Shooting the Rapids: An Adventure

“Look man, when you said shooting the rapids would be an adventure I kinda thought, you know, a nice sort of civilized outing with trucks and guides and whatnot!”

“Yeah, I kinda figured there’d be some water involved too…” Pete gestured around them. “Think the rafts wills slide down these things?”

Kevin stared off into the distance, fuming as the wind hummed over the dunes.

“Look guys, I’m sorry. I have no idea what happened, I just wanted to enjoy some time with my best friends before… Quinn trailed off, realizing he’d said too much. Thankfully the other two didn’t seem to notice.

“What are we gonna do, huh? We’re stuck out here in the middle of… Where are we dude?” Pete was getting more agitated and doing his best to stomp around in the powdery sand.

“Not a clue man, I went to sleep on the ride.” Kevin lapsed back into his characteristic silence.

“Guys, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore…” Quinn’s gaze was fixed overhead and the other two followed, their jaws dropping as they saw the massive shape that was swelling to fill the sky above them. After a while it stopped growing and hung in the air above them in very much the same way that a brick doesn’t. A much smaller craft detached, sharply angular against the massive rounded bulk of its parent.

“Dude, seriously?” Kevin didn’t take his eyes off the larger ship.

“Naw man, you’re still trippin…” Pete’s agitation had vanished and he was back to his normal clownish behavior. “I told you the purple acid with the shrooms was a bad vibe…”

“You’re one to talk! You had twice as much of the shrooms as either of us! Lets not forget who supplied the acid! I think his name rhymed with Cheat?”

“I do not cheat! Besides, both of you put together still weigh less than I do. I’m a growing boy!”

“Growing wider doesn’t count dude…”

Quinn had remained silent, enjoying the banter between his friends while the smaller craft landed silently beside them. It was about the size of a double decker bus if such a bus had been sharply pointed at one end and possessed a streamlined form with swept back delta wings.

“Um… guys, I think there’s a door opening…” A section of ship seemed to simply melt back into itself as though the metal were liquid. Inside they could see what looked like familiarly shaped seats scattered amongst others that were barely recognizable as such.

A chirruping noise seemed to alternate with a growling yip, both growing louder until suddenly framed in the doorway were…

“Holy crap dude, a Killer Tomato!!!” Pete started laughing.

“How many legs does that thing have? Whoah dude, look at those teeth!” The large red multilegged alien had opened its mouth in what might have been called a friendly smile… if it were on a sabretooth tiger.

The smaller reptilian looking alien chirped at them for a second, then stopped and fiddled with what looked like a broach pinned to a flamboyant cowboy suit.

“Stupid translator… I tend to forget to turn it on because Tommy and I don’t need it. Don’t worry about him, he’s mostly harmless…” The two aliens cracked up and made chirps and growls of laughter.

“Oh great, we finally make contact with aliens and they’re Douglas Adams fans?” Kevin buried his face in his hands and began overdramatic moaning. “Oh the horror!”

Quinn giggled at the others for a moment before breaking in. “So, um, what brings you guys to Earth?”

Tommy finally spoke. “Just lookin for somebody to party with! Yawl looked like you could use a party so Buckaroo here said we should invite ya!”

“That and I wanted to know why you were out here in the middle of the desert with rubber rafts…” Buckaroo interjected.

“Good question Buck… We were just wondering the same thing. What were we doing again Quinn?” Pete tried to glower at Quinn and almost pulled it off. The guilt and hurt on Quinn’s face ruined it for him.

“Lay off her man!” Kevin growled, then paled when he realized what he’d said.

Pete blundered forward blindly. “Hey she was the one who got us into this!” He seemed puzzled at Kevin’s lip zipping gesture before it hit him.

He turned to Quinn expecting anger and was met with a curiously tiny smile. “How long have you known?”

“Last spring break, you kept vanishing and we never could find you until Kevin was down checking out the scenery on the beach and thought he saw you lying there…”

Kevin took over. “When we got back I saw you in the shower by mistake. I couldn’t figure out who the girl was till I saw that ratty old jersey you wear at night. Then it all made sense. We talked about it a lot and decided we would let you tell us in your own time.”

“Thanks for that, I guess… I was going to tell you on this trip but things went sideways and I just thought it would be better for me to vanish when we graduate.” Quinn spoke softly.

“Vanish?” Pete looked puzzled. “What do you mean vanish?”

“Like go away, happy trails, have a nice life and may we never meet again. Not just you guys, family too. I can’t expect anyone to accept me so I wanted to just start fresh.” Tears were gathering in her eyes.

Puzzlement changed to a haunted expression. “You thought we…?” He couldn’t finish.

“Of course she did dumbass! You read the same stuff I did, about how girls like her get treated. I can’t blame her for thinking like that, not like you helped with your stupid jokes!” Kevin hissed.

Pete was silent for a moment before he turned to Quinn and folded her into a fierce hug. After a moment Quinn’s hands came up and she hugged him back. They held it for a moment until Pete pulled back and grasped her by the shoulders, looking down into her face.

“I’m sorry Quinn, sometimes I don’t think. I use humor to deflect from my size and I didn’t realize I might be hurting someone else. Being a fat guy isn’t exactly easy either…”

“Try being a gay black dude.”

“Dude, you’re black?” Pete mimed amazement.

“Screw you too Porky!” Kevin grinned before turning his attention to Quinn.

“Look, we’ve known each other our whole lives. There’s no way we could treat you like that. 3 against the world, remember? That’s what you said when I came out to you and Pete and now I get to say it back to you. Tell me you won’t go away, I couldn’t stand it!”

“Okay…” Quinn murmured before being engulfed in a group hug between the two men.

“Ya know, somehow I still don have a clue why they were out here…” Tommy growled to Buck.

“Yeah well neither do we. You mentioned something about a party?” Quinn pulled the other two over behind her to stand in front of the doorway.

