Authors: Viola Grace
Tags: #Romance, Science Fiction
“I am Jillina Keeran. I have been on Stok for a few weeks, and as I was injured when I crashed, some medical intervention was needed to keep me alive. That included a transfusion.”
He frowned. “That is unacceptable. You are an asset to the Coalition, and we need you back. Your husband’s family has demanded it.”
“I don’t have a husband on Noshon IV. I do have one on Stok and that is not something that I will leave. You can’t claim me for the Coalition. I refuse to go.”
The general frowned. “Unacceptable. We are coming down to claim you, and our physicians will repair the damage to your cells.”
Yono disconnected her feed, and she sat straight. “As Monitor, I suggest that you take your ship and leave our space, General. We are prepared to defend our people.
of our people.”
The general disconnected the call.
T’los stepped away from the wall and said, “Prep the canons, Yono.”
“They are on the fourth layer, Security Chief.”
“Keep an eye out, Monitor. Blast anything that comes in.”
“Yes, Chief. Don’t forget dinner at Neeja’s.”
Yono’s station shifted under her, and to Jill’s amazement, the woman was suddenly sitting in a fighter turret with a headset and visor.
“Two ships incoming. Firing.” Yono pulled the trigger, and on the monitors, two ships shattered and fluttered to the surface.
Jill took T’los’s hand and watched as a series of missiles rained down and were blown into bits by Yono’s mystery guns.
“Where are the guns, T’los? I haven’t seen anything remotely weapon-like since I came here.”
He smiled. “Do you have it under control, Yono?”
“The warship is retreating. I will keep an eye on it for the rest of my shift.” She winked and waved them off before the seat swivelled and she blasted again.
“Good. Since Jill has agreed to stay, I will show her the layers.”
While they exited the monitor station, she murmured, “Will she be all right?”
“Yono is the best Monitor and the best gunner that Stok has to offer.” He was still smiling.
“Okay, I give up, what are the layers?” Jill tugged his arm.
“The layers are just that. We live on the upper woven layer of leaves and vines, all twisted into our homes and businesses. Beneath are the support systems and beneath that the training systems for our vines. On the final layer are the landing crafts that brought our ancestors and the roots of the vines that enable us to live in the clouds.”
“How is it that we can breathe?” She bit her lip.
“Plants produce oxygen. It compensates for the altitude.” He grinned. “We are going to go sightseeing.”
He loaded her in a skimmer and settled in next to her. “The punch-through points are far apart, but there is one half an hour away. It will let us through the surface and into the deeper layers.”
“It will be interesting. Why are you showing me now?”
“Because I am sure you want to stay. No other off-worlder has been down to see how Stok was shaped. Soon, you will be one of us and our secrets become yours.”
They took off, and he held her hand with his while he piloted with the other. They skimmed along the surface, and she saw the punch-through point he mentioned. Just large enough for a skimmer, the hole into the underworld of Stok beckoned enticingly.
The darkness that they dropped into was warm and scented with plant fibres. Lights bloomed to brightness on the front of the skimmer.
“This is the layer that runs all of our support systems. Water, power, waste disposal, it all happens here.”
He did a quick pass by the huge stalks that supported the upper level. He pointed out the work zones and how the whole thing was set up.
“Now for the training layer.” They simply descended to the next layer, the platforms around the huge stalks no hindrance to their progress.
Fifty feet lower, they circled the centre with the programmers and designers who told the stalks and vines what shape to take. The design labs were on more protruding platforms around the thick stalks.
“And finally, the place where all of today’s versions of Stok came from. We can get out and walk around if you like. Our city is built over the first settlement on Stok.”
She focused on breathing because thick wasn’t the word for the air she was inhaling. Chewy was the word. There was a lot of compost in the ground, and it was doing its thing with dark purpose.
The original shuttlecrafts were lodged in the base of the stalks. Jill stepped out of the skimmer and walked on the spongy ground. The shuttles were huge and made of alloys that fought the degradation they should have surrendered to. They were also built on a smaller scale than the current Stoks.
