The End of the World: The Last Valentines Part One

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Just what do you give a bunch of invading aliens for Valentine's?

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. None of the characters, places, or anything else is meant to be represented by anything in reality. Duh! Fiction, get it? I the author reserve the rights, so please don't go posting this anyplace else without my permission. A very special thanks goes out to Cathy who spent the time to make this story readable. Another round of thanks goes out to all the others out there in BCTS land who have encouraged and inspired me to write and keep writing. Any remaining mistakes are all mine.

The End of the World: The Last Valentine.
By
Grover
12/262013

Dust rained down on the makeshift briefing table. Pantheon Team Epsilon, such as it was, were assembled around it as they gave General 'Big Jake' Morris a quick and dirty debrief.

“Our plan of foxing them into releasing nanotech on their own position worked well.” Our team commander, Athena, reported. “Kingfisher still hasn't fully recovered from his injuries, but after Asheville the Sha'leians are very skittish when they see Halcyon show up. That's was a good enough diversion to let the rest of us get into position and take out that T-Rex.

She gave the me the nod to begin.

“We had guessed that once they knew Halcyon could transform to avoid their nanite bombardment.” I continued. “That they would use some kind of mass attack to take care of that problem. This orbital strike is using lesser projectiles than the nuke sized ones we've seen before.”

Another boom had more dust raining down upon us, making the light hanging from the ceiling swing. It was a good thing this bunker was built deep into the Appalachian bedrock. Tunnel Rat did good work. His Gift from Prometheus was only moderately useful in direct combat, but his being able to shape and dig tunnels was priceless. In only minutes, he'd excavated an entire bunker.

“It was little close, but a good percentage of their 'bots dropped from the friendly fire of their Nano-bombardment. What was left, Team Epsilon was able to steamroller along with help of precision missile and artillery support from the Army and Air Force.” I reported.

“This beachhead attempt is finished.” I kept my sigh away. “However, this little trick won't work again. I'm thinking that this drop was really just a recon in force.”

“I agree.” Athena, my team leader, spoke. “It's a good bet this was just a probe to confirm Halcyon's location.”

General Morris nodded and dismissed us as he turned his attention to the clean up.

Tired and exhausted from the mission, Athena lead us to the way out. She and most the rest of my team were sucking down Blue Soylent from the toothpaste like containers someone had come up with. Many Pantheon members' gifts took a huge amount of energy. Taking in enough calories to power it was a challenge these days with food being so hard to come by. The stuff may suck as far as taste goes, but it filled a need. Personally it reminded me of my childhood, watching, when we really had a space program, astronauts 'eating' their food much the same way. That began a thought, but it got cut off as Athena took my arm.

“Let's get you back to your chair.” She wasn't going to take no for an answer.

“Do I have to?” I didn't try to hide my sigh this time.

“Yes, you do.” Her smile wasn't forced or false.

This whole thing had surprised me with us becoming something closer than friends, comrades in battle.

My assigned medic, Corporal Morgan Sloan had the damn torture device ready. It was a pain to maneuver seven feet of Halcyon into a chair more designed for five feet eight of Craig Elder, Kingfisher, but I'd had lots of practice.

Transforming, I winced, as all the aches and pains of my still healing injuries hit me.

A little less than four weeks had passed since the Battle of Asheville. Broken legs, arms, ribs needed from eight to twelve weeks to heal up. While I'd made great strides in healing up, I still had a long ways to go. Doc Schneider's estimate was I should be up and about in another two weeks or so. That was still twice as fast someone without Prometheus's Gift would heal, but it wasn't any fun at all.

Athena still jokes that it hadn't been hard finding me after the battle. All you had to do was follow the path of destruction. They probably had a point that I should've died, but all that energy I'd sucked up had given my body what it needed to hang on till help arrived.

Hell, my Halcyon form hadn't been in any too great of shape either. The first thing Doc wanted when I regained consciousness was for me to change into her. He wanted to test a theory that I would magically shed all my injuries as I changed back from one form to another.

This time he'd been wrong. She appeared just as she'd left looking like a candle that'd been left in a hot car. Those damn nanites had done one hell of a job on me. On the other hand, I'd self-repaired from that half-melted state in a handful of minutes even if it did itch like crazy. Even that sapphire blue hair of mine regrew itself.

No, the problem started when I changed back to the real me, Craig Elder. Okay, the almost real me now, Kingfisher. I was still broken all to pieces and all the casts had to be redone. Doc with another of his demented plans came up with a way to help. Since as Kingfisher, I also had that energy thing, I could translate that into a kind of regeneration by 'drinking' the power. The sticking point was I had to be conscious and concentrating to make that work.

That was where the chair came from. It was designed to support and allow me to go from Halcyon to Kingfisher without needing me to see a doctor each time. The damn thing constantly hit me with low current shocks to feed that energy absorption thing to help me heal.

It was a two edged sword.

As Halcyon I was just fine, even if I was a seven foot tall, golden, pornographic living statue. Unfortunately, Kingfisher needed to sit in that freaking torture chair so it could accelerate my mending. You try sitting for hours on end as you're being shocked while half busted to pieces.

However, I did try not to whine too much. The 82nd Airborne took their worst losses since WWII and the 218th heavy brigade was shattered. There were a whole lot of grieving families and that wasn't counting the city of Asheville being a battle zone. The total number of dead might never be known.

The big thing was, we had stopped them.

The Sha'leians promptly went and hit San Diego and Tijuana.

Landing in the mountains to the east of the city, they had put down and had stayed down. The aliens had their beachhead despite all the USA could do. Just to show it wasn't a fluke they went on to do the same thing in Spain, Ukraine, the Congo and India. The Germans had smacked down the attempt on them flat, as had Brazil.

Pantheon Teams were in the forefront of the defense of Los Angeles, as well as assisting Mexico with protecting Mexicali. Our neighbors South of the Border were having a hell of time since, before the invasion, they didn't anything that could rightly be called a main battle tank.

Their French built light tanks and Panhard armored cars carrying a 90mm main gun had put up a tough fight, but the alien 'bots and drones had taken a horrible toll on them. Things had gotten so bad that, when talk of nuking the alien fortress where once San Diego and Tijuana had stood, protests had grown very quiet.

With the autofacs in the San-Tijuana Fortress, their forces on the ground had grown to an estimated Ten T-Rex Command Tanks with a thousand 'bots and drones. Recon units daring to get close enough, reported worker 'bots collecting abandoned cars and trucks and feeding them into the factories in a constant stream. Best guesses said those numbers would double in week.

That's taking into account the expected Sha'leian losses on their advance to to LA. The Battle for Oceanside was one hell of a bloody affair, and one which us, humanity, had lost. Right now just about every piece of ordinance, and persons able to carry them, were on their way to the City of Angels.

