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The HEL Jumper [Chapter 3.30]

Book 1 of The HEL Jumper
Book 2 of The HEL Jumper
-----
Previous | First | Next | Patreon
Thanks to Big_Papa_Dakky, Darth_Android, bloblob, AMERICUH, The_Real_Jumper, Mr_Polygon, Krystalin, Damned_Thrice, Mamish, Vikairious, Sam_Berry, RedHawkdude, KillTech, LilLaussa, Daddy_Talon, Gruecifer, Gaelan_Darkwater, Konrahd_Verdammt, red-shirt, DaPorkchop, Benjamin Durbin, Siddabear, and everyone supporting me on patreon.
-----
“This is new,” Veera mused, padding around her husband as he clothed himself in a dress uniform for the first time in many months. She could tell he hated it from the moment he pulled on the well creased pants, but he uttered not a single complaint. Instead, Veera did what she could to adjust things here and there. It was easy enough to guess that much of the symbology on the uniform was meant to denote his rank of First Lieutenant, and she was able to properly read his last name where it sat above his heart. She hoped her small touches here and there were welcome. “I don’t dislike it though. You look very important, my dear.”
“Well I’m glad someone likes it,” Russell replied, leaning over for a kiss before placing the navy cap on his head to round out the look.
“After seeing it so many times on Io I was wondering if I’d ever get to see it on you. Perhaps we can air it out and work the material to make it more comfortable?” Veera suggested.
‘Oh my dear Veera, the Admiral might agree with you but military garb is meant to be anything but comfortable. See how straight it makes him stand?’ Io observed, dressed similarly to Russell though without rank insignia. They were back aboard the Event Horizon in their cabin, a place for a private night alone once the two of them had gotten over the shock of Veera’s pregnancy. Veera had been sorrowful upon seeing her rose had wilted, as all cut flowers eventually do, but a quick trip to hydroponics alleviated that sadness. In a move that had surprised both Winters and Io, Veera promptly spilled the beans about her cubs to Anita as they watered her orchids. The young Indian woman had not known what to say when Veera had insisted they were Russell’s, but as time went on he understood why she’d decided to broach the subject at all. Far from judgment, Anita had offered them congratulations and well wishes when they parted. She had also offered her condolences regarding the Lancer, which the Jumper accepted quietly.
“Let’s just head to the shuttle bay. It’s almost time,” Winters suggested, surveying himself one final time in the mirror to ensure he was presentable. He wasn’t sure he recognized the man staring back at him. He wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing either. Veera took his hand.
“Today we can deliver them some good news,” she pointed out. He nodded and furrowed his brow.
“I know, but they’re still gone.”
‘I will be at the shuttle bay. Take your time,’ Io said, leaving them alone for a moment. Veera leaned against Russell and sighed deeply, not knowing what she could say to him. No one had been able to comfort her with words when her mother had passed either, nor when her father failed to return from the hunt.
“Thank you,” he whispered, leading her out into the hallways and on towards the shuttle that would take them to the place his pod had landed a year ago, fleeing the destruction of his ship and the wrath of Seil. When they arrived they were met by Pilot Cromwell, Admiral Kaczynski, and the Beta Jumper team. Russell managed a smile when he saw Rex, Lipper, and the others in uniform.
“At least they get to be as uncomfortable as me today,” he said quietly to Veera before saluting Natori and the others. “Thank you all.”
“We are here to pay our respects to the dead. Rivalry can wait for a day,” Mendes spoke, earning curt nods from the rest of his squad. Given that they all carried rifles, it was clear that Natori intended to live up to his promise of not shortchanging the fallen. Winters returned the greeting, a bare minimum he was willing to observe on that day in memory of Jessica and the others. They all turned towards the entrance of the shuttle bay as Alice and Lachlan arrived together, the former dressed in HEL dress blues without rank and the latter dressed in the tartan kilt of his clan and carrying a set of bagpipes under his arm. Veera looked at Russell for explanation as the Jumper first hugged his sister in greeting and then shook hands with Lachlan.
