"This is exciting," Rhino said, staring out the window of the ship.
"Hardly the word I would use," Phil replied. "They're just big bags of interstellar fat."
"Yeah, but I've never seen a Comantze up close before," Rhino said.
Flarm looked down at the display of the ship's clock on the console. It'd been four hours since they'd gotten the Teique distress call, and three and a half hours that they'd been in transit. With Rhino's constant bubbling it seemed like twenty.
"The last time I was on Jelva Prime," Rhino continued, "Merrdoc took me out to see one of the tugs they use to pull the Comantze away from inhabited systems. I guess they can be pretty destructive."
"A moon's worth of lard," Phil replied, without looking up from her book. "And after they mate, the female pushes the male into the gravity well of the nearest sun. Quite a site watching that much fat burn off. I saw it in the tri-vid when the Bose system was destroyed."
"Ugh," Rhino said. "So Flarm, how long until we're in visual range?"
"Probably another two hours," Flarm replied.
"So another six hours or so until we get there," Rhino thought out loud. "Hopefully the Teique can hold out that long."
"Why were they there anyway?" Flarm asked.
"Research mission," Phil said. "They're studying the life forms that live on the surface of the Comantze."
"Ick," Flarm said. What kind of creature would actually choose to live on the ass of a space-faring couch potato?"
"Polyps," Phil replied.
"That was rhetorical, Phil," Flarm said. "I really don't want to know."
"Wow," Rhino said, a few hours later. "You really can't appreciate the size of the thing until you see it up close." Phil eased the shuttle around a protrusion from the Comantze's back and settled into a cruising altitude. Flarm had parked the ship not far away, but not close enough to get pulled into the Comantze's gravity. He'd mumbled something about there still being moose dung in the consoles and told them he wasn't getting any closer.
"And you also can't appreciate how foul they are," Rhino continued.
"I told you," Phil said.
"No really," Rhino said. "It looks like a giant, naked Rush Limbaugh floating through space in a fetal position. The blinky colors are pretty, as long as you can try to block out the fact that it's his ass that's lighting up. The females must be absolutely hideous if they find a big fat naked guy with a glowing ass attractive."
"Teique crew, this is Galactic Customs, do you read?" Phil said into the communicator.
"We read you GC," came a reply. A second later the owner of the voice appeared. Except for the aviator goggles and scarf, he looked like a cross between a tick and one of those hairy centipedes. Despite the fact that he'd seen, and fought, some of the most frightening species the galaxy could produce and survived, Rhino couldn't help but get the willies watching the Teique's hair-fine legs and antennae wiggling in all directions.
"I must say," the Teique continued, "I was a bit surprised when we were told the GC would be responding to our distress call. The GC doesn't normally lend a hand to research vessels downed by errant asteroids."
"Unfortunately you're a long way from any real help," Phil said. "This area is quarantined against galactic trade. Ours was the only vessel within a hundred light years capable of helping."
"I appreciate that," the Teique said. "And I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but I believe we're short on time."
"Don't worry," Phil said. "Fat boy isn't going anywhere in the near future."
"Oh, it's not that I'm worried about," the Teique replied. "The male Comantze are incredibly slow. In fact, they mostly drift about flashing their lights until they attract a mate. It's the females you have to watch out for. They spray jets of gas out of their mouths and nostrils you know. Can reach some incredible speeds. Really quite something."
"Fascinating," Phil said.
"Yes, well," Actually, I'm in fear for my partner. She's bloated with young, and I think the stress might be pushing her closer to delivering."
"Ew," Rhino whispered, off camera. His arms were folded across his chest and he was rocking back and forth. He was suddenly feeling very claustrophobic in the small shuttlecraft, and kept scratching at phantom itches.
"I've got a visual on your ship now," Phil said. "We'll be there in a minute."
"Oh my god!" Rhino yelled, as Phil turned off the communicator.
"Easy," Phil snapped. "They're not that disg- oh my god."
"Er- guys?" Flarm said over the radio. "I think we got a problem."
"We see it," Phil said. "It's a female, and it's headed right for us!"
The female Comantze appeared from behind the planet Neptune and headed directly toward the male. She was as naked as her counterpart, and almost twice as large. Her rear end was pointed directly at them.
"Now I'm really going to be sick," Rhino said, just seconds before the shuttle was hit.
There was a wet thud on the hull of the ship as the skin of the female pushed against the shuttle, and the skin of the male rushed up to meet them. There was a sickening shake as they were pressed between two layers of Comantze.
"Flarm's on his way back at top speed," Jack said, walking into the ready room. "The Comantze mate for just a few hours, so we need to hurry out there."
"Can't we just wait until their done?" Carla asked.
