“Time!” Fowler said, sharply. Kevin had just finished securing both the dummy and the medical kit into the faux escape pod. “Fifty-four seconds. Very good, Kevin.”

Calista mouthed a curse.

Next up was Tracee. Her compact size gave her an advantage navigating the confines of the airlock, but her strength was barely up to the task. Even weightless, the dummy and medical kit were cumbersome. By the time the petite woman had lugged them into place she was over the one minute mark.

“You’ll have to work on that, Rask,” Fowler muttered. “Brandt, your turn.”

“Captain, I thought that perhaps this time Mr. Sparr would-“

“Brandt! I said it’s your turn. Go in fifteen seconds.”

Calista bit back her objection, snapped on her helmet, and was ready when Fowler gave the word. She kicked forward, snagged the dummy, and tugged it free. The blonde was at least as long of limb as Kevin. With her free arm she snagged the medical kit and kicked again toward the escape pod. Only the usual difficulty lugging both the kit and the dummy slowed her.

“Fifty-two seconds!” Fowler announced. “That’s a good time, Ms. Brandt.”

Sparr prepared himself. He had completed the drill several times prior to his last mission, and held no doubts that he could complete it under the one-minute mark. Proximity to Calista had, however, sharpened his competitive spirit. He decided to try a new strategy.

When Fowler gave the sign, Sparred kicked forward through the first hatch. However, unlike the others, he bypassed the dummy to first grab the medical kit. With both hands free he easily tugged it from its storage bay. Then, with a motion born from years of basketball, he tossed it toward the far hatch.

The kickback from the throw nudged him back toward the dummy. Sparr grabbed it, kicked, and almost before the medical kit rattled through the far hatch, had caught back up with it. He locked both into place and closed the hatch.

“Forty-nine seconds!” Fowler said. “Nicely done, Sparr.”

Even on the tiny screen inside his helmet, Sparr could see the man almost smiling.

Later, Sparr and Tracee shared a shuttle back from the airfield to the Alliance compound. After their night of tipsy sex, the friendship between the two had deepened, even if Tracee hadn’t yet pursued a repeat.

“Hey Planet,” Tracee said suddenly. Planet was the nickname she had given Sparr. “She claim you yet?” It was no easier guessing when Tracee was serious than it was guessing which wave would break farthest on the beach.

“Claim me?” Sparr asked, tearing his eyes from the rich Florida vegetation streaming by.

“Calista,” Tracee explained. “You obviously aren’t familiar with Rask’s law of attraction.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Well, it’s just so obvious,” Tracee said, flopping back against the shuttle’s contoured seat. “You and I got together, right?”

“I faintly recall, yes.”

She kicked him. “And people saw us leaving the Terrace Bar together that night?”

“Probably,” Sparr agreed. In fact the two had raced out together, raising more than one eyebrow.

“So Calista, brilliant, ambitious, and dull corporate drone that she is, has probably, through the rigorous application of logic, figured out that I explored Planet Alain.”

“And Planet Alain,” Sparr added, “was happy to be explored.”

“Right,” Tracee said, nodding emphatically. “So now Calista has to make her own claim.”

“I see,” Sparr said. “So Calista’s competitive instinct will kick in. She’ll throw herself at me, rather than let Rask Intergalactic Enterprises be the sole claimant for Planet Alain.”

“It’s ‘Rask Pan-Galactic Enterprises’, but yes,” Tracee said, “and you’re welcome.”

“Okay,” Sparr laughed. “And what makes you think I’m interested in a dull, corporate drone like Calista?”

“You are,” Tracee said. “You like her tits. I’m sure we’ve established this.”

Sparr just shook his head. He smiled. Tracee was always good company, even if her moods and motivations were opaque.

“Oh, I meant to ask you, what’s the one-year rule?”

“What?” Sparr asked, surprised at the new direction their conversation took.

“Speaking of claims, I heard Calista and Kevin talking about something called the one-year rule. I think it had to do with the mission.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sparr said. “It has to do with how the Alliance contracts are written. Companies like K2 Genetics and K2 Mineral have one year to make their first claims. After that, it’s wide open.”

“Wide open means anyone can submit a claim? Why have a rule like that?”

It had been some time since Sparr had even considered the question. “Well, it’s to prevent a company from sitting on a claim. The Alliance wants to support the development of a planet’s resources. If I don’t make a claim within one year then they assume that K2 Genetics is holding onto a find. That doesn’t do anyone good.”

“Well, what if you die before you make your claim?”

