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Beyond the Milky Way

Summary

A group of strangers receive the same mandatory orders from the president of the United States. When they meet in Washington, D.C., they learn the truth: they were hand-selected to represent Earth in the Great Buno Races, an intergalactic race held annually in the Ecilavi galaxy. Led by IndyCar sensation Bradley Smith and former Marine Lindsay Rose, the Earth team will have to adapt to their new surroundings.

Disclaimers

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or otherwise, is unintentional and purely coincidental. I am not affiliated with any name brand companies mentioned in this story, nor do I make any monetary value in the writing of this story. 

This story contains mild language, mild violence, character deaths and sexual content. 

First revision/draft: feedback, reviews, critiques and comments are more than welcome!

1.1: Lindsay

He never used to stand by anxiously for his wife to come home, but it was the envelope that came in the mail which urged him to steal glimpses out the window. Around six, her light blue Camry pulled into the driveway, coming to a sharp stop inches from the bumper of his red Titan. Instead of flinching, he fidgeted with the envelope in a casual manner.

Tracy Rose watched as his wife entered their home; he didn’t say a word. Lindsay tossed her work shoes by the closet and dumped her keys into the beige woven basket on the partial wall. Tracy paid slight attention to what she said; more than likely, it regarded how awful her day went. A customer service rep for the post office, Lindsay had her equal share of disgruntled customers, which made Tracy thankful that her only interaction with them was over the phone!

The woman wasted no time shredding her clothes while making her way to the bedroom; he stopped for a moment to appreciate her. Lindsay was no longer the rail thin young lady he had come across in the chow hall nine years ago; her light brown skin body filled in admirably over time. What he wished to do, without a doubt was follow her into their room but he put aside that desire until the two got to the bottom of what was in that envelope!

Still ranting, Lindsay came back into the living room wearing a white A-shirt and orange short shorts; Tracy wondered why she even bothered: both garments covered little to nothing! The woman's dreadlocks had escaped their bun, the deep chocolate locks with honey blonde tips flowed well beyond her shoulders.

“... And that was a fucking waste of my gaddamn time! Anyway...,” her deep brown eyes gazed at him. She leaned in to give him her usual greeting, a kiss on the lips before she noticed how he watched her. “What? Hey... what's that?” she moved her attention to the manila envelope in his hands. Tracy came out of his daze as he gave her a lingering kiss.

“Something came in the mail for you.” he handed the envelope to her. Her eyes widened as she recognized the presidential seal.

“Wait... is that...?”

“Yep. Presidential seal! You know I always open your mail but that-”

“Huh; your nosy ass finally admits it!” she threw him a smirk as she opened her letter.

“Shut up!” Tracy playfully shoved his wife. He looked on as she took the contents out: three sheets of paper and an airline ticket.

 

To Mrs. Lindsay Rochelle Rose:

With great enthusiasm, I inform you that our government requires your participation in a top-secret training program. As president of the United States, it was my personal duty to notify you of this decision.

I am not obligated to discuss anything in depth until we meet in person. Yet, a reliable source chose you due to your dedicated service in the United States Marine Corps. Included with this letter are further instructions along with a liable mean of transportation. Please advise that participation in this program is mandatory.

I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the subject at hand extensively. I extend my gratitude for treating this matter with utmost concern. If you have any questions beforehand, feel free to contact the number provided. Semper Fidelis and may God bless you.

Virgil Abraham

 

Lindsay gave out a shaky laugh as she glanced at her husband.

“It's... it's a joke. Yeah...”

“I don't know, Linds. If this was emailed then... maybe. But... that seal is the real thing!” Tracy took the letter and ran his fingers over the stamp.

“But it's so... vague. Top-secret training? For what? And... why,” she mumbled as she skimmed over the other sheet of paper. As the first letter described, the second page listed further details but vaguer than the letter. Two things Lindsay took away from it: her departure date in two weeks from the Phoenix Sky Harbor to Dulles, and the year-long training set up in New Mexico. “Whoa... what?! A year?! Fuck that; I ain't going!” she shook her head. Tracy looked on in bewilderment.

“Well... that isn't fair... but if this is real... you don't have a choice...”

“But... you see how crazy this all is, right? I just got a two-week notice to pack my shit for D.C. for God knows how long and then a year away in New Mexico?! Bullshit! I was picked cuz I was a Marine? The only good I did there was fire from a tank!”

“Yeah but... not a lot of women can say that, you know...,” her husband reasoned out. “Here's that number he mentioned. Call and see if this is for real, at least!”

“You know... I'll do just that!”

1.2: Bradley

It confused him; he lost count how many times he went over the letter and checked the authenticity of it. It was a letter from the president but why was he selected to take part of the project?

The letter waited for him in his office as he came back from lunch. Bradley was lucky; he rarely blew off practice. Had he stuck with his regular schedule, he wouldn’t have received the envelope until the next week. Bradley made the last-minute decision to work on a few things in his company; after making headlines with the season he had, he placed his “hobby” on hold. 

He accepted the complimentary ticket even though he could’ve driven to DC. But he would not deny a first-class trip; never mind he had enough to afford his own private jet. Bradley Smith, IV wasn’t a braggart.

He reflected to the reason for his forced participation: was it because of the light stint he did in a military prep school? His stepfather persuaded his mother into sending him at a young age; he noticed the man disapproved of him. Bradley shook the memory out of his brain; he was a child: what did that have to do with the present moment? He hardly remembered what they attempted to teach him at the academy!

He sighed as he got off the plane. The one positive part was that the trip was spur-of-the-moment; there would be no crazed autograph seekers waiting for him in the terminal. He moved his hand through his strawberry blond curls; moving away for a year might do him good. He didn't know what pressure he would be under but he was confident it would be less irksome than what he dealt with.

No sooner had he strode inside the terminal, he bumped into three men in dark suits. Secret Service, he said to himself. Bradley refrained from rolling his eyes, seeing that the three didn’t mistreat him. In fact, they treated him like a valuable commodity.

They didn't speak to each other as the men guided Bradley to an unmarked vehicle with black privacy tint. He peered around to see if anybody observed but hardly two people looked his direction. Everyone else went on with their activities. It unsettled him at the ten-minute silence in the car. Bradley desired to ask all the questions he had but he remained quiet; what convinced him they would tell him anything?

The journey ended at a secured small building, which peaked his curiosity. Bradley had traveled to DC plenty of times but he didn't recognize where he was or the building’s purpose. Examining his surroundings offered even fewer indications of his whereabouts. The area disappointed Bradley: he figured he would go to the Pentagon; a place he’d never been. Still, no words were uttered as they passed through the building. There was nothing inside and it disturbed him a bit. What if this was a trap? Bradley wanted to laugh; why would anybody go through those lengths to kidnap him?

They came to a room that resembled the lobby of a prominent hotel; it definitely was large enough, he noticed. The carpet was of a lavish crimson and there were large leather lounge armchairs spread about the room.

“The president will be with you soon.” one man spoke. Bradley opened his mouth at least to thank the man but the door shut before a sound came out. He heard the mechanical noises of locks from the outside and he studied the door. It was firm; too sturdy to kick open. The only way out would be to remove the door. He ran his hand over the golden hinges and shook his head; that would do no good. A reinforced door: someone would have to literally blast their way out.

Bradley’s thoughts broke off as he heard movement behind him. He turned and studied the room once again; the arrangement of the chairs and the size of the room concealed whoever was in there. He had expected no one would be, and that put him on alert. Bradley cleared his throat, hoping that whoever was in there would make themselves known. Instead of hanging around, he made his way further inside the room and jumped as six pairs of eyes rested on him. 

1.3: The Team

Bradley did a brief study of each person who looked at him; they appeared confused like he was. They looked young and capable of hard labor, even the only woman in the group. He offered a friendly nod to the only person he was familiar with: Malik Jackson returned the action along with a smirk.

“This has officially gone beyond weird, now!” he remarked with a rich laugh. It prompted Bradley to shrug and nod in agreement. He didn't understand what the government would need with a former NFL wide receiver turned sports broadcaster and an IndyCar driver, let alone have them work with others who weren’t celebrities. 

 “Tell me about it! It’s bad enough to see you walk in but… Brad Smith?! Heh; guess getting drafted is out the question, now!” a rough-looking man laughed out. Bradley looked at the man and slightly laughed with him.

“You saying I ain’t cut out for the military?” he smiled.

“Nah… David’s just saying that cuz of who you are…” the woman spoke. Hearing her southern accent made Bradley's face warm. By default, he would talk more to Malik but he looked forward to speaking with a fellow southerner. When his piercing blue eyes met her chocolate ones, she looked away. The move made his smile widen; she really did know who he was.

 “David Cox,” David left his chair and shook Bradley’s hand; the man’s green eyes glinted at him. “Good to finally meet you.”

“You’re a fan.”

“Honestly, no but I know about you! This is Steve, Tim, you should already know Malik, Yoji and the lovely Lindsay.” he introduced the others. Bradley kept his laugh to himself; the little introduction made Lindsay embarrassed.

“Uh… it’s… Lizzie, really…” she stumbled.

“Lizzie? How?” Bradley asked her. She smiled and shrugged.

“W-Well, that’s what I’d rather be called. My brother: when he was little, he couldn’t say ‘Lindsay’ all too well. It came out as ‘Lizzie’ and... just stuck.” she explained. Bradley found it amusing that with her skin color, she still turned a slight shade of red. He nodded and smiled, shaking her hand.

“Lizzie it is, then! David, I take it that you’re the leader of this group?”

“I wish! No, we’ve just been sitting here, trying to get to know each other. Seeing we all got the same letter.”

“We were actually asking Lizzie if she had a clue why we’re all here.” the thick Hispanic tone of Tim’s rang out. It was enough to make her skin back to her normal tone as she shrugged.

“Apparently cuz of the ‘skills’ we all have. I dunno. They could’ve picked our names out of a hat for all we know!”

“You say that like you don’t have any skills.” Malik pointed out. Lindsay glanced at him for a moment before turning away.

“N-Nothing like that. I got customer service skills but… I was also in the military so…”

“You were in the military? What branch?” Steve beamed. It made Lindsay smile at him.

“Marine Corps.”

“Whaa… me, too!”

“Ooh rah!” they both sounded off and beamed at one another. “What was your MOS?”

“1341.”

“An engineer mechanic. 0811.” Lindsay remarked. Steve’s dark brown eyes widened as the others listened to their conversation; they were clueless on the meaning of the numbers.

 “Wait… you were a cannoneer? You were a fucking cannoneer?! Holy shit…” his outburst made her laugh.

“Should’ve been a grunt; I didn’t see any action.”

“It seems that at the very least, we have two people with military experience. I wish they were more clear on what type of training this is.” Yoji added quietly and the group nodded in agreement. The door unlocking grabbed their attention. The Secret Service agents from earlier entered the room and made a path for President Abraham to enter. At once, Steve and Lindsay stood, going into the military stance of attention. The president smiled at the two.

“At ease. You two are the prior service members.”

“Yes, sir!” the two former Marines said in unison. The others rose to their feet, letting the president shake their hands. He motioned for them to sit as he did so in the nearest empty chair.

“I understand that everyone has questions and concerns... and doubts about why you were selected for this top-secret training. I’m confident that what we talk about will not leave this room?” he asked with a firm tone. The group glanced at one another before nodding towards Abraham. “Excellent. How familiar are you with Roswell?” he continued. The question made the majority of them gawk as Lindsay gave him a stunned look.

“Is this about… Area 51, sir?” she asked and her heart raced when he nodded.

“Now, the story has twisted over the years. For the best, really. There are those who feel that not everyone is ready for the entire truth.”

“So, it’s true? We’re not alone?” Yoji asked. The president smiled and shook his head.

“We are not. Area 51 was not created by this government… alone. It was created side-by-side with an alien race, one not from this galaxy. In fact, there are no alien races in this galaxy, anymore. That’s not the point,” he saw a couple of mouths open, about to speak. “This alien race chose Area 51 to study our human race. There was no crash landing.”

“Wait. What about all of those UFO sightings and phenomena?” David couldn’t help himself. 

“Many were hoaxes. The rest were us testing out a lot of the technologies given to us in exchange for our cooperation.”

“So… no Martians or anything like that but… something else?” Steve wanted to make sure. The president nodded at the man.

“Mr. President… would it be rude if I said that I didn’t believe you?” Malik asked. Everyone looked at him in shock and waited for one of the agents to escort him away. Lindsay leaned in towards him, her eyes widened.

“Yes, it would be rude,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Why would he lie to us?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The fact that this is top secret seems fishy to me…” he continued. None of the others in the room wanted to admit Malik had a point. What was said was not on a high level of believability but, none of them had the courage to challenge him like Malik did. What the president claimed was considered to be a serious conspiracy theory.

Relief washed through the others when Abraham smiled and shook his head.

“I understand you have doubts. And, it wouldn’t be rude. But, if you want proof, you’ll have to wait to get it. Everything you want to know is in New Mexico as far as solid evidence.”

“We’ll find out what’s so top secret about all this there?” Tim asked.

 “In compliance with Area 51, our government gave the agreement we would represent Earth in the Great Buno Races when the moment arrived.”

“The… what?” Lindsay asked, just to make certain she heard right.

“A race? This is all about some race? Like… what he does, race?” Steve pointed towards Bradley. He had no time to show shock that even Steve knew about him.

“In a way, yes. The Great Buno Races are intergalactic races held on the planet of Buno.”

“There has to be another catch. This seems too easy. What’s the prize?” Bradley asked. He was skeptical of everything at first but his reluctance left as soon as the word “race” came into play. If he was good at anything, it was racing. It made sense to him why they chose him.

“There’s no catch. The only prize is that when all this is over, we will no longer live in fear of the unknown. Well, then; welcome aboard! For those of you who still don’t believe… the time will be soon for you to find out the truth.”

2.1: Area 51

The group flew out to Albuquerque, New Mexico and from there, they sat in a cargo covered truck for a forty-five-minute trip to Roswell. Sentry waved the truck through and the small group clambered out in front of a huge building.

“Not what I was expecting…” Lindsay murmured, removing her sunglasses. The architecture in front of the group was impressive; it stood as high as a New York skyscraper and transparent as glass, shining brightly as the sun’s rays touched the building.

“The movies don’t know what they’re talking about. They make it look like a military base or a cut in the mountains. How could anyone miss something like this?” Yoji wondered. Although they stood in the middle of the desert, it was likely for the gleam to be seen from miles out. The president climbed out of the vehicle that accompanied the truck and saluted the guards away.

“It’s actually camouflaged. We can see it from inside the sentry but that’s it. One of the alien races responsible for this are called Esperians. Their technology is far beyond that of ours.”

“They created this building?” David asked. Abraham nodded.

 “We can continue once we get inside.” he said and went towards the building. The group took their bags from the truck.

“Oh, hey; let me help you…” Bradly volunteered for Lindsay as she grabbed her bags. The woman blushed and attempted to guard them.

“O-O-Oh! No thanks… I got it… I’m not w-” she struggled, but he had a grasp on her book bag strap. He examined it and was in awe. Bradley knew Lindsay recognized who he was but he would have never imagined that, unlike David, she was a genuine fan! The man gave her a smirk as she tried to cover up her embarrassment.

“A fan?” Bradley reluctantly handed over the book bag. Lindsay shrugged as she flung the red one-strapped bag with his IndyCar number across her back.

“Y-Yeah…” Lindsay stammered and made her way towards the others. 

Walking inside the building, everybody looked normal. Inside was like an active mainstream office; the employees disregarded the group, even the president. It was easy for them to cruise through the open cubicle space and into a corridor. The president led the group into a room like the one they met each other in DC. 

“Have a seat. Your manager will be here in just a moment. He’ll explain everything.” Abraham announced. No sooner as they sat, an older man stepped inside the room. He gave a modest nod to the president and his cold eyes looked over the others. He gradually narrowed his eyes at Lindsay, which made her want to flinch; there was something about the way he looked at her she didn’t care for, “Great timing! Earth team, meet your manager, Keith Degler. He was trained for years to manage a race team of your caliber.” Abraham cut the eerie stillness.

“With all due respect, Mr. President: they are not officially the Earth team just yet. They aren’t what I expected… at all…” Keith made it clear who he referred to as he glared at Lindsay. She blinked a few times at him in confusion while Bradley and Malik picked up on the notion. 

“Now, wait a minute; what’s that s’posed to mean…?” Bradley began.

“You got something against women?” Malik stood up for Lindsay. The special treatment made her blush and shy away from the situation.

“That is exactly what I have against women! Are you going to cater to her every wish, look and need? She will need to handle things on her own, with no one holding her hand,” Keith glared at Lindsay again. “Young lady, let me tell you some-”

“… Woman…” the words scarcely left her mouth; she had enough.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m thirty-two, not sixteen. I’m a woman, not a young lady. And I don’t need no one to cater to me; been doing fine for the last twenty-something years!” she declared, returning the glare. The older man’s eyes widened at her tone only to narrow and turn to the president, who gave out an awkward laugh.

“Looks like this team might do just fine, Keith. Especially Lindsay,” he offered her a reassuring smile before turning to everyone else. “Keith will finish the briefing from here. I hope to see you before you leave.” Abraham left it at that as he nodded and went out the room. Yoji and Steve exchanged glances.

“Leave? Thought we would be staying here?” Steve asked. Keith gave out a sigh and looked at everyone.

 “Yes. The majority of your training will be done here. After that, we’ll be off to another galaxy. The president did tell you about that, didn’t he?” he kept his grumbling low as everyone shook their heads. “The Buno Races will be held on the planet, Buno. Their gravitational pull is close to Earth’s, as well as their oxygen levels and atmosphere. In fact, there are several Earth-like planets in their galaxy. But, that’s not important right now. In your letters, this training was deemed top-secret. That means no one will learn the truth behind this or your whereabouts.”

“… What?” David asked for the others.

“All correspondence will be sent here but transferred to your quarters on Buno,” Keith continued as if he didn’t hear David. “I know all this seems a bit too much to process right now. But there is little time to get you trained in the field that's best for you… and that’s even if you’re capable of understanding anything. Reasons are unknown on why the Esperians chose us to take part in these races. But they have and we should be grateful for the opportunity.”

“Are we gonna be racing in spaceships?” Bradley couldn’t take it any longer; it was the one question that was on his mind the whole trip. Keith gave him a friendly look over and nodded.

“In a manner of speaking. They’re called Intergalactic Runners, or IRs for this purpose. The controls are simple enough once you’re trained. The first step is to have everyone go through an assessment. From there, we will begin the real training in the area of your ability, according to that evaluation.”

“Question. It’s obvious that whoever will train us knows more than we do right now. Why don’t they compete instead of us?” David wondered.

“The ruler of Esperia hand selected us, including myself. He felt we are the best Earth has to offer.” Keith explained. The group murmured amongst one another. She was reluctant to say anything; their potential manager already had something against her but, she needed to know. Lindsay looked at Keith.

“… What happens if we don’t pass the assessment?”

“It’s not the assessment you should worry about; it’s the training afterwards. But I’m sure you can be replaced as quickly as you were selected…” Keith looked at her for barely a flash before turning away.

2.2: The Assessment

“Your results are in.” Keith stated as he stepped into the room. A week had slipped by since the group's briefing on the mission. They would travel to Buno and take part in the annual space race, representing Earth for the first time since its origin. The group found out they would also see an Esperian, the same ruler responsible for choosing them.

The members had various emotions as they took in the alien who walked in alongside their manager; he wasn't what they expected. The light blue alien towered over Keith, standing roughly seven feet tall. The gown concealed his frame; a sweeping white robe decorated in bright gems that appeared to change colors every so often. He was humanoid in the face, except for the tiny onyx eyes that glanced over everybody.

“This is the Royal Magistrate of Esperia, Emuh. He is the one who brought us together.” Keith added. No one stirred as the Esperian bowed towards the group of humans, a slight grin playing across his narrow lips.

“It is a pleasure to finally meet you.” Emuh startled the group. Lindsay darted a stare at Bradley.

“He… speaks English…” she half-whispered. The man was in too great of awe to produce nothing but a slight nod.

“I speak all your Earth languages, yes.” the Esperian continued, giving Lindsay a generous smile. She reddened with her mouth agape.

“If everyone is ready for their results…” Keith threw a glare towards Lindsay before going to the piece of paper in his hand. She rolled her eyes, giving up focus on the alien.

“Bet I’m a mechanic…” Bradley whispered to her. He looked pleased as she relaxed at his remarks; he longed for her to grow used to him and was content she stopped shying away from him.

“I dunno. Someone’s gotta fly the spaceship. That’s you…” she encouraged and the idea caused him to redden. It didn’t occur to him until that instant he would qualify to be the pilot of the IR; he looked forward to working on a part of extraterrestrial machinery. According to what he heard the two former Marines talk about, he felt that Lindsay would be the stronger candidate of the two as pilot.

Lindsay didn't see what field she was best in. The automotive and mechanical parts of the assessment occurred foreign to her and she halfway understood the communications section! Lindsay was great at fixing conflict; that was the customer service experience in her. The woman dealt with people over the phone, being experienced in doing so. How would that relate to this case, she asked. For all she knew, Lindsay didn’t qualify for anything and would return to Phoenix. The idea would’ve been for the best, she guessed. How would she handle living apart from her husband for a whole year? She would not only be away from Earth but in another galaxy!

The old man would throw a party if she didn’t qualify for anything, she complained to herself; she had no clue why he was mean to her. Perhaps he was misogynistic: she didn’t go through that in the Marine Corps! Male Marines referred to her and any other woman in the Corps as a “walking mattress” but when it came time for work, no one showed disregard to her.

Lindsay's thoughts broke off as she gazed at Emuh examining her. It made her question if the alien had mind-reading abilities and stopped thinking. When she peered over at Bradley to whisper her suspicions, she found that he was deep in thought. Lindsay would talk to him later about it, she figured.

“The IR will need four mechanics. David and Tim: you two are the body mechanics. Anything about the exterior of the IR falls under your supervision. Steve, you have one of the toughest parts of the job; you’re the engine mechanic. You will make sure it operates at maximum capacity. Yoji is the electrical mechanic. Any and everything electrical will fall under your care.” Keith explained. The four stared at each other and beamed.

“Malik. Although you did not qualify for anything mechanical, you and Yoji will work together. You will be the Earth team’s communications operator. Your job will be to transmit any problems or conditions to the pilot, and that includes engine issues,” he continued. It didn’t go unnoticed that there was one obvious job left but two unassigned people. “Bradley will be the pilot of the IR. I don’t suppose there should be any explanation to that.” the man nearly smiled at the redhead. Bradley stared at Lindsay in awe; she was right. The racecar driver was virtually the leader of the Earth team.

Lindsay couldn’t make sense of it. The news made her heart drop although several moments ago, she was fine going back to her home. A week went by, but she was getting to understand the rest of team better, particularly Bradley, who appeared to go out of his way to get her more relaxed. A larger part of her looked forward to the experiences in another galaxy but now, she was the odd man out.

Keith let out a rough sigh and scowled at her, something that killed her gloomy thoughts. Lindsay's heart sped; she wasn’t leaving the team! But… what else was there to work?

“Lindsay, I must congratulate you on your results. They were... incredible. You will be the pilot’s right-hand man… or woman, so to speak.”

“I… I don’t get it. I’m a… copilot…?” she perked up. The IR required two pilots, she asked herself.

“No. You will be the IR’s artillery specialist.”

“Artillery… specialist…?” Lindsay thought out loud; she knew full well what it meant. The former Marine devoted eight years in the Marine Corps doing just that. Her bewilderment was that the IR would need ammo!

“Yes. Your job is to simply disable the other IRs if need be… not try to kill the other racers, understood?” Keith ordered with another glare.

“Yes, sir!” Lindsay's dislike for the man died out at this piece of news. Bradley gave her a flattering rub on the shoulder as she continued to beam.

“Congratulations to you all. Training will begin promptly at six tomorrow morning. Everyone will meet in sector twelve. If you haven’t already, familiarize yourselves with the building; it will be your home for the next three weeks.” Keith wrapped up and walked out the room. The other men gave Lindsay quick hugs in place of congratulations; they all knew the implied assessment results stressed her. The Royal Magistrate coming up to the group took everyone’s attention. As his thin lips curved into a smile, Lindsay repeated the gesture. She felt more at ease with him but couldn’t figure out why.

“I sense that you two will be a considerable adversary for my son. Good luck to you.” Emuh said and followed Keith out of the room. Bradley and Lindsay shot each other a look.

“We’re gonna be… racing against his son…??” Lindsay’s eyes widened.

“He didn’t seem to be too worried about it. Trust me, Lizzie; the kid gloves come off when you’re racing. He’ll find out soon enough…” Bradley winked at her.

3.1: Buno

Lindsay hurried out of her room only to see the rest of the team passing through the hallway. Bradley gave her a cheerful smile.

“Good morning!” his eyes shone as the woman rolled hers.

“Morning. Ain’t nothing good about getting up this damn early…” Lindsay half uttered, making the man laugh.

“I thought you military folks were used to this…”

“You know how long it’s been since I had to get up this damn early? Wasn’t a fan of it, then; not a fan of it now!” Lindsay complained.

“You’ll get used to it! Whelp; ready for training, partner?”

“As ready as I will be… partner…” she finally smiled back at him, clutching his hand in a firm handshake.

Malik and Yoji were behind the two as they made the short walk to sector twelve. Malik glanced down at Yoji, who gave him a polite smile.

“I’m sure we’ll make good partners.” Yoji pointed out. Malik nodded.

“Yeah. It’s just, trying to keep those two safe? Don’t think it’ll be easy!” he gave a hasty nod towards the pilot and his artillery specialist. An uncomfortable sensation built as he watched them bond; for that reason, he was not a fan of Lindsay and Bradley paired together. Malik realized it couldn’t be helped; it was what the assessment tests confirmed. He had this depressing sense that Bradley was flirting and according to the rings on her left finger, Lindsay was married.

It took them a few minutes to find sector twelve and, although they arrived early, Keith was there, ready to hand everyone a keycard.

“I’m glad to see that everyone is here on time. If you find out anything about me, you will learn that I don’t accept failure as an option… and tardiness is unacceptable.” he made clear. Lindsay leaned towards Bradley.

“What, we in school, now…?” she murmured as low as she could, making Bradley snort. Keith glared at the two as Bradley covered his snort with a cough.

“Do not lose these cards. You won’t get anywhere without them. Now, behind this door is the IR you will become familiar with.” Keith continued and let the security pad scan his keycard. When the door glided open, the team looked on in total astonishment.

“Holy…”

“… Shit!” Steve finished for Tim. Inside was more extensive than the door led people to believe. In the center of the room stood the Earth team’s IR, a silver machine that rose nearly twenty feet in the air. Its wings were two circular-designed air ventilators and the cabin sat between and above them in a slim half-oval frame with a clear panoramic windshield. A sphere at the base served as the gunner’s pit: mounted multi-barrel guns were set up on each side of the sphere. The shield was panoramic as well but tinted.

“This is our IR: the Silver Stallion.” Keith announced as the others gaped at the machine.

“I truly think we’re gonna need more mechanics!” Malik realized. He didn’t realize Keith heard him so the older man laughing surprised him.

“Four is actually more than enough. The Stallion looks massive but the components are simple once you’re fully trained. Speaking of; your first training lesson will be on getting to know the Silver Stallion.”

 

Three weeks later, the team learned all there was about keeping up with maintenance and operating the Silver Stallion. The group didn't find out how they would cross to the next galaxy until the day they departed; the entire team gawked at the massive Esperian spacecraft. Large enough to accommodate everybody in the training building along with the Silver Stallion, the Royal Magistrate assured that his shuttle was “one of the smallest” in the fleet. It proved to be far beyond Earth’s present technology; what would’ve taken them eons was reduced to an hour after teleporting to their destination.

Emuh put his spacecraft to autopilot and gazed at the humans aboard with a pleasing look.

“Welcome to the Ecilavi Galaxy. I hope you will enjoy your stay.” he stated as he took down the protective cover. An enormous window displayed the view of the smaller galaxy; while the Milky Way's planets were far apart, the worlds here seemed crowded together. Lindsay mustered the confidence to get out of her seat and stood near the tall alien. Her eyes remained wide as she took in the scene in front of her; these planets donned more vibrant colors than the ones she was used to seeing.

“Oh; what’s that dark thing over there? You guys have black holes?” she asked, pointing to their left. Emuh looked at the ominous smoky planet she was referring to.

“We do have black holes but that is not one. That is the planet Irazor. It is home to the Qees, a rather volatile species. Their entire existence is for conflict and destruction. They will have plenty to prove during these races. It is their initial year taking part as well,” Emuh nodded to himself. He glanced down at Lindsay, who looked bewildered. “Please assure me that Bradley and yourself are on guard.” he didn’t intend to fill his voice with fear but Lindsay caught on. The team had seen more of the alien in the three weeks they trained. Bradley and herself discovered that the Royal Magistrate had come to like the team although his son would contend against the Earth team. It was strange but Lindsay believed Emuh's favoritism was more towards herself and Bradley. Lindsay swallowed the slight fear down and nodded at the alien.

“I… I honestly don’t know what to expect but… we’ll be careful,” she stared back into outer space, attempting not to imagine the reason Emuh would deliver such a forewarning. Lindsay wanted to think about something else and cheered up when she did. “Your highness-”

“Oh, Lindsay. Please, call me Emuh. I admire your courtesy however it is not required at the moment. Forgive me if I speak out of term but… you are considerate for a human being. I have examined your team, and I have established you have the heart of an Esperian. Because of that, I remain positive my son would delight in your company very much... as I do, presently,” Emuh smiled at Lindsay. The words froze Lindsay in her place as she gawked at the alien, blood surging to her face. She looked down at her feet, pondering what to say because mere thanks didn’t seem it would fit for that moment. Lindsay had no idea how to take what he said. “I apologize. I did not intend to interrupt. There is something else you wish to speak about?” he went on. She still blushed but forced herself to look at him and shook her head. Her wanting to know if he had telepathy wasn’t significant after that.

“Oh! Yeah: which planet is yours? Es… peria, right?”

“Correct. That is Esperia,” he pointed towards a purple and blue planet that appeared smaller than Earth. “And here is Buno. As much as I delight in speaking to you, you will have to take your seat, now. I do look forward to another lengthy conversation. Please prepare for landing.” Emuh called to everyone else.

“I… m-me, too. Thank you,” Lindsay stuttered and returned to her seat. She watched as Bradley strapped in beside her; he offered her a smirk. “What’s with that look…?”

“You’re rosy. What was that all about, between you and the Royal Magistrate?”

“Oh, my God; it was nothing!”

“Oh, really?” he sounded as though he wasn’t convinced. The woman sighed as she harnessed herself in.

“… He said that I have the heart of an Esperian. Just… took me off guard, is all.”

“He gave you a compliment?”

“I… guess…”

“Heh…”

“What, now?”

“You’re acting like he’s trying to get in your pants…”

“W-W-W-W-What?! S-S-S-Shut up…” she snapped and twisted away from the man as he laughed louder.

Additional ships and alien travelers swamped the docking bay of Buno, which made the Earth team gaze on in sheer excitement. A few of the others took notice and peered back at them but ultimately went on their way. Emuh approached Keith as everyone unloaded from his ship.

“There will be a team here shortly to take the Silver Stallion to your IR bay. Another team will escort you to your quarters. The other participants are arriving today as well; there is to be a grand feast later. I am off to meet with my son; I will speak to you at the feast.”

“Looking forward to it.” Keith said. Emuh nodded and joined the crowd of characters. The Earth team noted that everybody paused and bowed as he made his way through. Keith turned and looked at his wide-eyed team.

“I understand that this is all foreign to you but try to act calm and civilized. They’re all going to stare at you; this is the first time any of them have seen a human in person.” Keith explained as the crew Emuh spoke of flew towards the docking bay.

None of them anticipated what they saw but the creatures looked like rather large rabbits with hands and feet. Their wings were large compared to their small, furry bodies. As they watched, the Earth team determined which ones were to help with the IRs and which ones were to lead them to their quarters: the “workers” wore dull white blouses with deep green slacks while the “guides” donned flowing orange robes. One guide landed in front of Lindsay and stared up at her; she guessed that the creature was no bigger than a two-foot toddler.

“So, you are a… human? Did I say that right?” its high-pitched squeaky voice fascinated her. Lindsay smiled.

“Yes. What are you…?” she couldn’t think of a better way to ask properly.

“We’re called Legooms. I’ve never seen a human before.” the Legoom busied itself by studying Lindsay.

“Well… I’ve never seen a Legoom before so I guess we’ll call it even!” she answered and the two laughed. The Legoom stuck out its small, furry hand; the sleeve of their robe slipped to reveal more of their arm. The move prompted Lindsay to crouch down to shake their hand.

“It’s true, then. This is the way to greet a human! My name is Naav.”

“Lizzie. That’s my name.”

“… Are you a female human?”

“Yep! Are you a female Legoom…?” Lindsay asked and Naav giggled.

“Of course! I’m sorry; I lost track of time! Now, if you would; follow me, please!” she took flight and patted Lindsay on the cheek. The woman glanced back at her team, who all gave her particular looks.

“What…? He said to be calm and civilized!”

3.2: The Welcome Feast

The Legooms escorted the bulk of the arriving groups to their dwelling quarters; a huge structure that reminded the humans of a hotel. The building was of an adobe red and oval-shaped, with many windows. Anyone who went out the docking bay could see the quarters. They took a fifteen-minute hike through grassy fields, small villages, and a wide marketplace to their destination. They were virtually pushed inside where the humans saw a variety of other aliens. Naav led the Earth team into one of the elevators in what they presumed was the lobby. The elevator was wide enough to carry the whole crew and their possessions. The group rocketed to one of the central levels, leaving them to hold tight onto something to hold their balance. They gathered their senses as Naav floated out when the doors opened.

“Everyone receives their own area. Each room comes with a personal droid named PAS. They will awaken you each morning, tell you the weather; any news you need. They were a token from the Esperians and have benefited tremendously! Each PAS have been programmed to provide your lodgings to your desires. Now, hold your hand on the panel to the right of the door and allow the system recognize your print,” Naav instructed. The earthlings did as instructed and waited for the panels to scan their handprints. With a quiet beep, each of their names appeared on the small LCD screen above the panels and the doors unlocked. “Now, no one else can access your room using their handprint. Amazing, yes? The grand feast will begin in two hours. Don’t be late!” she concluded. She waved goodbye before making her way to another level.

Malik walked inside his room. He wasn’t prepared for the mechanical orb that descended from the ceiling; the movement made him step back.

Good morning. I am PAS, your personal android system. Please, speak your name.

“Um… Malik Jackson…”

Are you male or female, Malik Jackson?

