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Highway to Krell

Snekguy Feb 21st, 2017 (edited) 1,835 Never
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  1.     “Recruit! Why are there lizards raining from my goddamned vents?”
  2.     The soldier stood, saluting.
  3.     “I don't know, Sir!”
  4.     The drill instructor steadied his wide brimmed hat as a fat reptile fell from the air vent above the mess hall table, bouncing off his head and landing in a gravy boat with a splash. It motored its little legs, trying to swim in the condiment, but the recruit picked it up gently and set it down on the bench. It scrambled away to join the other two dozen lizards that were scurrying about on the deck. They were about six inches long, they looked like some kind of baby iguanas or geckos, blinking their beady eyes as personnel who were trying to eat swerved to avoid stepping on them.
  5.     “I swear to high heaven if one of you little shit stains brought a breeding pair on board this station I am gonna personally find out who it was and shoot them out of a goddamned torpedo tube!”
  6.     Half of the station was infested with the things, the Pinwheel was the most valuable naval asset in human space and the closest space station to the front line, hundreds of ships docked for refueling and repairs every month. If they had to lock the entire station down for quarantine it would be a disaster, and the Pinwheel only had a finite supply of recycled air, endlessly reproducing vermin were a real danger to its operations.
  7.     A woman wearing a yellow engineer's uniform stooped to pick one of them up, turning it on its back and rubbing its belly, it closed its eyes and warbled happily.
  8.     “I think they're cute, Sarge.”
  9.     “You-Put that thing down! You don't know what diseases it might have! For God's sake has somebody at least informed security of this?”
  10.     “Yeah Sarge they're sending someone,” another recruit replied through a mouthful of creamed corn. “They're not just here though, they've been sighted all around the donut.”
  11.     Damn it, they had gotten onto the torus that ringed the central hub of the space station, the open-air living area that housed most of the facilities and staff. There were innumerable places for them to hide, and the vents would give them the run of the entire station.
  12.     “I heard Robocop is assigning a team to figure out where they're coming from,” another one of the recruits commented, and the drill instructor spun around to shout in his face.
  13.     “By 'Robocop' I assume you mean Chief of Security Moralez? The man is a seasoned veteran, give him the respect he's earned. I'm revoking your recreational privileges for a week, Johnson.”
  14.     “Aw, come on Sarge!”
  15.     “You recruits might be new here, but you're gonna learn how we do things in the UNN, and you're gonna learn fast. Don't let me overhear you badmouthing a superior again, is that understood?”
  16.     “Yes Sir!” Johnson bellowed, continuing to his chosen seat with a tray of nondescript mess hall gunk.
  17.     “It's a fucking madhouse,” the Sergeant grumbled to nobody in particular, loosening his tight collar. He had to get these recruits fed and to the firing range for weapon drills, they were as muddy as a goddamned pig sty. There was a squeal from the other end of the hall as a female recruit jumped up onto a table, knocking over her drink and sending her cutlery clattering to the ground.
  18.     “Ah! It tried to go up my trouser leg!”
  19.     As if on cue, a group of men wearing blue UNN uniforms and sporting the badge that denoted them as military police entered the mess through a far door, scratching their heads at the chaos.
  20.     “Finally, it's about time, round these...things up!” The Sergeant gestured to the vents as another lizard dropped down, falling heavily into a tray of food and splashing its owner with mashed potato.
  21.     “Er...you sure you need security and not pest control,” one of the MPs joked, amused by the scene that was playing out before him. The Sergeant waved his hands, red faced.
  22.     “Just do it! I'm behind schedule as it is! I can't babysit rookies 'and' take care of this mess! Is there any word on where the hell these things are coming from?”
  23.     “No Sir,” the MP replied, “Chief Moralez is getting his people on it, but right now we have no clue. They've been sighted as far around the donut as the residential quarter.”
  24.     “God damn, that's clear across the station! They must be everywhere by now!”
  25.     “Looks that way, we've had calls in from just about every section. I don't know what they expect us to do about it though, we don't have the personnel or the equipment to round up hundreds of lizards. What are we supposed to do with them, drop them down the garbage chutes?”
  26.     “I don't give a rat's ass what you do with them, just get them away from the mess hall.”
  27.     The MP nudged the colleague to his right.
  28.     “Petersen, get like a...a bag or something, I dunno. Something we can put them in.”
  29.     “What do you mean get a bag? Where am I gonna get a bag?” As they argued there was a cacophony of falling pans from the kitchen, followed by a lot of protracted cursing.
  30.     “Oh fuck, they're in the kitchen now too,” the MP muttered, shaking his head and setting off in that direction.
  31.  
  32.     Kate picked up one of the little lizards by the tail, watching the creature struggle and writhe as it hung in the air, motoring its tiny limbs frantically. As the head of the science team stationed on the Fort Hamilton space station, colloquially known as the Pinwheel, the Chief of Security had tasked her with getting to the bottom of the recent infestation. She had been given free reign to pick a team of experts and track down the source of the animals, as despite their innocent appearance they could wreak havoc with the station's systems and operations. If they didn't find a solution to the problem soon, they might have to shut down the docks and turn away the ships returning from the front, which would severely delay their return to active duty.
  33.     She dropped it into a clear plastic container, watching the small animal scrabble at its cage as it blinked at her. She would take it back to the lab and analyze its genome, perhaps figure out what planet the little beast had come from, assuming it was even in the database. It was possible that someone had tracked them in from some remote planet that hadn't been surveyed yet, but bacterial scrubbers usually caught anything that might enter through the docks or the airlocks.
  34.     “What are you,” she mused under her breath, tapping at the plastic with a gloved finger.
  35.     Moralez stood beside her, the prosthetic limbs from which he got his nickname crossed over his chest. He was a veteran who had lost two arms and a leg in the line of duty, replaced with advanced robotic limbs, and he had taken the job of security chief on the Pinwheel a few months ago.
  36.     “Any idea what these things are, Miss Reid?”
  37.     “Not yet Sir, but I intend to find out.” She held the box up to her face to examine the creature more closely, straightening her spectacles. “Everyone has been calling them lizards, which based on their outward appearance is apt, but to me it looks more like something from the order of Urodela. A salamander,” she added, noting Moralez's questioning look.
  38.     “What's the difference? Looks like a lizard to me.”
  39.     “Well salamanders are actually amphibians, not reptiles like lizards, and they usually need to live near water. See look, this specimen has gills below its jaw, see those formations that look like pink hairs?”
  40.     “What does it matter if it's a lizard or a salamander? I need you to get rid of them, Reid, I don't need a biology lesson.”
  41.     “Well, it might help us figure out where they came from. We can cross hot or dry planets off the list already, this didn't come from Borealis or Hades.”
  42.     “How could something like this get on the station,” Moralez asked, scratching his chin with his polymer fingers. “I thought the scrubbers in the docks would alert us if any unauthorized biological entities passed through the sensors?”
  43.     “That's what they're supposed to do, in theory,” Kate replied, stowing the box containing the specimen under her arm and straightening up. She was a head shorter than the grizzled Moralez, the man looked as if he was some kind of golem made of scar tissue and metal. “I don't see how it could have happened, perhaps one of them failed and somehow maintenance overlooked it. It can't have originated from within the station, that's impossible.”
  44.     “Well, get to the bottom of it, I want these things off my station before they start interfering with day to day operations or the admiralty is gonna have my head on a plate.”
  45.     “Yes Sir, have the officers I requested been reassigned to my team yet?”
  46.     “Yes, I took care of it. All five individuals have been reassigned, as you asked. Make good use of them, and do try to get the job done quickly. You've snatched up some of the best minds on the station, they have their own work to do you know.”
  47.     “Yes Sir, thank you Sir. I'll get right on it.”
  48.     She excused herself, and set off in the direction of her lab. She exited through the automatic door of the mess hall, closing behind her with a woosh, the building now evacuated while the MPs tried in vain to corral the remaining creatures. The painted ceiling of the Pinwheel's torus extended far above her head, an artificial breeze ruffling her brown hair and blowing her white lab coat, the expansive room extending into the distance until the floor curved out of view. It was lined with buildings and planters that mimicked a terrestrial environment, the spin of the 'donut' creating inertia that served as artificial gravity, the structure being far too large for the more conventional artificial gravity generators that were used on navy vessels. People and aliens milled about her, almost all of them wearing navy blue UNN uniforms. There were a few Krell lumbering around, the scaly, crocodile-like aliens standing shoulders above the humans who parted to let them pass. Here and there should spy a Borealan, large humanoid felines reputed for their fighting prowess. They always made her nervous, she preferred to avoid them, as they had a notoriously sour temperament.
  49.     She made her way downspin, heading towards the science building near the hospital, colored lines painted on the floor guiding her to the different districts that separated the wheel into quarters. She moved towards a large building that was protruding from the wall of the torus, its face decorated with hanging plants and trees, adding to the illusion that she was standing on the surface of a planet and not hurtling through space aboard a spinning wheel.
  50.     The automatic doors of the science building opened to allow her entry, and she stepped into the foyer, the secretary manning the booth in the middle of the room greeting her with a wave.
  51.     “Doctor Reid, welcome back.”
  52.     “Becky,” she acknowledged with a nod, shifting the clear box that was stowed under her arm. “Chief Moralez said he had assembled my science team, have they arrived yet?”
  53.     “Yes Ma'am, they're in the main lab right now, shall I tell them you're coming?”
  54.     “No need, I'll go straight in.”
  55.     Kate made her way to the right of her secretary's desk, through another automatic door and into a whitewashed laboratory, the desks and work surfaces that lined the walls were covered in all manner of scientific equipment and machinery. There were four people waiting in the room for her, leaning on desks and chatting. They straightened when she entered the room, and she made her way towards them.
  56.     “You have one with you? Damn it Reid, let us see it!” A man with olive skin and dark hair hurried over to her, crouching to peer into the alien's cage, a look of wonder on his face. Davi Sousa, the local authority on xenobiology tapped his finger against the transparent plastic, too impatient to wait for Kate to set it down on a table.
  57.     Lena Webber hovered nearby, the short woman standing on her toes trying to get a better look, the blonde was an expert xenolinguistics. Kate hadn't known exactly what they would be dealing with, and although the little creatures seemed unintelligent, you could never be too sure when dealing with an unknown alien species. There was also Clayton, a veterinarian, which on the Pinwheel made him an expert in alien medicine. The final member of the team Kate had assembled was Luc Dubois, a surly Frenchman who had made a name for himself exploring exoplanets, he had been staying on the Pinwheel temporarily as he transferred between ships on his way to Borealis for a safari. Moralez had conscripted him, using the emergency powers afforded to him by the Admiralty to compel him to stay and help, the scowling man was not happy about it.
  58.     They all crowded around the box to stare at the little lizard-like amphibian as it sat in the middle of the tank, blinking its beady, black eyes at them.
  59.     “It's an amphibian, did you notice this Kate?” Sousa leaned in and pointed at the alien. “See the frills along the lower jaw? Gills!”
  60.     “I did indeed,” she replied, and turned to Clayton. “Doctor Clayton, can you take a tissue sample? I want to run it through the computer and see if this animal's genetic code has been logged in the system before.”
  61.     “It won't 'ave been,” Dubois chimed in his thick French accent. “I 'aven't seen anything like that in known space, look at the ridges down its back, the number of toes on the feet. You won't find anything in your computer, Miss Reid.”
  62.     “How can you be so sure?” The man was an ass, but she was genuinely curious, he seemed convinced of the fact.
  63.     “I 'ave been all over Coalition space and I can tell you with utmost certainty that I 'ave never seen this manner of creature before.”
  64.     “Well, I'm sure you won't mind if we verify that claim,” Kate said as she passed the box to Clayton. The veterinarian opened the container gingerly, snapping on a surgical glove, then hesitated before he reached into the box.
  65.     “You're sure they don't bite? They aren't poisonous?”
  66.     “Not as far as I know,” Kate replied, crossing her arms and watching with amusement as he struggled to get a hold of the fidgeting creature. He wrapped his hand around its torso and lifted it gently, placing it on the table and holding it down as it wriggled, trying to run on the polished, sterile surface.
  67.     “Hold still you little monster,” he grunted, leaning in with a pair of tweezers. He pinched one of the larger scales that ran down its back between them, lifting it away in one smooth motion as the creature hissed angrily at him. He placed it back in its box, and dropped the green scale into a test tube. “One tissue sample, as requested.”
  68.     Kate took the glass tube from his hand and walked across the room to a bulky machine that was resting on one of the tables. She inserted it into a rack, which retracted into the unwieldy device, then she punched instructions into the machine's built-in touch pad. It began to whir, and the group crowded around.
  69.     “ How long does it take?” Webber asked, brushing her blonde locks out of her face as she stood beside Kate.
  70.     “Not long, we should have the results of the test in a few moments. This is a gene sequencer, it's going to decode the genetic makeup of the sample, then try to match it to the database of known species.”
  71.     As if on cue, the machine went silent, then the plastic door on the front opened to disgorge the rack that held the test tube. A message flashed on the touch screen, and Kate leaned in to read it, her expression growing more and more confused.
  72.     “Well, what is it?” Sousa leaned over her shoulder to get a look at the display.
  73.     “It's...Krell. 99.78% match.” There was a moment of shocked silence, which was broken by Dubois.
  74.     “Impossible,” he scoffed, “your machine, it is broken. I 'ave seen Krell, and this...little lizard is no Krell.”
  75.     “Could it be a closely related subspecies maybe?” Sousa added. “If a Krell brought a pet onboard, and failed to declare it, then the close DNA match would explain why it didn't trip any of the scrubbers. They wouldn't have been able to detect it, or the margin of error would have allowed it to pass through without triggering an alarm.”
  76.     There was a chorus of affirmations as Sousa puffed his chest out proudly, it seemed like a popular theory. Kate wasn't so sure, something about it bothered her. What did she even know about the Krell? Where was their home planet, where did they live on the Pinwheel station, did their culture even domesticate animals?
  77.     “A good theory Doctor Sousa,” she said, walking around the table he was leaning on to face him. “You're the foremost expert on xenobiology that I was able to get a hold of on such short notice, not to downplay your reputation by any means, I could not have hoped for someone more qualified if I had been given a year to plan.” The man was preening, proud, but she could work with that. “Tell me, what do you know about the Krell?”
  78.     “Everything there is to know,” he replied, a wide grin spreading across his face. Kate knew academics, she had worked with them for her entire career, get one talking about their subject of interest and they would tell you everything you wanted to know as they went on a self-indulgent tirade. “Krell hail from the planet Krell, of the same name, an unexplored planet whose surface has been observed to be mostly covered in bogs and swamps. The inhabitants themselves are about twelve to fifteen feet from nose to tail, and though they stand taller than a Borealan when they're erect, they stay hunched over when walking on land. They are amphibious, needing to live in close proximity to bodies of water so as not to dry out, though their protective scales significantly extend the duration of their forays onto land by trapping moisture. They tend to do fine in the kind of humidity that humans favor, and access to bodies of water is more of a creature comfort than a matter of survival as it would be in more arid environments.”
  79.     “How is the planet unexplored? Could the surveyors not simply ask the Krell for more details?”
  80.     “Perhaps I should let Doctor Webber answer that question,” Sousa said, gesturing to the small woman.
  81.     “Well,” Webber began, “the Krell are not exactly forthcoming when it comes to language. Much of their communication happens in subsonic frequencies below the range of human hearing, low rumbles and roars generated deep in the in the throat. We theorize that these sounds travel very far in fwater, though they will communicate that way on land too. They aren't exactly...very chatty, some people assume they're mute, but if you press them they will talk and they do have their own language that humans can attempt to replicate. Of course it is impossible to reproduce the low frequency elements of that language, so we can only have very surface-level conversations with them, land-dwelling primates that we are.”
  82.     Kate crossed her arms, sitting down on a nearby stool.
  83.     “I'm starting to get the impression that we don't know all that much about the Krell, we know nothing about their planet, and we can't communicate with them in order to find out.”
  84.     “Well we can,” Webber added hurriedly, “but it is rather difficult.”
  85.     “If we can't talk to them,” Kate mused, tapping her manicured fingernails on the polished surface of the desk, “how did they even join the Coalition in the first place? Who discovered their homeworld?
  86.     “We didn't.” Dubois this time, electing to join the discussion. “The Krell pre-date humanity's membership of the Coalition, by the time we joined they were already around, serving as troops for the Brokers.”
  87.     Brokers, more damned unanswerable questions. The elusive founders of the multi-species organization that was the Coalition were rarely seen, and even less frequently available for extended interrogation. Kate had never seen one herself, not even pictures. The Admiralty must be in frequent contact with them, but unlike the Krell and Borealans, they did not mingle with the general population.
  88.     “So the Brokers must have discovered the planet Krell and enlisted them, there's no chance of arranging an interview with one of those, so what do we have to work with?”
  89.     Webber was the first to answer.
  90.     “We should ask the Krell, that's the easiest course of action right now. We find out where they live on the station, then we pay them a visit. I know enough Krell to make myself understood, and I'm sure most of them understand English well enough.”
  91.     “In the meantime I will stay here,” Clayton added, “and see if I can find out any more about the biology of these aliens. Do I have permission to perform a dissection?”
  92.     Kate thought on it for a moment, resting her chin on her hand.
  93.     “No, permission denied. Until we know exactly what these things are and where they come from, I don't want you doing one any lasting damage. Keep studying them, but only through non-invasive methods.”
  94.     “Very well.”
  95.     “The rest of you,” Kate rose from her seat and gestured for them to follow. “We're off to visit the Krell.”
  96.  
  97.     The group left the building and took a right, heading up-spin of the torus as they followed the red markings on the floor that led to the naval quarter. The Krell were housed in a specialized barracks near the gym, so that they might have access to the Olympic swimming pool when they pleased. When they weren't training at the range or socializing with human and Borealan troops, notoriously friendly as they were, they could usually be found around there. Kate had never been inside their housing facility before, unlike the Borealans who were basically analogous to humans where their basic needs were concerned, the Krell were truly alien. She wondered how their barracks might differ from those of the human troops.
  98.     They passed groups of recruits and marines, headed off to perform duties and functions, the occasional alien towering above them as they went about their business. The naval quarter was by far the most densely populated of the four sections of Pinwheel's torus, as the station was primarily a military base and housed both troops that were deployed here and those who were just passing through, on their way to far off planets or taking shore leave from docked vessels. The crowds were a sea of UNN blue uniforms, humans and Borealans wearing tight jumpsuits and the Krell sporting hanging ponchos covered in pockets. They had internal genitalia, and so modesty was less of a concern for them. Kate found herself wondering briefly if female Krell had breasts, she had never seen one before, the entire population of the aliens stationed on Pinwheel were all military aged males. Probably not, reptiles and amphibians did not nurse their young.
  99.     They arrived at the door to the Krell barracks, a squat, square building that was built into the wall of the Pinwheel. There was more foliage than usual surrounding it, almost jungle-like, with an emphasis on ferns and palms in contrast to the flowers and deciduous trees that were favored in the rest of the station. The door was unusually large and wide, so that the tall and stocky Krell could pass through it easily, and there were a few of them milling about near the entrance.
