Jez wished she’d taken more notice of the signs, especially the hints of habitation in the cave she currently stood outside that she and her second, Jana, had discovered the previous shift. It was something that had been instantly dismissed by the expedition leader.
But what was currently studying her so intently was of far greater concern.
Jez and her team had spent the last six shifts determining if this moon was suitable for a permanent base. Moon SC579, nicknamed Scandal by her team, had breathable atmosphere, enabling them to explore without the bulky space suits, though they did wear breathers and carried a state-of-the-art AI com unit. But Scandal was a barren wasteland, unsuitable for habitation.
Jez shifted slightly, observing with equal intensity the tall, humanoid-like alien standing less than an arm length away.
The plain, utilitarian uniform he wore outlined his strong muscular structure, leaving no doubt as to his gender. Jez had the distinct impression he’d spent most of his life wearing similar apparel. It blended perfectly with the dry, fine texture of the surrounding ground. She couldn’t help but stare at his feet. They were encased in some sort of animal skin, but there was nothing primitive about the construction. In fact, his footwear looked perfectly suited to the moon’s surface, though her team had found no trace of any other living species.
Until the cave.
Her nurturer had always told Jez that a male’s feet could tell her a lot about his character. If he stood firmly and calmly, then he was likely to be even-tempered. The larger his feet, her nurturer had insisted, the more virulent, lusty or passionate he was likely to be.
Surprisingly, Jez had found her nurturer’s predictions to be uncannily accurate when it came to the males of her world, though passions were rarely expressed openly.
The male before her had big feet, but they were proportional to his height and body structure. He towered above her taller-than-average height. His weight was evenly balanced on his large feet, his breathing regular while he maintained steady eye contact. The feeling Jez got while she studied him was that he was curious and bemused by her presence. A deep calm, a feeling of safety, settled over her. She instinctively knew he posed no threat.
And Jez always trusted her instincts. It was why she was standing outside the cave, alone, while the rest of her team were scouting the distant crater rim.
“This is sacred ground.”
His voice had a deep timbre, one that sent shivers down her spine. A reaction she didn’t dare display, didn’t want to give into at all. She stepped back. He mirrored her move, bridging the gap she’d made. His eyes were an intense and mindboggling silver with mauve tints. The same hues as his hair, but his skin had a deeper, darker shade. She thought him handsome but tried to squash those thoughts before they surfaced.
“You are here to mate,” he stated as if this was a well-known fact.
He was still staring at her in much the same way she was staring at him. Jez straightened. In-built and well-learned protocol overtook her reticence.
“I am Commander Jezebel Hedin, Tenth Exploratory Team of the Damari Organisation for Galactic Settlement.” She tilted her head towards him. “And you?”
He stood even straighter, his height and muscular body displayed proudly. “Ge’ez Amour, Executive Commander of Interstellar Relations, Takako.”
He recited his designation in clipped terms, though what he’d said gave her virtually no information. DOGS, or rather their more formal term, the Damari Organisation, would probably mean nothing to him either.
Of course, she’d known as soon as she and Jana had found recent and obvious occupation inside the cave, that some unknown entity was sharing the moon with her team.
She also knew that this Tack-a-kay-o, presumably his home world, was somewhere the Damari ruling class would vehemently deny existed, regardless of whether anyone had ever heard of it or not. It wouldn’t matter that the proof of its existence was standing right in front of her. Indeed, her instincts insisted she keep this unauthorised meeting hidden. As they had before she’d reported the cave discovery in the vaguest terms possible.
“You are female,” he stated. “Yet you stand on the mating grounds alone and unprotected.”
She gasped as he stepped forward and took her wrist. His long fingers, surprisingly cool, held her gently but firmly. He took one, long breath while a finger pressed on the vein inside of her wrist. Her rapid heart rate was anything but normal. The last time it was so raised was at her command award ceremony, many cycles ago.
Was her life really so … predictable? So lacking in excitement?
She kept her eyes on the male, inhaling through the breather which added a bit more oxygen into her system, calming her.
“You are fertile.”
“And where are your instruments that allow you to make such a claim?”
“Takako males can sense a female’s readiness to mate,” he replied.
Still holding her wrist, the tip of his finger began making slow, caressing circles. As a wave of desire swamped her, leaving her shaking inside, she continued to stare into his silvery eyes. Eyes that had become more iridescent, the mauve flecks appearing and receding in mesmerising ripples.
Jez wasn’t scheduled for testing until well after she returned from this exploratory journey. Even then, if her defiance in returning to the cave without authorisation was discovered, any chance of reproduction would be lost. Something Jez had known when she made the decision to return. It didn’t matter that Jez longed for offspring. Nor would the fact that her ancestry could be traced back through a long line of explorers originating from Old Earth. If this unauthorised and unexpected encounter was discovered, Jez would be demoted and returned to an even duller, less certain future than before.