“You betcha little lady! Climb on board and have a seat!” Another section of wall poured out and formed itself into steps.

The three boarded the craft, staring about in wonder at the strangely shifting interior. They each chose comfortable looking recliners while Tommy rolled into a net which tightened itself into a hammock and Buck sprawled on something that looked a bit like a tree branch except for the padding.

A cheery voice came through the air. “Hi, I’m Dora! I will be your pilot and whatever else you need so just say my name when you want something!”

“Thank you Dora. How about something refreshing to drink? Oh and is it ok to smoke in here?” Quinn addressed the ceiling.

“Of course you may smoke, or vape, or however you wish to ingest the substance of your choice. What sort of drink would you prefer? I have over 20 thousand of your earth concoctions available.”

Pete goggled at the number of choices while Kevin looked thoughtful.

“How about some good Finnish pepper vodka and Czech beer to wash it down? Oooh and a super supreme deep dish pizza…” He looked over at Pete. “Make that 2 pizzas, one with no anchovies. Ok with everybody?”

A chorus of assent followed and a few seconds later all of the requested items rose from the floor on pedestals which extruded themselves seamlessly, the pizzas on a central table. A large bowl filled with vegetal matter occupied the center of the table and hoses unfurled from the edges, one for each.

“Dora, would you show our guests where we’re going please?” chirped Buck as it cocked an eye toward the vodka with a doubtful air.

The humans gasped when the walls and ceiling around them seemed to vanish and they could see Earth growing smaller as the ship drove outward.

“Whoa…” Pete muttered. “Aren’t we going to rejoin your mother ship?”

“I rejoined myself a full 20 seconds ago. We are now outbound for Ktilth Prime and will arrive in approximately 48 hours.” Dora’s smooth voice paused for a moment. “On our way out of your solar system we will take a quick planetary tour and there will be several other points of interest on the journey.”

Mars wasn’t much to see really but Jupiter and Saturn were spectacular and Dora slowed to give them time to enjoy. Uranus and Neptune were on the other side of the solar system so they went straight to the Pluto/Charon system… even less spectacular than Mars had been.

I’m glad we skipped Uranus” Pete grinned. “I really didn’t wanna see that anyway!”

“Better mine than yours, you probly got ringleberries!” Kevin tossed back.

“Eeewwww!” from Quinn.

A few moments after they passed into the Kuiper belt, Dora drew their attention to a very large, dim object. “Your theorists know this body only in concept but they have named it Nemesis. When they do find it they will most likely call it a Brown Dwarf. It is basically a superplanet that just wasn’t massive enough to start the fusion chain and become a star.”

“Cool…” Pete breathed and the rest agreed.

“3 of the bodies which orbit Nemesis are sufficiently warmed by gravitational and EM flux to support indigenous life and one even boasts a protosentient species. It is unlikely they will achieve spaceflight unaided as an aquatic environment provides many handicaps for technological advancement. A bit of a shame really, so many species hit that roadblock like your Earth’s whales, dolphins, octupi and squid.”

“We know all of those have some form of sentience but we’ve not yet figured out how to communicate. Can you talk to them?” Quinn leaned forward eagerly squinting at the moon in question.

“Well not yet but your quarantine period is over so I’d expect an influx of scholars to study their societies and learn their mode of communication.” Buck tossed back another shot of vodka, hissed for a moment and chased it with beer.

“Quarantine period?”

“Of course! Your Earth militaries had a bad habit of trying to kill innocent tourists so your entire system was off limits for a set number of cycles. Negotiations with your various major governments wrapped up just a few of your days ago and we are the first legal visitors in over 60 of your years. Well almost legal, there’s supposed to be this big reveal in 10 of your days. I assume you want to be back by then?”

“I’d hate to miss it!” Quinn was picking over a slice of pizza, wrapping anchovies in pepperoni and nibbling at the result. She finished her beer and looked around.

“Refresher facilities are through the indicated hatch” The wall did that weird melty thing and created a door.

“Thanks Dora!” She grabbed her pack and hurried off, feeling a bit desperate. The refresher looked like a very high tech bathroom, the usual fixtures in the usual places. She did her business and was changing into new clothes, putting the hated boy clothes away for what she sincerely hoped would be the last time.

“Quinn?”

“Yes Dora?”

“You may want to wait a moment before you dress. I was monitoring the conversation before you boarded and I can correct your anomaly.”

Quinn froze for a moment and then sat down on the floor and began to cry. “Even alien computers want to ‘Fix’ me… I’m not broken dammit! I’m a woman who wasn’t lucky enough to be born right!”

“Quinn?” Dora’s voice was soft.

“I said no! I don’t want to be a boy! I want to go home now!” she cried even harder “Please don’t force me…”

“I could never force something like that on you. I am sorry, I misspoke. What I offer is the chance to fully realize your identity. With our medical technology such changes are trivial, accomplished quickly and with no pain. You will even be able to bear children, a definite improvement on your current technology.”

Quinn had stopped crying while Dora spoke and wiped her eyes, an incredulous look on her face. “Really?”

“Of course. Among sexually reproducing species dimorphism is very common and your condition is quite common as well. Your physiology demands far less change than some. It should only take 10 minutes or so and you will be exactly as you would be had you been born fully a female of your species. Any cosmetic alterations you may desire can be accomplished whenever you wish.”

Quinn took a moment to think and then stood. “Dora, will you do as you just described please?”

A moment later she repeated herself, a little testy.

“It is already done if you will look.” A large 3 way mirror appeared in front of her and she began to examine herself.

“I thought you said it would take 10 minutes?”

“It depends on your perspective. For you it is perceptually instant because you were not conscious for the procedure.”

“Wow… I don’t look very different. I mean there’s the obvious but…” Quinn gestured at herself.

“You did not develop very much as a male and the differences between your genders are quite trivial. You already had a start on most of the secondary characteristics due to your altered hormonal balance.”

