can confirm for us that Veera remains very much a female.’
“No comment, but yes,” Russell snorted.
‘Indeed. Instead I am proposing that under very specific circumstances which remain unknown, Cauthan females, or perhaps only females of Veera’s mother’s tribe, are capable of bearing cubs without viable male genetic material. Without another datapoint I can only guess at what those conditions would be. Veera has gone through a period of protracted starvation followed by a glut of resources. Her body has been… stimulated repeatedly both physically and chemically via intercourse with no typical resolution since then.’
“You can say sex, you know?” Xan cut in despite looking most uncomfortable. Io rounded dramatically on him.
‘I am a scientist and I will say intercourse you fluffy heathen!’
“Ignore him. He doesn’t appreciate women of learning,” Alice teased. “I don’t really know what to say about the theory in general but uh… geez, I don’t know how to say this without sounding like an ass, but are you guys sure this isn’t just wishful thinking?”
‘Veera has been accompanied by HEL tech for the majority of the last year on this planet, and has been with Russell, often outside the confines of the village, for both of her recent heats. We are dealing with alien physiology, my dear Alice. For now I prefer to hope. When the cubs are born I believe it will be quite obvious whether we are correct or incorrect.’
“I guess you would have to wait that long, wouldn’t you? Even if the cubs’ xDNA managed to get into Veera’s bloodstream like we use for human paternity tests… damn I lost my train of thought,” Alice complained, running a frustrated hand through her hair as a cart laden with produce squeaked by outside, having just entered the village from the east gate. Io helped fill in the gaps.
‘Your reasoning is decent, Alice. It might be possible, it might not. If they are her clones we wouldn’t know if we are seeing just Veera’s xDNA or hers and her cubs. If they are recombinations, unless things are weighted very heavily in one way or the other it will be the same result. In the end the decision will be up to your brother and Veera.’
“I think it’s best just to leave her body be. I don’t think she was unfaithful, Alice,” Russell said quietly, looking into his mug of tea and gauging his own reflection. She reached out and rested a hand on his knee.
“I’m really excited to be an aunt,” Alice offered with a broad smile. “All the fun of parenting with none of the downsides.”
“I can hardly wait,” he replied with heartfelt facetiousness, downing his beverage and standing. “I want to be next door before Veera is done with Gentia. Thantis, thanks for the tea and I’m glad everything went well on board.”
“It is no problem, none at all. Congratulations again, Russell,” the death priest replied.
“Yeah, seriously,” Xan added. Russell knew the youngster meant it every bit as much as his elder, despite his brevity. He nodded to them all.
“What are you up to later, Alice?”
“Well with the harvest coming up I think I’ve put off Alyra too long. She really wants to be able to color her fur for the festival so I figured we could get started on that now that everyone in the village can see well.”
“Alright, good luck with that. See you guys.”
‘Auf wiedersehen!’ Io added as the two of them pulled back the cloth door covering and headed out, leaving Xan and Alice looking at one another.
“All that stuff Io was talking about, do you really think Veera had cubs on her own? Was she really touched by Meylith?” he demanded.
“Xan, you know you could probably still have cubs naturally, right?” Alice replied.
“That wasn’t what I was asking!” he shot back as Thantis could only chuckle. The human pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes, forced to personally reckon with ‘species bias’ for the first time.
“I don’t know, Xan. If they don’t belong to some other male… I just don’t know.”
“So you believe it?” Veera asked quietly as Gentia used her cane to slowly lift her body back into a standing position. At her age the bending necessary to conduct an exam of a female Cauthan was becoming difficult, but time and patience assured that all proceeded smoothly as the head priestess slowly twisted the stiffness out of her back.
“Hmm? What is there not to believe? You’re certainly pregnant! Or are you surprised instead that I believe in Meylith’s divine blessing? No male would dare lay with you even if you asked!” Gentia laughed, patting Veera’s belly. “All of the signs are there. Though I am surprised that you did not notice it yourself.”
“What should I have noticed?” Veera wondered a bit defensively. “It’s not like I ever thought I was going to have cubs.”
“Mmm, the Mother works in not so mysterious ways, doesn’t she child?” Gentia remarked mystically, sitting beside Veera on the bed. “Russell may become cross with me, but you should not mate with him again until you have given birth. Usually your body would make such things rather painful if you bothered trying, but you and he have a deep bond. Who’s to say? For now I will care for you and your cub.”
“Cubs, Gentia,” Veera corrected, fluttering her feathers. “Did I forget to mention that?”
“You did. Mysterious ways indeed,” Gentia repeated with an astonished voice, swatting her on the knee. “Now then, before we head back out into the hustle and bustle, I will tell you what I tell all females of our tribe. Do your best to remain active and eat as much as you are comfortable with. If anything feels amiss, come to me immediately.”
“And what if I don’t know how to be a mother?” Veera asked sadly, looking down at her hands, clasped in her lap. “I lost mine too early.”
“Oh my child,” Gentia whispered. “All of the answers you need will be found within, I promise you. I cannot count the number of times I have witnessed young females, far younger than you, transform into mothers on account of carrying and delivering their young into the world. But we will be here for you as well, Veera. I will be here for you, as I always have been. You refused to ask us for food. I hope that when you and your mate are cradling your cubs in your arms you will not be so proud and seek knowledge here. You have seen much of life, Veera. Have faith in the Mother, for you, more than any of us, have been granted her favor.”
The mixture of pride, happiness, and sorrow in Gentia’s voice was truly overwhelming, and Veera could not help but envelop the aging priestess in a warm embrace. “Thank you, Gentia.”
“Why don’t you visit your father today? I’m sure he will be thrilled at the news,” Gentia suggested as Veera helped her to her feet again and the two of them exited the wing of the temple. They found Winters patiently waiting for them, occasionally waving to an acolyte or villager he recognized. Afternoon sunlight filtered inside through the front entrance, forming a warm location for some of the smaller cubs to play in. “And I daresay you are in good hands, my dear. Russell Winters, the Goddess blesses your family.”
“She does, Gentia. Thank you,” he replied as the two women approached him, his tone reserved but open as he took Veera in his arms. “All well?”
“Yeah, all is well,” she assured him. “Gentia suggested we go tell my dad. I think I’d like that a lot.”
Winters closed his eyes and placed a kiss on the top of her head. “Good idea. I need to think of what to say to my friends too. If any of them are still hanging out on this planet they’ve had a bit of a wild ride lately.”
“May Meylith wrap you in her warmth and love, and may you two remain faithful to your vows forever,” Gentia wished formally before entreating Veera specifically once more. “Veera, with your permission, Antoth should be informed of your blessing.”
Russell and his mate debated silently for a moment before he shrugged. “Up to you, Veera. It’s not like you’ll be able to hide it in a few months. Doubt anyone would buy the story you suddenly decided to get fat?”
“Russell you-” she giggled, latching onto his arm. “It’s fine, Gentia. Just, perhaps do it without Ratha in the room? Let Antoth take that arrow?”
Meylith’s chief priestess clicked her tongue and shook her head knowingly. “I enjoy the idea of living to see tomorrow, Veera. I will speak with him alone, but speak we must. If a human male and a Cauthan female, strong in faith and in love, can have cubs? This… those who serve the gods must think on this.”
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