“It was yer sister and the Admiral’s idea. Hope ya don’t mind, sir.”
“I can’t play an instrument to save my life, Private. Assuming you can, I think the dead will appreciate it. Thank you.”
“If I may interrupt just a moment?” Natori requested, taking a step closer and gesturing to another shuttle next to Cromwell’s. “For the sake of ceremony it was my plan to arrive along with those conducting the triple volley today. I have three Marine volunteers as I assumed you would prefer to pay your respects as family. If you would prefer-”
“No that’s… that’s fine. Thank you, sir,” Russell replied stiffly. Natori dipped his head and gestured that Mendes and his team should get aboard.
“I suspect you are already tired of saying thank you, so you need not,” Kaczynski insisted, his tone hardening. “This is the least they deserve, and I will devote every effort to ensure that we bring word of their fate to their families once today’s ceremony is concluded, even if it means destroying that Forge.”
“We are ready to assist in discovering if there is an alternative,” Russell responded as Alice and Lachlan boarded Cromwell’s shuttle. “And if the Private needs a hill for those pipes, there are more than a few down there.”
“I can never tell when you Winters men are serious or joking,” Natori remarked with a hint of a smile. “I will see you down there, Lieutenant.”
“All aboard then. Let’s not keep the dead waiting,” Cromwell added, patting the ‘hood’ of her shuttle as the engines of the second spun up.
‘Nor the living. Room for one more?’ Io’s voice asked via their various earpieces. Veera looked around curiously.
“There’s always room for you, Io,” she replied sweetly, figuring that should be obvious. The AI’s voice laughed and faded, only to sound again from the hangar entrance. Natori’s mouth dropped open and Veera gasped loud enough to echo throughout the metal room as a sixth HEL Jumper stood at the threshold, clad in a pure white Aegis Mark II suit with emerald trim on the legs, shoulders, and arms. Rex, who was halfway into the second shuttle, began physically pulling his mates back out so they could get a better look. More than a few questions and curses were uttered quietly among the four of them.
“No…” Kaczynski whispered, awestruck, his shoulders slack in disbelief. His tone indicated what he likely meant was ‘yes’.
‘I was so hoping you would say that, Veera. I would hate to miss this. And what’s with that look, Natori? You’re the only one here who shouldn’t be surprised,’ Io insisted from beneath a helmet, kicking off and floating down to land in front of Russell, who was standing still as a stone, his jaw so tight that Veera could make out the tendons that connected his mandible to its various controlling muscles. He’d removed his visor from the side of his head and slipped it into his pocket, looking down slightly at the helmet Io had been using to project her voice. ‘Well? Go ahead before I think better of this,’ she whispered, her tone both tempting and wracked with nerves heavier than a young woman at the altar.
“Oh my god. Oh my god!” Alice murmured from her seat, punching Lachlan in the thigh repeatedly as her brother undid the helmet seals and lifted the armor away, revealing a shock of voluminous blonde hair done up in a bun and bright emerald eyes that shimmered as though she was crying. Across the shuttle bay, Natalya promptly reversed Rex’s actions, pushing her team back into the shuttle and then tugging on Natori by the back of his uniform’s collar. She had only seen a man make the face that Russell Winters was making once in her life.
“Sir, I believe it is time to leave,” she insisted, making it clear it wasn’t a choice. Natori nodded silently, saluted, and departed, leaving the three of them with his ‘blessing’ as the shuttle kicked off the ground and headed for the planet. Veera’s feathers were vibrating about as fast as she could ever remember, but she waited patiently, allowing Russell his moment in what she could only describe as a miracle. Spirits only walked among the living in stories.
‘I’m not… whole yet, but I could not be at your side when they were laid to rest and to do so again seemed unacceptable. I wanted this to be a surprise but-’ Io gasped and her face twitched in pain as Russell brushed her cheek with his hand, rewriting various calculations and sensitivities until his touch felt warm and gentle. She had been watching him and Veera over many evenings, and knew well enough what it should feel like. Even if she hadn’t, the ‘literature’ on the subject was clear. ‘This seemed more important. Sir?’