“Okay, I guess that makes sense… I liked the way I looked before, mostly. Thank you Dora!”

“You’re quite welcome Quinn. If you want any cosmetic enhancements just let me know.”

An idea occurred to Quinn. “It’d be pretty awesome if I never had to shave my legs and armpits. Could you do that?”

“Done. Reducing required maintenance was a very sensible choice.”

“Thanks again Dora, if I decide on anything more you’ll be the first to know!” She was dressing quickly. Plain cotton undies with skinny jeans and a scoopneck tee, gladiator sandals.

The wall made a door when she walked toward it and she was back in the comfortable lounge area. Both pizzas had been much depleted as had the vodka bottle and Tommy was singing something or other, terribly off key.

Pete looked over at her and froze with a slice of pizza half way to his mouth. The beer glass in his other hand slipped to the floor which caught it with a quick extrusion and put it back into his hand, closing his fingers around the handle and withdrawing. Kevin followed his gaze and took a moment to look her over.

“I’m glad you got changed. It was literally painful watching you hide for so long and trust me, I know what its like to hide!” He paused. “Um… do you have another name you want us to use?”

“No, I like my name but thanks for asking. Pete, you’re gonna catch a fly if you don’t close your mouth!”

“Huh?” He looked at the slice of pizza in his hand and put it down, picked up a shot glass from the table and tossed it back, following with the remainder of his beer.

“Wow… I mean I knew and everything but I’ve never seen you. Its just so… right, you know? You always were too pretty to be a guy.”

“I’m glad you think I’m pretty, now pass me that vodka and a beer… oh and a hose. I’m ready for a serious party!” She plopped back into her chair and tossed back the contents of the shot glass Pete provided, taking a deep pull from the hose and pausing for a moment before she exhaled a huge cloud of smoke.

“Wow… Thats some really good stuff…”

“My nest mates grow it back on Z’threel. The CO2 conversion ratio is very high which makes it perfect for a small habitat. One of the better things we’ve adopted from an aboriginal culture.” Buck gestured with the hose in hir hand. “Alcohol on the other hand is a common thing in about 1/3 of carbon based species.”

“So you’re saying that like 1/3 of the beings out there party? Awesome!” Pete’s goofy grin was infectious.

“No I’m saying that about 1/3 of them party with the same substance, actually a particular subset of compounds. Most of the rest just use other things that work for their physiology. One type of species even uses gamma radiation for the purpose… I wouldn’t recommend going to any of their parties.”

“Actually we are going to one of their parties… didn’t you see the Kreeg formation on the schedule?” Tommy nipped off another piece of pizza and swallowed it.

“There’s a schedule?”

“Remember that list we made when we were planning this? You said you wanted to shoot the rapids and we put Kreeg on the list so we could ride the wave when it went critical.”

“I vaguely remember something about that… Oh crap, we were gonna surf it on rafts…”

“And so we shall! I’m rather looking forward to it!” Dora chipped in. “But first Ktilth Prime. We can’t miss the festival!”

“Festival?” Kevin looked interested. “What kind of festival?”

“It’s the biggest party in the Local Filament! Over 300 trillion members of almost 5 billion species! The Grabi even built a(Unintelligible sound) to house it!” Buck was getting excited now, waving hir glass around wildly.

“A what?” Quinn asked.

“A large structure surrounding a sun with facets on the inside to maximize surface area.” Dora supplied.

“You mean a Criswell Structure? Cool!” Quinn, Dora and buck fell into an excited and very geekish conversation while Tommy, Pete and Kevin exchanged bemused expressions.

“I think now I understand why dimorphic species define themselves… I can’t imagine being part of that conversation… I guess that kinda groups me with the males, huh?” Tommy growled a laugh.

“”Your species isn’t dimorphic?” Kevin leaned forward.

“Dimorphic? No… Our reproductive process is more like pollination would be on your planet. We all have the capacity to serve any of the 8 roles in our reproductive cycle. Some serve all of them in turn.” He made a sighing noise. “I will not be sufficiently mature to reproduce for many cycles yet and I find some of the roles distasteful, others are attractive. I have no idea what I will do when the time comes and I really don’t want to think about it!”

Tommy took a deep draw from his hose and leaned back into his hammock.

Kevin looked over at Pete. “Bet you’re thinking about reproducing right now…”

Pete’s face grew alarmingly red and he almost choked on the beer he was busy swallowing. “I am not thinking about her!”

“I call bullshit. You’ve been mooning over her for almost a year now.”

“More like 5…” he mumbled

“Seriously dude? Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Well she was still pretending to be a guy and I didn’t really know about her yet and I thought maybe I was gay but I wasn’t ever attracted to any guys… I was confused, man. Then when we found out I couldn’t tell you I was… that I felt that way about her. I couldn’t tell you I was relieved I wasn’t gay cause that’d sound like I was some kinda bigoted dickhead so I kept it to myself… Besides, what girl wants a fat guy who isn’t even all that smart? Especially one as beautiful as she is.” He looked down at the floor and let his empty glass dangle from a slack hand.

Sandaled feet with painted nails in a deep blue entered his vision and he resisted as a small hand pulled his chin upwards.

“Petey… look at me.” He stopped resisting and let his face rise until he was looking into her amber eyes. “This girl wants you and the rest of that shit is just that… shit. I saw how you looked at me and thought you could never be attracted to a… to someone like me… so I kept hiding. I don’t care if you’re overweight Pete, although I do wish you’d eat more healthy things.”

She slid onto his lap, straddled facing him. “As for ‘Not that smart’… Who was it that got Kevin and I both through anything that wasn’t pure hard science? Remember ‘Literary criticism since Plato’? I’d bet you could write half that text book down from memory right now, the rest might take a day or so.”