“Uh, thanks Tracee,” Sparr said, wrinkling his face.

“It’s a serious question.”

“Okay,” Sparr said, waving his hands defensively. The extended reality lenses that corrected and enhanced Tracee’s damaged vision sometimes made her difficult to read. “If I die then the contract can be modified. K2 Genetics can renew it, or sell the rights. It’s only when I’m alive but for some reason don’t make a claim that the contract is voided. Same for K2 Mineral.”

“So, when I kill you for the molds you find…”

“… be sure you hide the body,” Sparr said.

“Noted!” Tracee said. She grabbed his cock, giving him a hard squeeze just before the shuttle arrived.

Sparr exited the car carefully, trying to hide his erection.


The next day at sea started much as the day before. Sparr greeted Captain Jance and the crew, walked Bogg a score of laps around the deck, and enjoyed a simple breakfast of cooked sausage, and eggs from a bird Sparr had yet to name. For a time he stood at the bow, soaking up the shifting winds and the dancing, unpredictable sea. To starboard, the land passed by, a tapestry of unfamiliar trees, towns, and mist-softened shoreline.

The Precipice priests, if that was the proper term, appeared. The two older men seemed protective of the child, flanking him or her, and speaking in deferential tones. Sparr couldn’t remember seeing them topside before. He was curious.

“Another fine day at sea,” he said, addressing one of the men.

The priest eyed him cooly. Like his peer, he had a rough, untamed beard and weather worn features. “One is much like the other,” he said. Unsubtly, the other priest moved between Sparr and the child.

“The sea is ever-changing,” Sparr agreed, “but does not change.”

Whether either of the men appreciated his attempt at poetry was unclear. They stared at him stonily, clearly protective of the child.

Sparr tried a different approach. “May I ask what business took you to Caibo?”

The priest glared at him, clearly unused to being so interrogated. His face darkened, but before he could address Sparr, the child spoke. The speech was unrecognizable, not the planet’s common tongue, not any language that seemed human. The sounds that the child’s mouth gave birth to had more in common with the rustling of silk or the kiss of water upon a rocky shore.

The second man turned to the child, clearly uncomfortable. He listened for a moment before facing Sparr. “We are on Circle business,” he said. “In Caibo, we hoped to find allies to quiet Horn Island.”

“And you had no luck.”

“No,” the man said, stiffly. “We lack the coin, and,” for a moment his eyes flickered back to the child, “we are not well loved where the Origin spreads their lies.”

Sparr didn’t doubt it. From what he had been told, whereas the Precipice espoused difficult beliefs, the Origin offered sex, mind-altering drugs, and influence to anyone with the coin. It was no surprise the Precipice had few allies.

“You want to quiet the island?”

Again, the child spoke in the sibilant tongue. The priest listened, then turned back to Sparr. “There isn’t a perfect word for it in the common tongue. Perhaps ‘make the island calm’ would better suffice?”

Sparr understood. “You’re referring to the noise and lights on Horn Island?”

The man nodded. “It is as it was at the beginning.”

“The beginning?” Sparr asked. “My apologies, I’m not familiar with your teachings. I also apologize for not introducing myself. I’m Alain.”

“Ota,” the priest said. He did not extend his hand. “This is Chi.” He inclined his head toward the other adult. The two men were nearly indistinguishable, with the same rugged, worn appearance, and simple robes. Sparr wondered if they were brothers.

“And you are?” Sparr asked the child.

“You will not address her!” Chi said sharply.

“Never,” Ota confirmed, less angrily. “She must not speak the common tongue.”

“Again, my apologies,” Sparr said, startled. As poorly as the conversation was going, he considered excusing himself. On the other hand, he shared a common interest in Horn Island. “What did you mean ‘at the beginning’?”

“It is a well-known teaching,” Ota said.

Sparr had never heard of a religion so disinterested in spreading its creed. “Like I said, I’m not familiar.”

Ota and Chi conversed privately, while the girl stared at Sparr with pale, guileless eyes. She was shaved bald, and had a child’s unlined skin. Like the others, she wore no jewelry or decoration of any kind.

“Here,” Ota said at last. He gestured toward a stack of crates that sometimes served as seating. The four took places. “You must excuse us,” Ota began. “Most know of our teachings. Most ignore them.”

“I’m not promising to adhere to your teachings,” Sparr said. “But I am curious.”

“That is sufficient,” Chi said. Of the two adults, he seemed the most on edge. The trio’s visit to Caibo must indeed have been a loss. “But, you must never address an Interpreter.” He met Sparr’s eyes sternly.