News from overseas said that the situation was much the same in Spain. Just about every damn tank in the European Union was heading to Bilbao. The Basque had fought like hell, but courage don't make up for not having the tools and weapons to do the job.

The Germans just maybe had the right tools. Using the alien shotgun like plasma burners, the Brits had refitted them into usable plasma cannons. They had more than triple their old range, making them a very practical medium range weapon system. The cannons lacked the ability of rail-guns to strike targets damn near in orbit, but with the rugged territory the Sha'leians were favoring lately, that kind of reach wasn't needed.

What the German had done was, while everyone else was working on a fighter-bomber using the alien technology, they had designed a whole new tank that had a pair of heavily modified quantum drives packed into it.

Named the Griffin, after a legendary half-eagle half-lion creature, it continued on with the German tradition of naming their tanks after large cats.

Yes, the damn thing could fly!

Not well, and not fast, but it could go anywhere. From what we could gather it performance was rather like a 1960's helicopter. Its advantages were clear cut. With the plasma cannon and fusion power plants, it never runs out of ammunition and only needed good old H2O for fuel.

Perhaps in some parts of the world that might be a problem, but certainty not in Europe. That meant a good chance the Balboa beachhead could be lanced. The Ukraine was more problematic, but given the urgency it looked as if Russia would come to their assistance. That was important because it seemed they were developing their own version of the German Griffin. Being Russian details were being kept close to their chests, but it was still good news.

India was working with China since the Aliens had set down almost right in the middle of a troubled area both countries claimed as their own. The area was rugged enough that getting forces there was a bitch and a half, but neither one was taking this lightly. The thinking was that India would offer up the disputed territory which they really didn’t want anyways for the help.

The Congo, including both capitol cities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo Kinshasa and Brazzaville was a different story. Being right across a river from each other, I suppose the two cities were too much of a temptation for aliens. The Sha'leians were virtually unopposed and, while a UN lead force from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, South Africa and others were trying to get their act together and get forces to the scene, the alien autofacs were working full time at increasing their numbers.

A large part of the problem was trying to get permission to move their forces though other counties just so they could get to the battle. There was just too much distrust for that to come easily in a place where most people still identified themselves by the tribes they belonged to, rather than a country.

A very small glimmer of hope had appeared in the form of a Project Rebirth ex-military general. While in active service with the Marines, General 'Hammer' Hobbs had more than one 'disagreement' with the politicians and bureaucrats in charge. He was, however, very respected by our allies and beloved by the men who followed him. Hammer Hobbs had proved on more than one occasion he wasn't afraid to lead from the front.

Unable to regain his commission, despite getting his youth back, he'd instead offered his services to the UN. The General Secretary had immediately taken him up on his offer, over the protests of two of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
China and the United States had protested, but all ten of the non-permanent members had agreed with with the General Secretary.

In theory Hammer was only the UN's military adviser to their Alien Invasion Crisis Committee. However, in reality he was the Chief of the UN's military arm. He was the one doing his best to coordinate the entire world's efforts, instead of everyone looking after their own interests.

Of course the United States and China made it harder when they refused to participate, but the United Nations Military Commission was getting results. The joke was UNMC really stood for the UN Marine Corps, but let's face it. There are worst role-models out there.

Hammer was the one that got Russia moving into the Ukraine and was behind the African force trying to relieve the Congo. His secret was recruiting other military professionals that were respected in their part of the world, as his deputies. So while he might be mistrusted because he was American, the people who worked for him weren't and were able to get past that.

Hell, the United States objecting to the UNMC could even be helping Hammer's credentials. The thing was we, the Earth, were beginning to finally pull together. That mass nuke strike, Operation Nutcracker, just before Christmas, was the first sign, and this was another. The bad news was that it just might be too late to make a difference.

What was left of the 40th Infantry Army National Guard and the 1st Marine Divisions after a month of combat was on the front lines. The Army's 1st Armored Division had joined it and others were on the way. As a matter of fact, any unit that was remotely combat effective was headed west.

That left the rest of the country just a little bare. Pantheon Team Epsilon had taken the most suitable, read that as 'most likely to survive,' candidates from the training teams, Alpha and Beta, for OJT, On the Job Training. That was the sole team defending the Eastern USA. That included me with my 'walking' wounded status.

The bombardment eased up and I could see everyone visibly relax. Sighing, I gave Cpl. Sloan the nod to 'hit' me. The jolt was not pleasant, but I sucked it up. Come on, I mentally urged myself, HEAL!

Athena kinda winced, seeing my discomfort. Anyone else would be doing the 220 volt dance. The insulated guardrails kept anyone from getting too close and getting some of what I was getting. Trust me. They wouldn't like it!

I let the medic do his job and push me along. Just two more weeks of this, Doc had promised. I just prayed that he was right. Now, however, it was time to go home.

<><><><><><>

MacDill AFB

Shelia's enthusiastic hug didn't fool me. She was still more than a little mad at me for my suicide run into the Asheville mountains. Maybe peeved was a better word, but I was not forgiven, not yet.

I scared her half to death the first time she saw me mostly encased in plaster and with tubes in every exit and entry. That sort of thing is not easy to get over, but I do understand. If she was in a similar situation, I would be going nuts too.

At least I was able to step off the plane as Halcyon. This wouldn't last all that long before I was back in the Chair again, but I would enjoy my 'break-time' while I could.

However, we didn't have a lot of time for reunions. Dean, and our meetings with our Sha'leian friends, had caught the attention of the high mucky-mucks. The Intell Center had generated useful data for the first time, as well as establishing some kind of rapport. For that matter, we had given warning, for what little good it did, for the Christmas attack on Asheville.

Though the same channels as before, Dean, who was still talking with Tash, reported they had an interest in meeting again, curious this time about Valentines Day. This time we weren't going to be able to get away with doing a 'get to know you' dinner unnoticed.

I really dreaded the coming meeting on the subject. Unfortunately it was with good cause.

“Excuse me, Sir.” I spoke as respectfully as I could to the three star general. “Even if you do succeed in killing them, you accomplish nothing, but destroying what little credibility we have with this contact.

“At best we're talking about two, maybe four, members of their crew.” Explaining, I kept my voice even and as emotionless as I could. Calling Lieutenant Generals stupid idiots usually didn't do much except land you in the stockade or worse.

“At our best guess, after going over everything we can find in the material they themselves have given us,” I continued. Being hurt had given me plenty of time to explore the Sha'leian library icon on my tablet. “They have a crew of between one and two hundred. Losing even four members is not going to make them stop and go home. Capturing them might be even worse, from a certain stand point, since they would either launch a kinetic strike or drop a rescue mission on wherever they were being held.

“Additionally there is the matter of possible hostages.” Dean spoke up. “There are, at a minimum, several hundred thousand people still alive in their San-Tijuana Fortress. We know there are captives and, from reconnaissance, they appear to be decently treated. If we do as you suggest, that could change.”