  100.     Although she knew them to be benign and friendly, Kate never really got used to their sheer mass. They were like gigantic, bipedal crocodiles, dinosaur throwbacks with limbs like tree trunks tipped with too many fingers and toes, their paddle-like tails trailing behind them to drag along the floor. Their bodies were covered in armored scales, more prominent down the back and tail, their bellies paler and softer in texture. They had pronounced snouts lined with jagged teeth, their small yellow eyes were set beneath heavy brows, unsympathetic with their reptilian pupils. They turned to peer at the scientists, their multiple eyelids blinking to clear their vision as they rumbled a greeting, their baggy necks hanging below their jaws and vibrating.
  101.     Webber stepped forward, this was her area of expertise, the tiny blonde woman was absolutely dwarfed by the Krell who lumbered over to meet her. They were clumsy on land, far more graceful in the water, though their immense resistance to damage and injury made them invaluable to the UNN's military operations. As slow as they were, a formation of Krell could weather fire that would eviscerate a human soldier, often acting in defense of their smaller and weaker mammalian counterparts.
  102.     Translation software had a difficult time interpreting the odd, multi-frequency language of the Krell, and so Webber had to do her best using her own limited vocabulary. She made a series of vocalizations that sounded like someone trying to sing while afflicted with a severe head cold, and in turn the alien uttered a burst of guttural barks. They seemed to have come to some sort of understanding, and so Webber waved them forward as the Krell turned to walk towards the building.
  103.     “What did you ask him?” Sousa asked, jogging for a moment to catch up to her.
  104.     “I asked if we could come inside...I think.”
  105.     The Krell waited for a moment, allowing the automatic door to open, then stepped inside. His broad shoulders skimmed the frame, and the team followed after him, careful not to step on his long tail as it trailed behind him on the floor.
  106.     The corridors and rooms of the building were also Krell-scale, the main hall wide enough for two of the larger examples to pass eachother without colliding, and as soon as the team entered the doorway they were hit with a wall of humidity. It was like stepping off a shuttle into a jungle, the air was clammy and full of moisture, immediately everyone began to sweat as the heat washed over them.
  107.     “God, I feel like I'm in a damned vivarium,” Sousa complained, wiping his brow with the sleeve of his lab coat. The place stank of Krell, their scent wasn't unpleasant, but it was ever present and somewhat overpowering in its intensity. There were rooms off the main hall, these appeared to be the barracks where the aliens lived and slept. Rather than sleeping on beds and bunks like humans or Borealans, the Krell seemed to prefer sleeping in recesses in the floor, like foxholes lined with pillows and bedding. There were three or four to a room, dug into the ground and piled with soft material, it occurred to Kate that some looked large enough for more than one Krell.
  108.     The large alien led them down to the end of the corridor, where it opened up into an expansive common room that was packed with Krell. This seemed to be the source of the humidity, and Kate pulled at the collar of the shirt that she was wearing beneath her lab coat, the fabric sticking to her skin with sudor. There were pools of water in the room, not as deep or wide as a swimming pool, more like shallow ponds where the aliens lounged like sleepy alligators with their bodies half submerged. There were massive vents on the walls that pumped in the moist air, circulating it through the room with a mechanical whir. Kate found it too noisy to be relaxing, but the Krell didn't seem bothered by it, there was the occasional splash as one of them shifted position or a new one fell to its belly and slid into the water to join its fellows. A few of them opened one reptilian eye to peer at the intruders, but they didn't seem to care, their lethargy more powerful than their curiosity.
  109.     Sousa leaned over and whispered into Kate's ear, perhaps having noticed her confused expression.
  110.     “They're amphibians, cold blooded, they're prone to short bursts of speed and activity but this is their most common state. They may resemble Earth crocodiles, but they're actually a lot closer to our frogs or newts than our reptiles. Convergent evolution works its magic, though.”
  111.     “So they're just...sleeping?” Kate asked, watching the creatures as they relaxed in the water. They seemed to have no concept of personal space, many were piled one on top of another as if they weren't even aware that they were sharing the pool.
  112.     “Not really, think of it more as a low metabolic state to conserve energy. They look slow now, but when they need it they can be as fast as lightning, in short bursts of course.”
  113.     Webber walked up to the Krell who had shown us inside, and loosed another series of odd, throaty calls. She and the alien took a minute or two to talk, perhaps having some trouble understanding eachother. When they were done she turned back to the group of increasingly uncomfortable humans, sweat pouring down their faces.
  114.     “Well...I asked him if he knows anything about what's going on, as far as I can tell he says he doesn't. I asked if they kept pets, though the Krell seem to have no word for that, and as far as he knows none of his people have brought anything unauthorized onto the station. He isn't the leader though, I can't seem to identify one, they have a very communal social structure. To be honest it's almost impossible to parse much of what he says, and I don't think I was able to make myself very well understood. I don't really feel like I'm doing my credentials credit...”
  115.     “Trust me Doctor Webber,” Kate said, placing a hand on the small woman's shoulder, “that's a hell of a lot further than anyone else on this station could have managed.”
  116.     “We should search the building for contraband,” Dubois added, his arms folded as he stood near the door in an attempt to escape the humidity that permeated the room. “If Webber can't make herself understood then we 'ave no guarantee the alien answered her question at all.”
  117.     “I agree,” Sousa replied, “my pet theory is still the best one we have, let's fan out and take a look around. We don't need their permission, this is a UNN facility.”
  118.     Kate couldn't argue with that, and soon the team had spread out into the building to look for any evidence of the little lizards. Even if they found something it could just be evidence that the infestation had spread to this barracks rather than proof that the Krell were to blame, but she had to agree that the DNA match was incriminating. Whatever the source of the creatures was, they had a pretty high chance of finding it here.
  119.  
  120.     Everyone went off in a different direction, some to search the rooms with the recessed sleeping areas, others began to examine the common room. Sousa milled about the large space, walking between the pools and stepping over the sluggish Krell as they lazed in the warm glow from the heat lamps in the ceiling. They were truly fascinating creatures, the only example of an amphibian species that had evolved sentience so far encountered by science. Their seven stubby fingers were tipped with dull claws that they could use to grip and manipulate objects, and despite their low level of native technology their capacity for intelligence was very high, especially intelligence of the emotional kind. They were not great thinkers or problem solvers, but their capacity for empathy and social organization was impressive, even by human standards. It was a shame that communication was so limited, there must be a wealth of culture and history here that humans might never be able to truly appreciate.
  121.     There were half a dozen of the shallow pools spaced out around the room, each filled with Krell jostling for space, some stacked on top of one another. Occasionally one of the giant creatures would scramble forwards with a splash of water, powering itself along with its massive tail in order to reach a more favorable spot on top of the pile.
  122.     One rolled over onto its back as Sousa watched, exposing its pale belly, yawning and opening its jaws to reveal its purple tongue and similarly tinted mucosa. Where the lining of the mouth and mucous membranes in humans was pink, in Krell it was varying shades of blue, due to the hemocyanin their species used to transport oxygen to their tissues. It was an odd choice for a vertebrate, but must be a holdout from their evolutionary past.
  123.     “Wait, what is...” Sousa stopped, turning to look at the alien again. There was something off about it, something was wrong. Its snout was stunted, shorter than those of its fellow Krell, and now that he was looking more closely its body shape was strange too. The shoulders were narrower, the thighs and tail were fatter and thicker than those of the aliens that were lying around and on top of it. He couldn't get a very good look, as the specimen was buried in the heap of scaly bodies, but it seemed deformed. If Clayton were here he might be able to confirm what Sousa was seeing, but he was back at the lab working on the specimen.
  124.     “Hey guys,” he shouted, turning back towards the corridor that led to the sleeping areas, “you'd better come see this!”
  125.  
  126.     Before long the whole team was crowded around one very confused looking Krell, Webber crouched in front of it and tried to communicate, urging it to leave its spot at the bottom of the heap and slink out of the pool to stand before the humans. It was short, far closer to human height than a hunched Krell or even a Borealan. It couldn't have been more than a hair over six feet, and it was standing more erect than the others of its ilk who tended to stoop like dinosaurs when they were on land. It was shorter, lighter, its body configured differently with the fat seemingly stored in entirely different places. While the Krell usually stored most of their fat reserves in their gargantuan tails, this one seemed to store it in the thighs, belly and chest, giving it an almost feminine figure. Not to say that it didn't sport its own impressive tail, but it was overall doughier and meatier than its more lithe counterparts, giving it a kind of pear-shape that drew the eyes inexorably towards its hips.
  127.     “Some kind of dwarfism?” Sousa posited, looking the creature over as it waited patiently for further instructions, its yellow eyes moving between the human scientists. Even its facial features were softer and less jagged, the odd snaggletooth protruding from its stumpy snout rather than the rows of wicked teeth common to its fellows.
  128.     “Could it just be a juvenile?” Webber suggested, walking around the alien to examine it from the back. “We don't really know how long they live for, or much about their life cycle at all, it's possible those that we have seen so far have simply been older examples of their species.”
  129.     Sousa shook his head, his mane of dark hair waving with the motion, scratching his chin thoughtfully as the odd Krell blinked at him.
  130.     “I don't think so, I've done research on Krell biology and I would have at least seen some mention of it. No, this is something different, something new...”
  131.     “Looks like a woman to me.” Dubois this time, still leaning against the wall near the exit, as if he couldn't wait to be out of there. Sousa scoffed at him, then gestured to the Krell's smooth groin area.
  132.     “Impossible, look here, you can see the cloacal slit that hides the penis. They may look genderless at first glance, but to a trained eye the reproductive configuration is immediately obvious. The Krell have internal genitalia, the penis emerges from the multi-purpose cloaca during arousal, like that of a crocodile or a turtle. It's closed up right now, but during mating the phallus will slide out of what appears to the uninitiated to be the anus. It's actually a cloaca with multiple functions that both expels waste and exchanges genetic material during mating.”
  133.     “Well, 'ave you ever seen a female Krell?” Dubois asked, cocking one eyebrow sarcastically.
  134.     “Well...no, all of the Krell who serve in the UNN are adult males. Presumably the females stay behind on the homeworld, but based on the anatomy of the males we can make some very confident inferences about the females.”
  135.     Webber grimaced and stuck out her tongue in a show of distaste.
  136.     “So everything comes out through the same hole? That's revolting.”
  137.     “Not exactly,” Sousa replied, “in birds and reptiles from Earth that would be the case, but in Krell the cloaca is split internally into two chambers. One is connected to the digestive tract and passes waste, the other houses the genitals.”
  138.     Kate had to make a decision on how to proceed, the endless speculation was getting them nowhere and they had found nothing in the other rooms of the building, not one lizard. This new discovery might be unrelated, but then again it might not be, and any scientific curiosity was worthy of investigation. She crossed her arms, her mind made up.
  139.     “We'll take this one back to the lab and let Clayton have a look at it,” she said. “Webber, secure permission, or whatever it is we need from the Krell to take custody of this one.”
  140.     “I honestly don't think they care,” Webber mused, taking off her spectacles to wipe their misted lenses with her sleeve, the humidity of the sauna-like common room playing merry hell with her vision. She replaced them as Kate waited, and cleared her throat. “What I mean to say is, they'll pretty much just do whatever you tell them to do, they're trusting creatures. Ask this one to come, and it probably will.”
  141.     “Ok, well make a log of this and send it to station command, I don't want to be held responsible if someone comes looking for this Krell and can't find it.”
  142.     “Yes ma'am.”
  143.     Webber instructed it to follow, and did so, tagging along obediently as the group left the stifling humidity of the Krell barracks and returned to the cool breeze of the torus. Kate ran her fingers through her sodden hair, resisting the urge to take off her lab coat, she couldn't wait to have a good long shower when she had some downtime. Unfortunately that might not be for a while, it sounded as if Moralez was going to work them to the bone until the mystery was solved.
  144.  
  145.     Clayton rose from his seat at his desk to greet his colleagues as they entered the lab, lifting the magnifying lenses of the headset he was wearing as he pored over the captured lizard, startled to see a Krell in tow. He replaced the struggling creature in its transparent box and firmly secured the lid as it hissed its displeasure at him, walking over to meet the group.
  146.     “And who might this be,” he asked, looking the alien up and down as it waited patiently.
  147.     “We didn't find anything relating to the infestation at the Krell barracks,” Sousa said, “but we did find this. Take a close look at him, and tell me what you see.”
  148.     While Sousa was a seasoned biologist, Clayton was the only member of the team who was versed in medicine and actually had any hands-on experience treating Krell and other member races of the Coalition, if there was something odd about this specimen he might be able to give them a diagnosis.
  149.     He took a minute, walking around the Krell and examining it from head to tail, muttering to himself under his breath as his colleagues waited for his opinion. He lowered the headset he was wearing to make use of its instruments, a sort of headband with a mechanical arm that housed all manner of magnification and scanning equipment, sliding it down over his eyes as he analyzed the team's newest find.
  150.     “Curious, very curious,” he mumbled. “See here,” he pointed to the creature's wide hips, “this is abnormal, the fat deposits are significantly expanded in comparison to a healthy Krell. The same can be seen in the upper legs, the rump, and on the torso. Normally I would diagnose hypothyroidism, or perhaps some kind of hormonal or glandular problem, yet the patient's size is inconsistent with that diagnosis. It's stunted, underdeveloped, which would not be a symptom of an underactive thyroid.”
  151.     He moved to the front of the Krell and placed his hands on its snout and jaw, gently prying them open to peer inside. He activated a small lamp on his headset for a better view, and after a moment released the bemused alien. It licked its scaly lips with its blue tongue, watching the veterinarian curiously.
  152.     “The snout is shorter than it should be, and the patient is missing several teeth, there simply isn't enough space for them. The height discrepancy is immediately obvious too, from nose to tail it's about a third shorter than a normal Krell.”
  153.     “What do you make of it?” Kate asked, “is this some kind of congenital deformity? A previously unknown subspecies like the Polar Borealans perhaps?”
  154.     Clayton hesitated for a moment before replying, a scowl on his face.
  155.     “I...I can't be sure. I will need to perform some tests, take some tissue samples, do you think we can goad him into the X-ray machine?”
  156.     “Webber says they're compliant, just tell him where you need him to go, and he probably will. The rest of us have more work to do.”
  157.     “I would like to stay and help Doctor Clayton,” Sousa announced eagerly, but Kate cut him off with a wave of her hand.
  158.     “Negative, Doctor Clayton will study the specimens on his own, meanwhile I want Doctor Webber to return to the Krell barracks and see what she can find out. Ask them about this one, ask them about the lizards, take your time and interview as many as you can. I'm not satisfied with what we got out of them on our last visit, but since we found no physical evidence of their involvement we should take our investigation elsewhere.”
  159.     “O-On my own?” Webber asked, a touch of fear in her voice.
  160.     “Come now Doctor, they're friendly and compliant, you said as much yourself. I'm not asking you to bunk with Borealans, just to interview some Krell. The rest of us have field work to do.”
  161.     “What do you mean by field work?” Sousa asked suspiciously.
  162.     “We're going into the vents.”
  163.  
  164.     “I didn't sign up for this,” Sousa complained as he crawled through the ventilation duct on his hands and knees. They were deep inside the air filtration system now, miles and miles of interlinked ducts that transported fresh air around the station and carried away the waste gasses for recycling. Sousa, Dubois and Reid were crawling in single file, with an engineer clad in yellow overalls at their head, his helmet-mounted flashlight illuminating their way in the gloomy passages.
  165.     “I didn't even sign up,” Dubois complained from the back, his tone surly. “I got conscripted like some muddy colonist in the planetary defense force.”
  166.     “Your complaining won't speed this up,” Kate chided, then the engineer leading them stopped and sat.
  167.     “Take a breather,” he advised, pulling up a map on his tablet computer. “I need to figure out where we are and where we're going next.”
  168.     “We need to get above the mess hall, we know that's where some of them ended up.”
  169.     “Affirmative Doctor Reid, but these systems are like a maze, if you don't want to get lost in here we need to keep a very close eye on where we've been. Right now we're in duct Q4-807, that stands for the eight hundred and seventh passageway in the fourth quarter of the torus, which puts us at maybe a ten minute crawl from the mess hall.”
  170.     Dubois leaned against one wall of the vent, rubbing his scuffed knees.
  171.     “How do you guys keep track of all this? What 'appens when a fan dies or something like that?”
  172.     “Well, then we come in and fix it. Sensors alert us to the general area where a malfunction or breakdown occurs, then we shut down the fan system in that area so we can reach it and repair it.”
  173.     “So that's why there's no airflow?”
  174.     “That's right, can't have people turning tight corners and walking into fans, that's one mess they don't pay me enough to clean up.”
  175.     “Don't people need air?” Dubois asked, his tone a little sarcastic.
  176.     “Yes, but there are redundant systems that can temporarily handle the load. This is a battle station after all, fully equipped for sieges, the Pinwheel can take a lot of damage and still keep the life support systems running.” The engineer tapped at the screen in the gloom, the glow illuminating his grizzled face in a blue light, then after a few moments he waved them forward. “Ok, we take the next left down here, stay close and don't get lost. Without the station blueprints you'd probably die of thirst before you made it out on your own.”
  177.     “That's encouraging,” Dubois muttered as he began to crawl again.
  178.     They traipsed through the winding maze, turning corner after corner, with no sense of direction or distance in the cramped space. Their engineer guide was correct, without the map they would certainly become hopelessly lost, if you laid these vents out end to end they would probably stretch down to the damned planet the facility orbited.
  179.     As they rounded another corner there was the sound of startled scurrying, tiny claws scratching on metal and echoing into the distance. Kate pushed past the engineer, turning on a handheld flashlight and shining the beam down the vent. She illuminated a very frightened lizard, its beady eyes reflecting in the darkness. It chirped and scrambled away around a corner and out of view.
  180.     “There's one! After it!”
  181.     “Hang on Doctor Reid,” the engineer complained as she jostled past him. “Don't get too far ahead, or you'll lose sight of us!”
  182.     She didn't heed his warning, her eyes fixed on her prize as she rushed around the bend on her knees, stumbling as her long lab coat caught underneath her. These damned vents were just slightly too low to crouch in, she would never catch one of the agile little creatures in this manner. That wasn't the objective though, she had to keep it in sight long enough to see which direction it fled in, logic dictated that frightened animals would flee towards the safety of their nests.
  183.     She slowed and peeked around the next corner, trying to catch the little creature by surprise, her flashlight aimed at the floor to dim the beam. There was light here, slats in the bottom of the ventilation shaft allowed beams to pass up from what was presumably the mess hall, motes of dust hanging in their golden glow. There were lizards, at least a dozen of them, her quarry slowing to join the safety of their huddle. As she brought the light to bear on them they scattered, skittering across the metal floor and hissing as they vanished into the darkness. They were all headed off in the same direction, Kate wanted to pursue them but she thought it wiser to wait for the engineer before proceeding. She realized there was an odd smell in the air, and she shuffled forward a little to take a look through the slats. They were indeed over the mess hall now, above the kitchen to be precise, the scents from the cooking food rising to the ventilation system. That must be what had drawn so many of them here, the promise of food. There were no insects or pests for them to hunt on the station, and Kate wondered if they were cannibalistic, that might help ease her problem somewhat.
  184.     The rest of the group caught up with her, shuffling on their hands and knees as they rounded the bend.
  185.     “You see where they went, Doctor Reid?” Sousa asked, out of breath.
  186.     “Yeah, they all went in the same direction, if I'm right they have a nest down here somewhere. Maybe that's where they've been breeding. Follow me.”
  187.  