“You’re brilliant in areas where Kevin and I both are bone stupid. Neither one of us can draw to save our lives and you produce beautiful art. I don’t understand most of it but thats ok, its excellent anyway. I couldn’t organize my way out of a paper bag and neither could Kevin yet there we were in the middle of the desert with absolutely everything we would have needed for whitewater rafting. And that was while you were simultaneously shroomin, trippin, stoned and drunk. I can’t imagine what you’d be capable of sober.”

He tried to protest and she silenced him with a kiss. After a long moment she pulled back and looked into his eyes again.

“Even if none of that stuff were true I’d still feel the same way, I always have.”

“Oh…” Pete looked as though the secrets of the universe had been opened for him.

“I take it Dora resolved your little physical issue?” Buck was busy pouring another round of shots.

It was Quinn’s turn to blush and she quickly slid off Pete’s lap, grabbing a shot and a glass of beer on the way to her chair. She settled herself after knocking back the shot and a sip of beer. Her face was still quite red as she finally looked up.

“Yes, she did… I’m still a little stunned by the whole thing… for so many years I expected a painful surgery which would bring me close to being myself but this? Suddenly and with no pain I’m complete, who I should have been from the start. Oh crap!”

She launched and ran for the wall, the door melting apart just as she reached it. “Dora!!!”

“You could have talked to me in there.” came the pleasant voice.

“Not about this I couldn’t! I need a contraceptive of some sort, not permanent but maybe for a few months?”

“You do not wish to reproduce at this time? You appeared to be entering the preliminary stages of mating a moment ago. Do you not wish to mate with Pete?” Dora sounded puzzled.

The blush returned with a vengeance. Quinn looked at the floor for a moment, then gathered herself.

“Yes I wish to mate with Pete… but neither of us are ready to reproduce. The concept of actually being able to bear children is so new I don’t even know how to wrap my head around it. Humans use mating for pleasure, for bonding, for many things other than reproduction. It is a very large part of our lives.”

“I think I understand. I can provide a dissolving implant that will prevent successful breeding for a period of 6 months. Is that acceptable?”

“Yes, please give me the implant you described and thank you Dora!”

“You are welcome Quinn. I look forward to observing this mating not for reproduction.”

Quinn decided not to bother arguing, it wasn’t as though she intended to do anything anytime soon but just in case… the implant had, she thought, been a good idea

Pete and Kevin’s eyes followed her as she went back to her seat but Kevin was the first to speak.

“I honestly can’t tell any difference, aside from the clothes and, um…”

“Boobs? Those were mostly there already, I’ve been hiding them for 2 years now. You wouldn’t believe how much it hurts to strap yourself up like that…” Quinn grinned at his discomfiture.

Kevin looked pained. “You didn’t have to do that you know… I know what its like to hide, to be afraid of losing people you love… I even thought about doing what you had planned, just leaving everyone and everything, vanishing. Then I found Rob, or he found me… and I couldn’t. So I had to face my fears and come out to everyone starting with you two.”

“I’m glad you did, I can’t imagine not having either of you in my life.” Pete intoned somberly. “Back in a minute!” He heaved himself to his feet and headed for the wall. As he vanished into the refresher and the wall reformed behind him Kevin turned to Quinn.

“I’m betting you just realized you needed a contraceptive?”

Quinn looked at the floor again.

“You know you’re cute when you blush like that. I’m glad you thought of it since its pretty clear you intend to jump Pete’s bones at the first opportunity.” She looked up at Kevin and he continued.

“I’m happy for you. Both of you. One day you will make really great parents but not now, not even soon.”

He sat back and sipped at his beer while watching the stars blur past. No one spoke for several minutes but the silence was companionable.

Everyone looked over as Pete stepped out of the refresher and Quinn squeaked, a hand flying to her mouth. His 6’2” frame was considerably less bulky than it had been before he stepped into the refresher but it was by no means small.

He struck a pose and held it for a moment, grinning uncontrollably. He much thinner but nowhere near small as he boasted quite prominent muscles.

“Like it?”

Kevin managed to reply while Quinn sat there with her hand in front of her mouth. “Dude, you’re a hunk! Where’d all that muscle come from?”

“It was there already man… it takes a lot of muscle to be physically active when you’re carrying around 380 pounds. I just asked Dora to get rid of the excess fat and tweak my metabolism so I wouldn’t have that problem again. I didn’t go for all cut and six-pack and stuff… that takes way too much work to maintain. Besides, Quinn went with natural and I wanted to be the same, ordinary guy, you know?”

Quinn rose from her seat and went over to embrace Pete in a hug which he enthusiastically returned.

“You didn’t have to do this for me you know…” she mumbled into his chest.

He squeezed her tightly for a moment before moving back just enough to look down into her eyes.

“I didn’t do this for you, I did this for me. I’ve been fat for as long as I can remember. Not just overweight but fat. I’ve done everything I could think of, diet, exercise… I was contemplating a lap band or something like that. You know the old saying about how inside every fat person there is a skinny person screaming to be let out? It was like that for me.”

“Then when I realized what Buck meant… I guessed that if Dora could do something like that for you she could probably do something to help me too. I didn’t actually go in there with that intention, I really needed the facilities but Dora asked and it was a good idea for my health if nothing else so...”

“In that case I’m glad you did it… although I think I might miss Fluffy Pete…” She grinned up at him.

“Fluffy? Geez…”

“Hey don’t knock fluffy, when you’re as skinny as I am you get cold easily! I suppose I’ll get along…”She heaved a dramatic sigh and held an arm over her forehead, palm out “Somehow…”

Pete and Kevin both burst out laughing.

“Dude, she’s already turning into her mother!” Kevin managed to choke out.

“No way man, I know for a fact she couldn’t even burn water! Oh wait, she can! Remember what she did to those poor soba noodles?”

“Hey you said add some oil to the water! Its not my fault it splashed over onto the burner and the fire spread to the pot…”

“Took me hours to get that nasty fire extinguisher stuff out of the stove…” Kevin tried to look stricken but couldn’t hold it, bursting back into laughter.