“… Definitely male…”

Thank you, Mr. Jackson. I am now set up for voice activation. Is there something you need, Mr. Jackson?

“Need…? I don’t know what you’re asking for, exactly. Are you asking to give me something to drink or-”

I am also programmed to inform that I am not a maid systemized program and cannot retrieve nor clean items for you.

“Ah. Gotcha. So, are you programmed for a human’s need, then?”

“Yes. Research about the planet, Earth, has downloaded into my system.”

“Alright. We’ll see how much you know!” Malik challenged, viewing the orb with a smirk. The man glanced around the room. The area was larger than he anticipated but it was clear.

“I sense that your living quarters concern you, Mr. Jackson.”

“What? Are you a mind reader?”

“I am able to sense your human emotions. A team of technicians are expecting our data and will construct your quarters to your desire.”

“Oh, so, that’s what you meant by something I needed!”

“Correct.”

“Well, then… guess we’ll start decorating!”

The Earth team gathered in the corridor and made their way to the lobby. Malik walked beside Lindsay, seeing as though Bradley was slow to reach the woman.

“So… they made several trips to your room.” Malik smirked at the blushing woman. Lindsay shrugged the feeling aside.

“What were you, spying on me…?”

“You’re funny! No, I was looking out here and saw them.”

“Well, they’re gonna finish after the feast. What?” she noticed that Malik gave her a look. “I have addictions, okay? I need my comics, my video games, my music, my movies, my cartoons… my food…”

“Okay, okay; I get it!” he laughed. Malik used the opportunity to study the short stature woman. Lindsay was short compared to himself; he stood near seven feet! Had he not heard of her military background, Malik would have never predicted that Lindsay would be the artillery specialist. Before Malik said another word, Bradley arrived on the opposite side of Lindsay. Something in the pit of Malik's stomach sank. For a split second, he wished that he was the pilot of the Silver Stallion.

“At least she’ll never get bored or that much home sick, right? Speaking of food… I wonder what we’ll be eating…” Bradley wondered as they got on the elevators. Lindsay shrugged and gave him a slight grin.

“I dunno. You’d think it would be something that we can digest, right? Oh, hell; what if all they want to do is poison us…?” her fear was met with laughs.

“I highly doubt that! We’ll just have to see when we get there.” David said. The group got off the elevator and Naav greeted them. The Legoom beamed at Lindsay and shocked everybody when she took Lindsay's hand, tugging her away.

“This way, please!” Naav called back and led the group to the area appointed for the feast. Their eyes widened at the size of the room; the area was large enough to take in every inhabitant of the housing building. “This is where you will have your meals if you choose. We were informed that humans also eat three times a day; so much in common! There’s your manager; you can join him at your table. Please enjoy the feast!” Naav released Lindsay’s hand and departed. She was rosy as she glanced back at her colleagues.

“I… I don’t know why she did that…”

“Aw; the thing’s fascinated with you!” Steve teased. Lindsay narrowed her eyes at him.

The Earth manager studied his crew. Keith didn’t know how to feel about the team's clothing; none of them had changed. There was no real issue: the members weren’t over or underdressed. Keith had to admit that he was happy the seven bonded as soon as they had; the Earth team continued making idle conversation with each other as they made their way to the table. Good; they’ll be fine when the races start, Keith told himself.

Lindsay continued her fascination with the other species while the others spoke. She longed for something to divert her from their teasing. Lindsay wasn’t paying attention and crashed into someone. She gasped as she had to stretch her neck to look at the dark mass. Twice the size of anyone there, the alien’s red hooded cloak did nothing to hide the deep gray armor that served as its body. Beneath the hood, no one could see anything except two green glowing orbs as it peered down at Lindsay.

“O-O-Oh… I’m sor-”

STUPID HUMAN, WATCH WHERE YOU ARE GOING!” the alien's deafening voice roared. He pushed her aside and resumed walking.

“What the…” Bradley raised his eyebrows at the back of the steel alien.

“Hey, what the hell??” Lindsay retaliated as she pulled herself off the floor. She didn’t care if the being was taller and broader than the Royal Magistrate; she would not stand for its rudeness. Lindsay was moments from approaching the metal giant until an unusual but gentle cool hand on her arm halted her. Lindsay twisted in agitation to see who stopped her but her mood shifted.

He had to be his son, Lindsay pointed out in her head. His skin was darker than his father’s, being a steel blue. The alien was also shorter, standing around the same height as Bradley. The Esperian’s onyx eyes had a glimmer as he stared down at the earthling.

“I would recommend that you do not provoke the general.” he said in a softer voice than his father’s. Lindsay could do nothing but attempt to restrain her smile. His robe was a sandy brown with the same unique color-changing gems adorned on it.

“The… general…?” she looked back and saw that the enormous alien had taken a seat.

“Yes. General Ehsa of the Qees. The ruthless commander of their army.”

“O-o-oh. But, he-”

“Hey; you alright?” Bradley interrupted. He gently grabbed Lindsay by the opposite arm and led her to their table. She nodded but held her gaze on the blue alien.

“Y-Yeah. So… you’re Emuh’s son…”

“Yes. I am Baron Areiv. It is a pleasure to meet you. Please, be very careful how you approach the general, if you are to approach him at all. He is not what you call a social being.”

“Noted…” Malik mumbled. He took one last glimpse at the general before taking his seat.

“My father has told me much about the Earth team. I do apologize that we have met under these circumstances.”

“It’s… okay, I suppose. We had to meet one way or another! Um… I’m-”

“Lindsay, yes. The way my father carried on, it is as though I am already acquainted with your crew. Bradley, Malik, Yoji, Steve, David, Tim and your manager, Keith.” the Baron identified each person accurately. He shook everyone’s hand except for Lindsay’s; Areiv cupped one of her hands and covered it, giving her a modest bow.

“A-Ah… um, you can call me… Lizzie… if you want…” she stuttered; his gesture flustered her.

“Will it displease you if I prefer ‘Lindsay’?”

“I… no…”

“Your dad said we’d be good competition for you. So… don’t sleep on me and my partner, now!” Bradley chimed in. Lindsay’s flustered state transformed into shock as she gave the man a stare.

“Brad! Baron, I’m sorry…” the soft laugh from Areiv surprised her.

“It is perfectly fine. I was made known of your Earth egos; I was not expecting to see it so soon! I look forward to our races against one another even more! However, I feel that you should not underestimate me.” the Baron responded with a smile.

“Hmph; we’ll see…” Bradley challenged with a smile of his own. Flustered, Lindsay opened her mouth to apologize until Emuh approached the group.

“Ah. I see that you have met my son. Let us leave the Earth team to their dining, Areiv. They will need to pay attention to the racing process. Perhaps after the feast, we shall join you for cocktails?” the Royal Magistrate looked at the Earth team’s manager.

“Of course.” Keith nodded. The two Esperians bowed and left but not before Areiv gave the group a simple smile. The earthlings took their seats.

“They have drinks here…?” David asked no one in particular.

“I wonder how they will taste…” Yoji appeared lost in thought. Lindsay hit Bradley on his arm.

“Ow! What was that for?!”

“We ain’t been here a whole day and you’re talking shit…?”

“Heh; that was only some friendly intimidation, darling. You should see what I do to my enemies!” he winked at her. Lindsay rolled her eyes.

“It was rude and uncalled for…”

“Well… call me crazy but… I think you’re just mad that I ran a potential suitor off…” he gave her a mischievous grin. Lindsay’s eyes grew larger as her cheeks became rosy once more.

“A… why you…”

“These are not other humans we’re dealing with, Bradley. Lindsay is right,” Keith controlled his own eye roll. “The Baron took it fairly well… others may not. And the Baron is right; don’t go picking fights with anyone!” Keith scolded his pilot and artillery specialist. As Bradley dropped his eyes, Lindsay glared at him.

“Now, wait just a damn minute! I wasn’t the one who…” she needed to say more but Bradley placed an encouraging grip on her knee underneath the table. He gave it a gentle tap and a squeeze, which made her stop scowling at the manager. “Fine…” Lindsay heaved out.

The Royal Magistrate and the Baron of Esperia sat at their table. The older alien took in the group of racers taking their seats; the atmosphere delighted him. Emuh's attention soon moved to the Qees general, who remained unaffected during the welcoming speech. The giant abruptly left as the food was delivered. Areiv kept his attention on the newcomers; it was the first time he'd seen humans in person and was taken aback how comparable the two species were. There was no need for him to give attention to the procedures; Areiv had lost track of how many times he took part. The Baron took the opportunity to study each human individual. The Royal Magistrate desired him to befriend the earthlings for a reason; he caught a glimpse of why during their sudden meeting.

“We must keep an eye out for Ehsa during these races, my son.”

“Yes, father.” the Baron answered thoughtlessly.

“I feel that he will not take heed the warnings of not deliberately causing injury to others. Particularly to the Earth team,” Emuh continued. When his son did not reply, he glanced at him. A smile surfaced on his face as he observed who his attention was on. “Perhaps you could assist as a protector…?”

“I am… sorry… father?” Areiv looked at the older Esperian who chuckled.

“This is your first time seeing humans. I assume that you approve?” his remarks made the Esperian blush.

“F-Father! They are simply…”

“Intriguing?”

“… Yes…”

3.3: Practice

The Earth team learned of the customs during the welcoming ceremony and feast. Thirty races ran in an Earth’s time span of a year, on the fourth day of the week. Each team earned points unless they could not finish the race. Weapons and ammo were used merely to cause damage to the Star Racer itself. Any intentional injury caused to a crew member would lead to disqualification, and a potential trip back to their home planet. Majority of the races were circuit events, consisting of ten laps. The remainder were sprints on Buno’s open terrain, to a designated finish position. Participants had four weeks after the feast to prepare and practice for the initial race.

The Earth team conducted their first practice on the oval track that hosted the opening race. Keith nodded his approval as the Silver Stallion docked in the bay. Bradley descended from the pilot’s pit and helped his partner out of hers.

“What you think? Not bad for a first run, eh?”

“That was… awesome! The simulations fail in comparison to the real deal.”

“The actual real deal will be in less than a month. Hopefully, your sights will be set by then, Lindsay. Bradley, a tad too much swaying but once you get used to having others on the track, it’ll calm down.” Keith critiqued. Lindsay held her grumbling to herself as Bradley nodded. The others crowded around the two.

“We’ve been working on some things here. Yoji put together this system in the bay computers. It’ll connect to the system in the Silver Stallion soon, maybe tomorrow.” Malik attempted to explain.

“What would it do?” Lindsay asked.

“It’ll give out any information on a Star Racer. The system already installed was set up to give you some basic info. I simply upgraded it to a lock-on system and calculated more data.”

“So… I need to know about a Star Racer, I just lock-on to it and…”

“The information will load to the bay computers.” Yoji continued.

“That’s pretty cool…” Lindsay admitted.

“But, that’s not the best part! So, everyone knows the oval tracks are basic, easy peasy stuff, right? But, what about those sprints? Well, the system will also be able to download the info on those tracks. As soon as you guys line up, Brad can activate the GPS system. We can take those coordinates, look it up and we’ll have a map for that race.” Malik smiled.

“Why not just download everything to the Stallion’s system?” Steve asked.

“The coding to do what I did was hard enough! Besides, we’re the communications team.”

“And, I don’t mind being useful, relaying stuff to these guys!” Malik continued to beam at the pilot and artillery specialist. “Oh, Lizzie! One more thing! Once we pass on the info to Brad, he can relay it to you.”

“Which… helps me… how…?”

“Well, he’ll only pass on the primary component of the Star Racer to you. The Stallion’s system can automatically switch to the best ammo according to the material. You would have to manually enter that information though.”

“Oh! But, still! Less work for the win!” she smiled at Yoji. Keith cleared his throat and caught everyone’s attention.

“Excellent work, Yoji and Malik. They will have less to worry about, now. Hopefully, this system can be applied tomorrow; I’d like for them to go through a test run with it, then.”

“We’ll see what we can do, boss…” Malik answered.

“Good. That’s enough work for today. You can all go home, now.” Keith dismissed the team. The group nodded as they got together their belongings and headed out the bay. Lindsay looked back and grinned as Bradley caught up with her. She stretched and yawned.

“Pretty impressive of Yoji to come up with all that.” Bradley smiled.

“Yeah. A good thing he was picked, right?”

“Yep!”

“Man, I could go for a long, hot bath…”

“And a cold one after that!”

“Ha; you said it, partner!” she agreed with him and the two laughed.

“Was that an invitation?”

“What? Taking a bath and then drinking a beer…?”

“W-What?! No to the bath part! Oh, you’re so funny…” Bradley shoved her when she snickered.

“Nah. I don’t have any in my room, anyway.”

“PAS could fix that problem.”

“It could but… I heard Buno’s ale was pretty close to one of our domestic beers.”

“I dunno; don’t think I can trust that. I mean, they proved they can duplicate our food at the feast. I’ll stick to what I know!”

“Really? We’ve got to broaden our horizons, Brad. We’re gonna be here for a while.”

“Don’t you think that alone is enough broadening?” he offered her a subtle smirk. Lindsay gave him a small smile with a laugh.

“Alright, touché, I guess,” she shook her head. The journey from the bay to the housing building wasn’t a long walk; the two entered the building and waited by the elevators. “Guess I could never convince you to join me at one of the bars, huh?”

“Nope! Now, you get your PAS to get some Budweisers? I’ll be in your room in a few minutes!” he winked. It was enough to make her snort.

“You’re horrible!” her laugh changed into a yawn.

“Aw; tired?”

“Yeah. Maybe that ale will have to wait until tomorrow. Think I’m gonna take that bath and go to bed.”

“Next time on hanging out and drinking Earth beer?” he stressed. Lindsay laughed.

“Fine, yes; Earth beer, silly human! And, yeah; maybe tomorrow,” she wanted to continue talking to him when they got on the elevators. But, the group that surrounded them promptly got on as soon as the doors opened. Bradley squeezed in and gave her an apologetic look. “I’ll catch the next one! Good night, Brad!”

“Night, Lizzie.” he nodded before the doors closed. Lindsay sighed and moved to the next elevator as another group waited. She studied the lobby and spotted a sign that pointed around the corner. Written in alien and English: “Hot Springs Spa & Treatment”.

“Oh… that bath’s gonna have to wait…”

4.1: The Spa

Of all the items she brought, Lindsay was glad she packed a bathing suit. After changing, she followed the signs to the hot springs. Descending a flight of steps, she walked in a vast steam-filled cave. A Legoom smiled up at her, giving her a towel.

“Female species to the right side, male species to the left side.” it stated. Lindsay nodded and went into the right direction. Lindsay surveyed the area and found out there were more than hot springs. There were large tubs filled with hot oil, mud, magma and other liquids she refused to speculate what they were! Like the hot springs spa sign, there were others printed in English and alien languages. Lindsay finally came upon a hot spring that wasn’t overly occupied and settled on that one.

Lindsay's heart pounded as the feminine species stopped what they were doing and stared at her. She had only spoken to Legooms and Esperians; Lindsay had hoped that other species understood her language as she cleared her throat.

“Uh… hi. M-May I join you…?” she attempted. The women glanced at each other and turned their gazes back at the human. Great, they don’t understand, she wanted to sigh out loud.

They finally nodded to Lindsay’s delight. She offered them a smile as she slipped into the heated water. Lindsay sat on the polished surface that served as a bench. She never been in water so soothing; after a long day at practice, it was surely what she needed to drift off. But, she wasn’t accustomed with the others… and they still gazed at her. Lindsay decided that it was best to keep her eyes open.

“Relaxing, isn’t it?” a lynx-like alien broke the tense silence, purring. Her burgundy fur was short and matted to her body thanks to the water. Her golden eyes were already in slits; Lindsay didn't know if they truly narrowed at her. The whiskered smile put her at ease and she nodded.

“Y-Yes. Very much…”

“It isn’t too hot for you? Humans enjoy water…?” a scaly alien asked. Lindsay nodded once more as she looked at the alien. She reminded Lindsay of a stereotypical water alien from a B-rated movie. Her gills on the side of her jade neck lifted and twisted as she studied Lindsay.

“Well… some more than others. Quite a few not at all! Our bodies are mostly made of water… and Earth is mostly covered with it… not as hot as this, though…” she tried. She was glad she recalled her school courses vaguely; she didn’t want to tell them any half-truths. The scaly alien’s brilliant blue eyes glittered at her remarks.

“That sounds like a rather nice planet!” she said and Lindsay laughed.

“So, you really are a human. Not much to look at…” the snootiness took the woman by surprise. A blood red alien who sported black horns on top of her head rolled both pairs of eyes at Lindsay. She gawked at the demon-like alien, struggling to think of something to say.

“What are your powers, human?” the cat alien ignored the demon alien and scooted closer to Lindsay.

“Uh… powers…?”

“Yes, powers. Is there something… special you can do? Can you read minds?” the devil alien breathed out in mock indifference.

“Can you breathe underwater?” she was happy that at least two of the women seemed thrilled about her.

“O-Oh… no. We’re just… ordinary.” she realized. There were millions of extraordinary and special humans on Earth; Lindsay didn’t want to bother them with the details. But, with the questions they asked her, she realized that those special earthlings failed compared to what the others regarded as standard. It made her also comprehend that every species in that galaxy had some kind of ability.

She was close to excusing herself; while she wished to hear more about the others, the demon alien made her feel unwelcomed. Lindsay didn’t see the vampiric alien until she moved nearer to Lindsay’s left side. The sight of her made Lindsay uneasy, although she grinned at her. She was ghost white with crimson eyes but she was the closest to being humanoid than the others. Her black lips parted when she grinned, revealing pearly, sharp fangs.

“Let’s be nice! This is their first time here, in this galaxy. There must be something about her that’s extraordinary; the Esperians specifically requesting them should say plenty,” the woman defended. She held a claw hand out towards Lindsay. “I’m Agnab… from the planet Olen.” she introduced. The human stared at the hand and shook it.

“H-Hi. Lindsay but… you can call me Lizzie.”

“Forgive the others, Lizzie. They’re excited about meeting a human in person. I’m certain you have a lot of questions for us.” her soothing voice calmed Lindsay as she nodded.

“As a matter of fact, yes. How do you all know English so well?” it had been on her mind since stepping foot on Buno. Agnab and the others lightly laughed.

“Oh, it wasn’t terribly difficult to learn. Your Earth languages are so, well… simple. There are some species here with telepathic abilities, you would call them. When they communicate, you may think they’re speaking English but they’re not. They make the hearer believe that they’re speaking their primary language. Snil is one of those species.” Agnab nodded towards the demon alien.

“Besides her, the rest of us were taught. The Royal Magistrate has been to your planet numerous times. He prepared the rest of this galaxy for your arrival and made certain that we learned Earth languages.”

“Wait… all of them?” Lindsay asked the scaly alien.

“Yes. He said humans take a long time to understand things like different languages. That it would be much simpler for us to adapt to you rather than the other way around.” Agnab explained.

“Your languages were the easy part. A number of us are working to comprehend your culture…” the cat alien nodded. Lindsay smiled.

“Oh… good luck with that! There are so many cultures on Earth! But, I guess… we’re trying to do the same, here.”

“Just as we’re positive we’ll become used to you, you will do the same. At least that’s what we look forward to. I heard humans are closed-minded? That the very thought of different species terrifies you.” Agnab looked at Lindsay for a response. She shrugged.

“For some: anyone different, period terrifies them! I dunno. I always knew this universe was too large for us to be the only intelligent life. But for many of us, the thought of other species out there? Most theories state they’d likely try to take over our planet and drain our resources... and us!”

“You need not worry about that here! The majority of us are rather peaceful. The only ones you have to avoid are the Qees and Vaskiians. I’m glad the Vaskiians decided not to take part this year; bothersome things! And… I don’t know whether to call you bold or unwise at your effort to stand up to the general at the welcoming feast…” the scaly alien eyed her. Lindsay felt her cheeks color, and she studied the water.

“Oh… you saw that…?”

“The entire room did! I do commend you for that, Lizzie. Olenions are ever willing to stand their ground… but not against a Qees! You have a lot of bravado in a body largely composed of water!” Agnab joked. Lindsay caught on and laughed.

The Olenion warrior introduced the other female species sharing the spa: Naeco the scaly alien and Ona the cat alien. Lindsay was glad Snil finally warmed up to her, and the four aliens took turns answering her questions. They described the other species found in the extensive cave. Lindsay learned that the Ecilavi Galaxy was far greater than her own.

Lindsay tried to go over each unique species when pointed out. As she glanced around, she spotted a group walking in the cave. One in particular she recognized: the Baron. Areiv made eye contact at once, and gave her a polite nod accompanied by a smile. Flustered, she smiled back and looked away.

“Ah… I see that a lucky female has captured the Baron’s eye, already!” Snil’s natural snooty voice sang out. Lindsay jerked her head and eyed the Riantic.

“W-W-What?!”

“Yes! Why, I haven’t seen his highness smile in eons!” Naeco smiled at Lindsay. Her eyes widened even more.

“W-W-Wait, what?! N-N-No! It’s not even… like that; I barely know him!” Lindsay rushed. She didn't understand why it made her feel guilty but her cheeks ached all the same.

“I don’t know how things are done on Earth but on my planet and many others here, that was an expression of desire…” Ona teased.

“Desire?! That’s crazy! I… we hardly said three sentences to each other; I don’t know him well enough to… desire him. Besides, I’m already married…”

“Married…” Snil let the word roll off her blue tongue. The alien pondered on it before blinking her eyes at Lindsay. “I don’t believe I’m familiar with that word.” she confessed. Lindsay thought for a while.

“Ah. A mate. I already have a mate.” she said and showed everyone her rings.

“That represents a mate? Very interesting.” Naeco became confident enough to take the human’s hand. She examined the silver wedding bands with interest as Lindsay smiled and nodded.

“You seem… pleased about it. Was it not arranged from birth?” Snil asked.

“Oh, no. I mean, there’s some Earth cultures that still do that. Not mine. We met, we dated, we fell in love… we mar… mated.”

“You can mate with anyone of your choice…?” Ona looked in amazement at Lindsay.

“You can’t?”

“Not my culture! There are many cultures here where you are assigned a mate from birth or can only choose from a particular class. Maybe humans are extraordinary!” Ona continued. The thought was enough to make Lindsay grateful for her earthling ways in that matter.

4.2: Breakfast

She sat at the table with her food in the dining facility. She could’ve remained in her room and ate the Earth food she kept in her refrigerator. But, after befriending Agnab, Snil, Ona and Naeco, the aliens got Lindsay to try Bunodic dishes. The commissary that morning served Ajom: Buno’s most well-known dish; Lindsay found herself hooked. She didn’t dare question what was in it; although she would have no idea! All she knew was that the leafy, dull red salad dish was delightful.

“You enjoy Bunodic cuisine as well.” the Baron’s kind voice had a tinge of awe. Lindsay jumped at Areiv’s voice and turned towards him. She wiped her mouth as her cheeks ached from embarrassment.

“B-Baron! Wha-”

“Please… call me Areiv. Only the royal court and followers call me ‘Baron’. I see none around here.” he smiled directly at Lindsay.

“Oh… okay.”

“May I join you?”

“Uh… um, yeah; sure…” she stammered. Areiv sat beside her and Lindsay took notice of his plate: a generous portion of Ajom accompanied with a gooey green substance.

Lindsay stole a glimpse at him, getting ready to open her mouth to ask questions. Something made her stop as she examined him. She had to admit that he was rather attractive for an alien. The idea made her blush once again, and she stared back at her plate of food. Lindsay remembered what Agnab mentioned to her. Nearly every species of female in the galaxy had fallen for the Baron’s looks and demeanor. The Olenion believed many simply wished to become Lady of Esperia and was the primary motive for their interest in him. Agnab informed her that the Baron needed a mate before the title of Royal Magistrate passed on to him: Emuh’s rule was drawing near an end.

Lindsay made an effort to wave the thoughts out of her head. While he was handsome, so were a few members on the Earth team. She didn’t pursue any of them; why try with anyone else? She was happily married. She would have to put whatever feelings she had for anyone at bay and stick with being platonic, no matter how long they would be on the planet.

“If you enjoy Ajom, then you would surely love the food on Esperia.” his words snapped her train of thought. Lindsay smirked and nodded.

“You’re pretty confident about that.”

“Yes. It is the finest.” Areiv nodded. Lindsay laughed and nodded towards his plate.

“That green stuff. That’s from Esperia?”

“Yes. This is called dworl. It is commonly consumed by itself. However, there is no harm in combining it with your meal. You must taste it; it works well with Ajom.” he didn’t wait for Lindsay to refuse or answer. Before she could blink, his spoon aimed at her lips, a tiny sample on the end of it. She didn’t want to seem rude so Lindsay sampled and an instant effect of licking her lips took place.

“Oh… oh, wow! It’s kinda sweet. It’s like… jelly. This would go good on some toast!” her approval made the Baron smile.

“I do not know what toast is but I will assume that it is a good thing. As well as edible.”

“That’s right. I keep forgetting that this is literally a brand-new world. You guys don’t know what grains and stuff are.”

“Afraid not. I would have to research to see if we have anything related to your… grains and stuff.” Areiv offered her a warm smile. Lindsay laughed.

“Thanks for the sample. I honestly don’t know if I’d ever get a chance to visit Esperia. But, if I do, you gotta give me at least a jar of that dworl!” she smiled. Areiv returned the smile and nodded.

“That can be arranged. As well as your visit. Whenever you have the time.” he surprised her yet again. Lindsay stared at him. She didn’t expect an actual response from him.

“O-Oh. Thank you, Areiv. I guess when the races are over with… I’ll make plans.”

“You are more than welcome to visit during the races; the voyage is not long. However, I will be most honored with whatever arrangements you have,” the Baron gave her a slight bow. The move was enough to make her bashful once more, and she turned her attention to her meal. Lindsay ran out of things to discuss. She questioned if the two would sit in silence, having their breakfast. The woman crammed a forkful of Ajom in her mouth to prevent the awkward silence. “Is it a common custom for your colleagues not to dine with you? Do they not enjoy Bunodic food?”

“Ah…” she had to finish the bite in her mouth. “Highly doubt they do. All of this is still new to us. I’m learning bit by bit but… it’s one thing to try new things. It’s another to try new alien things!”

“I see.”

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure they’re in their rooms or out and about somewhere.”

“Oh. You do not know their whereabouts?” it puzzled Areiv. Lindsay shrugged.

“I mean, we’re a team, yeah. But, we all just met each other a little over a month ago. We’re still getting to know each other well.”

“Ah. So, Bradley is not your mate?” he asked, and it made Lindsay choke. His gasp at her coughing made it take longer for her to settle down. Once she did, Lindsay laughed.

“I’m sorry! I’m… fine…”

“A-Are you… sure? Do I need to contact the medic-”

“No, I’m fine! Really. But, um… no, Bradley is not my mate! My mate is still on Earth.”

“You are… laughing at what I ask? Why is that amusing?”

“Well… you’re the only one who knows this. So, back on Earth, Brad is this racecar driver. Very popular, you know? And I’ve been a fan for a long time… and probably infatuated with him for just as long.”

“… Infatuated…” he thought about the word. Lindsay blushed a little.

“I wouldn’t say I… desired him. The, ah… I guess the feeling below that one?”

“I understand infatuation.” Areiv looked at her, making the woman even more rosy.

“O-Oh. Sorry! I thought… anyway. He doesn’t know all that. He only knows that I’m a big fan. So, I found it funny and ironic that, of all the guys on the team, me and him become partners.”

“I see. I apologize for the assumption.”

“It’s okay. Although… have we been acting like we’re mates…?”

“According to my standards, not at all. I assumed because I do not know your standards. May I add the two of you seem well suited?”

“… R-Really?”

“You are surprised. Yes. It was a main reason for the assumption. However, I am certain that you are well suited with your present mate,” Areiv nodded. Lindsay took his remarks in consideration and smirked to herself. It took her a great while to realize Tracy and herself were well matched. When they first met, the only thing they had in common was they were both Marines! Tracy and Lindsay Rose were opposites. But it didn’t matter; what did was they fell in love with each other and cared for each other passionately. “A different question, if you do not mind. Have you had a tour of Buno?”

“… No. Not yet, anyway. I’m… not comfortable going out and about by myself. Agnab or the others haven't offered so…”

“You have befriended others here. That is most satisfying. Do not trouble yourself over the safety of Buno. It is quite a tranquil place.”

“Okay. Maybe one day after practice, I’ll walk around more.”

“Lindsay… there is a recital this evening. The Legooms are the finest musicians in the galaxy and I seldom miss a performance! Do you… care to join me?” the alien tried. Lindsay gave him a look of awe as she felt her cheeks ache once more.

“Um… I… that sounds… yeah. Sure. Sounds like it’ll be fun, actually…”

“Yes, it is. Afterwards, perhaps I can show you a small section of Buno? I do not want to keep you out too late.”

“… I would like that, Bar… Areiv.” Lindsay smiled.

“Then, I shall meet you outside the housing facility at dusk.” Areiv gave her a smile back.

“I knew I’d find you here!” Bradley’s familiar southern twang rang out. Lindsay gave him a bright smile as he took a seat beside her.

“Morning! Oh, you gonna finally try something new for once?”

“Not on your life! Alright; what the hell is that?” the man pointed at Lindsay's plate. She took another mouthful as Bradley cringed.

“It’s called Ajom. It’s their signature breakfast dish; you gotta try it!” she thrust her fork towards his mouth. Bradley gave a show of pushing it aside.

“Ugh, no! How do you even eat this stuff; do you know what’s in it?!”

Don’t tell me; it’s delicious and I wanna enjoy it! Then again… you talking to someone who eats chitterlings…”

“Right. You’re disgusting. Hi, Baron,” Bradley noticed Areiv, nodding towards the alien. “Keeping our girl company this morning or you tryna get our racing strategy out of her?” he taunted, much to Lindsay’s dismay. Before she could open her mouth, Areiv gave the human a modest smile.

“Rest assured, I need not cheat to defeat you. It is actually Lindsay who is providing me with her company. However, I shall take my leave; the two of you appear to have plenty to discuss.”

“Oh, it’s okay, you don’t hav-”

“Until dusk, Lindsay.” Areiv made the woman forget her words as he grasped her hand ever so lightly. He gave Lindsay a bow and a smile before he grabbed his tray and departed. Bradley tried and failed to contain his smirk as he glanced at the glowing woman.

“… Until dusk? What’s that about?”

“N-N-Nothing. It’s… nothing…” she tried to occupy herself by eating. Bradley narrowed his eyes at her.

“Hey… whatcha doing tonight? We don’t have practice this weekend; we could grab a few beers, get a little drunk and cause some human chaos in town!” he smiled widely at her. Lindsay’s natural color never returned as she took a sip of her drink.

“As fun as that sounds… I can’t. Maybe tomorrow night.”

“Aw, why put off… um… I don’t know how that saying goes. But, why not tonight? Can’t tell me you’re gonna be tired later!”

“Brad…”

“What? Tell me what that ‘until dusk’ thing is about, Lizzie. You got plans with the Baron or something…?”

“Alright, alright, damnit! Anyone tell you you’re annoying?!”

“I’ve heard it several times, yeah…”

“I’m going to a recital tonight.”

“A recital, huh? With the Baron?”

“… Yeah…”

“So… let me get this straight. You’re going on a date with the Bar-”

“W-W-W-Wait, a WHAT?! N-N-No!!”

“You’re blushing…” Bradley narrowed his eyes at her once again. Lindsay turned away from him.

“I-I-I’m not blushing! And, it’s not a date! He’s just… showing me around…”

“Uh, huh. Are we all invited to this recital, then?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“And, this recital is just so happening at night. Along with the showing you around bit…”

“Oh, my God; stop it! You’re looking too much into this! This is nothing! Nothing will happen; Areiv knows that I’m married!”

“Oh… it’s just Areiv, now? You’re dropping the formalities with him. In fact… you dropped the formalities with his dad, too. Is the Royal Magistrate gonna be there…? Is this some sort of weird alien orgy incest thing going on…?”

“Oh… my… GOD; get the hell away from me!!” Lindsay didn’t intend to be as loud as she was; the two humans drew attention towards themselves. Lindsay looked down at her plate as Bradley snickered. She threw him a malicious stare. “What the hell do you want, anyway?!” she asked in a cool tone.

“I’m sorry! It’s just fun to tease you! Yoji and Malik sent me on a quest. Wanna go to the marketplace with me?”

“Am I gonna hear more about me going to this recital with Areiv?”

“Chances are great…”

“Then, no.” Lindsay clutched her tray and got up from the table.

“Lizzie! Don’t be like that; I said I was sorry!”

4.3: The Legoomian Recital

The Baron of Esperia had never been so uncertain about anything in his whole life span. Even as the days of his father’s rule grew shorter, Areiv never showed much consideration about becoming the Royal Magistrate. Emuh groomed him to develop into one, so it didn’t trouble him in the least. As with many situations in his life, it was something that needed doing.

Preparing for the recital gave him a strange sensation. He paused and questioned why he prepared with much more interest than normal. He realized how he pondered on which pieces would work best with one another. The thought of how Lindsay would react to his attire made him nervous. Never mind the fact there were other matters that occurred in his life span that should’ve caused him to feel the same.

He recalled how delighted his father would become whenever he spoke of the Earth team. Areiv noted his father's energy, notably so when he spoke of the human female with the Esperian heart. Emuh was positive that his son would become immediate friends with the woman. The Baron swore it was a mere press for him to get a mate; the thought of her being human confused him.

Yet, he was not prepared for the disposition she displayed the moment he laid eyes on her. The humans impressed him in general; for as long as he could recall, the Esperians knew only of the tales of them. To see a whole group in person was thrilling. The woman more so: even as she walked and examined her surroundings, Lindsay had a courteous aura about her. He was definitely surprised that not only did the male humans show their bravery towards General Ehsa, but she as well.

He didn’t know how to feel about her, even as he stepped outside and noticed her standing alone. His father always had good judgment in individuals; Lindsay was no exception. Emuh wanted his son to make friends with the earthlings, regardless of the fact they would be his adversaries. He positioned himself to do just that but there was something about the woman he couldn’t pinpoint.

Areiv paused a few feet before he approached and examined her. Lindsay stood by the fountain set up in front of the housing building. Areiv’s research on human culture told him she wore casual Earth attire meant for the planet's warmer months: black Capri pants, an orange-striped blouse and black sandals. He paid particular care to Lindsay's shoes. The sandals donned a large orange and white flower that threatened to hide her toes. Lindsay’s dreadlocks were so long, she often set them up in a bun. Areiv admired the way they tumbled past her shoulders, to the middle of the woman's back. A few strands were pulled into a ponytail but even those hung past her shoulders. The Baron would ask about the tiny silver ornaments that wrapped around random locks.