  188.     Webber walked up the path that led to the entrance of the Krell barracks, her tablet computer clutched tightly to her chest as her heeled shoes clicked on the artificial stone, passing beneath the palm trees and decorative ferns while loitering Krell turned to watch her with curious eyes. She didn't wear the heels for show, they were not flashy or sexy, merely in order to gain a crucial inch so that her taller colleagues might take her more seriously. At five feet and four inches she was so often overlooked or treated like a girl, while her credentials put her at the top of the list of xenolinguists for a hundred light years. Though prominent in her field, at times like this her timid demeanor let her down.
  189.     She weaved out of the way of a passing alien and brushed her straight, blonde hair from her eyes, adjusting her spectacles and trying to avoid being stepped on by the giant reptile as it lumbered past. She had nothing to fear from a logical standpoint, the Krell were not aggressive or dangerous, in fact they were a damn sight friendlier than most humans she might come across on the station. Still, she was a slight woman, small in stature and meek in temperament. She was most at home transcribing alien texts at her desk, or subtitling exolanguage broadcasts for human consumption, all of this field work was putting her far outside of her comfort zone.
  190.     She didn't resent being reassigned to Reid's team, but even if she had the authority to refuse the order, she would probably have lacked the will to stand up to the intimidating security chief. The man was made of scars and metal, on this station his word was law.
  191.     She passed through the Krell-sized automatic door and wandered into the barracks, wondering if she could find the individual she had spoken to the day before, she might feel more at ease if she could see a familiar face. There were familiar faces all around her however, the damned aliens were impossible to tell apart at a glance. Sousa would know how to identify them, the number of teeth jutting from their jaws, the shape of the scales or some other biologist trick that wouldn't be evident to her.
  192.     As she wandered through the building, she realized that she wasn't entirely sure what Reid had wanted. Interviews yes, information on the odd Krell they had found, but getting anything more complex than a 'yes' or 'no' answer was going to be an ordeal. She had some translation software on her tablet that might help though, as much as the program struggled it could at least supplement her own knowledge in cases where the frequencies were too low for her to hear.
  193.     As she approached the common room where the pools were, she heard one such sound, a low rumbling that vibrated her bones and set her teeth on edge. It was like a low growl, but it didn't sound aggressive. It wasn't a part of their language that she recognized, and so she inched forward to peer around the door frame so as not to disturb them. The room was packed with Krell, the corridor and the bedrooms she had passed had been empty but there were two dozen here, crowded around the shallow pools and stacked on top of one another. The rumbling was coming from one such pile, an especially large specimen was lounging with his head in the water, too shallow to submerge it completely but deep enough to cover his lower jaw. He seemed to be vibrating the water so that it splashed and danced in mesmerizing patterns, the noise of his growl so incredibly deep and low that it washed over her more like a physical force than a sound. She broke out of her stupor and hastily turned on her tablet computer, recording the odd vocalization as the display continued.
  194.     Before long other Krell had joined him, they lay quite still in the water, yet the surface jumped and vibrated as if it were full of tiny, hyperactive fish. The readout on her tablet showed a frequency of twenty two hertz, plotting a graph of the sound as it continued to record. It was starting to give her a headache, it was too intense, she could feel it penetrate her very body.
  195.     In fact the powerful vibrations were beginning to bother her in a different, more private way. How on Earth did they produce such a powerful sound? Webber was torn between staying to document the odd display, possibly never witnessed by humans before, and leaving to preserve her modesty. Perhaps she could stash the tablet computer somewhere nearby, and then return to collect it later?
  196.     There was a flurry of splashing and activity from one of the pools, drawing Webber's attention, and she dropped her train of thought as she crept closer to see what was happening. She peeked around the door, the hallway and rooms behind her conspicuously deserted. The largest Krell who had started the strange chorus of rumbling calls was man-handling a smaller specimen, wrestling it to the ground and...mounting it? Her face burned crimson as she placed a hand over her mouth, the sound must be a mating call of some kind, nobody had ever seen the Krell mate before. Yet how was that possible? These Krell were all male, did homosexuality exist in this species? Somehow she doubted it, they would have seen some sign of it before now.
  197.     As her glasses began to mist from the intense humidity, she watched the smaller alien struggle, splashing in the water before appearing to accept the larger Krell. It raised its rump, wide hips and a fat tail...wait!
  198.     The shape of its body, the fat transported to the hips and thighs, the stunted snout, this was another example of the strange specimen they had encountered earlier in the day. There were more of them, that proved beyond a doubt that what they had taken back to the lab for examination was not some kind of genetic defect or a subspecies, but could it be a female? The Krell had never presented a female of their race to a human before, it was presumed that they were confined to the homeworld, perhaps due to a primitive chauvinistic culture that valued its female members only as mothers to be protected. That was all speculation though, all anyone knew was that the UNN only ever encountered male Krell, they provided only male soldiers to fulfill their commitment to the Coalition.
  199.     The massive Krell penetrated its partner with a low grunt, thankfully their coupling was out of view from Webber's perspective. She couldn't see a lot between the recessed pool and the piles of Krell, but she could hear it, powerful thrusts slapping against flesh, growls and grunts of effort and glee as they copulated in the pile of shifting bodies.
  200.     She pulled her eyes away from the scene, her back against the wall, should she be watching this? Was she peeping, did the Krell have the same concepts of modesty and privacy as humans? The damned vibrating call was effecting her, the rumbling traveling up through the metal floor as she sat on it, her heart quickening and an embarrassing wet patch forming in her underwear. She was wearing a long skirt under her lab coat, she had considered it demure, but now she felt exposed. Her face burned feverishly hot, sweat making her clothing stick to her skin as the heat and stifling humidity washed over her, the rumbling and the sound of rutting from the common room...it was all making her head spin.
  201.     “Come on Lena, get a hold of yourself,” she muttered under her breath, trying to stand on her shaky legs. She risked another quick glance past the door, at least it was intended to be quick, now her eyes lingered on the mating pair. Most of the Krell who had been obscuring her view had dispersed and the sound was now diminishing, had they perhaps missed their chance to get in on the action? In parting they had given her a better view of the sordid scene, the massive, muscular Krell leaning over his mate as...whatever gender it was...rocked with his powerful thrusts.
  202.     She couldn't take her eyes off them, and she wiped the lenses of her glasses with her sleeve as she watched the enormous male slam into his mate, driving a sharp cry from it as it squirmed and wriggled. It wasn't a cry of pain, but of pleasure, intense from the looks of things. The male was a golem of scales and muscle, broad shouldered with a massive chest, his biceps bulging from beneath his leathery skin as he moved. The sheer mass of the thing...a shame she couldn't see their genitals from this vantage point.
  203.     She startled herself with her intrusive, indecent thought, dragging herself away and trying to get herself back under control. It was time to leave, the heat was effecting her judgment, that must be it. She was soaked in sweat, wet in more ways than one, and somewhat ashamed of her lack of self control. Sure she might not have had a steady boyfriend since grad school, but she was a sophisticated woman, playing voyeur to an alien coupling was beneath her. She needed a change of clothes and a bath, some time with the shower head would set her straight.
  204.     As she moved to leave she was blocked by a wall of scales the color of spinach, her heart skipping and her hands shooting to her mouth to muffle her surprised yelp. The Krell had simply been leaving the common room, he was only now noticing her, and turned his head to look down at the trembling human who was hiding behind the doorway. She had been caught, a wave of shame washed over her and she felt as if the heat from her cheeks might melt the frames of her glasses.
  205.     The Krell was enormous, almost as large as the one who had initiated the mating call and was now reaping the spoils of his efforts in the next room, eight feet tall despite his hunched posture and a good fourteen feet from nose to tail. He was just as heavily muscled, though he had more fat around his belly and tail that gave him a kind of strongman physique. He peered down at Webber with his amber eyes, blinking the nictitating membranes that served as a third eyelid, his nostrils flaring as he examined her.
  206.     Was he going to pick her up by the collar of her lab coat and toss her out into the torus? She tried to stammer an excuse in English, all of her training forgotten under the intense stare of the alien. He was only a foot away from her, she could smell him, like wet leather as the damp air clung to his thick scales.
  207.     “I-I wasn't...I'll...I should leave,” she stuttered, her lower lip trembling and her heart pounding in her ears. As she tried to slink away to the right, the alien placed his hand against the wall to block her passage, his arm thicker than her thighs and his seven stubby fingers splayed across the metal. She looked up at him again, now afraid, but he didn't look angry.
  208.     He loosed a low frequency rumble, shaking her bones and sending more of those arousing vibrations through her loins, another mating call. She tried to swallow, her throat dry suddenly despite the humid air, her thighs trembling as a telltale strand of her excitement fell from beneath her skirt.
  209.     Was he propositioning her? Oh God, oh God, what should she do? She knew the Krell words for 'no' and 'stop', simple concepts that were easy to get across, and yet...
  210.     As he leaned down to press his snout into her hair, his hot breath blowing on her scalp, the words didn't come. He roamed further down, his jagged jaws opening to reveal a purple tongue that glanced her skin, hot and wet as he tasted her sweat. She found herself leaning aside to allow him access, those jaws could have shred her flesh like pulled pork, but somehow she knew what he wanted from her. She had never been so aroused in her life, she was flowing like a faucet, her head spinning so much that she feared she might faint. His tongue wormed its way down her blouse, pressing between her pert breasts and leaving a trail of thick saliva, her heart hammered in her chest as she realized it was as long as her damned arm. Oh, the things he might be able to do to her with that tongue...it didn't bear thinking about.
  211.     She was rubbing her thighs together, lost in the haze of arousal and heat, and she started to slide her lab coat off her shoulders. This was dumb, this was really dumb, were they even sexually compatible? His...thing must be as big as her leg. She didn't heed the nagging voice of reason in the back of her mind though, dropping her lab coat in a heap around her ankles and starting to unbutton her blouse. Nobody ever gave her this kind of attention, she had never had an experience like this before, so raw and primal. She didn't consider herself an unattractive woman, but her work kept her far from the prying eyes of male colleagues, and ate enough of her time that courting on her days off was practically impossible. She couldn't say no, the ball had started rolling already and it was too late to change her mind.
  212.     Without warning the Krell placed his scaly hands around her hips, sinking his many fingers into the springy meat of her ass and lifting her clear off the floor, her back sliding against the wall. She stifled another yelp as he thrust his long snout beneath her flowing skirt, the demure garment now resting atop his head as he sniffed obscenely. Her legs dangled a good five feet off the floor, one of her high-heeled shoes dropping from her foot to clatter to the deck, her toes curling through the fabric of her pantyhose as the alien breathed hot air on her privates.
  213.     He was so damned strong, he could lift her like she was no more than a doll, and her eyes rolled into the back of her head as she felt the probing of his warm tongue on her inner thigh. He must be able to smell her womanhood, lord, was it that obvious to them? She covered her face with her hands in an effort to dispel the embarrassment that burned her cheeks, mingling with her arousal to create a dangerous flavor of excitement that quickened her heart.
  214.     The Krell pressed his massive, wet tongue against her mound, presumably tasting the fluids that leaked through her pantyhose and underwear as she squirmed in his grasp. Oh fuck, was he going to do it right here in the hall, in full view of any passers by? What if one of her colleagues came to check on her? She should really tell him to stop, and yet...
  215.     He struggled with the pantyhose, an unexpected force-field that hindered his progress, and there was a sound of tearing fabric as he caught the fine mesh in his teeth and ripped a hole through them. Lena hastily reached down and pulled her panties aside lest the alien tear through those too, she wasn't about to make a walk of shame back to the residential district without underwear.
  216.     He dragged his meaty tongue from her crotch to her belly, thick and wide enough to cover her vulva, its bumpy surface sliding across her tender flesh on a bed of saliva as he sampled her leaking juices. She shuddered, sucking her lower lip into her mouth and biting it as she tried in vain to control her arousal. His great purple tongue was so agile, an appendage in its own right as he dragged its slimy surface over her sensitive thighs and groin, exploring the creases of her sex with its tapered tip. It was all she could do to stifle her moans as he held her aloft, his winding organ coating her lower body in his viscous drool. She jerked as he slid it between her cheeks, glancing her bud as he roamed, wanton and shameless.
  217.     Only when her milky thighs were dripping with strands of his saliva and she had been thoroughly explored did he return his attention to her loins, swollen with blood and splayed now, dripping their invitation as his tongue poised over her glistening lips. She snapped her head back, banging it against the wall as the shock of his penetration rocked her burning body, his tongue forcing its way deep inside her as her muscles closed around it. The organ was as thick as her wrist, yet soft and flexible, winding and worming its way deeper inside her as if it had a will of its own. Her eyes began to water and her back arched away from the wall, her second shoe losing purchase and falling from her foot as she clenched her toes.
  218.     He was so hot, she could feel his warmth inside her, almost hot enough to burn as...oh God he was licking her insides. Her knees trembled, her legs limp and weak as he scoured the walls of her tunnel with his dexterous tongue, her muscles contracting around it but not strong enough to contain the powerful organ. His jagged teeth pressed into her belly, taking her almost into his mouth to extend the reach of his already impressive tongue, piling it inside her in fat coils when he found that he could go no further.
  219.     He filled her to capacity, his slick muscle squirming against her flesh as she reflexively tried to contain him, she was practically foaming at the mouth as he impaled her twitching body on his tongue. She no longer knew whether the sheen on her skin was sweat, strands of his slick saliva, or her own excitement.
  220.     Lena couldn't think, couldn't escape the intense sensation even for a second as the Krell held her in the air, his hands kneading her ass greedily as he probed and licked. She was beside herself, delirious as the unthinkable act continued, sweat making her clothing cling to her skin and instilling an unfamiliar urgency in her.
  221.     He was reaching so deep, his tongue scouring even her most intimate reaches, all of her secrets laid bare before his roving organ. The movement, the teasing, was constant. Thick ropes of his saliva, or maybe her flowing juices, sloughed from her twitching opening to slide down her thighs and drip to the floor with an audible splat. She covered her eyes with her hands, her breath coming in ragged gasps as his intrusion pushed her closer and closer to the edge. She tried to be so prim and proper, so professional, and here she was reduced to a mewling wreck as she let an alien eat her out.
  222.     She loved it.
  223.     She felt a tremor course through her tense body, she hadn't even gotten all of her clothes off yet and she was already at the edge, a burgeoning orgasm threatening to rip through her like an electric shock after jamming a fork in an outlet. The pleasure and the heat were making her giddy, ditzy, and she stifled a nervous giggle with her hand as the base of his tongue grazed her engorged clitoris. Why had she wanted to get herself under control? She was so high strung, she should let her hair down and enjoy this. She was so full of his tongue that she ached, a satisfying soreness in her tunnel as he stretched her to capacity, roiling like a fat worm. It felt as if every millimeter of her vagina was beset, his tongue writhing and expanding to leave nothing untouched, every lick threatening to stall her racing heart.
  224.     “Imma come,” she grunted, almost incoherent as one of the undulating rolls of his thick tongue forced its way into her sweet spot. She hunched over, her damp hair falling over her face as she scrambled to find purchase, digging her fingers into the leathery hide of the Krell's head as he kneaded her plump butt in his hands.
  225.     She let loose a pained curse, followed by a drawn out groan, a noise that she was shocked to hear coming from her own mouth. Her mind clouded as powerful contractions wracked her body, a crippling climax that sent harsh waves of pleasure flowing through her, the tingling heat spreading from her loins to the tips of her fingers and toes. She clamped her thighs around the Krell's face, thrusting her hips reflexively, humping his scaly snout as he drew out her orgasm with his ceaseless licking.
  226.     It just wouldn't stop, again and again a fresh wave of exquisite agony as powerful and as intense as the first cramped her muscles, draining her strength and resolve like squeezing juice from a fruit. She closed her eyes against the fluorescent lighting of the barracks, suddenly so intense that it blinded her, colorful points of light dancing before her vision. She felt like she was having a seizure, her mouth parched as her body expelled all of her available liquid through her pores and her loins. Yet still the alien lapped at her, every stroke of his agile tongue amplified tenfold by the haze that overcame her. She lost all sense of time, only aware of the organ that was still lodged deep inside her, and the pounding of her own heart as she rode it out.
  227.     Finally she came to, like waking from a dream, the Krell lowering her gingerly to the floor as she panted. He placed her on her shaky legs, holding out a hand to steady her as she swayed drunkenly, looking up at him with covetous eyes. It wasn't enough, not nearly enough.
  228.     She tried to stand up straight, intending to come off as confident, but instead having to lean back against the wall behind her as the Krell towered over her. He was a wall of smooth muscle and leathery scales, and she reached out a tentative hand, feeling the rise and fall of his breathing under her fingers. He had soft fat on his pale belly, but beneath it she could feel rows of bulging muscle, and she felt another tingling pulse in her loins. Her eyes wandered downwards, and widened with shock. He was erect, a gigantic, azure blue member hanging from his cloacal slit to dangle between his scaly thighs like a damned horse. She was suddenly aware of the dryness in her mouth again as her eyes played over it, it had a smooth surface with no visible veins, two bulges at its base and a flared head like a shovel. It had a wet sheen to it, and it twitched almost imperceptibly as she watched it sway. A hint of fear mingled with her surging arousal, could she even take something that large? Would it injure her? It was almost length of a human arm and its flared head looked as big as her fist. Oh, this was a terrible idea, but she needed more.
  229.     She glanced past him, did those damned rooms with the recessed beds have doors?
  230.     She blurted the Krell phrase for 'follow me', and the alien gave her a surprised look as she took his clawed hand and crouched for a moment to retrieve her discarded coat and shoes, leading him towards one of the rooms. Krell probably wouldn't have any use for a door, privacy did not seem to be a concern of theirs, but the facility had been built by humans and with any luck they may have projected their own insecurities onto the aliens.
  231.     To her surprise she was correct, as she swung the Krell into the room she noticed a control panel embedded in the door frame and hit it, an automatic door descending from the ceiling to seal the pair off from any prying eyes who might come looking. Now she felt more comfortable, and turned to look up at the Krell, the mere fact that she had to crane her neck to see his face making her tremble with anticipation.
  232.     She didn't know the Krell phrase for 'be gentle', but although brutish in appearance, these aliens seemed quite docile and careful. It was hard to say that she implicitly trusted this alien who she had just met, but she didn't get the impression that he would hurt her, despite the danger and excitement she felt safe with him.
  233.     She felt a sudden fluttering in her chest and started to take off the rest of her sodden clothes, refractory period be damned. She pulled off her blouse and stepped out of her soaking underwear, tearing away what was left of the ripped pantyhose, then stood before the Krell. She was exposed and naked, her nipples erect and hard despite the stifling heat of the barracks, she wondered what the alien thought of her as his yellow eyes played over her nubile body. Her pale skin was coated in a sheen of sweat and humidity that reflected the harsh heat lamps that were embedded in the ceiling, her subtle curves reflecting the glow to accentuate them, drawing his gaze to her bust and hips.  
  234.     Her face and chest were flushed, she was breathing heavily, practically squirming as she awaited his touch. He reached one of his muscular arms down and sank his fingers into her breast, the doughy flesh spilling around them as he kneaded, her knees weakening as the sensation shot through her body. He lingered for a moment, testing the firmness of her pert boobs, then slid his palm down her waist to rest on her hip.
  235.     Enough, she needed more. She broke off and strode over to the nearest recessed bed, a bowl carved into the deck and lined with cushions and pillows. It was large enough to fit several Krell, and she lowered herself into it, the lining soft under her feet. She turned and beckoned to the alien, and he lumbered over to join her, stepping heavily into the bed. His member was at full mast now, huge, maybe too huge. He stood with it at chest height to the short woman, practically jutting into her face as she trembled with excitement, her eyes locked onto the exotic organ. She reached out a tentative hand and traced the flared glans with her fingers, the Krell twitching in response. It was oddly soft and flexible, like rubber or silicone, and slick with some kind of moisture or sweat that gave it a reflective veneer.