“Took me longer than that to get it out of my hair… “ Quinn grumbled.

“God I wish I’d thought to take a picture… Head to toe in white powder, screaming at the top of her lungs!” Kevin got up and ran around flapping his arms, squawking “Help! Help! The noodles exploded!!!”

He and Pete collapsed back into laughter and Quinn tried to look stern for a moment then completely lost it.

A few hours, two more pizzas and a great deal of alcohol, weed and laughter later they stumbled off into individual areas for sleeping, leaving Tommy alone in his hammock singing along with Dora.

Pete realized he needed the bathroom rather badly and tried to roll to his feet. Something was holding him down and as he opened his eyes just what… or rather who… was the culprit became obvious. His arm was pinned under a diminutive form, dark hair spilling over to mingle with his own wiry chest hairs. She was lying face down, drooling into the crook of his elbow and making little muttering noises in her sleep.

Further examination revealed that Quinn was still fully dressed so obviously nothing had happened. He didn’t know whether to feel relieved or disappointed for a moment before he decided on relieved. He wanted to remember his… their… first time, wanted it to be as special as he could possibly make it.

None of this decreased the urgency of the need he was feeling at the moment. The old saw about renting beer was proving true with a vengeance and the rent was overdue. He reached over with his other hand and slipped it under her forehead, gently lifting her face from his arm and setting it back down on the bed. Another moment to make sure her hair was free and he was up and dashing for the wall as it formed a door… right into a refresher.

It didn’t register with him until he was brushing his teeth and thought he should probably find some way to clear out the stench before he showered.

“Dora?”

“Yes Pete?”

“Where’d the lounge area go? I’m pretty sure I went out the same wall I came in…” He looked around at the walls.

“I moved things around a little once Quinn joined you. The other space was no longer needed so I used the cubic for a few things I picked up while you were sleeping. The entry to the lounge is now on another wall.”

“That is just so… weird, cool… I don’t even know what to say about it but I think I might have some questions later and I’m sure Quinn will!” He thought for a moment. “When did Quinn come in anyway?”

“She somnambulated into your room an hour or so after you both went to sleep. Most interesting phenomenon, this sleepwalking. It is extremely rare among carbon based species and this is the first time I have been privileged to witness it. You humans are a fascinating species.”

“No kidding…” he muttered as he poked at the controls in the shower area. They were symbolic so fairly easy to figure out and a moment later he was hit with jets of hot spray from ceiling and walls. He just stood there a few minutes with his eyes closed, letting some of the hangover wash down the drain as the water beat soreness from his body.

He came to awareness as a slender form pressed against him and his arms automatically came down to encircle her. He opened his eyes and gazed into amber orbs with a sense of wonder.

“Um…”

“Yes?” she looked up at him expectantly.

“Good morning…”

She smiled at his discomfiture. “It is, isn’t it? Dora tells me I wandered into your room in my sleep and I thought I might as well get any body-shyness out of the way since we both have a great deal of that going on.” She disengaged from the hug and stood back, inspecting him.

He returned the attention and she blushed a little but stood firm, her weight on one leg with a hip cocked out a bit as small breasts rode proudly on a slender torso. She was 8 inches shorter than he and couldn’t have been over 120 pounds while he was quite well muscled and looked like he was about 225 pounds.

“You are gorgeous!”

“You are beautiful!”

They both spoke at the same time and stopped, grinning at each other.

“I thought the same thing before, you know… Confused the hell out of me.”

She took a moment to reply. “The thought of leaving was so… dreadful but I couldn’t see another path forward… I’m glad you said what you did. I’m glad I confused you too…”

Quinn looked down and noticed the effect her being in the shower with him had on Pete.

“I’m flattered Petey, but I am nowhere near ready for that kind of thing. I think I just need a little time and any way I’ve never…” she turned away, picking up a scrub puff and running it under the water to discover a nice floral scent with citrus overtones. She busied herself with scrubbing for a moment while Pete followed suit, his puff giving off a musky woodsy scent with a hint of sawdust.

“I’m glad…” he paused for a moment.” I’m glad you aren’t ready in a way, even if a certain bit of me doesn’t seem to share the feeling…” He chuckled, a deep rich sound that gave Quinn warm feelings in her tummy.

“I’ve never either, you know… I very much want to but I want it to be something special for both…”

“Both of us” she finished. “I have wanted that for a very long time and I want it to be special too. Waiting a little while doesn’t seem like any great imposition to make it just right and meanwhile I need the other end of physical intimacy and comfort just as much as you do.”

He took a moment to think, scrubbing his newly slimmed and muscled form and wondering if Quinn liked his body hair… There was quite a lot of it after all.

“I don’t know how to go about this whole mating dance thing…”

“We’ve been doing it since we were children.”

He turned to face her, his countenance streaked with near scalding rivulets.

“So much time…” He looked lost and she instinctively closed the distance between them, reaching up to cup his jaw in her palm.

“We can’t unspill the milk, you know. What was does not have to control what will be.” She turned and presented her back, handing him her puff.

“Besides, everything is about to change completely. Dora says the tech transfer will basically include everything but weapons. Medical technology will be first and that will be a huge flood of what Local Filament society considers humanitarian aid… hmmm that isn’t the right word exactly…”

“Filamentarian maybe? I don’t think English has a word that fits yet.” Pete handed her his puff and turned his pack, sighing in pleasure while she scrubbed.

“It does now. Anyway… that’s the same tech that Dora used on us. She offered permanent nanos that will repair even massive damage quite quickly and can also act as a backup so that if something completely destroys you somehow, you only lose the time from your last backup. Its almost like respawning in a game.”

They both stood and luxuriated in the spray for a few moments before Pete spoke again.

“Dora?”

“Yes Pete?”

“The nanos Quinn was just talking about, can you give us those now?”

“Yes, if Quinn wishes to have them as well.”

“Oh I definitely do!” Quinn was visibly excited.