Lindsay turned to see if she would catch Areiv coming out of the building and reddened as they made eye contact. She offered him a smile and noted that the alien was not in one of his accustomed royal robes. The Esperian wore a majestic purple tunic with abstract Esperian designs embedded throughout. Lindsay also wasn’t used to seeing him wearing slacks, which were a simple smoky gray.

“Oh… Lindsay, you look beautiful this evening.” Areiv couldn’t help himself. His remarks made Lindsay’s cheeks ache deeper than expected.

“T-Thank you. I… didn’t do anything special. But… you do, too,” she stammered. When Areiv gave her a stunned expression, Lindsay shied away and cleared her throat. “I mean, not beautiful but… handsome.”

“You cannot call me beautiful?”

“Well, I can. But, the word is more for a female than a male.”

“I see. Not too many have called me beautiful. Well, usually those who are merely seeking to flatter me. Too many believe that I cannot hear. I know of their intentions. With you, however, I acknowledge that it is sincere.”

“Oh?”

“Indeed. You have nothing to gain by flattering me. You already have your mate. Your words are meaningful to me… and I thank you.” Areiv finished explaining. Lindsay nodded and smiled. He was right; she was simply being friendly to him. It calmed her mind all the better; the Esperian's intentions were the same.

“You’re welcome. So… I’m not too casual, am I?” she couldn’t help eyeing his attire. The Baron let out a small laugh.

“My dear Lindsay; this is my informal attire. So, to answer your inquiry: not at all. Shall we, then?” he bent a blue arm towards her. Areiv learned that it was an old-fashioned Earth custom, but he was glad it was a feature the two species shared. Lindsay nodded and wrapped her arm around his, flustered that he referred to her as “his dear Lindsay”. 

The two chatted as they made their way to the nearby outdoor amphitheater. The similarities amazed Lindsay as they found seats together. Areiv noticed her amusement and smiled.

“Do you attend recitals on Earth?”

“No, actually. Well, we call them concerts. I’ve only been to three in my life.”

“That is unfortunate. No one should ever miss out on the finer qualities in this life span.”

“No offense but with you being a Baron and royalty? You can afford to enjoy things like this on a daily basis!”

“Oh? Recitals on Earth require payment?”

“Most of them, yeah. Not to say the free ones aren’t any good though. But, on Earth for the most part, you gotta pay for what we consider the ‘finer qualities’.”

"I see. So disappointing. There are few activities that call for payment in this galaxy. However, I understand being the Baron of Esperia has its advantages at moments.” he agreed.

“I just bet! How many women wanted to join you tonight?”

“I am certain quite a few. However, none approached me. They normally do not. Is it customary for human females to approach the male in these circumstances?”

“I… I don’t have an actual answer for that. Yes and no? It’s one of our old-fashioned values that’s stayed intact for the most part. Not too many of us are bold enough to ask a guy anywhere.”

“That is the custom here. Can we come to an arrangement? I will make certain you always experience the finer qualities this galaxy offers whenever you are in my presence.” the Baron surprised her. Lindsay shot a glance at him as her cheeks ached.

“Oh. Um… Areiv… you don’t have to do that.” she answered.

“It would please me greatly if I am able to do that for you. I certainly do not mind doing so. Is that improper of me? Why does it astonish you?”

“It’s just… isn’t there a single female species here who’s more deserving of that?”

“Single?”

“Those without a mate.”

“Ah. There may be. I have doubts they would be as sincere as yourself. The recital is about to begin; you are in for a delight this evening.” Areiv decided although this was a relaxed gathering for the two, he had expressed too much. He was grateful for the sounds of the Legoom musicians warming up.

Lindsay tried to wait out the familiar ache in her cheeks; it didn’t go unnoticed that the Baron changed the topic. She wouldn’t pry any further and turned her attention towards the stage. The instruments were like Earth’s versions of flutes and clarinets. From her seat, she couldn’t make out the material but Lindsay noticed there were extra and irregular-shaped holes in the instruments. The human could likewise tell the gender of each Legoom. The females wore ivory gowns that sparkled while the males wore slacks and shirts of the same color.

Lindsay smiled as Naav made her way to the center of the seated musicians. The Legooms, like humans, were all unique in features. It was simple to identify them from one another. Lindsay still called the Legooms "rabbits" in her head and thought Naav had a rich shade of golden fur. The Legoom was also the only one whose tufts of hair curled at the top of her head. Although it had only been a week since the humans arrived on Buno, Naav and Lindsay were good friends. The two fascinated one another!

The other musicians took note of Naav and her golden flute; they stopped warming up at once. The audience hushed, and the Legoom began a slow and gentle tune. Lindsay looked around to see the reactions from everyone but discovered that their eyes were shut.

“Umm… Areiv… am I supposed to-”

“My apologies,” Areiv’s eyes snapped open and threw her an apologetic glance. “It is best experienced with your eyes closed. Trust me.” he assured her. Lindsay gave him a curious look but shrugged. She closed her eyes and suppressed her laugh. What a strange world, she smirked to herself. Lindsay’s brow wrinkled when no sooner had she shut her eyes, the Legoom musicians emerged. It was as though her eyes weren’t closed at all; they were crystal clear. Lindsay gasped as vibrant colors emitted from their instruments, stretching out and creating a ground of some sort.

“Am… am I supposed to see all this…?” she whispered as she leaned towards Areiv.

“I hope it is not too overwhelming for you…”

“No. It’s… really beautiful…” she whispered back with a smile. Rose-tinted tree trunks with delicate golden leaves blossomed around her. The scene grew into a magical forest with yellow, dense lawn and a mixture of flowers. The musicians disappeared and in their place, other Legooms danced and played.

Lindsay looked and noted that she was in the performance as well. The woman was no longer wearing her casual attire but a peachy gown that spilled over her hands and feet. Metallic gold trim traced the edges of the garment. It reminded Lindsay of a gown worn by noblewomen in the Medieval ages. A small group of Legooms noticed and moved toward her with joy. They took her to a small brook in the heart of the enchanted land. Lindsay glanced at her reflection and saw a tiara on her head. It was of golden twine decorated with various shades of orange flowers.

The music switched to a bright, lively tune as Lindsay danced and played along with the other Legooms. She felt exhilarated as if she was truly dancing and questioned if the rest of the audience experienced the same. Right before she could tire herself, the Legooms made Lindsay sit on a crimson tree stomp. They took turns bringing gifts from the forest: berries and other assorted fruits, and flowers. Two female Legooms placed sweet-smelling flowers in her hair.

This is a tale of a princess from another planet. Adored by Buno, they named her their queen.” Naav’s squeaky voice was overheard.

“… Wait… is this… is this about… me…??” Lindsay asked no one in particular; she didn't know if anyone could hear her! Regardless, the Legooms continued to pay tribute to her.

She was strong, elegant, compassionate and courageous. She ruled the land of Buno with a mystic sword. With it, she came to be a fine defender of Buno, where her kingdom loved her.” Naav continued to narrate. A sword, she asked. Lindsay glanced at her side and saw a jewel encrusted sheath on her hip; the hilt of a great sword definitely stood out. The human stood up and removed the weapon; it gleamed with a pleasant light engulfing its silver thin blade.

The music became light paced yet sharp as the Legooms panicked. Many fled for protection while those by her switched glances from the densely-wooded region to her. Lindsay looked to discover what bothered them; the heavy trees rustled violently. A huge beast charged onto the scene, standing the same size of an adult mountain lion. The animal looked like a wild boar to her without its tusks but it was threatening at the size it was. When it was about to pounce, Lindsay steadied the sword and severed the beast in two. While she was still pondering over how poised and responsive she was, the Legooms came out of hiding. They admired her even more and picked up the fractions of the creature, preparing it for a celebration.

As the animal cooked over a fire, the soft sounds of the flutes and clarinets became dignified and booming. Lindsay associated it with the announcement of a king but seeing she was the nobility, it confused her. The human kept her hand on the hilt of her sword just in case. After killing the creature that jumped at her, Lindsay gained more confidence. An ebony horse trotted into the open space and Lindsay lowered her hand as she gaped. Its rider was none other than Areiv. His attire had not changed, but he wore a circlet on his head. Lindsay couldn’t help but to smile as he dismounted the steed.

Oh! The Baron of Esperia has paid the queen a visit today. Buno and Esperia will soon unite as one nation!

“Hold up… what??” Lindsay was very tempted to open her eyes and question this portion of the narrative! Yet, she became captivated with the way the Baron gazed at her. Areiv smiled as he took her hand and kissed it.

“My queen.” were the only words he spoke. The song shifted to a waltz and Lindsay’s whole body flushed as they danced. She did nothing but stare as they swayed. The closeness reminded Lindsay once again of how handsome the alien was. Along with his confidence and courteous demeanor, she found it hard that a female species wouldn’t wish to be in his presence. Lindsay enjoyed the sensation of his cool hands on her back and around her waist; she could feel the passion he had for her through that alone. It was enough for Lindsay to smother a laugh. It was the illusion of the tale and not real. A performance by a remarkable group of musicians. Areiv was right; Lindsay was definitely delighted by it all!

Lindsay chose to revel in the moment; it would be the only time she permitted herself to be this close to the Baron. A quiver made its course up Lindsay's spine as he smiled and took her chin. She drew in a gasp as her heart pounded; they were going to kiss. It was too much, illusion or not. Lindsay was moments from opening her eyes when the music became bitter and distraught. Unlike the last time, all the Legooms hid as they heard a terrible roar. Both Areiv and Lindsay looked towards the sky only to see it evolve from its calm sea green to a sinister black. A blood red tint took over the horizon, and a form materialized from it, towering over the queen and the Baron. Areiv glared at the figure and stood in front of Lindsay as if daring it to strike. The shadow created a sickly stream that Lindsay assumed was its arm and hit the Baron. The strike was heavy enough to knock him sideways, exposing Lindsay. She backed away from the mass as it bore down on her. Lindsay prepared herself for a similar blow until Areiv moved in for the assault.

“Areiv, no!” Lindsay cried, but it was too late. Another powerful red swipe rammed him against nearby woods, leaving him to crash to the ground.

Something came over Lindsay. She had two options: check on Areiv or fight the shadow beast. The woman decided: Lindsay felt that if she ran towards Areiv, it meant her death. Lindsay drew her sword as the shadow screeched at her, rocking the surrounding land. Lindsay looked over at Areiv, who remained slumped against the trunk of a tree and the sight angered her. The queen scowled and rushed towards the blood red fog, swinging her sword with all her might. Lindsay suspected her swipes to be wild and unruly but the figure backed away from her flurry of attacks. Her attacks were precise and charged with fury as they made slices into what she considered to be its body. Even though the mass fell back, Lindsay continued her aggression; it had hurt Areiv, and she wasn’t accepting that. Not in her kingdom.

Anger continued to emanate from her body as she shrieked with each swipe. The red being groaned with every blow but Lindsay didn’t back down. Suddenly, all her anger shifted to the sword itself. A ray of blinding light burst from the tip of the blade and dispersed the crimson darkness.

Exhausted, Lindsay struggled to catch her breath as she looked to the sky. She expected the color to change back to its natural green; the queen slain the menace. It shocked Lindsay to see that it toned to a dingy gray. The music changed to a quiet and tragic cadence, which made Lindsay turn to where Areiv laid. He still wasn’t stirring; the woman didn’t know if he was still breathing. Lindsay rushed over to him as the Legooms came out of hiding to join her. She drew him in her arms to check.

“Areiv…? Areiv, please,” she tried as her heart sped. The Baron's usually cool skin warmed, and it made the woman produce tears; Lindsay recognized what that implied. “No…” she choked out. Her tears flowed as Lindsay rested her forehead against Areiv's. The pain of losing him overwhelmed her as she trembled.

Little did the queen know she had magic inside her. The droplets of sadness settled on the Baron’s face… and revived him.” Naav continued to narrate. Lindsay was so caught up in her emotions, she gasped when she noticed a coolness waver. She stared as the Baron began to breathe. Areiv gave her a weak grin as he cupped her cheek.

“You are safe…”

“Areiv!” Lindsay sniffed. The Legoomian flutes and clarinets started a cheery tune as the sky returned to its usual shade. Filled with so much pleasure that he was alive, Lindsay cupped the Baron’s face and they shared a kiss.

Buno and Esperia will soon unite as one, and the queen and her baron lived happily ever after.” Naav finished.

Lindsay opened her eyes and rubbed at the remnants of tears as the music finished. The crowd exploded in applause while she could do nothing but blush heavily. Lindsay glanced over at the Baron but he was on his feet, giving the performers a standing ovation. Lindsay observed that others done the same, but she remained rooted. Areiv looked at her with a smile that shortly transformed into a concerned gaze. He sat beside her.

“Oh… did you not enjoy the recital?”

“Areiv… d-d-did everyone see the same thing…?”

“Yes. I must add that they exceeded themselves this evening!”

“How… did they do that?”

“The finest detail about Legoomian musicians is that they perform from their hearts. It conveys to their instruments and the images play out in the mind. You did not enjoy it…” Areiv frowned at her.

“O-Oh; it was beautiful! It just seemed so… real. Like, I felt everything!”

“Of course.”

“But… you seem so calm about the whole thing! Why did they pick… us…” Lindsay trailed off and turned her gaze away from the Baron. His calmness made her even more embarrassed of the subject of the recital. Everyone saw the same thing the human had; those in attendance would assume there was something between the two when it wasn’t. Lindsay threw him a stare when Areiv chuckled.

“Do not despair about my reaction to the recital. It was an extraordinary tale, and I rather enjoyed it.”

“Bu-”

“I do not believe this recital was about the two of us but rather… about you,” he resumed with a smile. The observation made Lindsay blush as much as if it was what she originally suspected. “If you recall, heavier emphasis was fixed on you than myself. The role of the Baron could have been anybody, particularly if I did not accompany you this evening.” Areiv finished. Lindsay became composed enough to make sense of what he said. The Baron was right, she reasoned. The Legooms changed her clothes to that of a queen. The beginning centered on their admiration for Lindsay. When the Baron appeared, none of the Legooms bowed. In reality, everybody bowed whenever the Baron or the Royal Magistrate appeared. Lindsay nodded.

“Yeah… you’re right,” she gave him a smile. “I really did like it. It was a beautiful story.”

“So, you will accompany me to other recitals and outings? There is so much to show you.”

“Ah… yes. Of course.”

“I am delighted.”

5.1: Queen of Buno

Malik sat beside Bradley in the dining facility and wondered why the man had a strange look on his face.

“What’s up with you?” his curiosity got the best of him. His real concern was why the artillery specialist wasn’t beside him. Ever since the assessment, the two were rarely not together. Malik looked forward to their constant argument: Lindsay trying to shove Bunodic food down Bradley’s throat and Bradley fighting her off.

Bradley sighed and gazed at his tray.

“I’m worried about Lizzie.” he admitted. Malik’s eyes widened as his heart rate increased.

“Everything okay; what happened to her?” he panicked.

“No, it’s nothing like that! I mean, she should be fine, right? She’s starting to hang out with the other aliens here.”

“… I’ve noticed that. Well, she is the only female human here. They seem to be really interested in her.” Malik realized. He struggled to restrain his smirk; Malik always suspected Bradley to have an interest in Lindsay. He guessed that it was bound to happen. Regardless of the fact she had a husband, Lindsay was appealing. Malik even had a small interest in her but it was slight. He didn't know if it was because she was the only human female there. Would his attention move to another woman if there was an additional one on the crew? Perhaps, he admitted to himself.

“Some more than others.” Bradley mumbled, distracting Malik from his inner thoughts.

“Wait, what? Who?” he tried to remember who gave the woman any extra attention. Everyone who isn't human, he chuckled in his mind. He paid little attention to what the others did after practice. Malik always concluded that Lindsay would be with Bradley. He noticed that the “vampire lady” Agnab and “bunny rabbit” Naav spoke to her every opportunity they had. The scary “devil woman” Snil as well, Malik shuddered; that one made him as uneasy as General Ehsa! Either way, he saw none of them showing Lindsay more than platonic affections. Extreme fascination but nothing that should’ve caused Bradley concern.

“The Baron has been taking her out on dates damn near every night…” Bradley declared. Malik choked on his drink at his comments. When he calmed, Malik stared at the man.

“Who?! A what?! Oh, shut the fuck up!” he laughed. Brad was exaggerating, Malik thought. Lindsay was married; Malik expected she would never cheat on her spouse, no matter how far away they were from Earth. A small thought made him blush: if she was to be unfaithful, Malik hoped that it would at least be with her own kind…

“I’m serious! She’s always trying to say they ain’t that. But I know dates when I see ‘em! Well… hear about ‘em. The first one they had, he invited her to some recital.”

“The first one? How many have they had…?”

"He been taking her somewhere every day this week.” Bradley huffed. Malik studied the man and what he said.

“Maybe they’re not really dates. Maybe he’s just showing her around Buno.”

“Okay, so why not let one of us do that?”

“Really? Um, maybe because we’ve never been here before? Where would any of us take her? The tavern? The marketplace? The bay?” Malik laughed. “I’m just going to say it. I think you really like Lizzie…”

“Of course, I like her; I wouldn’t be concerned…”

“I mean, really like her. This is jealousy, man.”

“What?!”

“It is! Listen to yourself. The Baron, who’s probably been coming here since before we all were born, is showing Lizzie around the place. This is the first time any human has been here; he’s just showing her around. And then, there’s you: moping because of it.”

“I ain’t moping!”

“Okay. Whatever makes you sleep better at night!”

“You ain’t worried…?”

“Nope. Even if there was something going on between the two, it’s not my place to worry. I’m not her husband,” he gave Bradley a harsh glance. The man sighed and nodded. “I seriously doubt there’s something between the two, anyhow. What makes you think we’d be compatible with anyone here? I mean, he’s an alien… a blue-skinned alien… reminds me of them ‘Avatar’ things. Just with blue skin. And no ears; where the hell are his ears?! And black, beady eyes… like a spider. Could you imagine little blue spider babies…? I don’t want to.” Malik shuddered once more. His rambling made Bradley laugh.

“Maybe you’re right.” he agreed. Bradley was about to add something until he saw Lindsay approaching the table. Another point Bradley didn’t want to reveal was that she had also been absent from breakfast in the facility. But, Bradley knew Malik would reason Lindsay probably ate in her room.

“Morning!” she beamed. Lindsay put a dish of something dull yellow and brilliant red in front of her as she sat across from the two men. “What’s good?”

“I hope whatever you’re about to eat! Okay, what in the hell is that?” Malik pointed at her plate.

“Oh. It’s called kobaw. I think it’s like a stew. It’s how it was served, anyway,” she informed. The men winced as Lindsay placed a forkful in her mouth and chewed. When the woman finished, she shrugged. “Eh. Not as good as Ajom or dworl. Better than roval though…” Lindsay put another forkful in her mouth.

“Who, what and how…??”

“You know, I really don’t think our stomachs can process all this alien food! You’re gonna get sick!” Bradley warned. Lindsay laughed and shook her head.

“It’s fine! Areiv said that Bunodic food is digestible for any species, including us!”

“Wait. ‘Areiv’? You’re on a first name basis with the Baron?” Malik widened his eyes at Lindsay.

“Don’t you start,” Lindsay pointed her fork at him. “It’s bad enough I gotta hear it from him every damn day!”

“Okay, speaking of: glad you’re here! You can clear some things up for me. Tell me about these dates with… Areiv.” Malik stressed the alien’s name. Lindsay shot a glance at Bradley.

“First of all, they’re not dates! Why would you tell him that?!”

“I call it like I see it…”

“Oh, my God; he’s just being nice!”

“Yeah? How come he don’t invite us? Maybe I would’ve liked to have gone to that recital…”

“Really, Brad?” Lindsay smirked at him. She covered her mouth when she saw that Bradley became red.

“… No. But! Give me a damn chance to say no, right?” he gazed at Malik for support. Malik stuck his hands up.

“Definitely not in that argument; don’t drag me into that! So! Your non-dates with Areiv go well, right?”

“Why do I have a feeling you don’t believe me…?”

“No, I do! Where does he take you?”

“Just around. Like last night; did you guys know that there was a festival? Buno usually has one right before the races start.”

“Is that why you didn’t answer your door this morning? He had you out so late?”

“Okay, ‘dad’, let me tell you something: I overslept for like, three minutes! And Areiv got me back home at a respectable time!”

“Never mind him! I want to know about this recital thing. Because when I hear ‘recital’, I think ballet and shit.”

“Oh! So, yeah. It was a musical one. It was… about me…” Lindsay stuffed more food in her mouth to keep from blushing. The two stared at the woman.

“Oh? How could you tell?”

“Well, the thing is you gotta close your eyes to experience it. The story plays out in your mind that way. It was really beautiful.” Lindsay explained. Others gathered in the dining facility, along with the other members of the Earth team.

It was a reason Lindsay decided to not dine in the facility for the week; she feared the glances she would receive. As a few passed by the Earth team’s table, they spoke softly and pointed at her. Some gave nods and smiles of admiration while others were confident enough to compliment Lindsay's attire in the recital.

“Lizzie… what exactly were you doing in this recital?” Bradley asked her lowly.

“Recital? What recital?” David asked. Lindsay scoffed as she filled her mouth once again.

“God, it was nothing special!”

“Nothing special, my ass! Do you not see that they’re treating you like a celebrity?” Malik pointed out with a smile.

“Who’s treating who like a celebrity?” Tim sat at the table. Lindsay finished her bite and huffed.

“They made me queen of Buno, okay?!”

“Whoa… queen of Buno…? When did this happen?!” Yoji looked at Lindsay.

“Okay, I’m lost. What does any of this have to do with a recital?” David asked. Lindsay rolled her eyes but looked at the others.

“I’m only gonna explain this once more. A few days ago, Areiv aske-”

“You’re allowed to call him by his first name?” Steve’s eyes widened.

“She’s allowed to call the Royal Magistrate by his first name, too…” Bradley pointed out. Lindsay narrowed her eyes at him.

“We’re all allowed to call them by their first names, okay?! Anyway! So, Areiv asked me to attend a recital with him a few days ago an-”

“You went on a date with him?!” it was Tim’s turn to widen his eyes. Bradley glanced at him and nodded.

“Thank you, Tim! I’m not the only one who don’t wanna sugarcoat it!”

“Wow. I guess… what happens on Buno, stays on Buno…” David let out a smirk. Lindsay widened her eyes as the other earthlings snickered.

It was not a date!!!” once again, she brought further attention to the table. “He… just wanted to show me around. Can I finish the story?!”

“So long as there’s no sex…” Tim gave her a shrewd grin.

“Hold on; I’d want to hear about that…” Steve stared at Lindsay. She groaned.

“Anyway! A Legoomian recital is… magical, I guess you can call it. They play from their hearts and when you close your eyes, the story unfolds. The one Areiv took me to was about me being the queen of Buno.”

“Ooooh, okay; now that makes more sense!” Yoji nodded.

“Wow. They like you that much…? I wonder why we don’t get the same treatment.” Steve questioned. Lindsay was about to respond until Agnab approached their table. The Olenion displayed her jagged smile at the group but concentrated more on the Earth woman.

“Good morning, Earth team! Lizzie, you’re finally here! I was questioning if the recital was too extreme for you. I hate that I missed it; Naeco and Snil told me all about it. How did the Baron take it?” she asked. Lindsay cringed at the Olenion’s remarks; she had hoped that the alien wouldn’t bring up his name!

“What? Something happened that offended him?” Malik glanced at Agnab. She shook her head, holding her grin.

“On the contrary, so I was informed! Didn’t Lizzie mention it to you?”

“She said that she was queen of Buno.” Yoji tried.

“Yes! Lizzie was queen and the Baron… was her baron.”

“Ah! Is that so?!” Bradley shot a stare at Lindsay.

“Oh, fuck my life…”

5.2: Family Matters

It was the day before the Great Buno Races would begin. The Earth team wondered why Keith called a meeting so late. He didn’t appear to be his usual self. The crew was used to seeing a stern expression on the man’s face. Worry filled his gray eyes.

It almost made Lindsay feel bad for him. The look made him appear older than what he seemed. Keith's hair was a definite salt and pepper mix; Lindsay presumed that he could’ve been in his mid-fifties. She detected military training but because of how he treated her, Lindsay decided not to care.

The crew remained in the Earth bay, standing around the Silver Stallion. They watched as Keith spoke softly with a Legoom. As the Legoom walked out, Keith cleared his throat and gazed at the team.

“It seems that we have a situation on our hands. The first race will be delayed for at least another week, maybe two.”

“What happened?” Bradley asked. The team had practiced almost every day for the past month; Bradley was looking forward to the first race of the season.

“Apparently, someone’s mother didn’t like the runaround she received about her child’s whereabouts. She decided to pay a surprise visit to Roswell.”

“Why would someone’s mom do that? We’re all grown here…” Lindsay wondered out loud.

“That actually sounds like my mother…” Yoji added quietly. Lindsay gave him an apologetic glance.

“She got the media involved. The president wanted no more bad press or speculations on your whereabouts. So… everyone on Earth knows about the races.” Keith shocked the team. They all stared at one another with stunned looks before returning back to their manager.

“Not everyone would be willing to believe that. It took us a while to do it.” Tim said, and the others agreed. Had it not been for the seriousness of President Abraham, doubts would’ve lingered longer.

“This definitely wasn’t part of the plan. And you’re right, Tim; not everyone was willing to believe. It’s why the president decided to… have the races aired.”

“Wait, what…?” Steve’s eyes widened.

“Well, fuck a damn duck; how is that gonna work out?!”

“I know all of this seems surreal but do you hear me using that type of language right now?!” it took Lindsay off guard that the man actually yelled at her. The others adapted to the sarcastic comments and looks he gave the woman but never had he raised his voice at her. Lindsay narrowed her eyes at him.

“Now, hold on a fucking minute! Don’t put your anger out on me all cuz Yoji’s mom wanted to check up on hi-”

“It was your mother, Lindsay!” Keith glared back at her. Lindsay drew in a quick gasp and grew silent. “Now… it will take a while but with the technology here, it is possible for the races to be aired. That also means you’ll be allowed to communicate with your families. The Royal Magistrate has already departed for Earth to assure your families that everyone is safe and sound.”

“Well, that’ll make believers out of everyone!” Bradley smirked. Keith nodded.

“Malik and Yoji, I will need for you two to stay around to help update the systems here. I have no idea how hard that will be, but given we have a possible two-week window, here’s hoping that’s enough time. We’ll still continue to practice until the day before the races will begin.”

“How’s Buno taking all of this?”

“Although the initial plan was to reveal everything after the races, Buno and the rest of the galaxy are taking this fairly well. They’re all looking forward to debunking myths about alien life,” Keith told Steve. The manager looked at everyone else. “Practice will resume in two days. Take some free time.” he dismissed the others. Everyone left except for Yoji and Malik. Lindsay just stared at him.

“I’m sorry, ‘Yoj’…” she mumbled.

“Sorry? Oh, that’s fine! Like I said, it sounded like my mother for sure so I’m not offended!” he smiled at her.

“Given the circumstances, it could’ve been any of our moms.” Malik agreed. Lindsay nodded and gave the men a small smile before leaving.

“I can’t believe we’ll get to talk to our families!” she heard David’s joy in front of her. Lindsay wasn’t in the mood to speak to anyone; all she wished to do was go back to her room.

“Hey…” Bradley’s voice called out. The woman glanced up and noticed he was waiting on her. “Don’t be like that. You know moms mean well.”

“It’s not just that. Keith made me feel like a fucking idiot, you know?”

“I don’t know why he treats you like that. I was hoping it would ease up once he saw how amazing you are in that gunner’s pit.”

“Stop it…” she slightly blushed.

“It’s true! I know he wants perfection but damn girl, you only miss a couple every practice! That’s amazing!” Bradley continued. Lindsay stared at him and gave out a full smile.

“Thanks, Brad. You know… this is a good thing. I finally get to talk to my husband. And tell him everything!”

“Gonna tell him about Areiv…?”

“Why wouldn’t… oh, shut up,” she pushed Bradley lightly. “Anyway! I bet your girlfriend’s gonna be excited to hear from you, finally.” Lindsay attempted to change the subject. Being a fan for so long, Lindsay learned Bradley tried to keep his love life out of the media. It hadn’t dawned on her until that moment to have a clear answer.

“Ah… yeah. Sure she will be.” Bradley mumbled. He had thought of her since the humans left their own homes; his girlfriend wasn’t the happiest woman in the world to have him leave. Because he left Earth annoyed by her selfishness, it was simpler for Bradley not to think of her as regularly as he should. It made Bradley feel guilty that he preferred to practice all day with Lindsay than write an affectionate letter to his girlfriend. The sole reason he wrote, he admitted, was because Lindsay gave her husband daily letters: she was his reminder he still had somebody on Earth.

“Ah.” Lindsay turned her attention to the marketplace coming into view. The woman would’ve continued to pry had he not shown displeasure with the mention of his girlfriend. Lindsay wasn’t too let down at the admittance. A man of his reputation and looks was sure to have someone clinging onto his arm. But just with all crushes, there was jealousy that stirred. The feeling was simple for her to shrug off.

“Lindsay, I have found you!” an excited Baron called out and approached the two. Lindsay gave the blue alien a broad smile at first but, catching sight of the smirk on Bradley’s face made her own warm.

“Hey, Areiv. Sorry about Emuh leaving for Earth on short notice and all.”

“No need for apologies. My father was absolutely elated for the voyage back to Earth. He has mentioned numerous times how he longed for you humans to learn about the races. This is indeed a remarkable opportunity for him. Good day to you, Bradley. I do hope that you are pleased to be able to communicate with your loved ones soon.”

“Yeah; looking forward to it.” Bradley shrugged.

“I set out to Esperia earlier to consult with technicians as to how Buno will communicate with Earth. I can assist Yoji and Malik as much as possible. However, I wished to tell you, Lindsay that I have enjoyed myself very much providing you small tours of Buno. Would you prefer to have another after I leave your Earth bay?” he appeared to beam at the woman. Lindsay knew her cheeks grew rosy and shied away slightly. Lindsay enjoyed their short tours every night; she found out more about the land and attempted to grow more relaxed around the Baron.

“Oh! Well… I… that would b-”

“Ah, sorry, Areiv,” Bradley smiled, placing weight on the Esperian’s name. “Already told my partner that I’d take her around and about this evening. Seeing as though we got some extra time now.” he said. Lindsay shot him a glance.

“… You did…?”

“I see. You have learned your way around Buno?”

“A bit. There’s a couple of places I had in mind; nothing major.”

“Very well. Perhaps another day, Lindsay?”

“Of course…” she nodded. Areiv gave her a friendly smile before cupping her hand with both of his. He surprised both humans as he kissed Lindsay’s hand; the rosiness flourished into a generous flush over her body. Bradley held his cool but not before narrowing his eyes at the display. The alien looked at both of them with a smile.

“I do hope the two of you enjoy yourselves. Buno is positively remarkable in the evenings.”

“I heard. But, don’t worry; we will. Well, we gotta get going. Good luck helping Malik and Yoji.” Bradley said. Areiv politely nodded at the two.

“Thank you.” he replied before venturing towards the Earth bay. Lindsay could do nothing but gaze in disbelief as the two continued walking.

“What? I can feel you glaring at me…”

“Why the hell did you lie to him? We didn’t make any pla-”

“I just don’t think that you should be getting all comfortable with a bunch of these aliens, that’s it.” Bradley pointed out, staring straight ahead. Lindsay eyed him for a few moments before a grin crept on her face.

“Are you jealous of Areiv?” her smile widened. Bradley huffed.

“Ain’t nothing to be jealous about. Just figured that maybe your husband don’t wanna hear all about these dates you’ve been having light years away…”

“Oh, for Christ’s sakes…”

5.3: Bunodic Ruins

The man blew an unsteady breath as he got ready. Bradley didn’t wish to admit it in front of her but Lindsay proved a point. A piece of him was envious. He attempted to dismiss it when Malik pointed out he had feelings for the woman. What convinced him was when Bradley realized that he dawdled on his letters. He had rather spent the evening chatting with Lindsay.

He assumed it was because not only was Lindsay the lone Earth woman on Buno, but as southern as himself: her family came from Georgia while his hailed from South Carolina. Bradley understood better than to think that, now. Particularly as he saw firsthand how much attention the Baron of Esperia showed Lindsay. There was no need for that stupid kiss on her hand, he ranted.

It couldn’t be that she was the only Earth woman in the whole galaxy, he kept in mind as he put on another shirt. While the other aliens showed particular interest in her, their fascination died out. Not entirely; he knew, aside from the Royal Magistrate, none had ever seen a human being in person. They received the drawn-out stares when they first appeared. But now as the first race of the season neared, the humans were presently a part of Buno’s native residents.

Even still, Bradley noticed that Areiv paid Lindsay special attention and concluded that the Baron was as infatuated with her than himself. The Baron had his selection of any female on the planet or in the whole universe. Yet, Lindsay was the one who attended the recital with him. Lindsay was the one he took to the festival. Their nightly walks around Buno were reasonable; the humans really knew nothing of the region. Bradley didn't want another one happening; he had to intercept, even if it made him selfish.

Bradley knocked on Lindsay’s door after he was ready. When she opened, he stood in slight awe. She had on a basic pair of dark blue jeans and a burgundy tank top; both snug on her. It revealed that the artillery specialist was indeed a woman, Bradley flushed. As he allowed his eyes to travel from her toned arms to her curvy hips and legs, Bradley couldn’t fault Areiv for being enamored with the woman.

“W-What? Too much skin?” Lindsay noticed that Bradley stared at her. The words broke his concentration. Bradley shook his head and shrugged.

“Nah. Just makes me wonder if this is what you wear when you’re out with the Baron…”

“Oh, my God; are you really gonna ruin the night before it begins…?” she rolled her eyes.

“No, I’m sorry. I’ll stop teasing you… at least about him. You look really nice.” Bradley smiled at her. Lindsay felt her cheeks ache and moved her gaze from his blue eyes to the floor.

“Uh… thanks. I didn’t do nothing special…”

“Some women don’t have to,” Bradley blurted out. It was enough to make Lindsay give him a glance, and it was his turn to redden. “Um, right. So… where you wanna go?”

“You’re supposed to be the tour guide tonight, remember?” she smirked at him. Lindsay figured Bradley knew as much about Buno as she had a week ago. When he offered to show her around, she perceived something was awry.

“Right. How ‘bout we just play this by ear, then?” he let out a laugh.