Honestly, the row of Big Brass sitting before us was intimidating as hell. The freaking Secretary of State himself, about half the Joint Chiefs, and a few Three Letter Agencies' representatives. However the most, at least to me, was a certain UN 'consultant' by the name of 'Hammer' Hobbs.

He'd been invited to 'sit in' although he had no official representation. The UN had always been aware of our 'meetings' since it was their communications channels we'd been using. It was kinda hard to exclude them.

“What do ya'll suggest?” His soft accent was deceptive. He might sound like he's being polite, but there was plenty of steel behind that soft southern courtesy.

“As much as I know everyone wants to make the most of what we've done.” Shelia took her turn bearding the lions. “Sergeant Elder is correct that any type of direct confrontation with their 'landing party' will not be advantageous. If anything, having those communications is even more important since they have taken, and are holding, not only territory, but citizens of several countries.

“We need to build on that as best as we can.” She was doing her best to be diplomatic, I could tell. “The last thing we want to do is to appear untrustworthy or duplicitous. So far both parties have kept their word. Let's not be the ones to break, even these small temporary truces.

“Our team has had a number of successes.” Sheila implored. “Please let us continue.”

While they mulled over her statement, I added what I hoped would close our argument.

“Sirs,” I began. “The primary threat is in orbit. Threatening what we're doing won't help take that ship down, nor deal with their beachheads, nor their base on the Moon.”

“That's true.” The Hammer spoke again although he was officially just an observer. “They've knocked down our missiles. Our fighters have been shot down without getting close. What ships that we've cobbled together have been blasted to atoms, so do you have any suggestions, Sergeant Elder?” The Marine looked me in the eyes.

It was easy to see how he got his reputation as a leader. His eyes dared me to go where nobody sane would ever consider going.

“You have me, Sir.” I could only claim insanity. Maybe it was that half-formed idea that had begun while watching my team chow down on Soylent Blue in 'space' rations like tubes. “Halcyon has flight and our Skins are good as short term spacesuits. Their energy and missile weapons are ineffective against me. Give me the chance, sir, and I'll board the bastards!”

“No.” Spoke Atlas, the senior Pantheon trooper at the table. “The Navy, and Air Force have had their shot. If its the Army and Marines turn, let's do it right. We pull the best people we got and hammer out a solid plan. Then we go and kick their asses back to where they come from.”

“I agree.” General Hobbs gave the grim grin that earned him his nickname. “But no more of this service or that nation trying to prove who has the biggest whazoo. We, planet Earth, put every damn thing we have on the table and take our damn world back!”

<><><><><>

“What the hell were you thinking?” Sheila was more than mad at me.

“That a lot desperate people were going to force us to screw up the one decent contact we have with the Sha'leians.” I sighed. “Telling them why it was a bad idea may or may not have worked. Giving them another option did, and just maybe the right man heard what we had to say.”

“I'm with her.” My team leader said from behind us. “Pantheon has a reputation for being crazy, but you take it to an entirely new level. Are you really serious about boarding their ship?”

“Yes,” I replied, “We have to, because, like one of our reports said, they probably have other groups on the way. The odds are there is at least another warship like theirs with them and we need the intelligence, as well as the ship itself. to fight them.”

“You're going to get yourself killed!” Shelia glared at me. “Didn't Asheville teach you anything? Do you have any idea of how much it hurts me to see you climb into that damn Electric Chair, knowing anyone else would be electrocuted?”

“You should listen to her.” Athena advised. “As tough as you are, you're not Superman. You charged the guns and paid the price once, but you got lucky and lived. That won't happen again.”

“That's why we won't be doing it that way.” Atlas stated joining the conversation. “We will plan this as a team and execute it as a team.”

“Excuse me.” He apologized to Shelia. “But it is no secret we are losing this War. For us to have any chance of winning, of surviving, we have to be audacious.

“Even if they don't intend on genocide.” He gave us all long stares, “I'm not going to not going to stand by and let mankind become second class citizens on our own planet.”

He then turned to Shelia.

“I promise you that if there is anyway possible I will bring this idiot home.” It was then my turn to face his wrath. “Haven't you learned anything? Geez, never volunteer, you dummy!”

Atlas walked away, leaving Athena chuckling in his wake.

“Go on you two.” She commanded. “Work this out. We're going to need both of you at your very best. No one knows the Tweeties like your Intell Group. If this has a chance of working its going to need to address every single possibility and issue.”

“Come on!” Shelia grabbed my arm. “We need some privacy.”

<><><><><>

I won't say our 'talk' was make-up sex, but it wasn't just talking either. It was hard to remember sometimes she was a part of that 'Greatest Generation' thing that knew all too well about hardship and self-sacrifice. It wasn't quite the Spartan thing of 'Come back, with your shield or on it,' but it was close.

She'd lost her father to D-Day and a Uncle on the black sands of Iwo Jima. A cousin had fought on the frozen hills of Korea and her late husband had been an 'adviser' in a faraway, unnamed jungle. A nephew had fallen in Desert Storm, and she'd lost a daughter and granddaughters during the bombardment of Pittsburgh.

No, she knew all too well about sacrifice.

We both got more than a little teary, but I think we made as much peace with each other as we could.

Okay, maybe there was some sex involved.

<><><><><>

Our first planning session was more of a brawl than it was anything constructive. Yes, Atlas was with us, but the Army dug in its heels, saying they needed every Pantheon Team and more besides to defend Los Angeles.

When we presented our choices for the strike teams, we got accused of headhunting the most effective members and destroying those teams' cohesiveness. That is despite a plan we presented to reorganize those teams affected to minimize any problems.

The Air Force just about had a cow over us including every single one of their top secret Copperhead Space Fighters, which no one was suppose to even know about. If they were upset, the Navy had babies over not only their three remaining SSBNs with ballistic missiles being included, but of the eleven that had emptied their loads and were feverishly being refitted as chop-shop spacecraft.

And if our country's military was having a problem, our 'allies' were worse.

<><><>

China

“General, I realize that your country doesn't trust the United States, or for that matter any of the Western Powers. However, unless your 'candidates' can match or exceed the currently assigned troopers, they will not be included as part of the assault force.” Hammer Hobbs stared down the People's Army General.

<><><>

Russia

“Admiral Rostok,” The UN representative sighed. “I can assure you that yes, every one of your space vessels will be needed and will be matched by an equal number, not just from NATO, but specifically from the United States.

“Yes, that does include the five converted 'inactive' LA class SSNs that did not take place in the last engagement.”

<><><>

Assembly of African nations

“We are well aware of the history of conflicts in this region.” The French diplomat stated, as the UN's General Secretary looked on. “However, for the good of not just your own countries, or the continent, but of the whole world, compromises must be made. The UN will guarantee that forces moving though your countries will abide by strict measures of conduct.