  236.     She realized that her mouth was watering, the anticipation was almost too much for to stand and she had to fight to maintain her composure, rather than just throwing herself to the floor and raising her rear in invitation like a beast in heat. She hoped that her shivering would not be interpreted by the alien as fear, she was afraid to be sure, but not of him. She feared that their impending coupling might be too much for her, that it might break her.
  237.     She wrapped her fingers around the thick shaft, its circumference such that she could not get them all the way around it, the shovel-like head now leaking a strand of clear fluid from its tip. She caught it on her fingertip and watched the string break, could she return the favor and go down on him? Not a chance, there was no way she could fit that monster in her mouth, there was only one thing for it.
  238.     She dropped to her knees, then lay on her back on the soft cushions, spreading her legs in invitation to the Krell. Her legs were quivering, her chest rising and falling rapidly as both intense arousal and apprehension overcame her. The alien sized her up, cocking his head and trying to figure out how best to go about this, eventually deciding to drop heavily to his knees. He understood what she expected and shuffled forward, the pillows sinking under his immense weight, Lena had to dig her heels into the fabric to save from falling towards him.
  239.     He fell forward, planting his massive arms to either side of her body like rough, green tree trunks, and angled himself towards her opening. Her heart skipped a beat as she felt the spongy head of his cock press against her flushed lips, and she reached up to place a hand on his firm chest, a gesture that he should proceed with caution.
  240.     God, it felt even bigger than it looked, if she ended up in the emergency room because of her lust she would never live it down. She couldn't stop now though, not with his hot, throbbing organ pressing against her tender flesh. She had a feeling that this was going to be worth the risk. She reached down between her shaking thighs and gripped his smooth shaft as best she could, a blob of the Krell's saliva falling from his jaws as he loomed over her, landing heavily on her flat belly. She guided him, rubbing his flared glans up and down her glistening vulva, fever hot and wetter than she had ever been before.
  241.     She pulled him towards her, and he seemed to get the picture, thrusting forward ever so gently in order to push the tip of his member inside her. It splayed her open, her juices leaking around it to glaze his blue flesh, spreading her apart almost painfully. She gritted her teeth and endured, the head getting wider the further inside her it went. She had to place a hand on his broad chest again to slow him, taking a breather as she grew accustomed to its size, then urging him onward once more. Damn it, was it not going to fit? No no no, she needed it to, this 'had' to fit. With a pained grunt she pushed against him, and in one smooth motion the wide head of his member slipped inside her, almost frictionless as her excitement eased its passage.
  242.     Her eyes bulged and she arched her back off the cushions, her toes curling as his head scoured her tunnel, it was flexible enough to not hurt her too badly but firm enough that it kept its shape. Her muscles attempted to close around it and force it out in vain, the massive organ filling her and pumping in time with his powerful heart, slower and stronger than that of a human's. Another blob of saliva fell from his jagged maw to land on her belly, and for a moment she feared he might just start fucking her, that would probably kill her. But he seemed to be restraining himself, giving her time to catch her breath and get used to the sensation of his massive organ lodged inside her.
  243.     It hurt, she felt as if his member was stretching her out, a thousand times larger than it had looked now that it was buried in her twitching loins. Yet there was a dull pleasure to it, an ache that grew more powerful and urged her forward the longer his member remained inside her.
  244.     She gave him a tap on his scaly arm, and he pushed a little deeper, the flared head was already inside and so the narrower shaft was not a problem. Still, as he split her in two with his cock and his fat glans scraped against her walls, she couldn't help but groan with the strain of it. He pushed a little deeper, and she frantically gestured for him to stop, there was nowhere left for him to go and she didn't want him to hit her cervix. She was so full, and the dull pain of it was ebbing as his throbbing organ surged against the walls of her vagina, sending jolts of pleasure flaring through her nervous system as she tried to lie still.
  245.     Maybe five or six inches of his considerable length was now twitching and throbbing as it rested in her tunnel, she couldn't take any more of him, she could see the bulge of his head through her stomach. Growing impatient, strings of saliva hanging from his alligator-like jaws, the Krell pulled backwards in order to prepare another thrust. She dug her fingers into his arms as he grazed her insides on the way out, then he pushed forward again. She rocked her head back, her tongue leaving her mouth as the ache gave way to a gut-wrenching pleasure, his girth putting pressure on every nerve and sweet spot she had.
  246.     She found herself laughing nervously, giddy, oh yes this had been worth the risk. Sensing that she was more relaxed now, the alien dragged his member back towards her entrance and then delivered another, more forceful thrust. It felt as if her pelvis was going to snap, but the pressure and the urgent pleasure that coursed through her body made her eyelids flutter.
  247.     He started to move, slowly, carefully, keeping his yellow eyes on her to gauge her reactions as he went. Lena felt like she was being turned inside out, her vision blurring and her mind clouding as the intolerable sensations wracked her body.
  248.     The longer it went on the easier it became to handle, the soreness now almost entirely gone, giving way to a harsh, raw sensation that made her toes curl. She found herself pushing back, rolling her hips to drive his thick member against her satin flesh, his wet leather smell filling her senses. He was so massive, so powerful, looming over her as strands of his drool rained down on her belly and breasts.
  249.     Every thrust sent a spark of pleasure up her spine, dizzying her and forcing a gasp from her lips, her fingers gripping the cool scales on his forearms for leverage as he moved on top of her. He leaned down and opened his maw, his warm breath washing over her glistening body as his heavy tongue flopped out to taste her sweat, coiling around her neck and dragging across her smooth skin. He was going faster now, her body molding around him and changing shape to fit his immense organ, the friction and heat rising in intensity.
  250.     She wouldn't last very long and she didn't think the Krell would either, she looked up at his long jaws as he pummeled her, his sharp teeth bared and strands of saliva hanging loose. His thrusts were so heavy and powerful, he threw his weight into his rolling hips, almost enough to bruise her insides. Lena felt like she might black out, every time his thick member forced itself deeper and cleaved her tight walls apart it sent a shockwave up through her twitching body, her mind fogging as her instincts responded to the brutal encounter. Never in her most shameful fantasies had she imagined anything as intense as this, never in the most sordid nights she had spent in the company of her vibrator and whatever sleazy novel she had been able to pick up at a spaceport bookstore, she could never have prepared herself for this.
  251.     The Krell jolted her out of her thought, one firm hand gripping her hip for leverage as he slammed into her, his flared glans digging into her g-spot with all the subtlety and finesse of a punch to the face. She couldn't even wail, she just balled her fists and pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes in an animalistic attempt to block out the wracking pleasure, the Krell grunting as he fucked her. His pace increased, like a goddamned jackhammer as his dull claws dug into the flesh of her hip, his cock invading her mind as much as her loins. She couldn't think straight, couldn't see anything in her mind's eye beyond that flared shaft, her breath coming in staggered squeaks as his pace increased. His rhythm was as brutish as the force of his thrusts, unrelenting as she started to feel her orgasm welling in the core of her body. She could taste it in the back of her throat, feel it in the trembling of her sodden thighs, a burgeoning climax that threatened to bury her conscious mind in bestial lust.
  252.     He was so large, and was spreading her open to such an extent that her clitoris was fully exposed, forced from beneath its protective hood by the stretching of her flesh as it struggled to encompass the alien's immense girth. Did she dare to reach a finger down and bring a harsh, violent end to their encounter? Could she handle it?
  253.     A dissenting voice in the back of her head snickered at her hesitation and her doubt. Does it matter if you can handle it, Lena? Don't you want to taste the fruit that lies beyond the boundaries of your senses, to throw yourself over the edge rather than staring longingly at the precipice? Do it, reach down and maul your clit, have the best orgasm of your life and damn the consequences. You won't get this chance again.
  254.     She flinched as she felt the alien's long tongue drag across her erect nipple, leaving a trail of warm saliva. Fuck it, she had come this far...
  255.     She ran her fingers down her taut belly, slipping her hand between her legs and finding the swollen nub of flesh. It was slippery with her juices, and she wet her fingertip, starting to rub as the Krell's shaft slid in and out of her beneath it. Immediately a fresh wave of sensation overcame her, her teeth digging into her lower lip as she reached the limits of her endurance, her muscles contracting to the surprise of the alien.
  256.     All she could manage was a muffled “fuck” as the first wave of her orgasm crashed over her, the Krell joining her in a guttural growl as her shuddering loins closed around him, milking and massaging his member with undulating spasms. As another swell of dizzying pleasure tore through her, she felt a flood of warmth in the reaches of her loins. The Krell was coming, his massive organ pumping wads of his thick seed into her, his titanic body tensing and his muscles bulging as he emptied his emission into her welcoming tunnel.
  257.     It was too much for her, she seethed with arousal and base, primal ecstasy, her twisting body kept in place by the Krell's hands as he pumped her full of his alien semen. Again and again she felt a fresh load splash against her innermost depths as his member throbbed and jumped, the most private and sensitive reaches of her anatomy coated with it, the quantity such that it filled her to capacity and began to spill from her opening as the pressure forced it out.
  258.     As seemingly endless orgasms made her buck and writhe like a beached fish, the Krell withdrew his member followed by a rush of thick, white fluid that poured from Lena's ruined hole to stain the pillows beneath her. She shuddered as a few stray ripples of diminishing climax rolled over her body, the sensation of fullness and sore satisfaction mingling with her afterglow as she leaned forward to watch the torrent of liquid fall out of her.
  259.     Boy, they sure came a lot, it was thick and gelatinous like jelly. She could feel it clinging to her insides, viscous globs of it lodged deep in her loins, for a moment she thanked her stars that humans and aliens couldn't breed or she would surely have been knocked up. She fell back and relaxed, every muscle in her body was aching, she felt like she had run a marathon. Her lower body was sore and numb, her legs were stiff and her knees weak. She knew that she would feel ten times worse tomorrow, but it was so...so worth it.
  260.     The alien leaned down and dragged his massive tongue from her swollen labia, up across her belly and over her breasts, driving another tingling aftershock from her exhausted body. She was drenched in sweat and sexual fluids, her chest heaving as she caught her breath, might be a couple more minutes before she could stand and collect herself. She realized she was beaming, a wide smile on her face as her alien partner looked down at her with a crocodile's grin. Aw hell Lena, you aren't in love with him, pull yourself together he's an alien. She was like some muddy recruit smitten with his Borealan roommate. This feeling would fade along with her euphoria, but for now...
  261.     She goaded him closer and placed a palm on his scaly face, surprisingly smooth and cooler than her mammalian skin, then attempted to kiss him. He pushed the length of his purple tongue into her mouth, filling her cheeks and teasing the back of her throat, his saliva dripping down her chin.
  262.     This wasn't a kiss, it was obscene, but she loved it. She let his serpentine tongue roil around in her mouth as she relaxed into the soft bed, pushing the questions of how she was going to get cleaned up before returning to the lab, and the urgency of reporting her findings to Reid to the back of her mind. Suddenly the great creature flopped down beside her, almost bouncing her out of the recess as his heavy body displaced the cushions. He folded one of his muscular arms around her, pulling her against his hard chest, the soft underside of his long jaw nestled in her messy hair. Was the damned thing spooning with her? She felt his heavy tail flop across her lower legs as his fingers roamed over her damp skin, cuddling her like some kind of human-shaped teddybear. Perhaps he liked her body heat, or maybe the alien was just showing affection?
  263.     Fuck it, she needed to rest anyway, and she had to admit that the muscular creature's embrace was comfortable...
  264.  
  265.     Reid scrambled through the ventilation duct, her knees scraping on the cold metal floor as she rounded another corner, the engineer and her science team in tow. There were fewer branching paths here, fewer places where the little swarm of lizards could evade them. Finally she came to a T-junction, and stopped, looking to her left and right. Damn it, no sign of them. She waited for the engineer to catch up and then demanded to know where these two vents led. He sat down to catch his breath and withdrew his tablet computer from one of the many pockets on his yellow vest.
  266.     “Right would take you towards the firing range, and beyond that the direction of the commercial quarter. Left would take you towards the barracks, and in the direction of the residential quarter.”
  267.     “Are the Krell barracks in that direction?” Reid asked breathlessly, rubbing her scuffed knees.
  268.     “Yes, the human, Krell and mixed Borealan barracks are all in that direction.”
  269.     “Then we go left, there's something we missed at the Krell barracks, I can feel it.”
  270.     Dubois chimed in, shuffling up behind the engineer and leaning against the wall of the vent, wiping his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket. It was getting warmer the deeper they got into the ventilation system, which she took as another clue that they were on the right track.
  271.     “We already checked the barracks Reid, and we found nothing, or did you forget?”
  272.     She shot him an angry look, she was becoming exhausted by this chase and she was in no mood for his cynicism.
  273.     “Give it a rest Mister Dubois, I won't rule out the Krell until we're absolutely sure, and I won't be sure until we find out where these things are coming from.”
  274.     “Lead us into Russia then, Napoleon,” he said sarcastically with a dismissive wave of his hand. Reid shook her head and prepared to start moving again, she would show the cocky Frenchman when she discovered the source of the infestation, and with every passing moment her confidence that it was somehow linked to the Krell grew stronger. She set off down the leftward passage, and heard the groans of her companions as they trailed after her.
  275.     This was a long vent with fewer turns, it must branch off the main system in order to supply the various barracks. Her theory was confirmed when they came to a three-way split, and she stopped to consider. The engineer began to tap at his tablet computer again, but she waved for him to stop.
  276.     “No need, I can feel the humidity coming down the vent, it's this way.”
  277.     She picked the center tunnel, and shuffled down into the darkness, her handheld torch dimmed by a distinct mist in the stale air. The filtration system was shut down for the duration of their search of course, and the air was not being circulated as it usually would, the damp clung to her as if she were crawling through a hollow tree trunk in some godforsaken swamp.
  278.     On and on they went, until finally they reached some kind of hub, a dozen vents splitting off in every direction.
  279.     “We're above the Krell barracks now,” the engineer said, “each of these vents goes to a different room.”
  280.     “Hang on,” Sousa muttered as he pushed past the engineer to kneel beside Reid. “What's that?”
  281.     She followed his pointing and saw it too, some kind of lumpy shape resting against the wall of the vent, obscured in the semi-darkness. She shone the beam of her torch through the thick haze, and there were gasps from the team. Eggshells, and dried fluids all over the walls and floor, either from the lizards breaking out of their eggs or the act of laying them. There was a whole damned nest here, dozens, maybe a hundred broken shells and more intact eggs the size of cantaloupes clustered in piles. They seemed to be stuck to the metal with some kind of sticky, gooey mucous. Reid crept forward and prodded the gelatinous matter with her finger, it clung to her skin and had the consistency of tar or molasses.
  282.     She jumped as a lizard sped past her, escaping down one of the many vents that surrounded them.
  283.     “That's why we couldn't find anything in the barracks,” Reid whispered, “they were keeping them in the vents! Did they lie to us, or did they just not understand the questions we were asking?”
  284.     “Either way we have to clean these eggs out,” the engineer said, “this is a major biohazard. We're going to have to purge miles of the vent system to ensure all the foreign matter is cleared out.”
  285.     Reid turned and placed her hand on the man's shoulder, her expression alarmed.
  286.     “Hang on, 'purge'? We still don't know what these things are, just that they have some link to the Krell. They could be pets gone feral, parasites maybe, but what if they're baby Krell and you just blow them all out into space? How are their parents going to feel about that?”
  287.     “All of the Krell on the station are male, Reid,” Sousa sighed. “We've been over this already, nobody has ever even seen a female Krell.”
  288.     “Exactly, nobody has ever seen one. For all you know they reproduce asexually, or via damned mitosis, how can we be sure?”
  289.     “If that were the case, the specimens we have examined up to now would not have had distinctly male reproductive organs. Reid, you roped me into this because I'm the best biologist on the station, and I'm telling you that the Krell species has two genders. Everything we know about them points to that fact, if you won't take my word for it, then why am I here?”
  290.     She sat and took a moment to compose herself, he was right of course, he was the resident expert on the subject and that was why she had requested that he join her team. Maybe she was becoming emotional, but the thought of just flushing all of those defenseless creatures into space as if they were just garbage bothered her. They weren't aggressive or diseased, they were just trapped in a foreign environment through no fault of their own. How would they solve the problem any other way though? If the lizards were allowed to continue breeding they would multiply and become a real danger to the station, they couldn't very well send hundreds of engineers into the vents to round them all up by hand. Sousa seemed to notice the resignation in her expression and leaned over to pat her on the back.
  291.     “It's a shitty situation, I know, but at this point we have to choose between the welfare of these pest animals and the security of the Pinwheel. We just don't have the resources or the time to find a more humane solution.”
  292.     “You're right, you're right, I'm sorry. Of course the vents must be purged, I will inform Chief Moralez that we've found the location of their primary nest, if there are others they won't be very large yet.”
  293.     “Speaking of large,” Sousa muttered, crawling past her to examine the nest more closely. “One thing still bothers me...” He took one of the eggs in his hands and struggled to pull it free from the sticky webbing that glued it to the floor, turning it over and examining it more closely. It looked like an oversized golf ball, perfectly spherical, the pale shell pocked with small indentations and imperfections. “These eggs are too big, the largest known egg to body size ratio is the Kiwi bird of New Zealand, Earth. The female can lay an egg that weighs up to a quarter of her own body weight, which means that even when we make a conservative estimate, the creature that laid this egg must have been four or five times the weight of the lizards we've seen so far.”
  294.     “So you think there is a mother lizard roaming around in the vents somewhere?” Dubois asked, the promise of something larger to hunt peaking his interest.
  295.     “That's likely to be the case, if my theory is correct then it may be many times their size.” He hesitated for a moment before slinging the egg under his arm, obviously intending to take it back to the lab as a trophy. “I'm making the call, a Krell somehow smuggled a pet onboard the station, a close genetic relative of their species that was already pregnant. I can't speculate as to the exact method of reproduction with so little evidence to go on, but if you pressed me I would have to guess that the female of the species can store sperm for later use, much like a bamboo shark. A female could potentially use stored sperm years after the initial mating, the owner may not have been aware of the fact when they brought the animal onto the station. I would love to capture the creature for study, maybe then we could figure out how it was able to get past the scrubbers, but alas we just don't have the time.”  
  296.     “Do you think the ventilation system purge will kill it?” Reid asked, directing her question towards the engineer.
  297.     “No doubt,” he replied, “a purge opens the vents up to space and flushes them clean. Anything not bolted to the floor will get sucked out, and anything alive will die in a matter of seconds when the pressure and temperature plummet. Of course the connected buildings will have to be temporarily evacuated until the purge is complete, which is the reason we didn't do that to begin with.”
  298.     It wasn't a very satisfying conclusion, but it was one that Reid had to accept. Now she just had to hope that Webber might have been able to get some blood from the stone that was the tight-lipped Krell in the barracks. If she could confirm that one of them had brought a pet onboard, they could put this affair behind them and get back to their real work.
  299.     “Can we exit the ventilation system from here,” she asked the engineer, “are there any grates that we can remove so that we don't have to crawl all the way back?”
  300.     He checked his tablet, and then nodded.
  301.     “Yes Ma'am, we can drop down through one of the ventilation grates in the largest room, then we can exit the building normally into the torus proper.”