Night was about to descend as Bradley and Lindsay walked around most of the lush fields. The grassy areas reminded Bradley of the nature trails back home minus trees. The two walked on what looked like a rock path carved through a segment of the plains; both agreed to walk until the path dropped off, and turn back to the housing building.

“I… hope this wasn’t a letdown…” Bradley looked at her.

“What? No! This was actually… very nice.”

“Really?” he raised his eyebrows at her. The pilot couldn’t speak for her but he was having a wonderful time simply being alone with the woman. Lindsay nodded and gave him a smile.

“Yeah. Maybe when we get back, I can have PAS get us those Budweisers. We could watch a movie or something.”

“That sounds great,” Bradley smiled. “Yeah… let your boy, Areiv do this!” he reveled. Lindsay sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Brad…”

“I’m sorry; I can’t help it!”

“Okay, let’s get it out in the open! What do you have against him? Really. Cuz, he’s been nothing but nice to all of us.”

“I… don’t know. It’s just something about it. Fishy, you know?” he didn’t need to cause an argument while they were having a good time. It would merely force Bradley to tell Lindsay the truth about his feelings for her. As the trail ended, the two saw the beginning of a settlement. “Hey… look at that.” he pointed out. Looking behind them, the two realized they wandered further than expected. The village was far away from any of the public areas, which looked like shadows as dusk settled.

The two strolled through the small village. Lindsay was let down it was abandoned yet that stirred her curiosity even more. The narrow stone huts were practically rubble. In the center stood a taller building which was in a stronger condition. Bradley studied the place and realized that no one could see the village or the building due to the abundance of bushes and trees. The settlement was concealed from plain sight.

“I wonder what happened here.” Lindsay thought out loud as she peered inside one hut; it revealed nothing but the remains of its caved-in ceiling.

“Probably moved on? Hey… these huts are only big enough for Legooms. Maybe this is where they lived before the Esperians came along and gave them technology.”

“Hmm… Bunodic ruins…” she occupied herself looking into another hut.

“Say, Lizzie. You notice that… after the buildings in our area, like the housing building and the marketplace and the bays… there’s nothing but fields? Why only have that area advanced and not the rest?”

“I dunno. Maybe this area is only meant to be a hub for the racers. Buno looks like the size of Earth so there’s gotta be more to it than this…”

“I don’t doubt that. It’s just… why give them and us technology?”

“A gift?”

“Or a bribe…”

“Brad! Why would the Esperians do something like that? Your problem with Areiv is starting to become unhealthy.” Lindsay stared at him as he made his way towards the tall structure.

“Okay, let’s forget about Areiv. Let’s just think about the Esperians as a whole.”

“They’re peaceful, Brad.”

“The Royal Magistrate and Areiv are. I mean… okay; look at Ehsa. He’s fucking huge; I’m pretty sure everyone else on his planet are the same! He could crush anyone here with the greatest of ease! So, why isn’t he feared? He’s looked down on but Areiv? He’s damn near worshipped.”

“You know that’s like asking why no one likes the Joker but loves Batman, right?”

“Only you would find a way to put comics in this!” Bradley smirked, looking back at Lindsay.

“I don’t get what you’re trying to come at.”

“The way people around here treat the Royal Magistrate. I truly think he rules this entire galaxy. Comparing him to Ehsa… I wanna know why him and not Ehsa? Why the Esperians and not the Qees?”

“Again… Batman to the Joker. And if you don’t like that metaphor: Captain America to Thanos!”

“… I have no idea who the hell that is…”

“Thor to Loki? Although, I kinda like Loki. Especially when they got Tom Hid-”

“Can we stop with the geek shit?!” Bradley laughed fully. Lindsay laughed along with him. “Let’s check this building out. Maybe the answers I’m looking for are in there.”

“Uh, I don’t think we should do that.”

“Nah! We’ll be fine! You’d think if they didn’t want us in there, there’d be some warning signs or something, right?” he grew restless and pulled the reluctant woman along with him. She was relieved to discover that the structure was somewhat of a sanctuary and looked better on the inside. Stone pews filled the sides of the temple and a drab, torn yellow runner ran towards the altar. Stone steps climbed both sides of the building from the doorway, attaching to a balcony above the two. Bradley made his way towards the altar while Lindsay took the stone steps to the left. She took her time, studying the paintings and designs that covered the walls.

“How’s the steps?” Bradley’s voice echoed. The inside was larger than both expected. While the huts appeared large enough to accommodate a Legoomian family, the church held most of the racers on Buno.

“Sturdy.”

“What’s up there?”

“Paintings and stuff on the wall…”

“Alright; meet you up there in a sec.”

“… ‘kay…” Lindsay turned her attention back on the pictures. She realized that they told a tale and wished that either Naav or Areiv was present to help interpret. It had to be evidence that the region was there before the Esperians gave them technology. In the section for the racers, all the signs came in different languages; the temple was void of it. Lindsay made a mental note to discuss the area to Naav; the images looked as though it spoke of a battle.

On the balcony, Lindsay received a marvelous view of the cathedral twenty feet below. Behind her stood a space; studying it, she realized that a window was previously there. She turned her attention to Bradley for a moment, who focused on the altar enclosure. Even from her elevation, Lindsay could make out the alien designs; they consisted of the same that existed on the walls.

Before she could make her way to the right side, Lindsay paused as she felt something fall in her hair. Her heart sped, convinced it was a Bunodic insect. She dusted it aside and realized that it was merely sand. Sand, she asked herself. She glanced up as a huge piece of the ceiling came towards her, the only action she had time for was a gasp.

Bradley jumped at the sound of Lindsay’s gasp and turned around in time to watch a large piece of rock drop on her head.

“Lizzie!” his eyes widened as she dropped. He ignored the crumbling sounds coming from the balcony as he made his way towards his partner; more of the ceiling deteriorated. Before he reached the halfway point, Bradley saw Areiv appear from the window. The alien grabbed her before more of the roof gave way. As the balcony collapsed, Bradley ran and leapt for the hole by the entrance. As he rolled onto the pavement, the rest of the balcony dropped, closing the temple shut. Breathing hard, he glanced around and spotted the Baron holding a limp Lindsay, a noticeable bloody slash across her forehead. He hurried up to the two, his heart sinking into his gut. “Shit… Lizzie…”

“She will be fine. We must leave at once.” Areiv turned and started back to civilization. Bradley quickened his footsteps to keep up with the angered Esperian; he could feel the fury emanating from his body.

In the heart of the marketplace, they made their way to the medical clinic. Legoomian nurses ran to their aid, directing the Baron to place Lindsay in one of the available stretchers. Without another word, they hurried the woman towards the back, leaving Areiv and Bradley standing in silence. Areiv gave the human man a glimpse before moving to the small waiting room. Bradley hesitated but followed him. He looked as Areiv sat. The uncomfortable silence was choking him; Bradley needed to say something.

“How… did you rea-”

“What were you thinking? That could have killed Lindsay!”

“I’m… I’m sorry,” the agitation in the Baron’s tone stunned him. “How the hell was I supposed to know that the ceiling would go like that?!”

“Did it ever occur to you that there is a reason the settlement is not inhabited?! Even an erites would know better! To think, if I had not appeared when I did…” the Esperian took a sharp breath and turned aside.

“A what? What the hell did you call me…?”

“I do expect that you are more cautious during the races. Or would it be wise for Lindsay to become my partner?” his tone steadier than before, Areiv still gave Bradley a harsh glare.

“You son-of-a-bitch; you ain’t got no right… you really think I’d put her in harm’s way on fucking purpose?!”

“Your actions this evening have already provided me that answer.”

“Fucking…” Bradley’s hands folded into fists and it was his turn to use long, steady breaths. “How’d you know where to find us, anyway? And how’d you get up in that window?”

“I am glad I went with my instincts. I did not trust that you knew Buno as fully as you suggested. Particularly since I am the one who has provided Lindsay with tours every evening. I did not wish the two of you crossing into unauthorized territories and therefore trailed you. As far as how I was able to reach the opening, I am capable of leaping and climbing far greater than any human. You should be appreciative.” Areiv returned with another glare. Bradley bit his tongue; he wanted to strike something or someone. Instead, the man took a seat; he realized the Baron was right.

After an hour of heavy silence, a Legoomian nurse floated towards the two. Bradley at once rose.

“Well? How is she? She gonna be okay?” the human spat out before Areiv could open his mouth. Bradley let out a sigh of relief when the nurse gave him an easy smile and nod.

“Your partner will be fine. We’ve dressed her wound and ran tests on her. If you would like to visit her before we give her pain treatment, you can. It will cause her go to sleep.” she reported. The two followed the Legoom to an area in the back where Lindsay laid in a bed. A bandage wrapped around her forehead, the woman gave out a faint grin at the two when the two appeared.

“Guys,” Lindsay gradually moved to prop herself up. “What happened?” she asked. The question worried Bradley as he furrowed his brow at her.

“Oh, hell; you don’t remember?”

“Last I remember was… sand in my hair…”

“I’m so sorry, Lizzie. A chunk of the ceiling came down on you. Damnit, I should’ve listened to you! If… if it wasn’t for the Baron…”

“… You can call me Areiv, Bradley.” Areiv replied almost quietly. Bradley nodded. He reflected back to the Baron’s remarks in the waiting room. He was thankful the Esperian was there still it pained Bradley he had placed his partner in harm’s way. Just because he was envious.

“I should’ve stuck with you. I shouldn’t have gone on that damn balcony…”

“Oh, Lindsay. Do not trouble yourself over such trivial matters. The most important matter is that you are safe and not seriously injured. How are you feeling?” Areiv gave her a small smile. Lindsay rolled her eyes but winced when she did so.

“I think half that ceiling hit me; my head feels like it’s gonna split in pieces. Sharp, jagged pieces. Laced in poison.”

“Ouch! Yeah, sounds like you got a concussion, too. The nurse said that she would give you some meds, so we had to come in and talk to you before that.”

“There will be no need. I will tend to that need… if you will permit.” Areiv looked at Lindsay for consent. Both humans gave the alien a puzzled glance.

“Uh… okay,” Lindsay agreed. Areiv nodded as he set his hands on her forehead. The Baron closed his eyes and meditated, chanting in his Esperian tongue. His words grew quieter as a blue light surrounded his hands. When neither could hear him speak, the glow vanished, leaving Lindsay to exhale. She threw him a stunned but full smile. “Um… wow! You’re a healer?”

“Not fully. I am merely able to alleviate minor discomfort. I cannot cure ailments. You should get some rest. Bradley, I dare say that you will notify your Earth comrades?” Areiv looked at the pilot. Bradley blinked a several times before nodding, feeling discouraged.

“Yeah. Sure. I’ll… see you in the morning, Lizzie.” he gave her a smile. He was glad Lindsay allowed him to squeeze her hand; the woman gave him a smile and nod. Bradley gave Areiv a nod before he walked out the room.

“One moment,” the Baron said as he turned to leave. “Bradley,” hearing his name, Bradley stopped and turned. “Forgive me for my sharp words earlier. I spoke them while under duress. It was crude of me.”

“It’s okay. Just… what’s an… erites?”

“Ah. It is a creature on Esperia that seems to have an obligation to not abide by our rules of natural order. They are… thoughtless creatures…” he admitted lowly. The look that Bradley gave the Baron made him slightly flushed. “As I expressed, it was improper of me to declare such things. I… I will remain with Lindsay, if you do not mind.” Areiv rushed. Bradley gave him a brief nod.

“Don’t compare me to some stupid animal ever again…”

6.1: Phone Home

Malik buzzed Lindsay via the personal intercom system established for the Earth team. The man smiled as Lindsay answered; the video showing up on his computer. He couldn’t help glancing at the gauze around Lindsay's forehead; Malik, along with the rest of the team were told of her accident a week ago. The man held his laughter in when Bradley spoke of the exchange he and the Baron had; Malik saw the argument coming. Regardless, the bandage was a grim reminder of her injury and the fact that anything could happen.

“Sup?” she gave him a grin. The feed was crystal clear; Yoji and himself had done an excellent job making certain of that.

“You still have to wear that bandage?”

“They ain’t got nothing large enough to hide this ugly ass scar!”

“I bet it’s not that bad! So, I just wanted to tell you we got the communication systems up and running for both galaxies. We can talk to anyone on Earth who has the system installed on their computer, tablet, phone; anything electronic, basically. There might be a delay but I’m not sure. All you got to do is look on the desktop after we hang up.”

“Just look on the desktop…?”

“Trust me; you’ll know what it is! The name was Yoji’s idea! Speaking of, he wanted me to ask you if you had a lightning scar…? And something about Brad now being ‘he who must not be named’ or something…?” Malik gave her a puzzled glance. As Lindsay roared with laughter, it caused him to smile; the man had a notion she understood what Yoji said. Malik realized it had something to do with “nerd/geek stuff”, as he and Bradley described it. Yoji and Lindsay always talked about cult films, books and superheroes.

“I’m gonna kill him! Tell him that!” she continued to laugh.

“So… I was wondering something. When we get done talking to our folks, do you want to go to that one bar and get a few drinks?” Malik surprised her.

“Wait… you’re gonna try something new for once?! Holy shit, the world’s ending…”

“Aw, I’m not that ba-”

“It’s a good thing we’re in another universe…”

“Shut up! We’ll be here for a while, right? You’re still alive and you’ve been eating this stuff for a while. I figured why not? Plus, I heard that they make some things like a few popular Earth drinks.”

“Yes! They do! I’ve been wanting to go but no one will go with me! So, I ain’t missing a chance like this! Anyone else joining us?”

“… Don’t know. I’ll double check but right now, the answer is no.”

“Gotta feeling the answer will stay no!”

“Just buzz me when you’re ready.”

“Will do!” Lindsay gave Malik a broad smile before disconnecting the call. As she gazed on the desktop, another laugh left her lips. There was a unique icon on the screen from an iconic movie, named “Phone Home”. Lindsay double clicked the icon and a list of instructions appeared. Moments later, Lindsay had a conference call waiting on her approval. The woman's grin widened; Lindsay's family was waiting on her to connect to the system. When she clicked on “Accept”, the screen split into three and produced a live feed of her husband, parents, and her brother and sister-in-law. The three groups smiled and waved at her. Lindsay knew their expressions would transform as soon as they noticed the gauze around her head.

“Holy… shit; what happened to you?!” Tracy’s eyes widened.

“You’ve been hurt! Who did that to you?!” her mother panicked. Lindsay gave the family a smirk as she moved her fingers over the cloth.

“First of all: hi, I miss you guys…”

“She’s a smart ass, that one!” her brother, William pointed out.

“Don’t worry about the bandage; I’m fine! I was sightseeing with a team member. Went somewhere we wasn’t supposed to go and I end up getting hurt. It’s still healing.” Lindsay explained to her family.

“So, do all the aliens look like the blue one that visited us?” William’s wife, Valerie stated.

“Nah! Lots of different species here and in this galaxy! So, it’s not like ours. I seriously think that every planet here has life. I’ve made friends with them, too!”

“Really? They all understand English?” Lindsay’s father asked. Lindsay smiled and nodded.

“What about food? You eating right over there?” Tracy asked. Lindsay smirked and nodded.

“The food here is fine! Areiv let me taste this stuff that’s from his planet. Man, it’s amazing!”

“Who’s that?” William asked.

“The blue alien that visited you guys? Areiv is his son. He’s been showing me around Buno since we’ve been here.”

“Sounds like you two are buddy-buddy…” Tracy mentioned. The man's tone was calm but Lindsay rolled her eyes at him.

“We’re friends; he’s been really nice to all of us,” she emphasized. “So, did the Royal Magistrate explain how you’ll be able to watch the races?”

“Yeah. You didn’t tell us that Malik Jackson was there! Because of him, ESPN will air the races,” her father expressed. Lindsay had to laugh; while she became a follower of IndyCar, her father loved football and baseball. Lindsay knew little of Malik before he retired from the NFL. Because she watched the sports channel, Lindsay became familiar with Malik when he became one of their analysts. “So, what are you, again?”

“The artillery specialist!” Lindsay boasted.

“What does that mean?” Valerie asked.

“What I did in the Marine Corps. Basically, I’m the gunner. I make sure no one gets too close to us while we’re racing.”

“That sounds so dangerous, Lizzie. I don’t know why you put yourself in these situations…” her mother fussed. Lindsay groaned out her frustrations as the rest of her family laughed.

“Moooom…”

 

Malik waited in front of the main tavern. The man wasn’t shocked at the traffic that passed in and out; he found it to be one of the most famous bars in the region. Malik had to admit that he was nervous, but he had to remind himself that it wasn’t a date. Just two team members, two potential friends, having a few drinks together.

Malik concluded that's all he asked for. Maybe that's what he was envious of: the friendly connection between the pilot and his artillery specialist. Lindsay not reacting to him like she did towards Bradley possibly caused his jealousy. Lindsay was a die-hard fan of Bradley's. Malik wasn’t used to anyone black being a follower of any sport besides football and basketball. The artillery specialist was perhaps a fan of neither.

Malik had concerns for another reason. The others weren’t brave enough to try anything foreign on the planet. The Earth team didn't understand how easily Lindsay adapted to the cultures. Being on the planet itself was too much for Malik. It still disturbed him that there existed creatures who could’ve made appearances on the SyFy Channel! It made him uneasy at first but no one approached the Earth team as hostile… except for the metal monster of a bully, General Ehsa. Malik slowly accepted their new, temporary world.

Malik was in such serious thought, Lindsay almost crept up on him. Malik stared at her as she gave him a small smile. He smirked, if only to marvel at the height difference between the two. Malik found it funny yet delightful. Lindsay's curvy body was larger than he cared for on attractive women but it wasn’t severe. She stayed toned from her military training and her clothes fit her well. Lindsay wore nothing too tight but with her figure, certain clothes clung to her form with ease.

“… Hey.” Malik realized that he was peering at her.

“Sup?” her smile widened. “Huh… no one else joining us?”

“Nah.” Malik felt terrible as he answered. The man had invited none of the others to join them; he preferred to spend time alone with the woman.

“Fucking cowards!” Lindsay huffed. Malik never heard a woman use so much profanity before and blamed her military training. He then realized that Steve cursed as often as Lindsay and fully blamed the military!

The man watched as Lindsay’s gaze moved from him to the sky. Dusk already passed as the moons emitted a radiant glow. No wonder the Baron showed her around, Malik realized. Buno was impressive at night.

“Beautiful night.” Malik spoke up.

“Yeah.” Lindsay nodded. Malik used the moment to study her while the view distracted her. A V-neck short-sleeved blue shirt revealed a part of her cleavage; tattoos peeked out from the top of her breasts. Lindsay wore another pair of hip-hugging black jeans; Malik wondered if all her jeans fit her in that manner. Lindsay’s dreadlocks were in their usual bun; it made him realize that she wasn’t wearing a bandage. The mark wasn’t too serious. The scar was obvious but not as unpleasant as Lindsay feared.

“It doesn’t look that bad, Lizzie…”

“What?” she blinked as she stared at him.

“Your scar. It actually makes you look bad-assed.”

“Definitely not the image I was going for!” the woman smirked. Malik laughed.

“Hey; maybe no one will fuck with the Earth team now that their gunner has a war wound!”

“You’re hilarious!” Lindsay rolled her eyes. “I think you’re trying to chicken out on me…” she eyed him. Malik smirked. He understood why Bradley hung out with Lindsay as much as he could; the artillery specialist was pleasant to talk to. Malik questioned why she appeared oblivious to the fact that Bradley had feelings for her. The glimmer from her left hand made Malik nod in his mind. It didn’t matter who offered her affection; they wouldn’t receive any sensual ones in return. The idea made Malik smile.

“Wouldn’t think of it. You just don’t get too drunk and try to take advantage of me…”

“Oh, my God…”

6.2: The Race

Everybody assembled in the stadium as the first intergalactic race of the season was getting under way. Each team was announced as their IRs parked into their assigned positions on the track. The racers had a few moments to make any last-minute adjustments and inspections. Bradley and Lindsay took their inspections outside the Silver Stallion. Bradley looked as Lindsay gazed over the various IRs.

“You good?”

“Look at ‘em,” she nodded towards the others. “You think we’re in over our heads?” she wondered. Bradley glanced at the other IRs before shrugging and offering her a smile.

“First race jitters. It happens. Honestly? No. I think there’s a reason the Esperians wanted us to compete. And it wasn’t cuz of some technology they gave us. I think we’ll be fine; more than fine!”

“Right…” she sighed and looked at the sky. It was the ideal day for the start of the races. Buno’s weather remained the same throughout all three of their weather cycles: each went on a few Earth months. The two took advantage of the summery climate: Bradley wore a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans while Lindsay donned a lavender tank top with black Capri shorts. Bradley examined the artillery specialist, an undesired emotion wavered over him as he noticed the mark that stretched across her brow. “Brad…” Lindsay huffed.

“Sorry. It’s healed?”

“Yeah.”

“Think it’ll go away completely?”

“Doubt it. Malik said it made me look bad-assed. What you think?” she gave him a smile. Bradley laughed.

“I guess so. Then, you’re wearing your dog tags; rough and tough Marine, you are!”

“Oh; these ain’t mine.” Lindsay fingered the chain that hung around her neck.

“Husband’s? You both were in?!”

“Yep. I figured his good luck charm would do me some good.”

“Good luck charm? What’s so lucky about ‘em?”

“He was deployed to Iraq. Their unit wore their tags on their boot. So, he’s out on patrol one day and so happen to look down; they’re sticking out away from the tongue. He goes to tuck them back in when a bullet hit his buddy right behind him…”

“W-What?! Wow…”

“Yeah. So, had it not been for them… I would’ve been a widow right now…”

“That’s… scary as hell…”

“Who you telling?!” Lindsay shook the dreaded sense aside.

“It is finally the day of the races. Is the Earth team prepared to accept their first loss?” Areiv approached the two. Lindsay wanted to smile at his attire: a royal blue tunic with his Esperian gems adorned on the hem, with matching slacks. But, his comment caused her to narrow her eyes.

“Huh. Brad, I don’t know who got bonked on the head, him or me! Someone’s gotta pass us for us to lose!” her remark surprised both men.

“Your assurance is charming, indeed. A friendly wager if you like?”

“I’m listening.”

“If you so happen to outpace me, I will be at your disposition.”

“For how long?” Bradley asked. The Baron smiled.

“Until the next race. However, if I place greater than you… you will have to be at my beck and call!”

“Deal!” Lindsay agreed. Areiv’s smile widened.

“Then we shall meet each other at the finish line. Be certain not to delay too far behind.”

“You hear all this, Lizzie? And he was talking about my ego! Just cuz you got Baron in your name don’t mean we’re gonna bow down to you on this track! We will place higher than you; that’s a promise!” Bradley chipped in. Areiv lost his smile as the two stared at one another. Lindsay feared that she had to stand between them until smiles crept up on both their faces. Bradley gave his hand and Areiv shook it. He gave Lindsay a courteous bow.

“May fate be with you, Earth team…” he added before moving back to his IR.

“Wait… did you just call a truce…?” Lindsay stared at Bradley. He shrugged.

“Just realized that if it wasn’t for him… you wouldn’t be standing here beside me…”

A dropped flag indicated the beginning of the race as the IRs zoomed from the starting position. As soon as he could, Bradley opened the lock-on system.

“Alright, it works!”

“What you mean, ‘alright, it works’?!” Bradley looked at the pager. Malik laughed.

“It works faster than we expected! Anyway: we got an Olenion IR. Main material is nickel. Max speed is seven-fifteen, wow, that’s slow; no hyper drive detected.”

“Gotcha!” Bradley nodded. Right next to the pager system was a switch for the pilot to communicate to the artillery specialist.

“Yeah?”

“Your girl’s Runner is made of nickel…”

“Wait, what; who…?” Lindsay looked and saw Agnab in her way of attack. “The hell? I ain’t shooting at Agnab! Just… pass her…”

“Alright…” Bradley nearly sighed out, maintaining his laughter. He zipped past her, placing the Earth team in tenth position. The Olenion fired onto the Silver Stallion, delivering a shower of arrowed fireballs. Lindsay held on to her seat as the Runner rocked; she widened her eyes.

“The fuck… did she just shoot at us?!”

“Ain’t no friends in racing, darling! It’s strictly business on the track!” Bradley let his laughter out. He was glad the blows didn’t knock them too far off track.

“Oh, hell nah…” Lindsay grumbled as she typed in the information in her system. Just as Yoji and Malik said, the computer selected and filled her ammo. She made a one-eighty turn in her seat and grasped her trigger handles as her own lock-on system appeared across the screen. Lindsay adjusted and fired, making a direct strike on the wing of her friend’s IR. The mint green Runner veered off route and Lindsay hoped that her friend wouldn’t be too upset with her. Then again, she had shot upon them, Lindsay told herself.

“Woo; nice hit, Lizzie!” Malik praised through the communications system. She could do nothing but grin.

The duration of the race was quicker than the humans thought it would be. Before long, the remaining racers had one lap to go. The spectators had their favorites at the beginning of the race. Yet, after Lindsay’s bullets pierced through the Qees IR, the majority converted to the earthlings.

The Earth team found themselves in a healthy lead with Bradley maneuvering through the other racers, and Lindsay immobilizing those who either fired upon them or drawn too close for her comfort.

“Heh, we got company…” Bradley sang out with a broad smirk on his face. He placed the lock-on system towards the IR that was creeping closer. Bradley became discouraged by Malik’s intake of breath.

“Uh… eighty percent tungsten. Other elements? Unknown…”

“Unknown…?” Bradley’s eyes widened. He clicked on the adjacent switch. “Lizzie, we got a tough one: tungsten…”

“Tungsten? Spell it…”

“Seriously…? T-u-n-g…”

“Got it!” she resumed typing. As the ammunition loaded, Lindsay turned, clutching the triggers with anticipation. When she recognized who it was, she dropped her hands.

“Okay, I don’t hear nothing. What’s happening? No match?”

“Yeah… I got ammo for him…”

“Okay. What are you waiting on…?”

“… I’m not gonna fire at Areiv.”

“Um, what…?”

“He wants a race… give him a race!” she smirked.

“So, I hate to tell someone how to do their job but um… if you don’t take the Baron down, he will pass you guys. If you haven’t noticed, you’re closing in on the finish line…” Malik’s voice sounded through Lindsay's pager system.

“You obviously ain’t never seen Brad race! He’s the best driver I ever seen so if anyone can guarantee a win, he can. Trust me; Areiv’s not getting past us today!” Lindsay declared. Bradley caught her comments and his heart warmed fully.

“Thanks, Lizzie…” he spoke softly and pushed the Silver Stallion to its peak speed. Malik was right; the finish line was coming in view. Bradley grumbled as he saw Areiv already on the right-hand side of them. Lindsay said that she wouldn’t target Areiv, but she aimed and kept a steady lock on his IR, just in case.

“Come on, Brad. You can do it…” she half-whispered. Lindsay didn’t wish to resort to shooting at the Baron. It looked as though she had no alternative as the nose of the sleek Runner passed ahead of their own Runner. Lindsay seized the handles tight. “Sorry, Areiv…” the woman was an instant from firing until she felt the thrust of a collision; Bradley decided to bump into Areiv from the side. The Baron's Runner wobbled and with another push from the Silver Stallion, he veered off track, coming down hard into the lush field surrounding the track. The conflict between the two ensured that the other racers caught up but Bradley held the Stallion at max speed as the Earth team passed the finish line first.

The crowd was roaring as Bradley and Lindsay climbed out of the Silver Stallion. The pilot picked up and twirled Lindsay in excitement as they celebrated.

“Holy shit; I can’t believe it! You did it, Brad!”

“Whoa… like I didn’t have a bad-assed, dog tag wearing gunner helping me out…? Couldn’t have done it without you…” Bradley put the woman down and beamed at her. Bradley was prouder that Lindsay had so much trust in him than winning the race itself. The two could’ve placed second and he would’ve been satisfied. Yet, hearing Lindsay had faith in him made winning all the better.

Bradley's smile nearly disappeared as he saw Areiv approaching the two. The alien gave them both a modest but pleased expression.

“Areiv! We didn’t hurt you, did we…?” Lindsay gave him a glance over. The Baron gave her a quick bow.

“I am unharmed. My IR is a separate account. Most remarkable piloting techniques, Bradley. You seem to astonish me every time we engage one another. Today was no exception. I do confess, however, that I owe you both an earnest apology.” he offered them a small grin. Lindsay gave him a conceited smirk.

“You owe us more than that!”

“Ah. I believe you are correct. What will the Earth team have me arrange for them?”

“Let’s start simple. Drinks are on you, tonight!”

“Very well…” Areiv gave Bradley a nod.

7.1: Impossible is Nothing

“… and another top finish for our Earth team! The current standings keep them in first place while the Baron of Esperia, Areiv is closely behind them in second. Rounding out the top five are…

Lindsay turned the program off as she picked up a transmission from Earth. Several came her way in the evening after a race, particularly when they placed in the top five. It was one downfall for having the races aired on Earth; phone calls from sports channels bombarded herself, Bradley and Malik throughout the evening. It took Lindsay a while to get used to speaking to anyone apart from her family; the artillery specialist still felt that Bradley deserved the honor.

“Hello…?” though her voice faltered, she made every effort to fight the surprise from going to her face. The face peering back at her was unknown. Lindsay was familiar with the usual reporters who called her; the middle-aged man was not one of them.

“Mrs. Rose! First, I want to say congratulations on another great finish!”

“Um… thanks. Wh-”

“Not bad for a birthday present, right? I know you’d rather be back here celebrating but I’m sure it would be fun there,” the man startled her; Lindsay expected no one remembered it was her birthday. No one on the team said anything. But, they had a race to contend with and Lindsay found that excusable. “You probably don’t know who I am.”

“That would be a no, I won’t lie.”

“My name is Eugene Horn: head of Adidas’ marketing program.”

“Oh… okay…”

“I wanted to speak to you about a few ideas we’ve been brainstorming about lately. We usually only do posters and advertisements for our shoes and apparel, of course. And we would love to do a poster of yourself and Brad together.”

“Uh… so you’re saying you want us to wear something with Adidas on it?”

“It’s not necessary, seeing that we sponsor Brad.”

“I guess… we can pose or something like that. Won’t happen today…”

“I know that the two of you are busy. So, if you would want to, that would be great! But, we’ve found some shots of the two of you already and played around with them…”

“In other words, you already photo-shopped us together.” Lindsay smirked as she sat at her desk.

“That is one way of putting it! These were just ideas, something to give us a base to work with. Nothing’s set in stone yet. Me personally, I think the CGI looks great!”

“You know, this sounds good and all. But, what would this be for, exactly?”

“Honestly?”

“That… would be very helpful, yeah.”

“Okay. When people see the two of you with Adidas, it would increase sales possibly tenfold. The two who lead the Earth team to victory is endorsed by Adidas? Yeah; through the roof! But… do you realize there’s nothing here on Earth with any pictures of the Earth team for support? There’s the usual bootleggers who’ve created their own products. Taking images from online and all. But there’s no one brand name.”

“Oh. Didn’t know that. You said endorsed. I don’t think we’re allowed…”

“Just because Brad is over there doesn’t break his contract with us. He’s still obligated to us. We understand we can’t sponsor the Silver Stallion. I won’t lie: I’d have no idea how to go about doing something like that! But, there’s nothing saying we can’t sponsor its pilot and artillery specialist! Look, since I’m being blunt, here: I know Nike is trying to talk to Malik about something similar. We’re trying to get ahead of them. Would you let me send you what we have so far and then you can talk it over with whoever you need to talk it over with?” Eugene tried. Lindsay drummed her fingers on the desk, considering the offer.

“What about the money we’d get for this? Earth money’s no good over here…”

“You can give it to your husband or your parents or to your dog, if you like! That’s up to you.” the man grinned. Lindsay bit the side of her lip.

“Fine, alright. Send it through.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Rose! Look forward to talking to you, again!” he replied and ended transmission. Seconds later, she listened to the murmur of the scanner/fax machine. Lindsay took a moment to go over the print and beamed. Whichever photos they found, were good ones, she reflected. The background was simple and dark with Bradley and Lindsay standing, backs together. The two dressed in their regular attire for race days: Bradley in a white t-shirt and Lindsay in an orange tank top; the image stopped at their torsos. Neither looked towards the viewer but in the direction they were facing: Lindsay to the right with her arms crossed and Bradley towards the left, his hands on his hips.

Something about the picture warmed her. Eugene was right; the image looked impressive. It was as though they posed for the picture. Looking at the photo even more made a faint blush rise. The Baron was right as well: the pilot and his artillery specialist were a well-suited match. Lindsay wanted a second opinion and left her room.

Bradley turned the TV off and left to answer his door. After he spoke to everyone, no one usually bothered him: the whole crew would be too weary to hang out. He gave Lindsay a questioning glance but grinned, nevertheless; she was all smiles.

“Hey…”

“Hey! Oh,” she noted the surprised expression in his face. “Maybe I should’ve buzzed you?”

“Oh, nah! Come in. Just that we’re all usually too tired to visit each other so I was a little surprised to see you. Everything okay?” he let the woman inside. It was the first time she went inside his place and glanced around.

“Yeah. I just wanted to sho-”

Bradley, I detect another life form in the area; are you having company?” PAS dropped in front of Lindsay, causing her to jerk backward.

“Jesus Christ!”

“Oh… yeah. Switch security system to minimum…”

As you please. Security is presently set to minimum detection.” the orb announced and withdrew into the ceiling. Bradley gave Lindsay a shy grin.

“Sorry ‘bout that!”

“It’s… okay. Guess I need to visit folks more often! And… I didn’t know you could do that…”

“Do what?”

“Tell it to switch security levels.”

“You didn’t? Hell, you can turn the whole damn thing off if you wanted to! Yoji showed me how to do all that.”

“Huh. Wonder why he didn’t tell the rest of us?” Lindsay smirked as she made her way into the room. As Bradley stepped into his kitchen section, Lindsay busied herself with a small tour. She found a frame on his computer desk and picked it up. His girlfriend, she eyed the brown-haired woman in the picture with him. The woman was fair-skinned and appeared hardly an inch shorter than Bradley; she didn’t have to reach far up to wrap her arms around his neck.

“I think I’m the only one who asked. The damn thing was warning me of every little thing that moved in here!” he chuckled. Lindsay managed a laugh as she continued to examine the picture. Bradley made his way towards Lindsay with two bottles of water but stopped short. He watched as she looked at the picture. He didn’t understand why he felt ashamed as if Lindsay caught him in a lie. Bradley did mention his girlfriend; just not as much as Lindsay mentioned her husband! The thought only proved how attracted he was to the woman. It was dangerous territory, with Lindsay being married. But Bradley told himself, unlike the Baron, he would keep his true feelings for her subtler.

