Snekguy

Tepin's Muse - Hetero Edition

Sep 5th, 2019
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  1. CHAPTER 1: EXPLORATION
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  3. The gel layer began to soften, the pressure that kept his twitching limbs immobilized slowly fading. As soon as he was able, he rose from the pod, sitting waist-deep in the strange fluid. Everything hurt, he felt as though an electric current had been running through his every nerve, and he wasn’t sure why. He blinked his eyes as his vision cleared, the bleary, indistinct shapes becoming clearer.
  4. He was in some kind of tube, about ten meters in diameter, the ceiling curving out of view above him. It was lit by a pair of glowing strips that ran parallel to one another until they vanished from sight in either direction, the curved, white walls adorned with large racks upon which green and purple foliage was growing.
  5. Where was he? Why did his head hurt so much? He reached up to rub his temple only to discover that he was wearing a helmet. He somehow knew how to raise the visor, hitting a touch control by his ear and watching the tinted glass open like a jaw.
  6. As he looked around, he saw that there were dozens of pods just like his own. They were squat, bathtub-sized devices with rounded edges, or perhaps describing them as off-white coffins would have been more apt. From within them rose more of his kind, the pools of blue gel releasing them from its grasp. They were wearing form-fitting flight suits, patterned with ocean camouflage in shades of grey and blue, their surfaces covered in snaking electrical cables that resembled blood vessels.
  7. The one occupying the pod to his right reached up and took off her helmet, breaking the seal with a hiss of escaping gas. She blinked her striking, violet eyes at him, pointing her blunt snout in his direction. Her fine scales were a shade of dark green, waxy under the light, tapering to a lighter beige under her long neck. She shook out her sheaths, the two tentacle-like appendages falling down her back for a moment. They began to flex, prehensile, before erupting into a display of colorful feathers that created a kind of vibrant headdress atop her rounded skull. She was only stretching them, and the plumes soon collapsed back into their fleshy coverings, hanging listlessly once more.
  8. “What are you looking at, boy?” she asked groggily. She opened her mouth and yawned, exposing her rows of small, sharp teeth. “Surely you’re growing accustomed to superlight jumps by now?”
  9. It all came flooding back to him. His name was Tepin’chi’atli, and he was aboard the Valbara’nay carrier Teth’rak’s Fang. The fading muscle cramps and the banging headache were a product of the ship jumping through superlight, hopping between the stars like a stone skipping on the surface of a lake.
  10. The female rose from her pod, the blue gel clinging to her pressure suit. It stretched like melting plastic before its hold on her was broken, and it sprang back into place. She dropped down to the deck on a pair of muscular, digitigrade legs, her wide hips tapering into a pinched waist. There was a touch device on her forearm, and she raised it, beginning to tap at it with her three-fingered hand as she walked away with a bobbing gait. More females were emerging, some more affected by the jump than others, shaking their heads and stretching their sheaths.
  11. Once the sensors in the pods determined that the occupant had vacated, they began to slide up the curved walls on a hidden magnetic rail, transitioning from a horizontal to a vertical position. They sank into the white metal, disappearing from view behind sliding panels, clearing the living space until they would be needed once more.
  12. He looked down into his own pod, flexing his long, muscular tail and feeling the resistance of the substance. It was jump gel, he remembered now, a fluid that hardened when an electric current was passed through it. It prevented the occupant from flailing their limbs and injuring themselves during the dimensional transition. The wracking energies of superlight wreaked havoc on the nervous systems of organic beings, but the migraines and muscle spasms would fade in a few minutes. It got a little easier with every jump, a little less painful.
  13. Tepin struggled to free himself from the clinging goo, stepping onto the deck on unsteady legs, leaning on the rounded lip of his pod for support. He was wearing a flight suit not unlike that of his neighbor, though it was white instead of camouflaged. She was in the Navy, while he was only a passenger on this vessel, a civilian.
  14. The Navy personnel were returning to their posts, for the most part, vacating the ring-shaped habitat on which he was standing via ladders that led to hatches in the ceiling. This was the only area of the ship that had gravity, it was spun around the hull of the carrier to create centrifugal force that approximated the native gravity of Valbara. This was where the crew lived when they weren’t working, where they exercised to prevent their muscles from atrophying, where they ate and slept. There were padded stools, dining tables, and computer consoles with holographic displays scattered about, along with food dispensers and exercise equipment. It was as comfortable as the engineers could reasonably make it.
  15. When Tepin released his hold on his pod, it too made its way up the wall and vanished into a recess, the blue goo clinging to the interior as it was obscured by the closing panel. He stepped out of the way as a group of six females passed him by, a couple of them sparing him a lingering glance, turning their heads on their flexible necks to track him. There were no males in the military, and the crew had been in space for going on half a rotation now. He had fended off more than one courtship dance during his time on the ship. Tepin hadn’t boarded the Teth’rak’s Fang to find a flock to join, romance was the last thing on his mind right now.
  16. Once the females had rounded the curve of the habitat, leaving him alone, he hurried over to a nearby porthole between two of the wall-gardens. He took off his helmet and set it on a nearby table, pressing his short snout up against the glass as he peered intently through the round aperture, his breath misting it. Beyond the frosty pane was the darkness of space, infinite blackness extending in every direction, punctuated by the cold light of innumerable stars.
  17. Above him was the glare of the carrier’s hull, reflecting the harsh light from the system’s sun. It was long and spindly, made up of modular, cylindrical sections that were a matte white in color. The spokes that connected the habitat to the main hull of the ship turned beneath him, joined to the carrier via a rotating collar on one of its segments. From his vantage point, he could make out a docking segment that had two landing craft attached to it, the camouflaged spaceplanes clinging to the external hull. There was the bridge segment at the front, along with a sensor module that was covered in jutting antennae, and a weapons module that housed a pair of electromagnetic railgun turrets. He knew that there were also sections of the ship that housed the fusion generators, and there was an engine module at the rear of the long stack.
  18. Three other carriers were in formation with his own, each one sporting a different configuration. The cylindrical modules could be assembled and reassembled to suit many different roles, from gunships to cargo transports. Two of their number had been assembled with four of the rotating habitats, they were carrying a great many passengers, while the other was mostly made up of storage modules for carrying the supplies that the small fleet would need on their long journey. Valbara’nay ships were not suited to traveling alone over such distances, they had journeyed more than sixty light-years so far.
  19. The Valbara’nay vessels were not what interested him, however. As the habitat slowly rotated around the carrier, his eyes were drawn to the planet in the distance, its surface a sandy red in color. They had jumped in close, perhaps twenty thousand kilometers away. It wasn’t habitable, there was no foliage, no visible oceans. Above its rust-colored horizon was a brilliant, white torus, spinning slowly as it orbited the arid world. It was only about the size of his porthole right now, but he could already get a sense of its immensity. It was much like the habitat that he was standing on, but vast in scale, so large that it made even the carrier look like a tiny insect in comparison.
  20. They called it the Pinwheel. It was both a Naval base and a hub for travel, with thousands of citizens passing through every day. That was their destination. The ship had begun to burn towards it, he could feel the subtle tug of acceleration.
  21. A little over two rotations ago, the Valbara’nay had encountered an alien war fleet on the outskirts of their solar system. They had not come to conquer, but to hunt a mutual enemy, the insectoid Betelgeusians. The Bugs had laid siege to Valbara, and the aliens had spearheaded the defense of the homeworld, preventing the fall of their civilization. They called themselves the Coalition, an alliance of like-minded species who worked together to defend their planets from the roving insect fleets. The Valbara’nay had recently become a member species of the organization, and with that, an entire Galaxy of possibilities had opened up. Half a dozen species, a hundred worlds, alien cultures entirely unknown to the Valbara’nay. It was all so exciting, there was a whole interstellar community just waiting to be explored.
  22. The small flotilla was on its way to deliver several platoons of Valbara’nay Commandos to the Coalition station for integration training, along with a number of scientists and engineers, but there had been a limited number of positions available for civilians too. Tepin had managed to secure one for himself.
  23. In Valbara’nay culture, tradition dictated that males should serve as homemakers and devote their lives to rearing children. They were smaller and weaker than the females, considered the fairer sex due to their beautiful plumage, and their objectivity was often called into question due to the belief that they were ruled by their emotions. They were seen as fragile, a thing to be coddled and protected, in part due to the disparity in numbers between the sexes. There were roughly seven females born for every male. They were expected to join a flock of females as soon as they were old enough to leave home, to father children, but an increasing number of males were choosing to live independently for a few rotations before settling down. Some took up professions, often in the service industry or the medical field. Others traveled Valbara before becoming tied down to one city.
  24. Tepin was one such male. Tradition be damned, when he had heard that all Valbara’nay were now citizens of the Coalition, wanderlust had overtaken him. He could go anywhere, not just to any city on the homeworld, but to any planet in the Coalition. Assuming he had a way to get there, of course.
  25. He was an artist by trade, a digital painter and sculptor, to be exact. It was on that basis that he had applied to join the expedition, so that he might serve the Ensi in a cultural capacity. To his surprise, he had been accepted, and a place had been reserved for him on the Teth’rak’s Fang. There had been a short period of training, as he had never been into space before, and then the Navy had cleared him for travel. Now his destination was in view, and his heart was pounding in his chest.
  26. The station’s gleaming hull made it stand out against the velvet-black backdrop like a beacon, growing larger as the formation of carriers neared it, expanding until its sheer size began to give him a kind of vertigo. It was shaped like a giant wheel, with a fat, torus-shaped habitat that was connected to a central hub via long spokes. When it was close enough for Tepin to make out the details, he saw that its hull was made up of massive, metal plates in a shade of dull white. Its smoothness was broken up by jutting communications towers and large, rounded domes of indeterminable purpose.
  27. There were cavernous hangar bays spaced out at intervals along its structure, each one glowing with a shimmering, blue light. Those were the force fields that he had read about, an Earth’nay technology that allowed solid objects to pass through while keeping the atmosphere within from venting into space. There were dozens of Earth’nay vessels floating around it like shoals of fish in a lake, some of them three times the length of the Teth’rak’s Fang.
  28. The Humans, as they referred to themselves, possessed technologies far more advanced than any that the Valbara’nay had access to. Their ships were like mobile battle stations, their angular, black hulls bristling with alien weaponry. Their jump carriers could launch a hundred fighter craft at once and were capable of deploying thousands of troops to a planet’s surface. Everyone on Valbara knew of the Rorke, the Earth’nay carrier that had stood defiantly against the Bug armada. There were even people naming their children after it.
  29. “All personnel report to the landers.”
  30. Tepin pulled himself away from the porthole, hastily returning his helmet to his head, slipping his sheaths into the dangling tubes. It was finally time, they must be coming into transport range. After a brief jog to the small cubicle where he had slept for the duration of his journey, he retrieved the rucksack that contained what few belongings he had been permitted to bring onto the carrier, slinging it onto his back and fastening the straps about his chest. He hurried towards the nearest exit, gripping the rungs of one of the ladders as he ascended towards an open hatch in the ceiling. Before him was a long tube that led to the carrier proper, not much wider than the breadth of a female’s hips.
  31. He never liked this part, it defied everything that his body thought it knew about physics, making him feel nauseous. As he pulled himself up the ladder, the gravity seemed to lessen, almost as though his body was growing lighter as he climbed. When he reached the halfway point, he began to float, a brief panic overtaking him as his balance was thrown off and his instincts warned him that he was falling. He clung to the ladder, waiting for the sensation to pass, then began to coast down the remainder of the brightly-lit tunnel.
  32. When he emerged, he had to flip himself upside-down, as what had once been the floor was now high above his head.
  33. The almost homely environment of the habitat now gave way to a purely functional Navy vessel, the interior designed for zero-G. There was no up or down, no floor or ceiling, no point of reference. The occupants were expected to pull themselves along using handholds that were spaced out at convenient intervals all over the padded walls of the cylindrical modules, or to push themselves off surfaces. Computer consoles, access panels, and equipment racks were placed seemingly at random. Anything that wasn’t bolted to a wall was held to a surface using magnets, usually attached with a bungee cable to prevent it from floating away if someone dropped it.
  34. Tepin gripped a nearby handhold with his tail and pulled himself out of the way as a trio of females wearing Navy pressure suits emerged from one of the spokes one after the other, the hatches continuing to spin around him. The rotation of the habitat couldn’t be halted to let the crew on or off, they just had to pick a passing hatch and go for it. It wasn’t spinning fast enough that it posed any kind of danger, but Tepin still found the prospect unnerving.
  35. “This way to the docking module,” one of them said, gesturing for him to follow her with a wave of her three-fingered hand.
  36. “Are you lost, boy?” another chuckled as she looked him up and down.
  37. “I...I know the way,” he replied. His feathers tried to flush purple in an involuntary expression of embarrassment, but his sheaths were contained within his pressure suit. Instead, his onboard computer interpreted the muscle spasms, lighting up the integrated color panels. A wave of purple LEDs flashed along the length of the twin sheaths that hung from the back of his head, floating in the air due to the microgravity, the colors mirrored in the touch displays on his forearms.
  38. The females floated through the pressure door that sealed off this module from the rest, the round aperture dilating like an iris, affording him a brief view of the adjacent module before it slid shut again. Cursing his meekness, he pushed off the walls gently, floating towards it.
  39. The sensor opened it for him as he neared, and he drifted through. This module was the same cylindrical shape as the last, maybe ten meters in diameter, but there was no rotating collar. Instead, there were people floating in front of computer consoles that seemed to have been randomly bolted all over the walls. They didn’t need stools to sit on, they could completely relax their bodies in this environment and just hang in place, their hands waving as they interacted with the flickering holograms. A couple of them spared him a glance as he passed through the center of the room, and then he was through to the next module.
  40. This one had a pair of large hatches on opposite sides of the cylinder, the walls lined with racks of spacesuits. The two camouflaged spaceplanes that Tepin had seen from the habitat were docked here. The three females who had passed him earlier were already disappearing into one of the openings, and there was another female floating in place as she examined the screen on her wrist. She looked up at him briefly as he approached, Tepin catching a handhold to stop himself from coasting into her.
  41. “Name?” she demanded, waving her gloved hand over the display.
  42. “Tepin’chi’atli,” he replied.
  43. “Lander two,” she said, gesturing to the hatch on his right. He pushed off the wall and made his way towards it, emerging through the deck of the craft’s troop bay. It was more cramped than its outward appearance would have suggested, exposed machinery and piping protruding from the cushioned padding in places. There was a sealed door at one end that led to the cockpit, and at the other was the landing ramp, which was currently closed. He was met with two dozen pairs of violet eyes, the other occupants staring at him through their visors. They were strapped into rows of crash couches that were lined up against the walls, harnesses secured tightly about their chests. They were all wearing ocean camouflage, save for five individuals who were clad in the green and purple camo of the Commandos. Tepin felt very much out of place in his matte white, as if he needed to be singled out any more than he already was…
  44. He looked around for a vacant seat, finding his place and struggling his way over to it. There were fewer handholds in the lander, so he had to hook his long tail around the straps and tug himself closer. After stowing his pack in the compartment beneath his crash couch, he noticed that one of the females was unstrapping herself. She rose from her seat, Tepin’s color panels flashing purple again as she approached him.
  45. “I don’t need any help,” he whispered, the female ignoring him as she reached out to close his visor. Her gloved fingers brushed the side of his helmet, the glass panel lowering, his nostrils filling with fresh oxygen as the pressure seal activated. She placed a hand on his chest, pushing his back against the padded wall and fastening his harness securely, pulling the straps taut.
  46. Tepin wasn’t sure whether to thank her or not as she returned to her seat, but she wouldn’t have been able to hear him now anyway.
  47. After a moment, the strips of warning lights in the deck turned from green to orange, Tepin’s chair beginning to vibrate as the lander’s engines spooled. The hatch in the floor sealed up, and then there was a sudden sensation of motion that pressed him into his seat, the craft lifting away from the carrier. It drifted for a moment, getting some distance before firing its main engines, Tepin closing his eyes tightly as his stomach churned. It wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as the initial ascent into orbit had been, but it still made him feel like he was being rattled around inside of a giant centrifuge.
  48. Deceleration soon alerted him that they were nearing the station, the rumble of the landing gear and the tug of gravity informing him that they had touched down in one of the hangars, the lander taxiing for a short distance before coming to a full stop. The lighting strips turned green again, Tepin watching as his neighbors began to unfasten their harnesses. He did the same, stooping to retrieve his pack, the ramp at the back of the bay beginning to lower as the occupants lined up in two neat rows.
  49. Tepin followed behind them as they jogged down the ramp, blinking his eyes as he emerged from the lander and into one of the station’s cavernous hangars. The ceiling was so high above his head, the deck so massive that it made the camouflaged lander look like a toy. Theirs was not the only vessel in the bay. Far to his left was an Earth’nay ship, perhaps one hundred and fifty meters long, sitting atop a set of sturdy landing skids. Its angular, jet-black hull was sleek and tapered, designed to defeat radar detection. It was covered in hatches that Tepin recognized as torpedo launch bays, the bridge subtly raised from the hull towards the aft, just above the monstrous cones of its main engines.
  50. The vessel was being fawned over by Earth’nay wearing yellow jumpsuits, the aliens appeared to be servicing it. They were inspecting the underside of the craft, tablet computers clutched in their five-fingered hands, and they were walking along gantries that extended from the walls to let them reach its blocky hull. It was the first time that he had seen one of the creatures in person. They were big, perhaps a foot and a half taller than he was, with flat faces and an upright posture. Their scaleless skin came in varying tones, as did the fur atop their heads, all of them rather drab.
