I switched the view screen from close to far. There, in the upper right hand corner was the reason I had just used up my last six missiles. A blue-green planet with three orbiting moons, two natural, one artificial. Sylia it was called by the natives. The name meant "six". The planet was the sixth from its sun. The earliest explorers had misunderstood and dubbed the star Sylia and the planet Sylia Six. Like this mexican place called the Casa House where I used to eat back on earth. The House House. Six Six.
Oh, well, the Sylians did not admire humans for their intelligence. The metamorph population of Sylia was plenty smart. What attracted them to us was our fighting capability. Not our technology or fighting ability. Our capability.
"Tell me again why you are so sure that the Sylians will reward us," Rafe, my annoying little twirp of a second in command asked.
Yallo, the Sylian diplomat who had come along to serve as our advisor, rolled his eyes. The irises were a weird shade of turquoise but otherwise he had done a pretty good job of imitating a young human male. In their natural form, Sylians had been known to induce nightmares in humans and occasionally even vomiting, so I was relieved when Yallo said he wanted to try to blend into the crew as much as possible.
"Because," I said for what must have been the twentieth time "We saved their butts from the Boleans."
Rafe frowned. "Those little Bolean cruisers could not knock a hole in a space freighter. Why don't the Sylians buy themselves a few battle ships and train someone to fly them? Wouldn't it be cheaper for them to kill their own enemies than to pay people like us to do it for them."
Yallo turned green, the Sylian equivalent of turning pale.
Before Rafe could offend the Sylian any further I pulled him aside. "Look, you little punk. I am going to let you in on a secret. This is just to make sure that you will keep your big mouth shut while we are on planet. I don't want you to breathe a word about this to anyone when we get back to earth. Understand?"
Asking Rafe if he understood was like asking an oyster to raise its hand, but the only other option was refuse him shore leave on Sylia, which was against the Mercenary Guild's rules. I did not want to get hauled before the board again. But I did not want Rafe causing any unpleasantness on Sylia. Not until after we got paid, anyway.
"The Sylians can't kill" I told him. " It's a hard and fast rule. They can not deliberately take a sentient life. It's wired into their neuroanatomy the way that androids have a prime directive which tell them never to harm a human. Don't ask me why. Their scientists think it was a survival mechanism from back in the old days before they started having contact with other planets. Their world has only one sentient life form--them. Call it an anti-murder gene. Except that nature never intended them to come up against other more aggressive species.
"So you see? Despite all their technology, they are sitting ducks. That is where the Mercenary Guild comes in. Their code of ethics will not allow them to hire us officially to protect them from their enemies, but if we do it on our own, there is nothing to stop them from rewarding us afterwards. Got it?"
I could tell from his puzzled frown that he did not get it, but I had already wasted enough breath on him. The moron had been forced on me by the supply officer back on earth who happened to be his uncle. No Rafe, no fuel, that was the supply officers deal. Take it or leave it. Sometimes I found myself wishing that I had left it.
I turned to Yallo. The Sylian consultant was a rocket scientist compared to my second in command, and a pretty good companion considering that in his natural state he had twenty arms, six eyes, a digestive organ on the outside of his body and a thin coating of slimy blue neural tissue all over his body. "We should be landing soon. I hope you were able to take the readings you needed."
Yallo grinned. He had mastered human facial expressions, something that was unusual for Sylians. His smile looked so spontaneous that I had to remind myself that it was fake, like the human face and body which he currently sported. "Yes, I was able to complete my measurements of space radio frequency harmonics."
That was a lie. Yallo was there to confirm the kills. But since Sylians were not supposed to even think about killing, they always made up some other reason to be aboard a Mercenary vessel when it was conducting military maneuvers. "Good.Cause we are going in, now. Fuel's low." I took the controls from Rafe who could not land a paper clip on a star ship landing field.
"Would you mind if I asked you a question?" Yallo asked.
"Fire away," I responded without thinking. "Oops. Sorry."
"No problem. I am curious about your species. The two genders. I can understand the genetic benefits of combining the DNA of two parents to create a unique third, by why are the two sexes so different?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Good question. Maybe for the same reason your people can't kill. Maybe once upon a time, back in the cave days on earth, it made sense for men to be big and hairy and with raging hormones and for women to be soft and cudly with big hips and breasts."