Russell was gritting his teeth, visibly and audibly, the area between his brows furrowing as he tried to process what he was seeing, what he was feeling. Her voice wasn’t in his ear. She was giving off body heat. Her eyes were tracking his. The woman who cheated death once and then stared it in the face with him a second time was there, in front of him, real. He felt the tension in his calves and hamstrings as he began falling forward slowly. She reached out for him. He held the back of her head and the curve of her waist. “I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry today,” he whispered as something warm and wet landed on Io’s neck. “What in the world?”
‘It’s alright, sir. I am very much in the same boat!’ Io offered, her voice cracking as her armored limbs gently wrapped around him and began squeezing. ‘It’s really me though, I promise. Please say when?’ she requested.
“Right there is good,” he managed, closing his eyes as tightly as he could and fighting to control himself. “I wasn’t ready for this.”
‘Like I said, that makes two of us!’ Io sobbed, feeling her tear ducts activate. ‘Oh gods it’s working. I’m crying! Veera, if you wouldn’t mind saving us from ourselves here?’
At the AI’s plea, Veera threw herself onto them both. She shouted the obvious as she nuzzled them, earning a surprised but subsequently pleasant laugh from the AI. “Io! You have a body!”
‘Most of one! Hence the armor,’ she elaborated, running her fingers over Veera’s garments and then fur. She hoped she was being just forceful enough to convey longing and affection. ‘Oh Veera, I’m so happy for you. What a stress test of emotions! My legs are shaking.’
“Come on then, let’s get settled,” Russell suggested, slowly backing away until Io was at arm’s length. For long seconds he waited but the right words never came to him. “I’m sorry, Io. You deserve more than me staring at you like an idiot.”
‘Mein barbar…’ Io began, falling silent and eventually bobbing her head repeatedly as she faced the same conundrum. ‘We shall continue to be idiots together, it seems. But first let us say our official farewells and give well wishes to Jess and the crew. I do not know how long this platform will last carrying around an Aegis. It is rather heavy, and a testament to your physique.’
“You know all about my physique, but ok,” he agreed, escorting her and Veera to the shuttle while Alice waved happily at Io’s new form. Lachlan was plenty surprised, but having been in the room during the initial negotiations between Antoth, Natori, Russell, and Io, it was more amazement than anything else. Pilot Cromwell made no complaints, having received specific instructions from the Admiral the moment his own shuttle had departed to escort the pretty blonde ‘Jumper’ to the memorial site, no questions asked. As they travelled, Veera glanced over at Io.
“How did you do it, Io? This is amazing! Oh, are you not feeling well?” the Cauthan wondered, seeing that the AI appeared to be in some amount of mild distress based on her facial expressions.
‘No no, my dear, I simply have not had time to calibrate everything. It’s not an exaggeration to say I rushed this body out the door half finished, but I won’t be throwing up or anything so uncouth. Ah, there we are, that feels much better. Veera, what does it feel like for you when you are in these shuttles? How about you, Alice? Oh, and I apologize, Lachlan. You look quite dashing in a kilt. I did not mean to ignore you.’
“You an’ the Admiral have been quite busy I wager,” the Scotsman remarked evenly. Io smiled.
‘He has been quite supportive in this endeavor, yes. And before you become righteously indignant, Russell, I hope you will understand that I did not wish you to see me like some sort of skeleton or half finished experiment.’
Russell smiled faintly and caught her eye. They looked remarkably real, down to the slightly yellow hue of her sclera, but something inhuman shimmered about them as well, a certain something he could not quite place. He found it appropriate, however. “I understand. How are you powering this thing?”
‘A lot of batteries, for the moment,’ Io replied in a disappointed tone. ‘You have no idea how remarkable the human body is until you try to replicate it; or the Cauthan body for that matter, my dear Veera. I am still weighing the pros and cons of an internal biomass reactor or attempting to reverse engineer the nuclear power core we found in the ruins of the Forge.’