  51. He turned to look back at the lander, his eyes widening as he noticed the force field behind it. It was a wall of shimmering, blue light, transparent enough that he could easily see the starfield beyond. The cold points of light rotated past slowly with the spin of the station, the gaping maw of space transfixing him, making him feel as though he was about to be sucked out into the vacuum.
  52. It was a struggle to look away, but he turned his eyes back to his fellow Valbara’nay, hurrying to catch up with them as they made their way towards a far-off hangar door. He had only been on the station for a minute, and already he had discovered a vista that he was inspired to paint.
  53. There were two more Earth’nay flanking the exit, these ones dressed in black armor, their faces concealed behind opaque visors. Their appearance didn’t frighten Tepin, far from it. These were UNN Marines, Earth’nay ground troops of the same kind who had fought to defend Valbara. The sight of them filled him with a kind of awe. He had only ever seen them in videos before now, footage captured during the battles to repel boarders on the planetary defense stations, and the fight to retain control of the Yilgarn spaceport.
  54. One of them stepped forward, beginning to exchange information with the leader of Tepin’s group. The aliens had wrist-mounted computers much like those that were integrated into Valbara’nay pressure suits, and after a short conversation, they were admitted through the door.
  55. Tepin emerged into a habitat that dwarfed the one that he had lived on for the last few months. He craned his neck, spinning on the spot as he took in his surroundings, his eyes wide. It was like a ring-shaped city. The concave ceiling was high above his head, painted with an elaborate mural to simulate an azure sky, wisps of white cloud trailing along its subtle curvature. There were domed lamps spaced out at intervals, casting a glow that approximated the light of a yellow sun, he could feel their heat even though his suit.
  56. The torus was separated into two wide walkways, and between them were lines of planters that were overflowing with alien foliage. There were conical trees, leafy shrubs brimming with colorful flowers, and tangled vines that had been encouraged to grow around trellises. They were all varying shades of green, there wasn’t a hint of purple or blue in sight. These species might photosynthesize in different wavelengths than those of Valbara, the different quality of the sunlight made that a likely possibility. He could also see information kiosks that flickered with multi-colored, holographic displays, and booths with sliding doors that might be for communications. There were wooden benches where the occupants of the station might sit, and judging by how the walkway curved out of view in both directions, they would certainly need to rest. This structure must be miles long.
  57. The hull to either side of the walkway was lined with what looked at first glance to be buildings. Upon further inspection, they were in fact extrusions of white metal that had been sculpted to give that impression. Their facades were patterned to resemble brickwork and stone, sporting alien architectural styles that he didn’t recognize. Those would certainly be fun to sketch. The windows that looked out onto the torus were packed with foreign curiosities and flashing signs in Earth’nay script, holographic animations and shiny trinkets drawing him in.
  58. It wasn’t merely the technology of the station that awed him. Everywhere he looked, there were aliens, it was a veritable sea of people. Most of them were humans, walking along precariously without a tail to balance them, wearing clothes in all manner of colors and styles. Tepin could also see several groups of Borealans, the fierce, feline warriors standing head and shoulders above the shorter humans. They strode along on a pair of powerful, digitigrade legs, their furry tails waving in the air behind them. They were muscular and broad-shouldered, their furry fingers tipped with hooked claws, a pair of round ears protruding from their heads. They were near twice his height, but he wasn’t intimidated by them. They too had fought for Valbara during the invasion.
  59. He looked around for Krell excitedly, but he couldn’t see any right now. Video footage of the giant reptiles had been circulating on the homeworld, but the Rorke hadn’t had a great many of them aboard, and sightings of them had been rare. They were immense creatures, four times the height of the average Valbara’nay from nose to tail, and they fought like demons when provoked.
  60. On Valbara, the female gender was the dominant one, which Tepin had been surprised to learn was not the case for all of the species. They were larger than males, stronger, sexual dimorphism giving them more pronounced feminine traits. The ideal male had a short, stunted snout, and scales that were as smooth as glass. His feathers were vibrant and well-groomed, his eyes were bright, and his frame was slight. He was expected to be meek, deferential, and nurturing. Jewelry was commonly worn to draw a woman’s gaze to a slender neck, or a flat stomach, and paints were often used to darken the scales around one’s eyes to enhance their color.
  61. Females, on the other hand, were warriors. They were dominant, aggressive, protective. Their role was that of a bulwark, defending those dear to them. Their snouts were longer, and they were more physically imposing, with more muscle mass. Rougher scales were considered attractive, they didn’t spend hours polishing them, nor did they preen over their feathers. With that in mind, the Krell were the ultimate embodiment of female ideals. They were larger and stronger than any Valbara’nay could hope to be, with snouts as long as a Valbara’nay was tall, and armored scutes that made them nigh impervious to damage. They were almost a parody of femininity, more akin to the war deities of ancient Valbara’nay culture, or the manifestations of natural beauty worshiped by the animists of ages past.
  62. If only Tepin could get a good look at one, he was certain that he would find his muse.
  63. The procession of Valbara’nay stopped, the Navy personnel lining up in two neat rows, Tepin almost bumping into them. The four commanders hopped up onto a nearby planter, perching on the edge of it as they addressed their subordinate flocks, the passing aliens sparing them confused glances as they navigated around the group. Tepin reached up to open his visor, taking in a lungful of the station’s air, along with innumerable alien scents. There was even an artificial breeze here, he could feel it on his scales.
  64. “Our orders are to make our way to the military quarter of the station, where we will rendezvous with the flocks from the other landers,” one of them began. In the Coalition, a single individual was often the highest-ranked member of a unit, but that seemed insane to Tepin. How could they be relied upon make wise decisions without consensus? All four of these females were of equal rank, and each of their decisions was subject to debate within their flock.
  65. “If you should lose your way, simply follow the color-coded lines on the deck,” another added. “There are also detailed maps available at the kiosks. Be careful, we are the smallest species in the Coalition, and these people are not accustomed to having us here. Don’t get stepped on.”
  66. That got a chuckle from everyone, but it seemed like a genuine threat to Tepin. Those Borealans must weigh ten times what he did, if not more. A four and a half foot, fifty-pound Valbara’nay with hollow bones wouldn’t fare too well in such an encounter.
  67. “We also have a civilian accompanying us today,” one of the commanders added with a gesture in his direction. A few of the females turned their helmeted heads to peer back at him. “I’m sure some of you have seen him around the carrier’s habitat. The Council of Ensi value cultural and technological exchange as much as military cooperation, and they decided to open up places on the carriers to civilians. He is an artist, as I am told, and he will be recording what he sees here.”
  68. There were some approving nods from the females. The arts were traditionally dominated by males, they were considered the more creative gender. Dancing and singing were of special appeal, many males who sought independence often found themselves working as musicians, or entertaining the patrons of lounges as dancers.
  69. “You’ve been granted a civilian visa to stay on the station,” another of the four commanders added, addressing Tepin directly. “The Coalition has assigned you living quarters for the duration of your stay, I’m transmitting the relevant data to your computer,” she said as she tapped at the panel on her forearm. “Since you’re not a member of the military, we can’t compel you to do anything, but we still feel responsible for you as a fellow Valbara’nay. We would all feel more at ease if you’d permit one of the flocks to escort you there, the idea of leaving a male alone in such an alien environment does not sit well with us.”
  70. He felt two dozen pairs of eyes on him, his heart leaping into his throat. He steadied himself, trying not to let his emotions get the better of him. The last thing that he wanted was to have his suit flash purple in front of everyone again. He hadn’t come all this way to be chaperoned by the females, he wanted to explore, he wanted to seek out inspiration on his own terms.
  71. “Thank you, Commanders,” Tepin replied, “but I would prefer to find my own way. My task here is to make a record of what I see so that it might resonate with the Valbara’nay who cannot make this journey themselves, and for that reason, I should let my curiosity guide me.”
  72. “As you wish,” she replied. “Do you speak English well enough to make yourself understood?”
  73. “I do,” he said, “I was required to learn the Earth’nay’s language as part of my mission training.”
  74. “That’s good,” another of the commanders said, “you can ask the aliens for help if you need it. Remember, you can always contact the fleet, or any of the crew, via your computer. Don’t hesitate to ask if you require our assistance.”
  75. “Thank you, Commander,” he said with a bow of his head. “I will follow your advice.”
  76. With that, the commanders led their charges away, the flocks weaving through the throngs of aliens. Being shorter than the other member species of the alliance, they soon disappeared from view, leaving Tepin standing alone beside the planter.
  77. The Navy’s job had only been to transport him here, and now that he was on the station, he could go wherever he wanted. He hopped up onto the planter, alarming a passing Earth’nay, then brought up the holographic display on his wrist. The file that the commander had sent to him contained a map of the station, and instructions on how to reach his quarters. The station was split into four sections, and there was apparently a residential quarter where visitors and high-ranking personnel were housed. It was quite a walk, how did the humans make their way around without scooters or trains?
  78. The walkways seemed dangerous, there were so many people packed so tightly together, and so he proceeded downspin using the planters instead. They were long, oblong-shaped containers made from the same white material as the hull, filled with dark soil in which the various flora was growing. Perhaps an Earth’nay might not have been able to make their way through the dense trees and shrubs, but there was more than enough room for the diminutive Valbara’nay. They were broken up by the benches and kiosks, which were simple enough to navigate around.
  79. He almost felt like he was taking a stroll through one of the parks in his home city as he stepped between bushes and around the thick, gnarled trunks of the alien trees. Were it not for the sound of a thousand muddled conversations and the gawking pedestrians, the illusion would have been very convincing. The creators of this marvelous structure seemed to want its inhabitants to forget that they were on a space station.
  80. Tepin paused to admire one of the trees, removing the gloves of his pressure suit and running his hands across its trunk. The bark was rough, almost like scales in its own right, the dark green leaves shaped like sharp needles. The flowers were so diverse in their colors and shapes, their myriad scents rising to his nose. He had only been on the station for a few minutes, but he already felt inspired.
  81. There were no other pedestrians here, so he wasn’t blocking traffic by taking a little time to capture one of them. Tepin locked the joints in his digitigrade legs, taking the strain off his muscles, reaching for his rucksack and rummaging inside it. He fished out a small container made from black polymer, opening it up and plucking his visor from the soft, padded interior. It was a simple pane of glass that wrapped around his eyes, resting on his snout, featureless save for a plastic box that housed the electronics.
  82. After removing his helmet and setting it aside, he put the visor on, the heads-up display flaring to life when the computer’s biometric sensor kicked in. It was not designed for combat, it wouldn’t interface with a laser rifle or the flight control systems of a fighter, it was an artist’s tool.
  83. He set his bag down, then raised his scaly hands in front of his face, watching as the computer located his fingers and began to track them. Each of his claws was assigned a small, orange ring that hovered around it, keeping its position even as he flexed his digits. In the upper right was a menu, projected into the air before him like a hologram, and he reached up to tap at it with his index finger. He selected sculpting mode from the drop-down menu, a formless lump of what looked like wet clay appearing before him. It too hovered in the air, moving along with his head. He selected another option from the menu, then reached out and plucked the ball of clay from the air, holding it in his left hand. His eyes darted between a nearby flower and the clay for a moment, then he began to sculpt with his left hand, using his claws to score the soft material.
  84. Just like a real ball of clay, he was able to turn it over in his hand, repositioning the simulated object in three-dimensional space as he carved. This was a device that he had brought with him from the homeworld, and so it already had many presets, the software long ago tailored to his needs. He used the primary of his two fingers for smaller and more precise strokes, using the second as though it was a larger tool. He had his thumb configured so that he could cycle through the various simulated picks and blades by pressing it against his hand, switching to a finer point as he began to shape the folded petals.
  85. Before long, Tepin had sculpted a near-perfect replica of the flower that he had chosen, holding it up and admiring it. Next came the painting, and he accessed the menu once more, struggling to approximate the vibrant red of the plant. He couldn’t quite get it right, and so he had the computer match the color for him, his fingers taking on the role of simulated paintbrushes. The grey color of the now hard clay gave way to his careful brushstrokes, his creation seeming to come to life before his eyes.
  86. Tepin was not merely reproducing what he saw, a photograph or a video recording could have done that just fine. The very same computer that he was wearing right now could have scanned the flower and copied it perfectly. No, art was about more than simply reproducing reality, it was about conveying emotion in a way that a mere reproduction could not. Once the painting was done, he began to take some artistic liberties, adding gleaming droplets of morning dew to the petals until the flower seemed to sparkle. He enjoyed the contrast of the red flower and the green leaves that surrounded it, adding some more pieces of wet clay and shaping them, releasing his flower and carefully positioning them behind it.
  87. After admiring his creation for a moment longer, he filed it away, stowing his visor in its case and returning his helmet to his head once more. The thing was too heavy and inconvenient to carry around, he’d store it away once he reached his quarters.
  88.  
  89. ***
  90.  
  91. Tepin arrived at the destination that had been marked on his map, one of a series of blocky Earth’nay dwellings that lined the walls of the torus in the residential quarter. They were stacked end to end like boxes on a shelf, their facades sculpted to resemble brickwork, the greenery from strategically placed planters breaking up the matte white to make it feel a little less synthetic. They too must be curved, as they were sitting upon an inverted torus, but the structure was so large that such a curvature was imperceptible. The architects of the station seemed to favor cubes in contrast to the domes that characterized Valbara’nay buildings. Everything had sharp edges, even the windows and the doors had harsh ninety-degree angles. At least they had some appreciation for nature, that was a trait shared by both species.
  92. He approached the door, finding that it was considerably larger than would be necessary even for an Earth’nay. It looked more suited to a Borealan, but perhaps all of the doors on the station were scaled up to its largest inhabitants. That would make sense, as it was easier to pass through an oversized opening than an undersized one.
  93. The door was locked with a numeric keypad that was embedded in the frame a little higher than was convenient for him, Tepin referencing the code on his wrist computer before reaching up to type it in. Earth’nay script was odd. They used a set of ten numerals that they combined into larger numbers, including one that represented a null value, resulting in him having to do a little math in his head to get a handle on them. Their representation for the number eleven, for example, was made up of two numerals that represented a one. They had no distinct numeral for it, unlike Valbara’nay script, which had numerals all the way up to one hundred. Perhaps the aliens couldn’t remember so many at once? The door slid aside, and he stepped over the threshold, the lights inside the room turning on when they sensed his presence.
  94. It was a palace! He wandered into the open-plan space, craning his neck as he took in his surroundings. Valbara’nay dwellings had rooms that were sectioned off into their own domes, like a cluster of soap bubbles, but this one didn’t even have dividing walls. The ceiling here was as high as the dome in his parents’ house back on Valbara, the room so large that it more resembled the lobby of a skyscraper than someone’s quarters. The station was huge, granted, but this seemed excessive.
  95. He quickly realized that all of the furniture was scaled up too. The glass table in front of the couch in the living area was the size of a dining table, almost at chest-height to him, and the counters in the kitchen section of the space were tall enough that he would scarcely be able to see over them. These weren’t quarters for a Valbara’nay or even a human, they must be for Borealans, or perhaps Krell. Had there been some kind of mix-up?
  96. Tepin shrugged off his pack and removed his helmet, beginning to unfasten the seals on his stifling pressure suit. The humidity on the station was already too low for his liking, and he didn’t want to overheat. He folded the rubbery garment and set it on the coffee table, retrieving a billowy tunic and a pair of tight-fitting shorts from his bag. Humans wore shoes even in a casual setting, but they seemed to be the exception to the rule.
  97. For the first time that he could remember, he wasn’t concerned with fashion, he spared no thought for how appealing his clothes made him look. If they accentuated his thighs, if they drew attention to his neck, if the colors complimented his scales. What few Valbara’nay females were on the station with him were undergoing intense training, they wouldn’t be scrutinizing him, so he didn’t have to make himself presentable. It was an oddly liberating feeling.
  98. He stretched out his feather sheaths, the two tentacle-like appendages straightening out to either side of his head before opening up to reveal his plumes. The headdress of a male was larger and more ornate than that of the females, the feathers tipped with iridescent eye-spots. The two sheaths on his forearms had been wrapped around his limbs beneath his suit, and he uncoiled them, the muscles flexing. They were similar to those on his head, albeit a little smaller, the fleshy appendages protruding just above his wrists.
  99. Once he was dressed, he made his way over to the couch. He eyed the wall of faux-leather before him, gauging the distance, then sprang up onto the cushions. The gravity on the station was a little higher than what he was used to, but not by enough that he really noticed. After climbing up onto the armrest and perching atop it, he surveyed the apartment, getting a birds-eye view of his new domain. The bathroom and bedroom seemed to be sectioned off from the rest of the space, likely for privacy reasons. The idea of having a toilet inside one’s own home still made him uncomfortable, but it was something that he had dealt with during his time on the Teth’Rak’s Fang, and it was an inevitability on a space station like this.
  100. Tepin rested for a while, locking his legs and leaning his chin on his chest. His muscles were burning, the journey here had exhausted him. How were the other inhabitants of the station able to walk so far without taking a break? There was no transportation system, and the aliens seemed to have limitless stamina.
  101. After a short nap, he felt ready to explore his apartment in greater detail, leaping down onto the carpet. It was actually rather nice to have a lot of high perches available to him. Valbara’nay liked heights, it made them feel secure. It was probably a throwback to their evolutionary history, when they would scurry up trees to escape predators on the ground.