Yallo tilted his head to one side. "Is that how you like your women?"
Rafe butted in. "My ideal woman is about six feet tall. Red hair. Brown eyes. Skin a nice pale tan. No freckles. I can't stand freckles. Figure like this--" He shaped an hour glass in the air. "Legs up to here."
"Rafe has just described every adolescent boy's fantasy woman," I explained to Yallo. "He watches too many vids. I myself go more for the petite type. Short, not too round, not too skinny. As dark as possible. Muscular but not butch."
Yallo pointed at one of the holos which were mounted above the control panel. Mercs like to have something nice to look at when we are blowing the hell out of bugged eyed aliens. Something to remind us of what we have waiting for us back home "Like this one?" he asked.
He was pointing to my first girl friend, the one who died of hemorrhagic fever caused by an engineered virus during the Neptune Wars. I swallowed back my tears. "Yeah, like her."
I did not feel like talking after that. We landed on Sylia and were escorted straight to the palace.
My first premonition that something was up came when I saw how many Sylians were gathered in the throne room. There must have been sixty, seventy. Aristocrats, most of them--you could tell because the aristocrats had a thicker layer of blue neural gunk all over their bodies. I could feel some of the newer crew members getting nervous at being surrounded by so many space freaks. When you are a mercenary, you are taught to shoot at anything that does not look like you and ask questions later.
Most of the time, that strategy works pretty well. In this case, it would have been a mistake. The Sylians who surrounded us were as innocent as lambs. They would no more harm a hair on our heads than they would murder their own children. Even better, the Sylians were filthy rich. Their planet was swimming in valuable natural resources--thus all the would be invaders who had to be dealt with by mercs like me.
There was something more, something that drew warlike species to Sylia like flies to honey. The Sylians had a special physiology that allowed them to regenerate their own tissue indefinitely. As far as I knew, no Sylian had ever died of natural causes. The number one cause of death among their race was suicide, with accidental death coming in a very distant second.
Rumor had it that the handful of humans who had been granted citizenship by the Sylian monarch received the benefit of this life preserving physiology. There was one old guy who was rumored to be two hundred though he did not look a day over thirty.
Back to the story. As I was saying, I had a feeling that this was a special occasion. I knew that I was right when the litter bearing the monarch was set down. The curtain was pulled back and there, instead of a gelatinous pile of blue goo with several hundred tiny arms, I saw a perfect humanoid female, tall, voluptuous, with long red hair and smooth evenly tanned skin. Only the eyes were wrong. The brown was not quite right. Everything else was perfect.
The monarch--I guess I should call her the queen--extended a perfectly formed five fingered hand to me. "We are so pleased that you survived your recent encounter with the Boleans," she breathed. Her voice was like whiskey smoke. "Such a nasty, warlike species."
I could feel my ancient cave man hormones raging. She was not my ideal woman, but she sure was a woman. I took her hand, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do with it. Her skin temperature was a perfect match for my own.
She drew me forward. "Here. Sit beside me."
I would almost hear Rafe gnash his teeth. Poor kid. This was his ideal woman. I wondered if the Queen had instructed Yallo to ask about my preferences and if he had gotten mixed up.
"We were never in any real danger," I said modestly. Since Sylians do not like to dwell on topics like death and violence, I changed the subject. "Yallo got some excellent readings, he tells me."
The Sylian diplomat was still wearing his human form. He stepped forward, moving confidently on two legs. "Everything went as planned," he informed the Queen. His voice was a little chilly. Did he disapprove of the Monarch getting so cozy with a human merc? I tried to catch his eye, but he deliberately avoided looking at me.
"Excellent," the Queen replied. "Your payment will be loaded onto your vessel, along with fuel as per our original arrangements. Now, Othello, I have a proposition. It seems to me that with all the research our scientists have been doing lately in space, it would make sense for Sylia to have its own general. How would like to become a citizen? Before you answer, let me assure you that loneliness will not be a problem." She rubbed the back of my neck with her hand. If I had been a tiger, I would have purred. "I am sure the members of the court would be happy to wear whatever form would make you feel most at home. I myself have been looking for a new mate for some time..."