“That also means that any forces that do misbehave will be levied fines and other possible actions.” He looked at all the delegates. “With the rich resources of the Congo providing materials for their factories it will not take long before you are all threatened. Already Luanda, Libreville and other cities near to Brazzaville and Kinshasa are reporting Sha'leian scouting activity.

“I urge you all to think well on the consequences of missing the deadline we've proposed. Thank you.”

<><><><><>

Assault Team Sparta

I soared towards our target. Like skydivers, we held onto each others' arms and legs forming a living snowflake floating in the darkness.

Nott, named for the Norse goddess of the night, cloaked us in her darkness as she held my left arm and leg. Since no one could see though her darkness, I was the periscope that could see out, trusting to my absorption power to keep us safe from radar and their other sensors.

On my right was Weyland, code-named after the blacksmith also from Norse legends. Behind him rode Talos and Artemis, both named from Greek myths. The odd man out was our pint sized powerhouse, Bes, who got his name from Egyptian myths.

Reaching the long dark shape was only part of the problem. We had to enter without breaching the hull or otherwise every single hatch would be sealed against the pressure on the other side. That was not the best way to begin what had to be a lightning quick assault.

Weyland prepared to shift forward to take the lead, as my hands braked us against the hull. Releasing my ankle, he let himself be guided by his grip on my arm till I could reach his ankle. Our weightless gymnastics were not easy. All it took was one mistake and it all fell apart.

We were all safety belted to each other, but things tended to end up in a wad from even one mistake. In the interest of speed, there could be no errors.

With his hands free and me holding him steady by the legs, Weyland's power went to work on the lock. Metal was like clay under his touch. Using the compressed block of material bought with him, our metal-smith constructed an airlock as easily as someone else might snap open a folded bag.

Like a folding accordion, the team contracted, pulling each other close so he could enclose us all within its protection. attaching our airlock onto the objective, he equalized what we thought was the pressure on the other side so it matched.

A nod confirmed we were all ready. He opened the lock.

Everything went wrong.

Unequal pressure sent our bubble of air squirting away to the surface while we swirled around the inside like mice stuck in a washer on spin cycle.

Unhappily we were all bobbing on the surface of NASA's astronaut training pool. The other two teams were observing and making notes as they waited for their own turns. NASA and Navy consultants were taking notes as they worked on making this even harder for us.

“Well, that sucked.” said Talos, our Team leader and ex-Seal who specialized in boarding enemy vessels. His steel gray metallic skin was almost like mine, but unlike me, he was flesh and blood underneath, being rather like that Colossus character from the comic-books.

“We need some way of checking the pressure on the other side of the lock.” Weyland's eyes were still crossed from taking the whole force of the blowout right in the face.

“Yeah, but anything we use that breaches the lock door could give an alarm to their security systems and bridge.” Talos pointed out. “It'll have to be quick and fast.”

“Which means it has to be easy to read so I can equalize the pressure as fast as I can.” Weyland added.

“Turkey timer or meat thermometer.” I had flashbacks to helping Shelia cook Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. “You want something with a spike to punch though the door and yet keep a seal. On the end you need some type of gauge or indicator showing the data you need.”

“That sounds like it might do the job.” Weyland replied, “But I will have to use my power on the airlock's door to 'soften' a spot. If it's the same material their robots are constructed from, it's not going to puncture fast. That's tough stuff.”

“Not a problem.” Artemis spoke up. “My talent will work on it.”

Named after the Greek archer goddess, her power 'charged' items she could touch with extraordinary penetration traits. I'd seen her half bury a playing card in a block of steel. Unfortunately the charge lasted only seconds, so firearms were out, although there was this rumor of her working with a belt fed machine-gun crew. If true, that would've let her do her thing right before the bullet was fired, which was a frightening thought. On the other hand, all those bullets spraying all over the place, able to go though just about anything, was one hell of a hazard.

Her weapon of choice was the bow, where her physical prowess made looking at her in action like something from an Elvish fantasy movie. Artemis's speed, accuracy, and skill with not just the bow, but just about anything that she could pick up and throw, were downright amazing. Which was why she was on the Team. We had the hand to hand stuff down pat with all the super strong talent. She provided our extremely accurate 'shooter,' because no wants any misses in an environment where a stray projectile could puncture the ship or cause something to explode.

“We'll have to shift you forward, so you and Weyland can work together.” Talos nodded.

“I'll get the tech-boys on it.” Commander Simmons, who been running this exercise from poolside, assured us. “Now get back to your starting point and try again. Be prepared for another kind of problem.”

“Oh joy.” Nott muttered, sealing her helmet.

I did my best not to think about my coming session in the Chair. 'Never ever volunteer,' I reminded myself again.

<><><><><>

Joint Alien Warfare Intelligence Center

“This looks like our best guess.” Dean breathed out heavily, as tired as the rest of us.

I could well understand the feeling. We'd gone though every piece of fiction in Kzon's gift of his Sha'leian Library looking for clues how their ships were laid out. It was complicated by our Christmas gifted tablets being keyed to us and us alone. No one else could use the damn things for more than three hours at a time and then needed the owner to 'unlock' it again.

We had, of course, printed and sent out copies as well to get as many eyes on this as we could, but the tablets did have built-in resources no copy had. Not surprisingly, those resources, a very basic glossary and dictionary which would 'explain' certain words and terms when highlighted, weren't down-loadable nor could they be copied.

Believe me, the Department of Defense Cyber-Warfare people really tried. When they failed to crack the operating system on our tablets they called in every expert they could think of. Hackers, NSA, and everyone in-between, did nothing, but beat their heads on their keyboards in frustration. Unlike a certain old movie featuring alien invaders, where Jeff Goldblum hacked and virused their computer system. the Sha'leians took their cyber-security very seriously.

That suggested we would be hopelessly stopped by any computer systems on-board their ship. It was a good thing we had plenty of brute force as well as our secret weapon.

“We still have more reports to sort, but I think you're right.” Shelia agreed with him.

Saying those stories that had been translated into English was pushing the definition. More than a few words were ciphers, and some of the passages were baffling. To help in the solving we'd printed the hell out of what seemed like our best bets and then copied them some more to get as many eyes on this as we could.

“One request we need to make is for an improved glossary!” I remarked, taking a moment to 'swallow' the energy from my torture device.

“I would go further and suggest a Sha'leian cultural guide book in English.” Dean snorted.

“Either one would've been nice.” Sheila sighed. “I don't think I've had such a hard time wrapping my head around so many new concepts since college, and that was a very long time ago.

“Speaking of new concepts, how are we going to handle Valentine's Day?” Dean bought up a good point. “It's not exactly known for its parties and, from what we've read, their culture barely acknowledges romanticism at all.”