  102. He bobbed over to the kitchen counter and scaled it in one jump, landing on the varnished wood, his claws clicking on the material. It was as wide as a footpath back on Valbara. There were odd machines of unknown purpose atop it, and he paused to examine one. Upon closer inspection, it was a device used to process food, judging by the spinning blade inside the glass compartment. There was a white box with a glass panel on the front, another numeric keypad beside it, and a rotating plate on the inside. Who knew what that was for.
  103. The centerpiece of the kitchen was a giant, white box. There were two doors on the front with handles, obviously designed to be opened. Perhaps it was used for storing food.
  104. As he moved along, he found a series of drawers, reaching down with a feather sheath and wrapping the appendage around the handle, pulling it open as he perched on the edge of the counter to see inside. It was divided into smaller compartments that contained knives and other implements, this must be Earth’nay cutlery.
  105. When he became bored with the kitchen, he moved over to one of the two large doors at the rear of the room. He selected the leftmost one, the door opening automatically for him, and he stepped through into what must be the bedroom. The bed was enormous, high enough off the ground that it reached his chin, the mattress wide enough that four flocks could have laid upon it with room to spare.
  106. That suited him just fine, however. In Valbara’nay dwellings, there was an entire dome dedicated to sleeping, the padded floor lined with cushions. This wasn’t actually much larger than what one might find in a standard home.
  107. His stomach began to rumble, Tepin realizing that he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten since leaving the carrier. There were protein bars in his rucksack, but he was on a station where a dozen cultures mingled. He wanted to try something new, something exotic, a dish that no Valbara’nay had ever tasted. Before arriving, he had been told that alien food would be safe to eat for the most part, that all of the species in the Coalition had similar nutritional requirements and tolerances. The only exceptions were ‘spicy’ foods that contained burning chemicals, and Earth’nay alcohol, which was enriched to dangerous levels.
  108. On his way to the exit, he stopped to retrieve his visor, sliding the little case into the pocket of his shorts. He didn’t know what inspiration he might find, or when he might want to paint. The prospect of more walking wasn’t very appealing, but according to his map, the tourism quarter was adjacent to the residential quarter. It wasn’t all that far. Speaking of which, he needed to download the information from his suit to his visor. He had already memorized the map, but there might be other useful data on file.
  109. After connecting his visor to his pressure suit’s computer and transferring the files over, he set off onto the torus.
  110.  
  111. CHAPTER 2: INSPIRATION
  112.  
  113. “Res...taur...ant,” Tepin muttered as he read off the Earth’nay text on the establishment’s colorful awning from the safety of a planter. They sold food here, it was as good a place to start as any. Paying shouldn’t be a problem, he wasn’t sure what the currency conversion was like, but Valbara had been inducted into the Coalition’s economic zone. They couldn’t turn him away.
  114. He looked both ways before crossing the walkway, choosing his opportunity carefully. He was below the field of view of many of these creatures, and he couldn’t count on them noticing him before he was trampled. When the way was relatively clear, he bobbed over to the restaurant, two Earth’nay giving him a funny look as he emerged from a bush and darted across their path.
  115. As he pushed open the glass door to the establishment, enticing scents reached his nose, his mouth immediately beginning to water. He could smell meat, a lot of it. Meat wasn’t that hard to obtain back home, but it was something that was usually treated as a delicacy, reserved for special occasions. Most food that was produced on Valbara came from aquaponics and insect farming within the city walls, while the world beyond was allowed to take its natural course. They didn’t farm livestock, but they did cull the Gue’tra flocks on a seasonal basis, stout reptilian herbivores that roamed the plains in large numbers. People usually loaded up on meat and feasted around that time of year.
  116. The scene before him was oddly rustic. Everything was made from polymer that had been shaped to look like wood, the walls lined with paneling in the same style. It might have been convincing to an Earth’nay, but Tepin could smell the plastic. There was a mirrored walkway that ran along the length of the room, polished to a shine so that it reflected the lights in the ceiling above it, rows of tables and chairs lined up to either side. There were pillars spaced at intervals that were designed to look like they had been crudely carved from stone, but it was yet more polymer, a soft glow rising from beneath them. It was all very upscale, the Earth’nay had more taste in interior design than he had given them credit for.
  117. Most of the seats were vacant, there were only a handful of aliens occupying some of the tables, leaning out to peer at him curiously. They didn’t mean any harm, they had never seen his like before, so he shouldn’t let it make him uncomfortable. He’d be getting a lot of odd looks during his stay on the station.
  118. So...how did this work? In a Valbara’nay restaurant, a greeter would be sent to seat him and take his order, seeing to his needs during his meal. He waited for a few moments, and then an Earth’nay woman appeared from a side room, walking over to greet him. She was wearing a black suit with a white collar, and a long skirt, her dark hair tied up in a bun. Her skin was pale, her eyes a shade of blue that he found quite appealing. He knew that she was female, but the lack of a snout always gave Earth’nay women a masculine feel.
  119. “Would you like a table, Sir?” she asked.
  120. Sir, an Earth’nay honorific, respectful.
  121. “Yes, thank you,” he replied. She seemed taken aback for a moment, his trilling, flanging voice perhaps more musical than what she was used to. Earth’nay lacked a syrinx, a vocal organ found in Valbara’nay that allowed them to make a wider range of vocalizations. During his time learning their language, his instructor had talked about how Valbara’nay voices often sounded like two individuals singing in harmony to Earth’nay ears.
  122. “This way,” she said, giving him a polite smile with her painted lips as she led him over to an unoccupied seat. He had to climb up onto it, it was too high for him, and there was a padded backrest that got in the way of his tail. It wasn’t uncomfortable enough that he wanted to ask for better seating, and it wasn’t their fault. He must be their first Valbara’nay customer.
  123. “This is our menu,” she said, gesturing to a piece of laminated card on the table before him. “Please don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.”
  124. He scrutinized it, following the rows of alien text with his claw. Even the words that he recognized meant nothing to him because they referred to dishes and foods without context. What was a pork bun? Who knew. The sheaths on his head and forearms opened up, flashing a disappointed purple, the woman recoiling in alarm. He glanced up from the menu, willing his long feathers to fold back down.
  125. “Apologies,” he explained, “this is how my people express emotion. I didn’t mean to alarm you.”
  126. “It’s quite alright,” she replied, chuckling sheepishly. “We’ve had a few aliens in here before, and they all have their own...quirks.”
  127. “I don’t recognize any of these dishes,” he explained, “what might you recommend?”
  128. “No?” she asked, cocking her head at him. “You speak excellent English, I assumed that...no matter.”
  129. “We learn to speak your language through mimicry,” Tepin said, the woman nodding.
  130. “I see, so that’s why I couldn’t place your accent. You’re mimicking several different people like a myna bird...how interesting. You’re a Valbaran, right?”
  131. “That’s right,” he added with a nod.
  132. “Of course, I can recommend a dish,” she said as she turned the menu around and began to read it. “Can you give me some idea of what your people generally eat? Do you like sweet foods, savory, do you have any special nutritional requirements?”
  133. “Fish, fruits and vegetables with high water content, insect protein.”
  134. “I...don’t think we have any insect-based dishes,” she muttered.
  135. “You serve meat, is that right?” Tepin asked, trying and failing to suppress a flutter of excited yellow.
  136. “We have lots of different meat dishes. Pork, beef, chicken. Oh, you won’t know what any of those are...” She thought for a moment, one hand on her hip as the other scratched her chin pensively. “How about a meat platter? That way, you can sample lots of different kinds at once. Maybe some fish too, if you’d like. I think we have a shipment of fresh salmon in. How do you like your meat cooked?”
  137. “Whatever the Chef recommends,” he replied.
  138. “I think I have just the thing for you,” she said with a grin. “Before I take your order, how will you be paying?”
  139. He rummaged in his pocket and withdrew his visor, placing it on his snout, the Earth’nay watching him curiously as he began to gesture in the air.
  140. “I can convert Valbara’nay currency into UN credits,” he said, “I will just need an address to send the payment to.”
  141. “That should be fine,” she added, “I’ll send you the address along with the bill when you’re done eating. It should be around eighty credits.”
  142. Tepin did some math for a moment, then nodded his head.
  143. “Acceptable, thank you.”
  144. “Excellent. I’ll be back with your meal shortly, Sir.”
  145.  
  146. ***
  147.  
  148. Tepin could smell his meal long before the woman came into view, the wonderful scents preceding her. She was balancing two large dishes in her hands, placing them before him on the table, his feathers puffing up to express his excitement again. This time she was ready for it, and she didn’t falter, leaning over to point to the various items.
  149. The larger of the two dishes was occupied by a ring of pink, marbled meat that had been sliced into bite-sized pieces, garnished with some kind of green plant.
  150. “This is called ‘yakiniku’,” she explained, “it’s a Japanese dish made up of a variety of grilled meat. Here we have ‘rosu’, beef loin and chuck. This one here is ‘butabara’, pork belly, and here we have ‘negima’ which is chicken thigh.”
  151. She gestured to the second dish, this one piled with small, round packets that were wrapped in what almost resembled black paper. Some of them had a strip of what looked like pink flesh that lay atop a ball of white mush.
  152. “This is ‘sushi’,” she explained. “This pink meat is salmon, a kind of Earth fish. This is tuna or ‘maguro’, this is shrimp or ‘ebi’. The black stuff is a kind of aquatic plant called seaweed. The white stuff is a grain called rice. Feel free to leave anything that isn’t to your tastes. Actually...” Tepin watched as she moved a couple of the items to the side of his plate. “Be wary of the ‘wasabi’, this green paste. It’s extremely hot.”
  153. “Spicy?” Tepin asked.
  154. “Yes, very spicy. Please let me know if you need anything else,” she said, turning to leave him to his meal. His eyes played across the platter eagerly, he didn’t know where to start. There was enough food here to feed a whole flock.
  155. There was more of that strange cutlery on the table, but he wasn’t sure how to use it, and so he reached out to pluck one of the marbled strips of ‘rosu’ from the plate. He popped it into his mouth, giving it a tentative chew, his taste buds lighting up like a color panel. It was wonderful! It was so much richer and meatier than Gue’tra flesh, the flavors so complex. It was smoky and salty, and the texture was so perfect. It almost seemed to melt on his tongue as he chewed, his feathers flashing pink and yellow as he savored it.
  156. Each type of meat had a unique flavor, the pork had more fat, and the beef was denser. His favorite of all was the chicken, it tasted remarkably similar to the Gue’tra meat that he was accustomed to eating back home, albeit a little dryer.
  157. He savored every bite as he devoured the platter, pausing to clean the juices from his claws. He was so engrossed in the meat dish that he had almost forgotten about the ‘sushi’, the allure of fresh fish eventually diverting his attention.
  158. He wasn’t sure how to eat them, should the small parcels of rice and fish be devoured whole, or unwrapped and eaten in their individual components? It was unlikely that the Chef would have gone to such lengths for presentation alone, and so he decided to eat them as they were. He selected one of the morsels, popping it into his mouth.
  159. Again, his vibrant feathers advertised his delight, Tepin chewing as his ornate plumes bobbed in the air above his head. The rice was sweet and sticky, while the fish was cool on his tongue, imparting flavors from an alien ocean that was at once familiar and strange. He would have to access the station’s information network later on and find out what kind of fish this ‘salmon’ came from. It was the equal of any delicacies on the homeworld, its flesh so delicate and soft.
  160. There were so many varieties of sushi, and he wanted to sample all of them, save perhaps the ‘wasabi’ that the Earth’nay had warned him of. Many plants evolved painful irritants as a defense mechanism used to deter animals from eating them. Why the humans enjoyed the burning sensation, he had no idea.
  161. Next, he sampled one of the ones that had been wrapped in black seaweed. The meat in this one came from a ‘shrimp’, according to his waitress. He leaned back against the padded chair, biting into the soft flesh, its ocean flavor complimented by the sweetness of the rice and the salty taste of the seaweed. Doubtless, he could spend his entire visit just sampling different Earth’nay delicacies at different establishments around the station, he was almost tempted. But his work here was not culinary in nature, he needed to find more things to paint and sculpt.
  162. Come to think of it…
  163. His eyes scanned the mostly unoccupied room, the mirrored floor, and the stone pillars. Why not capture this moment? The décor was uniquely human, his dishes were full of color and texture, this was something that the people back home would want to see.
  164. Tepin reached into his pocket and withdrew his visor case again, dropping the pane of glass onto his snout and reaching up to turn on the computer. The HUD came to life, and he gestured in the air, selecting the right mode. He wasn’t about to sculpt each individual piece of meat and sushi, this situation called for a more traditional style.
  165. The visor projected a canvas in front of him, and he locked it in place, as though there was an easel standing between his seat and the table. He tweaked the transparency a little so that he could see through the matte white square, then selected a texture that resembled fabric stretched over a wooden frame. He wanted to capture the entire scene, not merely one or two objects.
  166. His fingers serving as brushes, he began to paint, the muscular feather sheaths on his wrists snaking down to pluck pieces of sushi from his plate like tentacles as he waved his hands in the air. It would be a challenge to paint his meal before he was compelled to eat it…
  167.  
  168. ***
  169.  
  170. “Sir? Is everything alright?” the waitress asked as she returned to his table with a tablet computer in her hands. Tepin looked up from his painting, blinking at her through the glass of his visor, realizing that what he was doing might look strange without context.
  171. “Quite. I am painting,” he replied.
  172. “Painting?” she repeated.
  173. “That is my profession,” he continued, “I was sent here by the Ensi to paint what I see. I will bring it back to Valbara as a record of all that I encountered in my travels.”
  174. “Like a journalist,” she said, nodding her head. “I see. Well, I’m sure the manager will be happy to know that you liked his restaurant enough to paint it.”
  175. “And the food,” he added, “it was excellent.”
  176. “I’ll be sure to let the Chef know,” she chuckled. “I’ve brought your bill, the address for the account is here,” she said as she set the tablet down on the table beside the now mostly empty plates. “Thank you for visiting, I hope that we’ll see you again.”
  177. He thanked the woman, then took a few moments to transfer the currency. Although Valbara had recently received a quantum relay satellite that allowed the planet to communicate instantly with the Coalition in spite of its great distance, the bandwidth was limited, and it was used primarily for official purposes. That meant that he couldn’t access his family’s account, and so he had brought some currency with him, albeit in digital form. It was so odd to have to carry bits of data around as though they were physical coins, but sending and then receiving a request to transfer money from the account back home would have taken approximately one hundred and thirty years. The waitress probably wouldn’t wait that long…
  178. After a little currency conversion, it was done, and the woman bade him farewell as he moved to the exit. He had eaten a lot, perhaps a little too much. Tepin would have to watch his figure while he was on the station.
  179. He waited beside the glass door to the torus, choosing the right moment to dart across the walkway and return to the safety of the planters. Not that he was in any position to make demands of the station’s engineers, but a small maglev rail that could transport Valbara’nay visitors above the dangerous crowds would be a welcome addition. There was certainly room for it, the space between the deck and the painted ceiling was mostly going to waste.
  180. A pack of Borealans recoiled as he passed in front of them, alarmed by his sudden appearance, perhaps assuming that he was some kind of escaped pet. Their round ears swiveled atop their heads, tracking him as he vanished into the bushes.
  181. Once he was securely nestled in the shrubs, Tepin began to make his way upspin once more, as the Earth’nay referred to it. There was no North and South on a space station, and so its inhabitants referred to the directions as either up or downspin, depending on the rotation of the habitat. He followed the long planter until he reached the end, hopping down and coming across an information kiosk. How opportune, he needed to decide where to head next.
  182. He walked up to it, the device little more than an eight-foot, metal pillar with a holographic display that rotated around it at about Earth’nay chest-height. As he approached, it seemed to sense his presence, the holographic ring sliding down the shining tube to put itself at a comfortable height for him. It must adjust itself to the stature of the user, the Earth’nay had created many unusual innovations to accommodate the various species that shared the station with them.
  183. Tepin reached out and played his fingers through the floating text, finding that it was very similar in function to the technology that he was already accustomed to using. Touch controls and interactive holograms seemed to have been developed independently by both species.
  184. What he really wanted was to see more of the ships. Was there some kind of observation lounge on the station? He scrolled through the text, his violet eyes scanning the floating images. Perhaps the Earth’nay would let him into one of the hangar bays if he asked? It was unlikely, but he wanted to get a look at one of their enormous carriers for himself. He should check out the rest of the tourist quarter along the way, who knew what other oddities he might discover?
  185. He leapt up into the bushes again, resuming his trek, threading between the shrubs and the round trunks of the alien trees. Once again, he marveled at the size of them, how densely packed some of the plants were. The station hadn’t been built with his kind in mind, but the foliage provided him a lot of privacy, it made it easier to forget that he was on a purely artificial structure that was spinning through space like a giant wheel.
  186. His foot touched something that wasn’t soil, Tepin pausing, peering down at what looked like a moss-covered log. He gave it another tentative tap with a clawed toe, and then it began to rise from the dirt, a low rumbling sound making his teeth chatter. He froze in place as he realized that it was a long snout, jagged teeth protruding from lipless jaws, layers of dark green scales giving way to hanging skin that was a lighter beige in color. The thing rose to head height, everything save for its thick, powerfully muscled neck obscured by the abundance of plant life that surrounded it. It shook itself, the wet soil that was clinging to its scales raining to the planter below, a nearby bush rustling as the creature’s sheer mass displaced it.
  187. Tepin gazed up into a pair of yellow, reptilian eyes, the alien blinking at him. It exhaled through a pair of large nostrils, then opened its mouth, revealing a maw that could have swallowed him whole. There were so many mismatched teeth, the mucous membranes a muted blue in color, an azure tongue that must have been as long as he was tall flexing as the creature yawned.