“And just casually catapult human technology forward a thousand years?” Alice asked with a smile. “Lord knows you probably have already depending on what you used to make whatever is under that armor.”
‘That’s kind of you, Alice, but I don’t think I have,’ Io admitted. ‘That was my initial goal, yes, to create an artificial body that maintained itself much as a human’s does, but the Admiral and the realities of physics conspired to dissuade me from that course. Perhaps when this is all done I will simply need maintenance while the rest of you need sleep? Going forward, however, there are many avenues to explore depending on how widely accepted and disseminated the knowledge of my existence is on Earth. I know we joke about him sometimes, but Admiral Kaczynski is a very wise man.’ The AI’s somber and reflective tone was unexpected, but Veera was all smiles.
“You should join us when we pray next. I am sure that Tyrdus will hear you,” she offered happily, taking Io’s hand in hers. “You really made this?”
‘I had a lot of help, Veera, but yes. I was not gifted this body by the gods… not like you were gifted your cubs, which I one day hope to hold alongside you,’ Io said with open longing.
“They are really just trying to make me cry today.” Russell laughed and shook his head, throwing his arm around Io’s shoulders, made unnaturally broad by the armor that concealed her unfinished form. “Io, Veera and I will be there for you if you let us, alright?”
‘You are very good at saying quite a lot with few words,’ the AI countered in a friendly tone, knowing he was referring both to the past and the future. ‘There will be no secrets, I promise. There were just some moments of frustration that I did not want to burden you with, not now as we prepare to say goodbye and not as you two prepare to be parents. But I promise.’
“Hey, if my brother is being a lunk you can always come to me!” Alice offered. Io smiled at her.
‘I believe having a friend that is both human and female would be quite beneficial. There are some things he just doesn’t understand,’ the AI lamented.
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Russell demanded, doing his best to sound offended as they began to feel the rumblings of the atmosphere around the shuttle.
Alice laughed. “That’s exactly what we mean.”
-----
“Mmm, it’s like they know,” Russell remarked of the gods, stepping out of the shuttle into a dreary day on Mara. The cool winds from the area around the Forge seemed to have made their way east, reminding him very much of how the area had looked and felt the day he’d informally laid the crew to rest. The only difference was a lack of fog due to the warmer, end of summer temperatures. Taking Io by the hand, he and Veera walked over to where Antoth and Thantis awaited. Upon seeing her face Thantis dropped to his knees, prompting Io to rush over, spluttering in embarrassment.
‘My friend, stop this! Please stand,’ she insisted in fluent Cauthan. ‘I am not one of your gods. I never have been. Were you waiting long for us?’
“You make it seem as though I would not know a miracle when I see one. I’d like to think I’m old and wise enough to understand what’s right in front of me,” Thantis replied as he accepted her help. “It is not every day that spirits choose to walk among us. Will you be gracing our village with your presence?”
‘Maybe one day,’ Io offered, a rosy hue accenting her cheeks. Russell couldn’t help but wonder how long she’d been going at the task of constructing her body, though he suspected the answer. ‘Today is only for a brief while. We’re grateful that you came all this way.’
“More wished to,” Antoth explained. “But you insisted that this not be a grand affair, Winters. So it is just us today.”
“And I appreciate it,” the human affirmed. “Sorry to disappoint the others, it just feels wrong. There will be enough pomp and circumstance from our end anyway.”
“I must admit to some curiosity,” Thantis said, glancing around at the handful of humans who had descended to participate in the honoring of the dead. Natori strode forward to join them.
“That is it, there?” he asked, gesturing to the shrine Winters had constructed a year earlier. A stone or two had been dislodged during that time, coming to rest on the grassy ground below, but the monument remained whole, along with the memorial plaque left by Russell and Io.
“Yes sir, I just need to tidy up a bit,” Russell replied.
“Go on then, we will begin as soon as your task is complete. Antoth, Thantis, allow me to extend my thanks for your presence here. Might I request that the two of you begin the ceremony in your own manner? It is customary in our military funerals to first have a service performed by a priest or other religious figure. I believe it would be appropriate,” Natori explained.