Sparr came to understand that the child was the Interpreter. He nodded somberly.

“Before the beginning there was balance,” Chi continued. “This is most fundamental to Precipice teachings.”

“Okay,” Sparr said. The idea of something ‘before the beginning’ was odd. Most religions had origin stories, from which everything else followed.

“When men arrived, the balance was disrupted.”

“Do your teachings say when men arrived?”

“Just over four hundred years ago, according to the Interpreters,” Chi said.

Sparr was stunned. The Precipice teachings not only acknowledged that men were a relatively recent arrival, but knew the year. “And what did men do to disrupt the balance?”

Chi sat back. “That is an advanced teaching.”

The girl said something in the strange language, addressing no one in particular.

“Horn Island is not in balance,” Ota explained.

Sparr struggled to put the pieces together. He was increasingly confident that whatever was happening on Horn Island was the work of someone from the Odysseus, and now the Precipice was equating the activity with events from four hundred years earlier. Clearly, he was missing at least one piece.

“What if I quiet Horn Island?” Sparr asked.

Ota and Chi stared at him, blinking in disbelief, but Sparr thought he saw the girl nod almost imperceptibly.

“Demons occupy that island,” Ota said. “To silence them is not the work of one man.”

“I’m not an ordinary man,” Sparr said recklessly. The more he thought about it the more a visit to the island made sense.

“We can offer little coin,” Ota reminded him.

Sparr needed tokens, but friendship with the Precipice held promise beyond what they might pay him. Unlike the Origin, which trafficked in convenient myths, the Precipice creed must be based on history.

“I’ll take what coin you offer,” Sparr said. “And If I succeed, you’ll share your ‘advanced lessons’?”

Again, the two men conversed. “We have a lodge in Santi,” Chi said. “Find us there and we will share what we know.”


That afternoon the weather turned disagreeable. The winds shifted to starboard, bringing a rain scarcely more than drizzle, but enough to drive most of the passengers and crew below decks. Sparr stood for a time topside watching the helmsmen struggle, before joining the others below.

He spotted Ost, who like the day before, busied himself with wood carving. “May I join you?”

“Happy to have company!” the man replied. “Care to try?” Ost indicated a tray strewn with tiny knives and scraps of wood.

“Which wood is the softest?”

Ost helped Sparr get started, then returned to his own work, an intricate interpretation of two trees growing together, their limbs intertwined.

“That’s really nice,” Sparr said. “You’ve been doing this a while.”

The man smiled. “I’m a timber merchant,” he said. “It’s practically a requirement for the job.”

With far less skill than Ost, Sparr began to hack away at the block of soft wood. He left the top flat, but began to cut away the sides, tapering them toward the bottom gradually. Even with the soft wood, his progress was glacial.

The slow work gave the two men an opportunity to talk. “It sounded like your trip to Caibo didn’t turn up much in the way of new distributors,” Sparr said.

“Aine turned up maybe one or two leads. She can be quite persuasive.”

Sparr knew just how persuasive Aine could be. He wondered if Ost had any glimmer. He was learning not to compare life on the wild planet to that on Earth. Sexuality here lived much closer to the surface, as did its twin, death. Sparr had risked his life in the arena during the day, only to ride the wave of ecstasy that same night with women exotic and beautiful. Tomorrow he might confront death on Horn Island, spend a night of passion with Aine, or both. On Earth, the rhythms of life played out over the course of months or years. On Kaybe a week seemed an eternity.

“What’s that?” Ost asked, gesturing toward Sparr’s carving.

Sparr laughed. “Well, it’s supposed to be a ship.”

Ost squinted. “It’s skinny,” he said. “Do you want a different piece of wood? Something more round?”

Sparr examined his work. Though embarrassingly crude, he had captured the intended shape. “It’s okay,” he said. “I need the practice. Maybe I’ll get it right next time.”

The two worked on in companionable silence, each lost to their own thoughts. Eventually, Ost spoke.

“You were speaking with the Precipice earlier.”

Sparr nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I’m not familiar with their teachings.” He chipped away at the side of his ship, trying to smooth the hull. “It’s odd. Almost like they don’t seek new followers.”

Ost chucked. “They don’t. It isn’t like the Origin. You can’t just show up, sacrifice some tokens, and get a sermon.”

“So how do they get new followers?”

“At birth,” Ost said. “Only children under one year of age are indoctrinated.”

