Episode Twelve

UnnamedAtoll – South Pacific
2 miles south of Rinjani Island
December 19, 2228 – 1:30 A.M.

Nephis was the beautiful thing they found dying on the ice. Bruised and torn, his circumstances before discovery by the Mana-Men remained a mystery to all except their Maori leader, Tuk Pongia.

The burly Tuk had carried his battered body into the lower-decks of the Tangaroa, and it had been the ruffian’s handsome face that first greeted him when he awoke.

Tuk was descended from the coastal Waitaha of pre-impact New Zealand. His ancestors had come under the protection of wealthy whanau. As the moon’s new orbit tore their world apart, they built survivalist settlements atop Mount Aoraki.

Isolated throughout the Dark Years, their numbers doubled. They’d organized and rolled into the lowlands and drove out every surviving Caucasian faction. Their newfound domination ended when the ousted pakeha returned with armed troops from Australia.

Tuk’s mother often spoke of his grandfather’s oppression by the Aussie pakeha, but her sad eyes would come to life recounting how Antarctica destroyed them.

Tuk hadn’t whispered a word of this history to Nephis; he learned everything about Tuk by just kissing him.

Born thirteen years after the Australian genocide, Tuk was one of four sons delivered by a twenty-year-old knife maker. She’d raised Tuk on stories of farc soldiers and cautioned him to stay on the moral path; straying from it would invite retribution from the bald brutes.

Nephis knew what punishment at the hands of a Marixi felt like, but he hadn’t learned this unfortunate lesson from his mother.

His first breath occurred moments following his birther cutting him out of her womb. Her identity remained lost to him, and though he’d honed his oneness with the Void, he remained unable to visualize her face.

My past whispers and my future screams.

The winds that brought them to this island had died down since their arrival, taking with them his lingering guilt over murdering Caro Cristi. Gliding over cracked concrete, he danced within the thrall of sweaty bodies.

Tuk remained sitting at a crate-table, his lusty dark-brown eyes were fixed on Nephis.

You have something you want to do to me, but you won’t.

Tuk nodded and smiled sweetly at the voice in his head.

It’s not the time or the place, he thought back.

Nephis came to a standstill before walking off the dance floor. A group of young women fell in behind him, drawn to his pheromones. At their table, Nephis slid into his lover’s lap and relished Tuk’s calloused fingers touching his braids.

Tui Hooker slid into the empty seat beside them, ogling the girls until fellow pirate Okeroa noticed them and forced Tui to scoot over. Brothers Jin and Benji Pan joined them from the bar, thus rounding out the notorious Mana-Men.

What troubles you, Tuk?

“The Femitokon is dangerous,” Tuk said aloud. “You should’ve killed her,”

Nephis put a finger to Tuk’s bottom lip.

Sofitakul was there when I needed her-

“I’m here now, Nephis,” Tuk snapped. “You don’t need that silver bitch,”

“Sofita was never a lover,” Nephis dragged his fingertip across Tuk’s broad chest; tribal prison had given him the physique of a God, but his addiction to Nephis rendered him mortal. “I know your worth, lover, it’s why I haven’t killed you,”

“You’re talking shit,” Tuk smirked. “You didn’t sleep enough. I told you to sleep until the end of November, but you didn’t listen.”

“I don’t listen to anyone that knows better than me,” Nephis said, kissing him on the nose.

Castigated by everyone ever obligated to care, Nephis had been a precocious donat who used his maturing telepathy to manipulate those around him.

“You sound like my brother, Tuk,” Nephis said, cartwheeling back to the dance floor. “Always trying to tell me how to mind myself,”

Nephis had learned the painful consequences of crossing his kerma Ryo, and despite a talent for self-preservation, he’d been unable to save himself, or his brother Orestes, from the violence of Fusakul.

Tuk ignored the cackling of the visiting ladies; eyeing Nephis on the dancefloor, he shoved an empty shot glass at Benji, the only one of his men without a girl.

Four nights ago, Nephis had brought the shy spectacle-wearing chub into their bed, and since then, Tuk started favoring him over the others.

Tui rudely put himself between Tuk and Benji. Nephis was too far from the table to hear them, but Benji’s mind was an open window.

“Before you three pop off for a bonk,” Tui whispered. “We need to talk about flogging someone new,”

“I think we should lay low,” said Benji.

“Yeah? Well Jin, me, and Oka, we was talking,” Tui focused on Tuk. “We know you ain’t said nothing to him about it, but-”

“—Kia tūpato!” Tuk snapped.

“Cut the strife, you two,” Jin whined; a thinner version of his brother, he turned from enjoying the girl in his lap. “We’re hurting for coin, that’s all,”

Tui nodded, “That little side-stop in the NAU drained our funds,”

“If you’re unhappy Tui, leave,” Tuk snapped.

“No one’s unhappy,” Jin whined. “We’re just broke,”

“I got no problem with your boy,” Oka chimed. “I got a problem with no coin,”

“No one wants Nephis gone, I mean since you found him, we’ve flogged over fifty people,” Tui put a hand on Tuk’s shoulder. “His ability to get in their heads helps us figure out what they’re worth,”

“He’s pretty, too,” Jin laughed. “And the girls like him,”

Benji frowned, “He asked one favor from us,”

“Yeah? Well, that old farc man was a waste of time!” Tui cried.

“You say he makes us coin,” Tuk slapped the table. “But when he asks for a simple favor, he’s a burden!”

Suddenly, Nephis sensed something beyond the pavilion, and ugliness that lured him into the jungle brush.

The scent of an Orta-trained body confronted his senses. Its stench found him under the moonless night. It brought him back to the dock where the liquor addicts slept off their high.

An aging bruiser marched the sand, dragging a stout boy by his arm.

“I don’t want this, please,” he whined.

“Your ma said you’d be nice,” she tossed him onto the sand and opened the front of her pants.

The boy tried to run, but the old Marix was too quick. Catching his leg, she fell onto him and rolled them over the sand and under the dock.

Nephis joined them, and standing silently in the dark, he watched as she tore the boy’s shorts from his buttocks.

Hey Polluted,” he said, in Ramaxi. “He doesn’t want your ryd,”

Who’s there?” the bald brute jumped to her feet.

Nephis stepped closer and wiggled his fingers in a playful wave.

Sneering, she tapped the lapel on her collar.

The Femitokon’s are going to love you, boy,

Nephis closed his eyes and cast his consciousness like a net that seeped into her red-brown hide. Once his will fused to hers, he nearly choked on her disgust and fear.

Blood vessels began bursting under her hide, turning her face dark. He sucked the energy from every synapse in her neocortex until he acquired complete control. She moved in fits and starts, pulling her weapon onto her hand.

Arm up, she pressed her blaster-covered palm against her mouth. Misty eyes found his and dared to ask why. A jerk of her thumb brought a glow to her cheeks. Seconds later, her exploded, raining bits of blue and gray flesh down on the boy.

The welp shrieked out in horror.

Nephis hated screaming as much as he hated bruisers; one swipe of his arm sent the boy soaring out over the ocean. Riotous laughter broke out when a nimble shark shot up from the surf and caught the boy midair in its jaws.

The Mana-Men had joined him, and brought along a guest.

“Now what did that kid ever do to you?”

Otago Joe appeared above him on the dock. Nephis smiled wide and ran into his arms, the first human he’d ever met with blue eyes.

One of the few pure-blooded pakehas left in Aotearoa, Joe owed his existence to old Tribal Queen Ato Ratana. An avid collector of blue-eyed girls, she’d bred a few of her beauties with some white-men from the harem of another collector.

Forty-Two years ago, the line produced Joe, with light blond hair and piercing blue eyes. His chiseled face now served a new Ratana queen, all the while bankrolling her most wanted outlaws, the Mana-Men.

“You got a job for us!” said Nephis, kissing Joe on the cheek.

“That I do,” he grinned, slapping hands with Tuk.

“Just in time, too,” Nephis grabbed Joe’s arm. “The boys are still sore at me over our fruitless sojourn to North America,”

At the end of the deck was the Tangaroa.

A pre-impact long-yacht, it had taken years for Tuk and Tui to rebuild its forty-horsepower engine, while Jin and Benji masterfully restored its living cabins. Before its maiden launch, chief navigator Oka had painted its hull with elaborate tribal curls.

 “How are things on the long white cloud?” Nephis asked, placing a chipped mug filled with tea in front of Joe.

“We lost a bridge,” he sighed.

Tuk huffed, “We know who’s responsible,”

“We do too, mate,” Joe knocked back his drink. “Queen’s doing nothing about it, she doesn’t want to expose our mine,”

“If you think Ramaxia doesn’t know about that vein of tharspaxi, think again,” Nephis took his place on Tuk’s lap. “The First Office waited until you exhausted a large portion before she decided to take it away,”

“Instead of building bridges, she should’ve been making bullets,” Tuk groused. “She’s a useless Queen,”

Joe smiled, “Why so foul, mate?”

“Tuk misses his homeland,” Benji said.

“Don’t worry,” Nephis said. “Joey’s got good news,”

“Oi, you promised,” Joe tapped a finger to his temple, “No more peeking,”

“It’s a habit with people I don’t trust,” said Nephis.

“What about my petition?” Tuk asked.

“The pardon will remain undelivered,” Joe said.

Nephis shook his head, “She signed it and gave it to you-”

“—Yes, she did,” Joe snapped. “Please Nephis, respect my privacy as I have yours.”

Nephis closed his eyes.

“As I was saying,” Joe shifted his eyes to Tuk. “I’ll deliver that signed pardon when you’ve finished the job,”

“Job?” Nephis scoured Tuk’s mind. “What job?”

Tuk shook his head, “It’s too dangerous,”

“No job is too dangerous for us,” Jin said.

“You get some coin,” Joe said. “And the signed pardon from the Queen,”

Tui added, “We need the coin, Tuk,”

“I don’t like conditions,” Tuk said.

Nephis sought more while sifting through Joe’s mind.

Duty had brought him before her.

His respect turned to admiration, and then he longed for more. Glorious consummation had been followed by the pain of being ignored. He’d been kept at arm’s length, reassigned, and then seemingly forgotten.

“Your choice is admirable, Joey,” Nephis said. “Did you know she tried to keep my gender alive,”

Joe glared at him, “I asked you to stay out of my head,”

“Who are we talking about?” Tui asked.

“Otago Joe wants us to steal the Ambassador to Chinasia,” Nephis replied.

Tui and Jin turned to one another and began laughing.

“What is she like, a hundred years old?” Tui asked.

“You might hurt her, Joe,” Jin teased.

“Not the Ambassador of Chinasia,” Tuk sighed.

“Wait,” Jin’s narrow eyes widened. “We’re talking about the farc that runs Kuril?”

“We got too close before,” Benji nodded. “Nicking those pulsers-”

“—We nearly lost the Tang for our trouble,” Tuk added.

“Those bald bitch bodyguards,” Benji said. “They took out old Mook,”

Born of mixed Maori and Jungwanian heritage, the burly Mighty Mook and his Cutter-Crew had been paid to blow up the farcs undersea base.

After Mook failed, he boasted of a new plan to murder the base’s custodian. The two bruisers guarding the custodian caught wind of it and intercepted Mook at Port Tokyun.

It had taken the two brutal Marixi mere minutes to beat him to death.

“I’ll deliver your prize, Joey,” said Nephis.

Tuk started, “Are you for real?”

“I’m always real,” Nephis said.

Oka’s voice rang out from topside, “We got company!”

“That’s my ride, mates,” Joe rose from his seat. “I’m not to be connected to this endeavor in any way, mate,”

“How white of you,” Tuk watched Joe exit the cabin before turning to Nephis, “What he’s asking is impossible,”

“Not impossible,” Nephis said.

“She’s not just some thinker,” said Tuk.

“No, Laxumjyr isn’t that,” Nephis ran his fingers through Tuk’s long hair before gently taking hold of his ears. “It’s December, and in Ramaxia that means all the bruisers and citizens assigned between poles get seven days at home.”

Tui’s lips curled, “She’s unprotected right now?”

“Her Axyrn are probably in Toxis tonight, knuckle deep in some fat zaxy’s goozer,” Nephis said. “While they’re back home, we’re going to Kuril to snatch up their boss,”

“What if the silver taniwha comes?” Tuk gently cupped Nephis’ chin. “You can’t go up against her again,”

“Sofita wouldn’t hurt me,” said Nephis.

“Because of your brother?” Tuk asked, his mind filled with images of Nephis’ abuse at the hands of his family.

“Don’t you pity me,” Nephis snapped. “I told you those things because I wanted no secrets between us.”

“You’re right,” Tuk pulled him into his arms. “You’re no one’s victim,”

Rinjani Island – South Pacific
December19, 2228 – 4:50 PM

Kemen and big brother Marwoto basted beneath the midday sun. They’d tracked the farc beast all morning, hoping it would beach itself soon and purge its freshwater waste.

Near sundown, the whale ship came to rest at Nusa Point. The black sandy beach was a magnet for seafaring criminals. Many hitched their boats to its lone wooden jetty and came ashore to party at that pavilion in the trees.

Marwoto worked the oars and moved them behind the boney fingers of a beach-rooted mangrove. Feet on the ground, they walked under the shade of its tall palms until they reached the opposite shore.

Hunkered down in some reeds, little sister Kuk appeared and fell into the sand beside them.

“Farcs in the water!” she panted.

Bald heads appeared in the waves. Thickly built Marixi, they marched shirtless out of the surf and without snorkels or scuba gear.

“I bet they’re all Division,” Kuk whispered.

Marwoto rolled his eyes at Kemen; since the arrival of the farc woman to their village, her talk of divisional-agents made Kuk suspect every uniform of being the dreaded Division.

“There’s no way they traced her here,” said Marwoto.

“They’re going under that dock,” Kemen said.

Kuk nodded, “That’s where the body is,”

Kemen started, “What?”

“A dead farc?” Marwoto vomited a sigh. “Fuck, they’ll be all over the islands now,”

Kuk cried, “We can’t let Division take her away-”

“—Quiet! Your squeak carries,” Marwoto whispered, hand clamped to Kuk’s mouth.

