Daniel is an independent contractor for South Centauri Mining and a Tank Corps veteran. He is presently on the distant colony world Mandala where he has encountered a disturbing mystery. Ronnie is the mission’s interpreter. Daniel has feelings for Ronnie, but as the mission leader, he has kept those feelings in check. It is now evening, outdoors, in the beautiful Luwen Valley.
To sleep, I selected a secluded clearing overlooking the south ledge. The surface was spongy with a lush, thick moss-like covering. The locals’ focus was the valley—their attention was always there, looking for the reflection of their children, or of something that would tell them what they felt they needed to know.
I heard someone approach and closed my eyes. I hoped it wasn’t Tomas, or Aria, or even Griggs for that matter. I’d had enough of Mandalans for the day. I really didn’t feel like talking to Jason either, or anyone except maybe—
“It’s pretty convincing proof.”
I was surprised at how relieved I was to hear Ronnie’s voice over anyone else’s.
“I don’t know about convincing,” I said. Not that they didn’t have something I couldn’t explain. They did. Still, I wasn’t ready to admit anything. “They’re playing with our minds. We shouldn’t have eaten that stuff.”
“If they are, it’s the best mind trick I’ve seen.”
I grunted agreement. It made no sense. How could Gus get from Mandala to Earth and then to the Tank Corps with me, if he only left Mandala 54 non-relativistic years ago, and as a child? The whole thing would require time travel, which was ridiculous. There had to be another answer, but I wasn’t going to find it here.
“I think you need to go to Yeager Aleph,” she said.
“What?” I said. I looked at her. Yeager Aleph II was the nearest fully-developed outpost in the province, but it was far from our mission course. “It’s three light years away.”
“Two and a half. But unless you want to remove those people by force—and I get the feeling you don’t really want to do that—we need to find their children for them. And we’ve got just one lead”—she tapped my wrist—”your friend Gus.”
“So … Yeager Aleph will have records. If you take Pendragon’s drive section, you could get there and back just six months after the Mining transport arrives. I already talked it over with Jason. We could lay the groundwork. The project might fall a little behind, but all these people want is answers. If you come back with them, we can get this job done in a nice, civilized fashion.”
I shook my head. “No way. Can’t do it.”
She stepped in front of me. “You want the answers to these questions as much as they do,” she said.
I wasn’t sure I did. In fact, I was pretty sure I didn’t care. At least I didn’t care until she stood in front of me and put it that way—like “of course” I want the answers.
She seemed so certain.
“We could send Jason,” I said.
She nodded. “We could. But it’s your buddy. It’s your Tank Corps. This is your contract on the line. And it’s your mark that’s got everyone spinning.”
She was convincing. Or was it just this strange place? I noticed that her hair was a completely different color in the ethereal light of the evening sun the locals called Samwise—a dwarf companion star currently at its farthest from Mandala.
Should I go to Yeager Aleph II?
“What if they don’t want to help me?” I asked. It was a stupid question, but I was drawing blanks for reasons to say no.
“You’re on a major South Centauri contract. South Centauri practically owns Yeager Aleph.”
She stepped closer and put a finger on my chest. Her voice deepened. “Besides,” she said. Her eyes were just three inches below mine. “You need to do this. I can see it in your eyes. You want to know.”
“Okay,” I said.
She smiled. It made her eyes seem big and bright. I noticed her hair was down.
“Tomorrow morning,” I added.
“As quick as you can.”
She was very close. Now the palm of her hand was on my chest. Without really thinking, I put an arm around her and pulled her to me.
Oops. What was I doing?
She stared at me, seeming to wait for something. What? An apology? I was frozen. I did not behave this way with my crew members. I just didn’t do it.
But something changed. I felt aroused both physically and emotionally. How did this woman, tough as nails, smart, detached, suddenly transform into the glowing heart of the universe?
I knew better. I wasn’t thinking clearly.
My lips were parched. I forced a dry swallow. I reached for the right phrase. “We, uh …” I let my finger slide against the skin of her arm. It was warm and electrifying. I didn’t dare move my other hand, which had somehow ended up in the curve of her waist, resting comfortably above her hip.
Her eyes widened slightly, urging me—or perhaps just permitting me—to finish my thought.
I straightened, but couldn’t manage to take a step back or pull my hands away.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. My throat felt thick and weak. “I shouldn’t have … we can’t get involved.”
All of my training and experience told me I was saying the right thing. Ronnie was the most important member of my crew. Romance ruined work relationships. A good team mate is a rare find. When you get one, don’t mess it up. We’re comrades, not lovers.
Lovers fight. Lovers get confused. Lovers can’t work together. It screws everything up.
She slid her hand to the back of my neck. She chuckled slightly—not derisively, but playfully, with gleaming eyes—and said, in a much more controlled voice than I was able to muster, “We’re not getting involved, Daniel. I wouldn’t do that.” Her face drew closer. “You’re moody, untrusting, sometimes irrational … and I don’t have the patience to work through your demons with you.”
All her words made sense. She was practically whispering them. I felt the warmth of her breath on my cheek.
“Of course,” I said, gulping.
“Besides,” she added. “You’re leaving tomorrow.” She kissed my neck. I drew a deep, involuntary breath. “It’ll be five years”—she brushed her lips up the curve from my neck to my chin—”before we see each other again—”
I moved my hands to the small of her back. I slid the other up between her shoulder blades. I stroked her neck. I felt her hair with my fingertips. I knew it would be five years. Maybe even be longer. It might be never. I didn’t like it, but I realized suddenly and fully that if I left in the morning, this would probably be the last mission we shared.
The time seemed unquestionably right to set aside my rule against intimacy.
“You’re probably right,” I said, unable to formulate a single other thought.
I leaned in. Our lips grazed each other. Ronnie always smelled slightly feminine, reminding me of Earth—something green and flowery, but just a hint. This close though, mixed with her skin, her breath, her hair; it was overwhelming. I felt lost in her scent, her warmth, her firm smooth touch.
The kiss was the most sensuous, caring and exploratory touching I’d ever experienced. It rendered irrelevant every other fact or concern seeking conscious attention. I forgot everything. For that moment, I was at one place and time, with one person, and nothing else mattered. It did not compare with how I usually felt with a woman. The next hour was so complete and fulfilling, I did not even pause to wish it could last forever. For the time, it was everything.
We eventually slept in the soft, matted clearing, tangled in each other. I woke in the first dawn hours under the dim light of Samwise. I studied her calm features, resting peacefully—the most desirable woman in human space.
I wondered what she meant by that comment about working through my demons. Everyone has demons. What was so special about mine?
Not that it mattered. If I could just get another hour or two, lying here, still, listening to her quiet breathe, surrounded by this spongy, turquoise hedge of some exotic fungal plant—I should need nothing else.
I heard a clumsy stomping through the foliage, followed by Jason’s voice.
“Daniel, I just got a—oh! Sorry, sir,” he said, turning away as he saw our naked forms wrapped together.
Ronnie woke and, seeing the situation, rolled her eyes and pulled me closer to a position between Jason and her.
“What is it, Jason?” I said, hoping it would be quick and he would step away.
“Oh, um,” he said stumbling. He looked at his personal com pad. “I’ve got an echo from Pendragon,” he said. “Hiram sent a message to South Centauri.”
“Of course he did,” I said. “He’s a—”
“He’s requested authority to terminate the contract.”