  188. His feathers flashed in alarm, creating an explosion of color that seemed to startle the creature, its long head recoiling as his fight or flight instincts kicked in. Before he knew what was happening, Tepin had darted into the branches of a nearby tree, his muscles firing reflexively. His claws dug into the rough bark for purchase as he looked down to see the alien cocking its head at him.
  189. It was a Krell, how could he not have recognized it? She was enormous. From his new vantage point, he could make out her long body as it trailed off into the shrubs. She had been lying on her belly, sleeping perhaps, before he had disturbed her by stepping on her nose. Her body plan was familiar to him, yet also alien. Her oar-like tail was packed with fat and muscle, so wide at the base that he could have lain down inside it with room to spare. It made up about half of her length, high enough that it would have reached past his waist if he were to stand beside it. Her legs were digitigrade, like his own, currently tucked up against her body. She had raised herself on her forearms, one of her many-fingered hands resting atop the other as she craned her neck to get a better look at him.
  190. Her back was as rough as the trunk of the tree that he was clinging to, covered in overlapping scutes that resembled plate armor, providing her with an incredible amount of protection. The scales on her underside were smoother and finer, more like those of a Valbara’nay, a tiny mosaic with an almost waxy sheen. Her body was so bulky, the breadth of her shoulders the equivalent of four or five of his own people standing side by side, her hips noticeably wider when viewed from the front. She might be sixteen feet long, at least fifteen hundred pounds, if not more. Tepin was like an insect in comparison.
  191. She climbed to her feet, the muscles in her powerful thighs and calves bulging beneath her scales, her limbs almost as thick around as the tree trunk. It was a miracle that she didn’t sink into the soil, but her feet were wide, her seven toes splayed far apart to provide more surface area. Tepin’s claws dug into the bark as she rose up, her nine-foot height putting her level with his chosen branch despite her somewhat hunched posture.
  192. Her every movement seemed to make her titanic body quiver, her footsteps sending a ripple along her chubby tail, the meat of her thighs wobbling. Now that he could see her underside, he noted that her figure was softer than it had first appeared. Her torso was laden with a layer of fat that extended to her neck and tail. It clung to her round thighs, the paunch of her stomach and her wide hips giving her a kind of subtle pear shape. There were even fat deposits on her chest that might give the impression of a bosom when viewed from certain angles, though she seemed to lack breasts.
  193. Tepin was struck by her beauty. She was like a statue chiseled from jade that had been brought to life, as though a sculpture of an ancient Valbara’nay war deity had stepped down from her pedestal, cold stone given warmth and vigor. His feathers flashed pink as his eyes were drawn to her powerful thighs and her long snout, almost in disbelief, his heart racing for reasons other than fear now.
  194. The Krell seemed as curious about him as he was about her. She moved around the trunk, trying to get a better look at him, the leaves rustling as the branches of the tree shook with her every step. Her claws raked the bark as she lay a hand against it, Tepin noting that she had seven fingers. Her bulging bicep alone was larger than the circumference of the average female’s thigh.
  195. She loosed a low, rumbling call that he could feel in his very bones, making the hanging skin beneath her jaw vibrate. It was a little alarming, reminding him of the terrifying pulse of a predatory Teth’rak, but there was a gentleness behind her yellow eyes that slowly coaxed him down from his branch.
  196. He dropped to the floor, so light that he barely disturbed the soil, peering up at the alien as she looked down at him from what seemed to be an insurmountable height. He realized that she was nude, she wasn’t wearing so much as a loincloth. That said, she had no visible genitalia, the scales between her legs were as smooth as those of her belly. She didn’t seem to need clothes…
  197. He willed his feathers to collapse back into their sheaths, knowing that she didn’t understand the meaning of his pink coloration, but feeling embarrassed all the same. He spoke up, his high-pitched, tinny voice carrying through the trees.
  198. “H-Hello,” he said, hoping that she spoke English. She cocked her head again, her hanging skin swaying with the motion, then raised a hand in what looked like a greeting. Good, she seemed to have understood. “My name is Tepin’chi’atli,” he continued, waiting for a reply. The Krell emitted a strange warbling that sounded like someone trying to speak underwater. Was that her name? He tried to mimic her, but her vocalizations were so incredibly powerful, almost subsonic. They were felt as much as they were heard, and he had no way to approximate such a low and resonating note. She seemed confused by his attempt, standing there motionless as she waited for him to continue, as immovable as a mountain.
  199. Tepin had hoped that he would meet a Krell, but now that one was standing in front of him, he didn’t know what to say. He wanted to tell her that she was magnificent, that her beauty was transcendent, but what would she even say to that? He didn’t know a thing about her and her people, save for hearsay and rumor from the homeworld, so he just stood there and gazed up at her.
  200. She seemed to grow bored of him, Tepin scooting back a few paces as she dropped to all-fours, emitting another rumbling vocalization that made his internal organs shake as she returned to the dirt. She flopped down onto her belly, extending her long body, the impact very nearly bouncing him into the air. Leaves from the trees above rained down on him, the Krell exhaling loudly, her eyes closing.
  201. He was going to miss his chance if he didn’t act quickly, this was what that he been waiting for, the opportunity to capture one of these magnificent creatures in all their glory.
  202. “May I paint you?” he stammered, unable to prevent his feathers from flaring again. She opened one eye lazily, its amber hue catching the dappled light that bled through the branches above, almost making it seem to glow.
  203. The alien rumbled, then rolled onto her side, keeping her eyes closed as she lounged beneath the heat of the sunlamps above. Was that a ‘yes’? He hadn’t even considered that he might not be able to communicate with her properly, the humans and Borealans made it all seem so natural and easy.
  204. Tepin locked his legs, fishing in his pocket for his carrying case and placing his visor on his snout. He reached up and switched it on, the familiar glow of the orange HUD lighting up to overlay his hands with holographic markers. The Krell was lying still, the fallen leaves near her snout blowing. He wasn’t sure if she was trying to be a good model, or if she was just asleep, but he began to paint all the same.
  205. She had such a classical appearance, a traditional style of painting was the only thing that could adequately convey her beauty. He selected an appropriate easel, peering around it for a moment before increasing its horizontal size by twenty-five percent. There was a ‘lot’ of Krell to capture.
  206. He selected a suitable fabric texture, starting off with charcoal as he began to sketch her figure. His eyes traced her feminine curves as he drew, compelled to examine her alien body in intimate detail. Her snout was as long as he was tall, her neck tapering into developed shoulders, her muscle tone visible even beneath her leathery hide. She was still very streamlined, and he remembered that her people were semi-aquatic. Her teeth were a little frightening, jutting at random from her lipless maw when she was at rest, but it gave her an air of savagery that he found oddly exciting. The flesh that was stored on her otherwise flat chest created just enough of a mound to cast shadows. They might have been mere fat deposits, but they were more substantial than the breasts of a well-endowed Valbara’nay female all the same, even if they lacked the teardrop shape.
  207. Her waist was a muted hourglass, the curve of her hip rising high into the air, like the slope of a hill from his perspective. She was so wide that if he were to attempt to wrap his arms around her waist, he wouldn’t even have gotten half-way. There was an alluring heft to her, the fat beneath the smooth scales of her underbelly giving her a defined stomach. It made her look incredibly soft, her heavy paunch sagging towards the ground.
  208. Her left leg was tucked up against her body as she lay on her side, the right one extended, Tepin trying to concentrate on his work as his eyes lingered once again on her thighs. They were so immense, thicker than his torso, and they would need to be to stand any chance of lifting her weight. The legs of a Valbara’nay female were a subject of fixation for many males, the stronger, the better. They all paled in comparison to what was lying before him, there was probably more muscle in one of her thighs than there was in a Valbara’nay’s entire body. Despite that, the layer of fat made them look soft and chubby, their inner surfaces the same smooth beige as her underbelly.
  209. Tepin realized that his feathers were rising again, and he cleared his throat, focusing on sketching her powerful calves. As he moved down her body, he was again transfixed by another of her exaggerated features, her hefty tail. That was another trait that males of his species found appealing, and it went without saying that hers was impressive.
  210. When his sketching was done, he moved onto the detailing, trying to capture her every scale and scute. He embellished the bushes and trees a little, making them more vibrant, adding more flowers until she was practically lying on a carpet of petals.
  211. At last, it was time to paint. His careful strokes captured the green of her scales, highlighting her underbelly with a waxy shine, using dappled light and deep shadow to convey the fullness of her figure.
  212. Time seemed to stand still when he was engrossed in his work, his arms beginning to ache, the pedestrians that passed by beyond the planter fading far into the background. His model never moved, she just lay there, the only signs of life the occasional shifting of her tail.
  213. When the final brush stroke was complete, he awoke as though roused from a dream, his conscious mind crawling back to the forefront as he admired his work. The piece was evocative of Valbara’nay antiquity, his chosen medium oil on canvas, the style replicated perfectly. There was a veritable jungle of blooming flowers serving as a bed upon which the Krell lay, her lounging form serving as the radiant centerpiece, hanging vines adding even more color to the scene. The light filtered through the canopy, her scutes catching it, one of her amber eyes open to peer at the observer. It was serene, provocative, he had outdone himself.
  214. This was why he had come here, to find inspiration, to rekindle the burning flame that had first compelled him to take up a paintbrush all those years ago.
  215. “Thank you,” he breathed, doubting that he could ever truly convey the awe that she had inspired in him. To his surprise, she stirred, one of her scaly eyelids opening. The ground shook as she climbed to her feet and lumbered over to him, her snout descending from the sky, her breath misting the glass of his visor. His feathers flashed yellow and pink, alarming the creature, her massive head withdrawing.
  216. Tepin cursed his involuntary display, collapsing his colorful plumes back down into their sheaths, the Krell gradually leaning closer again. Perhaps he hadn’t given her enough credit, did she understand that he had been painting her?
  217. “You...want to see?” he asked hesitantly. “I’m not sure what wavelengths of light your species uses, you might not be able to see anything at all.”
  218. She nudged him with her nose, surprisingly gentle despite her obvious strength. Its texture was tough and leathery, cool to the touch.
  219. “If you insist,” he mumbled, his feathers slowly rising from their sheaths in a display of purple as he began to worry that she might find his painting a little too risqué. What if she objected? What if he offended her?
  220. He slipped the pane of glass off his snout, holding it in his hands as he examined the Krell, wondering how this was going to work. Her face was far too wide for her to wear the visor, but maybe she could look into it with one eye?
  221. She brought her head lower so that he could reach, Tepin holding it up for her as she peered through the glass, watching as she raised a scaly brow. Was that surprise? A low rumble almost made him lose his balance, her oscillating voice penetrating him to the core. Was she pleased or angry? He couldn’t tell.
  222. A blend of anticipation and apprehension washed over him as she drew back, her yellow eyes scrutinizing him. She turned on the spot, Tepin watching as she peered back over her shoulder, as though she was trying to get a look at her own tail. The Krell was examining herself, running her hands across the leathery armor on the exterior of her thighs, patting her paunchy belly and making it ripple.
  223. Was it possible that she had never seen herself depicted in that way before? If the Krell culture was as primitive as rumor suggested, she might never have even seen a photograph of herself.
  224. “I just...painted what I saw,” he mumbled.
  225. The Krell’s long snout turned back in his direction, Tepin unable to prevent himself from pulling away as her nose neared him. She was just so vast, so imposing. It was like having a carrier slow to a halt an inch from his face.
  226. Pearly teeth glinted as she opened her mouth, some of them as long as his finger, her blue tongue snaking forth. His feathers exploded in a display of yellow and pink as he felt it drag against his cheek, the muscle silky smooth and alarmingly strong. It was like a warm, wet towel, leaving a smear of saliva on his scales. He was confused for a moment, wondering if she was trying to taste him, but then he remembered that Earth’nay did this. They called it a kiss, it was an expression of affection, maybe gratitude.
  227. He stood there as she loomed over him, blocking out the light and casting him into shadow, his feather display fluttering. Surprised yellow, embarrassed purple, he didn’t know what he was feeling. The Krell was pleased. This warrior, this titan, had given him a kiss. Had his art moved her?
  228. “I wish that you could answer my questions,” he lamented, “I want to know everything that there is to know about you and your people. You’re magnificent, fascinating, but I can’t understand you.”
  229. The Krell shook her head, a gesture that she must have picked up from the Earth’nay. She began to walk past him, her long tail trailing behind her, Tepin scurrying out of her path as she paused by the edge of the planter and looked back at him. A low rumble emanated from deep in her throat as she reached up and patted her shoulder, watching him expectantly.
  230. “What is it?” he asked, confused.
  231. His feathers flashed yellow with surprise as he felt her tail nudge him, the appendage curling behind him and giving him a gentle pat to ease him closer. It felt like bundles of steel cables that had been wrapped in a thick layer of foam padding, its sheer mass alarming. She patted her shoulder again, and he got the picture.
  232. “You want me...to climb up?”
  233. She nodded her head, Tepin inching closer. Was this a normal thing for Krell? He placed a tentative hand on her tail, feeling the rough, bony scutes beneath his fingers. He couldn’t help but admire her rump, there was just so much muscle in her rear, necessary to support her tail and to power her massive body along. Her cheeks were so full and round, firm and springy, at about chest height to him.
  234. He tore his eyes away, turning them to her long spine. Her yellow eyes still peered at him expectantly, and so he began to climb, her rough scutes making for admirable handholds. He arrived at her shoulder, which was broad enough for him to perch on comfortably, his feathers fluttering in alarm as she began to move. He gripped the overlapping scales on her neck for purchase as she lumbered down from the planter, scarcely a step for such a massive creature, and out into the crowd.
  235. Tepin gazed down as he watched the smaller aliens give way, the bustling throngs of people parting before her. How could they not? She was the biggest thing on the station, they either had to get out of her path, or risk being trampled. He began to grin as he watched a group of humans make way for her. The tables had turned.
  236. “Where are we going?” he asked, his tail extended for balance as she plodded along. She replied with another resonating call that he didn’t understand. “Oh, that’s right. You can’t tell me...”
  237. Despite her slow pace, her long strides meant that she moved considerably faster than Tepin, and she didn’t need to stop to rest like he did. He had complained about wanting a vehicle, and now he had one.
  238. It was a far superior way to experience the station. He could see clear over the crowds, all the way to the horizon, which was marked by the station’s floor curving out of view beneath the painted ceiling. The breeze was stronger, refreshing, and the sunlamps above were pleasantly warm. Without all of the people blocking his field of view, he had a much better appreciation for how large the station was, and how it was laid out.
  239. As they walked, the colorful stores and sculpted facades gave way to more spartan and functional structures, the sea of civilians replaced with marching columns of black-clad soldiers. There were far more aliens in this part of the station, packs of Borealans wearing similar armor jogging past in formation, more Krell standing tall above their smaller counterparts. There were more hangars here too, huge bay doors that extended from floor to ceiling breaking up the angular architecture, people carrying weapons and carts loaded with supplies moving back and forth between them. This must be the military quarter, he wasn’t really supposed to be here.
  240. He noted that some of the Krell were wearing colored ponchos, either the same black as the Marines or a vibrant yellow. So they did wear clothing after all, but not to preserve their modesty. These must indicate their role or maybe their rank.
  241. His new friend began to turn off the walkway, heading for a large structure to their right. It was a squat, square building that protruded from the hull of the station, made from the same white material as everything else. There had been no attempt to sculpt the exterior, it was just flat and featureless, save for a large door on the front face that was scaled up to accommodate the reptiles. That wasn’t to say that there were no decorations. The front of the building and the short path that led up to the entrance were surrounded by foliage. There were plants with branching leaves, and tall trees with hanging fronds, giving the building a different feel from the rest of the torus.
  242. The door slid aside as they approached it, Tepin ducking under the doorway, and they emerged into a wide corridor. The first thing that he noticed was the heat and humidity, it hit him like a wall. It was several degrees warmer in here than it was out on the torus, and there was so much moisture in the air, he could already feel it clinging to his scales. It wasn’t unpleasant, it was actually closer to his native environment than the conditions favored by the Earth’nay.
  243. To either side of him were more large doors, all of them open, Tepin peering into them curiously as they passed by. These must be the Krell living quarters. Each room was similar, occupied by a few lockers where the aliens might store their belongings, and racks that were presumably for their ponchos. Rather than the elevated bunks of the Earth’nay, or the room-spanning mattresses of Tepin’s people, the beds were a simple bowl-shaped recess in the floor. There were four or five to a room, each one lined with pillows and cushions, large enough to fit several of the massive reptiles at once.
  244. The corridor eventually opened up into a larger space, similar passageways that were lined with rooms branching off it, extending deep into the hull of the station. The main room was circular, big enough to be an auditorium by Valbara’nay standards, and it was packed with Krell. There were piles of them lounging inside a cluster of giant pools, partially submerged in the clear water. They weren’t deep enough that the reptiles could actually swim in them, they seemed to be basking pools, the warm heat lamps in the ceiling above them baking the occupants. There were large grills in the walls that appeared to be vents, pumping in humid air with a barely audible whir.
  245. The Krell were lazing around in huge piles, seemingly indifferent to one another’s presence, the occasional burst of movement erupting as one of them shifted positions. It was as though they were soaking up the sun on a beach somewhere. Were they cold-blooded? Was that why his new acquaintance had been sleeping in the planter, to warm herself?
  246. “You can’t tell me about yourself, about how you live,” Tepin realized. “So you’re showing me?”