The two older farcs appeared to relay orders to the others before walking back into the water; the others followed, leaving behind two brutes.

“They got tech,” Kuk whispered. “I saw it,”

“Do they got what she asked for?” Kemen said.

Kuk drew a rectangular shape in the sand.

“It’s too risky, Kemen,” said Marwoto.

“I’ll bait, and you steal,” Kemen declared.

Marwoto frowned, “She said not to be baiting anymore,”

“Yeah, Kemen, she said,” Kuk parroted.

“Just get the tech when I distract them,” Kemen rose from the reeds and jogged down to the water’s edge.

He walked the shoreline, as any local might, and as he closed in on their position near the dock, he pulled off his shirt.

Hi-Hi!” Kemen yelled, stepping hard in the sand so that his solid belly jiggled over his waist skirt.

The farcs exchanged looks.

Kemen arrived with a bright smile on his face until his eyes fell to the headless corpse behind them. When he feigned shock, the larger brute, a Donmat with red streaks upon a dark brown hide, gently took hold of his fleshy arm.

“You don’t need to see this,” she walked Kemen away from the dock and regarded him with lust in her eyes. “Tell me, have you seen anything weird around the island lately?”

“Just you and your friend,” he flirted.

She washed up here, Yudil,” said the other in Ramaxi. “She wasn’t killed here.”

“Somebody got killed!” Kemen gasped.

Nice going Birgat,” Yudil snapped. “You scared him!

No, she countered. “I figured out he speaks our language,”

Most of them do, dumbass!” Yudil shook her head. “Come on, ‘burg, we’re the only functional culture on the planet, what other language would they be speaking?

Kemen pushed his body against her, “You’ll protect me, right?” he whispered in Ramaxi.

Birgat can protect you, too,” Yudil hooked her arm around his waist. “Let’s go over by that tree.

Birgat cried, “Are you out of your mind?

They already scanned the body, ‘burg,” Yudil said. “Once they call in her position, they’ll order us to swim her back to the ship. I’d like to get my ryd licked before that happens,”

Birgat argued, “We don’t have time for this shit!

Aw, you don’t like boys?” Kemen asked, groping Birgat’s bicep.

Birgat was cocky, “I can ride anything,”

Kemen stood on his toes and lick the black streak on her chin.

That’s what I like to hear!” he laughed.

Birgat grabbed hold of his backside and pulled him close, while Yudil snuck in behind him.

You’re not afraid of more than one, are you?” she asked.

It’s more fun if there’s more than one,” Kemen exclaimed.

Yudil howled out and hoisted Kemen over her shoulder like a sack of laundry. He opened his mouth when Birgat’s fingers appeared and shoved a square of bitter tasting tooth gum into his mouth.

Fleeters insisted on clean teeth, and the younger ones were kinder about it; old farcs were mean-spirited and rude. He’d been caught once by four old ones who’d taken turns pressing his face into their gashes; they enjoyed his struggling to breathe against the folds of their flesh.

Kemen dropped to his knees before them as Yudil and Birgat playfully steered his head back and forth between their engorged gashes. The taste of farc cunt was tangy, and the smell comforting.

After dousing him with their cold blue juice, each gave him an Aotearoan ten-mark coin. Though twenty marks richer, it was a tense boat ride home,

The farc woman disapproved of his whoring, and her displeasure had spread to his siblings. Neither used to mind his pleasurable commerce, but everything changed after pop was killed.

A week after the village’s men had set out on their annual fishing trip, rumors of a mighty wave in the Pacific spread throughout the islands. After many days, a few of the older girls had sailed out in their kayaks to find them.

The village stored the bulk of their annual catch in a densely webbed estuary four miles south of Rinjani.

The girls had found Marwoto floating in the ocean nearby. Novice fishermen, big brother and his crew of four had escaped their fathers’ fate when ordered to tend the holding nets.

A mighty surge had rolled into their netted cay, bringing with it the remains of their village boats.

Everyone took part in searching the surrounding islands until they came upon an atoll and found their father’s corpses. Lined up neatly, they’d been washed and set up high on a thatched wooden to keep them from being devoured by the Komodo.

When they’d arrived, the person responsible for tending to their loved ones revealed herself to be a farc woman.

Kemen thought he’d seen all sorts of farcs but hadn’t seen anything like her before. Shapely and golden-skinned, the milky white spots along on her shoulders had darkened after many days in the sun.

There’d been no fear in her black eyes, no hostility in her high-pitched voice, and her long braided tendrils captivated him. She’d tried communicating with the women first, but only Kemen understood Ramaxi.

Brought back to their village, she’d silently observed conversations. That first morning, she’d spoken their language as if born to it.

The farc woman never slept.

She’d kept herself busy with the children, and eventually weaned them all from their reliance on fish and clams by showing them how to preserve seeds from the fruit they’d bought off-isle.

After building a raised garden on the jungle floor, she’d dug covered holes around it to trap the wandering Komodo’s. Kemen explained that such defenses were pointless; the dragons owned these islands, that’s why their fathers built the village up in the trees.

The farc woman had flashed her lobed teeth saying, all predators must have boundaries, how else will they learn restraint?

In September, the farc woman had fallen asleep; the younger girls found her in a cave behind the waterfalls.

Unable to wake her, Marwoto and his boys carried her back to the village and had placed her in their mother’s hut. Kemen had sat vigil for many days until September became October. Dejected, he’d considered sailing to visit Punjak, there he’d lure another farc back to the village to help wake her.

Marwoto had advised against it because the farc woman sometimes expressed fear when speaking of her homeland.

The farc woman had woken in November.

Apologetic, she’d explained that femmar slept only a couple of months a year.

Kemen now understood why there were fewer brutes to trick from September to December; he’d come to this conclusion out loud, and this prompted to the farc woman to lecture him. Unlike his mother, she’d taken no issue with his whoring, but suggested he employ his light skin and narrow eyes to barter with Chinasian merchants.

Kemen foolishly agreed to abide, until today.

Back in the village with Marwoto and Kuk, he grabbed the rope ladder that dropped down from above. Once safely on the village’s main gangplank, he lingered behind as his siblings ran for the farc woman.

“How is my beautiful girl!” she took Kuk into her arms.

“We got the tech you wanted,” Kuk’s smile faded. “It doesn’t work though,”

Marwoto held it up, “I touched it, nothing happened,”

Kemen slipped into his hut to wash up.

“That’s because it’s activated by Femarctic fingerprints,” he heard her say. “Here we go, see? That TCS will purge her water on this stretch of beach, right here.”

“Semaru’s about a day from here,” Marwoto’s voice carried. “If we sail out in the morning, we’d get there by nighttime,”

Kemen joined them a moment, “Semaru’s no man’s land,”

“Yeah, no man’s land,” Kuk parroted.

“Gangs rule Semaru,” Kemen said before quickly walking away.

“If there’s gang activity,” said the farc woman. “The fleeters will kill them for sport,”

“That’s fine with me,” Marwoto said. “Those gangs are bad business,”

“So is killing for sport,” she said.

“They ain’t killing us,” Kuk shrugged.

Marwoto agreed, “They’re killing the trash,”

“What’s wrong with Kemen?” she asked.

“I dunno,” Marwoto tried walking away, but she caught him.

“What happened?” she demanded; when Marwoto wouldn’t answer she turned to Kuk, “Did something happen?”

“Kemen got busy with a couple of Fleeters,” Kuk blabbed. “He said he had to, but I said that you said, not to.”

“We saw the tech,” Marwoto said. “We all decided-”

“—Kemen decided,” said Kuk.

Marwoto furrowed his brow, “We all made the decision,”

Kemen was in the fruit hut when she found him.

“What I do with my body doesn’t matter,” he spat.

“You matter, Kemen,”

“Do I matter, pretty lady?”

“Stop flirting, I’m not angry,”

“You sound angry,”

“Not everything revolves around sexual barter,”

“When you’re sixteen it does,”

“You got me there, Kemen,”

Kemen smiled, “Are there other girls like you back in Antarctica?”

“Like me,” she said. “What do you mean?”

“You’re not a fleeter,” he said. “Fleeters are like strong men, with tits.”

“Yes, there are girls like me,” she said. “On that note, not all bruisers are sex-hungry,”

“There’s good rides and bad,” he said, nodding. When she laughed, he scooched closer, “You ever ride a fleeter?”

“Once,” she confessed.

“Just once?” he gasped, relishing her openness.

“My kind isn’t prone to fleeters,” she spoke then of growing up in an orphanage where there had been some fleeters; one day they were all sent to Orta.

Bruisers, as she called them, were taken away and not seen again until they completed something called, caste-training.

Kemen changed the subject, “My birthday came with the rains,”

“I’m sorry,” she fiddled with her braids. “I tried to stay awake,”

“Will you sleep at the same time next year?” he asked, and when she didn’t answer he said, “You’re going to leave us, aren’t you?”

“I promised Kuk I’d be here for her thirteenth birthday,” she put an arm around his shoulders. “You’re stuck with me for life.

This delighted him until he saw the sadness in her eyes, “Why’d you really leave home, Miss Tavo?”

She hesitated before answering.

“Your elders told me a story about a king who had his soldiers kill all the babies because one was destined to grow up and dethrone him,”

“That story, it changes all the time,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s just a myth.”

“Myth or not, it’s the story of my life,” she said.

He smiled, “You were born to be a queen, Miss Tavo?”

“I’m the daughter of someone born to be queen,” Tavo hugged herself. “Now that I know this, the current Queen will send her soldiers to find me,”

Barracks 23
Orta Prime, Ramaxia
20 Yulitat 2228 – 2030 hours

Styba Balru’s day began at zero five-hundred in her barracks stall.

After a daily diagnostic on her blaster, she ventured naked to the surface for an off-course run. Snow crunched beneath her feet as she pushed into the tundra wind on her way back to the surface gymnasium.

At zero six-thirty it was time for a workout with free weights, followed by a visit to the training pool for her daily one-hundred. Stoking through the icy water afforded her time to think about missions past and present.

The day-rise regimen ended in the steam room, scraping a koxtax blade over her hide before returning to barracks.

Today, Styba’s morning was her own.

In her clothes trunk, she reached under a neatly folded uniform and pulled out a sedately colored blouse. Its smooth wobix slinked over her shoulders as she fastened its only two buttons.

Dome-boots cinched tight beneath the flares of her tight jaxis, she assessed her appearance in the barracks mirror; this blouses pattern would surely capture the attention of passing Hizaki.

Satisfied, Styba splashed on some cologne and exited the barracks.

At Marixitak Station, the Orta Slide was packed with heavily scented bruisers. All wore colorful blouses and hide-tight trousers, but some of those polished heads were tattooed. Styba never sought confrontation, but her size and skill often put her in the crosshairs of elder Marixi who did.

“Balru!” Tuso Vyx stumbled into the slider-car before its doors met in the middle. In a tight blouse colored brighter than the sun, she fell into the aisle seat beside Styba.

“Collective Thanks liberty?” Styba asked.

“You know it!” Vyx grinned, pushing her to the window.

Once a year, citizens throughout Ramaxia visited their local paxumal to sit down with a paxum and talk about how the hives made life more comfortable.

Collective Thanks was the only time bruisers like Vyx, serving between the poles, got to come home other than to hibernate.

“You out to score some bellies, Balru?” asked Vyx.

“Nope, I’m going home,” Styba replied. “This time of day, the bluzline’s faster then taking the slide out of Gulidox.”

“I hit the paxum the minute I got back,” Vyx confessed. “Wanted to get it out of the way,”

Styba grinned, “You and Acari thank Pengon for your time alone?”

“Don’t start, Balru,” Vyx warned. “I might be dressed to ride, but I’ll still throw down if you crack my ice,”

“Tell me something,” Styba pushed past the burly bruise and sat in the opposite aisle, “How’d you two get assigned together?”

“You took us out at the same time,” Vyx said. “We both got recruited to Axyrn,”

“You request the same station?”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Vyx snapped. “I didn’t request shit, Balru. I got assigned to the southern Raxuda, and so did Acari.”

“It’s warm in those waters,”

“We’re on base, mostly,” Vyz shrugged. “It’s nice there, though, the water’s light blue, like my splooge,”

“What’s the Axyrn got you doing there?”

“We’re guarding the Prime of Kuril,” Vyx bragged.

“I hear Jyr’s a walking-talking helovx violation,”

Vyx grinned, “You don’t know the half of it,”

“I also hear you got a Femitokon visit,”

“It was Kul,” Vyx eyed the area around them. “I can’t go into details, but shit got weird.”

“Was there a male on base?”

“Kul doesn’t hunt males,” said Vyx. “She terminates hybrids,”

“There was a hybrid on Kuril?”

“The donation of a hybrid,” Vyx whispered.

“Are you shitting me right now?”

“It’s classified, Balru,” Vyx snapped. “I can’t say anything else,”

“You see Dox?”

“I think she was there,” Vyx said, evasive.

There wasn’t a Marix alive who didn’t know Fuzo Dox was the reason Styba Balru hadn’t smoothly finished their Final.

“You can talk about Dox,” said Styba. “That ice is solid again,”

“Nah,” Vyx shook her head. “I heard about what happened at Uxcal’s,”

“That wasn’t about Dox,” Styba said. “Bol was there, cracking my ice,”

The bounder came to a stop inside Akzilo Terminal and when the slide-car doors opened, Styba and Vyx stepped out.

“Come to the Rikaxi with me,” Vyx spoke loudly over the curtain of falling water separating the exit platform from the station’s lobby. “Lots of pure-gen bellies this time of day,”

Styba shook her head, “Tell Acari I said hey!”

Vyx scowled before pushing her way through the exit doors and becoming lost in a sea of bald heads and chubby bellies.

 The skies of West Toxis burned like a torch. Streets were lined with an obscene collage of glowing light and elaborately colored concrete. A cold wind blew through Styba’s blouse, tightening her uzxi.

At the rounder stop, throngs of thick-haired Zaxiri loitered in see-through bluzerie. Styba kept her distance, feeling the channel-barrier’s heat on her scalp. The thin black disks hovered high overhead, emitting an invisible energy that barricaded the local transport channels from the pedestrian paths.