That was when it hit me. I was being offered riches. I was being offered immortality. I was being offered a proposal of marriage.
What would you have done? I said yes.
Sylian weddings ceremonies are long drawn out affairs. Though ours started immediately, two Sylian weeks passed, and we still were not done with the dances, sing-a-longs, meditation sessions, purifying baths, salt rubs and all the rest of the rituals that had been handed down from generation to generation on Sylia.
Rafe was about to bust a gut from jealousy. That was one of the reasons I had not asked the Queen to change shapes. Also, being a human male I felt funny telling my bride "I would like you better if you were a brunette. And can you chop a few inches off the legs while you are at it." Human women want to be loved for what they are, not how they look. Sylians can look anyway they like, so they are not offended if you ask them to change. And technically speaking, my bride was not really a woman, since there is only one gender on Sylia. But she looked like a human female, so instinctively I treated her like one. In every way.
Rafe was not the only one who seemed put out. Yallo would hardly talk to me. I knew he did not want the Queen--not in her present form--so I figured he must be upset that she had decided to pick an assassin like me for her mate. It bothered me that he thought I was good enough to be his friend but not good enough to marry his queen. And I kind of missed our talks.
A few weeks into the wedding ceremony, I discovered the real reason for Yallo's moodiness. I was walking through one of the slime pits that pass for gardens on Sylia. Yallo appeared. He looked different. Darker, a little shorter. A little rounder. But it was definitely Yallo.
He looked worried. In a whisper he said "I am not supposed to tell you this, but you are in great danger."
"Shhh!" He looked over his shoulder. "If the monarch knew I was telling you this, I would be exiled."
Sylians do not kill, but they have no qualms against telling uncooperative members of their society to take a hike.
"I am listening," I told him. He came closer. He smelled different, too. Nicer in some way that I could not put my finger on. "The monarch does not really want a killer as her mate."
I had been expecting him to try something like this. The Queen had made it clear to me in every way that she was delighted to have me for a husband, no matter what my profession. But I decided to play along. "So why the wedding?"
"After the nuptials are complete, she will suggest a union of genetic material. She wants to see if she can produce a child with metamorph and killer capability."
"In other words, she wants a baby. Big deal."
Yallo frowned. It was amazing how human he had become. "You do not understand. She will impregnate you with a child that combines your DNA with her own genetic material. It has been done before. The hybrid infant kills the human host, devours it from the inside. By the time it is born, the human parent is nothing but a skin which the child sheds. This is not considered killing among my kind. It is considered procreation. As monarch, she will have the right to force you to carry her child, whether you like it or not."
Needless to say, the first words out of my mouth were "How do I get off this planet?"
Yallo looked relieved. "I have a ship waiting. Meet me at the back entrance of the shuttle port at sunset. Tell no one where you are going."
That afternoon, when the Queen put her arms around me, I had to resist shuddering. Had she already laid her egg within me? I realized that I knew nothing about Sylian-human breeding techniques. For all I knew the little monster might be inside me right now, gnawing on my liver or chewing on my spleen. I had to get back to earth fast and get a scan.
At sunset, I found Yallo waiting for me beside a sleek, new cruiser. He was wrapped up in so many layers of clothes that I could hardly see him, but I recognized his voice.
Before climbing into the open door of the cruiser I turned to thank him and say goodbye, but he shook his head. "I am coming with you. When the monarch finds out what I have done, I will be exiled anyway."
I did not argue. An extra pair of hands can come in useful when travelling between solar systems.
As we pulled away from Sylia's gravity, I sent a message to the Queen . "Sorry to run, but I am not cut out for being a king. You should consider my second in command, Rafe. He is in love with you, and he would make a wonderful father." I felt little guilty, but not too guilty. A few days before I had overheard Rafe complaining to a Sylian duke that he was the one who really killed the Boleans, but I had stolen credit for it. Stupid kid. The Sylian he was talking to practically died from embarrassment at having to listen to someone brag about committing murder.
I did not relax until we were out of the solar system. Once I activated the lightdrive, I decided to turn in.
Imagine my surprise when I found the woman of my dreams waiting for me in my bunk.