  247. She nodded her head, then slowly lowered herself down to all-fours so that he could get off her shoulder. Tepin dropped to the floor, a few of the nearby aliens opening their eyes to get a look at him. Now that he could see so many of them together, he noted that some of the Krell were larger than the others. Their coloration varied too. Some of them were a lighter shade, and the largest specimens had the darkest scales, some so dark that they were closer to black than green. Perhaps they got darker as they got older?
  248. One of them rose up from the pool like some kind of sea monster, the water cascading from its back, plodding its way over to him. It was difficult to determine if it was male or female, they had no external genitalia, no secondary sexual characteristics to speak of. He couldn’t be sure if the larger torso and broader shoulders of this one identified it as a male, or if it was just bigger than his friend. If the ample fat deposits made it female, or if it was just well-fed. This one had narrower hips in proportion to its shoulders, and there were no fat deposits on its chest, its physique a little leaner and more muscular. It lacked the pear-shape of his companion. Maybe that made it a male, though the long snout confused him. He had to keep in mind that such distinctions were not shared by the other species. Earth’nay lacked snouts entirely, for example, but that didn’t mean that they were all males.
  249. The stranger leaned down to sniff him, Tepin resisting the urge to hide behind his friend’s tree trunk-like leg. The Krell looked up at his counterpart, loosing a low rumble, the two seeming to talk for a few moments as Tepin watched the exchange.
  250. Perhaps he was asking what Tepin was, or why she had brought him to what must be their barracks. Whatever her reply had been, he seemed satisfied, returning to his pile and lodging himself haphazardly between two of his compatriots.
  251. His friend looked down at him, raising her hands to her face, mimicking a visor.
  252. “You want me to paint them?” he asked, and she nodded her head. “You really are giving me the tour, aren’t you? Alright, I’m sure that the people back home will want to see this.”
  253. He locked his legs and retrieved his visor, beginning to paint as she lay down on the floor beside him, curling around him in a semi-circle like a protective wall of scales. She watched as he waved his hands in the air, beginning to sketch the scene before him.
  254.  
  255. ***
  256.  
  257. “What do you think?” Tepin asked, holding his visor up to his friend’s eye. She huffed loudly, an expression of approval perhaps. “I really need to find out your name,” he said, “I can’t keep calling you ‘Krell’ forever.”
  258. She rumbled again, rising slowly to her feet, her tail dragging along behind her as she began to plod away. Tepin unlocked his joints and fumbled with his carrying case, following after her as she made her way into one of the corridors that radiated from the basking area. Her destination was one of the side rooms, Tepin skirting one of the deep, bowl-like recesses as he trailed after her. She was so long that her body could be inside the room while her tail was still out in the hallway.
  259. There was a row of lockers at the back of the room, Tepin noting that none of them were actually locked. None of the doors to the rooms were closed either, and there were several beds per room. The Krell seemed to have no concern for privacy, they must place a great deal of trust in one another.
  260. He waited as she rummaged inside one of them, withdrawing a large, wooden box. She set it on the floor, Tepin scooting closer curiously. It was more of a chest than a box, a Valbara’nay could have lain inside it, its exterior hewn from some kind of pale wood. There were carvings decorating the lid, crude representations of what looked like Krell. Were these pictograms, the Krell equivalent of writing, or simple ornamentation? There was no way to know without being able to ask her.
  261. It was fastened shut with a length of frayed rope, the Krell unwinding it before hooking her claws beneath the lid and lifting it up. Inside were several compartments, each one of them full to the brim with odd trinkets. There were colorful beads that seemed to be made from glass, a wide variety of seashells, small tokens that had been whittled from different kinds of wood. There were colorful feathers, more spools of hairy string, small strips of fabric.
  262. “What is it?” Tepin wondered aloud, leaning closer to get a better look. She sat on the floor beside him, her weight making the deck shake, gesturing to her hoard. “Is this yours?” he added.
  263. She patted the floor beside her, gesturing for him to join her, but he locked his legs instead. His people did not like to sit down if there were no seats available. As he watched, she leaned over the box and began to pick out some of the items, making a small pile on the floor. He had no idea by what criteria she was selecting them, but it wasn’t random, there was some kind of reason to her behavior. She kept pausing to size him up, as though her choices related to him in some way.
  264. “Are you going to make something?” he asked, the Krell pulling out a long loop of string. Only now did he realize that there were holes drilled into all of the items. The beads, the shells, the wooden carvings. Each one had a small opening. The Krell picked them up and began to carefully thread the string through them. She was so much more dexterous than one might have assumed from her appearance, her seven-fingered hands moving with practiced speed, selecting a charm from the pile and slotting it onto the string. This wasn’t random either, there was some kind of pattern or order to it, but Tepin couldn’t discern what it might be at a glance.
  265. Before long, she had assembled a long strand that was packed with all manner of colorful and strange objects. The centerpiece was a wooden fetish about the size of his fist that had been carved with some kind of alien rune. It was surrounded by shiny beads, spiraling shells that looked as though they had been collected on a beach somewhere, and colorful feathers from exotic birds. He thought that it might be a necklace at first, but it was far too small. It might serve as a bracelet, or maybe a piece of jewelry that hung around the forehead as was popular with males on Valbara.
  266. The Krell held it out to him, Tepin glancing first at her open hand, then up at her expectant face.
  267. “For me?” he asked, his feathers flaring pink. She nodded, Tepin bowing his head as she placed it gently around his neck. He felt her hand on his sheath, the Krell taking the opportunity to examine what to her must be a very unusual appendage. He probably looked like he had two tails coming out of the back of his skull.
  268. She let one of them sit in her palm limply, gently prying open the slit that ran down its length, exposing the pink mucous membrane and the folded feathers contained within. Tepin flexed his muscles, the sheath going rigid in her hand, the Krell watching with fascination as the feathers began to rise. He showed her how they were layered, and how different colors could be exposed, the alien admiring the iridescent eye-spots.
  269. He examined his new necklace as she drew back, weighing the wooden charm in his hand experimentally. It was rather heavy, but not uncomfortably so, and she had made it specially for him. This was her equivalent of a painting, her way of returning the favor, perhaps. He’d never gotten a gift from an alien before.
  270. “Thank you,” he said, the Krell loosing a happy warble. She climbed to her feet again, closing the lid of her trinket box and fastening it with the rope, stowing it back in the locker. There were more wooden boxes in there, he couldn’t guess at what they might contain.
  271. Next, she wandered over to a rack from which several ponchos were hanging. Some of them were jet black, like Marine armor, laden with ammo pouches and plate carriers. Others were yellow, made from some kind of shiny, moisture-resistant material. Were those engineering uniforms? He had seen several of the Krell wearing them on the torus.
  272. She pulled one of the yellow ones from the rack, holding it out for him, Tepin taking a step closer. What was she trying to show him? Her claw pointed to a metal badge on the breast, inscribed with Earth’nay text.
  273. “Theesah,” he said, reading it aloud. It wasn’t a word that he recognized, and it was followed by a series of Earth’nay numerals that might be a serial number. “Is that your name?” he asked, and she nodded her head adamantly.
  274. He had never heard a Krell name before. Earth’nay had two names each, one that denoted their lineage, and one that was used informally by close acquaintances. They used a lot of honorifics too, like Lieutenant, or Captain. Borealans preferred harsh Zs and Ks, they had names like Zakza or Tazi. It was rare for them to use a family name, since each Borealan was expected to make their own mark on the world, noble bloodlines being the exception to the rule. Valbara’nay had names made up of three segments, each given by one’s parent flock. They had various meanings, some parents named their children after flowers or native animals, others gave them names that expressed some kind of aspiration for their future. What did Theesah mean? Was that her only name? He doubted whether he would ever find out, but at least he had something to call her now.
  275. Theesah returned her uniform to the rack, then began to make her way to the door, gesturing for him to follow her. Tepin did as she asked, the wooden charm on his new necklace bumping against his chest as he bobbed along beside her dragging tail. When she patted her shoulder again, he quickly scaled her back on his springy legs, returning to his perch. It seemed as if they were done with the barracks, where were they headed next?
  276.  
  277. ***
  278.  
  279. The distinct sound of splashing water reached Tepin’s ears as Theesah lumbered into a massive, open facility. To the left of the entrance was a body of blue water that reflected the halogen lights above, rectangular in shape, at least fifty meters long and maybe half that in width. There were ropes along its length, floating on the surface on plastic buoys, dividing the pool into a dozen separate lanes. Said lanes were occupied by various aliens. Earth’nay wearing clinging swimsuits swam up and down, turning around when they reached one end and heading back the way they had come. Borealans emerged to take a breath, their wet hair floating on the surface as they lurked, before plunging back down into the depths. There were Krell too, the amphibious creatures floating along the surface like dead logs, the sluggish movement of their muscular tails propelling them along lazily.
  280. To Tepin’s right was a gym, the floor strewn with various kinds of exercise equipment that he didn’t recognize, enough for maybe a hundred people to make use of them at once. They were mostly occupied by Borealans, the already muscular aliens hanging around in groups of five or six, lifting weights and stretching their limbs on padded mats. He had read somewhere that the felines hailed from a high-gravity planet, and that they needed to exercise frequently so as not to shed muscle mass and bone density in what was to them a low-G environment. It was just like the crew on the Teth’rak’s Fang, they too had to exercise on the carrier’s habitat for a certain amount of time per day to avoid the adverse side effects of working in microgravity.
  281. Theesah headed for the pool, Tepin becoming a little apprehensive. The Krell were no doubt powerful swimmers, but the Valbara’nay avoided deep water. Bathing in a shallow lake was one thing, but his people were not designed for swimming, they relied on their hollow bones and their system of air sacks to keep them afloat.
  282. “My people don’t swim well,” he warned as she approached the edge, his feathers flashing in alarm as she crouched beside the pool. “I’m still clothed!”
  283. He shut his eyes tightly, awaiting the frigid blast of water as she plunged into one of the lanes. He heard the splash, his stomach lurching as he clung to her scutes, yet he remained completely dry. When he opened his eyes again, he was sitting on her back as she floated along, incredibly buoyant despite her immense weight. The water level was a good few inches below him, Tepin leaning across to peer over the side of her scaly flank, reaching down and running his fingers through it as Theesah floated along.
  284. He could feel her muscles moving, even beneath the thick layer of her leathery hide and her bony scutes. Her tail waved left and right, acting like a giant oar to propel her effortlessly through the water, her arms and legs tucked flat against her sides.
  285. The Krell seemed to have their own designated lanes, probably so that they didn’t get in the way of the more animated humans and Borealans, who seemed to be swimming for exercise more than leisure. Tepin watched as a Borealan in an adjacent lane rose to the surface, their mop of rust-colored hair floating on the surface as they peered at him with a pair of green eyes, before sliding silently beneath the water again. It was a little unnerving, giving him the impression that if one of the creatures wanted to sneak up on him and snatch him away, he wouldn’t be able to do much about it.
  286. He let himself relax a little, watching the aliens as they swam up and down the length of the pool, a Krell that was blocking Theesah’s path submerging its massive body like a submarine so that they could pass over it. It was almost like a leisurely boat ride on a lake. He was still getting his head around how such a facility could have been built on a space station of all things. They could scarcely fit a tub for bathing on the Teth’rak’s Fang, but there must be hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in this room alone. Who knew how much was used in all areas of the station, how it was pumped to where it was needed, how it was purified and recycled. He remembered how awed he had been by the carrier and its habitat when he had first laid eyes on it, but now it seemed like a toy, its fascinating technologies rendered quaint.
  287. Movement caught his eye, Tepin leaning over to peer into the depths of the pool once more. Several Krell were lurking near the bottom, four or five meters below him, the water clear enough that he could easily make them out. They almost looked like completely different creatures. The slow, plodding gait that he was accustomed to seeing on land was all but forgotten, replaced with a grace and fluidity that he would never have ascribed to them. They swam with such speed, cutting through the water like scaly torpedoes, acrobatic and nimble. Never mind semi-aquatic, Tepin would have described them as primarily-aquatic, they were so sluggish and out of their element on land.
  288. He felt his heart skip a beat. He had always seen the Krell as resilient, strong, but this new elegance had taken him off-guard. Could they become any more beautiful? How he would have loved to paint them while they were swimming, but he didn’t want to risk dropping his visor into the pool. It wasn’t waterproof to these depths, and there would be no way for him to get a new one so many light-years from home. Fortunately, his people had nigh photographic memories. He would make a mental note of the scene and capture it later on.
  289.  
  290. ***
  291.  
  292. After a good half-hour of swimming, in which Tepin had been content to lie on her back and watch the other Krell frolic beneath the water, Theesah clambered out of the pool. Tepin hopped down from her back, and she shook herself, the motion making the fat along her tail and her belly wobble as he shielded himself from the spray of water.
  293. “I didn’t know that your people could swim like that,” Tepin said, peering up at her as he bobbed along at her side. “It was more like...dancing than swimming.”
  294. She slapped her tail on the floor, making a huffing sound that almost resembled laughter. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but she seemed pleased with his assessment.
  295. “Can I show ‘you’ something?” he asked, Theesah cocking her head at him. “I’ve not been on the station for very long, but I have made one discovery.”
  296. She nodded her head, then gestured to the exit with her snout.
  297. “I suppose I should...climb up and give you directions?” he asked meekly. She patted her shoulder, and his feathers flashed pink, Tepin leaping back up to his usual perch. It drew a few odd looks from the other gym-goers, but he was no longer on Valbara, there were no judgmental females around to pick him apart. He didn’t have to spare a thought for how he looked, or what people thought of him. He wasn’t wearing any paint on his scales, his clothes were mismatched, and he was riding a giant alien. What of it?
  298. Theesah lumbered out onto the torus, and he gestured downspin, using the feathers on his arm to signal to her.
  299. “That way!” he said, his Krell companion huffing with amusement as she set off.
  300.  
  301. ***
  302.  
  303. They arrived at the door to the sushi restaurant, Tepin leaping down from Theesah’s back, the Krell cocking her head at the sign. She was so tall that it was level with her snout.
  304. “They call it sushi,” Tepin explained. “You’ll like it.”
  305. She rumbled in a way that sounded distinctly skeptical, Tepin reaching up above his head, taking her hand in his. Her palm was about as wide as his torso, so he couldn’t manage much more than wrapping his fingers around the lowest of her seven digits, which was almost as thick as his wrist. She blinked her eyes at him, seeming surprised as he guided her forward. He would have had no hope of pulling her along, but she cooperated, her footsteps making the deck vibrate as she ducked through the doorway. It was large enough to accommodate a Borealan, and so she didn’t have too much trouble getting inside, even if her broad shoulders barely cleared it.
  306. Once she was through, she rose to her full height, knocking her head against the ceiling. She ducked a little lower, glaring at up at it. Frankly, Tepin was more concerned for the ceiling than for her.
  307. The restaurant was more populated now, all of the patrons human, a few of them turning to stare at the newcomers. Tepin hadn’t seen many of the Krell in this part of the station, they seemed to remain mostly in the military quarter, but there was nothing to indicate that the reptiles weren’t permitted to venture where they pleased.
  308. A giant Krell was much easier to notice than a tiny Valbara’nay, and this time, the waitress emerged from the back room behind the counter almost immediately. Her gaze was drawn to the Krell, then she turned her attention to Tepin, recognizing him.
  309. “I didn’t expect to see you back so soon, Sir,” she said. “Is this...a friend of yours?”
  310. “Yes,” he replied, “we would like sushi.”
  311. “This way,” she said, gesturing towards the back of the restaurant as she suppressed a smile. Tepin became a little worried as they walked along the mirrored floor. Was Theesah heavy enough to crack the surface, maybe damage it in some way? It seemed not, her splayed toes did a good job of spreading out her immense weight more evenly.
  312. They arrived at a booth that was behind one of the pillars, out of view of most of the gawking Earth’nay. A cynical person might assume that the waitress was embarrassed by their presence, but while Tepin wasn’t too good at reading Earth’nay body language yet, he got the impression that the seating arrangements were more for their privacy. The woman had been very kind to him during his previous visit.
  313. “I’m afraid that we have no hope of seating a Krell,” she muttered, examining the booth and scratching her head pensively. Can he...she...they sit on the floor? Would that be alright?”
  314. Both Tepin and the waitress watched as Theesah loosed a warble, dropping down to all fours. All eight or nine feet of her powerful tail curled around the stone pillar, her torso resting on the floor between it and the booth as she lay her head on the seats. She rested her leathery chin on the cushions, taking up enough room to have seated about three Earth’nay, exhaling a satisfied huff.
  315. “I think that your friend has found...adequate seating,” the waitress mused as Tepin slid into the booth beside her. “Would you like me to bring you a menu?”
  316. “May we have another platter?” Tepin asked, the woman nodding her head.
  317. “I should warn you, I don’t think we have enough food in stock to come anywhere close to satisfying a Krell,” she added. “I’m not sure how much they eat, we haven’t had one in here before. That said, I can’t imagine it being much more than the Polar who was in here the other day...”
  318. “The same quantity will be sufficient, thank you,” Tepin replied. “I want to show her the different flavors.”
  319. “Very good,” the waitress said with a demure nod. “I’ll return with your order shortly.”
  320.  
  321. ***
  322.  
  323. Tepin’s mouth began to water as soon as the familiar scents reached his nose. The waitress was returning, the two platters of meat and sushi balanced expertly in her hands. She had to navigate around the far side of the stone pillar in order to reach their table, as Theesah’s massive body was barricading the near side. She lay them on the varnished wood, Theesah’s snout rising from the cushions beside him to sniff at the air. Krell were amphibious, so they would surely find things like fish and seaweed palatable.