“I got that too.” Nodding my head in agreement. “Kind of reminded me of some of the Asian stuff I've read about duty and honor overriding anything as inconsequential as physical attraction.”

“There's some European stuff like that too.” My girl grimaced. “Can't say I much like it. At the least the Sha'leian literature is a glimpse into another culture, but I can't see it being a real big hit. Well, maybe with the Artsie Fartsie people, but never with the romance paperback crowd.”

“How about you and Tamara?” She asked, him. “Is there anything going on between you two?”

“Not really.” Dean replied, a little dejectedly. “We've spent time together, but the majority of that was just work. There's some friendship there, but that's about it.”

“The only ones with the romance thing going on with the group is you two.” His eyes showed just a hint of jealousy. Not I think from desiring her, but of having a close intimate relationship. However, that did give me an idea.

“How about we have a 'couples' dinner?” I suggested. “Since you and Tamara are friends you can show our 'Out-of-Towners' what just a pair of friends do on Valentines. Shelia and I can then be the example of ...”

“Lovers?” She interjected with a smile, not daring to come near while I was in the Chair.

“Sure.” I couldn't keep my smile away.

“Oh, we can get each other all those embarrassing intimate gifts!” Her eyes lit up, full of mischievousness.

Even with being electrocuted, I blushed a deep red just thinking about the sort of things she talked me into altering my Skins into. Tash really had no idea of what he did with that gift to her. He created a monster, I tell you! However, I wasn't complaining.

“Something like that.” I choked out, as Dean laughed at my discomfort.

“We'll need to plan this out pretty carefully.” He chuckled. “There is a lot riding on this.”

“I know.” Just the thought of how much depended on our Valentine's dinner, was frightening. “I know.”

<><><><><>

The Farm

Now that the time was nearly upon us, all I felt was more like a tired thankfulness that soon, one way or the other, it would be all over. Training, planning sessions, and then my electroshock therapy had pushed me to my limits.

We could always use more time, but for the military that was a quantity always in short supply. Trying to time so many operations that would be taking place so far apart was nearly impossible, given the state of things. That was why we had done our best to make all of them more effective if all went well, but not dependent on any others.

Hammer Hobbs had pushed for the best commanders available and to hell with politics. In the time allotted, as much training as possible had taken place as could be managed. Bugs and problems had been found and addressed, if not fixed, but I was certain more would be discovered at the worst possible instant. That was the way of war. Murphy made sure of it!

Hobbling along on with my cane, I looked up into the snowy sky, enjoying the simple pleasure of being me and standing on my own two feet. I'd spent a few moments as Halcyon to clear and open our makeshift hanger's doors, but it was nice just to spend time as me. Doc had given me the okay to actually stand and walk about, although he stressed I wasn't done with the Chair yet, even after the next scheduled treatment. It was still accelerating my healing, but he might've been alluding to me getting busted up again in the coming operation, oh joy.

On the other hand, I could use the excuse that this 'demonstration' of mine was contributing to our plans. Forget that I was just enjoying being as close to 'normal' as I could be these days. That was my story and I was sticking to it!

One of the other reasons was so I could give Halcyon as much time on the clock as I could. That didn't stop me from arranging a surprise for Sheila. Besides, I knew she'd followed through on her threat of embarrassing and intimate gifts. It was only fair that I have something 'special' prepared for her in return.

The snow was coming down in those huge wet flakes that kinda crashed and broke apart on landing. However, I wasn't worried about getting snowed in. This time transportation out had been arranged for us. It meant that I could simply just stand here in the snow enjoying the peace and quiet.

Not having Halcyon's jeweled eyes to help, Tash and crew got a lot closer before I spotted them. Smiling, I waved, even as my left hand was on my Q-Box button. Far too much was on the line for me to risk they might be pulling a preemptive counter-offense.

Thankfully, nothing of the sort happened. This time it was only Tash and Ralt strolling down their 'boat's' ramp. I thought I might know why. NATO forces in Europe had squashed the Sha'leian Fortress in Bilboa Spain just a few days ago. German Griffin Panzers and the British Cataphract plasma cannon armed heavy tanks had crushed their robotic opponents.

LA's defenders, on the other hand, were very aggressively making it known that any 'bots or drones crossing the city limits weren't leaving in one piece. Using the opportunity that the world wide offensive would prevent other beachhead attempts, the Army had poured their reserves, the 1st Cavalry and the 7th infantry Divisions which were being joined by the Marines 4th Division, into the defense for the city. Both of those latter two units had been equipped with the newest weapons out of Research and Development. Hopefully the damn things would work as well on the battlefield as they did in testing.

The Russians and the Ukrainians were doing their part too. The Black Sea Fleet, being well aware of how groups of vessels were targeted, had been making solo sorties, shelling and launching missiles in a steady stream into the Yalta Fortress, while their land forces positioned themselves.

Not to be left out, India and China were also getting ready to drop their own hammers, while probing their own Sha'leian squatter's defenses.

All of these were designed to slowly amp up the pressure, making our unwanted guests look, we hoped, in the wrong direction.

“Welcome!” I greeted, giving them that open palm over the chest Sha'leian salute.

“You are injured?” Tash asked, returning my gesture.

“The fortunes of war.” I smiled, holding up my cane. “As we say on Earth, you should see the other guy.”

“Actually, we have.” Ralt replied, sealing the hatch of their saucer. “You are a formidable warrior. However, we have learned that underestimating any of your people at all is a mistake.

He and I exchanged our own salutes, but he did so with such respect, I was really wondering. Had it been him who'd been controlling that 'bot that had the chance to finish me, but had instead let me live.

“I think we have wandered into those uncomfortable topics.” Tash reminded us. “Today is suppose to be about love, not war!”

“I couldn't agree more!” Laughing, I lead our guest through the snow to the warmth, gently clearing my feet of snow before going inside. With my injured legs, stomping them clean was a no-no.

“Since chocolate is such a staple on Valentine's, we thought that's where we would begin.” Sheila greeted us with mugs of hot coco. “Like coffee it is naturally rather bitter, and is usually sweetened with sugar or honey. I prefer the honey when I can get it.”

Our 'sponsors' had come though big time. We had chocolates, and more real food instead of Blue Soylent. Of course flowers were out right impossible given our current ice age, but Shelia had come to the rescue again.

As a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, she was very familiar with all the arts and crafts stuff for kids. She'd setup 'kits' where we could join along as she demonstrated all the Great Depression short-cuts for crafting paper hearts, valentines, and even flowers. Her clever fingers created all kinds of colorful decorations right before all of our eyes.

Dean's 'hearts' turned out lopsided, and mine were rather 'fat,' but I wasn't too concerned. It was the thought that counted.

“Our school children make decorations like these.” She smiled, explaining. “Then they give the valentines to each other, sometimes with a personal message and sometimes without.”