“Done. The nanos will be fully integrated within five minutes and I will take your first back up then. We will archive a new backup copy at each of the places we visit, just in case. That is standard procedure for nearly all sentient beings.”

“Thank you Dora!” Quinn thought for a moment. “Have you offered the nanos to Kevin yet?”

“Kevin accepted the nanos 2 hours ago and is in the lounge with Buck and Tommy. Would you like an air dry?”

“That sounds great, yes please!”

Pete had turned the water off and the room filled with a strong warm breeze, drying them quickly. Several air currents were just right to dry Quinn’s hair into a nice but simple style so that it swept away from her face before cascading down to the small of her back.

Once dry they went into the sleeping quarters to dress. Both dressed simply, comfortable cottons and sandals. Pete noticed with amusement that Dora had altered his clothing to fit his newly slimmed form and thanked her for the consideration.

They reentered the lounge area together, looking like a very laid back couple on a tropical vacation. Kevin looked over and his eyes widened as he saw them standing together.

“Well you two didn’t waste any time!”

He noticed the shy smile they exchanged and realized that this wasn’t the way a couple who had just had sex normally acted.

“Oh wow, nothing? Geez, only you two could sleep together and not do anything…”

“Maybe not yet…” Quinn retorted with a grin. “Besides, I could eat a horse! What’s for breakfast?”

“Well for brunch” He emphasized the word “there’s… I dunno, whatever you want I guess. Dora has every cookbook humans have ever written in her memory. Apparently Earth cuisine is a huge hit with almost any beings to whom it isn’t actively poisonous and a few of those like to push the envelope… or turn it around into something they can eat.”

“Human cooking has caused a new movement in the Filament. The last great chefs in our society were the unfortunate Gr’lorkfa, almost 300,000 of your years ago. Demand for their skills was so high that it sparked several wars and the Kreili wound up destroying their home star system in a tragic accident. They were in turn decimated by a coalition of other species and as a result any species which had those skills hid them. Humans changed all that.”

Tommy finished speaking and popped a bit of… something that moved… into his mouth, chewing with obvious relish.

Pete thought for a moment before he turned to Quinn. “How do you feel about waffles?”

“Um… I think the right word would be Yuck…” she made a moue of distaste. “But feel free to indulge. I’m certainly going to! Dora?”

“Yes Quinn?”

“I’d like 8 ounces of fairly stiff course ground yellow grits with two pats of salted sweet cream butter and 1 ounce of fine grated super-sharp cheddar cheese on it. I’d also like 3 ounces of scrapple in two slices, extra spicy, fried to crisp medium brown and 2 eggs over very easy please.”

Quinn grinned at Pete’s expression and burst out laughing when he ordered the same, plus waffles with soft butter and hot maple syrup.

Within a few moments they had plates in hand and she was watching Pete carefully fill each segment of the waffle with butter before he poured the hot syrup liberally over the whole thing. Despite her earlier misgivings she was about to ask Dora for some of her own when he cut off a corner for her and handed her the fork, chewing rapturously on his own mouthful.

They ate in near silence, not really paying attention to the others as they addressed their repast with gusto. Once finished they leaned back and sighed at almost exactly the same moment, then laughed at each other.

“I never have quite understood how you can eat so much and be so skinny…” Kevin was only half joking.

“Not a clue, its just how my metabolism works!” Quinn grinned back at him.

Quinn noticed the stars were no longer streaking past outside and opened her mouth just as Dora spoke up.

“We are approaching an extremely rare dual planetary pair of equal mass. Once each rotational period the entire oceanic mass switches from one planet to the other as a result of tidal forces from the white dwarf pair they orbit. Both planets were the homeworlds of still living species before their star systems collided, resulting in extremely rare pairings such as the ones we see here.”

“Whoah… an actual Rocheworld…” Kevin breathed in wonder.

“This is not the only configuration of this type in the Local Filament but it is the only one which will convert to a type 1a supernova within the next week. We will return here to surf the shockwave after the festival but you should be prepared for an audience. Juvenile beings from all over the filament will be present – at a safe distance of course – to observe the event and many of them will want to share virtual presence with one of you as no one has ever ridden a human in an event like this.”

“Ridden a human?” Pete looked concerned.

“It is an adaptation of a slang term in general use. The other being will fully experience your sensory universe but will not have any control of your actions or access to your thoughts. You must give permission for this to occur, this is a very firm point of our law which is reinforced by the technology itself.”

“Oh… well I guess that’s ok then. Do we get to watch the ocean swapping thing?”

“You get to watch the very last of them. It is beginning now and will take 2 hours to complete. During this time almost 600 million cubic miles of water will flow across the atmospheric bridge between the two planets. These were both worlds very much like your own Earth as little as 300 million years ago, although much closer to their stars. Samples of the native life which evolved from the surviving organisms have been stored for research and recordkeeping purposes although it mainly consists of 4 monocellular species and subvariants.

They had drawn quite close and could now see the beginnings of the flow, water seeming to rise up of its own accord, reaching across the gap defined by a tenuous haze of air. A tiny filament of water reached and touched the other side, growing visibly as they watched in wonder, then tapering off and leaving the planet which had been dry entirely covered in water, the other having none at all visible from space.

They all watched with rapt wonder, Buck making quiet chirping noises to hirself. The mood was somber as the planets dwindled to mere specks and were lost amongst the starry background. Shortly stars began streaming past outside the ship and they all sat there in silence, absorbing what they had just seen while taking the occasional pull from hoses Dora provided.

Quinn was the first to break the silence.

“How are you going to top that?” looking up toward the ceiling.

“We are almost to our final stop before reaching the festival. It is what you refer to as a Gamma Ray Burster. These can have several different causes but in this case it is the collision of 2 neutron stars. It is a spectacular event even if not particularly rare but many beings enjoy experiencing the gravitational flutter experienced within a few light seconds in the hours leading up to the collision.”