The notion of the younger Esperian made Bradley slightly cringe. It annoyed him: Areiv had no remorse in revealing his attraction for Lindsay. What got to Bradley was how no one reflected on the Baron's behavior; the man knew it wasn’t all in his head! Even as Lindsay fussed that the Baron was extremely friendly and polite to everyone, including herself; Bradley didn’t see it that way.

One fact he had to accept: Bradley owed the Esperian. Areiv saved Lindsay’s life. But, because he was grateful didn’t mean Bradley had to care for the two spending even more time with one another. Just once, he fumed, he would enjoy to spend some sort of quality time with the woman. Away from the team, away from the Silver Stallion… and definitely away from the Baron of Esperia!

Bradley shook out of his trance before Lindsay noticed and stood beside Lindsay. He stared at the photograph with her. Lindsay sensed him and glanced his way with a smile.

“This her?”

“Yeah. That’s my girl.” he confirmed with a smile. Bradley proposed a trade, giving her one of the bottled waters as he grabbed the picture. It made him smile reminiscing about that day; one of his friends considered it was cheesy he wanted a picture of the two that way. Bradley's girlfriend was delighted; it was right up her alley.

“She’s really pretty.” Lindsay confessed. She felt his girlfriend would be; it made sense. Lindsay shrugged the idea out of her mind as she continued to scan Bradley's room.

“T-Thanks. So, uh… what did you want to say before PAS scared the shit outta you?”

“Oh!” Lindsay grabbed the photo she placed on the desk and offered it to him. “Whatcha think?”

“Wait. That’s… us…?” Bradley examined it. The phrase on the top made him smirk. “You talked to someone from Adidas.”

“How’d you know?” she asked. Bradley pointed to the words.

“That’s their slogan. ‘Impossible is Nothing’. This something they’re working on?”

“Yeah. They wanted to show their support for the Earth team but get sales at the same time!”

“Sounds ‘bout right,” Bradley couldn’t take his eyes off the picture. His face colored at his next concern. “So, don’t take this the wrong way but…”

“But?”

“… We kinda make a good-looking couple…” he confessed. Lindsay became rosy but gazed at the photo along with him, sighing.

“Oh, thank God! I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one who thought that!”

“R-Really…?”

“Yeah. Areiv thinks so, too.”

“He… does?”

“He thought you were my mate!”

“H-Ha; yeah, that’s funny! So, it’s okay to admit that we look good together?”

“Yeah. I mean, if we match, we match. No harm in pointing it out! I take it you like it?”

“I really do. We’ll have to tell Keith about this, though.”

“Hmph; knowing him, he’d tell them to take me out the photo…”

“Lizzie…” Bradley breathed out. Part of him felt sad because he realized Lindsay had a point. “I wanna copy of this. Hold on,” Bradley put the picture in the scanner and sat at the desk. The man was happy he did. Bradley looked on the desktop and noted that his calendar had the day’s date circled. The mark was a common sight, seeing it was a race day. But the circle was in orange instead of its typical black. Bradley smacked himself on the forehead. “Lindsay!”

“W-What…?” it startled Lindsay to hear her complete name out of Bradley's mouth.

“Why didn’t you say something?! I’m the lousiest partner, ever! Happy birthday…” Bradley put on an apologetic smirk. Lindsay blushed and stared at the floor.

“It’s… it’s okay. It was race day. We get pretty busy-”

“That ain’t no excuse! No one told you happy birthday?!”

“Not here; no. I didn’t mind; no one knew… wait… how’d you know?”

“It’s in your files.”

“There’s files on me…?!”

“We all got ‘em.”

“So… how’d you get to see them…?”

“They’re on the computer…? For everyone to see?”

“Thanks, smart ass; how was I supposed to know that?”

“Cuz… it should be on your desktop…” Bradley pointed to the file on his. “What did you think it was?”

“I don’t know; I’m computer retarded!” Lindsay laughed. Bradley laughed along with her. Glancing out the window, he took notice it was still daylight.

“I don’t think you’re computer retarded! I do need to make this up to you though.”

“Brad, you don’t have to…”

“Um, yeah! Yeah, I do. Damnit, it’s your birthday, woman! So, whatever you want…” Bradley was cut short by the soft ring from the computer. The man sighed and shrugged as he took the call. “Yeah?” Bradley didn’t care if the bite of discontent was evident. The screen came in focus and showed the rest of the Earth team crammed together in someone’s room.

“Brad! You seen Lizzie? We tried buzzing her, but she’s not there…” David wanted to know.

“You know; I’m not even gonna ask why you’re all in one room! But, she’s in here with me.” Bradley moved to the side to give room for Lindsay. The woman waved at the group.

“What’s up, guys?” she beamed. To her surprise, the crew put on various party hats and belted out “Happy Birthday to You” as loud and off-key as they could. By the end of the song, Lindsay was thoroughly flustered and near tears.

“And you thought we forgot!” Tim smirked.

“You probably did, bastards!” she sniffled.

“Nah! We’ve been making plans all day! Well, trying to, anyway. So, we’re thinking that the birthday girl needs to come hang out with her buddies…” Malik tried.

“That sounds great, guys!” she responded. Bradley fought his eye roll; he truly looked forward to being alone with her. The rest of the team tagging along ruined the moment. But he concluded that at least he'd get to hang out with Lindsay.

A rap on the door made Bradley eye it. He left Lindsay to talk more to the others as he moved to answer it. Bradley had to fight another expression of contempt; things couldn’t get any worse for him. Yet, he gave Areiv a friendly nod.

“I do not intend to interrupt you, Bradley. But I am searching for Lindsay. Have you seen her?” he inquired. Bradley noticed that he bore a magnificent bouquet and let the alien inside. Even the Baron knew what that day was.

“She’s right here.”

“What… oh! Hi, Areiv!” Lindsay beamed. The woman gasped as he moved toward her, offering the deep maroon, soft green and off-white arrangement.

“I called to mind that today is the anniversary of your birth. I wished to offer you Resiak Blooms. These are traditional birth celebration flowers on Esperia however… they are rare to you.”

“What’s those? Who’s that? Is that the Baron?” Steve squinted at the screen.

“Oh, Areiv… these are gorgeous! But, I’m not too much of a flower or plant person…”

“You do not care for them…?”

“Oh, my God, Lizzie; just say thank you and smile!” Malik grumbled. The woman glared at the screen before glancing back at the Baron.

“I do! I love them; the thought was really nice! It’s just that,” she sighed. “They’ll be dead in a couple of days at the most with me. Flowers and stuff hate me…”

“Do not worry. These blooms can endure for… ten of your Earth years, I believe, with limited attention; five if completely neglected.”

“Oh!” Lindsay brightened.

“Have you any arrangements for the remainder of the evening? I would very much like to take you to Esperia.”

“As much as I would love to go, the guys wanted me to hang out with them.”

“Of course. I would feel condemned if you were to set aside any commitments with your team. I can always take you another time.”

“Areiv! Come with us; I’m sure Lizzie wouldn’t mind! In fact: grab Agnab and the others; this’ll be a party Buno won’t forget!” Malik beamed.

“Assuming that you do not mind, then I will be most delighted to join you.” Areiv accepted, making Bradley scream internally.

8.1: The End of the World

The Earth team developed into a powerful force as the months progressed. When Bradley and Lindsay didn’t place in first, they occupied a position in the top five. Other racers understood it was business when the earthlings were on the tracks. There were plenty of times when a few joined the newcomers for drinks afterwards; the others didn’t consider the defeats and attacks personally. Except one racer. General Ehsa always made every effort to shut out the weaker species earthlings. The Qees commander considered the races unnecessary and a waste of time. Ehsa's opinion didn’t change the fact that this species went from not knowing of his universe to defeating him in a matter of several months. Unfortunately for him, every method he used left him disgraced and behind on the tracks. The general grew frustrated with the whole scene… and came up with the ultimate course of action.

It wasn't a perfect way to spend a wedding anniversary: over the communications system. The day marked ten years of marriage for Tracy and Lindsay Rose. The two chatted, ate and drank together via video feed.

“Damnit, I should’ve sent for you…” Lindsay breathed as she finished her second cup of Bunodic wine.

“It’s okay, Linds! Besides, I ran out of vacation time to take for it, anyway…”

“Oh, my God, you’re useless!” she rolled her eyes and chuckled. “I guess it's for the best. Only got a few more months here.”

“Yes! Three more months and I get to hold you, again… along with other things…” he waggled his eyebrows at her. Lindsay giggled.

“Pervert!”

“What? We haven’t had sex in almost a year! You’re not going to be able to walk once I get a hold of you!” Tracy smirked.

“For now, you’ll just have to be satisfied with… computer sex or whatever the hell you want to call it,” the two laughed. “You know, all joking aside: I think I’m gonna miss this place. I wonder if they’ll let us come visit after the races are done.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Oh! We could make it our second honeymoon!” Lindsay perked up. Although he laughed, her husband nodded in agreement.

“Sounds like a plan… t… me! It Look… ike… beau... ther…” the video feed became twisted.

“What… the hell…? Babe, you’re breaking up…” her brow wrinkled. “Weird…” she mumbled to herself. Lindsay was moments from pulling up the menu; the network was never choppy since its creation. The connection terminated, showing a snowy window. Lindsay attempted to call back but received an error message. Three more efforts made her shake her head. She buzzed one of the two men she knew had an inkling of what happened.

“My girl!”

“Malik, you’ve been on a call lately?”

“Not since this morning. What’s up?”

“I think there’s something wrong with the connection to Earth. Me and Trace just got disconnected, and it’s giving me error messages whenever I try to call back.”

“Huh. What exactly does it say?”

“Hold on,” she attempted to connect. “It says: ‘unable to connect at this time; please try again later’.”

“Hmm…” Malik typed. “Nothing’s wrong with the system. I mean, we’re able to talk to each other. Might be a minor solar flare; those things screw with the magnetic field. I’ll get Yoji on it: call you back when I find out more.”

“Thanks.” Lindsay ended the call. She sank back in the chair and tried to figure out what she could do. Maybe it was her husband’s connection, she wondered. Lindsay attempted to call her brother and sulked when she received the same error notice. He resided in Tucson; there was likely something wrong in the state, she tried to reason. Lindsay tried her parents in Savannah but to no avail. Maybe Malik was right, she acknowledged. Lindsay didn't have in mind of anybody else to call to confirm it further. It was then when she caught the news icon on the desktop flashing a lively red. Yoji set it up to show the humans of any news that took place on Earth: flashing red meant breaking news.

Lindsay had a dreadful sense but something told her it had to do with the interruption. She clicked on it and gazed on in terror as the live feed of the atmosphere surrounding Earth appeared. Her nervous fingers managed to conference call her teammates.

“G-Guys, drop everything and turn to the news!!” she shouted. Tears pooled in her eyes as more Qees army fleets converged on the screen.

“Oh… what in the hell…” David asked.

“What? Who is that? Are those… Qees ships…??” Yoji looked.

“What are they doing?!” even Keith was in shock.

“They’re… oh, shit… are they attacking?! Holy fucking shit; they’re fucking attacking!!” Steve couldn’t believe his eyes as the fleet charged their weapons. In a flicker, the armada fired upon the planet, consuming it in a sphere of orange flames.

“Oh… Jesus…” Tim covered his mouth.

“N-N-N-Nooo…” Lindsay breathed, tears streaking to her cheeks as the ships vanished from the feed. Her heart pounded as she tried to zoom in to see more of the damage but she simply received an error message. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no…”

“Lizzie…?” Malik choked out. A sob caught in the middle of her throat as she attempted to connect to Earth once more. She struggled to control her breathing as she pulled up a flight application.

“Lindsay…” Keith tried.

We are unable to access any satellite connection with the planet, Earth. There is no known date for any future transports.” the automated teller announced.

“No…” her voice trembled; she was forced to watch the orange flames burn around her planet. All the emotions she held blended into one and something inside her finally cracked. Lindsay’s sight dimmed as she screeched at the computer, darting up from her seat.

“Lizzie!” Bradley cried out as she threw her chair across the room in a burst of rage.

There is an elevated degree of hostility present. Are you injured, Lindsay?” PAS dropped from the ceiling. Lindsay glared at the mechanical sphere.

“Locate Ehsa!!” she ordered, not bothering to regulate her breathing. The rage had consumed her; Lindsay was no longer in control of anything.

General Ehsa is presently located in the dining facility.” PAS announced after moments of steady beeps. Lindsay didn’t see her teammates as she rushed out of the room.

“Lindsay!” Keith tried once more, but she already boarded the elevator. “She’s on autopilot; let’s go!” he commanded the others, and they proceeded to the stairs on the left.

The Royal Magistrate stood in Lindsay’s path as she entered the dining facility. It didn’t go unnoticed that she was distressed and grasping a metal pipe in her hand. He didn’t understand what was going on but was mindful of the urgency to stop her; something had infuriated her.

“Lindsay,” her tears surprised him. When he rested his hands on her shoulders, it was barely enough to ease her out of her enraged state. “Is something wrong? What has happened?”

“E-Emuh…?” she didn't understand how she found herself in the dining facility. Hot tears dropped to her chin and Lindsay tried to tell the Royal Magistrate what happened. Words failed her, notably so as she discovered the general in the distance. Lindsay’s fury returned as she scowled at the monster. The rest of the Earth team rushed into the room as Lindsay made her way towards Ehsa.

“Lindsay…?” Emuh watched the woman strangely.

“Lizzie, no!!” Bradley grabbed everyone’s attention except his intended target. Without warning, Lindsay swung with all her might, striking the general in his back. Ehsa turned as Lindsay shrieked with every blow she tried. Before long, blood trickled to her wrists. Frozen in their places, the crew sadly realized that… it was her own. Lindsay continued the assault, too infuriated to feel anything.

“Y-Y-You fucking bastard; how could you?!?!” she screamed between blows, each one producing more blood from her palms.

“Lindsay, stop; you’re only hurting yourself!!” Keith made an effort to snag her attention. Bradley’s heart quickened as he made his way over to grab Lindsay. When Ehsa caught the metal pipe in mid-motion, it was enough to stop Bradley dead in his steps. Something jumped in his throat as he watched the general throw the rod to the side and lift Lindsay by her throat.

“Oh, my God; oh, my God; oh, my God…” Malik gasped, his eyes immense.

“Lindsay!!!” Keith shouted; the woman suspended in the air in front of the general. Lindsay strained for breath as his grip clenched around her neck.

HUMAN, I CAN KILL YOU AS QUICKLY AS MY ARMY SAVAGED YOUR PUNY PLANET! YOUR FEEBLE ATTACKS ARE USELESS!” he claimed, prompting everyone in the facility to gasp at his remark. Ehsa threw Lindsay, and she crashed into the nearby tables. Before anyone retrieved her, Lindsay got up from the floor. The artillery specialist picked up the first object she saw, a chair, and attacked Ehsa once more.

“They did nothing to you!!!!” she yelled out, and the giant roared.

YOUR ANGER WEAKENS YOU.” Ehsa stated and shoved her away once more. Lindsay fell to the floor with a cringe-worthy thud but was on her feet. She rushed towards Ehsa once again but Areiv created a boundary between the two. Lindsay was so overwhelmed with wrath, she tried to fight through the Esperian to get to Ehsa.

“You fucking coward!! You pussy ass bitch!! Couldn’t beat us on the tracks so you take innocent lives?!?! They had nothing to do with this; NOTHING!!!!!” she continued. Despite receiving a beating from the infuriated woman, Areiv kept a firm grasp on Lindsay as he turned to the general, glaring at him.

“You will not only leave this facility but Buno as well, General Ehsa.” he strictly commanded.

I WILL NOT TAKE ORDERS FROM THE BARON OF ESPERIA!” Ehsa bellowed and started for Areiv.

“Then you will accept commands from me. If you set a digit on my son, you will most definitely deal with the consequences sooner than you would desire!” Emuh was beside Areiv in a flash. The Qees general stopped his movement. “You will obey as the Baron orders, particularly after your declaration.” the earthlings weren’t used to seeing the Royal Magistrate irate.

“No; NO! Fuck that!! Let the muthafucker stay!!” Lindsay protested over the Baron. Areiv stopped glowering at the monster and turned his attention towards her. The alien tried once again to quiet Lindsay, holding her wrists firmer than he liked.

“Lindsay…” he attempted to calm. With a thick groan, Ehsa turned to walk out the commissary, which caused Lindsay to give out another enraged cry.

“You’re just gonna let him go?!?! You need to fucking kill him like he did our gaddamn planet!!!!” she burst into tears. Lindsay's words surprised Areiv, who relaxed his grasp on her. Lindsay broke free and snatched another chair. The woman tossed it in the general’s direction with all her might. Before she could throw anything else, Bradley grabbed her.

“Lizzie, please…” he choked out. Bradley squeezed her tight as she dropped, the storm inside of her fading out.

“They did nothing to him!!” she wailed out. The sobs that caught in her throat finally released and Bradley could do nothing but weep with her. The Baron looked on with a trace of sorrow in his own heart. He took a step towards the two but Emuh stopped him.

“Allow them to mourn as a team.” he softly ordered. The rest of the Earth team ran over to embrace the hysterical woman, their own tears spilling.

 

The ordeal was surreal to her. Even as the sedative wore off, she didn’t want to leave the bed. Lindsay remained locked in a tight ball for nearly an hour, avoiding every call and knock. Were the humans the last earthlings left? Had they lost every single person they ever cherished? And of all dates, on her wedding anniversary.

The thought saddened Lindsay even further that she had no recollection of what occurred after viewing the attack. The artillery specialist had hazy memories of seeing the Royal Magistrate in the dining facility. But, one moment she was holding back her sobs from the terror and then the next? Lindsay was lying in her bed, softly crying. If they had lost everything and everyone they knew and loved… what was the reason for living?

“Lindsay…” his gentle and caring voice disturbed her suicidal thoughts.

“Did you… hear my thoughts…?”

“No. I am not telepathic.” Areiv said. Lindsay didn’t make an effort to look up at Areiv, didn’t even question how the alien got inside her room.

“Please… just… just let me… be alone, then…” she managed. Lindsay needed no one there to talk her out of what she intended. The woman made up her mind: Lindsay had no reason to go on living.

The Baron ignored a request for perhaps the first time in his life span. Instead of leaving, the alien sat and drew Lindsay in his arms. Areiv never expected for the move to make the woman weep more yet he gripped her closer, wiping at the human's tears.

“I cannot… and will not do such a thing. Please forgive me. I assured my father I would be on guard while you remain in this state… and I intend to hold my promise. Please do not fight me…” Areiv told her softly. A gasp escaped his lips as Lindsay broke down and quivered in his arms. “Lindsay, how I long to heal your heart…” he had every intention of keeping that remark to himself but he wished to prove how much he sympathized with her distress.

After her frightening display in the commissary, the Baron preferred for Lindsay to respond the way she did at the time. Areiv hated to acknowledge that the general was right: Lindsay's blind rage weakened her. Lindsay was so set to punish the Qees commander, she never realized what little hurt she induced. The artillery specialist did more harm to herself than anything; obvious as Areiv glanced at the abrasions on her hands, arms and around her neck.

“Do you…? The only way… is to… bring them back. Do you have that power…?” she sobbed. Areiv looked at Lindsay, wiping at her tears once more.

“I do not. However, there may be hope.” the Baron told her. It was the mildest he had seen her since the incident. Lindsay tried to restrain her shudders and sniffling to stare at Areiv. She had to make certain she heard right.

“… W-W-What…?” she gazed into his eyes. The alien lifted her with him as the two left the bed.

“May I show you?” he led her towards the computer. Lindsay looked on as he pulled up the satellite feed of Earth. “You were so distraught, as you should be. However, no one could speak to you. I observed what transpired. I sought to locate you to inform you. Qees war weaponry consists of nuclear energy. There was… an abundance of radiation from the attack. However, Qees do not calibrate their weapons properly for long ranged attacks. They assume all that is required… is strength, itself. Qees often misjudge.” Areiv explained. As the feed came into focus, the Baron pointed to the deep red and orange blotches seen on the planet. Lindsay analyzed them for a while and realized that while the spots remained vast in size… they were hardly dispersed around the globe. She could still make out areas of North America.

“Oh, my God… there might be survivors…” she covered her mouth. Areiv couldn’t help but to grin as she hugged him. There was hope they weren’t the last earthlings alive.

8.2: Survival

Buno canceled the races so the Earth team could mourn their loved ones. The break allowed time for General Ehsa to stand trial for his questionable plots. While found not responsible for the attack on Earth, Ehsa was exiled from Buno. The ban carried to any inhabitant of the planet Irazor. There was no evidence of his involvement although he was the commander of their army; the general was on Buno at the time of the attacks. There were arguments he called for the siege yet the rest of his army took full responsibility of taking action without his say so. The Earth team didn’t buy their explanation, but they had no say so in the judgment. The restriction of every Qees made them feel somewhat better; none would present a menace to anyone on Buno anymore.

A month passed since the attack, and the earthlings saw the radiation was still too strong for a signal. It didn’t prevent them from attempting, day in and day out, particularly Lindsay. The woman slightly hung over Yoji and Malik while they sought many configurations to operate the satellite.

“Sorry, Lizzie,” Yoji huffed, rubbing his weary eyes. “It’s still not budging an inch.” he explained. Lindsay nodded and sank into a seat. Malik threw an arm around her shoulder and she squeezed it.

“All of that radiation… it’s starting to spread to the unaffected areas. There’s no telling how many will survive…” the thought disturbed him. Lindsay shook her head and looked at him.

“Fuck. I’ve been acting so selfish! I’m not the only one who could’ve… lost people…” she choked up. Lindsay considered the other members and their own families. Bradley’s girlfriend, Malik’s daughter, David’s family: all eight members stayed in mourning. The artillery specialist had no right to think of only her losses.

“Stop it. You’re not being selfish. You want everyone alive, that’s all. Nothing wrong with that.” Yoji nodded at her. Bradley approached the group and took a seat next to Lindsay.

“Nothing still?”

“Nope…” Malik sighed. The man gave Lindsay a small smile. “If anything, we owe you the apology.”

“What? Why?”

“We… we were too shocked to stop you from attacking Ehsa. He… could’ve killed you…” Yoji said meekly. Lindsay gave him an astonished stare.

“I… what…?!” she asked. Bradley furrowed his brow at her.

“You don’t remember…?”

“… No. I… blanked out…”

“Holy hell, are you kidding me?! If Ehsa was human… he would’ve been dead!” Malik widened his eyes. Lindsay stared at him for a while before turning her attention to her hands. She finally got the explanation of where her bruises came from. Lindsay was glad they were disappearing.

“I attacked him… and I’m still alive…?”

“That fucker didn’t have the balls to kill you in front of everyone. Not with the Esperians there…” Bradley recalled. The man was deeply grateful that Areiv stepped in when he did. The scene further proved Bradley's assumption that the Esperians ruled the galaxy; Ehsa ignored the Baron but when the Royal Magistrate threatened him, the giant backed away.

“Let’s talk about something else? Do you think we’ll be able to play catchup in the races?” Yoji looked at everyone.

“I dunno. We’d have to place first in every race from here on out…” Lindsay answered listlessly. The woman didn’t look at anyone; her mind wandered what possessed her to attack someone three times the size of herself. Lindsay felt she had every reason; the general engaged in the mass slaughter of her home world. No wonder everyone walked on eggshells around her!

“Hey, guys; we got some great news!” Steve’s voice echoed throughout the bay. The group turned, and their eyes widened at the sight before them.

“M-Mr. President!” Lindsay was the first to jump from her seat. The woman wrapped him in a tight hug, taking the two Secret Service agents and everyone else off guard. President Abraham let out a short laugh and returned the embrace. The laugh made Lindsay realize who she was clutching and released him. The artillery specialist's whole body burned with embarrassment. “S-Sir! I’m so sorry…”

“It’s fine! It’s great to see you, too!” he smiled at her.

“But, sir… all that radiation… how…” Malik was about to ask before the president held his hand up.

“I’ll be more than happy to explain. Yes, there is a high volume of radiation scattered over the entire globe but… there are quite a few survivors. Many places were hit and miss, a few places were unaffected and… a few that were wiped out.” he finished somberly.

“Do you… have any word about any of our families, sir?” David stepped up and asked for the team. The president glanced at their eager eyes, a blend of emotions flooding himself.

“Yes… I do. Some of your family members survived and are in safe spots away from most of the radiation. It's spreading so safe spots are becoming far and between. We will talk to the Esperians and the ruler of Buno about housing arrangements. David: your wife and children are safe; California was mostly unaffected. That means that your mother is fine, Yoji,” Abraham looked at David and Yoji. The two sighed out in relief. “Malik, I’m sorry: we could only track your daughter down. She’s actually here, now.”

“W-What…” Malik had a jumble of emotions coursing through him. Lindsay noted that the president avoided her glance and tears fell as she covered her mouth.

“I’m… I’m so sorry, Lindsay. Arizona was completely leveled…” he finally looked at her, compassion showing in his own brown eyes. Bradley embraced her.

“I’m sorry, Liz…” he whispered, a swell caught in his own throat.

“But, one of the last reports I received was about your parents… and your brother. Luck was on his side: he and his wife were visiting your parents. All four are safe…” Abraham gave her a small smile. Lindsay choked out a sob but wiped at her eyes.

“Wait, w-what? Will and Val… t-they’re fine…?”

“Yes. Unfortunately,” he directed his gaze on the remaining members. “The status of everyone else’s whereabouts is up in the air. Some states still aren't accounted for after all this time, which leads me to believe the radiation was too high in those areas. We’ve been hopeful this entire time. The few troops we have are being deployed to search for survivors all over the world, assess the damage and what have you. I’m hoping that the Royal Magistrate and the Bunodic ruler will take in refugees. The Earth team’s family members are our first priority; they should be on their way here as I speak.”

“So… Buno is our home, now?” Steve asked. Abraham nodded.

“At least until we can declare Earth as livable. I won’t lie; with the radiation spreading as fast as it is, I’m doubtful. We’ll keep our ears open, however. Any other survivors we discover after this first flight will be brought here, eventually.”

8.3: Goodbye

Lindsay sat on one cliff which looked out on the Sea of Buno after the surprise announcement and confessed she at peace with the status of Earth. President Abraham set out to speak with the Royal Magistrate and the Bunodic ruler, someone Lindsay didn't realize existed. He promised Yoji and Malik he would come back to help them configure the system to make contact with the troops back on Earth. Everyone was confident that the earthling refugees could travel to safety.

Lindsay gave out an appreciative sigh; the attack spared her parents, brother and sister-in-law, and the four, along with David’s family and Yoji’s mother would be there within the week. Yet, her heart ached for her husband. She didn’t care for the way he died, not in the least. They didn’t get the chance to say they loved each other, and it left a bitter taste in her mouth; the Roses knew for sure one would be by the other’s side when it was their time to pass on. Lindsay got cheated.

She clenched his dog tags in her hand as more tears flowed; along with her wedding rings, it was the only other item she had to remember him by. Lindsay hoped he at least didn’t suffer. If the attack destroyed the whole state, it was likely no one felt anything when they died. At least, Lindsay hoped that was the case.

As the two suns set, Lindsay relived all their good moments. It would be how he’d wish her to remember him, she reasoned. The vibrant glow made the sea shimmer a vivid emerald green, instantly catching Lindsay’s attention. She watched as the glow lingered, even as dusk settled around the area. The sight was bizarre to her; everywhere else dusk descended, but the glow lingered around the waters. Lindsay closed her eyes and shuddered. The air grew warmer and folded around her if only for an instant. She cried harder as it dissipated.

It startled him to find her on the cliff, of all places; while it wasn’t a prohibited region, it was quite a hike from the housing building. Areiv had a marvelous view of the cliff from the Esperian bay and grew concerned that it appeared someone was getting ready to jump from there. The Baron, instead of going to check on Lindsay, checked on the person on the cliff who he hoped didn’t jump before he arrived. When Areiv got there, he watched her, satisfied to see that Lindsay was not thinking of ending her life.

Emuh was the one who informed the Baron on the status of Lindsay’s mate and her home planet; Areiv wanted to console the woman as much as he could. It made him feel better to be beside Lindsay as he took a seat; Areiv was uneasy at how her feet hung from the edge. Lindsay didn’t seem to regard him because her focus was on the glow found around the sea, which made Areiv look on in slight confusion along with her.

“… It’s him…” Lindsay surprised him when she spoke.

“It is who?”

“I know it’s gonna sound weird. But… it’s my husband. That’s why the glow’s still here. Tracy… he’s finally saying goodbye…”

“Is that what you genuinely believe…?”

“It’s not a coincidence the glow is still right here. Green was his favorite color. Is it… wrong of me not to want him to leave…?” Lindsay quivered out. Areiv watched attentively as the emerald glow dimmed.

“It is not. However, one of the lessons learned as Esperians on death is that… one’s soul needs to venture into the other life, whether we accept or not. It is his time to make that passage. You are particularly fortunate to have him remain as long as he has. I have no doubt that… he will forever be in your heart. This radiance is an acknowledgment of that. He will never abandon you, Lindsay.” Areiv finally glanced at her. Lindsay couldn’t stop crying but she nodded at his comments. The emerald glow completely faded from the sea and she buried her head into Areiv’s chest. The Baron let her weep in silence; he didn’t understand what else to say or do aside from embracing the woman. Areiv's own heart ached along with hers.

“I-I-I-I’m s-s-s-sorry…”

“Do not apologize, Lindsay. If this is what you seek to do, please do not be ashamed on my account. Esperians deal with grief differently, yes. However… I understand your need.”

“T-Thank you so much… for being here…” Lindsay sniffed, struggling to settle down.

“I will always be here for you, Lindsay.”

“Cuz your dad ordered you to be?” Lindsay didn't know how she was able to smirk.

“… No. It is what I long for. I do not want you ending your life. I will prevent that… by any means necessary. You are… you have come to be my friend, Lindsay.” the Baron confessed. Lindsay stared at him and an amused smile danced on her lips.

“Can we… stay here for a while…?”

“Whatever you desire…”

9.1: The Rerecro

Something told her to open her eyes; Lindsay sensed that something wasn’t normal. When she caved in to the feeling, she was staring into the mahogany eyes of her younger brother, and the shock of it caused Lindsay to jump and slip out of bed.

“Oh, my God; what the fuck is wrong with you?!”

“Oh, good; you’re up!” William offered her a large grin as he made an effort to help her from the floor but received an angry swat. “You don’t usually sleep this late…” he laughed.

“What…?” she shoved him out the way as he attempted to help her once more. Lindsay glanced at the clock on her nightstand. “Oh, fuck my life; I should’ve been up,” she plopped on her bed and sunk her head in her hands. “That’s all I need is for Keith to have a fucking aneurysm about me being lat-”

“What are you talking about…?”

“I got practice in like twenty minutes! Fuck, fuck, fuck… okay, I’ll have to skip the shower…” Lindsay got up.

“Lizzie… it’s Christmas!” William roared with laughter. His sister stopped in her tracks and gazed at him. Lindsay could make out the soft tones of Christmas music coming from the main room.

Over a year had passed since the Earth team moved their surviving family members to Buno. While the crew placed fifth in the Great Buno Races last season, this season was a different story. If they placed in the top ten for the remaining races, the Earth team would be crowned victors, overthrowing the reigning champion, Areiv.

Lindsay and David had to upgrade to the apartments on the top level of the housing building due to the size of their families; the others lived in their former quarters. With the Earth refugees, Buno made a special case where the Earth team kept their old rooms. The other earthlings were dispersed throughout the planet of Buno.

Lindsay made her way into the main room along with her brother and took in the unexpected invasion of holiday decorations. In the center of the room, a tall and bright Christmas tree greeted her, and underneath were wrapped gifts. Lindsay looked towards the kitchen area, where her mother and sister-in-law were cooking and both turned, giving her pleasant smiles.

“Merry Christmas!” Valerie wiped her hands. She wobbled her way towards her sister-in-law and gave her a hug. Valerie Ramsey was the main discussion of the planet; her baby would be the first human being born as a Bunodic in a few weeks.

“You guys did all this while I was sleep…? Damnit, I could’ve helped…”

“What? No; we wanted to surprise you!” Lindsay’s mother called out from the kitchen area. “I couldn’t talk Val out of it, anyway!”

“Our daughter’s about to pop out and she’s still as stubborn as a mule…” William pointed out, giving his wife a kiss. Valerie swatted at him.

“Get your brother!”

“Nah, he’s right! Matter of fact, go sit down; I’ll take over!” Lindsay said and made her way into the kitchen.

Lindsay didn't know what to say. The day had passed unceremoniously last year; the earthlings were still in mourning and attempting to settle on a new planet. Now, as she experienced nostalgia, Lindsay remembered how she missed the holiday. Her husband was never in a Christmas mood, no matter how much Lindsay decorated their home and sang Christmas songs. For the longest, she dreamed that there was something she could’ve done to get Tracy in that holiday spirit. As Lindsay washed dishes, she found it weird that was the main thing she missed about the holiday; Lindsay realized that she still missed Tracy, period.

As the day moved on, the rest of the Earth team and their family met in Lindsay’s apartment to celebrate. Lindsay was struck dumb to see Keith, who everyone noticed treated her far better than last year. The two had their minor disputes but not as intense.

Everyone exchanged presents and relaxed, chatting and enjoying themselves. As she took a seat on the floor with her brother and Malik’s daughter, Kristen, Lindsay realized what the others were doing: they were trying to lift her spirits. Lindsay took Tracy's death the hardest, to where she contemplated suicide more often than she liked to think. It was because of her depression that the Earth team forfeited their inaugural season. Lindsay felt terrible about it and constantly thought they held it against her. But as she glanced around her living area, she found the thought not true.

Lindsay stared at the door as somebody knocked. The woman wondered who else would mingle with them; everyone she knew was there, already. Her mother waved her off as she stood.

“Stay put; I got it…” she made her way to the entrance. The older woman greeted the Esperians and smiled. “Ah, good timing! We’re about to eat.”

“Oh, is it too late to give out presents?” Areiv asked. The Baron was content that the woman shook her head and allowed them in the apartment.

“Not at all! Lizzie’ll appreciate it. You know, she really needed this; it’s been a while since I’ve seen her truly happy.” Lindsay’s mother peered over at Lindsay and William. Lindsay’s face glowed as she got up to greet her new guests.

“You know, I’m surprised they weren’t the first ones here…” Steve teased.

“Areiv, Emuh! Were you two in on this…?”

“I must acknowledge that we knew of the festivities. Your mother wished to put you in greater spirits. She described the Christmas holiday and celebration in deeper details. Most fascinating holiday! I could not wait for the day to arrive! I did not know what to gift you, however my son revealed that you revel in a particular Esperian sauce…” Emuh gave Lindsay a smile as he gave the woman a long container. Lindsay’s eyes widened in delight.

