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“You peer too deep,” Azi whispered.
Brushed by her companion’s breath, goosebumps rose on Meredith’s neck and cascaded down the right side of her body. The smooth fabric of her flight suit tantalized her alerted skin, sending a shiver through her bones.
“There’s no such thing as too deep.” Meredith said, disregarding the arousal washing through her. “Every detail counts. We can’t afford to miss anything.”
“If you stare too hard at a single shard, you become blind to the mosaic.” Azi’s voice tickled again.
“Okay, back off!” Meredith pushed away from the console. The hermaphrodite’s heat shattered her focus, although perhaps that was for the best. Their wisdom was sound, even if Meredith wasn’t ready to concede quite yet. “I need space to breathe.”
Azi straightened and stepped away and their back immediately pressed against the door of the Arken’s two seat cockpit. The pleasure slave leaned their broad shoulders on the hatch as if lounging on a brothel settee, rendering their grey jumpsuit surprisingly lascivious.
Meredith shifted her focus back to the monitor, annoyed, even though she knew the pose wasn’t intentional. Azi was just built that way. “We’ve been tracking these creatures for weeks. We need to get in front of them.”
“That’s what I mean,” Azi replied softly. “You need to back off. Let the patterns reveal themselves. You’ll never understand the cycles of the swarm by vivisecting a single drone.”
It was a familiar debate: the relative merits of macro versus micro. They both understood the value of each perspective, but Meredith tended toward detail, while her pleasure slave saw webs of connection everywhere. It was the difference between science and magic – science took everything apart, reducing to the smallest possible truth, while magic tied the knots that bound disparate aspects of reality together. A similar discussion had yielded insights that greatly improved Meredith’s technique at the card table. She could now observe more than just her opponent’s tells, but the rhythms and timing of their bluffs and bluster; an advantage that had recently won her the Arken, a much needed upgrade from the hobbled interstellar tug they’d flown previously.
Chisholm was a fine player, a card counter, and a genius with odds, but it turned out that he bluffed in a predictable pattern. Meredith couldn’t believe it was deliberate, assuming instead some subtle influence of his subconscious, but every fourth, sixth, and seventh round, Chisholm would bluff a weak hand or overbid a decent one. It was the series of numbers left behind by the Fibonacci sequence, a pattern so concrete that it lost him his most important possession – the ship Meredith now piloted. In an uncharacteristic act of consolation, however, she’d left the aging rogue her old tug at no cost. She didn’t know why she’d shown him the kindness – maybe because she knew that Chisholm could never win against her again, or perhaps it was her relief at not losing the pot. Azi had been her bid. That was a gamble Meredith would never repeat, over the subsequent weeks her Nazaraik had become precious, much more than an amusement.
Besting Chisholm had been a feat, but finding and extinguishing a swarm of interstellar insects presented a challenge of an exponentially greater scale. Meredith had successfully hunted down what she thought was the last living Solar Locust, but apparently the male she nabbed had been searching the galaxy for a mate. A mate that spawned on Meredith’s adopted home, Celine, just hours after she pinned her catch into her collection.
Celine was the only one of the seven planets around Trappist-1 ever settled and the swarm decimated the small colony in a matter of days. Since then, Meredith had scoured the neighboring systems in an effort to eradicate the apocalyptic brood but, of the two dozen World Eaters that escaped Celine’s atmosphere, she’d successfully eliminated only seven in as many weeks, and every hour that passed increased the sphere of potential territory to cover. Meredith was a collector, not an exterminator, and despite her lust for revenge, her confidence waned with each passing day.
“You need a break.” Azi observed. They were right, or they became right as the suggestion spread under Meredith’s skin.
“So break me.” She whispered as her red-haired companion reached forward and Meredith allowed herself to be pulled from the seat and drawn through the door.
The Arken, locked in orbit around some desert moon, would let them know if anything changed.
“You’re amazing,” Meredith said as her finger traced the long, red, labyrinthine line through the mandala etched on Azi’s flank. Their legs were tucked into the bottom of the sleeping berth to prevent them from drifting. Zero gravity sex could be delightful, weightlessness offering a particular agility difficult to achieve under the pressure of gravity, but the pleasures of afterglow were best enjoyed with a bit more anchor.
“You make terrible puns,” Azi replied.
“What?” Meredith looked confused, before smiling with recognition. “That was unintentional.” Her eyes followed her finger, still tracing the tattoo.
Azi smirked. “Your unintentional puns are your best, but they’re still terrible.”
“Hey!” Meredith smacked playfully at Azi’s chest, leaving a blush across their small, firm breast. Azi twisted, purring, and the two wrestled for a moment, entangling their arms. Meredith felt Azi harden against her.
As they settled back into the bunk Meredith’s gaze wandered across Azi’s inked skin. Like an ancient Celtic knot, three unbroken lines twisted in an intricate weave. Red, blue, and yellow, looping back on themselves to form the mandala that wrapped from Azi’s muscled belly across their side to their back. She knew the design linked to the magic woven through the Nazaraik’s body binding them to the small figurine hanging from the chain around Meredith’s neck, but the pattern’s ominous import didn’t diminish its beauty.
Meredith’s eyes widened. “Wait.”
“What do you see?” Azi asked sleepily.
“That’s what they’re doing,” Meredith said, squirming out from under the bunk belt to sit up. “They’re doubling back.”
“Why would they do that?” Azi replied, turning to look at her.
“The brood is working together to cover the most ground.”
“Looking for what? Why wouldn’t they just scatter into the galactic currents?”
“Looking for what?” Meredith repeated to herself. All of the bugs they ‘d caught thus far were heading back in the direction of Celine. Meredith assumed that the seven dull-brown drones were wandering aimlessly, but….
“The entire brood is male, Azi. That’s why I never caught a female.” The full implication of Meredith’s revelation hushed her speech. “All these years, I’ve never tracked a female. The females just sit and wait.” Meredith looked wide-eyed up at her bed mate. “They’ve been waiting forever.”
Azi took a deep breath, stretched, and smiled.