  302.     There were sighs of relief from Dubois and Sousa, and the group started to move. Reid took one last glance over her shoulder at the cluster of eggs before crawling away to join them.
  303.  
  304.     Webber awoke with a start, were those human voices she could hear? Oh crap, how long had she been asleep? The Krell still had his arm draped over her, his broad chest rising and falling heavily as he slept beside her, she was still coated in sticky fluids from their earlier romp. Fuck, fuck, she had to get out of sight. She tried to slip out from beneath his arm but found it too heavy to lift off her, the damned limb was packed with so much muscle that it must weigh as much as she did. She frantically wriggled, trying to move downwards past his portly belly, and finally succeeded in squeezing free of his bearhug.
  305.     She tried to stand, but stumbled, covering her mouth to suppress a giggle as she realized that her knees were still weak. Fucked so hard she couldn't walk, what would her undergrad roommate have said if she could see Lena now? Not so much a plain bookworm now, eh, Karen?
  306.     She hastily collected her clothing from the heap beside the recessed bed. She couldn't dress yet, not with all of this gelatinous mess still sticking to her inner thighs, but she worried someone might see her clothing. She crept across the room and slid into the furthest bed, trying to bury herself in loose pillows and cushions so that she couldn't be seen from the door should someone check the room.
  307.     The sound of muffled voices and footsteps grew louder until Lena could make out Doctor Reid among them. Had they come to check on her? Her blood went cold as the automatic door slid open.
  308.     “Why was this door closed?” Reid mused, taking a step into the room and looking around. Lena peeked at her from a parting between two cushions, holding her breath as her boss surveyed the space. “Doctor Webber should still be here, why isn't she interviewing the Krell?”
  309.     “She may have set off back to the lab already,” Sousa this time, “maybe we'll meet her back there.”
  310.     Reid lingered for another moment before leaving, closing the door behind her, perhaps assuming that the sleeping Krell wanted privacy. Lena breathed a sigh of relief, then waited for another minute before climbing out of her makeshift pillow fort. Perhaps she could don just her lab coat and take a quick dip in one of the pools to wash off, then take an extremely thorough shower when she got back to the lab. She could make the excuse of needing to wash off the sweat after spending so much time in the humid Krell barracks and slip away before anyone could wise up.
  311.     Despite her fear of being discovered, she felt great, excited. Maybe she had needed that encounter more than she cared to admit, she felt like a new woman, all of her stress and insecurity burned away as if she had taken the much deserved vacation that her schedule had never allowed her.
  312.     Perhaps she should do this again some time, she had a better excuse than anyone to make frequent visits to the barracks, and she bit her lip as the thought of having the Krell on call crossed her mind. Later, right now she needed to get cleaned up and make her way back to the lab before Reid got impatient and sent someone to fetch her.
  313.     She slung her white lab coat over her shoulders and fastened the buttons down the front as best she could, the Krell that were in the common room might not even know she was dressed strangely. As she crept towards the door to avoid waking the dormant Krell, she felt a pair of massive arms hug her from behind and lift her bare feet off the floor.
  314.     The Krell nestled his snout in her hair and breathed in her scent, very much awake as Lena began to blush. She struggled and so he placed her back on the ground, but not before dragging his warm tongue across the back of her neck. She felt her loins begin to moisten again, her heart quickening as the giant creature loomed over her.
  315.     “N-Not now, damn it,” she muttered. What were the Krell phrases she was struggling to remember? The words were on the tip of her tongue.     
  316.     “No, stay,” she said in their native language, a hissing, rumbling dialect that sounded at once like a boiling kettle and a failing car engine. He cocked his head at her, she didn't want to hurt his feelings, she intended very much to come back for round two when the opportunity presented itself.   “I...return...future,” she struggled, without being able to reproduce their subsonic growls she was unable to use much of their vernacular. She asked his name too, she wanted to be sure that she could find the right alien again, they all looked so similar to her untrained eye. His reply sounded like the word 'sheath' spoken through a bad lisp, and tinged with an almost musical reverb.
  317.     “Sleethe, I think that's right,” she mused, reverting back to English. “Hell, I probably couldn't pronounce it properly if you wrote it down for me. I'm Lena, Lay...nah.” She spelled it out for him but he made no attempt to repeat it, he probably didn't need to know her name and would sense her by smell, he certainly seemed to enjoy her scent.
  318.     “Stay, I'll come back,” she said as she backed out of the room, trying to suppress a grin.
  319.      
  320.     Clayton guided the odd Krell over to the x-ray machine, taking it by the upper arm and directing the creature into the booth. It was a large, blocky device that resembled an oversized photo booth, big enough to accommodate an adult Krell or a particularly large Borealan. Not that the cats ever suffered from broken bones, their skeletons were like tempered steel.
  321.     The Krell could easily reach eight feet despite their hunched posture, yet this specimen stood upright with a straight spine, barely skirting six. He needed to get a closer look at its bone structure, maybe figure out if this was some kind of congenital deformity or perhaps a bad case of scoliosis. The alien was compliant and cooperative, as most Krell were, they were notoriously good-natured creatures. Unlike the aforementioned Borealans there would be no clawings or refusals to follow prescribed treatments.
  322.     “Stay there and try not to move,” he instructed, unsure of whether the alien understood him. He closed the door of the booth and hit the activation switch, the alien standing calmly as it was bombarded with high energy waves. They wouldn't hurt the alien, though it did make Clayton consider that the risk of cancer in the Krell must be extreme due to their absurdly long lifespans, perhaps they had some natural mechanism to defend against it? He would have to do more studies when this assignment was over, perhaps he might be able to find something applicable to human medicine.
  323.     The scan only took a moment before the door slid open, releasing the Krell, and a close to life-size image appeared on a vertical monitor embedded in the side of the machine. Clayton examined it, his expression turning to a scowl. This didn't answer any of his questions, it just begged more of them.
  324.     The bones glowed in a ghostly white, with soft tissue taking on a shade of blue-grey, some darker interference from the thick scales down the spine and tail clearly outlining the vertebrae. It took a trained eye to interpret the multiple layers of tissue, organs and bone in a way that could be understood, but Reid had not pulled Clayton in off the street. What Clayton was seeing did not make sense to him though. There was no deformity and there was no disease, it looked like a completely healthy Krell with no obvious imperfections. Besides of course the dramatic differences in size, weight and posture. No matter how hard he scrutinized the x-ray he saw neither sign nor show of anything that would indicate that the creature was not intended to be this way.
  325.     The spine was straight with no curve to the left or right, the hips and shoulders were even and level, and the bulges of fat that gave the creature such an un-Krell-like figure were composed of normal tissue. As his eyes scanned downwards he did find something of concern however, a dark mass in the pelvic region, tumorous perhaps?
  326.     He didn't want to accept it, but a picture was starting to form here, one that looked uncomfortably like sexual dimorphism. He would have to do a physical examination to be sure. The Krell had stepped out of the booth and was standing beside him silently, examining its own x-ray curiously, and it startled Clayton as he turned around.
  327.     He snapped on a pair of latex gloves and gestured for it to follow him, moving over to one of the examination tables and instructing the Krell to lie down on it. There were two in the lab, one that was a size appropriate for humans and another that was far larger and reinforced to handle the weight of aliens. The Krell would be fine on the human table, that served to illustrate just how small it was compared to its brethren.
  328.     The alien lay on its back, its long, chubby tail falling to the floor as it trailed between its stocky thighs. Clayton wasn't sure how to ask for consent to perform the inspection, was it even necessary? These Krell had no need for clothing due to their internal genitalia and seemed indifferent to the privacy and modesty concerns that plagued humanity, yet performing an invasive examination without expressed permission might not be taken well. He would have to go slowly and be sure to broadcast everything he was about to do.
  329.     “I'm going to examine you now, ok?”
  330.     He wasn't sure if it understood, but it did not object as his gloved hands moved between its thighs and glanced its genital slit. Outwardly it resembled a low-profile vagina, only a subtle lip tinted blue separating the tightly closed opening from the surrounding underbelly. He used his fingers to gently splay the slit, the Krell shifting a little at his touch but not making any attempt to pull away. Clayton inserted a finger into the upper cloacal tunnel, the primary of the two divided channels that housed the genitals in Krell. If there was some kind of tumorous growth he might be able to feel it through the cloacal wall. [EDIT]
  331.     His fingers glanced the underside of the stowed penis, and he was reassured that this was indeed a male Krell, his suspicions of a female somehow sneaking onboard the station were proven wrong. That didn't bode well for the alien though, the dark mass in his abdomen was placed where a uterus might conceivably be, but it was now sure to be a tumor. If he could locate it and perform a biopsy to determine if it was malignant, he could potentially perform surgery to remove the growth.
  332.     The Krell shifted its wide hips as he pushed deeper, feeling some kind of abrasion where the genital tunnel should have ended. The Krell seemed to shiver when he touched it, and so he backed off a little, retracting his hand and turning to retrieve a laparoscope from a nearby work surface. It was a camera on a flexible, serpentine arm that could be inserted into body cavities in order to perform keyhole surgery, or to examine something without needing to open up the patient. He plugged one end of the flexible rod into a connector on his headset, lowering the visor over his face and watching as the image from the camera flared to life on a built-in monitor. He positioned the device over the Krell's cloaca, then eased it gently inside as the creature shifted uncomfortably. He watched the display as the camera passed under the penis, a deep blue shaft that clung to the roof of the tunnel and would extend during arousal, the mucosa that lined the walls were tinted a similar shade of dark blue. The penis was smaller than was common for Krell, but that was not unusual considering the specimen's stature.
  333.     The passage seemed oddly moist, some kind of discharge maybe? As he pushed deeper the light from the camera illuminated the end of the cloacal tunnel, and Clayton couldn't believe what he was seeing. This was no tumor or wound, it looked like a cervix. What was going on here? Was this Krell hermaphroditic? Such a rare condition had only occurred a handful of times in human history, while not impossible it was statistically very unlikely.
  334.     Even if this was an alien, basic biology should still apply, he knew that the Krell species had two genders based on his examinations of males of the species. This just didn't make sense, he needed to consult with Sousa.
  335.     As if on cue the man walked into the lab, Reid and Dubois following close behind him as he gently placed what looked like a cantaloupe onto a table. He stood with his hands on his hips, beaming.
  336.     “Is that...an egg?” Clayton asked, walking around the table and dropping his visor to examine the find, the waiting Krell all but forgotten.
  337.     “Indeed it is, the ventilation system above the Krell barracks was packed with them, must have been a hundred eggs up there. We've solved the mystery, there's a damned escaped pet running around in there, I'm sure of it. Reid is off to tell the Chief about it in a moment, then they're going to flush the vents and wash them all out into the vacuum.”
  338.     “Doctor Clayton, did you discover anything about our patient?” Reid asked, ignoring Sousa's excitement. The man was like a child with a new toy, downright unprofessional.
  339.     “Well Ma'am, there are some...oddities. In fact I wanted to consult with Doctor Sousa on the subject, I fear I have reached the limit of my expertise in this case.”
  340.     “Very well, Doctor Sousa please stay here and help Doctor Clayton, examine your egg too while you're at it. You can report your findings when I return. Mister Dubois and myself will visit Chief Moralez at his office and relay our progress to him. Tell me Doctor, have you seen Miss Webber since we left?”
  341.     Clayton shook his head.
  342.     “I'm afraid not Ma'am. She hasn't been back here, is she missing?”
  343.     “I sent her to the Krell barracks to interview the aliens, but she wasn't there when we returned. I am becoming somewhat concerned, perhaps I'll ask Chief Moralez about it and see if he can put out a request to have her located. Ok Mister Dubois, let's get going. The faster this matter is resolved, the quicker you can be on your way. Stay close to me, Chief Moralez is stationed in the central hub at the moment due to the emergency situation, and only I have clearance.”
  344.     The surly man followed behind Reid as she left the way she had come, leaving Clayton and Sousa alone with their specimens. Sousa seemed full of energy, he looked to be one new discovery away from climbing the furniture like an overstimulated child.
  345.     “What do you have for me Clayton? More mysteries to solve?”
  346.     “Indeed, come and take a look at this x-ray.”
  347.     The two walked across the room to the x-ray booth and the monitor embedded in its face, the Krell lying patiently on the examination table and watching them with its yellow eyes, the quiet creature all but forgotten in the moment.
  348.     “I found an anomalous mass in the pelvic region while I was examining the spine for evidence of scoliosis, down here,” he said as he pointed to the dark shape. “Looks like a tumor, right? But when I examined the patient, you'll never believe what I discovered.”
  349.     “It wasn't a tumor?”
  350.     “No, the alien appears to have a cervix at the end of the cloaca that houses the penis, and beyond it I expect a uterus.”
  351.     Clayton was taken aback, his mood sobering somewhat as he scowled at the image.
  352.     “How can that be? We know from our studies of the male Krell that their species is composed of two sexes. They have a ZW sex determination system, male and female chromosomes, we've mapped their genome. There can't be more than two genders.”
  353.     “Could it be a mutation? A true hermaphrodite?”
  354.     Sousa scratched his stubbly chin, deep in thought.
  355.     “The instance of true hermaphrodites occurring in nature is minute, insignificant, I wouldn't believe it if you hadn't shown me the evidence. You're absolutely sure that it's a uterus and not a malignant growth?”
  356.     “Yes, I inserted a camera, there's no doubt. Come, I'll show you.”
  357.     The two walked over to the examination table, and Clayton passed Sousa a pair of latex gloves, the scientists lost in conversation and speculation as they examined the patient. The Krell remained placid and cooperative, seemingly unconcerned as the humans prodded and inspected its nethers, its thick thighs parted to allow them access as its fat tail trailed onto the tiled floor.
  358.     After a few minutes Sousa was satisfied, and took a step back from the prone Krell, snapping off his gloves and discarding them. A new theory was forming, one that was decidedly less attractive than a simple loose pet.
  359.     “What if the Krell are spontaneously changing sex?”
  360.     Clayton shot him a disbelieving look.
  361.     “How could that be possible, Sousa?”
  362.     “There are precedents for this in nature, West African reed frogs and certain species of fish are known to change their sex from female to male and vice versa when put under enough environmental pressure, housing a hundred males in close quarters with no females for light years might very well cause that to happen. But why now? The Krell have been in contact with the UNN for twenty years, why has this behavior never been observed before?”
  363.     “That covers all the bases,” Clayton mused, crossing his arms as the Krell cocked its head at him, unable to follow the conversation. “The genetic relation of the lizards to the Krell, why the nests are in the vents above the Krell barracks, it explains how they were able to get onto the station too. Nobody smuggled a female or a pet onboard, the scrubbers are functioning perfectly, they're changing sex only after being admitted to the station.”
  364.     “I've never seen this happen in such a large animal,” Sousa said, glancing at the examination table with a concerned expression. “This is bad, they're going to keep multiplying unless we find a solution, the whole station is at risk.”
  365.     Clayton's eyes widened, and he took Sousa roughly by the shoulder.
  366.     “The vents! Reid is going to purge the vents! They're full of Krell! We can't let them do it!”
  367.     “They already set off, they could be half way to the the Chief's office by now.”
  368.     “God damn it man, they're going to kill the Krell! I have to catch up with them!”
  369.     “Run, go now, I'll see if I can call Reid or Moralez on the videophone.”
  370.     Clayton sprinted out of the building, leaving Sousa alone with the confused Krell, his heart racing as he tried to take in what was happening. It would take them some time to evacuate the buildings connected to the ventilation system shared by the Krell barracks, there would still be time to stop the purge, but if they were successful in initiating it then all of the juvenile Krell that were in the vents would be expelled into space. Including any adults who had ventured into the system to lay their eggs.
  371.     He hurried over to the far wall where the videophone was, a blocky device with a monitor and a numeric keypad that could be used to make video calls to other such devices around the station. He used the touch screen to bring up the directory, searching for Reid's name. He let the system ring for a good minute, but there was no reply, perhaps it was her residential address? Next he dialed up Chief Moralez, and again there was no reply. Emergencies would be expected to be called in via the station-wide emergency channel, not reported to the Chief directly, and going through those channels would probably take as long as walking to the damned office himself. He would have to rely on Clayton to get the word to Reid in time.
  372.     He sat down heavily on a nearby chair, going over the fresh information in his head. At this very moment more of the Krell population could be changing gender, had some kind of delayed breeding season brought this on maybe? Some other environment change they weren't aware of? Some reptiles and amphibians were so sensitive to temperature changes that an increase or decrease of just a few degrees was enough to radically alter their behavior and biology. The Krell served in the capacity of living tanks and linebreakers in the UNN though, they must have been exposed to all kinds of exotic environments and nothing like this had ever been recorded before.
  373.     The Krell loosed a low, rumbling call, startling Sousa after its prolonged silence. It shook his bones, making the scalpels and medical tools on the work surfaces clatter as the vibrations washed over them. He turned to look back at the alien, seeing its blue reproductive organ emerging from its cloaca, its flared tip dripping with clear fluid. It growled again, the low frequency sound dizzying Sousa as he leaned on a nearby table to steady himself. What was it doing? Some kind of mating call? Was it just tired of them ignoring it? It didn't sound aggressive, but it was deep enough to disorient him. God it was like sitting on an amplifier.
  374.     “What's your deal?”
  375.     The alien didn't reply, merely observing him with its amber eyes, reptilian pupils tracking him curiously. It loosed another burst of noise from deep in its throat, making Sousa quake. He could feel it in his sinuses, in his bone marrow, his teeth chattering in his head. The alien descended from the examination table, dainty despite its considerably bulk, its claws scratching the tiles as it started to walk slowly towards him. Its heavy tail was dragging along the floor, making a sound like wet leather, its wide hips rolling as it moved.
  376.     In this light it looked oddly feminine, but it was female, wasn't it? Or at least it was trying to become a female, due to environmental pressure or some subconscious drive to mate. It had an hourglass figure he realized, a pinched waist and flared hips. It had thick, powerful thighs that tapered into its digitigrade legs, its many toes tipped with dull claws. Its body was streamlined for swimming, the powerful tail used like an oar to direct it in the water, the muscles to drive it contained within a considerable posterior. Its shoulders had narrowed compared to the other Krell, muscle melting away to give its upper body a slight appearance. It had no breasts to speak of, reptiles and amphibians did not nurse their young after all, but the chest and belly had a pleasant paunch to them that made them look as if they would be soft and malleable to the touch.
  377.     It rumbled again as it approached him, more of a deep purr this time, like heavy bass in his ears. Dazed, he realized it had pushed right up against him, its dull claws resting against his chest. The Krell was only a couple of inches taller than him as it pushed its short snout into the nape of his neck, breathing in his scent, the warmth of its breath tickling his skin.
  378.     “You're certainly...willful, aren't you?”
  379.     It rubbed its cheek against his, nuzzling like a house cat, the scales that looked as if they should be rough to the touch from a distance were revealed to be smooth and soft like skin. It was cool, its body temperature lower than his, and it placed its palm on his face as if trying to sap his heat.
  380.     Sousa didn't know what to do, should he push the alien away? Scold it? They might have no concept of personal space judging by the way they piled on top of eachother while basking in their shallow pools. He decided to try to let the creature down gently, and took its many-fingered hand, pulling it away from his face. He placed his other hand on its narrow shoulder, preparing to ease the alien away from him, but it didn't seem to be getting the picture.