“What?” Sparr was incredulous. “No one would hand over their children that young!”

“Some,” Ost said. “Orphans, unwanted children… the Precipice takes them.”

Sparr thought about the child he had encountered earlier. “Interpreters,” he said.

“Yes,” Ost said. “Yes. Only children can learn that ungodly language.”

“But interpret what?” Sparr asked. “Who else speaks it?”

“I don’t think anyone else but the Precipice speaks it. It’s their secret language.”

For the hundredth time Sparr had encountered something on Kaybe which refused to align with his established thinking. Why call someone an interpreter if they didn’t hold the strings that connected two different languages? The speech he had heard wasn’t human, he was sure. Once again he stumbled toward one of the planet’s enduring mysteries.


“Sixteen minutes,” Aine reminded him.

The brunette was waiting when Sparr returned to his cabin after dinner, her body creating inviting outlines beneath the sheets.

“Yesterday,” Sparr said, “I hadn’t cum in two weeks.” He tugged off his shirt. The flickering light of an oil lamp danced against his solid frame. “If you think you’re getting less than twenty minutes of dick, think again.” His trousers fell away, revealing a cock already swelling in anticipation. He pulled back the sheets.

Aine faced him, naked and ready. One hand was busy at her slit, the other gripped and tugged at a bruised breast.

“I did that?” he asked.

“You did,” she said, her unflinching gaze boring into him.

Sparr stopped himself before apologizing. Aine was fondling the bruises, reliving the pain from the night before. However assertive and confident she was in expanding the family business, the brunette still craved a strong man. He knelt, parted her thighs, and in one heartbeat, impaled her dripping pussy.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” Aine gasped. Her eyes were wide with lust, with pain.


The timer had long since run its course when at last the lovers cried out in release. Sparr grunted as hot cum ripped into Aine. The brunette groaned, shuddering helplessly in the grip of a long-delayed orgasm. At last they collapsed, spent, into each other’s arms.

The ship pitched and heaved beneath them, the sea both its lover and tormentor.


“Again,” Jance said. “I think I understand, but show me one more time.”

“Sure,” Sparr said. “I struggled with it too, the first time someone tried to explain it to me.”

The two were seated beside a water-filled barrel. Their fourth day at sea was proving to be calmer than the one previous. Sparr took advantage of the conditions to show Captain Jance his hand-carved ship models.

“This is the Shai,” he began. Sparr placed a nearly round model in the center of the barrel. “I apologize for not doing her better justice.”

“Your insult to her beauty is overlooked. For now,” Jance grinned.

Sparr leaned forward, and blew on the model first from one side, then the other. “Look,” he said. “Whichever way the wind blows, that’s the direction she goes.”

“Of course,” Jance said. “That’s what the tiller is for.”

“Right. So, my model building isn’t advanced enough to add a tiller, but I’m sure you’ve seen how much energy you lose just trying to hold your course.”

“I don’t control the wind, Alain.”

“Yes, yes, I get that. But watch.” He dropped the second model into the barrel. This was the skinny one that Ost had commented on. Whereas the model that represented the Shai was scarcely longer than it was wide, the skinny model was more than twice as long bow to stern as it was abeam. He had also carved a deep keel. Sparr blew on it from the side, but unlike the round model, the skinny one leapt forward instead of sideways.

“It’s the keel,” Jance said. His eyes widened in understanding.

“Exactly! It’s narrow in the water. It wants to go forward. Even with a much larger sail it will respond to a cross breeze with forward motion.”

“It leans over, though.”

“Well, that’s true,” Sparr admitted. “You can make up for that somewhat by weighting the keel, but it will always lean. The good news is it will be much more predictable. A boat of this design, even with just one helmsman, can easily stay on course. Shifts in wind that spin the Shai half around won’t bother it.”

Jance nodded, entranced by the possibilities. Like a child, he tested both models himself, blowing and nudging them across the barrel’s surface. He grinned.

“How do you know all this?” Jance asked. “I’ve never seen such a ship.”

“Neither have I,” Sparr admitted. Some people did still sail such ships on Earth, but the practice mostly was reserved for the fantastically wealthy. He had, however, sailed smaller craft in his youth. The principles were much the same. “You said you were planning a new ship?”

Jance nodded. “Yes,” he said absently, still distracted by the model.

Sparr wondered how long sailing had been in practice on Kaybe. The original colonists certainly would never have planned for it. On Earth, sailing had emerged over millennia. As poor as the design of the Shai was, it was more advanced than Sparr would have guessed.

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