"Afraid not," Roger said. "You see, the female of the species are the only ones with real propulsion. And after they mate, they fling their partners toward the nearest sun. After that it's going to get a bit warm in this section of space."
"I see," Carla said.
"Besides," Shimo said. "That's a lot of weight to be squeezed between. The shuttlecraft is strong, but not that strong."
"That's right," Jack agreed. "Shimo did some computer calculations that show that the shuttlecraft can survive for around ten hours."
"But Jack," Shimo said. "That was the best case scenario. And since we haven't had any contact with them since -"
"We're going to assume the best case," Jack said. "I'm not going to give up on them until we have to sort their molecules out of space dust. Am I clear?"
"Yes," Shimo nodded.
"Good," Jack continued. "Flarm will be back here in two hours. I want everything ready before then. Oh, and Roger?"
"When we get back, I want you to let Flarm know that, small tug or no, I want some faster engines on that thing."
"Absolutely," Roger grinned. "Phil will love that."
"You all right?" Phil asked.
"Yeah, I just bonked my head," Rhino said, sitting up. "Unfortunately, I bonked it on the radio, not that we could get a message out through the Comantze. Anything else broken?"
"I was just looking at that now," Phil replied, tapping some keys. "It looks like the engines are smushed. The life support system is still working, but since we're trapped inside a hundred miles of blubber, the climate regulation system has no way to dissipate the heat, so it's going to get a bit warm in here."
"That's fine for me," Rhino said, "I'm used to high temperatures. But you might want to see how many ice packs are in the first aid kit."
"Good idea," Phil agreed. "We also have a few small hull fractures, but it seems to be holding up. There's some kind of slime on the exterior that's keeping our air from leaking out."
"Well that's a good thing," Rhino said. "I guess all we can do now is wait."
"So," Rhino said, with a grin. "I spy with my little -"
"Rhino, don't make me kill you."
"GROSS!" Carla shouted, looking at the window at the giant, copulating figures.
"Whatsamatter," Jack said, "never walked in your parents?"
"I have," Roger shuddered.
"You mean the Yggsdrazine -" Jack said.
"Yes," Roger told him. "How did you think we -"
"I always thought it was some form of mitosis."
"Look," Flarm snapped. "It's bad enough I have two giant sacks of meat out my window copulating, I don't need to hear about your species' messy methods of reproduction as well."
"Sorry Flarm," Jack said. "Ok, ideas. How do we break them up?"
"Cold water from a giant hose?" Carla said.
"We could blow them up," Flarm said. "I've still got that shipment of pulse missiles in the cargo hold that we confiscated in Uruguay."
"Ugh," Jack said, "it's bad enough I'm looking at all that naked fat doing the horizontal mambo, I'd hate to see what pulse missiles would do to it."
"And you thought your wet spot was bad," Shimo said.
"Ew." Carla pulled her face and smacked Shimo on the shoulder.
"We could tickle them," Roger said.
"Now there's a thought," Jack said, rubbing his chin.
"If you're thinking an electric jolt," Shimo noted, "this ship couldn't generate one large enough."
"Not electricity. Vibrations," Jack said. "Flarm, I need to borrow your speakers."
"My what?" Flarm said, spinning in his chair. "No Jack. No way. That sound system cost me a lot of money."
"Dammit," Flarm said. "You're going to harass me until I say yes, aren't you?"
"Yes," Jack said.
"Fine. But you're paying for them if anything happens."
"I give you my word," Jack grinned.
"Phee al La la la K'see Ah Gaaaa Ra Ta M'po zing!!" Rhino yelled, with a guttural growl.
"Close," Phil said.
They were sitting on the floor of the shuttle with their backs against the walls. Phil's face was covered in sweat as she picked at the pieces of communicator on her lap.
"Pretty Princess Thundering Hammer, right?" Rhino asked.
"Yes," Phil nodded. "But what you actually said was Potato Princess Thundering Thighs."
"And I'm still alive?" Rhino laughed. "Ok, I won't even attempt the family name."
"Good," Phil grinned. She pulled the back of her forearm across her forehead, wiping off the pool of sweat that was gathering there.
"This bites," she said. "I swear it's gotta be pushing a hundred degrees in here."
"Thirty-five," Rhino said, looking up at the readout.
"I was being sarcastic," Phil said. "I think this ice pack is dead, can you hand me another one?"
"Afraid not," Rhino apologized. "You've used up all four that were in the first aid kit and - whoa!"
The last interjection was made as Phil reached behind her shoulders and pulled her shirt over her head. Despite the fact that she was still covered with a sports bra, Rhino blushed and turned away.
"Sorry," Phil giggled. "I keep forgetting that human males don't need a display of physical fitness from females to be aroused."
"Oh, you've definitely displayed your physical fitness," Rhino said. "And sometimes I forget just how female you are."