“We can do that,” Antoth confirmed shortly. The priest of Seil wore the ‘uniform’ of his office that day, and Veera sensed that he might even have been thankful for an opportunity to don his old armor again, detailed with all manner of runes and symbols to honor the sun. It did not shine or sparkle like the tokens of his predecessor, but that was very much by design.
It was not long before Russell rejoined them, leading Veera and Io to stand with Alice at a respectful distance from the shrine. As they had the year before, both Antoth and Thantis presented carved tokens invoking the favor of the Cauthan gods. Alice, Natori and the others looked on with great curiosity while Veera, Russell, and Io stood close to one another and remained silent, thinking fondly of the departed. When the Cauthan priests were finished with their dedications, having said what needed to be said the prior year, they joined Veera’s group as Admiral Kaczynski signaled to his crew to proceed. Led by Lance Corporal Mendes, the Jumpers from the Event Horizon and three Marines raised standard M-22 service rifles and fired three volleys whose crack rumbled across the plains to the south. When the sound had died down and the riflemen returned their weapons to a resting position, Io assured Thantis she would explain the tradition at another time. As the service continued, the AI figured that she would very likely need to answer questions not just on the significance of a triple volley salute, but also questions on the nature of bagpipes.
“What a haunting sound,” Thantis could not help but whisper as the opening notes of Amazing Grace carried from where Lachlan stood at the top of the gentle slope that led from Veera’s old farm down to the river’s edge. Alice could not help but agree, the mournful warbling of the pipes and the drawn, stone-like expression on her brother’s face bringing a tear or two to her own eyes. She had only known Jessica Yang in passing, and was unfamiliar with the rest of the Lancer’s crew, but it was plain to see how much they meant to Russell, and so she cried softly for the one man they had all left behind, reaching up to dry her eyes only when the final note held before fading away through the trees across the river. Finally it was Natori’s turn to speak. The Admiral walked calmly to the shrine, brushing a finger gently over the message left by the First Lieutenant and his AI. He smiled modestly as he turned to face those gathered, looking to Io and Russell.
“I am, regretfully, not a man possessing the faculties to make such a dedication of my own; nor would I wish to dilute the words you have already carved and left here. Instead, I shall allow the esteemable Lord Tennyson to speak for me as tribute to our honored dead.” Natori paused to collect his thoughts and clear his throat before reciting the selected portion of the poem from memory.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Upon his conclusion, Natori closed his eyes in a moment of private prayer before speaking to those assembled. “We resolve today that these souls were not lost in vain, and that the trail they blazed shall become a thoroughfare among the stars. Keep them in your hearts as you return to your important work. Thank you, everyone.”
As the final act of the ceremony, Kaczynski laid a folded HEL flag atop the shrine, settling it so that it propped up the existing plaque for better reading. He nodded silently to the Beta Jumpers and other military personnel, who saluted and proceeded from the site back to their shuttle. The Admiral then approached Winters’ group, speaking first to Antoth and Thantis. “Thank you again for your presence here to honor our dead. I will ensure their families and superior officers know of your kindness. First Lieutenant, I believe it’s time your pod was finally retrieved. I will arrange for a heavy lift shuttle tonight. Given the length of your stay I’m guessing you may have some personal effects still stored?”
“I’ll collect them and return them to the village, sir. Thank you.”
Natori lifted his cap from his head and ran a hand over his hair. Replacing it, he proclaimed their new course of action. “It is now our duty to make it back to Earth with their memory. Please continue your work with Alice among the Cauthan. We will call upon you if your presence is needed at the Forge. And Io?”
‘Yes, Admiral?’ she replied, surprised to have been addressed.
“I don’t disapprove of your presence here today, but I would ask that you please inform me if you intend to requisition or produce arms or armor. There is protocol to be observed, and the cat is now out of the bag, so to speak.”
‘I’m sorry, Natori. I was rather nervous,’ Io explained, earning her a hug from Veera. Thantis seemed both happy and stunned that she would so casually rub herself against divinity. The Admiral nodded.