"Dara?" I said stupidly. "If that is what you want to call me," Yallo's voice replied. "Then Dara will be my new name."
"What on earth!"
Yallo sat up in bed. She was naked, a fact that only added to my confusion. She held out her arms to me. "Othello," she said. Her voice was pleading.
I resisted the urge to hug her . This was not Dara, I reminded myself. This was a metamorph playing some kind of game. "What in the hell is going on! Tell me or I am turning this ship around and taking you back to Sylia."
She jumped up from the bunk and grabbed my arm. "Don't! I will tell you everything."
It turned out that the Queen had no intention of turning me into a disposable incubator for her baby. Yallo made up the story because he--correction, she had been madly in love with me for months. She wanted to get me away from the Queen so that she could have me for herself. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have been pissed off. However, the ritual chanting and purifung baths had begun to get on my nerves. Also, I was begining to suspect that spending eternity living with people who thought that murderers were lower than slime mold might not be good for my self esteem. I am a murderer, after all. A murderer for hire.
The deciding factor was Yallo herself. She looked so much like Dara that I could not help returning her affection. Oh, I made her suffer a bit for lying to me. I held out for three whole days before I fell into her arms. We honeymooned on Titan. Then I signed up with the Mercenary Guild for a fourth tour of duty. For a slight reduction in pay, I could take Yallo along as my "wife." I had it all, bug eyed aliens to blow up by day and a beautiful woman to love every night.
Unfortunately, there was no happily ever after for Yallo and me. It turned out that Sylian-human matings can be fatal--for the Sylian. Nine months after we left Sylia, Yallo got pregnant. I was delighted, Yallo less so. Over the next few months she began to grow thin and pale. Her metamorph powers began to weaken. At night I would wake up to find myself lying next to an amorphous gooey blue blob.
"It is the embryo," the company doctor said. "Sylians must regenerate their tissue on a daily basis in order to survive. But the regeneration process hurts the fetal tissue, so her body , which is programmed not to kill, automatically shuts off its own healing process at the first sign of fetal distress."
"So get rid of the baby," I told the doctor.
Yallo looked at me as if I had suggested cutting off my own head. She would not even consider an incubator.
Our kid was born two months later. Its Sylian blood made it mature fast, but not fast enough. Yallo died while they were performing the cesarean section.
I did not really want to return to Sylia. I had grown fond of Yallo, and seeing her home world would only revive memories. However, a kid with Sylian blood would never survive on earth. It could not defend itself. So, I went back to find a foster parent for the baby which I called Yallotoo after its mother.
While I was on Sylia, I ran into Rafe. He was carrying a child in his arms, a half human, half Sylian which looked much like my own little Yallotoo. While the kids played, we talked. It turned out that Sylians and humans could mate safely--if the human was the baby's host. "I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I would be a mother," Rafe said with a self conscious laugh. "But it was not so bad. And the doctors say that five months of close exposure to Sylian tissue has made me damn near immortal." He picked up a jagged rock and made a nick on his forearm. Before my eyes, the bloody gash began to heal. "I guess I have you to thank for my good fortune. Thanks for putting in a good word for me with the Queen."
What could I say? "Don't mention it. Tell you what, you raise my kid with yours and we will call it even. I brought Yallo's ashes back for burial."
Rafe had not yet acquired the Sylian habit of changing the subject anytime death was mentioned. ""Really? How did she die?"
"Complications of pregnancy." I reached into my backpack and pulled out the chromium plated urn.
"There is something engraved on it." Rafe held out his hand.
I did not want to let her go, not even for a moment. However, I figured I owed him since I tried to have him killed, so I let him examine the urn. "'I kissed thee ere I killed thee' What is that?"
I snatched the urn back from him. Pretty silly, right? Feeling jealous that another man had touched my wife's ashes. But I am the jealous type. "A quote. From a very old play about a guy named Othello."
"Like you," Rafe said. "That is your name, too." As I have said before, the kid is no rocket scientist.
"Yeah, like me." Maybe too much like me. But hell, a little bit of happiness was better than no happiness. And though love might be fleeting, there would always be plenty of bug eyed aliens to kill.
Bio:McCamy writes speculative fiction with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Her long fiction can be read on her web site at http://www.nationwide.net/~taylorjh.
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