  324. “Enjoy,” the waitress said, glancing between the two of them. “I’ll be back with your bill when you’re done, let me know if you need anything else.”
  325. She left them to their own devices, stepping gingerly around Theesah’s tail, which rose higher than her knees. Tepin stood up on the cushions, locking his legs. It was easier to reach that way. He selected one of the small pieces of sushi that were wrapped in black seaweed, remembering that the meat was called ‘shrimp’. Come to think of it, these really were infinitesimal by Krell standards, they had seemed so substantial to him during his last visit. Oh well, it would still taste the same…
  326. “Try this,” he said, offering the morsel to her. “It’s called sushi. It’s made from fish, rice, and seaweed. That’s a kind of ocean plant.”
  327. She rumbled, her mouth opening wide, Tepin unable to prevent his feathers from fluttering a shade of alarmed yellow and purple as he stared into her gaping maw. She wouldn’t have had much issue swallowing him hole, the pearly white of her jagged teeth contrasting with the odd, azure tint of her mucous membranes. He wasn’t entirely sure what to do, and so he reached into her mouth, gently placing the tiny piece of sushi on her blue tongue.
  328. As soon as he had withdrawn his arm, she snapped her jaws shut. It was hard to tell if she had even chewed before swallowing, assuming that she was capable of chewing. Upon reflection, that might not be the case.
  329. “Do you...like it?” Tepin asked hesitantly. She opened her mouth again, waiting patiently for another piece of sushi. “I suppose that means yes.”
  330. He selected another morsel, this time one of the pink pieces of salmon on a ball of sweet rice, placing it on her wide tongue and watching her mouth snap shut again. It hadn’t been very long since he had last eaten, and the platters were large enough to feed a whole flock, so he picked out only a few pieces for himself as he fed the rest to his giant companion.
  331. It was hard to gauge what Theesah liked and what she didn’t, her scaly face was nigh expressionless. It did seem as though the beef got a stronger reaction from her, a warbling sound emanating from deep within her throat when he placed a strip of the grilled meat on her tongue. She kept opening her mouth, and so he kept feeding her, the platters slowly depleting until they were empty. At least he had gotten his money’s worth this time, there wasn’t a scrap left.
  332. When they were done eating, she relaxed into the cushions, seeming to enjoy resting her massive head on the padded seats. She bumped her long snout into Tepin’s thigh, and he looked down at her in confusion.
  333. “What is it?” he asked. “There’s no more food, and I’m afraid that I can’t afford to buy enough to sate the hunger of someone quite so...large.”
  334. She nuzzled him again, loosing a resonating rumble that almost sounded like a purr. His feathers flashed pink as she pushed her nose into his hand, Tepin realizing that she wanted him to stroke it. As she lay her jaw back down on the cushions, he began to run his fingers over her scales gingerly. Her hide was so thick, he doubted whether even a strong Valbara’nay would have been able to drive a blade through it, the texture of her scales at once bumpy and smooth. They felt a little like pebbles that been smoothed by the flow of a stream, rough when taken together, but smooth on an individual basis. The Krell had scutes too, bony plates overlaid with skin that served as even greater protection, overlapping like armor plating. They were nothing like Valbara’nay scales, which were made up of a fine mosaic, as flush as glass when they were properly maintained. That was one thing that Tepin prided himself on, his scales were carefully polished to the point that they shone under the right light. He might neglect his jewelry and his fashion sense when there were no females around to impress, but never his scales.
  335. He ran his hand from her nostrils to her eyes, Theesah seeming to enjoy it. She might not appreciate how appealing a long snout was to his people, it probably wasn’t a source of attraction to the Krell. Earlier that day, Tepin hadn’t been sure that he would even get to see a Krell in person, and now he was petting one. What would the people back home say if they could see him now?
  336. She began to shift her weight suddenly, rolling upside-down, turning her head so that her underbelly was exposed. Tepin reached out, sliding his hand beneath her jaw. The scales here were more like his own, very fine and smooth, the fat below giving her a fleshy texture. He could see the way that the muscles in her jaw bulged from beneath the skin, almost as large as her biceps. She could probably snap that maw shut with enough force to bend steel.
  337. She rumbled happily as his claws scratched her scales, his palm stroking her chubby underside. Her people had looked so fearsome at first glance, but they were such docile creatures, so gentle. At least until provoked, and then they could charge through trees and concrete barricades like they were nothing. He had seen the footage from the invasion that her people had helped to repel.
  338. After a few minutes of petting, she seemed to be falling asleep, Tepin having to give her a nudge to wake her up. If she passed out in the restaurant, then there was no way anyone was going to be able to move her without some kind of heavy equipment.
  339.  
  340. ***
  341.  
  342. Once the bill was paid, and Tepin had thanked the waitress once again, they proceeded out of the restaurant and back onto the torus. The sunlamps in the painted ceiling were dimming now, simulating dusk, and the bustling crowds were thinning out. Tepin wasn’t sure how long an Earth day was, but it must be getting late. He was becoming rather tired himself, he couldn’t remember ever having walked so much, he would probably have collapsed by now if he hadn’t run into Theesah.
  343. “I suppose it’s time to part ways,” he said, Theesah peering down at him as they stood outside the glass doors. “I’m staying in one of the suites downspin, and you’ll be headed upspin, back to the military quarter. Is there a way for me to contact you again? I don’t feel like I can just walk into the barracks and search for you.”
  344. She cocked her head at him, and he loosed an exasperated sigh.
  345. “I suppose you can’t answer that, can you?”
  346. Theesah warbled, a sound that came off as oddly mournful to him. Was she sad to see him go?
  347. “Perhaps we can meet here again in the morning,” he suggested, “whenever that might come on this station. Wait for me in the planter outside the restaurant, or maybe I’ll wait for you?”
  348. His feathers erupted in a display of alarm as she suddenly reached down and picked him up, lifting him off the deck effortlessly. Her hand was large enough that she could easily get it around his torso, like a child playing with a doll, her grip gentle despite her immense strength. She placed him on her shoulder, Tepin’s tail waving erratically as he balanced himself, the Krell peering back at him.
  349. “Alright...I guess I’m going with you,” he muttered. She huffed happily, setting off in the direction of the barracks, a couple of curious Earth’nay in yellow overalls gawking at them as they dodged out of her path.
  350.  
  351. CHAPTER 3: INFATUATION
  352.  
  353. By the time they had reached the Krell barracks again, the sunlamps had turned off entirely, the torus lit only by the yellow glow of lights that were made to resemble streetlamps. Tepin appreciated the twilight, simulating day and night like this must help enormously with the sleep cycles of the crew. There was nothing more disorienting than not knowing what time of the day it was, and trying to sleep in the glare of bright lights. His time aboard the Teth’rak’s Fang had taught him that all too well…
  354. He wasn’t sure why Theesah had brought him back here, but he was glad to spend more time with her. She certainly seemed to have grown possessive of him throughout the day.
  355. Tepin ducked under the doorway as she lumbered inside, the panel sliding shut behind them automatically after a considerable delay, the sensor waiting until her dragging tail had cleared the threshold. The familiar warmth and humidity was welcome, spending too much time on the torus made him feel like he was about to dry out. The interior was just as they had left it, the cluster of shallow pools in the center of the building occupied by piles of dozing reptiles, lying atop one another in a listless heap as they bathed in the heat of the lamps above. There was a little more activity now, he could see that a few of the recesses in the rooms that they passed by were now occupied. The Krell had dropped down into the cushion-lined bowls, curling up into balls, some of them sharing with their neighbors in spite of there being unoccupied beds nearby. They were certainly social creatures.
  356. Theesah returned to the quarters that they had visited prior, situated in one of the many identical corridors that branched off the expansive main room. It was still empty, if she had any roommates who usually occupied the other recesses, then they weren’t here right now. Perhaps they were on-duty, or maybe they had joined the pile in the basking pools.
  357. He hopped down from her shoulder, watching as she made her way over to what he could only presume was her locker once again. She withdrew another of the carved, wooden chests, this one similar in appearance to the one that she had used to assemble the necklace that he was still wearing. It had the same wood paneling, the same frayed rope holding the lid shut. The only noticeable difference was the relief on the lid. It was pictures of flowers and gnarled trees, rather than a carving of frolicking Krell.
  358. Theesah set the heavy box down beside one of the recesses, beginning to unfasten the rope, opening the lid to reveal that it contained perhaps ten wooden vessels. They were large, Krell-sized, each one corked with something that resembled tree bark. It was impossible to see what they contained, Tepin inching closer to get a look as she began to turn one of the plugs.
  359. It came loose with a pop, the Krell setting it down beside her before pulling another from the box. Before long, she had assembled a collection of six containers, each one uncorked. Tepin leaned over to see inside one of the sculpted, wooden pots. It was full of colored liquid, thick and viscous. As he examined them, he realized that each one contained a different color, from a vibrant yellow to a deep blue. Was this food? Some kind of paint? Why was Theesah showing these to him?
  360. “What are they?” he asked, Theesah meeting his curious gaze. She raised her hands in the air, miming a circle with them. “A circle?” he continued, confused. “I don’t understand...”
  361. She dipped her hand into one of the pots, withdrawing fingers that had been soaked in the red liquid. It was some kind of dye or pigment, his paint guess had been pretty close. What was she going to paint?
  362. He watched as she leaned forward, beginning to draw a crude circle on the white material that made up the deck. When she was done, she placed her fist on the outside, then gestured to Tepin before moving it inside the red line.
  363. “I am...inside a circle?” he asked skeptically. “What does that mean?”
  364. She dipped her fingers into a different pot, this one full of dark green pigment, beginning to draw within the circle. Tepin found himself hoping that the dye would wash off, he didn’t see any other pictograms in the room, and he doubted that the Coalition sanctioned graffiti. Theesah was drawing lizards...no, Krell. There were half a dozen of them within the red circle, their depiction similar to those that had been carved into the lid of the necklace box. The perspective was odd, they reminded him of the primitive cave paintings that were sometimes found in the mountains of Valbara.
  365. Theesah put her fist on the outside of the circle again, then moved it inside, peering down at him expectantly.
  366. “The Krell are inside the circle, and you want me to be in there too?” he asked with a flurry of confused feathers. “What does the circle signify?”
  367. She opened her arms wide, then brought her closed fists to her chest. This was important to her, it meant something significant. Perhaps the circle signified friendship, community, or family. As a Valbara’nay, he was already familiar with the concept of a flock, a family that one elected to join. Was he being invited into Theesah’s flock?
  368. His hand wandered to the chunky, wooden pendant on his necklace, his feathers fluttering pink. Theesah seemed to guess from his expression that he had understood, her fat tail slapping against the floor happily. She reached towards him, her arm as long as he was tall, taking him gently by the wrist and guiding him closer. Before he could object, she plunged his hand into one of the wooden pots, Tepin grimacing as he felt the odd substance seep around his fingers. It was cool and viscous, very much like oil paint, and he withdrew his hand to see that his scales were stained with the red substance.
  369. “Do I...paint with it?” he asked, holding his hand over the pot so that the pigment didn’t drip on the floor.
  370. Theesah seemed to consider for a moment, then she lay down heavily on her side, the impact making both the ground beneath his feet and her chubby underbelly shake. She looked much like she had when he had painted her in the planter, the feminine curve of her hip rising high into the air, her long tail coiled around behind him. He felt the heavy appendage tap his back, urging him closer, her yellow eyes watching him expectantly as he took a couple of hesitant steps towards her.
  371. “You want me to paint...you?” he asked, his feathers erupting in a deep shade of pink. She took his hand, guiding it towards her beige underside, her seven fingers already stained with the red dye. His digits sank deep into the soft flesh just beneath her chest, his eyes widening as his hand disappeared up to the wrist. Her layer of fat was even more inviting than it had looked, yielding before his fingers like putty, her flush scales as smooth as glass. When she released him, and he pulled back, he left a red imprint of his hand behind.
  372. He swallowed conspicuously as he glanced up at her face, his pink feathers standing erect, the eye-spots bobbing in the air. Was this some kind of initiation rite? A Krell ritual of sorts?
  373. “W-What should I paint?” he stammered, “just handprints?”
  374. She shook her head, leaning over to dip her hand into one of the pots, coating her fingers in yellow dye. This was rapidly becoming very messy. She brought it to her chest, painting a series of dots that ran down between the mounds of flesh that so resembled breasts. She waited expectantly as if that should be all the explanation that he needed.
  375. “Okay...so...patterns?” he wondered. He extended an uncertain hand towards her underbelly again, his fingers trembling. He was painting on the naked scales of a Krell, of all things. He could hardly contain himself, he didn’t know whether he wanted to hide, or if he wanted to plunge both of his hands into her inviting flesh. This wasn’t necessarily sexual, he had to keep that at the forefront of his mind. The Krell were aliens, he had already seen that their ideas of personal space differed from his own. It was possible that their sense of modesty and what boundaries could be safely crossed differed too. This was just some kind of...tribal rite, something to induct him into her social group, nothing more.
  376. He had to try to keep his mind off the silkiness of her scales, the fullness of her figure, or he’d get a damned eversion. This was a canvas just like any other, albeit a living one...that was warm and smooth to the touch...attached to the very incarnation of Valbara’nay beauty…
  377. Art, art was the only thing that could hold his attention now. He would turn her belly into a masterpiece, even if he didn’t fully understand what she expected of him.
  378. He turned and peered down into the wooden pots, selecting the dark green pigment and dipping his finger into the liquid. His fingers moved just as they did when he was using his visor, he was no stranger to using a physical medium, though he preferred to paint with a brush rather than his own claws…
  379. Trying to ignore the way that his finger created a wonderful indent in her belly, he drew the stalks of a plant, flowing and intertwining with one another as they traveled down towards her waistline. He stopped just short of it, the Krell didn’t have any visible genitalia, but he didn’t want to push his luck. Theesah watched all the while. She seemed curious, but she never tried to stop him, so he must be doing something right.
  380. Having only a few simple colors to work with was limiting, and he had no palette upon which to mix them, but he did his best. He added blooming flowers to the stalks in hues of deep red, the same that he had painted on the torus, as they were still fresh in his mind. He remembered every detail of their folded petals, reproducing them as best he could manage with so few tools at his disposal. As he became engrossed in his work, adding a few yellow buds to the piece, he could almost ignore the fact that he was drawing on a sixteen-foot-long alien.
  381. He stepped back to admire his work, it wasn’t half bad. Theesah seemed to like it too, her eyes widening as she appraised the flowing stalks and the intricate petals.
  382. “H-How’s that?” he asked, wondering if he had done it right. She warbled her approval, then took his wrist again, dipping it into the blue ink and planting his hand into the doughy meat of her inner thigh. His feathers flared as his fingers sank into it, the mosaic of smooth scales deforming, her flesh spilling between his digits. Deep beneath the layer of cushion, he felt muscles like iron flex at his touch, rising up from beneath the surface to greet him. How he had admired these stout thighs, and now he was touching them, his heart racing in his chest as he dared to take a handful. It was like melting wax, so impossibly supple. How could someone be at once so soft, and so firm?
  383. She released him, and he lingered there for a moment, testing the springiness of her flesh before realizing what he was doing. He pulled away, leaving a conspicuous handprint on the beige scales. It was an erogenous zone to his people, was that true for hers, or was he reading too deeply into this?
  384. “Oh...oh dear,” he mumbled as his feathers flashed purple. He examined his hand, realizing that substance was staining his fingers. “Does this stuff come off? Are people going to be able to see that we’ve been...that I’ve been...touching you?”
  385. She warbled happily, her amber eyes watching him gleefully. Once again, she guided one of his hands into a pot of yellow pigment, releasing it and waiting for him to continue.
  386. “I suppose you want more handprints,” he muttered.
  387. Theesah slapped her fat tail on the floor contentedly as his hand traced the long, wide curve of her hip, leaving a smear of yellow in his wake. He had to stand on his toes to reach, their breadth made them taller than he was when she was lying on her side like this.
  388. He was growing a little more confident as he went. She wanted to be touched, she wanted him to leave his mark on her. Why? Was this really part of some initiation ritual, or was it something more?
  389. Her vast body was a playground for his comparatively tiny fingers. So much flesh, so much muscle, the wonderfully varied textures of tough leather and flush scales. His violet eyes wandered down to her tail, and he wondered if she would permit him to touch it. Like her thighs, it was another feature that he found irresistible. It was packed with so much muscle, so powerful that it could drive her massive body through the water effortlessly, sheathed in a layer of pillowy fat despite its strength.
  390. It wasn’t as though he could surreptitiously slip a hand down there, her body was too long for that, he had to walk a few steps to reach it.
  391. He thanked his stars that she didn’t speak the language of feather displays, his pink plumes were advertising his embarrassment and his arousal with their involuntary flashing. He had never been good at keeping his emotions in check, especially when an attractive woman was putting the moves on him. That usually came in the form of a sordid whisper, a lingering glance, or a tap on the rump from a more brazen suitor. Tepin had never ended up in a situation like this before, painting a woman, running his hands across her body...
  392. With a start, he realized that he was fully everted, his engorged hemipenis straining against the fabric of his tight shorts. Praying that Theesah wouldn’t notice, he moved down her body, pausing to leave colorful handprints and simple floral patterns as he went.