Styba hopped a rounder to Kyrtabi Station.

On the Utox Slide bound for home, she found a seat in the last row and shoved audio buds into her ears. Eyes closed, she felt the pull of the ‘slid as it pulled out of Kyrtabi.

A harmoniously deep voice sang over a synthesized beat, filling her mind with memories of the night she saw its pink-hided singer performing it at a citbluz. The talented Hizak had worn a loose robe and tucked between the massive cheeks of her girsuzsch was a thick blue thong.

“I remember that!” a familiar voice pulled Styba’s eyes open.

Two seats up was a silent-gen subbie named Ozbi Tis. She was the mako of Obiz Banto, a donational friend who’d starred in many of Styba’s adolescent fantasies. Beside her and wearing an identical bonding sash was a hefty zaxxy that answered to the name Acari.

Styba yanked her audio buds from her ears.

“You ever been in a hizix bar?” Acari asked.

“Once,” said Ozbi. “Eppis used to go to that one in Utam Village,”

“Utam?” Acari curled her lip. “Didn’t Balrusok live there?”

“She lived across from the Cloister at the Balrudos,” Ozbi said. “I know this not because of Eppis’ obsession with architecture, but because of Bulaz Sok. I caste-trained with Bulaz, remember? She said the building belongs to Clan Balru,”

“The have-nots,” Acari smirked.

“Acari!” Ozbi furrowed her brow. “That’s rude,”

“Clan Balru is a far cry from Line Sok,” Acari said. “They make icy donations though,”

“I met that Balru cit-guard, Ziw,” Ozbi sighed. “Fos brought her to my nursing school graduation party,”

Styba sadly lowered her head.

Ten days ago, her kerma came to Orta and said Ziw had been struck by a rounder. At first, Styba had been too concerned with her kerma’s carelessness in coming to Orta, but Ziw’s death sunk in during the cit’tilgul.

Dressed in her Orta-Presentation uniform, she’d spoken to fellow mourners about how Ziw raised her from infancy, and how the Marix visited Orta yearly during her caste-training.

Styba remained haunted by their last meaningful conversation.

Ziw had come just days before the isolation phase preceding her Final Trial and spoke of many things; one of those things was Sofitakul.

The pair of gabbing breeders exited at Jyrtax Terminal.

Styba fell in behind them, eager to trade the cloying station for the city winds outside. Eight blocks west was her location, the Iloxi Style House, and the moment she stepped through its ornately carved doors, a receptionist confronted her.

“May I help you?” asked the Bizak.

Styba smiled, “I’m here to get my nails done,”

“You,” the Tenth-Gen asked. “Are here for your nails?”

Styba nodded, “I’m a legacy,”

“A legacy?” the Bizak brought out her tablet. “We’ll see about that, what’s the name of your maker?”

Ergaljakix,” Styba anticipated the pity that came from dropping her dead maker’s name.

The receptionist softened, “How ride of me, I’m sorry, it’s just that legacy accounts typically go from Hizak to Hizak,”

“My mak never got a chance to make a second donat,” Styba was adept at delivering this lament. “My kerma’s a Bizak, she told me they were going to try for an Hizak,”

The receptionist smiled warmly and took Styba’s arm, “Let’s get you settled in,”

Past the foyer lay the main salon, a bright room with textured wallpaper and patterned floors. Long shards of glass dangled from the ceiling, softly chiming high above the many ornate hair-styling stations.

 In the mirrored changing rooms, she helped Styba strip out of her clothes before returning with the biggest robe they carried in stock. Eyes roaming, she held it up so Styba could slip her beefy arms into the sleeves.

“Please follow me,” she said.

On the pedicure deck, wide-seated chairs formed a line that led to the windows overlooking the city. Each chair housed a foot basin, and Styba sat down in the fifth seat from the right.

After the Bizak politely excused herself, Styba situated herself so that her robe parted to display the uzx line running down her ample cleavage.

“Welcome to-” Giv Silx started. “What are you doing here, Balru?”

“Start with my toenails, Silx,” Styba said.

Anxiously, the kaltzin scanned the empty room with her eyes. The ‘midders would be coming in shortly, brainers whose jobs started after mid-day.

“I never should’ve told you about the legacy program,” Silx hissed, yanking at the soaking tub’s spigot.

Styba rolled her feet under its warm spray.

“Did you get it?” she asked.

“Of course, I did,” Silvx retreated to one of the mirrored stations and returned with a highly stylized axico.

“You owe me fifteen-cred,” she said as Styba snatched it from her grasp. “There’s a ton of shit titles about Femitokon and Fusofitakil, but of course you wanted the most expensive one,”

“This is the definitive,” Styba tapped the axico screen and brought up the introduction. “Get out of here Silx,”

Sliding a finger across the screen brought up a color image of Sofita Kul; the former educator hadn’t looked this regal back when toob-shit Styba met her in Orta.

Kul had arrived during Styba’s fifth year of caste-training, a troublesome time because Styba’s suzsch had gotten noticeably bigger than those of her peers.

The twenty-five toobs had each been assigned a fourteen by fourteen stall with only two eight-foot partitions dividing them; privacy in their surface-level barracks was nonexistent.

Dokomad Byza was their Barracks Minder.

Byza had doled out healthy doses of verbal abuse and was prone to cruel theatrics during their many inspections. If she’d found one undershirt in their assigned wire baskets not folded to her satisfaction, it got emptied on the offender’s head, and she’d be made to wear it for the rest of the day.

Fortunately for Styba, while growing up, her kerma Kin had forced her to fold the deli’s napkins when she acted out; her shirts were flawlessly squared, and her trousers folded neat at every inspection.

One day, Dokomad Byza had them standing at attention for over an hour, giving young Styba time to contemplate the empty stall across from her.

The billet belonged to a marixidoe named Bexil, a toob who’d failed four of her uniform inspections and wasn’t able to remain underwater for more than ten minutes. No one had dared ask Byza where Bexil had gone; instead, the toobs banded together and nagged Styba to do it.

Styba had always been recruited because she’d never earned the minder’s anger the way the others did. Eventually she’d did incur Byza’s wrath, thanks solely to Sofitakul.

“Excuse me,” the voice belonged to a tightly turbaned Tenth-Gen with a dark pinkish hide that seemed sweetly powdered with a faded teal.

“How can I help you?” Styba asked as she set her deliciously broad backside into the chair beside her.

“You must reveal to me where you procured that particular edition,” her eyes fell to the axico.

Styba sat back, “It belonged to my mako,”

“Is she the one that taught you to read?” her tone dripped with condescension.

“No, my Guardia elder taught me to read,” Styba lowered her eyes. “My mako was, uh, killed at Igitat Prime,”

“That explains your presence here,” the Hizak seemed guarded. “I lost my sib at Igitat Secondary, a few years before the incident at Prime,”

“The elder that taught me to read,” Styba added. “She passed a week ago,”

“I’m Tharsix Kusat,” she said. “Your name isn’t as important as your literacy,”

Styba raised the axico, “My elder would disagree,”

“Grief creates chaos,” Kusat’s smile faded. “Is that why you’re indulging in that particular title?”

“I’m fascinated by our first Primary,” Styba replied.

“I’ve met Sofitakul,” Kusat took the axico from her grip. “Before you ask, yes, I serve Marixi Administration,”

“Are you stationed in Orta, Kusat?” Styba asked.

“Not relevant,” Kusat snapped, her eyes shifted to Styba’s fronts.

“Kusat,” Styba lifted her feet from the water. “Perhaps you can take me home and introduce me to whatever breeders say they’re yours?”

“I’m in Polar Air Command, brooder,” Kusat smiled. “What makes you and your ample suzsch so certain I dabble in Zaxiri?”

Styba’s smile faded, “You’re too icy for a subby,”

“You’re too clever for a bruiser,” Kusat tossed the axico onto Styba’s legs. “Prove this display isn’t just a ruse to capture the attention of a lonely ‘midder,”

Her hide is my hide. Her face is my face. Her voice is my voice,” Styba stared hard at her. “She says this doesn’t make us one and I believe her because, without her, I am nothing.”

Twenty minutes later, Styba found herself stumbling through the residence door of an high-rise, each hand full of a hizzah’s backside. She and Kusat tumbled into the foyer and found another Hizak there with her hair wrapped and a suit bag over her shoulder.

“I brought home entertainment,” Kusat said.

“Tharsix,” the Hizak pouted. “You know I have a mandatory development meeting this morning,”

Kusat moved behind Styba and turning her toward the Hizak, she ripped her blouse open. The Hizak dropped her suit-bag and wasted no time exchanging names while assisting Kusat in stripping off the remainder of Styba’s clothes.

The erotic room was small because the couch was huge.

Kusat circled as if admiring a work of art.

“You’re exquisite,” she whispered, her smooth hands worked at Styba’s biceps like a baker with a ball of dough.

Her lover cared little for the Styba’s definition, she was too focused on her large suzsch, “You’re chiseled like polar stone,” said the Hizak, coming up behind her and gently fondling them.

Lips touched the hide between Styba’s shoulder blades.

The lewd attention stoked Styba’s arousal; muscle-worshipping brainers were how she fed her appetite for large girsuzsch. She reached around Kusat and grabbed hold of her girz, “I’m going to eat you alive,”

Styba forced Kusat to turn around. Dropping to her knees, she pressed her face between the large cheeks of Kusat’s rump. Kusat’s lover, whose backside was as thick as Kusat’s, joined Styba on the floor and ran her hand over Styba’s uzxi, hardening the flesh.

In the bright light of mid-dayrise, the trio touched, tasted, and toyed with each other. Styba reclined on the erotic couch, rubbing herself while watching Kusat kiss her Hizak lover passionately.

Kusat squeezed her lover’s dripping gash before bringing her slick palm to Styba’s hardened rydok. The ball of Kusat’s hand milling against it brought Styba intense pleasure.

Kusat’s lover moved behind Styba, her broad thighs made an excellent pillow. Her fingers feathered Styba’s hardened uzx and then spread out over Styba’s chest to take hold of her fronts.

Feeling the Hizak’s stiffened uzxi upon her scalp, Styba tilted her head back and brushed them with her scalp. Expert fingers prodded the folds of her gash until it was fully bloomed.

Kusat was entranced by Styba’s exposed entrance. Two fingers became four, and encouraged by Styba’s hungry gaze, she made a fist.

Styba lifted her hips to devour Kusat’s hand.

The Hizak behind her began slapping at her own gash, darkening her erect rydok. She leaned over Styba to get at Kusat, allowing Styba the opportunity to feast on her puffy bloom.

Kusat whined as her lover’s thumb shimmied her rydok. Her hand quickened its rhythm inside of Styba.

Feverish, Styba pushed her face into the Hizak’s gash until her lips found what they were looking for; sucking hard on the small hardened flesh, Styba felt the Hizak tense up and fall.

Body seized by burxol, the Hizak groaned in her lover’s embrace while her cold juice spilled over Styba’s fronts. She kissed Kusat lazily before abandoning them for the washroom.

Now in control of the scene, Styba quickly rolled a willing Kusat onto her stomach and covered her like a blanket. She wrapped a brawny arm around Kusat’s neck and began grinding her gash against Kusat’s thick backside.

Kusat’s nails found her bicep, pleasurable pin-pricks that anchored the silent-gen and let her push her buttocks into Styba’s steady rhythm. Both whimpered as if wounded, with Styba growing closer to finishing with each thrust.

On her knees she pulled Kusat’s upper body up and began violently milling against her.

A hand found one of Kusat’s small bouncing suzsch and squeezed until Kusat began to shudder. The beautiful hizzah’s climax shook the flesh of her girz, and seeing those quivering cheeks were enough to finish Styba.

Desire lingered long after Styba’s departure from Kusat’s. Under the hot shower at home, she still tasted Kusat on her tongue, making the folds of her gash twitch.

“Styba!” her kerma’s bellow quickly killed the mood. A shadow appeared on the other side of the glass, “That thing on your collar’s beeping!”

Styba faced the wall when Kin opened the door.

“I’m not dressed!” she cried.

“I saw you naked your first eight years,” Kin said.

“I’m not a marixidoe anymore!”

“Don’t I know it,” Kin playfully tapped her suzsch. “How’d they get so big?”

“Will you please leave!”

“What kind of liberty only gives you enough time to come home and wash up?” Kin closed the door, grousing. “You just got home five minutes ago!”

“I didn’t get a full day of liberty,” Styba reached for her bar of soap and saw strange finger-dents in its mold. “Kerms?”

“You just told me to get out!” Kin hollered.

“Were you in my shower?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” Kin opened the door, “Your shower?”

She faced the wall again, “Kerma, please,”

Once Kin abandoned her as ordered, Styba got out and put on a clean uniform. Downstairs, she passed her kerma’s makeshift shrine to Ziw.

A digital portrait of the elder Marix was projected onto the wall, and her Guardia badge sat in a stone niche beneath it. Tucked behind the badge was a Fairgrounds season pass, dated the year Pack Utama won the Sno-End.

Kin called her into the kitchen.

“I want you to eat before you take off again,” he said, putting away his dukpax of future menus for the deli. On the table was a platter loaded with pieces of deep-fried bakuti, along with her favorite soft rolls.

Styba plucked up a leg, peeled off its crispy skin and shoved it into her mouth.

“We sit when we eat Styba,” he scolded. “Your mak always ate on her way out, drove me crazy,”

“I didn’t mean to make you think about her,” Styba said.

Kin laughed, “You’re awkwardly apologetic like her too,”

Styba sucked the grease from her fingers.

“Napkins, Styba,” he snapped, then pulled at the waistband of his tuck-garment. “Lock the door when you go, I need to be myself before I take on the lunch shift,”

Styba tossed her bakuti bones in the trash.

“Kerms,” she said, hesitant. “I don’t think it’s wise to bring lovers back here,”

“What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“Someone used my soap,” Styba said, rinsing her hands off in the sink.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” he said. “We were careful,”

“You can’t cruise strangers and bring them back here,” Styba lectured. “Male or not, do you have any idea how dangerous that is?”