“Dworl! And lots of it!” the woman scanned the container.

“I requested the royal chef to prepare a delightful portion of dworl accompanied with ortinu, a wild animal on Esperia used largely for royal feasts. I have not had the pleasure of sampling all your Earth foods, yet it may remind you of your… sheep…?” the Royal Magistrate tried. Lindsay gave him a bemused expression before breaking into laughter.

“Maybe you meant lamb! And, you didn’t have to go through all that trouble…”

“It was no inconvenience at all. You have been more than cordial to my son and me. Lamb, you say? Is that not the child?” Emuh was stopped from probing more as he noticed Areiv giving him a glance. “I apologize. It appears that I have neglected that my son bears a gift for you as well. Did you mention you were about to dine…?” the Royal Magistrate's concern moved towards the kitchen area and the elder alien left. Lindsay laughed more and then grinned at Areiv.

“Thanks for trying to make me feel better.”

“As I have mentioned innumerable times, we are friends. And I will ever be here for you, Lindsay. Please excuse my father; he is particularly eager for celebrations and feasts.”

“I see! It’s fine; I like that.”

“He is moreover taken aback by my selection of a present to you.” Areiv continued as Lindsay led him further into the room.

“Oh. I mean, if it’s gonna cause any problems then take it back. Everyone being here and doing this has been more than enough for me!”

“I am afraid that I cannot. Well… possibly I could however, I will not,” Areiv gave Lindsay a smile as he removed a long silk pouch from his back. “Father is merely… surprised by my decision. I will confess that I was rather concerned when I arrived to the conclusion however… well… I shall explain after you open it.” the Baron handed Lindsay the bag. The woman threw him a baffled glance but looked inside the sack, gasping.

“Areiv! Wait… is this what I think it is…?” she asked as she removed the sword out of the bag. Lindsay knew Areiv didn’t have to respond; the weapon she held in her hand was the very one she had during the recital. It didn’t radiate with the warmth she felt during the tale but it undeniably was the same sword, with its large hilt and thin silver blade.

“Oh… that’s a nice piece of equipment he gave her…” David concluded, along with the rest of the group. Bradley narrowed his eyes at the weapon.

“Don’t you think that’s the last thing she needs is a sword…?” he grumbled but couldn’t help recalling her outburst of fury over a year ago. Although the menace was thrown out, the man wasn’t overly fond of Lindsay having a genuine weapon on her. Lindsay simply stared at Areiv.

“Did you… have someone make the sword from the recital for me…?”

“No. This sword is an Esperian combat weapon, the Rerecro. Only one was forged in the history of my people, which has been in our family for eons. Only a worthy warrior may wield this sword.” Areiv explained proudly.

“O-Oh. I ain’t no true warri-”

“Do not permit my son to disregard further details. This is likewise the sword the Lady of Esperia carries…” Emuh stood beside Lindsay, carrying a plate of food.

“F-Father…” Areiv warned but flushed. Emuh’s remarks were enough for everyone in the room to gape at the two Esperians, including Lindsay.

“Did he just say the Lady of Esperia carries that sword…?!” Steve stared.

“W-W-W-W-Wait… are you… Areiv, is this your way of asking me to-”

“The Lady of Esperia has consistently represented a symbol of defiance; an honorable warrior with empathy. My mother represented this quite successfully, to my knowledge. I simply… decided to break tradition and pass the sword to you. You represent those qualities rather well, Lindsay.”

“I… I do…?”

“Oh, very much so! His declaration to break tradition baffled me, indeed. However, who he appointed to carry the Rerecro… did not.” Emuh explained with a pleasing look. Lindsay blushed as she continued to examine the sword.

“I… can’t… take this…”

“You will not receive my gift…?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Lizzie; why do you like to do that to him?! Take the damn sword!” Malik laughed. Lindsay’s entire body flushed as she glared at the man before turning back to Areiv.

“Sorry. It’s gorgeous, Areiv. T-Thank you. I won’t let nothing happen to it.”

“You had me concerned for an instant. I am glad you accept the sword. Now, if you do not object: I would wish to learn more of this holiday…”

 

David and his family were the last humans to leave, giving Lindsay goodbye hugs. The woman turned to face Areiv; the alien smiled as he approached her, cupped her hands and lightly bowed.

“I have enjoyed myself today. It pleases me to have you in finer spirits. However, I believe I should have departed with my father. You had a long day and I will allow you to rest with your family, now.”

“Wait, Areiv… I was… I was wondering if… if you wanted to sit with me for a little while?” Lindsay tried, a blush rushing to her cheeks. Areiv gave her a bemused glance but followed the expression with a tender smile.

“You do not object? I will be delighted to; however, I do not desire to hold you up much longer.” the Baron told her. Lindsay chuckled as she led him back into the main room.

“It’s fine. It’s kinda tradition for us to stay up later on holidays, unless you were the one who did all the work. They really outdid themselves…” Lindsay realized as she gazed at the Christmas tree. Without warning, she took a seat in front of the tree and looked at the random blinking bulbs. Areiv studied Lindsay for a moment before sitting close to her.

“Your family wished to make you feel better. It is the same with myself, of course. I rather see you with your smile and laughter.” Areiv looked at her. Lindsay’s whole body flushed at his confession, a small smile playing on her face.

“Why do you say such things…?”

“Because it is the truth. Did you find it offensive…?”

“… N-No…”

“That is good. While we are on the topic: I do trust I did not truly offend you with my gift.”

“Oh! No! It was just… shocking. Cuz Emuh said that it belongs to the Lady of Esperia and all…”

“I see. That is why I did not address it after the recital. You were already indifferent of the performance; for me to admit that the sword you possessed was the very one granted to the Lady of Esperia…”

“Y-Yeah; that would’ve made me feel even worse about the whole thing!” Lindsay admitted, laughing.

“I did not wish to intimidate you. I was at a lack of words for a mere moment upon seeing it, myself. However, as the narrative progressed, it gave further insight. Even the Legooms believe you are more than deserving to wield the Rerecro. I apologize if it makes you uneasy.”

“It doesn’t. And, don’t apologize for every little thing!” the woman smirked.

“Ah… I will attempt not to from this point onward. Although, it is simply in my character to be courteous. Lindsay… I have a question.”

“Oh, okay; I’ll try to answer it.”

“You have explained to me everything I desired to understand about this Christmas festivity. I understand the purpose for the illuminated tree, the feast and the presents. However, there was one element I was most curious about and attempted to ask your brother. William informed me you had further understanding of this…” Areiv mentioned and showed her a small sprig of mistletoe. Lindsay’s eyes widened as the blush returned, passing the alien a glance and a smirk.

“Y-Y-Y-You’re kidding, right…?” Lindsay bit her lip to keep from laughing. Areiv gave her an odd gaze but looked back at the branch.

“I assure you I am not. Was your brother wrong in his assumption? What is this flower?”

“I’m gonna kill him…” she moaned, glaring daggers towards his room. “This is, um… it’s called mistletoe.”

“Mistletoe… what a unique name! Is it needed for decoration like the holly and poinsettia? William would not say…”

“Will… is a twit!”

“I’m sorry?”

“No; nothing! It’s… awkward to explain what mistletoe does!”

“Really? How so? It is not for decoration, then?” the Baron asked. Lindsay let out her laugh.

“Oh, my God; okay, I can’t pass up an opportunity like this! Hold it over your head.” Lindsay ordered. Areiv gave her another strange expression, pausing before doing so.

“Like so…? So peculiar; how long do I pose like this?” the Baron wanted to know. Lindsay smiled as she leaned closer to the Esperian.

“Until someone does this…” the woman debated on where but ultimately gave the alien a gentle kiss on his lips. Areiv was stunned and gasped when he felt Lindsay's warm lips on his. Lindsay hadn’t expected for the Baron to kiss her back but he did so, placing the mistletoe to the side and gently wrapping his arms around her. The movement made her break the kiss as she gave Areiv a flustered smile. “I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean t-”

“I do believe I am rather fond of this mistletoe flower! Are there any other flowers I need to learn of that will make you kiss me?” Areiv's enthusiasm made Lindsay unable to return to her usual tone but offered him a laugh.

“You… didn’t mind that?”

“Not in the slightest! I have… waited for this occasion.”

“W-What…? Wait… so, you haven’t just been nice to me 'just cuz' this whole time?” Lindsay's eyes widened.

“Oh. You seem to have misunderstood. It is in my character to treat others with courtesy if they are deserving. I desired to treat you the same. However, as time passed, I yearned to care for you as… more. Did that help you understand? I am not experienced in communicating these types of feelings…” the Baron surprised her. No wonder William gave him mistletoe, Lindsay thought to herself. She gave Areiv a full laugh and shifted comfortably in his arms.

“You did good; I understand! As far as your question: all I need is for you to be willing to accept a kiss…”

“My dear Lindsay, I am more than willing! Oh… I did not intend to appear so enthused-”

“Be quiet, Baron and give me another kiss!” Lindsay smiled as she leaned in for another kiss.

9.2: Secrets

Keith cleared his throat as he rapped on the door and was relieved that he was staring into the deep brown eyes of Lindsay’s mother, Sandra. She peered at him as he knew she would; ever since the arrival of Lindsay’s family and the other earthlings, Keith contemplated on when this conversation needed to take effect. He understood he postponed it long enough.

“Is… Lindsay here?”

“No. She’s out with Areiv, Will and Val.”

“Okay. Can I come in and wait…?” he asked. Sandra continued to gaze at him but moved aside to allow him in. The two sat on the sofa in painful silence as Keith glanced over the main room. The ringing of the new year experienced a notable difference in the apartment as a pink bassinet was present in the area: Lindsay was an aunt and the planet of Buno experienced their first birth of a human being.

Sandra was glad for the cooing noises that emanated from the bassinet; she got up and checked on the newborn while her husband, Carl emerged from one of the rooms.

“San, leave that baby alone! She’s fi… oh…” he stopped in his tracks when his eyes settled on Keith. “Ah. Keith. Need something to drink?” he offered. The Earth team’s manager shook his head. “Okay. Are you… here for what I think you’re here for?” the man asked warily. Keith stared at the tall and slender man; for some reason, he couldn’t recover his voice and solemnly nodded. “Okay… think I’ll fix myself a drink, then…”

“Carl…” Sandra warned, but the man shrugged as he made his way into the kitchen area.

“It’s gonna be needed, San!” he countered. Keith knew the man was right. He should’ve been better prepared for this but his heart galloped as he watched the two; Sandra finally sat but was worried, not looking at the man while Carl poured a large helping of tan liquor in his glass. Perhaps a drink wasn’t a bad idea, Keith thought. He decided to sigh away his nervousness and opened his mouth to ask for a drink until the door opened wide, letting Lindsay, Areiv, William and Valerie inside. Her smile was radiant at first as she clung onto Areiv’s blue arm but quickly dissipated as she took notice of Keith.

“Keith…” she greeted.

“… Lindsay. Ba-”

“Something wrong?” she interrupted him; it was unusual for the manager to be present in her home. The older man had slipped out of his obvious disdain for the woman since the attack but it didn’t stop the two from bickering. For him to be in her apartment, Lindsay reasoned, there had to be something to do with the Silver Stallion.

“… No. Just… talking to your parents.” Keith shocked the woman, hoping that his uneasiness wasn’t evident in his tone. Lindsay squinted her eyes at the scene: her mother appeared calm enough but ignored Keith; Sandra watched as Valerie reached for the infant. Lindsay glanced in the kitchen space where William looked in the refrigerator while her father gave her a nod. Carl sipped on whatever was in his glass and the artillery specialist widened her eyes.

“Daddy…”

“What? This? Don’t mind this, sweetheart…” the man made an effort to convince Lindsay.

“Oookay… well, we’re gonna get ready for the festival later tonight. Unless… we’re having practice?” she glanced at Keith. There had to be another reason for him to be here, Lindsay pondered. But the man shook his head.

“Practice as usual will be Monday. Have fun…” Keith tried but glanced elsewhere. Lindsay widened her eyes and opened her mouth to retaliate but Areiv pulled her along.

“We intend to, thank you.” the Baron replied with a small bow. As Lindsay closed the door, she had no chance to figure out the incident in the main room as the Esperian gathered her in his arms and gave her a tender kiss. The woman smiled as she draped her arms around his neck.

“My, my; we’re getting the hang of this!” Lindsay laughed. Areiv smiled back.

“Sharing kisses is one feature that does not alter between our species. And I enjoy kissing you very much. However, I sense that something is on your mind?”

“Yeah. Okay, something ain’t right out there…”

“Are you referring to Keith?”

“Yeah. First, he doesn’t do random visits, especially to my house…”

“Perhaps he is simply choosing to converse with your parents, Lindsay.”

“No. It’s more than that. Daddy’s all nervous.”

“He appeared fine to me. Lindsay…”

“You don’t understand. My daddy only drinks alcohol when he’s nervous.”

“I see. Then… that may be a concern between the three of them. You need not worry about it. Did you require me to help select out attire fo-”

“Areiv, I’m sorry but it’s gonna drive me bonkers until I find out what’s really going on! Stay he-” Lindsay was cut short by Areiv's thin lips landing on hers. Lindsay gave out a moan as the kiss grew deeper and she relaxed, forgetting the predicament in the main room.

Lindsay didn’t regard it as rushing; she admitted on Christmas evening she always desired to kiss the Esperian. The emotions she struggled to sink finally broke out; Lindsay noticed she didn’t blush as often when she considered the alien in a romantic manner. A year ago, she gave out her last farewells to her husband on the cliff; she understood it would still ache for her to think of her loss. Lindsay realized she would forever remember Tracy but she felt Areiv was right. He would always have a unique place in her heart but, as it was time for Tracy’s soul to cross over, it was time for her to be comfortable enough to start over.

Areiv ended the kiss and gazed into her eyes.

“Lindsay… let us have sex before preparing for the festival…”

“Whoa, wait; what?!” Lindsay immediately jerked away from him.

“Oh. Perhaps… we can have sex after the festival…?”

“H-H-Hold up! Is this how Esperians work…?! Just cuz I’m comfortable kissing you don’t mean I’m ready to h-have sex with you!” she glared at him but Areiv gave Lindsay a perplexed glance.

“I… do not understand your anger. Asking for sex is too forward of me?”

“Uh, yeah!”

“But… I have read that sex is a rather pleasurable action. I would love to offer you as much pleasure as I can. Is that not what human males do for their human females…?” the Baron made an effort to explain. Lindsay calmed down long enough to hear his remarks and couldn’t help but to give him a smirk.

“Wait… so… you really don’t know what sex is… do you…?”

“I will confess I am not acquainted with that particular term, no. However, if I interpreted properly: something that is shared between a man and a woman that is most pleasurable. If it is the wording ‘man and woman’ that troubles you, I would wish to emphasize that even though I am what you may consider alien, I am a male alien. We should be capable to engage in sex together. Please, do not be upset.” Areiv gave her a look. Lindsay laughed.

“Oh, God; you have no clue what sex is! Oh, Areiv, I’m sorry for getting mad at you! Okay…” she led the Baron to her bed, and the two sat on the edge. “You read right; sex can be really pleasurable but it’s something that’s… intimate.”

“Are you suggesting it is too soon for the two of us to be… intimate?”

“… You don’t know what that word means, do you…?”

“I do not; I am still learning certain Earth terms. I am most confused!” Areiv admitted. Lindsay laughed once more at Areiv's facial expression, the laugh served to prevent herself from blushing.

“It’s okay! I’m here to help! So. Alright. Um… yeah; humans use sex to… mate, for the most part.”

“To mate…? I have no doubt Esperians use that term differently than humans do.” Areiv continued to gaze at Lindsay with a puzzled stare.

“Ah. Okay… what do Esperians do to make a baby?”

“To make a child…? Oh, I see…… oh!”

“Right! That’s sex and being intimate!”

“I understand, now. I must apologize although I notice you disapprove for me to do so as much…”

“It’s okay. So, now that you know… you still want to have sex before the festival?” Lindsay sought to maintain an even face as she put her arms around the Baron's neck but failed as she surrendered to a bout of laughter. Areiv let out a chuckle as he returned the embrace.

“I have no doubt that it is too soon for us to become that… intimate. Esperians consider that function a ritual, however.”

“Oh, really? So, it’s not as casual as we humans make it?”

“Traditionally, no. However, with our analysis and adjustment to human behavior, quite a few Esperians are breaking tradition. There exist several of your human behaviors we enjoy. However, as Baron, I cannot see myself growing so… nonchalant about our ritual.”

“Oh…” the woman nodded her head before abruptly giving him a glimpse. “Wait a minute… you telling me that you’re a virgin…?!”

“Oh, you and your human words…” Areiv smirked and Lindsay laughed.

“Alright, wise guy! Hmm… you’re… pure? You’ve never been intimate with anyone…?”

“My dear Lindsay, you are the first female I have ever kissed.”

“What?!”

“Yes. Admittedly… you are the only female I have desired to kiss…” Areiv gave her a light smile. Lindsay flushed but returned the grin.

“You better be careful, Baron or we’d have to break that tradition of yours!”

 

“She’s been clueless all these years? No one’s said anything to her, yet?” Keith asked Sandra. The woman peered at her hands in her lap and shook her head as Carl took one of her hands.

“I… we honestly felt that it was better this way… her not knowing.”

“You weren’t supposed to come back…” Carl admitted. Keith sighed and looked at his own hands.

“I… I know. Karen was my only connection and when she decided to move on… I didn’t imagine I’d ever see her, again. My God, it was fate. The first time I laid eyes on Lindsay… I didn’t know what to think. I panicked. Deep down, I guess I wanted it to be her. And it ate at me that she looked… exactly how I hoped she would. The way she stands up to me… every time, I tell myself: that’s her. That’s my daughter…” Keith recalled with a small smirk on his face.

Neither had heard Lindsay come out, and the three started at the sound of glass shattering in the kitchen section.

There has been a minor hazard in the kitchen zone…

“P-PAS, complete shutdown…” Lindsay ignored the mechanical orb as she gradually made her way into the main room.

As you wish…

“Oh… Lizzie…” Sandra covered her mouth.

“What… did he say…?” she asked. Keith’s heart sped as he stood and bit his lip, staring at Lindsay.

“Lindsay? I’m your…”

“No.”

“Lindsay…”

“This is a joke. Yeah. Cuz, you knew I was eavesdropping…”

“Lizzie, I wish it w-”

“No, no, no, no… you… you never call me that. You… can’t be my fath… no! He’s sitting right there,” Lindsay pointed to Carl. She realized that the man had a solemn expression on his face and Lindsay turned to her mother, glaring at the woman. “Mom… you… had an affair…”

“Liz, honey, no!” tears sprouted out of Sandra’s eyes. “Me and Carl… we adopted you.” she tried to explain. Lindsay stared at the three in complete shock before giving out a sharp, hysterical laugh.

“O-Okay, joke’s over! That ain’t funny; why, why would you even joke like that…?”

“It’s… it’s true, Lindsay. I don’t know how to really prove it to you-”

“N-No; you shut up!” she glared at Keith. Her eyes softened as she turned to Carl. “Daddy, tell them…” Lindsay stopped short when she realized that the man had tears in his eyes.

“I’m… I’m sorry, Lizzie…” Carl managed. Lindsay shook her head in disbelief, angry tears spilling from her eyes.

“Why… why tell me this, now…?” she half-whispered. When no one responded, Lindsay glared at the three. “Why did you wait so long to tell me?!” she yelled. The uproar made Areiv, William and Valerie come out of the rooms.

“Is everything fine, Lindsay?” Areiv asked but at once caught sight of the tears trickling from her eyes. The Baron gave out a low gasp as he gently took her arm, the discomfort in the room very prominent. “Come; let us receive fresh air.”

“Liz…?” William gave the scene a puzzling look. Areiv threw him a friendly grin.

“Do not despair about your sister, William. Lindsay will be fine. We shall return shortly.” the Esperian announced as the two left.

The Baron knew to display patience with the human woman as he waited for her to settle. Areiv and Lindsay sat on the usual cliff facing the Sea of Buno for thirty minutes as she explained what she found out. Afterwards, the alien held Lindsay as she wept, not choosing to speak of the incident anymore. When Areiv heard somebody approaching, he turned around and smiled at the sight of Lindsay’s brother.

“Okay, so, what’s going on? No one will talk to me. Mom’s locked herself in their room and dad’s drinking… more…” William heaved out. Areiv looked at Lindsay to respond but she continued to cry. William sat on the opposite side of his sister and waited for a reply as Lindsay wiped at the rest of her tears. The woman glanced at him and realized that at least William wasn’t adopted; she recalled her mother’s pregnancy and how excited she was to see him. As Lindsay continued to study William, it made sense; whenever anyone met the two, no one believed they were brother and sister. All that time, Lindsay thought it was because she favored their mother while William was a spitting image of their father. His father, she fumed in her head.

“Guess there’s no other way to say it than just say it. Will… I’m adopted…” Lindsay sniffled.

“W-Wait… what?!” his eyes widened as a smirk flickered at his lips. William at once erased it when he realized that she was not joking. “No…”

“Yeah. I’m not your real sister…”

“That’s… bullshit. Who told you that?”

“Overheard Keith saying it.”

“Your manager? How the fuck would he…” William’s eyes stayed wide as he gawked at Lindsay. “He’s your dad?! That’s… wow. No way. It’s not true…”

“I… I dunno how to feel. All this time. Someone should’ve said something before now! And, everything seems like a fucking lie. I know how I feel. Betrayed; I feel fucking betrayed! And a damn fool…”

“Don’t; stop that. You shouldn’t feel that way. Hey, you know what I say?” William waited until Lindsay faced him. “To hell with what they say. I give two shits what they just told you! I don’t know what happened for Carl and Sandra to adopt you… and I honestly don’t give a fuck! You shouldn’t, either! Nothing changes the fact they were… they are mom and dad! That’s what they’ve been all our lives. And, all of mine, I’ve only known you as one thing: that’s big sis. I’ll be damned if that changes all because you were adopted. You’ll always be my real sis, Lizzie; adopted or not!” William threw his sister a glare. Lindsay stared at him in awe, more tears growing in her eyes.

“Will…” the woman choked out before giving William a huge embrace.

“Fuck ‘em, Liz! Who cares about some paper saying you ain’t a Ramsey by birth? It don’t matter; never has… and it never will!”

“… He’s right, Lindsay…” Keith’s voice intervened. Lindsay didn’t turn his way but glanced towards the open sea.

“I ain’t got nothing to say to you…” she huffed, understanding why her anger reappeared. Remembering how Keith treated her when he realized he was her biological father made Lindsay's feelings of betrayal stir up once more.

“Please Lindsay; hear Keith out. He has…”

“No, Baron. It’s okay. I… understand…” Keith’s slight murmur was enough to make Lindsay jump up and glare at him.

“You… understand…? Do you? Really? Cuz, I sure as hell don’t! I’m still a bit ticked off on the whole adoption thing but you know what really gets to me? If you’re my real dad then why in the hell have you treated me like some fucking infection since day one?!”

“Lindsay… I can explain…”

“Did you know when you first saw me? Did you?! You knew from the moment you laid eyes on me that I was your fucking daughter, didn’t you?!”

“… I had a feeling…” the older man couldn’t look at Lindsay while she was that upset, that heated at him. Keith led those around him to believe he could take Lindsay standing her ground against his conduct but the fact was it gnawed at him. The spectacle Lindsay was showing in front of him was too much for Keith to deal with.

“Then, why, damnit?! You could’ve at least had the fucking decency to tell me then! Or at least treat me like a human being! But, no; you treat me like shit! Or is that how you treat the rest of your kids?! Look at me, gaddamnit; at least be a man about that!!”

“Lindsay, please…” Areiv tried to comfort, but Lindsay offered the alien no notice as she continued to scowl at the man in front of her. Lindsay expected to receive the familiar steel glare Keith gave back to her when he held up his head but the woman wasn’t prepared for what she saw instead: tears.

“Lizzie, I am so sorry!” Keith cried. Hearing him say her nickname nearly maddened the woman further but Lindsay could do nothing but look at the display in front of her. Keith's show of emotions was something different for her; the man produced no other emotions except contempt for the artillery specialist. The sight of Keith breaking down tugged at Lindsay and she almost felt sorry for yelling.

“Keith… gaddamnit, stop it! Just… tell me why…” the woman glanced elsewhere.

“I… I figured that if… if I felt nothing by treating you so bad, you weren’t my daughter. I panicked, Lindsay. Because… it was the total opposite. I felt awful afterwards; always. But… I couldn’t just stop treating you differently in front of the others; they already had it in their minds I didn’t like you. After the attack… I didn’t care. You needed… someone. I should’ve said something, I know. I… wasn’t ready. All I knew was that it overwhelmed me to see you, to see how much you’ve grown. Lindsay… please forgive me…” Keith pleaded. Lindsay stared at him as he explained but turned her attention back towards the ground.

“… I don’t know if I can.” Lindsay retorted as she walked away.

10.1: Father Figure

“Looks like we got this in the bag!” Steve congratulated Bradley and Lindsay when they exited the Silver Stallion. With three races remaining in the season, the Earth team cemented their number one ranking with a second-place finish. Bradley smiled at Steve’s comments as he received light pats on the back from Tim and David. The mechanics went to work examining the IR as Bradley turned towards his partner to praise her but he found her already gone and midway across the bay. Her attitude was off, he noted throughout the entire race; she was strictly business as every target Lindsay aimed for were immediate blows. Her unusual behavior remained as Bradley saw Lindsay talk with the team manager; their conversations usually brief with Keith giving her a quick but reluctant congratulatory nod or utterance. This time around, it seemed they spoke fully, albeit in secret.

Even as Malik sought to speak with him, Bradley tuned him out and continued to watch them have their muted discussion. Their faces were strange, at least Keith’s was; his full of sorrow and apology. Lindsay, as always, rolled her eyes and glanced away from the man. Even that appeared different; the woman didn’t wish to listen to what Keith sought to plead. Something was clearly wrong; Bradley wished he was in earshot to figure out what. All he could do was go by their actions as Lindsay huffed and turned to walk away. But, Keith did something Bradley figured he'd never do: he touched her. It was a gentle grasp of her arm but Bradley knew for a fact that Keith touched no one, let alone Lindsay! The touch had affection behind it, Bradley determined by Keith’s reaction, who continued pleading his argument to Lindsay. That unwanted sensation in the pit of his stomach returned as he remained observing the two; whatever Keith stated, Lindsay was reluctant to hear at first but yet accepted as she nodded. The feeling in Bradley’s stomach surged and made him turn pale when Keith perked up and grabbed Lindsay’s hand.

“Hey; are you even paying attention to me? What’s going on over there?” Malik realized that Bradley was not the least interested in what he was saying and peered over where Bradley’s attention had moved. Color came back to Bradley’s face as he shook his head at Malik.

“S-Sorry. I think they’re at it, again…”

“Man, I don’t get it. And I thought they were making up! She’s done nothing to him. I mean, okay, Lizzie can be a bit… abrasive…”

“Abrasive? Really?”

“Every other word out her mouth is a cuss word! She’s like a New York cab driver!”

“Nah… Steve is like a cab driver…”

“Oh, eat a dick, Smith!!”

“See…?” Bradley pointed towards the mechanic and the two men laughed. The pilot fixed his attention back to his partner, who went out the building without him and Bradley sighed. “He ran her off; great! I gotta go; maybe I can calm her down…”

“You always do!” Malik shook his head and smirked as Bradley hurried out the bay. The man caught up to her and Lindsay greeted him with a half-smile.

“Hey. Sorry; meant to wait for you.”

“It’s okay. Keith pissed you off, again?” Bradley asked and Lindsay shrugged as they strolled towards the housing building.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Come on; I wouldn’t be a real friend if I didn’t! So, maybe a bit of hanging out will do ya some good? We haven’t done that in a while.”

“… I’ll have to take a rain check on that. Maybe tomorrow.” Lindsay answered without looking at him. Bradley gave her a pained glance.

“Lizzie, if you’re hanging out with Areiv, again, you ain’t got to lie to me…” he almost mumbled.

“… What? Oh, no. Not today. I’m just tired, Brad. Sorry.”

“Yeah. You’re right. Today’s been a hell of a day. You were amazing, today… as usual…”

“… I was okay…”

“You didn’t miss; what the hell you talking about?” Bradley laughed. The man warmed up as Lindsay returned a genuine smile. As they walked, Bradley thought back to what took place in the bay. The pilot sensed he should’ve come out and asked what Lindsay and Keith were arguing about but Bradley considered them good friends; if it was serious, she would’ve told him by then. Bradley confessed that he may have read too much into how Keith grabbed Lindsay’s hand; the move wasn’t a romantic touch. Perhaps this was Keith’s method of softening up; Bradley noticed that he did so when the attack on Earth happened. The man never revealed if he had lost anyone during the Qees invasion and for all they knew, this was his way of letting out his grievances: finally being kind to the artillery specialist.

The idea made Bradley think of another person who grew even friendlier to Lindsay: Areiv. After Christmas, Bradley took notice that the Esperian spent more time with Lindsay. The man knew the Royal Magistrate instructed his son to guard after her a year ago but he never imagined that it made the two build a stronger connection. The thought frustrated Bradley all the more; he wanted to be more than her friend but how could he express it when the alien took most of Lindsay’s time? He needed to get to the bottom of it; Bradley wanted Areiv to confess that he was in love with Lindsay as well.

The idea hit him as they entered the building and Bradley was glad for Lindsay’s rain check. The man looked down at her with a smile.

“Whelp! Guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then…”

“Okay. Hey… I might be up a little later. Do you… wanna talk then?” her question threw Bradley off as he gave Lindsay a look.

“Uh… sure…” he studied her for a hint but Lindsay sighed as the expected flood of aliens bombarded the elevators. The woman smiled and waved as she joined them and the doors closed. Bradley nearly forgot about his plan but hurried out of the building.

Lindsay showered, dressed and rushed out before anyone could stop her; she was glad that everyone was too captivated with the baby to notice she left. Lindsay descended a few floors, to the one where she resided during their first year on Buno and paused in front of Keith’s door for a moment. The woman closed her eyes and exhaled as she finally picked up the courage to knock and when Keith answered, he gave her a relieved smile.

“Lizzie… thank you…” he said and stepped out the way for her enter. Lindsay did and nearly commented on his use of her nickname until she looked around the main room and gawked.

“Shit. Holy… fucking… shit…” she stared at his interior; the walls held the all too familiar globe and anchor paraphernalia: everything from plaques to the red and gold Marine Corps flag. After her observation, Lindsay turned around and stared at Keith, her eyes wide. “You… you…”

“Yes. I'm a former Marine, too…” Keith offered a gentle smile. Lindsay didn’t wait to be told as she sat on his sofa and stared off in space. She understood there was no such concept as an inherited military gene but it finally made sense to Lindsay why she always had the ambition to become a Marine. Of all the branches she could’ve joined, the Marine Corps stuck out to her the most, likely that the urge was because Lindsay's biological father served as a Marine.

“I… I wanna know everything…” Lindsay mumbled as Keith sighed and took a seat beside her.

“… Are you sure? Some things… you may not want to hear…”

“Okay, I’m thirty-four and just found out that I’m adopted; pretty sure that whatever else you got to tell me ain’t gonna shock me as much as that!” Lindsay shook her head, failing to cover her smirk. Keith nodded at her remarks, a tiny smirk playing on his own lips.

“Okay but… you’ve been warned. I met your mom in Savannah. I got stationed in Albany, Georgia and gone with a buddy of mine to meet his family during a ninety-six; I lived too far to visit my own. Karen… she was fifteen when she had you.” Keith explained and Lindsay’s mouth flew open at his admission.

“Wait… but… oh… my… God…”

“Now, before you fully judge me, I honestly loved her! I still do… to this very day. I knew it was wrong but… I didn’t care how old she was. When she found out she was pregnant, Karen ran away from home and lived with me.”

“Why… why didn’t she just say something…?”

“Interracial relationships were nothing in the seventies. But… one with an older man, an older white man? No, her parents would’ve had you aborted, and me thrown in jail!”

“They were… that type of family…”

“Yes. But, we made so many plans. I was going to marry her damn near the day she turned eighteen! I had it in my mind that by that time, we’d have more children. Life wouldn’t be perfect but we’d be together, raising wonderful kids. You know, she'd continue school and go to college; nursing school was her dream…” Keith remembered fondly and Lindsay looked at him. She acknowledged that it was admirable of him the way he reminisced.

“So, what happened…?”

“Your biological grandparents happened,” Keith sighed. “Guess I didn’t fully blame them; we loved each other so much that we didn’t see the plan all the way through. When Karen went into labor, I couldn't do anything: I wasn’t her guardian. She ran away; her parents would’ve been informed. Either that or Karen would’ve been declared homeless and both of you would’ve been put in the system… separately.”

“Oh. You had to tell them…”

“By the time her parents got to the hospital, Karen was pushing you out. And, of course, it was no secret who the father was! You weren’t even a day old and… they forced our hands. Either I got court marshaled, or you were given up for adoption. They didn’t believe how much I loved Karen; I… I was willing to sacrifice my military career for both of you. I figured that my time in the brig wouldn’t be too long and when I got out, I’d be able to see you two, take you two away and be happy. But, your mother? She realized it didn’t matter; they would not allow their daughter to keep her baby, just to spite. And so… it was… the most difficult thing I ever had to do…” a few tears escaped from Keith’s eyes and Lindsay took in a deep breath to prevent herself from bursting into tears.

“So… I was put up for adoption…”

“And that’s where it gets weird! I don’t know how but your mom convinced them not to put you in foster care. I always thought that she never listened when I rambled but she proved that she did. She asked if she knew a couple who needed a child, could she give you to them and they said yes. My buddy I mentioned, whose folks live in Savannah? His name was Henry Ramsey.” Keith wiped at his tears and gave Lindsay a modest smile. The woman's eyes widened as she gasped.

“Uncle Henry?!”

“Karen remembered the story I told her about his brother; married for about a year but found out it was unlikely they'd have children. I talked to them and only asked for two things: an open adoption, no matter what Karen’s parents said… and that they didn’t change your first name; I named you after my grandmother. I didn’t find out until last year they didn’t change your middle name, either; Rochelle was your mother’s middle name.”

“… Wow. That was… really nice of them. So, wait; you said it was supposed to be an open adoption.”

“And it was for a while. Karen stayed right across the street from your grandma. She got to see firsthand on many occasions how much joy you brought the Ramsey family… and agreed to let you go.” Keith explained as Lindsay leaned back on the sofa and thought. Her forehead furrowed as she reflected back to her grandmother’s home.

“Wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait… the lady across the way… she was my mother?! I… hell, whenever I went to granny’s house, I used to play with her sister all the time!” Lindsay realized. They were faint memories; Lindsay remembered the girl and her lilac-painted room but she couldn’t place a name to her or the older sister who always loved to talk and dote over her. One of the main things that stood out was that the sister always made certain that Lindsay ate something before leaving the house, even if it was homemade Rice Krispies treats. The woman grinned as she recalled it was a guilty pleasure of hers to go over the little girl’s house, knowing she would receive food when playtime was over!

“And despite what her parents said, Karen kept in contact with me. Oh, I remember one call: she was so excited that she got to do your hair!” Keith let out a short laugh and Lindsay smirked.

“I… oh, man; I remember that! I had never had my hair in braids before and wanted her to do it. She did it in those braids with the beads on the end. I remember she went out of her way to make sure they were my favorite color…” Lindsay smiled.

“It was all she talked about that one call. I just wished I got a picture of that; she told me you were a beautiful little girl. I used to tease her, telling her: ‘of course, she is; she’s our child’! When she made the decision to let you go… I was at a loss. Karen and I argued whenever she'd call and suddenly… the calls stopped coming. I went to Japan and got stationed in California instead of back to Albany. I… lost the both of you all over again. I was so close to going AWOL to go back to Savannah and track the two of you. But, I stopped being angry and remembered the last thing she said before she stopped calling me. She said the only thing that was important was your happiness. And while you enjoyed being with her and her sister, you were truly happy with the Ramsey family. And… she didn’t want to take you away from that.” Keith told her and Lindsay nodded. She wiped at a lone tear that decided to escape and stared at Keith.

“S-So… do you know what happened to her?”

“She… died a few years ago; a car accident. When I decided to fully search for both of you, I found out a year after it happened.” Keith finished lowly. Another tear slipped from Lindsay’s eyes and she let it fall before wiping at it.

“Well… that answers my question as far as ever meeting her. Do I… look like her?”

“Your eyes most definitely. When I first laid eyes on Karen, it was the very first thing that drew me to her. I knew for sure no one else in the world had her eyes… and then you were born. I kept denying that it was a dead giveaway you were my daughter. Because, when I looked into your eyes in New Mexico… it was like looking at Karen. And then the way you stood up to me; it reminded me too much of what your mother said when we first met! I loved to tease her, and I called her a little girl. She looked me square in the eye and told me: ‘I ain’t no little girl, I’m a lady’!” he recalled and the two laughed.

“Yeah… you really offended me when you called me a ‘young lady’! It’s ironic now, but I was sitting there thinking: ‘does he think he’s my dad or something’?!”

“Heh; first instincts are usually the right ones…” Keith glanced at Lindsay. The two had related but subtle features Keith admitted should’ve been visible to him. Lindsay Rose was a near even blend of himself and her biological mother. “I knew for sure after your assessment. I was granted the files for everyone after that and looked at yours; that’s how I found out about your middle name. And, I understand I was a royal dick to you in the beginning. But… I have been extremely proud of you. I just wanted you to know that. The moment I started reading your file, I couldn’t help but to smile. Oh, I grinned ear-to-ear when I read you were in the Corps! And when I saw your MOS? It drove me to tears…” Keith admitted. Once Lindsay realized why her MOS had that effect on him, she blushed and stared, wide-eyed.

“Y-You were a field artillery cannoneer, too…?”

“0811…”

“Whoa…” the woman blinked. Lindsay attempted to soak in everything Keith explained to her and accepted while she was taken aback by her mother’s age, she saw the man loved Karen. She further realized for a Marine to even debate on giving up his career for the sake of his newborn daughter spoke volumes of his love for her. Lindsay knew she had to stop resenting Keith; that agitation had to turn elsewhere, possibly her biological grandparents.

The way Keith treated Lindsay in the beginning evaporated from her mind; Lindsay learned it wasn’t important anymore. What mattered was she learned the truth of why she was given up for adoption. Lindsay still considered she should’ve known earlier in her life but put that on Carl and Sandra Ramsey. But, the past was the past. While Lindsay felt awful a piece of her was still furious at her adoptive parents, the woman knew she would learn to get over that.

“Anything else you want to know?” Keith interrupted Lindsay's thoughts. It made her think about how bitter she was at the man earlier and guilt flooded her.

“No. Just… when I told you I didn’t think I could forgive you… that was me being highly pissed, still. I mean, I’m still kinda pissed but… I didn’t mean to yell at you like that…”

“Yes, you did!” Keith surprised her as he laughed. “I put you through hell; I deserved everything you gave me that day! You have every right to still be upset.”

“Yeah. Just kinda makes me feel like shit… oh, sorry…”

“It’s quite alright! I’ve said worse; comes with the territory of being a Marine!”

“You know… it’s gonna take a while for me to get used to this…”

“I know.”

“So… do we tell everyone else or…?”

“How about I leave that up to you? I wouldn’t mind. Honestly? I don’t think the others would be ready to absorb it fully. I know I will get more chastised about the way I treated you. But, don’t think I didn’t notice how close you are to Bradley and Malik; if you want to just tell them, I’m fine with that.”

“Oh, my God; you really are a parent! Guess I shouldn’t tell you that me and Areiv are kinda dating…?” Lindsay smirked. Keith laughed at first but then gazed at her.

“What? What do you mean, ‘kinda’ dating? Are you being serious right now?”

“Yep; a parent!” Lindsay gave out a short laugh. Keith bit his lip but grinned a little.

“Well… if he makes you happy. And you are grown. I just… never saw that coming. I always figured it was in his nature to be that nice and polite. Lizzie… there’s something I’ve been dying to do but… I want to make sure you’re comfortable with it.”

“Um… what?”

“… C-Can I hug you?” Keith surprised Lindsay once more. “The last time I hugged you… you were two days old. I’ve missed out on so much and the one thing I want to do is just… hug you. I mean, if you’re not comfortable with that, I understand…” he caught the look Lindsay gave him when he mentioned the hug. She didn’t understand how to handle Keith's request; Lindsay’s mind whirled at the fact that this was her team manager. The man who had gone out of his way and scoffed at every single action Lindsay did, who was never satisfied at anything she achieved.

As the woman continued to gawk at Keith, Lindsay realized that, above all, that was her father. A Marine who went through things she couldn’t grasp and had every right to bury his heart into stone, a man who would’ve gone through hell and back to reunite with his girlfriend and their daughter. A guy who finally revealed himself, and he only wished to hold his own child; the thoughts produced tears from Lindsay’s eyes and she bit her lip to keep her sobs from escaping.

He hadn’t given Lindsay the opportunity to nod fully; Keith gathered his daughter in his arms and hugged her tight as tears flowed to his chin. Between his sobs, all Keith could manage was choke out apologies. He didn’t care if it would be the last time Lindsay would allow him to hug her; what mattered was that after thirty-four years, Keith Degler could embrace his only child once again.

10.2: The Courtship

Lindsay sighed as though a burden lifted off her shoulders when she made her way to Areiv’s quarters. The woman knew overall, it would take more time to not only become used to Keith being her father but the complete revelation of events. But, she had to accept that the long-awaited hug made her willing to accept more of what she considered her “new life”, even though Lindsay saw nothing changed except who her parents were; it had nothing to do with the personality she had. There were two people Lindsay had to tell of what happened that day: Bradley and Areiv.

Lindsay visited the Esperian first; it would satisfy him to learn she started to accept Keith as her father. The artillery specialist would talk to Bradley later as she suggested to him; there was plenty she had to tell him! The woman put both thoughts in the back of her mind as she discovered that Areiv’s door was ajar. The woman's adrenaline kicked in and Lindsay cursed in her head; she needed to carry the Rerecro with her! As she approached the door, it calmed her to pick up not only Areiv’s gentle tone but the southern twang of Bradley’s. Lindsay was about to walk in until she took notice of their conversation.

“While it is rare that you would come visit, it is unfortunate I will have to cut your stay short; I am expecting Lindsay in a moment.” the Baron attempted to make clear. Lindsay’s brow furrowed; how did he perceive she would visit? Maybe he expected it; Lindsay did visit every day if only to take him and stroll around Buno.

Bradley wanted to speak to the Esperian and figured he would catch up with him at their bay but only Emuh was present, and the Royal Magistrate directed him back to the housing quarters.

“Oh? Lizzie said she wasn’t hanging out with you, today. Anyway; hopefully, this won’t take but a minute. I just wanna know… how do you really feel about Lizzie?” his question made her heart throb quicker; she didn’t intend on Areiv being the one to break it to Bradley about the two. Areiv gave the human man a small nod as he took a seat at his dining table; Bradley noticed that it was set for two.

“I can assure you that I feel the same way as you do for her.” the alien gave Bradley an opportunity to confess that he was attracted to Lindsay. The Esperian already determined the attraction, which seemed evident the day of the near tragic tour Bradley led Lindsay on more than a year prior.

“See, I think it’s more,” Bradley would not reveal his feelings; it was none of the alien’s business. “Lizzie is a great friend and one hell of a partner. I just… if you like her for more than a friend then I think it’s a bad idea.”

“Oh? Is it because you are attracted to her as well that you hold it is a bad idea? Or is it because I am alien and not human?” both questions made Bradley’s face flustered. Lindsay’s eyes were still wide after Bradley’s comment.

“T-That… that don’t matter. Lizzie just lost her husband and I don’t think she’s ready to be spending time with anyone else so soon,” Bradley almost mumbled. Lindsay glared at the door; it was one thing to discover that her good friend and partner had feelings for her but it was another for him to dictate her own. “As a friend, I’m just trying to look out for her best interests…”

“Are you? Lindsay’s mate has been deceased for over a year. I do not comprehend your requirements for mourning however she has long passed Esperian standards. And while it distresses me to linger on the past, I recall she almost died the last time you considered you were guarding her best interests,” Areiv glared at the human. Bradley’s eyes widened before narrowing at the Baron. “Do not fret; I will not insult you. I have no hostilities towards you, Bradley however you will not arrive at the determination on whether Lindsay has completed her mourning period for her mate nor will you impose on the outcome of our connection, particularly while Lindsay is not present. If you assumed you could, I am afraid you are too late.” the last time Bradley heard the Esperian speak in such an aggressive tone was when he confronted General Ehsa.

“W-Wait… are you saying…?” Bradley eyed Areiv, waiting on confirmation.

“I am saying I do recognize you are as attracted to my dear Lindsay as I am, howev-”

Your Lindsay?! Now, hold on a damn min-”

“Please, do not interrupt; I was more than courteous towards you with your threats. Whereas you are merely attracted to her, I can reliably say I am… in love with her,” Areiv announced. The confession was enough to make Lindsay’s cheeks ache fiercely. “I do wish she understands how I feel and that she feels the same however, unlike yourself, I will not assume nor will I speak on her behalf. I will leave it up to her to discuss how she feels to you although… seeing as though you have addressed me on this topic, she has not told you anything about our connection.”

“… You’re lying. You’re making this up just to make me look like a fool. If Lizzie had feelings for you, I would’ve been the first to know!”

“Do you presume so? I am not the only one who sees the disdain you have for me. If Lindsay anticipated your response would be identical to the one you are presenting at the moment, chances are she would not acknowledge this to you.”

“Oh, so you think for one second that you know her? Just cuz you’ve spent some time with her and showed her around this damn place?!”

“I have grown to admire her rather well…” Areiv answered. Bradley’s hands turned to fists as he glared at the alien.

“Since you know her so damn well… did you know Keith has feelings for her, too?!” the human blurted out. Bradley wasn’t a fan of Lindsay confiding to Areiv, if what he said was true but if she did, she may have told the Esperian something of how strange Keith reacted around her as of late.

“Oh. I see you justified my case. Lindsay does not confide to you as often as you would want to assume! I am still studying your culture and selection of terms however I am quite positive that intimate connections between child and parent are frowned upon your world. It is prohibited in this galaxy!”

“… Wait… what…?” Bradley wanted to smirk at Areiv but the alien had a serious expression.

“Keith is her birth father.”

“That’s… impossible.”

“Unless it is an elaborate Earth prank, it is not implausible. I was present when it was declared. Lindsay was… adopted, I trust the word is. She has been largely distraught over… oh… Lindsay…” Areiv heard his door open and turned towards it. Lindsay produced a tiny smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“Sorry; your door was open, and I was worried…”

“Ah. Yes. Bradley visited me this evening; I must have neglected to close it fully.”

“What’re you doing here?” Lindsay smirked at Bradley. Instead of responding right away, Bradley examined the woman, making every effort to catch any resemblances to their team manager. The pilot expected Lindsay was mixed with another race but seeing Sandra Ramsey’s light skin prevented him from considering it further. Bradley shook his head and tried to return the smile; Keith had to be there for him to make a fair comparison.

“Just… needed to clear something up with Areiv.”

“Oh? About what?”

“That’s… between me and him. I gotta get going; see you around, Lizzie…” Bradley rushed as he left. Before Lindsay could say anything, the man closed the door. The woman glanced at Areiv, who approached her and kissed her hands.

“Okay… what did you two talk about…?” Lindsay wanted to discover if Areiv would tell her.

“It appears that we had a dispute. It does not comfort me that is the nature of our association. However, Bradley does not approve of our relationship.”

“… I know.”

“Do you? Is that why you have not mentioned it to him?”

“I, um… actually heard the whole conversation outside. Just wanted to see if you would tell me.”

“I see. I would retain nothing from you. Now that you are present, may I ask if you were aware of his feelings for you?”

“No. I just thought Brad was being stubborn about us being here. I mean, I had joked one time that he was jealous but… I thought it was cuz he was being overprotective. Or trying to slyly remind me I was married!”

“I sensed the attraction the moment of our introductions. You could not…?”

“No. Brad and I are friends. I felt it with you but with him? No. He never told me he liked me like… that.”

“… I am delighted Bradley did not…” Areiv murmured.

“Baron! I never would’ve pegged you to be selfish!” Lindsay teased, smiling at the alien. Areiv returned the smile and gave her an innocent kiss on her lips.

“Selfish?”

“Stingy? Greedy? Um... thinking about only yourself.”

“Ah. I do not hold it to be as such. Had Bradley confessed to you, it would have been the two of you participating in the mistletoe tradition. I express no resentment to Bradley. However, I understand it as a… a blessing it was me, instead,” the Baron attempted to make clear. Lindsay smiled at him even more; the woman realized what he tried to say. “Lindsay, you stated you overheard the full conversation?”

“I did…”

“You heard my confession to Bradley? That I am in love with you? I would wish to learn if the feeling is shared. I sense it; why would you return my kisses if you were not? However, I do not prefer to assume.” Areiv surprised her. Lindsay looked elsewhere and blushed; her true sentiments for the Baron remained passive while she was married. She long since accepted that the alien was handsome with traits to match but Lindsay forced herself to consider Areiv's kindness before as only that: kindness. Yet, after devoting more time with one another, Lindsay understood she could no longer hide she was in love with him. Areiv was right; she was the one who initiated their first kiss: if Lindsay didn’t have some feelings for the alien, the act would have never taken place.

“It… is. The feeling is mutual.” it warmed her to admit it out loud. Areiv’s grin widened.

“I am very much relieved! I have never encountered this sensation in my entire life span and I realized I had to act on it. I have waited so long to experience this emotion. Lindsay… I will very much desire to initiate courtship with you. As I do not carry the customary objects or attire to begin the ritual, it would please me immensely if you accepted my verbal request, and a modified feast.” Areiv sincerely expressed.

“Wait… what…?!” Lindsay’s eyes widened as a short laugh escaped her mouth.

“Oh… do you not wish for me to court you…? Would you prefer to wait until I retrieve the necessary items?”

“Wait… slow down! I got a feeling that ‘courtship’ doesn’t mean the same to you as it does to me!”

“Ah. I keep forgetting we are of different customs! What is the human understanding of courtship?”

“Well… we ain't used that word in some human decades! I think… it’ll be easier if you explained your version!”

“Very well. After a female has agreed to a determined amount of outings from a male, which you have, the male can engage the courtship ritual. He is obligated to wear his hand-woven courtship attire, perform the ritual dance and thus provide the female with a feast and courtship gem. If this satisfies the female, she will grant permission to begin the courtship.”

“That sounds… elaborate…”

“It is rather lovely, actually. During courtship, the two prepare for their lives together; this is depending on social order. Anyone from the royal court would be groomed to function as such. In our case, I would prepare you for life as the Empress. This phase lasts I believe one of your Earth years. They will later appear before the Royal Magistrate and an elder priest to permanently become identified as mates. However, because I am the Baron of Esperia, we would appear before the High Priest, who conjoins those of the royal court. It is rather simple.” Areiv explained. Lindsay could do nothing but gape.

“Um… Areiv… that… oh, my God… you j-just… proposed. That’s a proposal!”

“… Is that something you still do not desire? Am I to assume that a… proposal is comparable to the courtship ritual? Perhaps it would be easier if I were to-”

“W-Wait. J-Just… stop. Hold up a minute…” Lindsay had to hesitate but the deeper she contemplated, the more she asked herself: why was she frightened? Lindsay admitted that she had deep feelings for the Esperian but was she willing to become engaged to him? Lindsay flashed back to what Areiv explained to her: that the courtship phase lasted a year; that was a reasonable amount of time to wait until actual marriage, Lindsay thought. The human figured some would disagree, but she remembered how long Tracy and herself knew each other before becoming married; less than a year. And the two lasted ten years! Lindsay drew a long breath as she gazed up at the alien. “You gotta realize that this is a lot to ask according to my standards.”

“So, I have gathered from your reactions,” Areiv smiled. Lindsay gave him a playful smirk. “I am essentially asking you to become my mate. While the conversation Bradley and I engaged in troubled me, I have no doubt he drew up a good point. If you hold I am not allowing you further time to mourn your mate…”

“Oh! Oh, no; I told you. I was pretty sure about what happened on the cliff and I’ve made my peace with it. It’s just, like you told me then: Tracy will always hold a special part of my heart.”

“You do not long for me to feel adverse about it. I understand, Lindsay. I have long submitted to that revelation. It would not trouble me, so long as I am not moved out of your heart completely.” Areiv’s words warmed Lindsay even deeper. The artillery specialist beamed and draped her arms around the Baron's neck.

“Would you mind… doing the ritual my way?”

“I am prepared to do whatever you desire, Lindsay.”

“Okay. So you know, the human way is really simple! All you need is a ring.”

“A ring? I do not carry rings. Esperians regard gems more than bands. However, all I have are a few common Esperian gems to adorn on my wardrobe.”

“Oh… you put those on yourself?”

“Often, yes. Surely, you would not choose such common-”

“What? I think they’re beautiful! You can use one of your gems; I really like the ones that change color. You don’t mind giving one up, do you?”

“You must keep in mind; the Rerecro is in your possession: our purest of gems fail in comparison, my dear Lindsay.” Areiv smiled and moved to his bedroom; the alien returned with a case and opened it, displaying the Esperian gems that accompanied most of his attire. Lindsay marveled at the shapes and hues and picked a diamond-shaped stone that changed colors as she turned it in her hand.

“This one is perfect! Now, you just get on one knee, offer the gem to me and say, ‘Lindsay, will you marry me’.” she finished describing. Areiv gave her a blank expression.

“… That is all…?”

“Yep!”

“… I need not wear any special attire or perform a dance for you?”

“Nah! Like I said, our way is really simple! I mean, some guys go all out. Trace did the whole wine and dine, romantic night out thing. I woke up the next morning to a trail of rose petals leading to a huge breakfast and a ring on the tray!” Lindsay remembered.

“Oh? And you accepted his courtship simply due to the offer of food…?”

“No, silly! I accepted cuz I loved him. The food and all was just extra!”

“I see. Needless to say, human females seem… simple to gratify. However, if this is what you desire,” Areiv nodded and grabbed the gem from Lindsay. The alien moved to one knee and handed the colorful crystal to her. “My dearest Lindsay… will you marry me?” he gazed at her. Lindsay smiled as she accepted the gem.

“Yes. Yes, I will marry you, Baron.” she couldn’t help but to gleam. Areiv gave her a modest smile.

“According to your Earth standards, does this imply we have begun courtship…?”

“Yes! You can get up, now! When the woman says yes, she’s usually greeted with a kiss…” Lindsay laughed. Areiv chuckled as he rose, embracing the woman.

“I have no dispute with that segment of your ritual,” he offered her a lingering kiss. “I am learning to recognize more and more of your customs. Are you willing to at least accept the modified feast I have prepared for you?”

“Esperians love to eat… wait; you can cook?!”

“You are surprised? Human males do not prepare feasts…?”

“They can but… you’re the Baron. You got royal chefs to do all the cooking for you, right…? Emuh said it himself on Christmas.”

“Ah. Yes, we have royal chefs however they are only obligated to serve meals on special occasions. Every Esperian is trained how to prepare meals as well as other survival techniques. It is imperative that an Esperian can defend oneself, regardless of rank or social order. Father is exceptionally proficient in preparing meals. Many a festival, I am summoned to expel him from the galley quarters,” he explained. Lindsay laughed, picturing the Baron along with members of their royal court struggling to pull the tall Esperian away from a course he made. “Now, please sit as I serve you.”

11.1: The Mating Ritual

{Contains Mature Content}

Lindsay enjoyed the meal Areiv prepared for her: Esperia’s sweeter version of Ajom (which consisted of a bland gray instead of the dull red she was used to), a rich green linguine-like pasta called ened (while very creamy, Lindsay didn’t care for the coarse taste), a light portion of ortinu with a side of dworl and a snow-white, fluffy dessert Areiv was particularly proud of, gatya. Lindsay was also impressed he provided Buno liquor that was a near twin to an Earth white wine. The two sat in his living space after their dinner.

“That… was so amazing!” Lindsay smiled, the translucent liquid touching her lips. The Esperian smiled at her.

“I am glad you enjoyed it.”

“The… what was that? Gatya?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, that was absolutely delicious!”

“There is more, if you like. I may have gone overboard in my preparations.”

“Leftovers are good! I might have to take you up on that offer… later…” Lindsay smiled as she leaned her head on Areiv’s shoulder. The woman had time to consider things over during the meal; it was the reason she grew so quiet. Everything appeared to take place so fast, if Lindsay worried on it. One moment, she sat on a cliff as her husband mystically said his goodbyes to her and the next: she was engaged to an Esperian! The idea lingered longer, and it made Lindsay look up at Areiv. “So… what’s gonna happen when you return to Esperia?”

“Oh? You will not travel back with me?” the Baron stared at her. The question made Lindsay sit straight.

“Oh, I didn’t think I could…”

“I do not understand why you would assume that. I have offered for you to visit Esperia many times. You may travel to any planet you choose. We have taken up our courtship, Lindsay. And, I overlooked earlier: the royal attendants will groom you to be Lady of Esperia, not Empress; you cannot be prepared if you remain here on Buno.” Areiv answered with a dainty smirk. Lindsay had to admit that she hadn’t thought of that part: the Baron wouldn’t be baron his whole life span; he would become Royal Magistrate… which would make her Lady of Esperia. Lindsay knew Emuh’s reign was approaching the end but hearing Areiv’s statements made it more real. Getting engaged was a larger venture than she had imagined! Something else grabbed her attention and Lindsay narrowed her eyes at Areiv.

“That was sarcasm…”

“Indeed.” Areiv chuckled. Lindsay rolled her eyes but laughed.

“Areiv… me becoming Lady of Esperia is a pretty big deal! Oh… what will the other Esperians say about that? I don’t think they’re gonna like you making a human your mate!”

“Oh, Lindsay. Esperians care not for what species they intend to mate with. It is true that my planet is mainly Esperians however, there exist different species. Do not despair; my people will recognize you as my mate.” Areiv assured. Lindsay nodded but the uncertainty still persisted.

Areiv’s lips on her own interrupted her thoughts and Lindsay melted into the kiss, throwing her arms around his neck. The Baron pulled her near, pressing his body onto hers and marveled at the strange sensation of her heart pounding; the longer they kissed, the faster it thumped. With a small moan, the alien released the kiss and gazed into the woman’s eyes.

“Do you… remember the day of the festival?”

“Um… yeah…?”

“Is it still too forward for me to seek to… have sex?” he surprised her. Lindsay's heart still thumped as her body flushed; it wasn’t her imagination that the kiss was more passionate than any they shared before. It was the first time Lindsay was truly close to the alien’s body, his coolness felt through the robes.

“U-Um… I… I guess not but… do you have sex like we have sex…?”

“I believe I have the similar question! Perhaps I should explain the mating ritual in detail? Or if you prefer to see me in the nude?”

“W-W-Wait… what…?” Lindsay stammered but Areiv made to take off his robes. The woman could do nothing but stare in admiration; Esperians were built the same as a human being. Lindsay's eyes roamed over the small muscles on the Baron’s body; she clearly expected to lay eyes on a lither figure but Areiv's toned body was the equivalent of a normal athlete. “O-Oh… you’re… gorgeous… ah, y-you’re… ready, already…?!” her eyes went below Areiv’s abdomen.

“Ready…?”

“Um… you’re on har… aroused…? I don’t know how to… put it. Ready to do the ritual…?”

“Ah. You are attempting to ask if I am in the mood to perform? While my mind may be, my body is not. My frical is relaxed… for the moment.” Areiv blushed with a smirk.

“Your… oh, that’s what Esperians call it! So, it’s the total opposite for human men… oh, ha ha; more humor! ‘For the moment’…” Lindsay’s attention left his lower region as she glanced at Areiv and smiled.

“I sense you are nervous; I merely wish to… lighten the mood? Lindsay, am I to understand that I am anatomically comparable to your human males?”

“To the tee… well, except their… fricals point up when… ready. H-How do you hide all that beneath those flimsy robes…??”

“I’m… sorry…?”

“No, nothing; never mind! So, I guess… we perform the same way, seeing you have all the right… parts; you’re bigger than I expected, Areiv…” Lindsay blushed heavily as she breathed out.

“Will that… be a problem? Do you not stretch for me to fit?”

“That’s a trick question! It’s not… I don’t think I’m as flexible down there like Esperian women?”

“Ah, ‘down there’; you are anatomically the same as Esperian females, then! It is a fact that they conform to fit the size of their mate’s frical.”

“Okay, hold on. You said that this is a ritual on Esperia. Baron… are you saying you want to break tradition, tonight…?” Lindsay realized, with a smirk. Her smile made Areiv blush as he looked away.

“… I do. H-However, you have agreed to be in courtship with me and in turn, will become Lady of Esperia; w-we will have to perform, regard-”

“Oh, stop it! You don’t have to explain! Hmm… Esperians have urges, after all…”

“V-Very much so. Just because we do not perform the mating ritual as casual as earthlings, does not mean the urge to do so is absent. I have…” Areiv stopped as Lindsay stared at him with eager eyes. “I have said too much.”

“Wait, what? No! Tell me what you were about to say…” Lindsay sat closer to him.

“… I have imagined performing the ritual with you… plenty of times…” the two blushed together even as Lindsay kept a smile on her face. “L-Lindsay… I am in the mood to perform, now…” Areiv rushed. Lindsay’s smirk left as her eyes widened and she looked down below the Esperian’s waist once more. Areiv’s hardened flesh was parallel to his thigh, his admittance to his urges prepared him as well as the thought of performing the mating ritual with Lindsay. “Do I have to… prepare you to perform?” he shyly asked. The thought made Lindsay squeeze her thighs together, her imagination running wild as to what the Esperian’s version of “preparing” her would be.

“That depends on… what you mean by that. Guess I’d have to get naked, too…”

“Yes…” the alien’s eagerness made Lindsay laugh.

“Hold your horses! I got one more question! Which is… so hard to ask. Um… what happens after you perform? You know… what comes… out…?” Lindsay eyed Areiv’s slit, her cheeks aching harder than they ever had.

“A-Are you referring to… when I release my substance?”

“Um… yeah. Will that… hurt me?”

“Will it hurt you?”

“Yeah. I’m a hundred percent sure that this will be the first time an Esperian has performed with a human. So, how do you know if your substance won’t burn me or something like that?”

“Ah. Research states that an Esperian substance is equally gentle as your Earth water. If it still troubles you, I simply will not release my substance.”

“What…? You can do that?”

“Earthlings cannot?”

“Well… if it’s too good, no. But, if you say it’s safe, then you don’t have to do that.”

“Very well. I would… like to remove your garments, myself. I-If you do not object.” Areiv stumbled. Lindsay bit her lip in excitement and nodded consent as the alien let his quivering hands drift over her waist, fingering the material of her shirt. Lindsay leaned in and gave him a hard kiss; she figured it would take his mind off his nervousness, and was glad it worked: Areiv sighed out his approval and ran his hands underneath her shirt, caressing the soft skin. Lindsay placed her hands on his exposed chest, allowing her fingers to wander, the strange coolness made her caress him further as her fingers trailed down to his stomach, generating a subdued gasp from the alien. Areiv was the first to release the kiss, and he looked at the woman, breathless.

“Oh,” Lindsay removed her hands. “I can’t touch you?”

“No, yes. Please… it feels… quite wonderful. As does your skin.” Areiv’s hands brushed over her breasts, and it was Lindsay’s turn to grow breathless. She held her arms up as Areiv removed her shirt and he gazed at Lindsay’s body. “So… beautiful. Shall we move to my sleeping quarters?” he asked. Lindsay looked aside slightly, weighing in the Baron’s remarks.

“You… you think I’m beautiful?”

“Why, yes. It appears I am not the only one on this planet who considers such.” Areiv gave her a comforting smile. Lindsay’s chuckle developed into a generous laugh as Areiv lifted her from the sofa and carried her into his bedroom. As he laid her on the bed, Areiv studied the woman, a smile spreading across his face. The Baron didn’t lie; Areiv thought Lindsay was a lovely creature. She rose to remove the piece of clothing that hugged her breasts; the Baron had no idea what it was, but he delighted in how they spilled out. The alien leaned down, recalling his offer and removed the human’s pants; an additional piece of clothing came off along with her pants and Areiv noticed a damp spot in them. He glanced at Lindsay, who looked aside in embarrassment.

“I guess… that don’t happen to Esperian women…”

“No. You have created a mess…”

“T-That’s normal,” Lindsay rushed as he continued to undress her. “That’s a sign that I’m… turned o… eager,” she explained. Areiv gave her a slight smile as he returned to caressing her body. Her skin was soft and warm to the touch; the Baron wanted to caress her throughout the evening. His attention veered to the patch of hair below her waist and brushed his fingers over it. Lindsay gave out a small whimper which caused Areiv to shoot her an apologetic glance. “D-Don’t you dare say it.” Lindsay guided his hand further until his fingers rested at her sex.

Areiv's instinct was to investigate the new region as he casually stroked his fingers against it, shocked to sense the start of moisture gather on his fingertips. As he probed more to find the source of the wetness, both gasped as the alien gradually worked a finger inside; the cool stark compared to the sudden warmth. He wasn’t used to the sensation but Areiv didn’t mind it; he recalled that humans were warm-blooded creatures and their body temperature was immense compared to any other species in that galaxy. The heat mixed with the moisture the woman produced as he pressed his finger further excited the Baron.

He didn’t know where he preferred to look; the unique sensation that engulfed his finger intrigued him but he wished to study the expressions Lindsay gave him. When her body clenched around his finger, he was startled, especially as Lindsay bit her lips and moved her hips. The Baron figured if he was causing her any discomfort, she would let him know and was surprised yet again when she seized control of his wrist. Lindsay gave out a shudder as she made him drive his finger in and out and Areiv noticed more moisture escaped. The sensation, along with how the woman enjoyed them made his length harden more; Areiv realized both were more than prepared for the mating ritual.

Areiv removed his finger, making Lindsay tremble and gasp. He pressed his body on top of hers and marveled at how fast her heart drummed; before he could question if she was fine, Lindsay’s lips met his, and it was the alien’s turn to tremble with pleasure. This kiss was much different from the others they engaged in, being hard, rushed and heated; Areiv wanted to slow the pace but moaned when he felt her tongue moving around his own. Another new sensation for him to experience, it pleased him and he let her continue, striving to match her actions. Lindsay’s hand found its way to his length, and the Baron whimpered in delight; he was glad she guided him inside as the whimper transformed into a soft moan.

He was well inside when they finally broke their wild kiss, both panting. Lindsay pushed her hips upward and clenched around his girth but she struggled to understand why the alien didn't move. The Baron wrapped his arms around her, drawing the two as close together as possible but that was the only movement he did. Lindsay began to question if everything was fine until a series of pulsations made her suddenly gasp and arch her back.

It made Areiv curious all the more when he felt her legs wrap around his waist, her hips bucking against his own. The tensing and releasing movement around his length wasn’t unpleasant to the alien, but it was something he would have to get used to. It embarrassed him as Areiv couldn’t help the small moans that escaped his thin lips but he noticed that Lindsay did the same.

What alarmed him was when her moans transformed into intakes of breath as she strained to say his name. Lindsay's legs tightened around his waist and Areiv sensed more of her wetness engulf his throbbing flesh. Lindsay grasped at the alien’s side, making him grimace in slight discomfort; it was almost enough to make him stop altogether until she struggled to tell him something. But, all he could make out was “I’m”; Lindsay stuttered the word between swallows of breath. Areiv lifted to examine her, to make certain she was fine and the look of desire on her face softened him, even as she gave out a yelp and her body convulsed violently.

Areiv knew it should’ve bothered him but the movement caused him to let out a gasp as he released. The new sensations overwhelmed him and Areiv collapsed on top of Lindsay, struggling to calm his breathing. Although his heart raced along with hers, Areiv welcomed the feeling, especially as the human beneath him wrapped her arms around him, her body finally relaxed.

He rarely rose in such a startled manner but it wasn’t the case that morning. It alarmed Areiv to discover no human woman in his bed but there was a mixture of scents emanating from the other room. He promptly got out of bed to investigate at least the different aromas, not troubling to cover himself. When he stepped into his dining area, Areiv was greeted with Lindsay’s warm smile as she set plates of food on his table.

“Morning!” she approached him and gave the confused alien a kiss. “You usually walk around naked?” she grinned, embracing him. Areiv returned the smile and kiss.

“… No. I detected these new smells and… you were not beside me when I woke. I was concerned.”

“Oh, sorry! I got up before you did and… wanted to do something to thank you for last night…”

“… You are wearing one of my tunics…” Areiv noticed. He didn’t understand why but seeing Lindsay in his clothing made him smile wider. The Baron switched glances from her to the food on the table. “What is all this?”

“This is an Earth American breakfast! I made scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes and… oh, wait; you can digest our food, right?” the notion occurred to Lindsay. Areiv chuckled as he wrapped his arms around her, planting a kiss on her brow.