She walked along the edge of the shuttle and took in the length, doing math based on the original height of the settlers. Jill wasn’t sure of how long she had been down below, but when T’los put an arm around her and escorted her back to the ship, she acknowledged that there was a lot more that she wanted to know about the original folk who had decided to make their world and their bodies in a new image.
“That was most illuminating. They built this world one layer at a time until they could make the tendrils link on the surface. It was quite the feat.” There was nothing but admiration in her tone.
“I am glad you know where we came from, it makes our current living situation more amazing.”
Jill laughed. “What about the guns?”
“Ah, those are housed on the third layer, on platforms that raise and lower as needed. They are undetectable and there are more than enough scattered around the globe to protect us. No hostile force has landed in the last four hundred years.”
“I would show you the platforms, but they are active right now. It is something best seen when Yono isn’t enjoying herself.” He laughed.
With his hand holding hers again, they headed for daylight, returning to the fourth level of this world of giants.
“So, how long does it go between proposal and wedding?”
T’los sighed. “Two weeks. Neeja will have you for two weeks to assemble your trousseau, and then, you will be mine. What area of study do you wish to pursue?”
Jill had given this some thought. “Bot repair. I really need to get more technical education.”
“Excellent. You will be able to study in your own time, and I have room for a workshop in my home.”
She chuckled. “You are thinking ahead.”
“I have two weeks to occupy myself. Making preparations for you will be a delight and a distraction that I am desperately in need of.”
“You have seemed pretty calm up until this point.”
He smiled and pressed her knuckles to his lips as the skimmer climbed. “I didn’t know what you tasted like until today. That was a definite trigger to my urgency.”
She blushed and tried to forget that the taste of his lips had sent her reeling.
“So, what does a Security Chief do aside from carrying aliens to and from the medical centre?”
He chuckled. “Not much. It is my place for another two years, and then, a younger candidate will take it over. As you know by now, we rotate our posts unless the person holding the position shows remarkable aptitude, like Yono and her Monitor skills.”
“She really enjoys using that gun.”
He laughed as they emerged into daylight. “She really does. To date, she has an accuracy rating over ninety-nine percent. When and if she retires, she will be a hard act to follow.”
“Do you think she will have a family?”
He looked surprised. “She already does. She has two children, nearly grown, both girls. Her husband has taken care of the family needs while she was on duty, but his own body began to fail last year.”
“So, the treatment has come in time to help their family. That is something.” She grinned.
“More than just their family. Across our globe, chair-bound men and women are slowly becoming able to stand and move once again. We are entering a new age, and your body is to thank.”
She blushed as his voice took on a warm tone. “It was my grandmother’s contribution that has made this possible. I do wonder if any of your people will develop extrasensory skills.”
“I can hardly wait to find out. Now that the culture of your tissue has been prepared, the treatment can continue, and soon, generations will not know the pain that we and our forbearers have lived with.” He smiled brightly.
“What about my plan to see if I can get some additional height?” She pursed her lips.
“I will be there for you during the growth spurt. It is painful for an adult to undergo height alteration.” The line of his mouth was straight.
She sighed and knotted her fingers together. “I just don’t know how we are going to fit.”
T’los looked at her in surprise, and he must have seen her worry. “I want you just the way you are, though I have to admit that the makeup you have on is a little jarring. I like you your normal shade. That is the face I first saw you with and that is the one I love.”
Her heart flipped in her chest. It was getting a lot of exercise today.
Jill wasn’t able to speak. Aside from all the conversations they had shared, she had known her appreciation for him was deepening and had no idea it was mutual. Warmth started in her chest and spread through her entire body.
As he settled the skimmer outside the embassy, she bit her lip. “Um, how does this work?”
“The engagement?” He chuckled and helped her out of the transport.