Phil grinned at him before going back to work on the radio.
"Ok, the sensor probe just made contact with the female," Shimo said.
"Good," Jack nodded. "Now, if the speakers have been hooked up correctly, all we have to do is press play."
Shimo pushed a button on the console. Almost immediately, the female started moving.
"It's working," Shimo said. "The bass is tickling her."
"That's a lot of bass," Carla said.
"The bassiest," Flarm beamed.
"Glad you don't live on my street," Carla quipped.
"Wait," Shimo said. "Something's wrong. No! There's some kind of slime down there. It's shorting out the speakers. One - by - dammit. There goes the last one."
"Good thing I convinced you to broadcast the music rather than send my stereo down there too," Flarm snapped.
"Sorry Flarm," Jack said. "We'll replace them. Ok, people. We're running out of time. Any more ideas on how we can ruin the mood for them?"
"Yeah," Carla said. "But how do we get her to tell him she loves him?"
"Or say she's pregnant," Shimo added.
Everyone except Flarm turned to look at him.
"I mean," he said, "so I've heard. It's never happened to me. But the best way to ruin the mood for a guy is to bring up the dangers of unprotected sex."
"How typical," Carla said.
"No, he's right," Jack thought, out loud. "Flarm, the GC computer back on Earth has an archive of news items. I need you to get into it."
"Sure," Flarm said. "What am I looking for?"
"The footage of the Bose system," Jack told him. "And Shimo?"
"I need you to figure out how to build a stationary cloud of dust in space."
"I can't take this," Phil moaned. Her clothes were dripping wet, but she kept them on out of fear of causing Rhino some kind of brain injury. "What I wouldn't give to be on an ice floe on Verrokon right now clubbing baby sealfish."
"What's it like there?" Rhino asked, hoping to keep her talking and keep her mind off the heat. "I've never been on Verrokon."
"It's beautiful," Phil said, closing her eyes and tilting her head back against the bulkhead. "Most of it's covered in ice. There's a few forest areas, but even those are snowy."
"You don't build ice castles, do you?" Rhino asked.
"You've been watching Superman again."
"Hey," Rhino grinned. "It's a good movie."
"No," Phil smiled. "We don't build ice castles. Most of our cities are under water."
"Well that explains why the Verrokonians are some of the best climate- control systems designers in the galaxy," Rhino said. "So do you go to the surface often?"
"We go all the time," Phil said. "It's fabulous. The ice goes on for miles; as far as you can see. Herds of narkyak stretch to the horizon. And the sky; I miss that sky, brilliant purples and blues and reds. No planet has skies like that."
"You wouldn't be able to appreciate it."
"Hey now," Rhino protested.
"Sorry," Phil said. "That's not what I meant. Verrokonians can see into the far ultraviolet. Our upper atmosphere is mostly ice crystals that act like tiny prisms. You probably wouldn't be able to see the colors I do."
"Oh," Rhino said.
"I wasn't trying to insult you. You're one of the few humans I've met who can appreciate the arts of other planets."
"I try," Rhino grinned. "Although I still don't get the Lawrence Welt Orchestra."
"Ok," she said, "so Verrokonian music is an acquired taste." Rhino looked at her.
"Ok," She laughed, "so you have to grow up in a household with a lot of shouting to acquire it. I never said everything Verrokon produced was beautiful."
"Some of it is," Rhino said, then realized what he said and blushed again.
He looked away, hoping to think of something to say to change the subject, but couldn't. When he turned back, Phil was watching him. Her total lack of wrinkles made it difficult to judge her expressions, and Rhino stared at her trying to figure out what she was thinking. Then he did something that surprised even himself; he leaned over and kissed her. Even more surprising, there was no resistance. They stayed that way for almost a minute.
And then she hit him.
The right-hook sent Rhino sliding across the floor into the wall on the other side. He propped himself up on one elbow and rubbed his chin.
"You're right," he said. "I shouldn't have done that."
"No no," Phil said. "I was showing my approval. Get back over here."
"There," Shimo said. "That's the last of the ice chunks obliterated, and the tractor beam is keeping the mist steady."
"Good," Jack said. "And you still think you can display the video of the Bose system on it?"
"Well," Shimo shrugged. "I'm using the ship's lasers weapons at low power, and at best I can get sixty-four colors, and since I'm drawing it with laser points the frame rate will be slow -"
"Yes or no," Jack said.
"Yes," Shimo said.
"Good," Jack grinned. "Now turn it on and lets get going."
The image of a second set of mating Comantze appeared on the cloud. The male outside their ship immediately looked up at it.
"Typical guy," Carla said. "Turn on a television and he forgets about everything else."
"Well, it is porn," Shimo said.
"Can you speed it up?" Jack asked.