“As we grow older,” My eyes found hers. “They're given to those you truly like or as we say in my part of the country, you're sweet on.”

“We also have something like this.” Tash examined his own attempt at the paper cut-outs. “The difference is that rarely is one person singled out as being 'liked.' It is groups of five to six, that roughly is like your families. Instead of monogamy, such as the majority of humans practice, ours could be described as group marriages.”

“Most of the time our families have equal numbers of both male and female sexes, but not always. There are those who fall mid-way between the two definitions. Those are considered very lucky and fortunate for the family whom they marry.” Ralt said.

“Your own situation.” Tash laughed. “Being of both sexes, would make you sought after among us for that reason, but your quantum warrior status would terrify many.”

I blushed. While recovering, I'd actually looked forward to the times of being Halcyon. The freedom of being able to move about, as well as the lack of pain and discomfort, were heaven. It'd surprise the hell out of me that I was getting used to being a seven foot tall, outrageously proportioned golden woman. The getting stared at, never, but the other things, well, I was getting there.

There were smiles and laughs as she passed out the valentines, like we were in grade school again. Of course mine had suggestive, if not naughty, messages from her.

“Although Valentine's began as celebrating a Saint, it has grown to be a day for romance and lovers. Chocolate, stuffed animals and other small gifts are popular for the kids, while those for the adults can become more risque. Of course, in other countries the way it's celebrated varies.” I moved us on to the next part of introducing Valentines to our Sha'leian guests.

“Just friends who perhaps just don't want to spend the holiday evening alone or simply enjoy spending time together without the expectations an intimate relationship brings.” Dean's wistfulness couldn't be missed. “Might gift her with a small box of chocolates, or a modest bunch of flowers.”

He blushed just a tad presenting that box of candy he'd mentioned and a plastic flower he'd gotten from somewhere.

“Thank you.” Tamara gave him a peck on the cheek. “Also a small tasteful stuffed animal could be appropriate, depending on the girl. Tailoring your gift to the person you're giving it to, shows you care instead of just going though the motions.”

“For those actually in, or wanting, an intimate relationship, much more is expected.” I said, with just a bit of a roguish smile. “Certainty the gifts need to be chosen carefully to show that 'caring' that Tamara talked about. However, playfulness is also nice. This is, after all, the person you've shared more with than any other person ever.

“So yes, something that will make her laugh.” I grinned, “But yes, that thoughtful sentimental little thing that causes tears, because you remembered as well. However, the future must be included too, that promise that you'll be there.”

I stepped out of sight to retrieve the huge bouquet of scented silk roses, I'd hidden before hand.

“Oh my!” Shelia grasped, laughing. “Where did you ever find these?”

With the world on a war economy, consumer goods weren't easy to come by.

“It wasn't that hard.” I laughed along with her. “Compared to these!”

The box of gourmet chocolates had cost a pretty penny, but my military pay was just gathering dust since I had very little to spend it on. It was more having the connections to get hold of them that'd been the challenge, which was was why I'd bought more than one box.

She recognized the imported sweets at once.

“You spent way too much!” Sheila accused me, even as her eyes sparkled at the very notion of how good that candy was going to taste.

“As you can tell, it can get rather expensive.” I didn't try to hide that I was enjoying every bit of this.

Tamara politely laughed and even Dean chuckled.

“Now this is where it gets a little unfair.” Shelia said to our guests. “When just doing the friends thing, usually the women isn't expected to give a gift to the men. Sometimes just a card is exchanged to let him know she is interested.

“However, like with the guys, more is expected when we ladies go out shopping, if not as much.” She got that look. “Often times its almost gag like gifts of an intimate nature, like themed boxers for him or sometimes something for her to wear for him. In this case since as you say, my significant other can fit both roles, I did some of both.

“Let's begin with the traditional chocolates.” She uncovered a dish she'd bought with us from base. “You're always telling me how much you like my cooking so, there. Of course I made enough for everyone.”

The home made brownies were cut to bite size and that was a good thing. They were so dark and rich that I could only stand one small cube at a time. Hmmm, just the way I loved them!

“The flowers thing was harder.” She giggled. “Craig just isn't the flowers kind of guy and Halcyon doesn't really have anywhere to put them even if she did. So I got my love this instead.

“Happy Valentine's Day.” She handed me this small, gaily wrapped box.

“In bygone times it was very popular with soldiers to carry a locket, a keepsake, of the ones they loved.” Sheila explained as I puzzled out how to open the box.

“In more modern times,” The practice had fallen out of favor since world wide communications weren't difficult.” She was clearly enjoying this. “However, with the present circumstances, it's not that easy now.”

Tearing the paper to get to the jewelry box, I open it finding a copper bright heart shaped pendant. Instead of your usual jewelry styled chain, it had a heavier Dog-Tag style chain.

Looking up, I saw her smiling eyes.

“Go ahead and open it up.” She urged. “Rather than your usual precious metals, this pendant and chain are crafted of the same stuff used in Sha'leian robots. Considering the places my love walks, it needed to be made of the toughest stuff available.”

Inside was a picture of the two us together taken at the Christmas Ball. I, Halcyon, was in that damn dress and heels. Although she also wore heels, Shelia barely came to my breasts, but that didn't keep both of us from smiling happily at the camera.

“Thank you.” I hugged her. “You're the best.”

“I want you to remember what you have waiting for you.” She whispered in my ear.

Wisely I kept my thoughts about how I really felt about wearing dresses to myself. The point is she was happy and I'd a good time too that night, dress or no dress.

Parting, but still smiling, I turned to Tash and Ralt who had the most interesting expressions on their alien faces. We still had a long ways to go to truly understand them, but I'd come to recognize the inquisitive set of their eyes and feathery crests.

“While things are changing, not so long ago, courting and courtship weren't too unlike the Sha'leian ones we've read about in Kzon's library. Marriages were carefully arranged business affairs.” I began.

“It still is for us.” Tash answered. “Affairs of passion do occur, but it is reason and an appreciation for reality that governs matings.”

“In some cultures it remains true for us as well.” I nodded once again thinking of how we were more alike than most of us wanted to contemplate.

“However, here in North America, it is the male who nearly always proposes to the female and a few traditional minded will go so far to ask the head of the woman's household for permission.” Sheila's questioning eyes were wondering what in the world I was leading up to.

“I'm going to quantum change now.” Warning them, I pressed The Button.

One of the advantages of my tablet and upgraded Q-Box control unit for my Skins, is that I can pretty much design exactly the clothing program I want. However, not being a graphic designer, I settled for mixing and matching till I got what I wanted. It helped that the operating system was truly user friendly.

I grew into Halcyon, but instead of my uniform just stretching with me, it changed too. The design had begun as a tuxedo, but one for a woman of my present voluptuous curves.