Kin rose from the chair and folded his arms over his chest.

“I saw you walking uptown this morning with a brainer old enough to be your mak,” the brown patches in his cheeks went dark. “Did you lecture that silent-gen on the dangers of picking up bruisers from Style Sits,”

Styba kissed Kin on the forehead.

“Picking up bruisers whose cruise game involves mentioning their dead mako,” Kin yelled as Styba exited the house and locked the door behind her.

At the bottom of the stairs, he communication pin on her lapel began beeping. Tapping it, she said, “This is Balru,”

Dokomad Balru, your presence is required at the Cloister office of the Primary.

The Cloister building loomed beyond Cloister Square.

Muscles tightened as Styba walked the steps and pushed through the front doors. The grand lobby was deserted; Yulitat was the only time no Axyrn stood watch.

On the vertical ride up, she fought the tension in her muscles. This would be her second time in the presence of the Primary; two years ago, Fusa Kul afforded Styba her rank at the closing ceremony of her Final Trial.

Ikat appeared as the vertical doors parted.

Styba brought a fist to her stomach in a salute; her former boss at TermSabo, Ikat was now Prime Chair of World Oceans thanks to the termination of Uli Zag.

“Stand down, Dokomad,” Ikat grinned.

First Office Ryo Uym trod out of the adjacent vertical. A well-dressed Hizak, Uym was as tall as Ikat even without her highly molded hair. Her neck, visible through the sheer black fabric of her pantsuit, was coated with a fine layer of dark red dots.

“Clan Balru,” Uym seemed unimpressed. “Have you occasion to visit the Life of Balrusok exhibit at the Utam Museum?”

“I grew up in Balrusok’s house and I’ve ridden my share of bizzies in that house,” Styba huffed. “I don’t need a museum to tell me how to walk in my ancestor’s boots,”

Uym grinned before moving on toward the Primary’s office. Ikat and Styba followed her through two large stone doors and into a narrow corridor.

A strip of black tile ran the center of the hall, curtained by two canals of rushing water. On the walls hung headless torsos, each packed with large sagging fronts and bulbous bellies; the sculptures possessed no arms or legs, and upon closer examination, they weren’t made of stone.

The Primary’s office was a spacious room where a network of babbling water separated the cobalt walls from the red marble floor. Utama’s skyline loomed behind the Primary’s metallic black standing-desk. A unit with no drawers, the workspace contained hooks that held a collection of dangling blasters.

A cushioned bench ran the length of the windows and in a line underneath were five sets of tharspin-toed boots. On the elevated deck to the right housed a workout bench, a rack of free weights, and a state of the art pack-snow belted treadmill.

Primary Kul stood with her back to the room, the gaping jaws of the snarling fusaxica stained on her scalp dripped with red and blue blood. A daunting figure, every bulging muscle cut into her flesh was visible in the black skin of her civilian-service uniform.

 “Dokomad Balru,” Uym grabbed a bottle of water from the juice bar before sitting on the deck steps. “Are you familiar with a citizen named Tavoex?”

“Ex is the subbie who wrote that book calling us all rapists,” said Styba.

Ikat’s voice sounded off beside her, “You read it, Balru?”

“It’s loaded with far too many generalizations, she obviously lacks any real experience with a Marix,” Styba spoke to Uym. “She interprets the way we display affection as criminal,”

The Primary’s grin was reflected in the glass.

“Ex abandoned her duty station during the collapse of the Bass Plain Bridge,” Ikat walked to the desk and tapped its surface. A holographic image of Ziw appeared, dead on a slab. “Evidence of her intent to abandon Ramaxia were uncovered by local law enforcement-”

 “—PC Ikat,” Styba steeled herself. “Ziw Balru was my-”

“—we know Dokomad,” Uym snapped. “Podpromad Balru was investigating citizen Ex when she was-”

“—killed in a rounder accident,” Styba said. “The incident report clearly stated that Ziw fell into an oncoming rounder’s path while trying to retrieve a flyaway scarf for a passing Zaxir.”

“Podpromad Balru was murdered after she was ordered to collect Ex,” Primary Kul said. “That order now falls to you, Dokomad,”

“I will carry out my duties as they are assigned, Primary,” said Styba.

“That’s reassuring, Dokomad,” Uym sounded bored.

“When I acquire this fugitive, am I to terminate her on sight,” Styba eyed Uym. “Or bring her home alive for processing?”

“I’d like her brought home,” Primary Kul said.

“Her recent subversive helovxis has led to the death of a Komad,” said Uym.

“Between the poles, two days ago,” Ikat added. “Now Dokomad, once you’re assigned this mission, it’ll show up on the Sorority of Defense Mission Terminal.”

“Officers in other Divisions will have access to this mission,” Styba nodded. “You’re concern involves one having sympathies for Ex?”

The Primary’s lips twisted into a smile, “PC Ikat has decreed that any interference with your apprehension of citizen Ex will be considered a mission violation,”

“The only one stupid enough to interfere is Doctor Kul,” Styba said. “She’ll get away with it because she’s the only one capable of hosting that Shell.”

“Doctor Kul?” the Primary asked.

“Primary,” Styba shook her head. “I appreciate that she made the Shell work, but she’s not one of us, she never will be,”

“What makes you think Promad Kul would get in your way?” Uym asked.

“Subak Toys,” Styba gazed into Ikat’s eyes, careful not to focus on the idle one. “Kul’s listed in the author’s acknowledgments in a highly reverent way,”

Tavoex is my donata,” Primary Kul turned from the window. “Promad Kul may have kermatic feelings, seeing how she’s the only donation of her sibling, Fusada.”

Styba trained her eyes forward as Primary Kul moved close enough to breathe on her shoulder.

“If Promad Kul interferes with your mission in any capacity, Dokomad Balru,” said the Primary, “You’re to eliminate her.”

Styba looked into the Primary’s eyes, “With extreme prejudice, Primary Kul.”

Baztix Commune
Galiyo District, West Toxis
21 Yulitat 2228 – 0800 hours

The six pure-gens sitting in a circle on the floor regarded her warily, until the silent-gen zaxxy sitting with them greeted her with a smile.

“Fuzo? I’m so glad you came, please come in,”

“Sorry I’m in uniform,” Fuzo said. “I’m on call, so I got to wear it,”

“I’m Yir Fatu,” she was a wide belly with full lips and long, lush hair. Her hide was a perfect mix of white and dark lines that turned patchy in the cleave between her saggy fronts. “There’s no dress code here. Join us,”

The other two Zaxiri in the group eagerly scooted over to make room.

“Welcome to our first group meeting,” said Fatu. “Unlike the rest of you who answered my invite, Fuzo’s here care of a mutual friend.”

“I’m just relieved I wasn’t the only one to show,” joked the Subak sitting one spot over; thin brown streaks lined her bluish-green hide.

“Fuzo, this is a judgment-free zone,” Fatu said. “We’re not about aversion therapy, we’re here to support each other as waxamists,”

“I understand,” Fuzo stretched her long legs out behind the Zaxir beside her.

“As the organizer of the group, I’ll go first,” she said. “I’m Yir Fatu, and I’m a hide-care specialist at Zaxiri Health Center 15, in Toxis Prime. I’ve been a monogamist for as long as I’ve been into other bodies.”

The group collectively chuckled.

“I’ll go next,” said the Subak. “My name is Ebival Kul,”

Fuzo studied her then, looking for signs of any relation to the Promad. This Kul was far too alluring to house any of House Kul’s unappealing traits. She might’ve been plump enough to pass for a Zaxir were it not for the subati-suit and braids.

“I’m a burxolic-disorder therapist with Zaxiri Health,” Kul said. “I refuse to consider my waxamist feelings to be wrong, regardless of what I’ve been taught.”

“I’m Bam Ukel,” said the Bizak beside her. “I’m a stylist at the Hizrutaki, in Utama. I came here with Ebival after being involved with her friend. I found an ally in Ebi after admitting my feelings to this friend and being rejected for them.”

Kul wrapped a sympathetic arm about Ukel’s shoulders.

“I’m Kula Tegal,” said the orange spotted Zaxir sitting between Kul and Fuzo. “I live and work at the Leraxi Playhouse, in Pikalit. I used to work at the Toxula Bounce in Toxis, but I got evicted for fighting.”

“Oh Kula, no!” Fatu scolded with a smile.

“Last month I caught my lover with my roommate and her friends. I waited until they were done and then I punched my roommate right in the face. She forgave me, but I couldn’t believe I did that,” the teal-hided belly began to sob, causing her orange spots to lighten. “My boss thinks I should quit bluz work. I think she’s right.”

“Our emotions will always get the better of us, Kula,” Fatu crawled over to the emotional Zaxir. “When your monogamist feelings threaten to bring out the worst in you, we’ll be here to help, right everyone?”

The group collectively agreed, surprising Fuzo.

“Want to introduce yourself now, Komadon?” Yir said.

“My name is Fuzo Dox,”

“I’m a Dox!” said the blue and red Zaxir to her left. Tossing back her thick hair, she smiled flirtatiously, “My name’s Oxu. I hope we’re not related,”

“Did Orta send you here?” asked the black and yellow Bizak beside the belly Dox.

Fuzo shook her head, “I’m done dealing with Orta,”

“Fuzo was referred to me by Ilocux,” Fatu said, quieting the group.

“I think I know you,” the yellow streak across the Bizak’s neck became dark, “You visited our Striker Bay in Dubol, with that Hizak officer,”

“I was a Donmat back then,” Fuzo said, nodding.

“I’m Rix Cristi,” she said, then addressed the others. “I tend to the water pumps aboard an Arkelon lifeform named Gory. Orta doesn’t know about me and even if they did, what I do with my gash is my business.”

“Damn right,” Kul’s bravado humored the group.

The belly Dox turned, “What do you do in Orta, Fuzo?”

“I’m an operative in the Sorority of Defense,” Fuzo replied.

Ukel hugged her knees, “I’ve seen that uniform style before,”

“It’s not very fashionable,” Tegal added.

Kul elbowed Ukel, “I guess Orta can’t afford the Hizrutaki,”

When the laughter died down, Fuzo continued her introduction.

“I knew I was different, my first year as a brood,” she said. “They’d show us these markees, we’d all watch-”

“—Oxu makes icers don’t you?” said Tegal.

“I star in one-on-one’s,” she bragged. “My features are marketed to waxamists and their admirers,”

“We have admirers?” Cristi asked.

Kul mocked serious, “Good to know,”

“Did you act on your feelings growing up in Orta?” Ukel asked. “World Oceans is so strict with toobs and broods being sexual in the barracks.”

“We didn’t get the socials like you did,” Fuzo smiled. “Growing up, I’d fixate on a toobmate, but I never acted on it,”

“What about Orta Attack?” Tegal asked.

“That night was interesting,” Fuzo hesitated. “I met a counseling student and we-”

“—You rode a Subak?” Kul asked, eyes wide.

Dox blurted, “Your first ride was with a subbie?”

“Hey!” Fatu scolded. “You don’t have to answer that Fuzo,”

“I think she should answer it,” Dox said.

Kul added, “To build trust,”

Everyone in the group was smiling.

“It’s okay, Yir, I can talk about it,” Fuzo folded her legs up. “We met, we talked for a long time, then we ended up at a gazten. Afterward, she wanted me to come with her and join some of her friends. I told her I wasn’t into groups.”

“What did she say?” Cristi asked.

Fuzo shrugged, “She took off while I was getting washed up,”

“Aw,” Tegal whined.

Dox jibed, “That figures,”

Kul stared down at her hands.

“After my Final Trial, I went to a genbluz,” Fuzo said, relieved to be talking about anything related to her feelings. “That first time on the couch, one of the therapists noticed that I didn’t like being touched by more than one lover,”

Ukel seemed to understand.

“Yeah,” Cristi did as well. “Genbluz are tricky,”

“Have you ever gone to a citbluz?” Dox asked.

“I’ve been too a few,” Fuzo nodded, “When I go, I prefer older Zaxir because they’re willing to be alone with me, and I never go to the same bluz twice,”

“That sounds lonely,” Kul blurted.

Dox asked, “How do you manage a GC?”

“Good question!” Cristi snapped.

“Open up to the group, Ebi,” Ukel goaded. “Build trust,”

Kul rolled her eyes, “We’re not all riding each other at the garden club,”

“That’s not what I implied,” Fuzo said, politely. “Sexual rules are rigid for Subaki, just like for us bruisers. I can get lost in a citbluz, but I imagine garden clubs are less crowded.”

Kul hesitated, “I go in the off hours,”

“Sounds lonely,” Fuzo countered, lost in Kul’s eyes.

“When I was young,” Fatu said. “My monogamist feelings scared me more than the possibility of ridicule,”

“I’m on the opposite side of that,” Kul confessed, shifting her eyes from Fuzo. “I’m out to everyone I care about, but the inability to express my nature to strangers continues to be an issue.”

“I’m like you,” Fuzo said to Fatu. “It scares me shitless that I get so fixated,”

Ukel sighed, “And the guilt, ugh,”

“I’m starting to wonder if I should feel guilty,” Cristi said. “I’m like Ebi, I’m at a point where I refuse to accept there’s anything wrong with me. I’m always on my guard though, careful of what others might think,”

“This is a judgment-free zone,” Tegal smiled.

Fuzo stared at Kul, “It’s weird seeing a Subak here,”

“Subbies get nervous enough around bruisers,” Dox agreed. “Tell them you’re a waxamist and they run for the sea,”

“Not all Subaki!” Kul jokingly declared.

“I fell for a subbie right after caste-training,” Dox said. “I told her how I felt and then she told all our friends,”

“Where’d you get that scar, Fuzo?” Cristi asked. “You didn’t have it in Dubol,”

“This happened in Bamx,” Fuzo touched her scar. “I got shot with a projectile by an helovx,”

“Was there brain damage?” Kul blurted.

“Of course,” Dox added. “That’s why she’s here,”

After the laughter, Ukel asked, “Were you the Donmat with Ilocux?”