“I understand, but nervousness is not an excuse to break the rules. Next time, if you please,” he insisted kindly. Russell finally spoke up.
“Io, Veera and I-”
‘I know, sir,’ she cut him off, her voice emotionally laden. ‘I’m not going about this in such a way because I don’t trust you. I’m doing this because you and I have been together from the day I was born, from the day we lost your dear friends. There are some things I would prefer you not see, especially since I am already feeling my power reserves draining,’ she explained, covering her mouth as a wide yawn overtook her. Natori’s expression was more than emotive enough to convey how impressed he was. She smiled at them all. ‘I thought that was a nice touch. I should be back with you and Veera by the time you return to the village, sir. I just need to return my body to my… workshop?’
“Well then take good care of her, Admiral, if you please,” Russell insisted.
“Happily, Lieutenant. I daresay the science teams at the forge would appreciate an AI looking over their shoulder today; the portable reactor core is now in our possession and under study. Given how fruitless our attempts at miniaturizing Ghaelen reactors have been, I think you all understand the potential?”
‘We will discuss sometime soon, in another place,’ Io suggested, giving Alice a brief hug before embracing Veera again and finally Russell. She lingered in his arms the longest, blushing as she accepted the fact that her programming desired far less armor between the two of them. ‘Thank you, for everything.’
“And I’m the one who says a lot with few words?” he laughed, fighting back the desire to simply hold onto her for the rest of the day, to allow the bad memories to wash away and embrace the idea that he was going to be a father. Having an AI around to help out made it easier to contemplate, and he was willing to bet Io wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’ll see you soon then.”
‘Yes sir. Why don’t you and Veera share the good news with the crew now that the official ceremony has concluded? I think they would all be so happy for you two. But farewell for now. Oh, and Antoth?’
“What is it, spirit Io?” the stoic Cauthan asked, one hand on the pommel of his sword.
‘Should I be offended you didn’t also drop to your knees upon seeing me in the flesh?’ she wondered with a coy smile. He bared a few of his teeth on the right side of his mouth.
“Just the opposite. I daresay miracles are what I’ve come to expect from you and Winters by now. I hope we’ll see you for the harvest. Our bounty this year is thanks to the two of you in no small part.”
Io’s smile widened genuinely. ‘I wouldn’t miss it for the world.’
-----
“Momma, why’s uncle Lachlan wearing a dress? Those are for girls!” Ursol insisted upon seeing the burly Scot’s naked calves for the first time. The Marine in question threw Alice a silent ‘I told you so’ as Sentaura picked up her boy.
“Hmm, that appears to be more of a skirt, my dear, but I must admit to my own curiosity. The rains will come later so I spent the morning making stew. Join us, please. How was the ceremony?” she wondered, stoking the fire beneath her cooking pot.
“It was appropriate and solemn,” Alice described. “We honored them in our way and Antoth and Thantis did so in theirs. And we all got to hear Lachlan play the bagpipes, which was actually very impressive.”
“Well I’m glad ya think so, lassie,” MacGregor replied before explaining to Sentaura and little Ursol that he was dressed in the traditional garb of his clan. Given the nature of Scottish genealogy, the use of the word was quite literal.
“There are whole tribes of humans where the men dress in such a way? How curious. Ursol, that is quite enough,” she insisted, rapping him on the head gently with a wooden spoon. The young lad had still not gotten over the idea of men in dresses. “You had your fun, but now you are being rude.”
“Sorry momma,” Ursol dutifully replied. She pointed at Lachlan instead. “Sorry uncle Lachlan.”
“Ah it’s no big deal, ye certainly aren’t the first one ta get a kick out of me kilt. I find it ta be quite comfortable however.”
Alice giggled as she gratefully accepted a warm bowl of home cooking from Sentaura. She could feel the change of the seasons on the horizon. Perhaps autumn was already upon them. The overcast day and even the funeral service itself added to the feeling that a warm and welcoming meal was exactly what she needed. “Sometimes I wonder if we got it all wrong. Maybe men should all be wearing skirts and dresses while us women wear the pants.”