“You remain here with Neeja and begin your education and your accumulation of clothing. The stipend offered to you by Stok will be enough to support you, should you choose to back out of the proposal.”
Jill blinked. “I didn’t ask for that.”
“I know. I did. What you did was offer yourself freely and without awkward conditions. Have you seen Yono? She was bound to her chair just a week ago. She has her life back, and it is one she never even thought she would have. That is a feeling that is spreading throughout Stok. You are a hero, Jill.”
They rang the chime and waited for Neeja to open the door.
Before her host could open the door, T’los caught her in his arms and kissed her again. He was remarkably limber for a man of his height, and his lips pressed against hers over and over until she heard an amused clearing of a throat.
T’los didn’t start, he simply placed a final kiss on her lower lip before he stood straight. “Good evening, Neeja.”
“A better evening for you, T’los. Come inside, Jill, we will start making lists.” Neeja ushered her inside and kept T’los on the other side of the doorway. “You can see her tomorrow during formal time.”
He bowed and winked at Jill. “Good night, dearest Jill.”
“Good night, T’los. Sleep sweet.” Jill inclined her head and sighed as he turned and walked off.
Neeja laughed and put her arm around Jill’s shoulders, walking slowly with her back to her room. “He won’t sleep, you won’t sleep, but we will begin the process of getting wed on Stok without direct family. It is a little tricky, but I will be standing in for your family, and Yono will stand for T’los. It is a small number of attendants, but it is important to actually have folk that you know and trust on that most important day.”
“Um, I have never asked you, but did you once have a man of your own?” Jill spoke quietly, not wanting to offend.
“No. There was a man, but he fell on level three and I have never loved anyone since. We had not married, but it had been very close.” Neeja smiled and there was the bittersweet look of an old wound that had scarred into something softer but still felt.
“And then your body began to curl.”
“Yes. By the way, my treatments start tomorrow. I am wondering how I managed to get up on the list so quickly.” Neeja laughed.
“Really? You are wondering? You are not as smart as I thought.” Jill chortled.
Neeja hugged her under one arm. “That wasn’t necessary. My turn would have come.”
“Your work here is important, and to be the best you can be, you need to be free from pain. Who knows, you might even have another guest one day.” Jill grinned then sobered. “Wait, will I move in with T’los? He said something about it, but I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
“Of course you will. Don’t worry. He has a charming home. He will have his home extended for you, and you will move out of the embassy into his residence, at which point, it will become your residence.”
“He will give his home over to you. It is tradition to give the bride a large gift, and there is nothing larger than the home she will live in.”
Jill blinked. It was so different than back home. “On my world, it is the other way around. The groom buys the bride, paying her family. The bride doesn’t see anything, and in some families, she is expected to work off their generous donation in some appalling ways.”
Neeja hissed. “That isn’t right.”
“That was my home. It is also why I am not eager to return. Ever.”
They chatted about differences in customs, but Jill’s mind was on one thing. T’los was going to be hers, and she only had to wait two weeks.
The gown Jill wore to her wedding was made of three gossamer layers that added up to a decently opaque costume. Vines tied the gown under her bust in an elaborate band and more vines had been twisted up into a coronet to hold her hair away from her face and off the delicate taper of her neck.
Soft slippers completed the bridal outfit, and Neeja stood at her side as they left the embassy and walked into the square where the population was gathering to watch the wedding. Aside from their attendants, T’los and Jill were completely alone. Everyone else was just here for the party.
When they gave their vows, the crowd applauded politely and the party truly began.
Weddings were a big deal when the population was racked with illness. It was one of the only reasons that the afflicted came out and socialized. Nothing stopped a party on Stok.
Jill was hugged, squeezed and spun around so many times, her hair collapsed and tumbled around her face and shoulders. The medical staff was tipsy, and she also ended up on the receiving end of a few very friendly gropes.
As the three moons rose, T’los led her off the dance floor and into the night. They swayed together, and she felt the rising of nerves.