Fuzo’s nod brought another silent moment.

“I read an article about Fyla Uym recently,” Ukel said. “She spoke about operating on a patient between the poles, without the aid of the Collective,”

“Manual triage?” Fatu asked. “With a scalpel and sutures?”

“That was me,” Fuzo confessed. “Doctor Uym saved my life,”

“And there was no brain damage?” Kul asked again.

Ukel laughed, “I think we can assume Fuzo’s functional,”

“Never assume,” Fuzo said, channeling her absent Promad.

Cristi smiled, “Why not have the scar removed?”

“Don’t do it, Fuzo,” Tegal said.

Kul nodded, “You look tough with it,”

“Frozen solid,” Dox tickled Fuzo’s scalp. “I’m so icy right now.”

Kul smirked, “When aren’t you iced up?”

“I think Fuzo’s sharing this very private thing with us is commendable,” Fatu said, “Would anyone else like to share something?”

Kul shook her head, “Not really-”

“—Nope,” Cristi added.

Everyone giggled when Ukel called them cowards.

“I’m a huge disappointment to Line Ukel,” she confessed. “I abandoned an education in kyrstronics to study fashion design,”

“None of your makers supported you?” Cristi asked.

“My kerma, she’s a Promad with her own command in the Ramaxatae,” Ukel replied. “She always supports my choices,”

“There’s a Promad Ukel at the north pole?” Fuzo asked.

Ukel stared at her strangely.

“That part of the ice used to be a career goal of mine,” Fuzo explained. “I keep up with it more than I should,”

“My kerma’s from Clan Yuxi,” Ukel smiled. “I’m named after her,”

Fuzo wasn’t sure what to say.

“Given Fuzo’s caste designation,” said Kul. “I should come clean,”

“Telling Fuzo you got a thing for bruisers isn’t revealing anything deeply private,” Ukel cracked.

“How dare you,” Kul feigned insult. “At least I don’t pull my own intruder alarm just to lure Guardia to my house,”

Laughter erupted from the group.

Ashen, Ukel then confessed, “I’m attracted to the orca uniform,”

“She sees an orca, and her brain goes blue,” Kul added.

Fatu raised an eyebrow, “Want to share something now, Ebival?”

“No pressure,” the belly Dox teased.

“I got me one of those complicated pod situations,” Kul sighed.

Fuzo grinned, “Well, you are a Kul,”

“I said complicated, not damaged beyond repair,” Kul’s lovely lips spread into a smile. “I’m not of the House Kul’s.”

“She’s a big credit Kul,” Ukel revealed.

Kul laughed, “You wouldn’t know it by how tiny my shell is,”

“I’m on an allowance too,” Tegal pouted. “My kerma’s Clan Nu,”

“My kerma set up an allowance for me just before I graduated school,” Kul said. “It’s actually a legacy account from when my birther went white. It’s her unlimited cred for having me, and I can’t bring myself to touch it,”

“Aw,” said Tegal. “Your birther died?”

“I can touch it for you,” the belly Dox said, lightening the mood.

 Cristi agreed, “Let me in on that action,”

“Let’s see how bad my twentieth twists my brain,” Kul mused. “Maybe I’ll tap into it and buy us all a floor at a citbluz,”

“Why’s your pod so complicated,” Fuzo asked.

“I found out last week that my kerma isn’t really my kerma, she’s my mako. Sounds like a digicast,” Kul said. “I went to the cit-cat to confirm some suspicions, and there it was, in tiny text on my statistics page,”

“Your birther should’ve told you that before she passed,” said Fuzo.

“She died delivering me,” Kul said.

Fuzo started, “Oh shit, I’m sorry,”

“She was in a transport accident the day I was born,” Kul’s eyes seemed to smile at Fuzo. “She was in labor and delivered me in the wreck. I made it, she didn’t.”

“I’m so sorry, Ebival,” Fatu said.

“Her not being there isn’t the complicated part,” Kul said. “When she was pregnant with me, her and my, maker, got served a bond-severance from their Subak partner. After I was born though, she stuck around,”

“She must’ve loved you,” Fuzo said.

Kul grinned, “I think she loved the idea of being the maker of a subakidoe with a connection to Line Jyr.”

“You never made it easy, though,” Ukel said. “Ebi was a bit of a ruffian,”

“I was always on the playscape with the bizzydoes,” Kul nodded. “I never sat still for a braiding, oh, and I overate, all the time.”

Fuzo joined the others in laughing.

“So how did you find out she wasn’t your mak?” Tegal asked.

“They finally got around to severing their bond last year,” Kul said. “Thanks to the interHive, I got to see the concluded terms. I wanted to know why they were separating now, after all these years of being shitty to each other.”

“How much cred did she get?” Tegal asked.

“She earns a modest stipend,” Kul said. “So long as she never reveals the identity of my kerma,”

Cristi laughed, “No wonder you went to the citcat,”

“I haven’t said anything to my mak,” Kul said. “A part of me wants to tell her that I know,”

“Did you get your kerma’s name?” Fuzo asked.

“If I had a shot to bring my blind-patch makers together,” Tegal blurted. “I’d do it,”

“I’ve decided against scheming to make that happen,” Kul said. “That’s how the Subak who raised me handles things.”

“You might not have to,” Fuzo said. “Your kerma will be notified of your visit to the citcat. Maybe nature will take its course. She’ll follow up with your mak,”

“Oxu,” Fatu was eager to move on. “It’s your turn,”

“I don’t have anything I’m ashamed of, well, I do have this one private thing that I don’t tell anyone,” the beautiful belly said. “I’m a sucker for older bruisers,”

“My kerma’s in port this weekend,” Ukel said, provoking their laughter.

“Silent-gens are too young, I like the polluted ones,” Dox said. “I adore the wrinkles on their head and fronts,”

“I got a weird preference too,” Cristi confessed. “Hizaki,”

Fuzo grinned, “You like old brainers?”

“No, I like them my age,” Cristi smiled at Ukel. “I would kill to have your job. You get to see them with their hair down, naked, relaxed and shit.”

“I got something for the preference confessional,” Tegal laughed. “I want to ride a subbie on the surface. Under the polar night, when it’s dark, and it’s just us and the ocean and-”

“—barking seals,” the belly Dox teased.

Fuzo found the group friendlier then she’d anticipated, but despite her comfort level, she snuck out after the meeting.

Exiting the commune through a maintenance door, she encountered a crew of bizzies taking a break from buffing the floors. Clad in dirty uniforms, the team parted on the stairs to let her pass, whispering their curiosities.

East Toxis was over thirty-square miles of high-rises and communities with ice and water parks breaking up the monotony. The streets were so steeply graded that the district rounders were packed continuously with pedestrians unwilling to walk.

Fuzo jogged five hilly blocks to reach the cluster of residences on the beach. She got close enough to the spherical high-rises to make out the leafy trees poking out the open air decks.

A pedestrian strip ran the length of the black sandy shoreline and into the mouth of a transport tube. The tube ran under the water and extended along the bay bed toward Kyrtabi Station. A rounder zoomed past as she jogged the route.

A portion dome bulkhead appeared outside the tube’s clear coated walls. It was just a piece of the polar concrete base anchoring the cupola that covered West Toxis.

Kyrtabi was busy this time of day and in the waters beyond its ceiling, penguins cut speedily through the depths, breaking up the swarms of hungry miniature squid gathered around the submerged lights.

Fuzo fell in behind a crowd of Subaki and Bizaki on the boarding platform for the Utox Slide. Hourglass figures stuffed into subati-scrubs, along with the many dangling braids, took Fuzo back to Tavo Ex.

“Excuse me, are you going inside?” Fuzo asked.

“Leave me alone, please,” clad in a brightly colored subati, she stood out front of the citbluz hugging a tablet to her chest.

Fuzo put up her hands, “Sorry-”

“—Are you sorry?” her sandy hide came alive with hints of dark gray; her nose was lost in the thick slope between her eyes.

Fuzo stepped back, “I don’t know what I did, but again, I apologize,”

“Why would I go in there?” she demanded.

 “Are you asking me why you should go in?” Fuzo said. “Or are you asking me why I assumed you were going in?”

“Are you fleet?” she demanded.

“This is a Brooder uniform,” Fuzo said. “I’m not anything, yet.”

“It’s my turn to apologize,” she softened. “I expected you to grab my girz and tell me I don’t know what I’m missing by not going inside with you.”

“One, I don’t grab girz because that’s assault,” Fuzo said. “Two, if you’re not looking to hook up, you shouldn’t be standing out here all by yourself.”

Eyes aflame, she jabbed a finger into Fuzo’s chest, “If a fleeter walked up to me right now and asked me to go inside and I said no, and she insisted, what would you do?”

“I’d tell her to leave you alone,” Fuzo said without hesitation.

She seemed shocked, “You’re the first bruise I’ve met to say that,”

“That can’t be true,” Fuzo argued.

“Dox!” Zebi Bol yelled from across the street. “Bring that subbie gash inside!”

“She doesn’t want to come in!” Fuzo shouted.

“Yes, she does, she’s standing out here right?” Bol hollered.

The Subak folded her arms over her chest, “You were saying?”

“You should go,” said Fuzo.

“I have an expectation to civility no matter where I stand,”

“You’re a citizen, sure,”

“So why should I have to leave?”

“Putting yourself in a situation that could get ugly isn’t smart,” Fuzo said.

She stepped into Fuzo, “If something happens to me, it’s my fault?”

“It’s the fault of whoever hurts you,” Fuzo said. “But when you look at it from their perspective, they have expectations too.”

“They, being the criminals?” she said, walking away.

“Criminals?” Fuzo followed. “What crime did they commit?”

“That ugly situation,” she said. “Sexual assault, right?”

Fuzo sighed, “Yes, but-”

“—a fleeter looking for sex has the expectation of getting it anywhere?” she asked.

“Fleeters have the expectation of getting it at a citbluz,” said Fuzo. “If I followed you into a paxo, or a credoo, and forced myself on you, that’s a crime.”

“And if I’m here waiting for my Bizak partners to get off work serving drinks in a citbluz,” she demanded, hands on her hips. “I’m asking for it?”

“You’re waiting for your partners?” Fuzo started. “You’re bonded?”

“No, you idiot,” she snapped, smiling. “We’re having a conversation about the politics of rape. I should’ve known you were too good to be true.”

“Hold up here,” Fuzo said. “You’re writing me off because I didn’t get the nuances of our conversation?”

“I don’t have to explain why I’m out here,” she said. “If you ask me to go in and I say no, that should be enough to make you leave me alone,”

“You’re right,” Fuzo said. “I never saw it that way, but you’re right.”

The Subak grinned, “There’s hope for you yet, brooder.”

“Have a drink with me, not here,” Fuzo said. “Over at the Brew Stand,”

“Are you buying?” she asked.

 “I think you should,” said Fuzo.

“Why should I pay?”

“You victimized me in front of a Citbluz,”

“You didn’t just say that to me!”

“I feel marginalized,” said Fuzo, “You forced me to see something for what it was, instead of how I used to see it.”

“My name’s Tavo,” she laughed. “What’s yours?”

Fuzo and Tavo talked into the night and had discovered both were from Caste-Center’s in Pikalit. Fuzo recounted brood life after Tavo had spoken of Mynu and the essays she was about to have published.

Tavo then agreed to accompany her to a gazten. Alone in a purchased room, they’d explored each other’s bodies. Fuzo’s first brush with intimacy ended sourly when she’d emerged from the washroom to find Tavo gone.

“Hey, Dox!” Ebival Kul was coming toward her on the platform, her large fronts bouncing slightly as she walked. “The Tox-V to Akzilo is on the other side of the canal,”

“I’m not going back to Orta,” Fuzo said, caught by her perfume. “Since I made rank, I’m not obligated to live there anymore, thinking about moving back to Pikalit,”

“I moved back to Pikalit last month,” Kul said.

“You’re from Pikalit?” Fuzo asked, eyeing the curvilinear patterns on her scalp.

“I’m a ‘pikadoe,” Kul sighed. “My kerma, I mean my mak, moved to Utama after I left to caste-train. I got my head knotted up vanzuk style because I got to work with those snooty bitches and they need less to think about,”

Fuzo grinned, “Are there a lot of Subaki in your field?”

“Yes,” Kul rolled her eyes and lowered her tone. “Hizaki are delicate enough, give them a sex problem and all they want is a subbie to talk to,”

The bounder slowed to a stop at the platform.

“It was nice meeting you, Kul,” Fuzo said.

“Same here,” she said, following a group of boarding Subaki while Fuzo entered the last car of the bounder-chain.

The Utox Slide moved out of Kyrtabi, and the bright aquatic scene beyond her window turned to bedrock, followed by the subglacial landscape of the Utaru Peninsula.

Luminous fauna blanketed the bumpy terrain shrouded in darkness. She marveled at its beauty and wondered what it must’ve been like for the original-subjects before the construction of domes, to live between ground and ice.

The bounder climbed, and suddenly the world outside became bedrock again. After several moments, the veiny rockface became bright white pack snow before giving way to the dark waters of Lake Utamx.

Leveled out, the bounder twisted around the lakebed terrain toward Dome Utama. The waters of the western continent were always dark and full of marine life. Outside Fuzo’s window, the interior casing of the transit tube became the colorful tiles of Jyrtax Terminal.

Fuzo exited the bounder and jogged across the station toward the outbound platforms. At the end of the deck, the Pikalit Inbound sat in the track-canal, ready to depart. Boarding as the door-closing bells chimed, she turned to find Ebival Kul rushing in as the panels moved to meet in the middle.

“Why are these damn lines so far apart,” she panted.

A nearby bizzy offered Kul a drink of water from her arixi bottle, and when she politely declined, two elder Subaki sitting nearby flashed smiles of approval. An older Hizak turned and silently offered her seat to Kul as Fuzo made her way to the last row.

No one sat at the very back of the Pikalit Inbound; when it entered the Triad, its rear levitation pads vibrated with such force that it rattled riders in their seats. Fuzo fell into a row of padded chairs and looked up to find the lovely Subak staring down at her.