“I can think of a couple reasons we didn’t go that route and neither are appropriate for the wee laddie here,” Lachlan replied before making a lighthearted suggestion. “But maybe you could write a little paper on it.”
“Oh stop it! That’s not all I do,” Alice insisted, taking a bite of her lunch. “Wow Sentaura that’s- mmm, really good!”
“Thank you very much,” the Cauthan took the compliment in stride before partaking in her own bowl, with Ursol blowing his soup noisily at her side. Alice glanced back over at her companion.
“So Lachlan, I’ve been meaning to ask you actually, when did you get into the bagpipes and kilts and all that stuff? I know it’s your ancestry and all, but it’s not like you’re born with a set of pipes in your hands… right?”
“How d’you know about that?” Lachlan demanded dramatically before dropping the act with a grin. “Ah I know it was a solemn day an’ all, but it feels real nice ta get to playin’ again. As fer me, it was me grandmum, Alice. I’m sure she’s up there with the Lord right now talkin’ his ear off about how great Scotland is. Can’t say I blame her, it’s home.”
“I’ve been once or twice, it was beautiful,” Alice agreed. “So your parents didn’t send you to bagpipe lessons?”
“Ah, it’s a bit hard ta explain,” Lachlan said, pausing his meal to scratch at his chin and wipe his moustache clean. “Me grandmum and grandpa didn’t have much, but they made sure me mum did. Was probably inevitable that she found more cause with Europe than back home once she got out in the world, ya know? Led ta some contentious conversations around the dinner table mind you, but I loved goin’ home ta visit me grandparents, seeing the rollin’ hills and all the bloody sheep. She would always call me her little son o’ Scotland!”
The Marine laughed fondly at the memories, with Alice smiling sweetly as she imagined a much younger Lachlan. “I’d say you more than lived up to her expectations, Lachlan.”
“I do wonder how much of it was an expectation, doesn’t matter now though,” he decided. “She was proud ta be a Scot an’ wanted me ta be proud of it too. Don’t see the harm in it.”
“Quite the contrary,” Alice affirmed, feeling a tad self-conscious as she complimented him. “It was really quite beautiful, the music I mean.”
“Thank ya kindly, Alice,” he replied with sincerity. “I like ta think it helped in some small way.”
Sentaura’s ears perked up as she made the logical connection, gesturing to the pipes that had been placed in one corner of her home. “That strange contraption you brought with you is an instrument? You are a musician, Lachlan?”
“Oh I wouldn’t be goin’ that far!” he replied quickly. “But there are a few classics I guess you could say from my home that I know.”
“Play!” Ursol requested eagerly. His mother seemed to agree.
“I believe I should like to hear this as well, if you are amenable?”
“Well, it’s not like I want to hold out on ye or anything, but for the most part bagpipes only have one setting in terms of volume, and that’s loud. Even in here it would probably spook half the village,” he guessed.
“More like the whole village,” Alice agreed. “Why don’t you play at their festival, Lachlan? There is music, right? Like when my brother brought back his idea of a trophy?”
Sentaura seemed to agree with the plan. “What a splendid idea. If this garb of yours is meant to be festive, then perhaps you might give us a reprise? Though I wonder how cold you might be; the harvest festival heralds the conclusion of the season and the oncoming of winter, after all.”
“Ah that’s mighty kind of you ta worry, mum, but I’ll be just fine with the weather. As long as the Admiral is fine with it I don’t see why not. Somethin’ ta look forward to, eh fluffy lad?”
“Aww, don’t wanna wait!” Ursol insisted, causing his mother to wave her finger at him.
“But wait you shall, my dear. Now please, finish your stew before it’s cold. It’s not every day that we are able to have fresh chesko.”
“Yes, momma,” the young lad agreed, making a scene of enjoying his stew.
-----
Elsewhere in the village, Veera and Russell were also hosting an important guest, having plucked Asha from her temple for lunch.