  381.     It loosed another reverberating call, almost enough to make Sousa buckle at such close range, and then its long tongue flopped out of its short snout to drag across his throat. Sousa tensed, the hot, slimy organ licking his chest and neck, an erection growing in his pants of its own accord. The Krell seemed to notice, pressing its thick thigh into his groin, could it sense the warmth coming off it?
  382.     He felt its jagged teeth prick his neck, the alien having no lips with which to kiss him, instead tasting his skin as if it were enjoying the flavor of his sweat. God that tongue was long and thick, like some kind of rubbery snake as it sampled him, strong and powerful too. It pressed up against him, its chubby underbelly rubbing against his lab coat, and Sousa couldn't find anywhere to put his hands. He held them in the air as it frotted, afraid to encourage it by touching its body, a comparatively small erection in relation to its stature poking him. It pushed its soft thigh into his crotch more ardently, sending a throb of pleasure through his hardening member as it was compressed between his belly and the Krell's leg, Sousa's resolve weakening.
  383.     He wasn't exactly a demure man, being born and educated in Brazil and being no stranger to Rio's night scene he was accustomed to a less inhibited lifestyle than some of his colleagues, and he felt a familiar spark of desire at the Krell's clumsy attempts at seduction. He could probably reign it in, but it wasn't as if anyone might walk in on them, and he had nothing to do while waiting for Clayton to alert Reid...
  384.     He exhaled a sigh as he alien slid its questing tongue under his shirt and glanced across his chest, it smelled like wet leather, its dull claws pawing at his clothing. It loosed another dizzying rumble, and Sousa had to lean on a table behind him to save from falling over as his knees weakened.
  385.     “Fuck it.”
  386.     He slid his hands down the curve of its pinched waist to the wide bulge of its hip, sinking his fingers into its soft, buttery fat. God, it was soft, like pushing his hands into jello. The Krell had a sheen to it that made it look almost slimy, but its scales were dry, conspicuously cool against his mammalian skin. It chirped appreciatively, arching its spine to press its groin against him, responding to the sensation of his hands roaming over its body. It brought its tongue up to his throat and licked wetly, their version of a kiss perhaps? Sousa placed his hand on its back, then traced the subtle curve of its spine with his fingers, coming to rest on its plump butt. He tested its firmness, finding the same supple fat present on the rest of its body, but beneath it was taut muscle that gave the twin globes such an attractive shape and springiness. He slapped it softly, making the Krell jump, and feeling its flesh wobble beneath his fingertips.
  387.     Emboldened, he took a sizable handful, then slipped his other arm around its narrow waist to encompass the second cheek. He squeezed, kneading the fat as it spilled between his fingers, weighing the Krell's ample ass in his palms as it squirmed and thrusted against him. Even the thicker dorsal scales that armored its back and tail were flexible and pleasant to touch, and Sousa found himself reddening, his breathing growing harder as he became more excited. Something about the taboo of it was intoxicating, he had never slept with an alien before and certainly not...whatever this one was, some kind of transitional hermaphroditic form? Whatever it qualified as, it had a fat ass and that was good enough for him.
  388.     It was grinding its erection against his clothing, leaving trails of clear liquid that leaked from the flared tip, its blue member atrophied due to its ongoing transition to female. It rubbed its thighs together restlessly, seemingly excited but unsure of how to proceed, having trouble with his unfamiliar garments as it tugged at the fabric in an effort to reach the warm body beneath. Was it possible that this alien had never mated in its current form before? Perhaps they had caught it early, frustrated by its instincts but unable to hurry its transformation into a fertile female.
  389.     Sousa took the alien by its upper arm, then spun it so that it was facing away from him, the alarmed Krell relaxing as he pulled it against his body and his erection dug into its cheeks. Its fat tail got in the way, hanging down between its legs, waving from side to side and rubbing against his member. It was long and thick, it must make up a third of the thing's body weight. He played his hands across its chest and belly now, the pale skin even more inviting, smooth and silky under his roving fingers. He gripped the tire of paunch on its belly, squeezing the roll of fat and feeling the alien push back against him as it arched its spine, look over its shoulder at him with sultry eyes. He slipped his hand upwards and squeezed its chest, no breast tissue to be found, but pleasant bumps of fat that gave the creature a deceptively feminine appearance.
  390.     Sousa was as hard as a rock now, the Krell slowly grinding its pudgy ass against his erection as he explored its figure, its body language practically begging him to bend it over a table and fuck it.
  391.     He angled the Krell towards the nearest available surface, knocking aside the medical implements with a wave of his hand, then bent the alien over so that its torso was resting on the table. It realized what he wanted from it, and parted its heavy thighs to allow him access, leaning its tail aside and reaching back with a clawed hand to part its cheeks. Its genital slit was splayed and engorged, fat, blue lips parted to give the whole assembly the look of a human vagina. Where in a human woman there would be the complex folds of the vulva, here there were two openings, the anus tightly closed and the genital entrance open wide as the Krell's azure member protruded like an oversized clitoris.
  392.     Sousa noticed that the passage was leaking, wet and ready for him, strands of the alien's excitement glistening as they hung from its blue entrance. He wasted no time, scrambling to undo the buckle of his belt and pull down his fly, his aching erection bouncing free. The Krell waved its ass back and forth in invitation, and rumbled happily as Sousa caught it, clawing at the meat and angling his member towards its loins with his free hand.
  393.     Whatever stage of its transition it was currently at, it was certainly behaving like a female, and he pressed his glans against the creature's opening. He slipped past the fat lips of its genital slit, lubricated by its flowing juices, and gingerly pushed the tip of his member into what passed for its vagina. He felt the underside of its penis below, pressing against him, not as hard as his own but rubbery and flexible. It was smooth and didn't hinder his passage, the muscular walls of the creature's tunnel wrapping around his cock like a fist as it welcomed him.  
  394.     Sousa gasped, leaning his weight on its rump as he tried to avoid doubling over, he had seen Krell reproductive organs in his studies and this seemed too tight to possibly hope to fit one. Perhaps that would change as it matured, but for now it was almost unbearably narrow. The vaginal canal was long though, and he slid his member inside the creature up to the hilt, its claws scarring the surface of the table as it dug them in. He was worried for a moment that he might have inadvertently hurt it, perhaps it was not yet developed enough for intercourse? But he felt the Krell's heavy tail coil around him, alarmingly strong as it pulled him closer, the alien loosing another rumbling call. It was definitely a mating call, or some declaration of arousal, Sousa was sure of it now.
  395.     He started to move, the alien's loins sucking at him, its walls undulating as if trying to draw him deeper inside it. It tried to trap him with its powerful tail, perhaps not understanding how sex should work, and fearing that its lover was trying to escape. He gave it a good, hard thrust to demonstrate what he was trying to do, and its tail relaxed as it grunted, a shiver rolling through its body as it squirmed on the table. Sousa found a slow, heavy rhythm, pounding the alien as he gripped it by the hips and its fat thighs quivered. It started to use its tail to pull itself backwards towards him, increasing the depth and force of the thrusts as it met them, its copious ass clapping against him as their pace increased.
  396.     The Krell had no hair for him to pull, and its tail was too thick for him to get his hand around the base, and so he contented himself with playing with its hips and ass as he fucked it. It chirped and grunted with every deep thrust, its slippery, smooth walls squeezing him tightly, the alien beside itself with pleasure as its drive to copulate with a male was indulged.
  397.     The scant few metal trays and scalpels that had not been knocked to the floor rattled as Sousa pounded the Krell, its fat thighs cushioning the blows as it rocked against the table. He didn't question it anymore, lost in a haze of his own brand of heat as the alien's muscular insides contracted around him and gripped his throbbing member with a slippery wetness. He could hear the indecent sucking and squelching rising from the thing's muddled loins, tight as it was, and the alien wriggled with every pulse of his cock. Even its insides were fairly cool compared to a human partner, but it was no less enjoyable, and the alien seemed at once bothered and excited by the pumping of Sousa's warm blood through his vascular organ.
  398.     Its rubbery erection pressed against the underside of his penis inside its tunnel, rubbing his glans, its smooth surface lubricated by the Krell's female juices as they leaked around it. It was a novel, odd sensation, but undeniably exciting. The alien seemed equally pleased, the shovel-like tip of its penis leaking a dangling strand of clear fluid that swayed with Sousa's thrusts.
  399.     He felt its fat tail wrap around his butt, pulling him deeper and harder, the alien crooning and warbling happily. It was unbearably tight, its fleshy walls gripping him like a vice and compressing his member, as if trying to squeeze out his emission like toothpaste from a tube. He grunted with the strain of a particularly hard clamp, as if the alien were teasing him, and it glanced back at him over its narrow shoulders with what looked suspiciously like a smirk.
  400.     “Oh, that's how you want to do this? Come here you little...”
  401.     He wrapped one arm around its meaty chest and pulled it up off the table, his other hand gripping it by the throat, gentle enough that he wouldn't choke it, at least not too much...
  402.     It arched its back, letting its arms hang limply at its sides as Sousa held it upright, pushing its fat rump out and pulling him closer with its tail. It let out another low, rumbling call, and Sousa couldn't help but imagine it was begging for more. He closed his fingers around its rubbery neck, and felt its insides seize around him, the alien pushing back against him to take his aching member even deeper inside its oozing tunnel. Its erection protruded out in front of it now, leaking its precum onto the table in an almost continuous flow.
  403.     Sousa started to move again, slamming into the alien with enough force to rock it, its chubby thighs quivering and rubbing together as it struggled to stand. He dug his fingers into the fat of its smooth chest, as he had assumed there was no firm breast tissue beneath, but the fat deposits were just ample enough for a small handful. The doughy flesh spilled between his fingers as he kneaded and clawed, then he roamed down to its belly and gripped the roll of paunch. He would have thought the scales of a reptile would have been hard and rough, which was somewhat the case down its armored back, but its soft, pale belly and was rubbery and inviting. He couldn't keep his hands off the fucking thing.
  404.     It rolled its wide hips and milked him with powerful undulations of its slick insides, arching its spine, it's little atrophied member bouncing in rhythm with Sousa's unrelenting pace. Everything about the alien seemed to be designed for sex, as if its only purpose in life was to take his dick, the sultry creature rewarding every slam with a warble or a backwards glance that only goaded Sousa on.
  405.     It seemed to be taunting him with the slow wiggle of its hips, and he fucked it harder with renewed lust, the Krell leaning its hands on the table in front of it to avoid being knocked over. He buried his face in the nape of its neck, taking in that pleasant wet leather scent, and gripped its little erection in his hand. It tried to squeal in delight, but his fingers were too light around its throat, and all it could manage was a high pitched gasp as its body tensed.
  406.     Its juices leaked over his fingers as he squeezed the atrophied organ in his hand, the alien's vagina closing around him as if he were hitting a switch, its purple tongue hanging out of its mouth along with a stray rope of drool as it gave in to Sousa completely and let him have his way with it. It was rumbling again, almost purring, the low frequency sound making its loins vibrate and adding a new layer of sensation to their coupling.
  407.     Sousa couldn't take much more of this, and accepted that their encounter would be a fast, hard one. He released the alien abruptly, and it stumbled forward a little, almost banging into the table. Sousa took it by the upper arm and spun it around again so that it was facing him, its erection colliding with his own, then he pushed it backwards to lie prone on the surface. It understood what he was trying to do and lay back obediently, spreading its meaty thighs and letting its tail fall over the edge of the table to allow him access. It leaked lubricant from its genital slit, the lavender colored lips glistening in the light, and its blue member dribbled precum onto its pale belly.
  408.     Sousa took it roughly by the hips and jammed his member back inside it, slipping all the way to the hilt despite how tight the Krell was. It arched its spine again, raising its fat rump off the table, and he started to move. The alien brought its tail up between his legs and crawled it up his back, pulling him closer to increase the power of his blows, already hard enough to bruise. He found that he was panting, his mouth dry and his face red as he rutted like a beast, the Krell watching him with its amber eyes as it pawed at its leaking member. The table was squeaking and shaking, Sousa was a little worried that they might break it, but he was too far gone to stop now.
  409.     The Krell wriggled and squirmed, writhing as he fucked it, and he closed his hand around its neck again to keep the damned thing still. It loosed a low, conciliatory hiss, its eyelids drooping as he squeezed. He felt it tighten around him, like some kind of Chinese finger trap, sucking him back in on every outward motion.
  410.     “Keep the fuck still,” he growled, the alien bucking against him, the sensation threatening to push him over the edge. “So help me I'll tie you down.”
  411.     It either didn't understand, or was intentionally provoking him, and it chirped happily as it pushed its loins up to meet his thrusts. Sousa growled and released its neck, taking its thin wrists in his hands and slamming them down on the table. The alien didn't mind, it merely gazed up at him with its amber eyes, somehow covetous and comely. It surprised him by closing its thighs around his waist, wrapping its legs around him to keep him lodged inside it, and Sousa felt its muscle contractions betray its impending orgasm. He leaned down, looming over the writhing alien, trying to kiss it in a moment of weakness driven by his own welling climax.
  412.     The Krell did its best to accommodate him, opening its maw and slipping the length of its purple tongue into his mouth, a good foot of slippery muscle that roiled and explored his head as if it had a life of his own. He tried to wrestle it with his own organ, gagging a little as it pushed into his throat and filled his cheeks to capacity.
  413.     He felt it come, the alien fighting more fervently beneath him, its back rising off the table and its thighs squeezing his hips almost painfully. It reacted as if trying to escape, yet it maintained the penetrating kiss and kept him locked inside its quivering tunnel. It squirted a stream of thick, viscous emission from its twitching erection, its consistency more like jelly than semen. Sousa pinned its arms to the table and prevented it from touching itself, enjoying his power over it. Its loins tightened around his throbbing cock, contractions rippling up and down the length of his shaft, the creature's own member teasing the underside of his glans as its pulsed with its ejaculation.
  414.     It pushed him over the edge, and Sousa groaned as he released a flood of his issuance into the alien. It warbled loudly, no doubt the heat of his come like magma to the cold-blooded alien, and he shuddered as the waves of crippling pleasure washed over him. Again and again his cock throbbed, sending another wad of thick, hot emission to coat the Krell's insides. Its little erection still twitched and pulsed, more of that clear fluid leaking free to pool on its chubby belly, the incessant clenching of its tunnel drawing more out of Sousa and forcing the obscene mixture of their fluids out to drip down the underside of its tail in rolling globs.
  415.     Sousa's eyes glazed over and his brain filled with white noise as he felt the alien's tongue leave his mouth to lap at his neck, warm and slippery, pinching his skin softly with its teeth. He gave it one last, deep thrust to drive the mess of their union further into its hole, then pulled out. His still rigid member was linked to its lips by thick ropes of their juices, breaking and dropping heavily to the floor under their own weight as the two of them caught their breath.
  416.     Warm afterglow bubbled up inside Sousa, and he grinned like a moron at the sight of the alien, now panting on the table and covered in its own emissions. It rumbled contentedly, and Sousa swayed drunkenly, steadying himself on the edge of the table as the alien gently stroked his diminishing erection with the tip of its long tail.
  417.     Shit, they had to clean all of this up now, before anybody walked in on them.
  418.     Sousa tried to compose himself, reaching for a nearby towel and wiping away the gunk that clung to his member. He hastily pulled his pants back up and buckled his belt, checking his clothing to ensure that there were no conspicuous stains. The Krell watched him curiously, running a finger through the pool of come on its belly and stroking its receding member. The organ seemed to be deflating and returning to its stowed position inside its body now that the alien was satiated. Sousa crouched to retrieve the medical implements that he had cast to the ground, returning them haphazardly to the table and wiping up what droplets of fluid he could see on the floor.  
  419.     It was at that moment that Webber entered the room.
  420.     She froze, her eyes wide. Sousa reacted similarly, the alien peering at her upside-down as it lay on the table like some kind of scaly cat, completely unaware of what was going on. The two humans stared eachother down until Sousa finally broke the silence.
  421.     “Yeah, I got no explanation.”
  422.     She seemed to exhale and stumbled into the lab. She looked like she had been running a damned marathon, through a rainforest no less. Her usually straight mop of blonde hair was positively destroyed, it looked as if she had gone to bed with it damp and had slept on it wrong. Her prim clothes were a mess, her lab coat buttoned wrong and the collar popped, and she was holding her heeled shoes in her hands as she walked barefoot. She was drenched in sweat, but she had a certain exhausted glow about her. Sousa was no stranger to the walk of shame, this woman had recently been making the beast with two backs. She collapsed into a nearby chair and sighed.
  423.     “I see you've also discovered that the Krell are changing gender, Sousa. Don't tell Reid what I've been doing and I won't tell her about your unprofessional relationship with our patient here.”
  424.     The Krell chirped cheerfully, not understanding the exchange but wanting to be involved all the same. Sousa was a little taken aback, Webber was usually so meek, he quite enjoyed her newfound sarcastic streak.
  425.     “Webber, nobody knew where you had gone, Reid is out for blood. Don't tell me you were at the barracks all this time? Did you...with a Krell?”
  426.     “Don't ask, don't tell,” she muttered, sliding down into her seat.
  427.     “How was that even...did it even fit?”
  428.     Webber scowled at him and motioned for him to be quiet.
  429.     “Can it Sousa, I need a shower, and your friend does too. Let's get everyone cleaned up before Reid gets back and writes us both up for fraternizing on the job.”
  430.     “I can keep a secret if you can,” he replied.
  431.  
  432.     Clayton sprinted through the throngs of people, his lungs burning as he pushed past crowds of human personnel and dodged around the larger aliens. He had to head off Reid, the lives of all the Krell in the ventilation system depended on it. As cavernous as the interior of the Pinwheel's torus was the expansive space was always crowded with people, either engineers and soldiers on their way to and from their duties, or civilians and personnel on leave who loitered and clogged the walkways. He had to hope that Reid would be in less of a hurry and that he would be able to catch up to her in time.
  433.     The Chief's office was located in the central control hub of the Pinwheel, which was connected to the torus by giant spokes from which the station got its nickname, Reid and Dubois would be headed to the nearest entrance in this quarter. He hurried downspin, squeezing between a pack of feline Borealans and drawing their ire, ducking out of claw range as their leader spat an insult.
  434.     After what felt like an eternity he arrived at the nearest entrance to the central hub, a long tube that served as a walkway to connect the two sections, lined with transparent windows that looked out into space. The autom  atic door was guarded by two marines clad in black UNN body armor, their faces obscured by opaque visors. Reid must have already gone through, damn it.
  435.     He made for the door, but one of the marines walked forward to block his path, holding out a gloved hand and gesturing for him to stop.
  436.     “Excuse me, Sir, do you have prior authorization to enter the hub?”
  437.     “Please, it's an emergency, I need to speak to Chief Moralez immediately.”
  438.     “I'm sorry Sir, I can't let you through without authorization.”
  439.     Clayton considered trying to rush past them, but the two men were armed, their rifles hanging across their chests.
  440.     “It's very important, it concerns station security, I'm a member of Doctor Katherine Reid's science team appointed by Chief Moralez.”
  441.     At that the marine hesitated, bringing up a wrist-mounted tablet computer embedded in the bulky wristguard of his suit and tapped in some commands. Clayton waited impatiently, practically bouncing on the spot as the marine checked it out.  
  442.     “Says here a Doctor Reid and company are permitted temporary access to the control hub by order of the security chief, but unless you have her with you, I can't let you enter.”
  443.     “You mean she hasn't been through yet?”
  444.     “Not logged anyone by that name today, Sir.”