“This is silly,” Kul said flatly. “We’re going to the same place, we should be able to sit together,”

“Do you think that’s appropriate?” asked Fuzo.

“If I were a belly, would we be having this conversation?” Kul wedged herself between Fuzo and the row in front, her ample backside in Fuzo’s face as she bustled by and took the seat beside her.

The two elder Subaki frowned now and began to whisper.

 “There’s a square garden in the Pikalox that’s pure-gen only,” Kul said. “They wouldn’t care if I brought a bruiser,”

“I take it I’m buying,” Fuzo asked.

“Big-time Komadon,” Kul teased. “You can afford to buy me a drink,”

“One drink,” Fuzo raised a finger. “I don’t have a credit-allowance like this subbie I know,”

Kul’s hearty laugh was enticing.

“Did you say you were in divisional?”

“I am in Division, yes,”

“You see any Ornith’s?”

“I serve with and pilot one,”

“No shit,” Kul’s eyes glowed.

The Subaki nearby were outraged.

“You been to North America lately?” Kul asked, quietly.

Fuzo stared at her, “That’s weirdly specific,”

“My friend works for the Ambassador Prime,” Kul whispered. “There was an incident with a couple of assets that took place in the NAU. She couldn’t tell me details, she just wanted to know if I was related to one of the assets.”

“I can’t talk about my missions,” Fuzo said. “I’m sorry,”

“No worries,” Kul shrugged. “My line of work is the same way,”

Fuzo breathed in her subglacial cedar perfume.

“What kind of therapist did you say you were?”

“I treat arousal issues,” Kul replied. “My focus is Hizaki,”

“Wait,” Fuzo said. “That’s like burx therapy,”

“I can’t talk about my cases, I’m sorry,” Kul grinned.

“Most helovx are pretty well-off, aren’t they?” Kul asked.

“Most lack the resources needed to live a comfortable life,” Fuzo shook her head. “Our media shows the Midland farms and the sandy beaches in Port Austin, but that’s not how most Nauists live.”

“You go past the veneer, and you have poverty?” said Kul.

Suddenly, their seats began to shudder.

“Here we go,” Fuzo grabbed the headrest in front of her; she laughed when Kul grabbed her own suzsch when the seats began visibly vibrating.

The bounder began to slow down as they moved into the terminal.

“Money is how they survive,” Fuzo said of the helovx and moved her legs to let Kul get out into the aisle first. “There’s no subsidy support with most helovx-nations. I think the Brasiliaras and the Maori are the only ones that support their less fortunate,”

Out on the exit platform, Kul turned and faced her.

“That scar is harsh,” she said. “You’re lucky you’re cute,”

Fuzo felt her head go cold.

Kul laughed, “I embarrassed you, I’m sorry,”

“No you’re not,” Fuzo walked past her.

Kul caught up, “I’ll buy the first round,”

The concourse of the Pikalix Grand contained five square gardens, a hizix bar, and a mobile paxo yard that also sold walking-food and commuter bottles of drinks. Fuzo followed Kul under the kaleidoscope of lights to the Bizbak Square Garden.

Inside the air was heavy with the aroma of food. Past the hostess were four open-air decks shaped like the giant petals of a subarctic rose. Each square lounge included its own service bar with bizzy waitstaff carrying trays loaded with filled glasses.

Laughter lingered among the patrons, who sat on thickly cushioned chairs around square tables with undersides that glowed with a variety of soft lights.

Kul led her to a less crowded lounge and chose a table overlooking the trio of massive waterfalls that marked where the triad domes came together.

“It’s noisy here,” she called out to Fuzo.

“I love it,” Fuzo said with a grin.

Kul laughed, “I knew you would!”

Fuzo tipped her head over the rail beside them, “You can see the other club decks down there,”

“We’re the highest,” Kul said.

The waitress appeared, set two napkins onto the table and then leaned between them and pushed a button that dulled the sound of the raging falls.

“I want a kiltkul tea,” Kul smiled. “And she’ll have a bottle of bix,”

After the Bizak departed, Kul thrust out her bottom lip and poked the noise-dampening button, bringing back the rumbling falls.

Fuzo grinned and pushed it again, “We can mute it for now,”

“Do helovx have anything like kiltkul?” Kul asked.

“They have rum,” Fuzo said. “It’s sort of the same thing,”

Kul’s gaze drifted to Fuzo’s armband, “What division are you?”

“Femitokon,” Fuzo added. “There’re no males anymore,”

“We’ve just met, Dox,” Kul said. “Let’s not be dishonest,”

The waitress returned and deposited their drinks.

“My best friend works for the Femitokon’s,” Kul said after the waitress departed. “When she loses a ramxkul, I know about it,”

Fuzo closed her eyes, “Are we speaking of Pik Utat?”

“We sure are!” Kul exclaimed. “Small ice,”

Fuzo frowned before swigging her ale.

“She didn’t try and ride you, did she?” Kul cringed. “She’s a rutting uymtik sometimes,”

Fuzo was about to elaborate until she saw Styba Balru walk onto the deck. The thickly built bruiser approached the waitress, and after a brief exchange, the bizzy pointed in Fuzo’s direction.

Balru approached with her eyes set on Fuzo, but at the last moment, shifted her attention to the Subak.

Ebivalkul,” Balru flashed that fake smile while leaning in for a hug.

“Styba!” Kul embraced her without standing.

Balru turned to Fuzo and brought a fist to her stomach, “Komadon,”

“Dokomad,” Fuzo raised her bottle of bix.

“You know each other?” Kul pushed a chair out for Balru.

“We’re old comrades,” Balru sat between them and presented her back to Fuzo. “Your mak told me you might be here after your therapy session,”

Kul’s eyes thinned, “I’m not in therapy, Styba,”

“My kerma appreciated you being at the service,” said Balru.

Kul softened, “Ziw was a good citizen,”

Balru leaned in and put her hand on Kul’s.

“I need to talk to you about the last time you spoke to Tavo Ex?” she said. “I reviewed your post-graduate files and noticed you two shared a room in Mynu,”

Fuzo took another long swig of her ale.

“You went into my academic history?” Kul demanded.

“It’s not about you,” Balru touched her arm. “It’s about Tavo,”

“You can stop with the physical direction,” Kul snapped. “I let you slide when you brought up Ziw to curry my sympathy, but right now, your game’s getting tired,”

Fuzo didn’t bother hiding her amusement.

Kul lowered her voice, “I know the Committee has an ax to grind, but why kill Tavo?”

“I told you before Kul,” Balru said. “I’m not a murderer,”

Fuzo spoke up, “Your division affiliation says otherwise,”

“This isn’t mission-related,” Balru ignored her and focused on Kul. “I don’t think Ex knows about Ziw,”

“I didn’t think of that,” Kul said, apologetic. “I haven’t spoken to Tavo in over a year. The last time we saw each other, it was nasty,”

“May I ask why?” Balru said.

Kul hesitated before letting out a sigh.

“The night of Orta Attack, Tavo showed up at the Ulepaxi complaining about some bruiser she hooked up with that admitted to being monogamous. She started bragging about ditching-”

Kul’s words trailed as her eyes drifted soulfully to Fuzo; she wanted to crawl into a hole.

 “I’m a waxamist, Styba, I told her about my own preferences and made it clear that if she was that unaccepting, then our friendship was over,”

 “Ziw came to me, asked me if I knew of anyone inquiring after Tavo,” Kul added. “She thought Tavo might be in trouble because of something she did, and I told her exactly what I just told you,”

“Communication logs indicate that Ex contacted you recently,” said Balru.

“You examined my Filmark history?” Kul demanded.

Balru countered, “Not yours Kul, hers,”

“She left me a message,” Kul rolled her eyes. “I erased it without listening,”

“That’s all I needed to know,” Balru kissed Kul’s hand. “I’m sorry I interrupted,” she then turned and saluted Fuzo.

“Dokomad,” Fuzo didn’t bother looking up as she departed.

Kul whispered, “It was you, wasn’t it?”

“Guilty as charged,” Fuzo raised her empty bottle.

“Tavo and I met after we transitioned to Mynu,” Kul said. “I was closer with another Subak, one with similar tastes,”

“Another waxamist?” Fuzo asked.

“Doka’s no monogamist,” Kul grinned. “She’s into muscles, like me,”

Fuzo smiled, “Good to know,”

“I’m blunt for a subbie,” Kul laughed before turning somber. “Hearing her opinions just set me off. I left her standing there before she could say anything in her defense.”

“You listened to the message, didn’t you?” Fuzo asked.

“It was weird,” Kul picked up her chair and put it right beside Fuzo’s. “Tavo apologized, saying I didn’t deserve her shit and she had no right to judge me,”

“That sounds, final,” Fuzo said.

“Exactly,” Kul whispered. “The code she called me from was Podpromad Balru’s. I showed up at the precinct, and old Balru tells me Tavo got some job between the poles and might not come back,”

“You think Tavo’s in danger?” Fuzo asked.

“Podpromad Balru was killed last week,” Kul said. “After a rounder accident in a district, she’s worked most of her career.”

“Balru’s following up on it,” Fuzo nodded.

“I don’t know what Styba thinks,” Kul said. “All I know is that when old Tee Banto failed at stop Subak Toys from being distributed, Tavo’s vocational prospects went into the gape. I wouldn’t put anything past that old hizzah,”

The waitress returned with a fresh bottle.

“I’ve got a muster in an hour,” Fuzo declined.

Kul took the bottle of ale and began drinking it.

“You’re division, like Styba, right?”

“We’re not in the same division, no,” Fuzo said.

Kul sighed, “Tavo’s message is still on my Filmark,”

“You told Balru you erased it,” Fuzo said.

“I know Styba,: Kul said. “But I don’t trust Styba,”

Fuzo agreed, “What do you need from me?”

“I know it’s a lot to ask,” Kul said. “If I gave you the message could you trace it? Find out where she made it at?”

Fuzo grinned, “I planned on it the moment Balru took off,”

“Let’s go to my shell,” Kul said, finishing the ale.

“Whoa,” Fuzo brought her hands up. “You don’t owe me anything like that,”

“You wished I would,” Kul laughed. “I’m not twenty, Fuzo. The message is in my old Filmark, and that’s at my shell,”

Fuzo followed her out, “Not that I wouldn’t if you invited me,”

“I’d never invite a bruise to bounce that’s due in Orta for muster,” Kul was bold. “Next time you’re under the dome with a few hours to spare, and I’ll think about reviewing our situation,”

Femitokon Holistics
Recovery Ward – Orta, Ramaxia
22 Yulitat 2228 – 1330 hours

The Bizak placed a soup bowl in front of her mistress and then took an anxious step back.

Ryo Uym’s eyes took an inventory of the naked servant’s slim figure.

“Thank you, leave us,” she said, eyeing Sofita. “You share my admiration?”

Mynu contained many attractive bizzies Sofita’s age, but none showed her the slightest interest; the domestics employed by mentor Ryo, however, were mature enough to consider anyone.

Sofita pulled her eyes from the elder Bizak, “I admire the possibilities,”

“I’m partial to Bizaki,” Ryo tasted the soup before lifting her water glass. “My pleasure comes from inflicting violence onto those that arouse me,”

“You inflict pain upon Orestes, but not Fyla,” Sofita cut into her steak. “Speaks volumes of your interests,”

Ryo’s lips twisted into a smile.

“The sharing of hiziburx is a reciprocal exercise, Sofita,”

“I’m partial to penetration,” Sofita confessed. “I enjoy penetrating others, and derive pleasure from watching others penetrated,”

“A clasper with a Bizak attached?” Ryo laughed.

“Bizaki are often available,” Sofita said. “But not always willing,”

“Unwilling Bizaki are a delight, Sofita,” Ryo said. “Upon maturing one discovers that the grooming of victims is a delicious enterprise,”

Sofita raised a glass, “Fusada certainly enjoys dining on Fyla,”

Suddenly, the dining room faded to black, replaced by the dim lights of a citbluz. The chill felt good against her hide. She lay naked on a chaise beside the pool and watched Fusada’s stroke her way through the water.

“I wish I were there to see her face when you said that!” Fusada smiled and hooked her muscular arms upon the concrete edging.

Sofita didn’t reveal old Ryo had simply laughed with pride at her comment; her donats sex life had been a spectator sport of the elder Hizak’s for years.

“Why would she just come out and tell you that shit?” Fusada asked.

“I’m her new adjutant,” said Sofita. “I must know when not to call on her, and how to act when I find her engaged in something salacious,”

Fusada narrowed her eyes, “Whose grooming who?”

“Fusa oversees you,” Sofita said. “Ryo mentors me,”

“They divide us because together, we’re a threat,” Fusada climbed from the water and flexed her shoulders; at sixteen, her body was already corded with muscle. “Why didn’t you call her out on abusing Orestes,”

“We’re all morally adjacent at times,” Sofita said.

Fusada said, “Speak for yourself,”

“Orta thinks you’re attending a study session in Mynu,” Sofita said. “Yet here you are, partaking in a citbluz,”

“Uym sexually abusing her donations isn’t the same as me skipping a higher ed class,” Fusada snapped. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m not comfortable with abuse, of any sort,” Sofita assured her. “Uym’s my prime, and as such, she’s above reproach,”

“That’s crap,” Fusada said. “You need to call her out on it,”

“Have you called Fusa out on her sadistic machinations,” Sofita asked. “When you last visited her Cloister office, did you count the shishitav in her vestibule and admonish her for adding to the collection?”

“Kerma will have her day in the court of Fusadakul,” she scowled at Sofita before diving back into the water.

“You’re allowed to put off your rebuke of Fusa,” Sofita called, as Fusada stroked her way back. “But I must react with sound and fury the moment Uym is unsavory,”

“Tell me something,” Fusada climbed from the water. “Are Hizaki capable of shame?”

“I feel shame,” Sofita said.