  393. His heart pounded in his chest as his hand wandered between her legs, his palm brushing the base of her tail. It was as thick around as a stout tree trunk, just as packed with fat and muscle as he had imagined. Despite the overlapping scutes that ran down its upper side, the underside was smooth and fleshy, his fingers sinking into her fat. It was so impossibly supple, he could fill his palm with it. Tepin’s eyelids fluttered as the fabric of his shorts brushed against his eversion, stimulating his sensitive shafts. He was becoming far too excited, this was getting out of hand. At this point, was he not just exploiting his new friend?
  394. He pulled away reluctantly, leaving a trail of multi-colored hand and fingerprints that wandered down her belly, his arousal only growing as his eyes played over them. Everywhere that his hands had been was clearly marked on her voluptuous body. His fingers were stained with the stuff, who knew when it would wear off?
  395. “O-Okay,” he stammered, Theesah peering at him as her amber eyes caught the light. “I’m done, right? Am I...in the circle now?”
  396. She rose to a sitting position, looming over him, her massive figure casting him into dark shadow as it blocked out the light from the lamp above them. She reached down and gently tugged at his flowing tunic, Tepin’s feathers flashing pink again.
  397. “You want to paint ‘me’ now? I don’t know if...”
  398. Theesah was persistent, warbling at him as she cocked her head in confusion. She didn’t understand why he was refusing, her rite was only half-complete. He might insult her if he didn’t follow through, she might think that he was rejecting her friendship.
  399. “Alright,” he conceded, the Krell huffing happily as he began to pull off his tunic. He had to wonder what she made of him as he exposed his smooth torso, his scales still shining and reflective from the last time that he had waxed them. Just like her, his green hide tapered to a lighter cream on his belly, extending to his inner thighs and down the underside of his tail.
  400. His tunic now discarded on the floor beside him, Theesah’s hands moved to the pots, the Krell coating her fingers liberally. Tepin wasn’t sure what to do, so he just stood there, his eversion seeming to brush against the fabric of his shorts with his every breath as his pink feathers remained erect.
  401. He flinched as her fingers brushed his chest, so large, but so gentle. Handprints weren’t really on the table, as hers would pretty much cover his entire torso, so she began to paint on him instead. His scales were sensitive, ticklish, shivers rolling down his spine as her dull claws brushed them. She was painting him with strange runes and geometric patterns of unknown meaning. They followed the natural contours of his body, the Krell pausing to paint a floral pattern around his navel. He twitched and twisted, struggling to keep still, his breathing growing heavier as she crawled slowly towards the conspicuous bulge in his shorts.
  402. Damn the females for making him think that he always needed to show off his rump and his thighs, there was no way that Theesah could miss it.
  403. As she moved down to his waistline, she attempted to curl a finger beneath the elastic. It was like trying to undress a doll for her. Tepin reached down and eased her away, his plumes flashing in shades of purple and yellow.
  404. “H-Hang on,” he mumbled, flustered by her tugging. “I don’t think...I’m not sure that...”
  405. She succeeded in hooking a finger around his shorts, beginning to pull them down his thighs, Tepin’s knees going weak as the fabric rubbed against his tender shafts. He covered himself, using the feathers on his forearm to obscure his lower body as his member bounced free. Theesah cocked her head at him, Tepin taking a step back as she tried to part his feathers.
  406. “I get that you want to paint my legs,” he began, “b-but I don’t think that you need to...”
  407. As she gently parted his feathers, her yellow eyes fixed on his hemipenis. It was a fleshy, two-pronged fork covered in dull barbs, little more than bumps. It was about four inches long, two for the main shaft, and two more where it split into two tapered glans. The organ usually remained inside his genital slit, engorging and everting when he became aroused. With no skin or covering to protect it, it was extremely sensitive.
  408. There were two channels cut into the outside of the organ, ending at each glans. During ejaculation, the semen would travel along the outside of the penis. Said channels were currently leaking strands of clear, watery fluid, Tepin covering his face in embarrassment as Theesah examined his alien anatomy. He had no idea what the Krell equivalent looked like.
  409. She made a low rumbling sound that he could feel in his very bones, and when he finally moved his hands away from his face, he saw that her long snout was only inches away from his member. She peered up at him with those amber eyes, her warm breath washing over his shafts, that alone enough to make him shiver.
  410. “Aren’t...you going to paint me?” he asked. Theesah reached out and began to draw on his inner thigh, Tepin struggling to stand on shaky legs, using his muscular tail to prop himself up. This was too much, she ‘had’ to know what she was doing, what effect she was having on him.
  411. His member swelled and throbbed as her fingers stroked the sensitive scales in its vicinity, leaking more beads of glistening fluid, her yellow eyes watching him closely as though trying to gauge his reaction. His feathers were going haywire, waves of pink and yellow passing through his erect headdress, the eyespots catching the light as they waved back and forth. She moved to his belly, a scant inch above where his shaft emerged from his slit, painting a red crescent that she decorated with small dots.
  412. Her snout rose up to his face, Tepin blinking at her through the haze of his arousal. Her lipless jaws parted, her interlocking teeth opening, the tip of her blue tongue emerging to lap at his slender neck. A flash of pleasure coursed through him like an electric shock, his knees very nearly giving out. Azure flesh glided against his throat, warm and slimy, damp with her saliva. She dragged it across his scales as though she was sampling his taste, or perhaps it was another ‘kiss’.
  413. “What are you...doing..?” he murmured as she pulled back, her massive head seeming to hover in front of him. Her jaws parted again, that long, winding tongue snaking towards him. He felt it brush his scaly lips, its tapered tip probing, its azure surface glistening. Tepin couldn’t help but open his mouth, his heart skipping a beat as the slippery surface of her organ glided against his own. Its texture was incredibly soft and smooth, like wet velvet, strands of her saliva drooping from his chin as she pushed more of its length inside.
  414. It explored him, its silky surface brushing against the roof of his mouth, the taste of it filling his head. He tried to meet her kiss, if that was what she was doing, his people had no equivalent. His tiny tongue paled in comparison to her wet, flexing muscle, Tepin suppressing a gag as its point pressed into his throat. It should alarm him, but something about this sordid act was intensely intimate, undeniably erotic. There was so much saliva, fat droplets of it sliding down his smooth chest, and why wouldn’t there be? She was so large that he could have fit his entire upper body in her mouth.
  415. Theesah finally pulled out, Tepin trembling as he felt her soft flesh slid past his lips, a fat rope of her drool linking them together. It broke, falling to his chest to join the sheen that was collecting there, Tepin looking down to see that his member was more swollen and needy than ever.
  416. “Is this...part of the ritual?” he wondered aloud.
  417. He flinched as she dragged her flat tongue across his belly, seeming to appreciate its polished texture, the flustered Valbara’nay failing to stifle an unbecoming moan. God, he sounded like some kind of lounge whore. He had more self-respect than that, shouldn’t he at least play a little hard to get?
  418. Oh, who was he kidding? Who could deny this avatar of feminine beauty and strength? It was like a wet dream made real, he would never have imagined that he would end up in this situation, not in his wildest fantasies. To do so would be unforgivably self-indulgent, why would a Goddess show interest in him? Yet here she was…
  419. “Do you really want to do this with...me?” he asked in disbelief. “We’ve not known each other for more than a day, are all Krell this...friendly?”
  420. She licked his thigh, his head spinning, his hands wandering down to rest on her leathery snout as his feathers flashed.
  421. “I’m so...small. I don’t know what I could do for you...”
  422. He trailed off as he felt her breath on his member once more, the Krell’s blue tongue snaking forth. Tepin’s claws dug into her in alarm as a wave of warmth and pleasure washed over him, but fortunately, she was far too tough for him to stand any chance of hurting her. Her silky organ dragged from the base of his member to his twin glans, wide enough to encompass him two or three times over, brushing against his thighs in the process. It just kept going, there was seemingly no end to it, her saliva making her contact slippery. His nerves were raw, exposed, his eyes forced shut by the throb of sensation as she lapped at him.
  423. Theesah curled her long tail around behind him, gently lying him down, Tepin sinking into the appendage’s cushiony underside like it was an oversized couch. His upper back and his head were now nestled in her yielding fat, which seemed to mold around him like jump gel, his rump sitting on the cool deck as his own tail passed between his legs. Theesah poised above him, her blue tongue hanging from her mouth as she watched him expectantly. Was she waiting for permission to continue? Could he bear to ask such a thing of her, or would his embarrassment overcome him? His need was so great, he was trembling, still in disbelief.
  424. He didn’t need to ask, she could see the desire in his eyes, her prehensile tongue returning to his loins. She licked at his shaft, running the tip of her organ between his glans, coating every inch of his tender flesh in her warm drool as she explored him. Tepin pushed back into the pillowy flesh of her tail, trying to stop himself from squirming, but her every glance and stroke made him shudder.
  425. The weight of her tongue pressed his member against his smooth belly, tickling his scales, leaving a smear of saliva in its wake. Tepin couldn’t believe what was happening, he must be dreaming, surely? Every stroke of her hot, slimy tongue made his back arch and his tail curl, his clawed toes scraping against the deck. She watched him all the while with those yellow eyes, her every lick measured, knowing that she had the strength to hurt him and holding back. There was probably as much muscle in her tongue alone as most Valbara’nay had in their tails.
  426. It was so flexible, she had such fine control over it, sneaking its tapered tip between his glans and curling it around his shaft. His member was so small in comparison that she had little choice but to encompass it entirely, pressing the flat of her tongue down on it, Tepin’s eyes rolling back into his head as he felt her silken flesh mold around his length like she was trying to take a cast of his manhood.
  427. He couldn’t endure this for long, his eversion had been straining against his shorts long before she had begun her doting licking, his fluids were leaking out of him in a constant stream. As much as he craved relief from the pressure that was building within him, he didn’t want this to end.
  428. His claws dug into her snout as she gave him another slow lick, her tongue sliding from the base of his member to the tips, spilling onto his stomach and thighs as it went. His feathers began to flash erratically, like a malfunctioning computer monitor, displaying patterns and colors that conveyed nonsense. He was so sensitive, so sore, a sweet ache permeating him to the core. With every stroke of her gentle tongue, tingling pleasure surged through him, building towards an inevitable crescendo.
  429. Tepin’s spine arched, Theesah blinking at him as she felt his emission splash against her tongue, pressing it against his belly as a blend of his cloudy fluid and her viscous drool coated his own scales. His hemipenis throbbed and twitched with every wave of his climax, his muscles tensing, his legs trembling as he bit his lip to stifle a wail that might alert the other Krell.
  430. He felt so...hot, like his body was burning up, radiating outwards from his loins as he rode out his orgasm. His muscles ached as they contracted, forcing more of his seed from his heaving body, filling the space between her wet muscle and his flat stomach. As the intensity began to subside, he sank back into the paunch of her tail, softer than any bed that he had slept in. Her scales were so smooth, it made him feel like he was leaning against a giant, silk body pillow.
  431. Theesah drew back, Tepin shivering as the sensation of her tongue dragging across his swollen loins provoked another stab of harsh pleasure, tearing through his afterglow like a hot knife. His eyes tracked the mess that they had made together, a sagging web of their blended fluids drooping from her tongue, the azure organ sliding back into her mouth. There was a pool of it on his stomach, Tepin running a claw through the syrupy concoction, his heart pounding in his ears.
  432. He didn’t know what to say, and so he just lay there, shivering. Theesah drew closer again, nuzzling his cheek with her snout, the tip of her tongue emerging to lick his face affectionately. Almost reflexively, he reached up with trembling hands, stroking the skin beneath her jaw in the way that he knew she enjoyed.
  433. “Is this...all part of the ritual?” he murmured, “or are you doing this for me?”
  434. She warbled softly, and although he couldn’t understand her alien vocalizations, the context was clear enough. This was no longer part of the initiation, Theesah was simply obeying her whims.
  435. Tepin felt the floor vibrate beneath him as she rose to her feet, her long tail still cradling him as she took a step forward, then a second. The Krell crouched over him, her titanic thighs to either side of him, her chubby underside looming over his head like a scaly sky. She was large enough to block out the entire room. As she brought herself down within reach of his short arms, he realized what she expected of him.
  436. Between her legs had appeared a slit. It was surrounded by thick, puffy lips that had become swollen with arousal, invisible under normal circumstances. Their swelling had exposed a thin sliver of blue flesh, Theesah reaching down and parting it with her clawed fingers, a fat droplet of clear fluid dripping free to fall to his chest.
  437. He gazed up at her azure loins, exposed and needy, the flesh beneath her scales a beautiful shade of azure. Her delicate folds were glistening with excitement, one of her openings twitching subtly. It was at once familiar, and alien. Her vulva was not too different from those of Valbara’nay females, despite being several times larger, but there were two openings concealed between her puffy labia. The uppermost was larger, leaking a steady stream of colorless liquid, the lower one far smaller.
  438. She purred as he reached up and brushed her exposed flesh with his fingers, feeling them slide in her fluids, the Krell crouching closer. It was hard to resist the pang of fear, she could have crushed him like an insect, but he trusted her to be gentle.
  439. The top opening was obviously where he should focus his attention, Tepin sliding a finger inside, Theesah warbling appreciatively as her muscles closed around it. His eyes widened in alarm as he felt her passage grip him, a slimy tube of muscle tightening its hold on his digit. He had expected her loins to be loose due to her size, and while that was certainly true in comparison to a female of his own species, the fact that she could still exert such pressure made his heart skip. Did that mean that they might really be able to…
  440. Before he knew it, her dripping vulva was hovering an inch above his nose, a rope of her juices falling to drape itself over his snout. He was still flooded with euphoria, the come that had pooled on his flat stomach still warm, butterflies swarming in his belly as he pressed his lips against hers. The Krell’s flesh was the same temperature as the room around them, which meant that his suspicions had been correct, they must be cold-blooded. She purred again as he mouthed at her vulva, his pink tongue darting out to trace her folds. She tasted like a kiss, neutral, the Krell purring as he began his ardent licking. Pleasing her was at the forefront of his mind. He was so overcome with desire for her, so lost in the haze of his afterglow, he felt like he was worshiping at the altar of some ancient Valbara’nay deity.
  441. Tepin had given head before, he’d had his share of flings and fleeting encounters with females. It was a normal part of trying to find a flock to settle down with, even if that might not have been his goal at the time. Trying to figure out how sexually compatible you were with as many as six or seven flock members required a certain amount of experimentation. He had been pretty good at it, judging by the reactions of his partners. A Valbara’nay vulva was about the right size that he could cover it completely with his tongue, but a Krell’s must be eight or nine times that size. All he could really do was lick and mouth, crawling his lips along, trying to gauge where her reactions were the strongest.
  442. As he reached her upper opening, his tongue gliding through her leaking juices, he felt something firm. Her massive body tensed, her muscle dimpling the fat of her thighs to either side of him, the tail that he was still leaning against flexing. There was a relatively small nub of engorged flesh that seemed to emerge from her tunnel, Tepin giving it a tentative lick. She shuddered again, Tepin’s feathers flashing in surprise and delight. For all her immense strength, despite her mammoth size, he could still make her shiver with a well-placed lick. There was something wonderful about that.
  443. The Valbara’nay clitoris resided deep within the vagina, but Theesah’s seemed to protrude from her opening. As he pushed his tongue inside her, he realized that it ran along the top of her tunnel for as far as he could reach, like a firm tube of flesh rather than a simple bead. He felt his member begin to throb again as he considered the implication. The Krell penis must be massive, probably as long as Tepin’s arm, and it would scrape all the way along this sensitive structure with each and every thrust. How delicious that must feel…
  444. Now he knew where to focus his attention, mouthing at the slippery flesh around her opening as he painted her alien clitoris with his tongue, not caring that her copious fluids were sloughing down his neck and chest. There was so much of it, designed to lubricate her for male Krell, not for his benefit.
  445. She curled her tail, lifting him a little closer, Tepin losing himself in his devoted licking. This wasn’t enough for her, it couldn’t be, his tongue was smaller than one of her fingers.
  446. An idea suddenly occurred to him. He raised both of his hands, planting them to either side of her loins, his fingers sinking up to the knuckle in her chubby underside. He brought his feather sheaths to bear, the two muscular appendages unwinding from around his forearms, snaking their way towards her opening. They were prehensile, tapered structures that could be used like tentacles to grip objects when they weren’t displaying his plumes, each one about the length of his arm.
  447. Theesah flinched as they neared her opening, peering down to see what he was doing. She didn’t make any indication that she wanted him to stop, and so he slid them inside her, feeling her muscular passage ripple around them. He intertwined them, coiling them around each other to make them thicker, keeping up his licking as he went. Her passage was about a foot deep, and he was able to reach all the way inside her, his sheaths undulating against her sensitive walls. She seemed to be enjoying the sensation, her loins contracting around him, the powerful muscles beyond the velutinous barrier of her flesh spasming rhythmically. He used the tips of his sheaths to stroke and tease, drawing shapes on her insides, almost as though he was painting her from within.
  448. As he spiraled them inside her, she loosed an appreciative rumble, perhaps her people’s equivalent of a comely moan. She began to thrust subtly, as though she couldn’t help herself, her loins bumping against his snout as she rocked slowly back and forth. There was so much fluid, his sheaths were drenched in it, globs of it drooling from her azure vulva to drip down his chest. The muscles in his sheaths were already starting to tire, he wasn’t used to using them this way. There was no chance of them expanding inside her, fortunately, as the muscles that erected the feathers were rather weak.