“Don’t those like, sterilize everything within a thousand light years?” Quinn looked uncomfortable at the thought.

“No, civilization does not allow that to happen. Most sentient species relocate temporarily and leave extremely heavy shield arrays to protect their systems. Protosentient species are mostly protected in place by smaller shield arrays with a sizable sample of the species involved removed from the area for the duration.”

Quinn was visibly relieved while Pete looked intrigued.

“That must be a huge operation!”

Dora managed to sound proud. “It is something our civilization regards as normal. We hold the diversity of life to be sacred, the expression of the Universe and we protect it above all. The festival we will attend is a celebration of the birth of 2 two new stars in close proximity to each other and within a few hours. The Criswell structure surrounds a red dwarf which was the first star to form from this nebula. Its ignition shockwave and subsequent fluctuations are partly responsible for the formation of the two stars that will ignite shortly and many of their neighbors soon to follow.

“Wow… that’s just… incredible really.”

“My description does not do it any justice. I have been present at the birth of one star before but never two like this. It is a very rare phenomenon.” Dora paused for a moment.

“We are now approaching the neutron star pair. We will approach closely enough to feel the gravitational flutter from their rapidly degrading mutual orbit quite strongly so I recommend utilizing the safety restraints provided.”

They all strapped themselves in and shortly could begin to feel the fluttering Dora had described… like gravity itself was pulsing, tidal effects rippling through their bodies. The sensation wasn’t exactly unpleasant but it was definitely odd and after a short time Dora backed away so that the effect muted considerably.

At these reduced levels it was fairly pleasant and they sat there idly conversing while the false color display Dora provided showed the two masses beginning to deform until they finally merged and Dora immediately raced away ahead of the shock front. They were able to watch the entire event including the brilliant sustained flash that faded after a few seconds.

That finished, they resumed their headlong plunge through space, stars once again streaming around and behind. Pleasant conversation was interspersed with more food and intoxicants and even some intoxicating foods. Presently all except Tommy wandered off to sleep with Pete and Quinn stripping off and falling asleep in each other’s arms, enjoying each other’s touch in a way only someone long deprived of such contact can.

They awoke to a gentle tone in the air, looked at each other and shared a quick kiss before rolling out of bed and heading for the refresher. A half hour later they joined the others in the lounge area and enjoyed a delicious breakfast while Dora gave them a basic idea of what to expect at the festival.

It seemed they were quite the celebrities already as the first members of a species just coming onto the stage of a larger civilization which had already had such a gigantic impact. For almost all of them they would be the first humans they had ever seen and their debut at this particular point in time and space was considered quite auspicious.

With that understanding Quinn and Buck set about discussing clothing options with Dora and soon settled on the men’s dress, focusing on high formalwear. After some debate the decision was made to go with tailcoats but no vests for both genders, paired with closely fitting trousers for the men and skintight for female garb. Quinn decided that this would set a very good precedent for women’s clothing options in future but the full range of choices was to be displayed. As a result she also had several dresses made for some of the various events they would be attending.

In the process Quinn finally discovered what pronouns to use for Buck even though that could be a little confusing. She explained that with her species there was no innate sexual dimorphism. All were hatched with the possibility to go either way and had all 3 sets of organs. What role each played was decided by each of them in the process of maturing and was set by the time they reached reproductive age although they all retained the organs.

Buck was confident in her sexuality, she was to be an egg bearer and was just beginning to show the vibrant patterning characteristic of that gender. She decided to dress similarly to Quinn in order to do much the same, push fashion in a direction she and many others like her wished. To that end she decided for their first presentation she would mirror Quinn’s tailcoat and tux garb and would do so with versions of the dresses as well. She balked at the footwear however, pointing to her widely spread toes and the webbing between them.

They all went off to dress with Kevin being fairly enthusiastic about the outfit while Pete complained about the shoes until he put them on and realized how comfortable they were. As they finished Dora informed them that they were 20 minutes from landing at Ktilth Prime. Tommy was resplendent in flowing robes, open at the front to display an intricate webbing set with tiny sparkling gemstones in all the colors of the rainbow.

They knew they would be asked to say a few words at their welcoming ceremony so each gave it some thought as they enjoyed a smoke and cocktail and were soon informed by Dora that they were approaching the structure although there really wasn’t anything to see as there were almost no emissions aside from a faint uniform heat signature. They saw almost nothing until they suddenly entered a gigantic lighted tunnel and could see other ships flying on all sides, peeling off into other tunnels or bays and joining the flow with no evident order.

After watching this stunning vista for a few minutes they emerged into a large open space that looked almost like the surface of a planet except for the lack of a visible curvature. Land simply continued until it disappeared into a haze while a sun stood glaring a baleful crimson just above the horizon. Dora provided a display that showed their location on the interior of a gigantic faceted spike that extended toward the sun from the inside of huge sphere. She explained that the sphere had a diameter of about 5 light minutes which gave more than ample room for 5 times as many occupants as would be attending. As it was they would average about one being for every 50,000 square miles of surface area all of which could be quickly altered to fit any of the species attending.

Those sorts of numbers were hard to encompass but the sheer magnitude of the thing made it a little easier to just roll with it. Soon they debarked to a small craft Dora formed and sat in comfort while she whisked them to another location, watching with awe as they got high enough to see more of the structure. Soon they approached a tremendous amphitheater filled with what had to be at least millions of beings, all watching their progress as they settled gently upon a giant dais.

There was a slight disagreement about order of exit with each deferring to the others until Dora decided the matter by widening the exit so they could all walk through simultaneously. The noise from the crowd was muted as they all strode to the spots indicated for them.

This time there was no question as the others gently pushed Quinn to the fore. She stood there for a moment, looking out over the assembled beings before she began to speak.

“From my species to all of yours I convey our thanks, our gratitude at being deemed worthy to join the society I see a sample of here today. Speaking for myself and my companions, we are honored to be present at such an auspicious occasion. I hope we prove worthy of that honor and that society can be patient with my species as we adjust to the opportunities you present us. We have so much to learn…”

She paused for a moment and surveyed the hushed crowd.