“There’s a difference between embarrassment and shame, ‘Fita,” Fusada sat beside her on the chaise. “What you feel when you’re made to look stupid, foolish, or wrong? That isn’t shame,”

“You should be ashamed of your strict definition of shame,”

Fusada laughed, “Shame requires the ability to feel guilt,”

“I assure you, ‘Fooz, I experience guilt,”

“I’ve never met an Hizak willing to own it when they’ve hurt someone,” Fusada declared. “I guess that makes you a first,”

“Every punch Fusa rained upon you, meant for me, pains me still,” Sofita fixed her eyes on Fusada. “It’s why I’m taking your criticism at this time, so cordially,”

“I took plenty of beatings for you, ‘Fita, that’s true,” Fusada stood. “But that was my choice, not yours,”

“I instigated, you intervened, I ran away,” Sofita said. “Every scar you retain from my actions haunts me,”

“Yeah, but you were never ashamed of it,” Fusada said. “That’s why it kept happening, ‘Fita,”

Eyes open, Sofita uncrossed her legs.

Two more weeks remained until she could voluntarily leave the holistics recovery room. A familiar Hizak with hourglass-shaped hair stood with her back to Sofita, studying her endocrine readings on the floating monitor.

“How are you today, Doctor Gwo?”

Gwo startled, “Forgive me, Doc-Promad Kul,”

“You’re stealthy, I didn’t hear you enter,”

“You were internally visualizing,” Gwo said, tapping the monitor to blank. “I didn’t want to interrupt,”

“I’ve been made a Promad?”

“Your termination of Caro Cristi is quite an accomplishment,” Gwo nodded. “The Fifth Office signed off on the promotion, herself,”

“After the Primary ignored it?”

“I disregard rumors, Promad,” said Gwo. “What transpires beyond my line of sight is immaterial,”

“Admirable boundaries, Doctor,”

“May I inquire something?” Gwo blurted.

“What’s it like?”

“I remain unable to internally visualize,” Gwo said.

“You’ll be capable, after your twentieth year,”

“Then it’s true,” Gwo said. “A Zaxir’s hormonal surge during evolutionary fitness does alter our neuropathy,”

“Is it down to the Zaxiri?” Sofita raised an eyebrow. “What of those internal visionaries sexually partial to Subaki?”

“Studies on Subaki hormonal fluctuations are so limited,” said Gwo. “Pity they’re such an intensely private caste,”

“Given that it was an Hizak who robbed those first Subaki of their bodily agency,” Sofita said. “Can we blame them, Doctor Gwo?”

One of the ugliest episodes in Ramaxian history occurred when original Hizak subject Uymras, Founder of the Prime Lab, decided that Subaki were interchangeable with Zaxiri.

Before the production of what should’ve been the first Femarctic generation, Uymras barred Bulatgwo and Ryoacari, from the design team.

The only Subaki adept at replicating the Femaki’xirpaxul’s patch routines, their departure from Tox Island proved detrimental when hundreds of their caste sisters, reproductive specialists and gestational nurses, chose to join them.

Uymras assured her Hizaki colleagues that the Subaki weren’t required to design and implant the first donuxi.

Her intimate relationship with the belly Jyrulix provided five thousand Zaxiri willing to carry and deliver the first generation, but two weeks after implantation, many of the implanted developed a gashcolic discharge.

The tending Hizaki physicians considered these signs to be symptomatic with hormone changes; but for the seventy plus Subaki who’d remained to care for the pregnant bellies, something was very wrong.

Jyrulix underwent a battery of tests, yet by the time Uymras isolated a bacterium germinating within her donuxi, the lining of her makodux was too grossly infected. Unwilling to remove the donuxi, Jyrulix convinced Uymras to administer antibiotic injections.

Jyrulix died only days later, followed by thousands of other Zaxiri.

Uymras set aside her grief and declared the bacterium a result of the robust Zaxiri makodux rejecting the implanted donuxi. She theorized that a Subaki makodux would be less hostile.

The Subaki nursing staff at Tox Island were called upon to undergo implantation; all of them refused.

Confident that she understood their bodies better than they did, Uymras ordered the dispersal of sedatives to Subaki staff; this command created a schism in the Hizaki elite on Tox Island.

Myanu and Rigizul vehemently protested and were promptly escorted off the island by Marixi assigned to Uymras.

In mid-Jixak, Subaki leaders Veldag and Ryoacari came to collect the remaining Subaki nurses at Tox for hibernation. Confronted by Marixi with strict orders to keep them out, they enlisted Zaxiri leaders Crizatol and Lozkul to speak with Uymras.

Playing upon Uymras’ sympathies over their dead Zaxiri sisters, they were given permission to remove the bodies.

Inside they found the Subaki nursing staff drugged and tied to birthing beds, suffering from pregnancies their bodies couldn’t handle.

Caught in the act of trying to free them, Crizatol and Lozkul were ousted by Uymras’ duty-bound Marixi guards.

Uymras’ reign of terror ended with the arrival of Balrusok.

After hibernation that Yulitat, Balrusok arrived at Tox to commandeer the Marixi stationed there. Upon hearing their sordid tale, she stormed the lab and found the Subaki all dead.

When confronted by Balrusok and Veldag, the defeated Uymras had expressed sadness only for the deceased offspring.

In the day following the discovery, every Zaxir and Subak made a solemn pilgrimage to the Ortosk Plain to feed their dead to the ramxkul.

Weeks passed without their return, prompting many Bizaki and Hizaki to journey to the coast to collect their partners and sibox.

Not one Zaxir or Subak was willing to return; when force was employed to bring them back, the breeding castes proved capable of aggression typically displayed by Marixi.

Haunted by what she’s seen at Tox Island, leader Balrusok refused to send in Marixi; instead, she’d sent word to Femitokon in Ortokil.

The breeders at Ortosk learned of Balrusok’s plan and dispatched Femitokon’s former lover, Tavilokul, to slow her down so that Veldag could venture to the Vostulak and retrieve Fusofitakil.

Femitokon and the bulk of her caste were living in isolation at the time, while Fusofitakil resided within the Femaki’xirpaxul with Pekada and many others; neither knew of Uymras’ discretions nor the breeder’s self-exile.

After Tavilokul told her what transpired, Femitokon went straight to Balrusok for confirmation and then together, they visited Tox Island; Fusofitakil arrived just in time to stop Femitokon beating Uymras to death.

Fusofitakil saw that the breeding castes decision to distance themselves was based solely on their perceived lack of rights.

Despite her anger, Femitokon concluded that the breeding castes were owed some form of justice—but they needed to return first.

The abandonment lasted over a year and came to be known as the Lonely Time.

Among Bizaki, work performance suffered due to low morale. Hizaki experienced intellectual impairment due to emotional imbalance. Trivial skirmishes common to Marixi now developed into disruptive gang wars.

It was clear that without Subaki and Zaxiri, the eighteen-year-old femmar were a dysfunctional society.

On the twenty-first of Yulitat, one year to the day they sequestered themselves, leaders of the breeding casts agreed to negotiate a return.

Pekada, Fusofitakil, Dizukel, Femitokon, and Balrusok met with Veldag and Crizatol for the Subaki, and Lozkul and Bulatgwo for the Zaxiri; the breeders soured when Uymras appeared for the Prime Lab.

Fusofitakil suggested that the developmental phase of genetic-production remain in the hands of the Hizaki, making patch collection, design, implantation, and gestation, the exclusive domain of the breeding castes.

Veldag agreed under two conditions; the first being that no Subaki or Zaxiri should ever lose autonomy over her own body, legally or medically. Also, no breeder could be denied an education or vocation in any health field.

In what was considered the first Cloister Session, those attendance approved these terms and the breeding castes returned to the fold.

Unfortunately, the injustices that led to the Lonely Time had left an indelible legacy of mistrust between Subaki and Hizaki.

Subaki went on to build a bonding culture centered around Bizaki, ensuring a sociosexual distance from the intellectual caste. In the face of such sexual rebuke, Hizaki crafted laws and established institutions designed to socially detach Subaki from Zaxiri; a divide the breeders always set aside during the production of a gen.

Exceptions to the divide between the castes grew more frequent with each new generation. The Tenth contained the highest number of Subaki in bonds with an Hizak; Sofita wondered how further eroded this divide might be after the Eleventh’s twentieth year.

“May I inquire something unrelated to the previous subject?” Gwo asked.

“I’m a captive audience, Doctor,”

“Do you sense she’s no longer inside the spheres?”

“When did the Shell acquire a gender, Doctor?”

“The Shell considers itself to be Fusad-”

“—Don’t humor it, Doctor,”

Gwo was set to retort until Fyla Uym entered.

“You’ve been awake two whole days, Sofita,” Uym turned Sofita around and pressed her thumbs down each of Sofita’s vertebrae. “Your cerebral bruising is virtually gone,”

“Is the pituitary damage why the Shell disconnected?” asked Sofita.

“The Shell should’ve disconnected before the damage,” said Gwo.

“Self-preservation is diminished?” Sofita turned to confront Uym. “Did you run the diagnostic?”

“Yes,” Uym replied, eyes rolling. “There were anomalies,”

Gwo added, “Anomalies understates things-,”

“—Doctor Gwo,” Uym forced a smile. “Please excuse us,”

Gwo exited with her eyes on Sofita.

“Talk to me about the anomalies,” Sofita said.

“I cycled the Shell’s operative energy through a standard diagnostic,” Uym sat upon the wheeled stool. “Realignment with the Collective managed to eliminate most of the uneven fluctuations in its operational matrix,”

“Femtrux recalibrated its operative output?”

“Or so we thought,” Uym said. “Upon migrating back to the housing chamber, it ignored all verbal stimuli,”

“It’s been noncommunicative, all this time?”

“Until yesterday,” said Uym. “Doctor Gwo addressed it as Fusada,”

“The Shell’s convinced its ‘Fooz,”

“I’m aware,” said Uym. “It refused to speak another word to anyone until updated on your condition.”

“You can’t encourage it, Fyla,”

“I never did,” Uym argued. “I told it there was no way it was getting back into the spheres until it interacted properly. If the Shell suddenly thinks it’s a Marix, I’m going to treat it like one,”

“Suddenly?” Sofita frowned. “It’s been playing Fusada for months,”

“I’ve run diagnostics on its conversational routines. I’ve reviewed its adherence algorithms,” Uym defended herself. “I found no difference in its operative processes from the day you ignited it,”

“What about the day Fusada ignited-”

“—Gwo ran those tests,” Uym snapped. “Against my orders,”

“I asked you to carry out those tests!”

“I refused!” Uym settled herself. “Sofita, you’re undermining me-”

“—I’m sorry, Fyla I’m desperate!”

Silence surrounded them.

“The night Fusada died, there was a spike in its operative function,” Uym confessed. “Levels that exceeded its highest output, higher than when we first introduced it to the spherical-biology.”

“The Femitokon Shell didn’t evolve within the housing spheres?”

“No,” said Uym. “It began life as a jumble of bioware until I introduced it to a mass of neural tissue. It went on to establish an operative form,”

“You split that original brain up into spheres?”

“Diluting the biological housing was the only way to ensure any future hosts’ anatomical autonomy,” Uym explained.

“That first spike of energy at total adhesion with Fusada,” Sofita said. “That was its highest?”

“Until the night Fusada died,” Uym said. “I believe the Shell tried to retain Fusada’s operative energy, and when she died, it chose to emulate-,”


“Well, it didn’t capture her soul, Sofita,” Uym huffed. “What are we helovx now, believing in ghosts?”

“The Shell thinks it’s Fusada!”

“The adaptation is logical, she was its first host,” Uym’s brow bent. “Doctor Gwo managed to talk it into a more invasive diagnostic.”

“How did she manage that?”

Uym grinned, “She told the Shell there were new upgrades needed,”

“It thinks you’re augmenting with enhancements?”

“That was always my plan,” Uym said. “Before it shut me out-”

“—it stopped trusting you?”

“Another symptom of its identity condition,” said Uym.

“When did this evasiveness begin, Fyla?”

“After your mission in Yazhou,” Uym said. “You asked me to look into why it was talking to you without being prompted. I attempted to run a diagnostic on its conversational routines, and it refused to let me in,”

“Now you see, not my imagination-”

“—no, it’s not,” Uym cleared her throat. “I tried to implement a reset, but it demanded to know what I was doing, and why.”

“You never reset it?”

“It assured me it would reset itself,” said Uym.

“Well it didn’t, did it, Fyla?”

“A reset was done this morning,” Uym stood. “Gwo’s communicating with it as Fusada has allowed us to perform a full operational reset,”

“Your enhancements better be adequate,”

“When the Shell went dormant within you,” Uym said. “It at least continued to collect biokinetic information from the male you encountered,”

“The male?” Sofita moved closer to Uym. “You didn’t review the footage?”

“What footage?” Uym said. “There was no footage,”

Sofita sighed, “It’s protecting you,”

“Protecting me from what?” Uym demanded.

“Fyla,” Sofita whispered. “The male was Nephis,”

“That’s not possible,” Uym’s lips shivered. “Ryo disposed of him,”

“After I made rank, I made it my business to find out which ramxkul took him,” Sofita continued, voice hushed. “There is no ritual for him on record,”

“All this time,” Uym said. “He’s been alive?”

“He sprung Caro to acquire the male I collected in the Badlands,” Sofita abruptly changed the subject when Gwo returned. “May I get a summary of the upgrades, Doctor Uym?”

Gwo observed Uym’s loss of focus.

“My contact information is contained on the health report, should you have any questions regarding the Shell’s additional augmentation, Promad Kul,” Gwo handed Sofita a duxpak.

Uym collected herself, adding, “The enhancements are designed to counter the forms of biokinetic attacks you endured in North America,”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Sofita said.

After Uym excused herself, a curious Gwo turned to Sofita.

“Might I inquire-?”

“—No, you may not,” Sofita said. “Privacy is paramount to Doctor Uym.”

Gwo frowned, “So it seems,”

“Have you communicated with the Shell today?”

Gwo nodded, “Fusada is concerned-”

“—It’s not Fusada,”

“It believes that it is,”

“I asked you not to indulge it,”

“Indulging it is vocational,” Gwo declared. “My position in this Division dictates that the overall well-being of the Shell is my prime focus,”

“Doctor Uym tends to me,” Sofita grinned. “You tend to the Shell,”

“Precisely,” Gwo hesitated before speaking again. “There’s something I must relay,”

“Related to the Shell?” Sofita asked.