It was just as well she’d disabled the tracking and recording functions on her AI before heading towards the cave. All she’d left operational were the mandatory health checks and the interpreter module. That way she had plausible deniability.
“I have waited aeons. Now, just when I’d become convinced the gift of a mate was not for me, the Entity delivered you to the mating grounds.” He seemed to emit excitement and deep pleasure, the mauve in his eyes completely taking over the silver for one, brief, moment. “Come.” He gave her still-held wrist a gentle but insistent tug.
“Wait.” She resisted his pull without much effort. “Where is this mating ground you speak of? Is it the cave?”
“This moon,” he said, indicating the entire area, “is the sacred mating grounds of Takako, available only to those who have earned the privilege, and gift, of a promised mate. The cave is the site I chose for you, my mate, as the best defensible abode available.”
“I am not your mate. I don’t even know if our species are biologically compatible.”
“We are,” he insisted, “the Entity would not have brought you here while fertile if we were incompatible.”
“That’s not how these things are arranged,” she insisted.
She ignored her rapidly beating heart, her tendency to lean her body towards him, the overwhelming knowledge of his alluring existence. All that was irrelevant. They could not mate. The ramifications, no matter how tempting, would mean her immediate exile to the outer reaches, a place very few survived.
“Then whatever you require, I will provide.”
Jez could hardly think straight, an unusual occurrence for her. One she knew stemmed from the temptation to leave everything she knew behind. For him.
“To reproduce… This is determined by the ruling class, who only consider parameters that ensure success,” she explained, though why she bothered was unclear. “It is scientific and precise, with no chance of errors.”
“The Entity does not make mistakes either. Obtaining a mate is an honour given to few but hoped for by many.”
“It is the same in my world too.”
“Truly?” he queried, like he didn’t quite believe her. “You form a lasting partnership, sharing food, shelter, your body and your most intimate thoughts, with your mate?”
“No. There is no interaction between the male and female at all.”
He crossed his arms. “That sounds…”
“Clinical,” he countered. “Where is the relationship? The deep bond between the two responsible for giving life to the next generation? Where is the caring, the shared responsibility, the love, required to bring offspring into the world so they can grow and learn and become responsible citizens, a credit to their family and their world?”
Jez shrugged. “That’s not the way reproduction occurs where I come from.”
“Then the Entity was wise indeed to send you to me. As my mate you will be cherished and honoured for the rest of your life.”
He studied her again, not quite as intently as he had at first. More like he was cataloguing her features, discerning what was going on inside her head. She hoped males of his species could not read minds, because hers was a swirling mess of confusion battling with her growing attraction and longing.
“I have worked hard to prepare a comfortable abode for you while we await the return of my spaceship. I have moisture and victuals and bedding. I am a good provider, a leader of my people. And as my mate, you have the protection of the entire Takako warriors to call on, if necessary.”
“So you expect me to accompany you when you return to your world?”
“Of course. Once mated, we will never part.”
“Never.” Again, he paused, his silver and mauve eyes never wavering from her face. “Come.”
This time, he did not close the distance between them as he initially had. Instead, he stood still, his arm outstretched towards her. He awaited her decision, in the full expectation that she would agree to become his mate.
Her long-held desire for offspring, to be chosen to produce the next generation as well as a respected explorer, bubbled up inside her until the desire to reproduce, as fast as possible, sucked all her attention like an uncharted black hole opening without preparation. To give in, to go with him into the cave, was so very tempting. He was very tempting.
His determination was more than alluring. His outright certainty that they were meant to be together was reflected in every muscle, in every sinew of his body. That was so satisfyingly reassuring. His willingness to take her presence as a gift from whoever this Entity was and not an accidental circumstance, said a lot about his dedication and steadfastness.
He was giving her time to make up her own mind. He was not forcing her to do anything she did not want to do. His consideration, his treatment of her, was so diametrically opposite to the way those in the Damari Organisation and the DOGS ruling class, she could barely believe it possible.
But she also trusted him. Fully, instinctively, and deeper than their brief time together warranted. What he promised, a close, intimate relationship where not only the essentials were shared for mutual survival, but also the good times, and the bad. Thoughts of being cherished, of having her thoughts and her instincts listened to and acknowledged settled any trepidation she’d contemplated. Sharing her life with the male before her, alien though he was, and living the life he promised, was more than enough to sway her.
“Come,” he said once more, taking her hand and turning towards the entrance of the cave. “Our future awaits.”
With a smile that wouldn’t be dimmed, Jez willingly followed him into the cave. If all he said came true, the future that awaited them was brighter, more exciting than anything she’d ever experienced before. She’d be a fool to turn away from the hope that existence gave.
And Jez was no fool.