Beginning at my feet, I had a copy of a pair of Christian Louboutin black patent pumps with lowest heels listed. I honestly had no idea about style, but I did recognize the name.

Going up, I had on black leggings from Gucci which, again I knew only from the name. The form fitting material nicely highlighted my 'gams' as Shelia's generation would've called my legs.

Next up got kinda tricky because I couldn't really find anything I liked. The black dinner jacket was an open older style, complete with tails. The trick was the corset like waistcoat or maybe it was best said the corset served instead of a waistcoat.

Above that had been even more of trial for me. I was pretty certain she would've preferred nothing else but cleavage. However, while I might've adjusted a lot more than I ever thought I could to this girl thing, I hadn't gotten that far!

Since this was a takeoff on a tux, I added a ruffled white shirt that, although it did have a hole in it, the effect only teased at my golden tracts rather than display them. The sleeves extended out to the jacket's cuffs, but ended in more ruffles. Of course the entire garment was topped by a black silk bow tie.

Needless to say, my presentation had an effect.

Tamara, giggling, smacked Dean who was staring. Both Sha'leians had their scanner-computer things out searching down the cultural relevance of my attire no doubt on their copies of the internet.

Sheila's expression was a study. Some of it was 'you better not be doing what I'm think you're doing, while another seemed to say, “Oh, yes, yes, yes!' if you know what I mean. Conflicted said it perfectly.

“This is a female adaption of a formal male garment called a tuxedo or a tux for short.” I explained, doing a slow spin making my coat-tails swish.

“Generally speaking, Valentine's day is not the day for engagements.” I smiled as Sheila's ratio shifted more to the 'better not' expression. “It is better for a day that the couple can claim as their own without any other holiday involved.

“However, while I do have something very important to tell you.” I turned to her. “It is not that.”

“Sheila.” I dropped down to one knee where I was still just about as tall than her. “In the short time I've known you've been a friend, confidant, therapist, and even my stylist. You've accepted me even when I couldn't accept myself.

“My love, you've shown me parts of myself that I didn't know existed.” I spoke, lost in her eyes. “But just as we were coming to know each other, duty and honor split us apart. You made me promise to return even as I have repeatedly gone into 'harm's way.'

“I made that promise although I know better than most how impossible it could be to keep it. With this present situation I have no idea of where I might be sent or what I'll have to do.” Sighing, I revealed a jewelry box of my own. “This is my pledge, my promise, that if there is anyway possible I will come back to you.”

With that, I opened the box presenting the contents for her.

The pair of Titanium bracelets were set with diamonds and of course our birthstones. Her 'milk and honey' Cat's Eye for June was twinned with an Emerald for my birth in May.

“Oh!” She narrowed her eyes. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Accept?” I suggested, raising a brow.

Smiling, she held out her hand.

Carefully, I put hers on, and then held my hand out so she could put mine on. The one for me was bigger, but also had concealed stretchable links so it could expand when I grew and contract back when I returned to normal.

We kinda got a little lost in each others eyes for a few moments. However, Tamara picked up our slack.

“The true romantic will look for some way to ask that question that is sweet and unforgettable.” She added to what I'd said about engagements. “The trick is to have sounded her out about the possibility and, if her reaction seems positive, to ask her in a way that's a surprise.”

“So the female is expecting 'this' question?” Tash inquired.

“Usually, yes.” Tamara answered. “Modern dating tends to be a getting to know each other kind of affair. At some point the couple knows their relationship is working or it's not.

“Being human, we are prone to err,” Dean added, with some bitterness. “It's easy to misread people, even with those whom you're intimate. She can say no.”

“There are times when one or the other is happy with the way things are.” Tamara nodded her agreement. “And don't want them to change. They're not ready for the other things marriage generally brings with it, like settling down, children, and planning for the future together.”

“And sometimes.” She sighed. “It's like with these two. They love each other. Their relationship is, by our standards, unconventional, but they make it work despite that. However, they also have other issues confronting them, not the least is that they're both in the military, in different services.

“Like with the Diplomatic Service, they can always expect to be called away at any time to go any where.” Tamara begin cleaning off the table to set dinner. “Attraction may be how we meet, but to build and keep a relationship that can grow into something that lasts a lifetime takes dedication and care.”

“In a lot of ways, the gifts they gave each other are perfect for Valentine's.” Tamara continued. “It wasn't an engagement since they both know how crazy and unstable things are right now. However, they show, without any doubt, how much they love and cherish each other. We all know how uncomfortable Craig is with feminine clothing, but he went to the trouble and time to put that outfit together. He did it for her.”

“It's one thing to tell someone you love them.” Dean chuckled. “It's another to put yourself way out of your comfort zone to prove it.”

“Normally I would tell you two to get a room.” Tamara tapped us on the shoulders. “But we 'do' have a dinner to put on if you will remember.”

We both blushed. At some point I'd picked her up and she'd wrapped her legs around my waist.

“Excuse us.” I eased her to her to the floor.

“We got carried away.” Sheila giggled, twisting her bracelet in the room's light to see the diamonds sparkle.

“How did you ever afford this?” She asked.

“A pair of pilots that owed me a favor picked up 'five' boxes of those chocolates while overseas.” I explained. “That pretty much cleaned me out. One box went to the jeweler, but I sold the others which covered the rest of the costs and then some.”

While not a wheeler and dealer, I was rather proud of how well those transactions worked out. It was a more than a little mortifying to realize how much power Halcyon had over males when I asked for a favor.

“The bracelet is titanium and the gems were bound to the settings using the same technique our Guests use instead of welding.” I held up mine besides hers.

“Molecule binding.” Tash gave us the name. “It's a much more advanced method than welding.”

“And yet.” Ralt sighed. “Another technology we've inadvertently shared with your people.”

Of course 'I can think of how more such exchanges might be avoided.' sprang to my lips, but I held my peace.

An uncomfortable silent moment passed as everyone thought, but did'nt say my unvoiced comment.

“May I see your gifts?” Tash asked, breaking the tension.

Like every woman I'd ever known, Sheila wasn't shy about showing off her 'gift' and unfortunately she wasn't hesitant about dragging me over to show off how we had a matched set.

“This is not a use to which we would've put our technique.” The Sha'leian said as he examined our bracelets and my pendant. “However, it is practical considering both of your professions.”

“Both of our peoples are passionate.” Tash sighed. “However, humans seem to possess greater highs and deeper lows than Sha'leians. We are perhaps a more moderate race.”

Ralt stood as if thinking on the subject.

“Well,” I mused. “It's true that we seem to have more than our share of adrenalin jockeys and jockettes for that matter. There are times I really wonder about humankind, given how inhuman we can be to each other.

“But then there are others that lift my heart, such as the complete stranger giving aid to those in need.” I sighed, holding my love in my arm. “So maybe you have a point.”