  445.     “Doctor Clayton? What are you doing out here?” Reid's voice from behind, he spun to see her and Dubois walking towards him. “I thought I told you to stay with Doctor Sousa and examine the specimens?”
  446.     Clayton breathed a sigh of relief, she hadn't been through yet, he must have passed her on the way down without seeing her. He took a moment to steady himself, trying to calm his racing heart as Reid watched him with a confused expression.
  447.     “Doctor Reid, we've discovered something crucial about the Krell, you must not purge the ventilation system! The lizards we've been finding, they're not the spawn of escaped pets, they're Krell!”
  448.     Reid looked confused, and her expression darkened.
  449.     “I thought we had already ruled that out? What has changed?”
  450.     “The specimen we found in the barracks, the one we brought back to the lab, it is undergoing a transformation from male to female. The Krell, at least certain individuals, are changing sex!”
  451.     Reid took a moment to consider what she was being told, crossing her arms and staring intently at the floor. Dubois looked even more confused than she did. Clayton continued, gesturing wildly as he spoke.
  452.     “It is not without precedent, there are species on Earth that undergo similar changes based on environmental pressures, we theorize that a lack of females has triggered some kind of change in the aliens. When I did an x-ray of the specimen I found no deformities or congenital defects, just a dark mass in the lower abdomen that upon closer inspection, was a uterus.”
  453.     “And Sousa has confirmed this?” Reid asked, still skeptical.
  454.     “Yes, I didn't know what to make of it at first, but Sousa assures me that this is well within the realm of possibility and that there are precedents in nature. He concurs that environmental pressures are causing some of our all-male Krell population to change into females. We cannot flush the vents, we must not, those lizards are baby Krell and there may still be females in the vent system laying eggs. We must round up every lizard and egg, and then isolate all of the females from the remaining males, who knows how the Krell would react if we murdered a hundred of their young?”
  455.     “Putain de merde...” Dubois exclaimed under his breath, “if we 'ad flushed the vents, we would 'ave blown their children out into space. Why did you not think of this sooner? You 'ave a team of the best scientists available and still you almost cause a catastrophe such as this?”
  456.     “Now now Mister Dubois,” Reid said, gesturing for him to calm down. “Doctors Sousa and Clayton have reached the right conclusion in time, no harm is done. These kinds of breakthroughs are exactly the reason I assembled this team to begin with.” She turned back to the Clayton, the man still red-faced from his frantic rush to intercept her. “Your theory does indeed explain everything that has been happening so far, if you're absolutely sure, join us and tell Chief Moralez what you know. Together we will come up with a solution that doesn't harm the aliens, their safety will be my utmost priority.”
  457.     He seemed to visibly deflate, wiping beads of sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his lab coat.
  458.     “Thank you Doctor, that is what I had hoped to hear, of course this presents a new problem. We can isolate every individual Krell, perhaps in the brig, and that will stop them breeding for the time being but it isn't a long-term solution.”
  459.     “We'll think of something,” Reid said, walking towards the marines and waving Clayton and Dubois forward. “We need to let the Chief know about this.”
  460.     Reid flashed her ID badge and the marines moved to either side of the door, each scanning a card in a reader in order to open the way.
  461.     “Watch your step please,” one of the marines chimed as the trio walked onto one of the long spokes that anchored the hub to the torus. Clayton had never set foot on one before, only authorized personnel were allowed access as there were often one or more fleet Admirals present, and all of the major control systems that governed the station's operation were located here. There was a ninety degree bend in the tubular passage, the floor curving until he had to crane his neck to see up the tunnel, as if he were looking up an elevator shaft. This wasn't what he had expected, but of course if the tunnel were connected directly to the torus then the entrance would be embedded in the painted ceiling with no way to reach it, this way it extended from the side of the donut and curved upwards. It was made up of the same whitewashed metal and plastic present in the rest of the station, though there was a rubbery, treaded lining on the floor here that looked as if it were made for grip.
  462.     He wondered what the marine had meant by his comment, and then he felt the gravity change abruptly, his body blaring an alarm that he was falling as his stomach turned. Reid reached out a hand to steady him, and they walked up the curved floor together until they were standing on what a moment ago had been a sheer wall, the change in perspective messing with Clayton's senses.
  463.     “The torus spins to generate inertia,” she explained, “creating a kind of artificial gravity, as the torus is far too large to use the gravity generator systems common on UNN vessels. Being at the center of the Pinwheel, the control hub has to use an AG field to generate its own gravity. The curve is the point where you leave the inertia of the torus and enter the hub's AG field, it can be jarring the first couple of times.”
  464.     It was quite a walk, and the two men looked out of the windows at the velvet blackness of space, dotted with pinpoints of cold light from far away stars as Reid led them on. The massive donut-shaped torus extended off into the distance, painfully white as it reflected the glare from the system's sun. You never really felt like you were were in a space station when you were in the torus, the painted ceiling and the planters that coated the place in greenery gave the impression that you were on some city street somewhere, with no windows to space present to spoil the illusion.
  465.     Here however Clayton felt exposed and vulnerable, very cognizant of the thin layers of metal and glass that separated him from the almost instant death of open space.  
  466.     After a long trek they came to the door to the hub, there were no guards on this side, and the doors opened automatically to let them through. The hub was very different from the open spaces and decorative trickery of the torus, all narrow corridors as if they had stepped onto a navy battleship. It was tastefully furnished, it almost looked like a fancy executive office with paintings on the walls and shrouded lamps illuminating the carpeted deck, but it wasn't enough to ward off the sense of oppression and claustrophobia that permeated the space.
  467.     “This way,” Reid announced, and turned off down one of the corridors. Clayton and Dubois followed her, feeling out of place as an occasional engineer or high ranked officer passed by them. When one of the doors that lined the corridors to either side of them opened, Clayton could spy an office cubicle or a bank of switches and machinery inside.  
  468.     They arrived at a door to one of the offices, and Reid activated an intercom that was embedded in the wall beside it. It crackled to life, and a gruff voice could be heard on the other end.
  469.     “Yes? What is it?”
  470.     “Chief Moralez, Sir, it's Doctor Reid. I have news concerning the lizard infestation that I wanted to present to you in person.”
  471.     “Very well Doctor, please come in.”
  472.     The door opened, and the group stepped inside. Moralez had a spacious office, the walls and desk were lined with consoles and readouts, no doubt informing him of everything that was happening on the station at any time. As Clayton marveled at the equipment he noticed views of the hangar bays, cargo manifests, a few personnel profiles open on one monitor. He felt as if he were standing inside the Pinwheel's very brain. Moralez rose from his seat and took Reid's hand in his polymer prosthetic, he would have saluted a fellow serviceman but although the scientists were employed by the UNN they were still technically civilians, and it would not have been appropriate.
  473.     “Good news I trust?” His voice was almost as gruff as his appearance, once chiseled features now marred by a patchwork of scars, the motors contained within his robotic limbs whirring softly as they moved.
  474.     “Well, we've gotten to the bottom of things, we've discovered the source of the infestation and it is...nothing we could have imagined. As for what we can do about it, that remains to be seen. Our resident veterinarian, Doctor Clayton, will fill you in on the details.”
  475.  
  476.     Clayton explained their findings to the Chief, whose expression went from surprise, to disbelief, and then finally to concern. He took a moment to absorb what had been said to him, the rubbery grips on the tips of his fingers scratching his stubbly chin as he considered their next course of action.
  477.     “I agree that we can't simply imprison our entire Krell population, and there remains many unanswered questions. Why is this happening only now? The Krell have worked alongside humans for twenty years and we've never observed this behavior before. Nor can we flush the vents, I'm pretty sure the wholesale massacre of their offspring won't be taken kindly.”
  478.     “Right now we have two problems,” Reid added. “Removing the existing spawn from the vents, and preventing them from producing more. I'm going to recommend removing as many females from the general Krell population as we are able to identify, and then isolating them in a separate building. Put them in the gym perhaps and close it off, they won't mind that I'm sure, have someone on hand to observe them and make sure no breeding is taking place.”
  479.     “Sounds good, but that isn't a long-term solution, we need to find out exactly why this is happening and then find some means to prevent it. I also fear that there may be no safe way to remove the juveniles from the ventilation system, they pose a significant biohazard risk and the station's crew complement has a hard limit. If they reproduce too much, then their offspring will consume more oxygen than the station's system's can recycle, which poses a mortal danger to my crew. I will not allow the situation to reach that stage, Miss Reid, I must put the lives of my staff before those of the aliens.”
  480.     Clayton interrupted, shocked by the Chief's declaration.
  481.     “With all due respect Chief Moralez, these aliens are, or will soon become sentient creatures like you or I. Do not let their bestial appearance color your judgment, under no circumstances must we allow them to come to any harm.”
  482.     “The situation is more dire than you realize,” Moralez replied, his tone becoming stern. “The oxygen recyclers that Fort Hamilton uses to provide clean air to the crew have a limited capacity, if more carbon dioxide and other trace gasses are produced than the system is rated to handle, then the air quality all over the station will begin to fall. Push the recyclers too far and we won't have to worry about the welfare of the juvenile Krell, because we'll all have died from asphyxiation along with them. If your team can't find a timely solution then I will be forced to purge the vents, regardless of how any of us feels about the situation, my priority must be the safety of the crew.”
  483.     “I...I understand,” Clayton replied. “The problem Sir, is that we just don't know enough about the Krell, and we can't communicate with them well enough in order to find anything out. If these were animals living on Earth we could do field work and learn more about them from their environment, observation of how they behave in their natural habitat might tell us what we need to know, but we don't have that luxury on a space station. We need more information, and we have no way to obtain it.”   
  484.     “I thought you had a xenolinguist on your team, Doctor Reid?” Moralez asked, turning his attention to her.
  485.     “The Krell language is uncommonly complex,” she replied. “Through a mixture of advanced translation software and the expertise of Doctor Webber we can interpret basic words and phrases, but I would hardly call it communicating. At this stage I'm not even sure Krell communicate at all in the way that we do. There are many layers of low frequency vocalizations that are below the range of human hearing, then there are the factors of scent and vibration, even body language. On top of all that we're communicating with them on land, when their language seems to be best suited to an aquatic environment.”
  486.     “So you can't just ask the Krell, I get the picture Doctor. The question is what 'can' you do?”
  487.     “Not much at this point,” she replied, straightening her glasses nervously. It was hard for her to admit failure, and things were rapidly looking that way. They had discovered the source of the infestation but they had no idea of how to deal with it, at least that didn't involve infanticide. Dubois pitched in to break the silence.
  488.     “If you cannot talk to the Krell, 'ow do you give them orders during a battle? I know they are able to fight alongside UNN troops.”
  489.     “Well, their commanders send them wherever they need to be, and then they're mostly just pointed at the enemy line and set loose. They're almost exclusively used to break stalemates and in breaching or boarding operations, so there isn't much that needs to be communicated to them other than 'go here and kill this'. As for how they get to the station to begin with, they're dropped off by Broker vessels, likely brought directly from the homeworld. Whatever treaties or agreements they have are with the Brokers, and we use them auxiliaries.”
  490.     “And you don't care to know more?” Dubois asked, his tone skeptical.
  491.     “Frankly Mister Dubois, if they're happy to fight with us then we're happy to have them, this is the first time that they've ever caused us any real trouble. Hell, they're a damn sight better behaved than our own troops, my MPs break up more bar fights in a week than I've logged complaints about Krell since I accepted this position.”
  492.     “So why not go?”
  493.     “Go, Mister Dubois?”
  494.     “Yes go, to their homeworld. Clayton says we need to see them in their natural environment, we can't get any new information out of them on the station, so logically we must go to their home planet, no? He is a vet, Reid is a scientist, but exploring is my area of expertise.”
  495.     Moralez considered the proposition for a moment, then turned to Reid.
  496.     “Miss Reid, do you agree with Mister Dubois' assessment? If I can arrange passage to the Krell homeworld, do you think you might be able to find the answers you're looking for?”
  497.     “I...I don't know,” she stammered, somewhat alarmed by Dubois' sudden proposition. “We are sure to learn more there than we can here, but I can't guarantee results. Do we even have the time, how long would a return trip take us?”
  498.     Moralez walked over to one of the desks that ringed the room, tapping a query into one of the touch panels at the bank of computers.
  499.     “Says here that the Krell homeworld orbits 61 Cygni, a binary system made up of two K-class stars that isn't far from Sol. Shouldn't take you more than a few days on a jump-capable ship.”
  500.     “And does the Pinwheel have that long?”
  501.     Again Moralez paused for thought, his robotic fingers drumming on the table as he weighed the options.
  502.     “Every minute we waste talking about it brings us another minute closer to having no choices open to us at all, so I'm making the call. Reid, get your team together, I'm chartering a jump-capable vessel and I'm sending you to the Krell homeworld. We will do what we can here to keep the Krell from breeding, and I'll send engineering teams into the vents above the barracks to capture as many juveniles as they're able. I'll buy you all of the time that I can, but if you don't find some secret to solving this problem soon, then I'll have no choice but to flush the ventilation system. I already talked to the guys over at engineering and they told me that the station has about nine days of clean air left, so that's about how long you have. I won't let it come down to the line.”
  503.     “I...this is very sudden Sir, my team...”
  504.     “Pack lightly Doctor, bring only what you need, and be ready to leave at short notice. I may have to commandeer a cargo ship or a civilian vessel, which will require some paperwork, but I'll send word as soon as I have a ship ready for you.”
  505.     “Yes Sir. As you wish.”
  506.    
  507.     The trio stepped back onto the torus, the inertial gravity gripping them as they walked through the automatic doors, closing behind them with a rush of stale air as the marine guards loitered nearby. Dubois seemed chipper, pleased with himself, he had been roped into this affair against his will and now he seemed to have turned the situation to his advantage. Reid hoped that he was happy.
  508.     Though they might very well find answers on the Krell homeworld, Reid was not suited to fieldwork, jump travel made her sick to her stomach and the alien planet would no doubt be fraught with unknown perils. As reluctant as she was to go traipsing around uncharted worlds, she had to admit that she could offer no alternatives, they had exhausted their options with the Krell on the station. Perhaps if she was lucky Webber might have discovered something new that would make the expedition unnecessary, assuming she had turned up by now, but Reid wasn't counting on it.
  509.     “We will be the first humans to visit the planet Krell,” Dubois mused, a grin on his face. “I take back what I said earlier Reid, I am now more than happy to assist with your investigations.”
  510.     He was being facetious, Dubois was really starting to get on her nerves, she didn't know if she would be able to stomach being confined to a transport ship with the man for however many days it took them to reach 61 Cygni.
  511.     It took them a while to get back to the lab at their more leisurely pace, and Reid was surprised to see that Webber had joined Sousa at a desk, the two of them examining the egg that he had collected as the Krell specimen hovered nearby.
  512.     “Doctor Webber, you're back? Where have you been? I told you to interview the Krell at the barracks but when we passed through we couldn't find you. I was about to ask the Chief to track you down for me.”
  513.     “Yes Ma'am,” she replied, looking up from her work. “I did as you requested, and I've returned with some interesting recordings, though unfortunately nothing that would help us. Not directly at least. I must have left the barracks shortly before you arrived, perhaps you missed me on your way back.”
  514.     “Very well, show me what you have. Sousa, anything to report?”
  515.     “Nothing that Doctor Clayton hasn't already told you, Ma'am. I've been examining the egg we brought back from the vents, so far I've not found anything unexpected or noteworthy.”
  516.     Reid took the tablet computer that Webber handed to her, tapping the play icon on the audio file that she had recorded. There was a low rumbling that sounded almost like static coming from the speakers, distorted and synthetic, Reid quickly shut it off. The Krell who was standing on the other side of the room cocked its head at the sound, staring curiously in Reid's direction.
  517.     “What the hell was that, Webber?”
  518.     “I believe it's a mating call, Ma'am, albeit poorly reproduced. I recorded it in the barracks when I witnessed a...uh...what I believe to be a mating ceremony. It is my opinion that the Krell population is undergoing some kind of heat. I witnessed several males compete for the attentions of a female, or a male who was in the process of undergoing the change, it was hard to tell. This resulted in the victor copulating with it in one of the shallow pools. No doubt it will try to lay its eggs in the vents along with the rest of them.”
  519.     “That's something at least, but you didn't find out anything new by talking to them?”
  520.     “No Ma'am.”
  521.     “Well we have new orders from Chief Moralez, we're being sent on a field trip. Destination; the Krell homeworld. Our mission is to observe the aliens in their natural habitat and see if we can find out anything that might help us solve the problem on the station. I want you all to gather any necessary equipment that you might need, and be ready to leave as soon as possible, most likely tonight or some time tomorrow.”
  522.     “That's...very short notice,” Sousa said, trying to ward off the Krell that was now invading his personal space and trying to push its head into the nape of his neck. It looked strong and the man was struggling, the alien's thick tail coiling around his leg.
  523.     “You make a new friend there, Sousa?” Dubois asked, smirking at the scene.
  524.     “The mating call must have riled it up or something,” he replied, his face reddening as the creature tugged at his clothes. “Shoo, shoo damn it.” After a moment he gave in and let the Krell wrap its scaly arms around him, crooning as it rested its jaw on his shoulder.
  525.     “You'd best take that thing back to the barracks so it can be isolated with the other females, Sousa, meanwhile I want the rest of you to pack your gear. Be ready to leave at a moment's notice, it sounds like Chief Moralez will have to pull quite a few strings to make this happen.”
  526.     Lena snapped her fingers, drawing Reid's attention as an excited look came over her face.
  527.     “If we're going to the Krell homeworld, we're going to need a native guide, right?”
  528.     “I am perfectly capable of-” Dubois began, but Reid cut him off with a wave of her hand.
  529.     “Did you have something in mind, Doctor Webber?”
  530.     “I...interviewed a Krell at the barracks who was more cooperative than the rest, I have reason to believe that he would make an excellent guide, and having a Krell with us might ease things along if we encounter any natives.”
  531.     Reid considered for a moment, then nodded her approval.
  532.     “Granted, I'll obtain permission from the Chief to take your Krell with us. For now, everyone collect your gear, we're shipping off soon.”
  533.    
  534.     The hauler left superlight, spraying a technicolor cloud of gas and dust as it punched a hole back into reality. Its skeletal bulk drifted idly, the naked frames of its hull housing mostly empty cargo containers, the brilliant residue slowly dissipating as the human occupants lurched back to consciousness. Reid retched into a paper bag, still anchored to her crash couch by her safety harness as the nausea and disorientation of the jump wracked her body. Sousa was seated beside her in the dingy bay, and he spat a plastic bit out of his mouth, its purpose to prevent him from biting off his tongue as the exotic energies of superlight travel fried his nervous system.
  535.     “Fuck jumps,” he groaned as he rested his head in his hands, no doubt plagued by a post-jump headache. The rest of the team was similarly incapacitated, all besides Dubois who seemed perfectly calm.
  536.     “It gets easier every time,” he explained, unfastening his harness and rising from his seat to stretch his arms over his head. “That should have been the final jump, I'll go ask the pilot if we've arrived yet.”