“No,” Gwo shook her head. “It’s about CR Wram’s visit this morning,”

“Velto Wram came here?” Sofita said.

“She requested Doctor Uym inform you that your absence at the zikol service tonight is acceptable, given your circumstances,” Gwo said.

Sofita closed her eyes, “Today’s the twenty-second,”

“Yes, it is,” Gwo said. “I’m rightly confused by her message. If she speaks of her deceased spouse, that service occurred on-”

“—on this day four years ago,” Sofita said. “I killed Zixaswram,”

Gwo grew thoughtful, “That explains the Shell’s words for you,”

“It gave you a message, for me?” Sofita asked.

“Forgive my familiarity, Promad,” Gwo said. “The Shell wished me to relay the following regarding CR Wram, don’t let it hurt your brain, ‘Fita.”

Civilian Quarter – Kuril Base
Kamchatka Abyssal – Rismax`atol
23 Yulitat 2228 1240 hours

Four gangly Bizaki walked out onto the round cushion with claspers dangling from the harnesses around their hips.

A blindfolded Zaxir stumbled naked from the shadows and fell into their stalky limbs. Forced to her knees, the big beauty opened her eager mouth as she felt around blindly for their claspers.

A clasper in each hand, the gang closed in around her bobbing head as it moved from one appendage to the next. Fingers played with her corpulent frontals and pinched the fat of her stomach, while others playfully slapped at her blooming gash.

Dozens of Hizaki watched silently from the tiers above. Robes opened wide, they reclined on loungers while being masturbated by their devotees.

Laxum lay among them, her eyes fixed to the scene below.

The gang of Bizaki were lost in the comradery of collective pleasure, kissing and fondling one another as the zaxy’s mouth moved among their claspers. The tongue lashing at her gashcol became a deep voice tickled her flesh.

“You’ve aged well, hizzah,” a slick-faced bizzy stared back at her, long hair pulled to one side and cinched below the ear.

Clad in the scanty two-piece suit of a filtration engineer, Pikaz Tabikil remained the cutest bizzy that Laxum ever seduced.

Careful eyes surveyed the tier as Pikaz climbed from the chaise and crawled over to the deck’s edge. A smile taunted Laxum before the face and body belonging to it rolled off the side.

Laxum lazily followed, entering the churning stream with barely a splash.

On her back she floated beyond the group room, letting the gully move her beneath the stained-glass ceilings of the riding pools. The bellies rendered on the glass all smiled down at Laxum as if aware of her destination.

Out of the current, she stroked into a dark chasm; the drying-rocks would be safe this time of night, it was too early for anyone to seek a chilly post-coital wind.

Pikaz stood naked at the stone’s edge and eagerly pulled Laxum out of the water.

Fingers laced, hides met, eyes explored, and mouths feasted. His fully aroused clasper in her hand, she gently pulled him with her as she sank to the rocks.

He trapped her thighs between his own and ground against her until their bodies became joined the moment his flesh pushed into her. Relaxed enough to accept him, she drove her hips up.

While they coupled, their minds brought imaginary lovers who’s touching only heightened their pleasure. Unable to sustain her desire, Laxum’s insides turned cold and Pikaz picked up the pace as if fully aware it.

A wave of warmth exploded in the pit of Laxum’s gut. Her body seized up as her insides greedily clamped down upon his clasper. They were one, for a few glorious moments, until her flesh released him.

Pikaz swiftly pulled out and brought his clasper to her lips.

In her mouth she tasted her own juices and felt his shaft ballooning. She boldly lifted her eyes and found him staring back.

Weak at the knees, he shuddered and pulled his clasper from her mouth. Wetness seeped from every pore as it deflated, spilling its warmth onto her suzsch.

Afterward, they lay beside one another; neither spoke for several moments.

“Forgive me, Pikaz,” whispered Laxum. “I thought you’d-”

“—been collected? That makes sense,” his lips spread into a smile. “After you took on clasper-killer Wox, divisional agents searched Utama for anyone you ever called a lover.”

“My one regret was exposing any of you,”

“I got out before they came looking,” he said. “I got a water treatment job in the AC,”

“West Islands pay scales are abhorrent,”

“Staying alive was worth the pay cut,”

“I sought many of you out, last year,”

“I don’t think anyone’s left in Utama,”

“Finding no one,” said Laxum. “I assumed ‘Fita collected you,”

“She never came for me,” he rolled onto his side to face her. “She never came for any of us after becoming a Femitokon,”

Laxum and her peers had spent their late teens seeking hiders in the skin. Like ‘zats with their noses in the soil hunting truffles, they’d appear at clasper-clutch parties with the goal of securing authentic males.

One night, Ergal Jakix brought Pikaz, a water-treatment operator and proud Toxican.

The pair had accompanied him to the Toksis delta. After a couple of drinks on a small sandy island in the subglacial swamp, they came together ardently.

Ergal moved on, but Laxum had become smitten. Playing with Pikaz meant entertaining his lovers, so Laxum had brought in Sofita to help her manage.

“Hybrids are Sofita’s prey these days,”

 “I saw her, two years ago, after I was allocated to the secondary filtration units at SOD Three,” he said. “I looked up through a gutter grate, and there she was, staring down at me with that ugly face of hers. I put in for an immediate transfer,”

Laxum touched his smooth hair and ached to know the colors of his hide.

“I’m sorry you’ve been forced to transience,”

“I’ve settled since then,” he said. “Been here two years,”

“Why have you never sought me out?”

“You’re not the easiest citizen to approach,” he laughed.

“True, I’m not free to mingle with just anyone,” she said. “Tonight’s my third visit to this citbluz, and like you my handsome Pikaz, it’s been on Kuril longer than I,”

“The new owner’s a Tenth,” he said. “She put in a request for someone to keep her filters unclogged. When I saw you in the group-room, I couldn’t walk away,”

Laxum reached for him, “I’m elated you reconnected-”

“—don’t be, tonight was stupid on my part,” he jumped to his feet.

“We’re not strangers, Pikaz,”

He he pulled on his tuck-garment and then yanked his wetsuit bottoms over it.

“You’re too risky, Lax,” he said. “I can’t put my life on the line, not even for you,”

Laxum rose to her feet and opened her arms.

“No,” he said, then poked a finger between her fronts. “I warned you that if you took that position in the Cloister, there would never be a you and me,”

“I entered politics to change things,”

“No one appreciates your efforts more than me,” he shook his head and then took a breath. “I’ve always cared for you, I might even love you, but this is my life, and I won’t risk it, not for you.”

“We’re far enough away from Ramaxia, here,”

“No,” he shook his head. “We’re not, Lax,”

“When we ascend-”

“—ascension?” he sighed. “Our Primary’s dead,”

Laxum desperately wanted to clarify but refrained.

“I’ll keep my distance from you, Pikaz,”

“It’s me that needs to keep a distance,” he said.

“My Axyrn are on liberty,”

He grinned, “I’m aware, it’s Yulitat,”

“The code to my apartment,” Laxum embraced him. “Is the marker number where we encountered those glowing spores in the delta,”

“You remembered that?” he asked, laughing.

She said, “I recall everything concerning you,”

He seemed to consider it, then shook his head.

“You’re monitored by the Collective,”

“We’ll couple under the cover of a sheet,”

“You’ve done this before, lately,” he broke free of her, smiling. “You’re pathetic, Lax,”

Laxum watched him jump into the water.

“Have you known me to be any other way?”

Confident he would join her later, she jumped in after with her legs tucked. She swam to the washing pools and came up beneath a waterfall; its cascade sluiced away what remained of her indiscretion.

Suddenly, the melodic voice of Tee Po found her ears.

The illustrious Hizak complained about the state of the dairy market as she dragged the pumiced curl of a koxtax over her densely dotted hide.

In Mynu, hizakidoe Laxum had shared a cube residence with Tee, until each graduated at age sixteen.

Tee had labored to make the prestigious ‘top 23’ in Mynu’s official intellect spectrum, whereas Laxum barely tried and placed 24th.

Scoring one cut below the best proved advantageous for Laxum; Mynu’s habit of assigning students in pairs enabled her to reside with the elite.

In time, Laxum and Tee fell in with separate tribes. They’d maintained a working habitation by sharing salacious tidbits about friends and rivals when alone in their dorm. Laxum had allied with Sofita, Eppis, and Pitana. Tee’s tribal leader was none other than Ergal Jakix, the amiable Hizak who went on to become Laxum’s closest peer.

On her knees drying Tee’s feet was Ergal’s sib, a belly named Jixa. Like her deceased sib, Jixa’s hide resembled a pebbled beach.

Together they’d bonded to bellies Ulasi Ex and Avingol Su and between the four of them, produced eight donations to the citizenry. Laxum quaked at the idea of residing under the same roof with a brood of donats and three bellies that likely never lifted a finger to mind them.

Once, at a bar in Utama, she’d inquired after her old roommate’s mental state; the drunken Hizak bragged that she’d hired five elder Subaki as live-ins. No doubt this ensured her donats a secure upbringing, and at the time, Laxum respected such a plan; the thought of so many citizens under one roof, however, curdled the sentiment.

As a donat, she’d resided with sib Pitasa, kerma Rasa, and her maker Pel, and despite their estate’s sizable footprint, the many resident domestics stifled little Laxum.

Her savior during those years had been hizakidoe Pitana; a frequent fixture at their home, ‘Pita always found the quietest places for them to hide.

“Is that why you were always outside, la-la?”

Startled by her maker’s voice, she stepped through the falls.

Thoughts of home brought sentimental hallucinations. She smiled to those taking notice of her and stepped out of the pool.

In the locker lounge, she rewrapped her hair and cinched her robe tight. Feet in a thick pair of walking socks, Laxum walked toward the welcome lobby.

“Have a good night, Prime Jyr,” said the young Zaxir hostess.

Laxum leaned across the kiosk and kissed her cheek, “You refrain from making trouble, doe,”

“I’ll try,” the young belly laughed.

Beyond the glass covered corridor lay Kuril’s modest civilian district.

The dome sky above was a patchwork of tharspin bars that burned brightly during dayrise until dampening to a shadowy grid after dayfall.

The elevated walk way was deserted, but below in the civilian sector’s rock-lined lake, a mixed gen group of Bizaki loudly enjoyed their off-hours. A few lounged on inflated disks with a bottle of bix in each hand. Others floated and socialized with the scant few Subaki sitting in pairs along the lake’s snow-packed shore.

“Where are you going, la-la?”

Laxum gave both sides of the promenade a hard study. Certain she heard her maker’s voice, she called out her name. When no reply came, she walked briskly to the verticals.

“La-La, I’m down here,”

None of the Subaki below was old enough to be her maker; Pel wouldn’t venture outside Ramaxia, she’d never been inoculated against the high oxygen of the surface.

Laxum entered the habitation vertical and tapped the button for her floor; these imaginary voices came from too much time in the hot pool.

Once safely in her residence, she marched to her desk.

“Toligon,” she tapped its surface and studied the list of contacts floating in the air above it; her finger grazed the face of her maker, distorting it. “Please relay the location of citizen Pel Ru, authorization OHA primada-four,”

Citizen Pelru is in a private transport, destination Toxi Ziko’litovx.

She started, “Is there an explanation as to why she’s-?”

–Toxi Ziko’litovx is hosting eight ceremonial remembrances today. Citizen Pelru plans to attend a service for the deceased Zixaswram.

Laxum also gotten an invitation to the Clan Wram Ziko-Hub, yet forgot it was today.

“Toli,” she said, sighing. “Is she alone?”

Citizen Pelru is with citizen Ryljyr and partner Rasajyr.

She rolled her eyes at the mention of Rasa.

“This attitude toward your kerma is appalling, La-La,”

Pel’s voice sent Laxum tumbling over the sitting couch. Rising from the floor she pressed her back to the wall. Suspicious eyes measured the empty room.

“Mak?” she called out.

Laxum slipped a hand into her pocket and felt around for her Filmark; it was still powered down. She marched through her closet, two walls of neatly hung suits and shelved shoes, and into the washroom.

On the tile floor, foot-sized puddles made a line to the darkened moonpool.

“Toligon,” fresh urine was collected around the base of her gapirx. “Did a visitor enter during my absence?”

Systems Operator Oxribat entered at-

“—when did she exit?” she was content that her complaints about the pool’s noisy jets were being addressed.

Systems Operator Oxribat remains in the hygiene pool.

“Was Ibat my only visitor tonight?” peering over its herringbone edge, she considered the still waters.

 Negative. Citizen Pikaztabikul entered-

“—she exited because of Ibat-”

—Negative. Citizen Pikaztabikul remains in the hygiene pool.

Laxum weighed the impossibility of the situation. The hum of her gape’s flushing motor became drowned out by the oceans rhythmic lull. A distant light appeared in the darkened water.

Certain she was being observed, Laxum reached into her pocket and brought the Filmark to life with a tap. Thumb on the screen, she touched it three times, the signal she agreed—numbness flooded her brain.

Laxum knocked her thumb against the Filmark screen twice more as the tingling spread to her chest. It soon invaded her legs and forced her to the ground. Strong hands clutched her ankles and dragged her body into the pool.

Laxum tried to scream but was unable.

The ring of the pool’s surface grew distant the deeper she sank. Somewhere up there, her maker’s voice sang a cherished hibernation lullaby.

The grip around her ankles abated before unseen hands tore at the pool floor’s purification netting. She willed her arms to move but she never got the chance to stroke her way back up.

Yanked through the torn netting, Laxum found Ibat; the old Bizak’s broken body was threaded through the chute’s hand-rungs.

Rocked violently by the waters of the filtration system, she fell into a swirling pool. Punch-drunk, she was sucked down into its funnel before being painfully expelled into the ocean.

Laxum felt her consciousness fading.

Paralyzed, her naked body rose toward the surface. In the distance floated the lifeless body of Pikaz, eyes rolled over white, a ribbon of dark fluid curled from the hole in his forehead.