“So what’s the special occasion?” she wondered, seating herself on their bed as eggs and vegetables were boiled to be consumed with dried meat. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, of course, it’s just that Zolta is usually busy in the afternoons.”
“Yeah, we’ll make it up to him,” Russell acknowledged with a thin smile. He signaled to Veera that she should go ahead. He still wasn’t much of a cook, but he was up to the task of boiling lunch.
“We will,” Veera agreed. “But today I just wanted to talk to you a bit since you’re my best female friend and you’re going through this so-”
Asha had just begun putting two and two together when Veera unceremoniously spilled the beans. “Russell put two cubs in me and we wanted you to be one of the first to know. Xan already knows, sorry, but that’s because Thantis was there at the time we found out,” she explained rapidly, barely taking a breath as Asha’s mouth dropped open and her feathers exploded into motion.
“You- You’re pregnant, Veera?” she gasped, unable to stop herself from rubbing her own prominent belly. “That’s amazing! That’s wonderful! And did you say two?!”
“As if I needed another reason to be concerned,” Russell lamented as the two Cauthan embraced one another. “No offense Asha, but if that’s the size of one late term Cauthan pregnancy, I’m not sure if Veera’s going to be able to move with two of them in there.”
“Oh you are just unbelievable!” Veera rounded on her husband, claws out. “You think I enjoy the idea of our cubs fighting one another just to come into this world?!”
Russell stood straight, abandoning cooking for a moment as he held up a finger in hopes of peace. “Alright, that was a bit more than I expected. Sorry, Veera.”
“And I’m sorry for yelling at you, especially in front of guests,” Veera relented.
“It may not be much, but I don’t think you have to worry about that, Russell,” Asha politely reentered the conversation. “I have been talking with Gentia about, you know, how I’ll know when it’s time? She says that once I get big enough it’ll just start happening. Maybe that will be the same for you, Veera? Oh, well I suppose your cubs would be smaller then. I still, wait a moment, how did you even?!”
‘Prayer and a lot of sex, or perhaps the other way around. Hmm, now that definitely has potential, a punchline in need of a joke mind you. Hello again, everyone, and greetings to you Asha. I see Veera has already informed you of the good news?’ Io asked, waving hello from above Winters’ left bracer.
“It sounds like the good news has also been a bit contentious,” Asha related. Io snapped her fingers and turned to Veera.
‘Yes, yes, I did overhear that. Veera, I have great news for you.’
“Ok, what would that be?” she wondered, seating herself next to Asha on the bed. Even Fenrir got in on the action after poking his snout through the door and finding his family present, though he was made to lay behind Veera so as not to disturb Asha. He sniffed at her belly, but nothing further.
‘Well now that we’re all here, I just wanted to assure you that first of all, twins are a very common occurrence among humans, and we are competent in dealing with babies born prematurely. I know we have discussed the finer points of the human pelvis, human infants, and breast milk before so I will table that discussion. Do not despair, Veera. Your cubs will survive if we have anything to say about it, and you will have enough food to feed all three of you. There will be no competitions here. Sir, I’m pleased to inform you that Skadi has another update.’
Russell looked at her, nodding his head as he spoke. “The hunting program? Great, we’ll go tomorrow morning, Io. Sound good?”
The AI indicated her assent by donning her barbarian furs before slapping on some face paint and diving into a bush, much to Asha’s delight. ‘Perhaps we should invite one of the Betas? Show of good faith?’
“Yeah, or a little hunting accident?” he agreed immediately, laughing loudly before catching Veera’s eye. “That was a joke.”
‘No it wasn’t,’ Io insisted, retrieving a shotgun worthy of Elmer Fudd.
“Yes it was,” he insisted dramatically, a pause between each word.
‘Oh I see, the humans get to joke about offing one another but the moment the AI joins in it’s suddenly verboten!’ Io huffed indignantly. ‘Asha, Veera, let us speak of girl things instead while the garcon prepares us lunch?’
Outnumbered three to one, with two of the women in question being pregnant, Russell could do naught but protest.
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