  537.     The rest of the team stayed in their seats, nursing headaches or muscle cramps, plagued by dizziness and nausea. Sleethe, the Krell guide that Webber had recruited to join them on the mission was tied down to a cargo pallet, looking no better off than the humans as he grumbled disapprovingly. Webber unclipped her safety harness and staggered to her feet, moving over to untie his scaly limbs, swaying as if she were nursing a monumental hangover. The jumps effected everyone a little differently, the nuclear generators housed within the vessel would build up energy until they stored enough to power the jump drive, which would then create a miniature black hole in order to rip a tear in the fabric of space and time, sucking in the ship and anything in its vicinity. The vessel would travel light years in a fraction of a second, ejected further along its route as the energy was expended and non-reality tired of its intrusion. They would then have to coast along in realspace until their reactors could generate enough energy for another hop, like some galactic game of leapfrog.  
  538.     Moralez had managed to book them passage on the 'March Hare', a civilian cargo freighter with the smallest class of drive available. That said the vessel was still enormous, though the majority of its tonnage was taken up by cargo and the crew cabins were cramped. Despite the lack of living space, Webber had elected to share a cabin with her Krell friend, perhaps she was trying to see what new information she could glean from him.
  539.     “You guys will want to see this,” Dubois called from the bridge, more of a glorified cockpit a short walk towards the bow. Reid tried to compose herself, rising unsteadily to her feet and stumbling towards the sound of his voice, some exercise would help get her blood flowing again.
  540.     The team joined Dubois and the pilot on the bridge, besides Sleethe who was too large to fit in the confined space and so poked his head through the door. They looked out of the main window at the planet before them, hanging in space like some kind of giant bauble. It was greener than Earth, it seemed to be all one landmass dotted with reflective rivers and lakes, the atmosphere hazy and obscured by cloud layers. Reid didn't like it, it looked somehow...unhealthy, sickly rather than verdant. Maybe it was something about the glow of the twin red suns in the distance, or the toxic green shade of the planet-spanning forests, but it made her uneasy.
  541.     “There it is,” Dubois breathed, more excited than anyone else seemed to be. “Krell.”
  542.     There was a jolt as the pilot fired the conventional thrusters, slowly gaining velocity as he coasted towards their destination. He didn't look much like a pilot, Reid was used to UNN personnel wearing flight helmets, or immaculately groomed civilian cruise liner captains. This man was unkempt and scruffy with a stained,, brown leather jacket that looked as if it had never seen the inside of a laundromat. His breast was covered in patches and badges, and he was wearing a baseball cap with some unidentifiable logo on it, some kind of sports team perhaps. He looked to be in his mid forties, his stubbly beard had strands of grey in it, Moralez really had grabbed the first ship he could get his robotic hands on.
  543.     “ETA twenty minutes,” the pilot grumbled, his voice undeniably that of a heavy smoker. “Take your gear to the shuttle in the bay, once I clear your landing site with ground control you can head down, I have orders to orbit until you're done and I can ship you back.”
  544.     “Do the Krell even have ground control?” Sousa asked sarcastically.
  545.     “Don't reckon so, but this planet is under Broker protection, the Krell must have done somethin' awful important for those misers to owe them that kind of favor.”
  546.     “Why do you say that?” Sousa asked, his curiosity peaked. “Have you dealt with the Brokers before? You ever seen one up close?”
  547.     “I've dealt with 'em alright, they're as shrewd as they come. Never seen one in person though, they always trade using drones and proxies, but they'll be chatting in your ear trying to get discounts out of you up until the moment the cargo is in their damned bay.”
  548.     Most of the team left to collect their gear, but Sousa stayed for a few more minutes, watching the green planet grow in the window. Eventually he began to make out structures in orbit, what looked like enormous steel girders at this distance, some kind of planetary defense weapons of Broker design maybe? The pilot thumbed a button on his console and directed a microphone on his headset towards his mouth.
  549.     “Krell flight control this is March Hare en route from Fort Hamilton, requesting orbital and landing permissions, over.”
  550.     He waited a moment before the reply came through, a synthetic and distorted voice, as if someone was speaking through translation software or some kind of cumbersome mask.
  551.     “We have you on our scanners, March Hare, your visit was scheduled ahead of your arrival. Please proceed to the following coordinates and establish a low orbit, your landing party is cleared to set down anywhere they choose.”
  552.     “Copy that control, may the wealthy owe you favors.”
  553.     “And to you, trader, flight control out.”
  554.     The connection was closed, and Sousa looked back to the pilot.
  555.     “What did that mean, 'may the wealthy owe you favors', how did he know you were a trader?”
  556.     “It's a Broker greeting, like 'have a nice day' or 'God be with you', lets them know I've dealt with their kind before. They're the type to remember that kind of thing. We're comin' up on the insertion point, so you'd best get down to the shuttle with the others.”
  557.     Sousa did as he was asked, and stopped off at his cabin briefly to collect his rucksack, then made his way to the aft of the vessel where the hangar bay was located. He left the crew quarters, which was barely more than a handful of cabins and rooms connected by a short hallway, and proceeded through engineering. Here naked pipes and machinery protruded from the walls, the smell of oil and ozone stinging his nose as he ducked through the narrow passages, eventually emerging into a small hangar that contained one landing craft. It was similar to a UNN shuttle, a bucket-shaped craft with small swept wings for atmospheric flight, though it seemed a couple of decades behind the current models that he was used to seeing. The bay was open to space, with a force field generator erecting a transparent barrier to prevent the atmosphere from venting, which would allow the passage of solid objects such as the shuttle or a careless crew member. Seeing that dark void held at bay by an energy field a few microns thick always made Sousa uneasy.
  558.     He ascended the landing ramp and took a seat in one of the crash couches that lined the walls, the other members of the science team buckling into their safety harnesses. Their resident Krell could not fit, and so anchored himself to handholds in the roof. Reentry could be bumpy, but he didn't think that anyone would complain, it was a picnic compared to superlight jumps. Dubois seemed to be missing though.
  559.     “Where's our intrepid explorer?”
  560.     “He's flying,” Reid replied, concern creeping into her tone. Sousa fastened his harness a little tighter than usual, and stowed his rucksack beneath his seat. There was a hiss as an intercom activated, and Dubois' voice rang out in the troop bay.
  561.     “This is your captain speaking, thank you for flying with Dubois Airlines, please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times and refrain from feeding the Krell.”
  562.     “We're going to die,” Webber whispered, only half joking. “I preferred it when he was sulking.” There was a mechanical whir as the landing ramp began to close, sealing with a hiss as the inside of the vessel pressurized. Sousa felt a rumbling beneath his feet as the main engines powered up, and they waited with baited breath for the go-ahead from the pilot. There was no sensation of motion inside the AG field of the vessel, but as Sousa leaned forward to peer through the door into the cockpit and out at the blackness of space, he saw the green planet rotate into view as the ship rolled over on its side.
  563.     Dubois must have gotten permission to undock, as Sousa felt the landing gear retract into the belly of the little craft, then there was a sudden rush of inertia as it used its thrusters to maneuver out of the hangar and begin its controlled fall towards the surface. They coasted for a while, dropping towards their destination at orbital speeds with no sensation of motion besides the tremor of the engines that radiated up through the deck beneath their feet.
  564.     The team gripped the handrests of their chairs as the shuttle hit the atmosphere and began to jostle them, Sleethe rocking back and forth as he gripped the handholds in the roof of the craft, their harnesses keeping them secured as the little shuttle was shaken and buffeted by turbulence. The fiery orange glow of flames licking at the nose of the craft, pouring through the cockpit window to cast them in an eerie glow.  
  565.     They broke through into clearer skies, and the shuttle's airbrakes began to slow their descent, gliding on its stubby wings as it circled to shed velocity. There were no windows in the troop bay, but the flames that had blasted the cockpit window had been replaced with a green glow.
  566.     Finally the landing gear extended with a mechanical clunk, and they felt the vessel bounce as it landed on solid ground, relief washing over them as the landing ramp began to lower. Their relief was short-lived however, as a wash of damp, clammy air that stank of rotting vegetation flooded the bay. There was a chorus of exclamations and complaints as the team unfastened their safety harnesses and rose to collect their gear, Dubois opening the cockpit door and wrinkling his nose at the smell.
  567.     “Pitié, it's like a compost heap, I can taste it in the back of my throat.”
  568.     “Let's just get this over with,” Webber complained as she hoisted her rucksack. “The sooner we finish here, the sooner we can go home.”
  569.     “Wait, wait!” Dubois rushed forward and placed a hand on her shoulder pulling her back from the ramp.
  570.     “What's wrong, is it dangerous?”
  571.     He proudly marched down to the end of the ramp and planted his boots in the wet mud, the footprints filling with water as he sank a few centimeters into the soft earth.
  572.     “Lucas Dubois, first human to set foot on Krell,” he exclaimed, eliciting a laugh from Sousa and an exasperated sigh from Webber.
  573.     “If you're quite finished Mister Dubois, I'd like to be on my way,” Reid said. “We are pressed for time and we should make camp as soon as possible so that we can get our equipment set up.”
  574.     “Yes, yes, now you must allow me to perform 'my' job Doctor Reid. If you would prefer to wait here while I scout, I will return to collect you when I have found a suitable location for our camp.” As they watched he crouched to remove his pack, apparently unconcerned by the mud that surrounded him, and he retrieved a wide-brimmed leather hat and some kind of handheld device. It looked like a weapon.
  575.     “Is that a gun, Mister Dubois?” Reid asked, straightening her spectacles. “The Krell are quite friendly, why would you feel the need to bring something like that along?”
  576.     “Indeed, we do not know what kind of fauna we might encounter here, you must never enter an environment that could potentially contain hostile animals without the means of self-defense. Unless of course you enjoy being eaten.” He hefted the weapon, a handgun with a long barrel and a massive scope mounted on its rail, the body of the gun had a polished wood finish and it looked like some kind of antique oddity more than a hunting weapon. It seemed heavy and unwieldy, but Dubois' expression was that of someone greeting an old friend.
  577.     Sleethe seemed to sniff the stale air, finding it to his liking and lumbering down the ramp to sink into the mud, with how heavy he was it was a miracle he didn't just vanish into the ground. His numerous, splayed toes seemed to distribute his weight like a camel walking on sand, and he looked back at Webber expectantly.
  578.     “Well, I'm coming with you for one,” Sousa announced, walking with exaggerated strides as he left the ramp and tried to avoid sinking in the sticky mud. The gravity was Earth-like, or at least close enough that the difference was not immediately noticeable.
  579.     “Me too,” Clayton said, and made his way over to join them. “Who knows, we might discover some new species while we're here and I'm not going to let Sousa write me out of the credits.”
  580.     “Well, I don't want to be left on my own.” Webber this time, pouting, her blonde locks already beginning to stick to her face due to the intense humidity. Reid sighed and joined them, and the group set off in the direction of the nearest forest. The shuttle had set down in a clearing, surrounded by dense trees on all sides. She felt like they had landed in the bogs of Florida, or some kind of mangrove swamp at low tide, the trees were spindly and twisted with roots like grasping hands as they dug into the wet soil for purchase. There was vegetation everywhere, what looked like ferns and vines, and the stench of rotting plant matter permeated the damp air. It felt very much like the Krell barracks, hot and humid, but the sickly green of the atmosphere and the smell made it somehow less tolerable. Maybe it was the thought that she couldn't just exit into the Pinwheel's torus whenever it became too much for her.
  581.     Dubois had his gun holstered on his hip now, and Reid wondered why he had stashed it in his rucksack rather than just wearing it openly, had he correctly surmised that she would object? It made her uncomfortable, although she worked on a military space station by necessity, she was not comfortable around guns and despite his insistence to the contrary she did not think bringing the weapon was necessary. This was beginning to feel more like Dubois' private safari than a science expedition with her at its head.
  582.     They had been properly outfitted at least, gone were their casual clothes and lab coats, replaced with blue UNN jumpsuits and unflattering boots that could withstand the mud. Only Dubois had refused the attire, sporting his own hunting outfit that made him look like an off-brand Indiana Jones.
  583.     They passed under the shadow of the forest canopy, shafts of green light piercing the leaves to give the terrain a spotty, patchwork feel. The going was harder here, the skeletal roots that held the trees aloft blocked their way, and they had to climb over them, the mud slippery and deep beneath their feet. Where was Dubois even taking them? He seemed confident, but they didn't know anything about this planet yet.
  584.     “Do you have some destination in mind, Dubois?” Sousa asked, beating Reid to the punch as he clambered over a large root from one of the pale trees.
  585.     “When we were circling I thought I saw something in this direction, might be a settlement or some kind of village, if we can contact the local Krell population then we will 'ave a good place to set up camp and start our investigations.”
  586.     “You don't need a compass or a GPS?” Sousa asked.
  587.     “I assure you Doctor Sousa, that my sense of direction is quite good. We will not get lost.”
  588.     “If you say so,” he grumbled, wiping his brow. The heat was so intense, it felt as if they were inside some giant vivarium, the moisture in the air was such that their sweat couldn't even evaporate in order to cool them down. Reid's boots were already filling with sweat, and her hair was a damp mess, she just had to accept the situation for the time being and promise herself that the longest bath of her life would be her reward. Scented candles, soap bubbles, an audiobook playing on her tablet computer...
  589.     She was jolted back to reality by movement in the mud in front of her, or was it shallow water? It was impossible to tell, the ground was just a mass of brown sludge. Something long and sinuous passed through the group, its surface shiny and slimy as it disappeared below the surface again.
  590.     “Uh...Dubois? What was that?”
  591.     He had heard the splash of water as the thing had vanished, and was now aiming his hand cannon at the ground, sinking almost up to his ankles in the mud. They heard Webber yelp, and they spun around to see her standing as still as a statue as what looked like a slippery, grey eel coiled around her ankle and probed her boot. It was about as thick as a human wrist, not enormous but large enough to be alarming, its long, serpentine body trailing off into the mud so that they couldn't gauge how long it might be.
  592.     “Oh my God oh my God, get it off,” she hissed through gritted teeth.
  593.     Dubois approached cautiously and gestured for her to calm down as the apparently eyeless creature tested the rubber of her boot with its grasping mouthparts, it didn't seem to be aggressive. He glanced at Sleethe, who seemed wholly unconcerned, which indicated that the creature was likely harmless. Poor Lena stood with her arms out, frozen in place with her face screwed up in disgust as it rubbed mud and mucous on her leg.
  594.     “Just let him get a look at you,” Dubois breathed, his eyes fixed on the animal as it wound its serpentine body around her foot. “He doesn't know what you are either.”
  595.     After a few moments the snake-like creature seemed satisfied, diving back under the mud with a splash and leaving a trembling Webber to glare at Dubois as if the whole situation were his fault.
  596.     “Let's push on,” he said, turning about and heading off deeper into the forest. Webber sidled up closer to Sleethe as she followed behind, her eyes locked on the mud that seemed to make up the entire surface of the planet.
  597.  
  598.     They marched for maybe an hour before Reid began to grow concerned that Dubois might not know what he was doing, but just as she was about to speak up, they came to the clearing that he had described. They emerged from the thick undergrowth into an open space, the shore of a stagnant lake nearby, and built beside it was a collection of wooden structures. It looked like treehouses or shacks built on top of one another, suspended in the thick mud on stilts made from the twisted trunks of the pale trees that made up the forests. Some had obviously been cut to size, yet others were growing from the mud and had been cultivated in order to reinforce the precarious structures. There were dozens of these buildings stacked together, connected by rickety walkways and rope bridges made from knotted vines. The roofs were slanted, made from what looked like fronds and leaves, clearly designed to ward off what must be frequent and heavy rainfall. It looked like a city of elves from a fantastical storybook, if the elves lived in Louisiana.
  599.     No wonder the Krell seemed primitive and rustic compared to the other races of the Coalition, even the Borealans in their harsh deserts and jungles had stone to work with, all that was available to the Krell was plant matter. They couldn't mine ores here, couldn't smelt them and forge stronger materials, industry would be impossible for them in this perpetual bog with no solid ground to build on. Reid noted that despite the ring of orbiting weapons platforms that shielded the planet, the Brokers had not elevated the Krell, nor did they seem to have provided them with any modern building materials. Did the Krell not wish it perhaps, or was there some other reason? The two species seemed to be intrinsically linked and she found it strange that the generosity of the mercantile aliens did not extend to the surface.
  600.     Sleethe stepped ahead of the group and let out a rumbling call, of a distinctly different pitch and intensity to their mating display. As the team watched, Krell began to emerge from the structure, poking their long snouts out from behind the beaded curtains that hung across the doorways of their wooden huts. Several emerged from the lake, rising from the murky water like swamp monsters, striding onto what passed for land on this planet to stare curiously at the humans.
  601.     “I think that was a hello,” Webber whispered, not wanting to interrupt the proceedings. Reid did not expect a negative reaction from the aliens, but having so many of them staring at her with their yellow eyes was making her nervous. After a few seconds a low chorus began to rise from the village, growing in volume as the aliens seemed to sing in unison, their powerful call carrying over the lake as if a spaceship was passing overhead. She could feel it in her bones, shaking her to the core as the intense noise vibrated the very air around them.
  602.     Finally it diminished, and Sleethe waved them forward, marching through the mud towards the rickety structures. As the team grew closer they noticed that almost every centimeter of wood was covered in moss and fungus, green fur and bulbous mushrooms were clinging to every available surface, the pervasive dampness giving the beams and planks a wet sheen that reflected the green light. Reid mounted some steps that led up to a raised platform, the first level of this tiered village, reaching up to grip a handrail that was too tall for a human as she tried to avoid slipping on the wet surface.
  603.     It was nice to be out of the mud, but the wood beneath their feet creaked and swayed, it was a little worrying. If it could support Krell it would support humans, but a drop into the mud from this height, while not fatal, wouldn't be very flattering.
  604.     Sleethe was greeting the Krell who walked out of their dwellings to meet him, the aliens rubbing heads like giant cats, perhaps exchanging some kind of scent information. A crowd was forming, leaning over the wooden banisters above them to get a better look at the strange visitors, a low murmur of unintelligible conversation rising from their throats.
  605.     “Can you tell what they're saying, Webber?” Sousa asked, leaning over to whisper in her ear.
  606.     “Just fragments here and there,” she replied, “nothing that I could string together into a coherent sentence. Something about traveling, fire in the sky, he's probably telling them where we came from.”
  607.     Clayton recoiled as a male Krell approached from behind him and foisted its snout into his cheek, sniffing him and almost knocking him over as it rubbed its head against him. One by one other Krell began to descend the stairs from the myriad of levels and platforms, jostling eachother to get at the humans. Sousa laughed as they pressed their heads against his, reaching up to scratch at their scaly hide as if they were oversized dogs, Clayton and Reid finding the greeting less amusing as the giant aliens surrounded them.  
  608.     Eventually the crowd began to disperse, the Krell going back to their daily routine, and Sleethe led the party onward. They climbed several flights of stairs that wound around the central structure, Dubois grinning with mirth as they made their way across an unstable rope bridge, this must be crossing so many items off of his adventuring list. Now all he needed was a rope swing and his life would be complete. The humans lacked the splayed toes and balancing tails of the Krell, and everything was oversized, they hopped up the massive steps one by one as they made their way slowly towards what must be the peak of this artificial mountain.
  609.     The more Reid examined the structure, the more intricacies she began to notice. The design had looked deceptively simple from a distance, but up close the artistry in the woodwork and the craftsmanship was undeniable, it was far from cobbled together. It seemed that they had propped up the initial structure with felled trees, then they had somehow cultivated new saplings to wind and grow around it in the directions that they wanted, reinforcing the village with flexible, living trees. That behavior suggested either extremely long life-spans or an impressive level of multi-generational planning, it wasn't unheard of in human cultures, but the application here was undeniably impressive.
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