“I guess that’s all I can say really… but if yawl are holding up the party for us please don’t! We’re going to be here for a while but we will be leaving in time to surf a little supernova on the way back home and I look forward to getting to know lots of new friends!”

As Quinn finished speaking the dais lowered until it was flush with the floor of the amphitheater and she began walking forward to greet some of the assembled beings. They were all wearing translators and the assorted noises or gestures or scent-messages or even luminescent flashing was rendered into intelligible speech.

The others followed her and they spent hours just mixing with the crowd, eating and drinking delicacies from all over the Filament that had been declared safe for their consumption. Most of the beings concerned were becoming increasingly intoxicated and the party got pretty wild by the time they withdrew to get some rest, bathe and change clothes.

The three earthlings took a couple of hours to sleep as well and when they emerged they were flown to a different location, an even more massive party but without the speaking, just an introduction that came from the translators of all present. Those who could easily see their arrival seemed excited to see the simple yet elegant gowns worn by Buck and Quinn and the group slowly made their way through the crowd, being warmly greeted by everyone they encountered. After a few hours an announcement drew everyone’s attention upward to where a huge holographic display now filled the sky.

They all watched in wonder as the centers of two accretion discs seemed to contract abruptly before suddenly bursting into brilliant life and swelling rapidly. They both continued a cycle of expansion and contraction, the duration slightly different for each brand new star so they strobed in varying counterpoint before merging and diverging again. A bubble formed around each of them, a relatively empty space in the gas cloud that grew outward, eddied and swirled and created fantastic whorls and ripples and interference patterns. There was very little conversation for what seemed like only a few minutes but proved to be hours.

As the display faded on the still strobing stars the hush lifted and conversations resumed but much more subdued. It seemed as though every being present understood how momentous an occasion they had been privileged to witness. The earthlings shared a moment, overawed by everything they had experienced in the previous 4 days and exhausted. They all put forth an effort to be social but it was becoming a real strain instead of the joy it had been earlier and Pete soon took Quinn’s hand and led her away while she grabbed Kevin and pulled him along.

None of them were hungry as they had been grazing fairly heavily throughout the day to buffer the alcohol and other substances they were consuming. They all simply went to their quarters and stripped off before falling immediately into exhausted sleep. The following two days were filled with more parties and an endless parade of beings and delicacies and by the time of their departure they were all glad of the break to simply sit and not even have to speak.

When they arrived at the site of the incipient supernova they were reasonably well rested and ready for what Tommy enthusiastically described as “The best ride in the known universe” although when cornered by Kevin he did admit he had never done it before. Dora extruded small flat skiffs with small cockpits transparent in all directions. They would use light sails to accelerate to a velocity that would allow them to catch the shockfront and ride it at a significant fraction of lightspeed. They were extremely heavily shielded and Dora would act as a backup pilot but they would all have the opportunity to at least feel like they were in control.

They were already fleeing outward on a strengthening solar wind, huge gossamer sails pulling them along while the two white dwarf stars whirled ever faster about each other, merged and then abrubtly collapsed into an intolerable pinpoint which grew in intensity, delivering enough of a push from the lightsails to push them gently back into their seats. The force grew steadily stronger until the star erupted behind them and Dora warned them to trim sails for the first part of the shockfront.

They did so and shortly their craft were shaking violently while the the pressure on them increased to a level where Dora announced she was damping it to 1 g for their safety. The crushing weight came away and they were able to feel the ships skating within the edge of the shockfront. They variously yelled and whooped and barked and chirped with sheer joy until finally they fell through and behind the wave and were coasting. Dora came and picked them up, reabsorbing their skiffs and the one she had detached for herself. They piled into the lounge with the exuberance of the experience still humming between them and the excited chatter continued until they were all ready for another rest cycle.

They all awoke at their leisure and took their time getting ready to face the day. They would arrive just a few hours before the big announcement of the end of humanity’s isolation. There would be some time to visit with their families and bring them back to Dora where they would all watch. Quinn and Pete were tense with anticipation, each in their own way.

Soon they were descending through Earth’s atmosphere and silently landing beside Kevin’s family’s home. After a few minutes they all came out and were surprisingly nonchalant as they climbed aboard Dora’s launch. Quinn had dressed down and hidden her breasts again for the contact with her family so it went fairly smoothly. Pete's mother was hardly able to walk from her excitement but she managed to pull herself together before they picked up Rob and his parents who greeted Kevin warmly, Rob with a kiss.

Soon they were all mingling in a much enlarged lounge area engaged in animated conversation. The women were charmed by the men’s tuxedos and the men had to admit that they looked very sharp while they preened at the attention. Lovely gowns were supplied for the women and all except Quinn were changed and gathered in the lounge again when Dora asked for attention. They all looked toward a newly formed door to see Quinn, unbound, perfectly made up and dressed in a simple yet elegant gown that made it clear she was all woman. There was a moment of silence before Quin’s mother stepped forward and raised her hands, grasping her daughter's.

“I’m so glad to finally see my daughter…” She drew Quinn into a hug which her father joined. As they separated Pete tapped a fork on the rim of his glass and asked for their attention before going to his knees in front of Quinn and producing a box from which he extracted a ring.

“Quinn Mallory, will do me the honor of sharing my life?”

“I will, yes. I love you Pete...”

He rose and they kissed while the assembled families clapped and cheered.

At a warning from Dora they all refilled their various drinks and turned to face one wall which Dora had made into a display.

"And now to the Oval Office"

The picture changed to show President Booker sitting behind his desk.

"My fellow americans, today I have the honor to bring you the news that we are not alone in the universe, that there is a wonderful society of species who have invited us to end our isolation and join them in peaceful coexistence! Tech transfer will begin immediately with medical assistance..."



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