Shimo touched a few buttons and the video image sped up. The mating increased in speed until it was done. The two broadcast Comantze stopped their frenzy and sat still for a long time. Then, the female started belching fire out of her mouth and the two were soon moving swiftly through the system. Then she broke her hold on the male and changed directions. The male, the realization of what was going on slowly making its way into his brain, frantically started trying to change directions as the sun got closer. However, he was unsuccessful. He plunged into the sun and, a second later, the display went white.
The Comantze male outside their window, his eyes wide with fear, suddenly started clawing at the female, desperate to get away from her.
"It's working!" Carla said.
"You'd think she'd mentioned picking out a china pattern," Roger said.
The scraping noise that disturbed the silence of the shuttlecraft was insistent, and clearly wasn't going to go away. Rhino sat up angrily and looked out the window.
"Hey," he said, watching as a thin ribbon of black spread across the window's field of vision. "Something's going on out there."
"That's space!" Phil yelled. "They're breaking up! Ooh, the radio!"
The radio, which had been thrown aside not long before, was sitting in the corner making crackly noises. Phil picked it up and attacked it again with various implements. Soon, the crackling noises resolved into a voice.
"-no, Phil, you guys there?"
"Flarm!" Phil shouted into the microphone. "I never thought I'd be so happy to hear your buzzy voice."
"I appreciate the sentiment," Flarm said. "Can you guys get out?"
"Our engines are down," Phil told him.
"Ok, as soon as we have the room we'll be in to get you," Flarm said.
"Hurry up," Phil said. "The Teique female is ready to burst."
"Burst?" Flarm asked. "You mean she's pregnant? Oh no. Not on my ship she's not! No way! Uh-uh! I -" a voice in the background mumbled something to him. "But Jack! BUT JACK! Aw fine, but Roger's cleaning it up."
"Hey!" Roger yelled in the background.
As the Teique vessel dropped to the deck of the ship's cargo hold, Rhino and Phil were stepping out of the shuttlecraft.
"Ew," Roger said. "The shuttle's all slimy! That's the last time I trust you two with the keys on a Friday night."
"Gross," Shimo said, running a scanner around the outside of the shuttle.
"Nice shiner, Rhino," Roger said.
"I - er- fell," Rhino blushed.
"Uh huh," Roger nodded suspiciously.
"Yuck," Shimo said, "This slime's like pure pheromones. The air inside the shuttle is chock full of them."
"That's correct," the Teique said, disembarking from his ship. His long, wiry legs were twitching in all directions like a giant centipede. The GC agents gave a collective shudder.
"The Comantze swap highly concentrated pheromones during mating," the Teique continued. "They're so concentrated, in fact, that many species harvest the fluid for use in colognes and perfumes."
"Doctor," Jack said, offering his hand.
"Please," the Teique said. "There'll be plenty of time for introductions later. My partner is on the verge of delivering."
"Yuck," Roger muttered.
"Oh, you big baby," Carla snapped at him. "My mother was a mid-wife. I'll help. It can't be all that bad."
"You ever squeeze a pregnant tick?" Roger whispered to her. Carla blanched as the Teique, delighted to have someone with medical experience, grabbed her hand and pulled her toward his ship. "Help me!" she mouthed.
Roger grinned and nodded, the waved at her.
"Wait a minute," Shimo said, still looking at the scanner in his hand. "Not all the pheromones here are Comantze. Some of them are -" He didn't finish. Whether it was because of a sense of propriety, or whether it was the chop Phil delivered to the back of his neck, he kept his mouth shut, opting instead to crumple to the deck in a heap. "Sorry," Phil said, as everyone turned to look at her, then she hurried off.
As Rhino walked into the break room, Phil was sitting at the small, round table in the corner reading a book.
"Hey," Rhino said.
"Hey yourself," she replied.
"I - uh - couldn't help but notice that we both turned in really short reports," Rhino said. He grabbed a mug and filled it with hot water from the dispenser, then dropped cube of Lhardazi tea into it.
"Yeah, well," Phil smiled. "Aside from the damage to the shuttle, and your breaking the radio, there wasn't much else to report, was there?"
"No," Rhino said, taking a seat. "I guess not. So, should we talk about what happened?"
"Rhino," Phil said, putting her book down. "Look, I like you, and I respect you. And I would hate for anything to make things difficult between us. We were swimming in pheromones up there. What happened couldn't be helped."
"I guess not," Rhino agreed.
"So," she continued. "Let's stay buddies and move on, ok?"
"Ok," Rhino said, with a smile. "I'm going to go watch some TV. See you later, buddy."
"Ok, buddy," Phil said.
Rhino got up, picked up his cup of tea, and left the break room.
"Still," Phil said, to no one in particular, "it was better than I imagined it would be."