  449. She shuddered, her soft underbelly wobbling above him as he dragged his tongue across her protruding clitoris. The nub of smooth, blue flesh seemed to throb, as though it was engorged with blood. Her passage fought against his sheaths, bearing down on them from all sides, waves of muscle massaging them. The contractions seemed to flow from her opening to her depths, as though her insides were attempting to draw him in, encouraging him deeper. Her clitoris ran along the roof of her tunnel, Tepin making sure to stimulate its length, her muscles seizing every time that he glanced it.
  450. Theesah warbled happily, shivering as she felt the tips of his sheaths tickle her furthest reaches, sliding against her wet flesh as they teased and stroked. He might not be as well-endowed as a male Krell, but he could do things that were unique to his species. Size wasn’t everything…
  451. He pressed her engorged bud between his scaly lips, circling it with his tongue, drawing on it gently as her low rumbling resonated. He felt like a tuning fork, the subsonic frequencies tickling his innards in a way that was oddly enjoyable, like a vibrating massage. The swollen bud was smooth and slippery, Tepin drawing shapes on its tender surface, his flurries of licks making her thighs shake.
  452. Her thrusting grew more aggressive, her wide hips bumping against his face, pressing him deeper into the fat of her tail. Her juices were filling Tepin’s mouth, fat ropes of it dangling from his chin, his hands sinking deeper into her paunchy underbelly.
  453. Just as her weight was starting to become oppressive, and he was about to speak up, she pulled back. His two sheaths slowly slid out of her passage as she moved away, the green of his smooth scales contrasting with her blue flesh, coated in a glistening sheen of her excitement.
  454. Before he had a chance to even wipe his lips, he felt her hands closing around his torso, lifting him off the deck. She moved him over to a nearby recess, dropping him inside, Tepin’s feathers flashing yellow as he bounced on the soft lining of cushions. The ones on his arms sprayed droplets of her fluid as they extended, Tepin grimacing as his carefully tended plumage was soaked.
  455. The bowl-shaped bed was huge by Valbara’nay standards, it was like an impact crater, deep enough that he would have needed to leap to reach the lip. Theesah’s shadow loomed over him once again as the Krell stepped down into the recess, the pillows sagging under her immense weight, the displacement bouncing his light frame around.
  456. She crouched low, gripping the rim of the bed with her hands, her tail flopping down heavily onto the cushions behind her. A warm glob of her juices rained to his belly as he looked down to see her lining up their loins, her azure vulva nearing his pink, prong-shaped member. He was so hard that he was sore, the channels that were carved into the exterior of his twin shafts leaking cloudy excitement. As much as he longed to feel those muscular walls sealing around him, he wasn’t sure what she was going to get out of their union, he was so much smaller than she was.
  457. He reached down and took the base of his shaft in his hand, angling it towards her as she gradually lowered herself closer. It reminded him of a giant piece of industrial equipment trying to perform a sensitive operation, he was glad to have the soft layer of cushions beneath him.
  458. Theesah did not appear to share his misgivings, her amber eyes peering at him gleefully as his twin glans brushed against her vulva, her head practically upside-down due to their difference in stature as she watched.
  459. Now it was his turn to shiver as he felt her hot, slick flesh slide against the tender heads of his prong, sparks of pleasure making his tail curl as the dull spines caught on her silky folds. His member was glazed in her juices before it had even reached her twitching opening, the syrupy fluids oozing over it, warm and wet.
  460. The Krell slipped him inside her, her passage so slimy that it was almost frictionless, Tepin biting his lip to stifle a moan again as her walls bore down on him from all sides. It was like being gripped by a silk glove, not quite tight enough to squeeze him, but enough to press his two tapered glans together and force them to rub against one another. She was feverishly hot now, as though all of the warm blood in her usually cool body was being forced into her loins, her swollen clitoris throbbing as it rubbed against his shafts.
  461. She lowered herself, taking him deeper, the soft flesh of her underbelly seeming to spill around his waist as he sank into her. With her fat layer bearing down on him from above, and the deep pile of pillows beneath him, her gentle thrusting stood no chance of hurting him. Tepin could do little more than lie back as she moved atop him, grinding his member against her walls, her honeyed emissions leaking onto his thighs and belly. His claws raked at the pillows, his tail thrashing, each slow rock of her wide hips making his feathers flash in nonsensical patterns.
  462. He wasn’t really big enough for her to slide him in and out, so she stirred his member inside her, grinding him against her satin walls as though trying to scratch an itch. She seemed to enjoy the texture of his member as it rubbed against her clitoris, the smooth flesh sliding between his glans. Tepin was sensitive to begin with, and he was still tender from his last orgasm, the pleasure already getting the better of him as he writhed beneath her. He couldn’t help but raise his hands, filling his palms with her chubby underside, her flush scales stained with the colorful pigments. Something about seeing his own handprints trailing across her alluring figure made him all the more excited.
  463. Theesah began to press him deeper and deeper into the bed, as though she was trying to get more of him inside her, but there was no more to give. She almost seemed frustrated, grinding her hips against him, trying to glean more stimulation from their increasingly fervent coupling. Tepin could hardly feel inadequate, his partner was a titan, her weight was more comparable to a light spaceplane than to another Valbara’nay. Still, another idea occurred to him, Tepin maneuvering his tail up between her legs.
  464. Another rumbling purr emanated from the Krell as he located the warmth of her loins with the tip of his tail, running it between her puffy lips. She was accustomed to him inserting strange appendages into her by this point. He flinched as his smooth scales brushed against his own member, already slick with her fluids, pushing it deeper. Immediately, her seizing passage gripped it, fighting against it as more of its length entered her, its tapered nature making it appear to thicken as it went. He kept going inch by inch until he met resistance, the two of them shuddering in unison.
  465. Tepin’s tail must surely be near the girth of a Krell’s cock, its fine scales as smooth as varnished wood due to his waxing regimen, the appendage coated in her juices. The angle of its entry had forced his member up against the roof of her tunnel, pressing his prongs into her silky flesh and rubbing it against her long clitoris in the process. He flexed it experimentally, a jolt of pleasure coursing up his spine, Theesah rumbling her appreciation in tandem. A little Valbara’nay ingenuity went a long way.
  466. The Krell began to move again, reveling in her new sense of fullness, Tepin pushing his tail into her as he met her downward thrusts. He flexed it, curled it, Theesah’s pace becoming erratic as this new pleasure caught her off-guard. It was such an odd sensation to feel her innards roiling around him, caressing his scales, her sodden tunnel narrowing around the appendage as though trying to squeeze the life out of it. He would have struggled to get a couple of fingers inside a female of his own species, the relentless wringing was giving him a new appreciation for her strength. Even her pelvic floor was impossibly toned, muscles as hard as steel squeezing from beyond the pillowy walls of her loins. Two Krell going at it would probably have demolished a Valbara’nay dwelling.
  467. She was coming down on him like a hammer, the cushion of her belly and the bed beneath him absorbing the impacts, a ripple spreading through the soft parts of her voluptuous body with every thrust. He watched her tail wobble, her underbelly shake, the breast-like fat deposits on her chest bouncing in time with her movements.
  468. He grinned as the memory of an encounter at one of his home city’s lounges suddenly popped into his head, a female who had warned him that she was ‘more woman than he could handle’. Apparently not...
  469. There was movement above, Tepin looking up to see Theesah’s long snout coming towards him. She had bent almost double to reach his tiny frame, her warm breath ruffling his feathers as she drew near, her long tongue emerging to slap wetly against his neck. She dragged the blue organ across his scales, warm and damp, the sensation making him squirm.
  470. She probed for his lips, Tepin opening them willingly, his heart fluttering as she pushed past them. He was growing to like this practice, kissing, his back arching off the cushions as her slippery organ stroked the roof of his mouth. Her vaguely metallic taste filled his head, her wet leather scent invading his snout, his eyelids drooping. She was intoxicating, overpowering, his mind fogging as the bliss of their union began to overpower his higher faculties.
  471. He couldn’t meet her embrace, there was no chance, it was all that he could do to crudely lick at the underside of her powerful tongue. She filled his cheeks, glancing the back of his throat, keeping up her rutting all the while. She gave him enough room to breathe, leaving him gasping, both for air and because of the surging ecstasy that was setting his nerves aflame. He had never felt like this before, so completely overcome, not even while sharing a bedchamber with a whole flock of females who were all vying for his attention.
  472. As the pace of their lovemaking reached a fever pitch, her tongue slid out of his mouth, her deep vocalizations making his teeth chatter. Her weight slammed down on him, driving him deeper into the cushions, her fluids leaking down the base of his tail as she forced it deeper. The appendage was muscular, and so he moved it around inside her, driving it into her sensitive passage. He could feel her getting closer to her peak in the way that her sopping tunnel gripped him ever tighter, massaging him in wracking waves, her thrusting taking on an almost desperate quality.
  473. Tepin couldn’t hold on for much longer either, his own tail forcing his member against the roof of her tunnel, her contractions milking him mercilessly. Her wet flesh felt like silk that had been doused in syrup, slippery and hot, scouring his every nerve as it slid against his glans. He was overstimulated, writhing beneath her as his hips rose to meet her thrusts reflexively, despite the futility of his efforts. He had as much chance of lifting Theesah as he did moving a mountain, but his body responded of its own accord, animal lust clouding his mind.
  474. He felt his alien partner shudder, her massive body tensing, the muscles in her thighs and tail dimpling her fat as she loosed a low pulse that might have been menacing under different circumstances. Her loins closed around him like a fist, almost tight enough to cut off the circulation to his tail, driving the twin heads of his eversion into her satin walls. Her clitoris throbbed between them, their completely incompatible, alien anatomy joining in a way that felt wholly natural for a brief moment.
  475. She pumped relentlessly, driving him deep enough that his tail kissed the reaches of her tunnel, her slippery walls seeming to press around him like a second skin. He felt her begin to tremble, the powerful muscles beyond the bounds of her satin walls starting to twitch and spasm, wringing his inflamed member with intent.
  476. She bore down on him, burying him in the fat of her underbelly, taking his tail as deep as she could manage as her legs began to shake. He felt her convulsive orgasm as it tore through her body, the taut muscles beneath her husky fat flexing under his clawed fingertips. The smoldering pleasure that had been keeping Tepin on edge for what felt like an eternity suddenly became a roaring blaze, a throb of ecstasy making his beleaguered body contort, the Valbara’nay baring his teeth as he erupted inside her. Trapped between her belly and the cushions, no longer able to arch his back or buck his hips, he simply relaxed as her violent contractions wrung him. He gave in to the overwhelming euphoria, his body going limp as his prong flexed and pulsed, driving his warm seed deep into the eager passage of his overpowering partner.
  477. Her loins eased more of it out of him with their relentless sucking, refusing him even a brief moment of respite, his alien lover clenching with every spurt of his warm emission that splashed against her walls. It just kept coming, each wave of his climax more powerful than the last, thick ropes of his semen mingling with the excitement that drooled from her blue vulva. He gripped her underside for dear life, his tiny hands clawing at her tender flesh, his feathers going haywire as they flashed rainbow patterns.
  478. His muscles were on fire, keeping up with such a strong, vigorous partner had exhausted him. The Valbara’nay were not known for their stamina. He felt like he was giving her everything that he had, tingling pleasure washing over him, his high-pitched moan joining Theesah’s resonating purring. They rode out their climax together, every spasm of pleasure felt by one reflected in the other, as though their very nervous systems had been linked. Every shiver that made her long body ripple elicited a gasp from Tepin, Theesah warbling as his tail shifted inside her, his swollen member still pulsing.
  479. Slowly, she seemed to come down from her high, Tepin finding himself free of her bulk as she rose off him. He winced as his member slid out of her, withdrawing his tail, the entire length of it coated in a clinging sheen of their come. His eversion was slowly receding now, still linked to her swollen lips via a drooping strand of her clear fluid, the blue flesh between them glistening. He was a mess. His scales were covered in pigment that he wasn’t sure would ever come off, and he was drenched in alien juices, globs of cloudy emission clinging to his thighs and tail. The feather sheaths on his arms were wet, the pillows that surrounded him damp and stained. Tepin’s first instinct should have been to make for one of the basking pools, but he was so satisfied that he could barely move.
  480. Theesah flopped down beside him, her weight bouncing him into the air, his stomach lurching as he fell back to the cushions. Without even giving him time to collect himself, she wrapped a muscular arm around him, hugging him against her chest as she lay on her side. His snout was thrust between the soft fat deposits, each one larger than his head. They were barely bumps for a Krell, but they were like soft pillows to Tepin, his cheeks rubbing against her cool scales as he nuzzled. Her wet-leather smell was intoxicating, his face sinking into her flesh, her bosom seeming to absorb his hand as he tried to cup one of her pseudo-breasts. All eight or nine feet of her muscular tail curled around him protectively, creating a wall of scales and flesh that encircled him, high enough that he couldn’t see over it.
  481. Her breath ruffled his still erect feathers, her hold on him strong, but gentle. It seemed that she intended to hold him there for a while, perhaps she had expended a little too much energy. He wanted to protest, what if someone stumbled upon them? Yet his own fatigue was overpowering him, his muscles aching in a way that was more satisfying than uncomfortable.
  482. There was no hope of fighting her, and so he let her press him into her chubby underside, cradled in arms that were as large as his own body. He lay there, enveloped in scales and fat, his afterglow lingering. He had come here with the vague hope of maybe capturing one of these magnificent creatures in his paintings, he would never have imagined that he would end up sharing a bed with one. Nor would anyone that he knew back home believe it if he told them, it was tantamount to claiming that he had slept with some kind of celebrity. This was one experience that probably wouldn’t be appropriate to capture in a painting, however.
  483. The slow rise and fall of her chest was hypnotic, Tepin laying his head on one of her soft fat deposits, letting his exhaustion and his euphoria carry him into a deep sleep.
  484.  
  485. ***
  486.  
  487. Tepin awoke still nestled in Theesah’s arms, the wall of green scales that was her tail slowly uncoiling as she noticed that he was awake. Her snout came down to brush against his face, her blue tongue emerging to lick his cheek as he blinked at her groggily. It must be morning. It was fortunate that he had no obligations, nowhere to be.
  488. He was still sore from their romp the night before, sticky with congealed fluids, but the satisfaction remained. The Krell released him, watching as he rose to his feet. He stretched his limbs, extending his sheaths, the ones on his arms all gunked up. What he needed right now was a bath.
  489. Theesah nudged him with her snout, Tepin turning to run his hands beneath her jaw, scratching her leathery hide as she warbled happily. The colorful pigments were still staining his fingers, the marks that she had left on him still fresh and stark, standing out brightly against his creamy scales. A twinge of embarrassment gave him pause as he considered that everyone who was familiar with the strange, alien ritual would know what it meant, they would know what he and Theesah had done the night before. Then again, who might know? The other Krell, for sure, perhaps a few other people on the station who were privy to the secrets of their strange culture. Nobody of any importance.
  490. Tepin wasn’t about to leave the room nude, leaping up and out of the recess on his springy legs, retrieving his pile of clothes and the necklace that Theesah had made for him. He donned them, none too concerned about sullying his tunic and shorts, he could change them once he got home.
  491. Theesah lay her head on the rim of the bed, watching him as he draped the pendant about his neck. It was then that he noticed that all of the other beds were full of Krell. Some of them were piled on top of one another, coiled up in the cushioned bowls, an especially large specimen from a nearby recess exposing its jagged teeth in a yawn as it blinked sleepily at the visitor.
  492. His companion seemed unconcerned about waking the sleeping giants, rising from her bowl and lumbering her way over to him, her long tail dragging on the deck behind her. He couldn’t help but admire the handprints and the flowers that he had painted on her belly, each one reminding him of how it had felt to delve his hands into her soft flesh, his heart skipping. She gestured to her shoulder, and he leapt up onto her back, taking up his usual perch as she made her way out of the room.
  493. There were still so many Krell occupying the pools in the main rooms, basking beneath the glow of the heat lamps as he and Theesah passed them by. It didn’t look like they’d be bathing in there.
  494. “There must be baths at the gym, right?” he asked. Theesah rumbled affirmatively, making her way to the exit. “That way we can both get clean, I don’t think you’d fit in my shower,” he added. They emerged onto the torus, the crowds already bustling, Tepin glad of his high perch as he watched the aliens scurry about below. Most of them were Earth’nay wearing black armor, as the Krell barracks were located in the military quarter.
  495. Theesah began to make her way downspin, but after a minute or two of walking, Tepin noticed a familiar camouflage pattern. There was a flock of female Valbara’nay wearing their Navy jumpsuits, two dozen of them jogging along in formation behind a pair of UNN Marines who were clearing the way for them. They were clutching strange weapons in their hands that he didn’t recognize, probably some kind of Earth’nay rifle that they were going to drill with. They were heading in the opposite direction, coming up the same walkway, Theesah moving aside to let them through.
  496. They weren’t wearing helmets, two dozen pairs of violet eyes turning up in his direction, flutters of confused and surprised feathers greeting him as he peered down at them. What a sight it must have been, to see a male sitting atop the shoulder of a giant war goddess, adorned with alien body paint and jewelry. He gave them a wave, careful to keep the sullied feathers on his forearm concealed, the procession gawking at him in disbelief as they pressed on. He turned his head to watch as they vanished into the throngs of people, too short to make out now.
  497. Something about their disbelieving feather patterns gave him immense satisfaction. Perhaps now they would no longer see him as an incompetent who needed to be chaperoned around the station, who needed to have his safety harness fastened for him.
  498. Theesah pressed on, Tepin giving her an affectionate pat on her scaly head.
  499. “I think I could get used to this station.”
  500.  
  501. -THE END-
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