Shooing us into the kitchen, Tamara got her chance to play Mistress of the Manor.

“You have learned much.” Sheila quoted as she eyed me and my tux in appreciation, but then sighed. “There is just one problem with Skins.”

“I know I shouldn't ask.” Tamara said, as she took the dishes that had been warming in the oven out. “But what kind of problem. You can make just about any outfit you can imagine with these things. They don't need cleaning and never get soiled. The stuff even self-repairs. What could be a problem?”

“Not being able to undress your Valentine's gift all by yourself takes a lot of the fun out of it.” She answered softly never taking her eyes from me.

My face burned coppery red under Halcyon's golden complexion. Tamara had to quickly put the dish down she was carrying so she would drop it because she was laughing so hard.

“You are so bad!” The diplomat gasped for breath.

“Shhh!” I hushed Tamara. “Don't encourage her!”

Watching my smirking girlfriend, I knew it was far too late for that. My life had gotten so very strange, but besides being in a war with aliens and being on the losing side, and this little problem with being a golden, living Barbie Doll, I was happy. Stressed out of my mind over yet another mission that many thought was an one way trip, but happy.

“It too late for that!” Sheila leered. “I have you now, my pretty!”

“Auntie Em, Auntie Em.” I dryly replied, with a raised brow which set off Tamara all over again. “Help me, help me.”

Sheila's leer collapsed into giggles.

“You!” Her eyes promised retribution of a kind I was actually looking forward to encountering. “You're so going to pay for that one. Calling me a witch!”

“Hey!” I protested. “You're the one who used 'My Pretty' first. I merely gave the expected reply.”

“If I'm a witch,” She sniffed, “It's a good witch!”

We got out the rest of the dishes and took them to the table

“Of course you're good!” I grinned. “But when you're bad, you're even better!”

“If you're not careful, you'll find out just how bad I can be.” She playfully smacked me on the arm.

“I'm not afraid.” I quoted from yet another movie.

“You should be.” She fought to keep from giggling while reciting Yoda's lines. To illustrate her point, she looked right at the bag of stuff she hadn't revealed to everyone else.

I don't think the guys noticed our banter too much. Dean had already moved the conversation onto our next point of interest.

“Our families tend to consist of a father, mother, a son and daughter.” He explained. “The two sets of grandparents aren't as much a central part of the families as they used to be, although technology expanding our lifespans are changing that. Yours, however, seem to be bigger and the expanded ties stronger.”

“That's true.” Tash nodded. “Although what you mean by expanded family ties such as cousins, nieces and nephews are regarded as close families to Sha'leians. So while you see families as being from four to six individuals, we see families as being three or four times bigger.”

This was all part of the plan to help narrow down just how many Sha'lenian colonists were on the way. From what we could tell their ship in orbit was enough for the initial set up work, but to make their colony long term viable, the numbers were looking to be between three and five thousand.

It went without saying that, if we were having trouble enough with an estimated couple hundred, a few thousand would be a nightmare. That had been the other telling point in Operation Artemisium's acceptance.

It was named for the battle where the Persian battle-fleet had met a major defeat. Occurring at about the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae, the Greeks had been as horribly outnumbered by the Persians as the Sha'leians out-teched us.

With so many other enemies potentially on the way, we had to deal with our current Guest's vessel and we had to do it now. That was the only way we would have time to prepare for Alien Invasion Part Two.

So pretty much what I was hearing, was what we had mostly guesstimated. Sheila and I left the conversation mostly to Dean and Tamara. We had other things to do, like staring into each others eyes.

That's not to say we didn't participate, but that we pretty much just commented on what everyone else were saying. I will admit to wanting to give Sheila my entire undivided attention. It took my mind off everything that had lead up to this moment.

War was Hell and the main event was coming fast.

Being here with her gave me a blessed respite from thinking and worrying about the future. Even dressed in this ridiculous tux, wearing jewelry, and eating exorbitantly priced chocolates, I didn't have any regrets. I had designed that tux, and picked out those bracelets. Those chocolates had cost me a good portion of my savings, but selling them had given me money to get the jewelry.

Additionally, they did taste so good! The chocolates and not the titanium jewelry that is!

As for the 'pendant,' many service members had a soldier’s locket with a picture or keepsake of their loved ones.

We got a chuckles from the others as we jumped up as soon as dinner was finished.

“Desert!” Was Sheila's battle cry.

Bringing in the hoarded ice cream we all indulged in the sinful pleasure. Following our lead they mixed their brownies and ice cream together. We got the giggles watching the Sha'leian pick the walnuts off their baked chocolate treats.

Dean rolled his eyes at the two of us feeding each other.

“It can also be very trying being around love birds like these two.” Tamara continued to be diplomatic.

“Our biology relies on what you would call seasonal mating practices which can be regulated by medication.” Tash took our romanticism in stride. “The difference between your and our matting behaviors are amazing.”

“Sha'leians can be rather aggressive during conjugations.” Ralt agreed with his companion. “This 'sappy' conduct from humans is unexpected.”

“Oh.” I laughed as Sheila dropped some sweets right down that opening in my tux onto my golden 'mountains.' “We can be very illogical and downright idiots when in love. I guess seeing the issue from both sides and given the strangeness of my Prometheus's Gift, gives me a rather unique viewpoint.

“As strange as it sounds.” I took it in good humor as Sheila dabbed at the spill. “I think woman are more aggressive, but in that passive aggressive way they have. The guys generally make asses of their selves trying to be noticed by the woman who caught their attention. They can be aggressive, but most I don't think are.

“Don't mix that up with those who simply think they can take whatever they want.” I shook my head. “That's like rape. It's all about the power over someone else and very little about sexual desire.

“You're talking about most the men I know.” Tamara observed. “But I'm not disagreeing.”

“Just calling them the way I see them.” I loaded up my spoon for Shelia. Playfully I pretended I was thinking about returning the favor of dropping it down her blouse.

“Okay!” Dean had enough. “You two get a room. Since you two are on leave, feel free to lock up when you're finished. Tamara and I need to be getting back to base.”

“It's time we were leaving as well.” Ralt laughed in that tittering way they had. “As always your holidays are very interesting. Similar to some of ours, but different as well.”

“I wish our people's could've met under different circumstances.” Tash sighed with a sad whistle.

“No one wishes that more than I.” Sheila and I put our plates aside to say goodbye to our guests.

Hands were shaken and salutes exchanged.

“You two go ahead upstairs.” Dean told the two of us. “I'll get the barn door so these guys can get on their way.”

“Yes!” Sheila jumped into my arms and I carried her upstairs.

Shutting the doors, we simply hugged each other for all we were worth.

Hearing the whoosh of Ralt and Tash departing, we both knew it was time.

To Be Continued


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