“Yes, of course. Is it customary to thank someone after performing the mating ritual…?”

“Well… no. I just wanted to surprise you.”

“I see. This is a charming surprise, Lindsay. I was simply alarmed because I looked forward to you by my side when I awoke. However, no one aside from the royal chefs has ever prepared a feast for me. I do believe I will take full advantage of being mated to an Earth woman.” the Baron took note. Lindsay blushed at his confession but laughed at his later comment.

“I have a wise ass alien on my hands…”

11.2: Pheromones

Malik turned aside from the Earth team’s console in time to see Bradley walk inside the bay. Yoji and himself were always the first to report for practice, followed by the others but what confused him was the pilot didn’t have the artillery specialist by his side; the two always walked in together. Malik gave a display of glancing behind Bradley.

“Hey. Where’s our artillery specialist?” he gave Bradley a smirk. The redhead let out a heavy sigh and shrugged.

“I dunno. Ain’t seen her all weekend. Was hoping she’d be here, already; I knocked on her door but her folks said she wasn’t there.”

“Huh. You said you haven’t seen her all weekend…? Should… we be worried?”

“I…” Bradley knew he had to stop lying to himself. “No. I have a clue where she’s been. She’s with Areiv.”

“With Areiv? This whole weekend?! But…” Malik stopped himself when he came to the realization and widened his eyes at Bradley. “Noo! No way! They’re… nah! Maybe he took her to Esperia; there’s no way your little conspiracy theory was right!”

“It’s not a conspiracy theory!” Bradley didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or glare. He had the whole weekend to allow everything Areiv told him to stick in his mind. Bradley understood why Malik found it unbelievable; it was still difficult for him to accept: Areiv and Lindsay were a couple. He didn’t dare mention to Malik what else he discovered; that the manager who appeared to possess a grudge against the artillery specialist was her actual biological father. Bradley decided that Lindsay should be the one to tell the others that bit of news.

“Well, until you have solid proof, it’ll be a conspi-” Malik’s words left him as he looked up and saw an energetic Lindsay walk inside the bay. An instant aura of attractiveness surrounded her, which both men caught on to as they observed her walk over and speak to Keith.

“Yoo…” Steve had joined the two men, gawking at Lindsay along with them. “Is it me or does Lizzie look like-”

“… She just had the best sex in her life…” Malik finished for Steve and Bradley shot daggers at the two of them. He turned red as he set his attention back on her, recognizing they were probably right. Something pulled at Bradley to observe her as she continued speaking to Keith, not paying full attention that for the first time since the crew formed, the older man didn’t scowl at Lindsay.

“I think her clothes are tighter today…”

“… Could be…”

“Fuck; those hips… Lizzie has hips!”

“… Yeah…”

“O-Okay, knock it off!” Bradley snapped out of his stupor and warned the two although he had to admit that there clearly was something very appealing about her that morning. He didn’t feel comfortable with the way Steve and Malik pointed it out.

Lindsay finished talking to her father about the day’s agenda and walked over towards the three men. A blush crept over her face as she noticed neither one attempted to hide that they appeared to undress her with their eyes. After she overheard Bradley’s comments three days ago, she now understood his looks meant more. What shocked her was that she received the same stares from Malik and Steve! Maybe she was reading too much into it, she tried to tell herself. Despite her cheeks aching, Lindsay gave the three a grin.

“Morning!” she greeted, and the three were immediately all smiles along with herself.

“Well; good morning to you!”

“H-Hey…” Bradley stuttered and glanced away, his ears turning a distinct red. Lindsay waited for Malik to say something but he continued to stare at her. Lindsay’s eyes widened, a laugh bubbling in her throat as she made a show of waving her hand in his face.

“Helloooo…?”

“Huh? Oh! My bad! Um… hi. You’re… you look really good today, Lizzie.” Malik mentioned. The laughter burst from her as Lindsay backed away from the three.

“Okay, I have no idea what’s going on here but I think it’s been way too long since any of you have gotten laid! Are we gonna get some work done today or what?”

“Y-Yeah… whatever you say…” Steve answered dreamily.

 

Lindsay didn’t wait for Bradley for their usual walk back to the housing building after practice; all the men except for Keith were almost rendered useless which made for an awkward practice. She had plans on visiting Areiv at his bay and wasn’t in the mood to argue with Bradley.

“H-Hey, Lizzie; wait up!” Bradley called behind her. Before turning around, Lindsay let out a deep sigh; the argument would be inevitable. Instead of her usual smirk, she glanced at him as he caught up to her. Bradley gave her an appreciative grin as he studied her from head-to-toe; he acknowledged he had feelings for her but struggled to understand why he was overwhelmed with them at the moment. Bradley wondered if it was something she done differently; her hair was in its usual bun, and she wore no new perfume. He noticed that Lindsay wore new jewelry, a gem that hung from a string around her neck. “I’ve been trying to talk to you this whole weekend but you ain’t been in your apartment…”

“I know…” Lindsay left it at that and started to leave. She wasn’t too upset with Bradley but offended over what he said to Areiv; it was no one’s decision but her own as far as who she was involved with.

“Lizzie! Hold on! Are you… mad at me…?” his earlier emotion of passion transformed into confusion. She huffed and bit her lip, folding her arms across her chest.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am!”

“But… what did I do?”

“I heard what you and Areiv talked about Friday.” Lindsay glared at Bradley. His eyes widened for a second before he gave out a sigh.

“Okay, it wasn’t what you thou-”

“You told him that it was a bad idea for him to be with me. How do I take that out of context, Brad? You seemed pretty damn clear to me!”

“I just don’t want to see you hurt, Lizzie…”

“For the last fucking time; Areiv wouldn’t hurt a fly! When I called you jealous that one day, never in my life did I think it was for real! So, let’s hear it for real this time; what is it about Areiv that irks you so damn much?” she knew the answer; Lindsay just wanted Bradley to admit it.

“He… he never hid his intentions! Of all the female species here, he’s overly nice to you and you alone…? I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of Esperian women for him to pick from, but he put his sights on you, knowing damn well that you were already married! I mean, come on, Lizzie; he started charming you from day one, and you let him!” the words broke out of his mouth before he could stop them. Bradley realized they were the wrong choice of words as soon as Lindsay’s eyes widened and she gasped.

“… Oh, fuck you, Bradley!” Lindsay didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing tears in her eyes as she turned to leave. Bradley wanted to pull his hair out for saying what he did but caught her arm, instead.

“Shit! Wait, Lizzie; damnit, I didn’t mean tha-”

“You did mean that! Let me go!” her voice broke as she struggled to hold in her tears. It wasn’t true, Lindsay told herself; Areiv wasn’t seeking to charm her from the beginning. The attraction was there, but they both recognized she had a husband. She did nothing to make anyone believe it was okay to woo her.

“Lindsay, the truth is I really like you, okay?! That’s the real reason why I don’t like Areiv, because I saw he did, too! Bu-” the pain was unexpected as Lindsay’s fist connected to his jaw; the blow was enough for him to release her. Lindsay’s hand throbbed in pain but her anger caused her to be unaffected by the sensation.

“I don’t let anyone do nothing! Areiv’s been nothing but nice to everyone on this team, including you, even when you didn’t deserve it! You… you actually thought I would do something like that to my husband…? Or that Areiv didn’t give a shit about Tracy?! No; you didn’t give a shit about him!”

“That ain’t true. I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. I respected your marriage…”

“Bullshit!” Lindsay turned around to leave yet again.

“I respected it enough to not say anything about me liking you! Okay, yeah; I flirted a little, and it was wrong of me. But… that’s where I stopped. And it felt… Areiv didn’t. I got Malik jumping on my fucking back but not his? He called it a conspiracy theory cuz I thought Areiv had a thing for you and I was right! Why couldn’t the other aliens show you around here; they’ve been here before just like him!” he said. The remark made Lindsay’s anger leave as she questioned why Agnab or Ona or even Snil didn’t show her around Buno; they were comfortable enough to teach her of the Bunodic foods. As much as she didn’t want to accept it, Bradley made a good point. Lindsay shook the idea out of her head; it was by pure luck the Baron found her in the commissary that day.

“Areiv never flirted with me… ever! All I want you to do is admit that you’re jealous…”

“What? Yes, I’m jealous! It drives me damn stupid to see you two together! I didn’t trust him, Lizzie. He has all this charm and niceness and everyone bows down to him… it was suspicious. It’s why I wanted to take you on a tour instead of him. But, then… you got hurt and… I couldn’t do nothing. But look like a damn fool! I… I was trying to outdo Areiv and… I almost got you killed; he literally called me a stupid animal for it!”

“W-What,” she had known the Baron was upset with Bradley but it was the first time she heard the alien was that bothered to resort to name-calling. “Brad… that really wasn’t your fault…”

“No; it was. It fucking was. All I had to do was swallow my pride and let him take you instead. You know, I called that little truce between us cuz if it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be here, now. And I knew after that, he wouldn’t want to leave your side. But, it bothered me; it bothered me so much. Especially when no one else saw it, not even you. So… I wanted to talk to him. And then he tells me what I feared but more; he told me something I knew for sure you would’ve told me, yourself. I’ve been acting like an ass but… you not saying that the two of you were dating? That hurt me the most, Lizzie.” Bradley admitted. Lindsay finally looked at him, guilt rising as she caught sight of the blemish on his jaw.

“I was gonna tell you that night; everything! I didn’t want to tell you cuz I knew you didn’t like him. You almost had a damn aneurysm when you found out we were hanging out; I knew you would flip your shit if I told you we were dating!”

“I’m sorry, Lizzie. But… now, you know the real reason why. And… I really didn’t mean to suggest you let all this happen willingly. That… that was me…”

“Being a dick?”

“… A jealous one, okay?” he ran his hand through his hair. Lindsay shook her head and sighed.

“Brad, I want to still be friends but… how, knowing how you feel? You can’t be going around telling folks how I feel!”

“I know. And… I want to still be friends, too. I just have to… get over it, right? You made your choice.”

“Don’t try to guilt trip me out of it. Areiv was the only one who approached me. Actually… Will pushed him to do it…”

“What…?”

“Never mind! Just… stop laying on this guilt trip.”

“I wasn’t trying to. So… are we still friends?”

“The next time you try to decide shit for me, I’ll bruise your other damn jaw! But, yeah…” Lindsay nodded. She hadn’t expected the embrace but hugged him back. Bradley realized she was calmer than when the conversation began and squeezed her tighter; he hadn’t meant to rile her. The sensuous aroma came back to him and the only thing that ran through Bradley’s mind was… ravaging her where they stood. Bradley understood he needed to ask of the scent but had become engulfed with passion yet again as he moved his hands to caress Lindsay’s neck, making her look at him. His hands inched towards her jawline as he drew her near and Lindsay placed her hands on his. “Whatever the hell you’re thinking or trying to do ain’t happening…” she warned, and it was enough to snap Bradley out of the daze.

“Shit… I-I’m sorry!” he released her at once and blushed heavily. “Um… do you know that you’ve been giving off some type of scent all day today? It’s been driving us mad!”

“Huh; that’s what’s been going on with you guys! I-”

“What is it? What did you do differently?”

“I don’t… noth-”

“Is it this stone? What is it?” Bradley grasped the jewel around her neck and examined it. It reminded Lindsay there was something else she needed to say and blushed.

“Oh! Okay, so I need to tell you something very import-”

“Yeah, this is new. Maybe this is it? Wait… no… it’s not,” Bradley took Lindsay by surprise as he sniffed her engagement gem. Her eyes widened more as he gripped her by the waist and angled her head towards his. “Fuck… Lizzie, I really want to kiss you right now…”

“You really want me to punch you, again!” Lindsay pushed him away from her.

“Oh… oh, God! I’m sorry; I’m so sorry! I don’t know what you’ve done b-b-but… yeah, I-I’ll see you later; I gotta take a cold shower!” Bradley rushed and hurried past her, leaving Lindsay to watch in bewilderment while shaking her head.

Lindsay hoped that the delay hadn’t cost her missing Areiv as she stepped inside the Esperian bay. The main thing that stood out was how incredible his IR looked up close; it was one thing to compete against it but another to gaze while it was stationary. The IR reminded Lindsay of a golden bird; sleek with its metal wings that took up most of the Esperian bay. Walking around, she caught sight of the control board which was smaller than the Earth team’s but the controls were in what she figured was the Esperian language. Lindsay didn’t want to touch anything and was glad she didn’t as the Royal Magistrate made his way around the corner. Emuh offered her a questioning smile.

“Oh, this is an unexpected visit. If you are seeking my son, he is gathering supplies but shall return shortly. You are more than welcome to wait for him here unless… you are wishing to speak with me?” he moved toward her. Lindsay gave him a smile.

“Well, I really was here to see Areiv but… I guess it wouldn’t hurt for us to talk.”

“It would not. I always look forward to our conversations, Lindsay. Particularly so, now. If you do not mind me saying so… you are looking most lovely today.”

“O-Oh! Um…”

“Has my son acknowledged that you are a most lovely creature? He has a time expressing himself…” Emuh grabbed Lindsay’s hands and kissed him, making her entire body flustered. He noted the rosiness in her face and let go of her hands. “O-Oh, my. Lindsay… my son has broken tradition with you?”

“Broken tradi… oooh! Um… okay, Emuh; first, before you go exiling him, I can explain because it was my fau-” Lindsay stammered but Emuh gave out a small chuckle.

“I will not banish my son for something as simple; we have studied humans for eons and my people have claimed many of your human cultures, including the casual performance of the mating ritual. It is not your fault, even if you had persuaded him; I know of the urges my son receives. I am merely surprised that he did not conduct further research before performing the mating ritual with a human being.”

“I don’t get it…”

“Do you believe Areiv is the first Esperian to perform the mating ritual with a human?”

“O-Okay… I did until you asked that!” Lindsay smirked.

“It is cruel to name them experiments; the humans were voluntary participants in our research. It is why we know so much. When an Esperian performs the mating ritual with a human, a certain… scent is emitted. I believe you know them as pheromones? The scent beckons all the opposite sex of the human, excluding relatives and the mating Esperian.” Emuh explained as Lindsay blushed once more.

“Oh, wow! That explains everything! Jesus, we…” Lindsay stopped herself from blurting out that the two performed the mating ritual throughout the weekend. “Uh, yeah; how do I get rid of the scent?”

“I have some cream for you. Please forgive my rudeness; the aroma is most potent on you, oddly. I… it is wise that I keep my distance or… ah, I shall return…” Emuh rushed as he excused himself. Before long, he reappeared with a container and gave it to Lindsay. She opened and studied it; the cream resembled Earth lotion.

“So, I just rub it anywhere or…?”

“Allow me to assist you, Lindsay; I insist,” the Royal Magistrate offered as he stroked her shoulders. “Yes, I am confident my son sees how lovely you are, if I am able to comprehend it. Anything you seek, Lindsay, please advise me…”

“… Emuh?”

“Yes, Lindsay?”

“Back away from me…” Lindsay held her smile although her face was rosier than ever. Embarrassed, Emuh backed away from her.

“O-Oh! Y-Yes; I do apologize! Just… apply the cream to your skin… anywhere. H-However… Lindsay? Are you certain I cannot assist…”

“Take a few more steps back and turn around, Emuh…”

“Y-Yes; whatever you desire…” the tall alien obeyed her directions. Lindsay dipped her fingers in the cool lavender paste and smeared it on her arms, legs and neck.

“Now… do I gotta chain you and the other men somewhere while…”

“No… that is unnecessary. I no longer detect the scent on you,” he almost sighed out as he turned. Emuh approached her with care but regarded the gem draped around her neck. “Are you in courtship with my son? That is an Esperian gem.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Although, I wanted Areiv to be here.”

“I see.”

“Why is it so hard to surprise you, Emuh?” Lindsay gave out a laugh. Emuh laughed with her.

“Do you recall when you were on my ship on the journey here? You wished to ask me something but did not.”

“It… really wasn’t important…”

“You believed it was. Humans like their assumptions, I have grown to find out. You believe anything considered alien would possess telepathy. I trust that since you have been here, you have discovered that is not the matter.”

“I have. I’ve always wondered if you did, though. Your hearing is… crazy good!” Lindsay remembered the first time she set eyes on the Esperian; she could’ve sworn that she whispered her remark to Bradley but the Royal Magistrate heard her as clear as day.

“I will assume that is a good thing. Esperians do not bear your visible… ears but our audio sensors are strong. I do not possess telepathy; I do not know of any Esperian carrying that ability. What I own is the ability to perceive future events. I cannot witness them at will; the visions appear randomly when I rest. They are not quite detailed, meaning I do not know precisely when the events will happen; only that they will. Every Esperian has one ability. My son is a healer of minor injuries and I hold my visions.”

“Wow! So, wait… you’re the one responsible for hand picking us out of the millions of people on Earth? You saw that in one of your visions?”

“In several, yes.” Emuh nodded. Lindsay glanced at the container in her hand and finally smirked.

“How’d you know to bring this cream? A vision?”

“… Yes. I simply did not learn when but I knew it would happen. I had a vision of my son mating with you. It is why I moved him to befriend you if not become your unofficial guardian.”

“You had a vision that I would get hurt?”

“No.”

“… What about the Rerecro?”

“I merely pretended to appear surprised when Areiv mentioned his request. I will confess that my visions worried me because, with our analysis I had yet to come across a human being deserving to properly mate with an Esperian. However, as I came to understand you, I knew you differed from the other humans I have encountered. Just because I perceived of the courtship does not take away my enjoyment of it. I am very elated, indeed! Lindsay… I seldom share my visions however, I will permit you to learn you will become Lady of Esperia sooner than you anticipate. Although, that does not necessarily count as me sharing a vision. Perhaps the fact that… you will make an excellent Lady of Esperia. I grant you my blessings to become mated. My only desire was that I was present during the courtship ritual.”

“Ah… um, yeah, no; that was when we… broke tradition…” Lindsay blushed.

“Oh. A wise decision to not invite me!” the Royal Magistrate chuckled.

“Plus, we kinda Americanized it so it wasn’t nothing special…”

“On the contrary! My son has never declared these feelings for anyone before. He has come upon the one to mate with; it is more significant than you choose to accept!” Emuh praised. Without warning, the Esperian embraced Lindsay and gave her a lingering kiss on her forehead. She felt the coolness of his lips and warmed up.

Areiv arrived inside the bay and watched his father embrace the human woman; he smirked as he placed the supplies down.

“Should I despair about this incident?”

“Ah, my son! We have company; I am afraid that I was too late to cover the IR in time. You will check it before the following race… to be certain, of course…” Emuh gave Areiv a plain face and the Esperian bay filled with Lindsay’s laughter.

“First your son, now you with the wise cracks!” she continued to laugh as she went over to Areiv. He smiled and greeted her with a lingering kiss but blushed even as he gazed into her eyes.

“Forgive me, father; it appears that I cannot restrain myself when she is in my presence.”

“No need for apologies, my son. It is… perfectly natural you should endure and act in that manner.” Emuh responded. Areiv glanced at him and nodded but fixed his attention back on Lindsay. He brushed the gem she wore and threw Emuh a grin.

“Father, we have most exciting news…”

“He already knows.” Lindsay said and Areiv looked at her.

“You revealed it to him without me…?”

“You seem to forget of my visions; I was aware before you were. Lindsay, he is going through the stage of his life span where he believes he cannot share anything with his father. That he is too old to do so.”

“F-Father…” Areiv warned, looking elsewhere as Lindsay laughed.

“So… you’re going through what our human teenagers go through? Does that make you a teen…? Is our… courtship legal…?” Lindsay realized and darted a glance at the Royal Magistrate. Both Esperians chuckled.

“I will assure you I am of age to be in courtship, human woman…”

“Well beyond it…”

“Father!”

“I am rather elated with the news, as I have told Lindsay. However, why present her with such a common gem?”

“She is content with it.”

“I love these gems; they change colors!”

“The human is so easy to please…” Emuh shook his head in amusement, which made Lindsay roll her eyes.

11.3: Solitude

{Contains Mature Content}

 

Areiv was impressed at Lindsay’s idea for the rest of the day; the two went back to the housing building to change, packed a picnic basket and made their way to the cliff which overlooked the Sea of Buno. The couple embraced each other as the suns began to set, Areiv giving Lindsay a kiss on her forehead.

“See? Told you it would be enjoyable.” she smiled.

“I had no doubts of the enjoyment. I assumed that you wished to remain in my quarters, again. Or announce our courtship to your comrades.”

“I thought Emuh wanted to announce it to everyone.”

“Yes. He is rather enthusiastic of our courtship. I am most pleased that father has offered us his blessings. Unfortunately, he will arrange for a feast…” Areiv trailed off and Lindsay laughed.

“Looks like I’ll have to chain him somewhere after all!”

“I am… sorry…?”

“Oh; that reminds me! I’m upset with you!” Lindsay gave him a grin but Areiv gave her a concerned expression.

“I have done something improper?”

“Yeah; you didn’t do any research! Did you know that having sex with a human makes their pheromones active? I didn’t even know we had pheromones!”

“Contrary to your human opinion, all living matters possess pheromones. However, I do not understand how that makes you upset with me…”

“I’ve been carrying around this scent that’s been driving the men crazy!”

“… Driving the men crazy…?”

“With passion!”

“As in… the desire I hold for you? My dear Lindsay, I apologize! I was unaware of that effect. Who were affected?”

“All the guys except Keith! I threatened Brad… but then I had already hit him, so…”

“You… struck Bradley…?”

“Long story! Not the point; but yeah, I damn near had to beat him off with a stick! And then, Emuh-”

“… My father as well?!”

“I asked if I had to chain him and the rest of the men up for the day! He said that I was a… lovely creature…”

“Oh, my! I… I am not offended. It is unfortunate it was your pheromones the cause of this however it is considered an honor for the father to become attracted to the female in courtship with his son. While I have passion for you, it is not as strong as you have described from the others. How is that?”

“You’re not affected. Emuh said that the mating Esperian and any relatives wouldn’t be.”

“I see. Does this mean… we will not perform the mating ritual for the remainder of our courtship?”

“What? Like hell! Emuh gave me this cream.” Lindsay reached in the basket and retrieved the container and Areiv laughed.

“And you intend to carry this at all times…?”

“… Maybe. You never know when it’ll happen…” she smirked and leaned in for a kiss. As the kiss became heated, Lindsay slipped her hand beneath Areiv’s robes, stunned that his sex was rigid against his thigh. The Baron gasped as she gave it a firm squeeze and released the kiss. “Well, then! You’re ready?”

“L-Lindsay…” Areiv breathed as her hand trailed along his length and his body shuddered involuntarily.

“How long have you been ready…?” Lindsay gave him a sly grin as she pressed her body closer to his.

“… F-For… quite some time, now.”

“Areiv! Did it turn you on that someone else wanted to have sex with me…?” while she blushed, Lindsay couldn’t help but to grin wider.

“Turn me… on? L-Lindsay, please u-understand…” his breath hitched in his throat as she continued with her light squeezes and caresses.

“Don’t; I think I like this side of you, Baron!” she hurried and gave him a hard kiss, leading his hand underneath her skirt. She was satisfied as he gained control and his fingers met her throbbing center, both gasped out in pleasure as they explored one another. Again, Areiv broke the kiss.

“H-Have you not had enough of performing the ritual…?”

“Have you?” she didn’t understand how to take his question; Lindsay didn’t know if he grew tired of their intimacy.

“… N-No,” he gave her a smile as her body quivered; he slid his finger inside of her and found that she was ready, herself. “Let us return to the-”

“No…” her heart raced as she moved her hips along with his rhythm. Areiv let out a surprised sound when she gently nudged him to the ground and mounted him; even through his robes, he sensed the heat from between her legs.

“No? You are eager to… to perform right here…? O-Out in the open?” his eyes widened as she pressed harder against him. Lindsay leaned forward, trailing soft kisses up and down his neck which produced a whimper from the Baron. “W-We… someone will see us…”

“They won’t; it’s too dark…” she breathed and offered him another kiss. Areiv moaned in slight disappointment when she was the one who broke the kiss. “Do you trust me?”

“Trust…? Y-Yes. Why do you…”

“Don’t freak out.” she ordered. Before Areiv could question what she meant, he felt his robes lift and his mouth flew open in complete shock. The Baron had never received a sensation like that before; a part of him wanted to pull Lindsay away from his erection and ask why she was doing such an action. An Earth ritual, he assumed before all thoughts broke off. Her slow movements caused him to resonate as light moans escaped his mouth.

“L-Lindsay… I believe… I will… r-release… soon…” he could hardly manage after a while. Lindsay stopped pleasuring him and showed him a grin.

“So soon…? I take you liked that?”

“O-Oh, yes; very much so! You… did not mind… placing your mouth on m-my frical…?”

“No one’s ev… oh, wait; you were pure before Friday!” her grin widened. Lindsay removed her panties before straddling Areiv once more, centering his hardened flesh over her entrance. The alien tensed as he entered her, the intrusion sudden for himself. His shock faded as she began to move and he caught the facial expressions of his lover; Areiv enjoyed watching her nearly as much as making love to her.

Lindsay closed her eyes and rode the euphoric wave she experienced as that familiar series of vibrations began. The woman had been too excited to make love to him out in public; her orgasm built faster than she preferred. Unlike their first time, Lindsay moved along with the pulsations and her breaths turned to quick gasps. Areiv delighted even further as he listened; he understood that she was on the brink of her climax and he would undergo his as well. He grasped her by her waist to steady her irregular movements, which prompted her to throw her head back and tremble. She clenched hard as a cascade of warmth engulfed his flesh, causing hard jerks to her body. Areiv’s own breathing occurred in pants as he released, his hands gripping hard onto Lindsay’s hips. After her body stopped convulsing, she lazily fell on him and Areiv wrapped his arms around her, struggling to calm his own breathing.

“Oh… my! T-That was… most spontaneous!”

“Good to know you enjoyed that, too!” she half-smiled against his neck.

“Yes! My dear Lindsay… I love you so…” he told her, giving her a kiss on the top of her head. Lindsay let out a small laugh and mustered the energy to sit up and look at him.

“Really? Why do you love me?”

“You have brought me so much pleasure during our mating rituals. I-”

“… That’s not a good reason to love someone…” she frowned.

“I did not conclude my explanation. Lindsay… I must confess that you enamored me the first moment I set my eyes upon you. Before the start of our courtship, you made me… nervous whenever we were together. Yes, I was rather nervous around you because… and you will not believe me, however, you are the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes upon. Out of regard for your previous mate, I did not intrude… and I never imagined I might be your next mate. Oh, I thought of it constantly! My dear Lindsay… my words are abandoning me; forgive me if I appear to… ramble. However, you preoccupied my thoughts throughout the entire day, to the extent where it was an aching desire to be around you. Now that we mean to mate… I acknowledge I am… complete. If I could not have you by my side, if Esperian rule declared that you could not become Lady of Esperia… then I would renounce the claim of Royal Magistrate. Oh… do not weep; I have made you more upset…?” the tears that dropped to Lindsay’s cheeks took Areiv by surprise; he only intended to make her feel better. He wiped at them but Lindsay sniffed and laughed.

“No, silly alien; these are tears of joy! Oh, I love you, too, Areiv…” Lindsay smiled as she bent down to give him a passionate kiss.

It was his signal to leave, and he moved as quietly as possible. After a few yards, even as darkness covered the surrounding areas, he was capable of making out the silhouettes of the two lovers joined still. The tantalizing aroma faded slowly the further he strode away, but he continued to ponder on what he saw. He replayed the scenes over in his mind which only made him recall the conversation: they loved each other. Understanding all that was spoken made him grasp the inevitable.

“Shit… Lizzie’s leaving us…”

12.1: The Closing Ceremony

“So… I need to tell you guys something.” Lindsay was in her dining area, along with the rest of her family and Areiv. The family were enjoying breakfast on the day of the closing ceremony for the races; a feast offered to participating racers and recognition of the winning team. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at her, making the woman blush. Her face flushed even further when Areiv grabbed her hand and squeezed it underneath the table.

“Are we gonna finally learn about that gem around your neck?” William pointed towards it with his fork.

“I told you what that was…” Valerie spoke to her husband but beamed at Lindsay and Areiv. He gave the jewel a delicate caress before turning to the humans.

“As I have not attempted to conceal, I am most fond of this Earth woman. So much so that I asked her to begin courtship with me and she agreed. I am most certain that father has altered the closing feast to commemorate.” he mumbled, causing Lindsay to giggle.

“Wait… what? What the hell does that mean; courtship…?” William asked.

“So, you two are going steady, is what you’re saying?” Carl raised an eyebrow. “Do Esperians celebrate every little thing…?”

“Oh, my God; they’re getting married! That’s an engagement gem around her neck!” Valerie blurted out.

“… Married…?” Areiv looked at her.

“Mated.” Lindsay answered his question. He switched glances from Valerie to Lindsay.

“Ah. Yes. We are to become mated.”

“Can… can that happen?” Sandra found her voice, her eyes misty. Lindsay nodded and squeezed her hand.

“Yes. As I have told Lindsay, it does not matter if she is human or Esperian. We can mate with any species, so long as a blessing is granted. Father has offered us his blessing. We shall leave Buno within the week; there is much to groom Lindsay on.”

“So, wait. Since you’re a baron, does that mean Lizzie will be royalty, too?”

“Oh, not only royalty but Lady of Esperia. Father will have to give his title to me very soon and that will make Lindsay as such.” Areiv explained to Carl.

“This seems so sudden. Who else knows?” William eyed his sister.

“Well… no one else. Emuh is gonna surprise everyone else about it at the feast today. I wasn’t expecting to have to leave so soon; we actually talked him out of leaving right after the ceremony!”

“The team’s gonna be pissed. You’re leaving them…” William pointed out. Lindsay sighed and glanced down at her plate of food.

“Yeah… I know…”

 

Everyone gathered inside the dining facility for the closing feast of the Great Buno Races. The Earth team was directed to the only clothed table and took their seats; last season, the table was much smaller to accommodate the Baron and the Royal Magistrate. Keith gazed over and wondered why the two sat at their table; it didn’t matter that Areiv beamed at his daughter and she shied away, growing rosy: he assumed the table was set aside for the winning team members, only.

Bradley sat across from the artillery specialist and glanced elsewhere. Although the two agreed to continue their friendship, he still held a tinge of bitterness knowing the alien was perhaps holding her hand underneath the table. Bradley would’ve argued that his proper spot was beside Lindsay, seeing as though he commanded the Silver Stallion. But the bruise on Bradley’s jaw finally went away and he needed no extra reminders of how hard the former Marine can punch! He gave out a little sigh as he made an effort not to think of the two together and advised himself that he'd have to get over it.

Yoji glanced around the area at the different species and again to his colleagues; he was proud of himself for helping out as often as he could. Back on Earth, he understood his talents as an electrical engineer were only average at best; there certainly were others who made him seem inadequate. Yoji loved coding but could only do the bare minimum. But the Royal Magistrate selected him, and the assessment placed him in the right job.

Yoji was American-born and despite his name, understood little to no Japanese apart from the phrases he depicted on his own his parents spoke. He did what his parents expected him to do, but not until after his father’s death did Yoji question if it was what he desired. He continued with college, earning the degree they wanted him to, if only to honor his father. As he looked at his mother, who chatted with Lindsay’s sister-in-law, a smile swept across his face; she was definitely proud of him and that made him realize he lived beyond his father’s expectations.

Even though it was technically the Earth team’s second season, Tim hated for the season to end. He felt more needed during them, making certain that the Silver Stallion looked its finest. The parts were larger to manage than a regular vehicle but Tim was glad that their manager was right: four mechanics were more than enough to handle the IR. For the most part, David and himself had limited work to do; the Silver Stallion was sturdy enough to withstand a great deal and the only thing it usually required after a race was a dent or seven smoothed out.

Tim took that spare time to conduct his research on the foreign parts found on Buno; he turned into a collector of unusual scraps, hiding them in plain view in the Earth bay. Only David and Bradley noticed, but the two said nothing; the three formed a club to see if they could build something out of the spare parts. Tim’s family didn’t survive the Qees attack but as he lost one, he gained another family within the Earth team.

Before the Earth attack, David knew he would miss the crew after the races; it was something he considered more frequently than not. He assured himself that he would make certain they would keep in touch when they returned to their homes; he didn't know if they would come back for another season of racing. But, the attack left them homeless and their bond matured. While it pleased David to have his family with him, a part of him feeling guilty that a few members couldn’t claim the same. But his family decided to blend with the other Earth team members and now they considered each other a true family. David would miss the familiarity of sunny California but Buno was his second home. He grew used to it; where else would they go now that Earth was deemed unlivable?

Steve enjoyed living on Buno more than anyone would understand. He noted how simple it was for Lindsay to accept their then temporary residence but even he wasn’t that bold; trying the food would take time! Steve was his happiest when he made sure the Silver Stallion ran at its best; it made him glow whenever the pilot or the artillery specialist took notice it ran faster during a few races. After that, it made him feel wonderful that Buno treated the Earth team like celebrities; anywhere he went, businesses offered him either free or discounted items.

The former Marine enjoyed the company of his fellow earthlings, especially Lindsay; the two had so much in common. Steve confessed he wasn’t attracted to her but thoughts of the two hooking up crossed his mind on rare occasions: she was the only human female in the galaxy! But, Steve noticed she was married, and that Bradley was attracted to her; he had been since he grasped her bag in New Mexico. He constantly wondered why she never noticed it, or if she did, why she brushed it off and never confronted the man. As Steve gazed at the end of the table, he also wondered why the two Esperians were sitting at their table. He knew Lindsay and Areiv bonded quickly but he couldn’t figure out what that had to do with the Baron sitting at their table!

“Yo; why Emuh and Areiv sitting at our table?” he leaned to his left and whispered to Malik. The man looked up and then shrugged.

“I don’t know. Guess we’ll find out later?” he asked. Steve leaned forward, struggling to get Lindsay’s attention to ask but the doors of the dining facility opened. A group of female Legooms floated in, their shimmering teal and crimson gowns sweeping the floor; they had similar features of the regular Legooms yet they were much taller: Naav and the regular Legooms would only reach their waists.

Following them was a being whose green oblong face appeared to illuminate; they stood taller than the Legooms in front and seemed to glide along, even though they had no wings. The earthlings had seen them before, last year around the same time: Statme was the ruler of Buno. No one recognized their gender; Statme’s voice and appearance was neither male nor female. Everyone in the facility bowed as the larger Legooms led Statme towards the front of the room.

“The ruler Statme will now observe this season’s champions of the Great Buno Races: the Earth team!” Naav announced, which made everyone look up and applaud. The small Legoom didn’t have to motion for the crew; they realized they had to approach Statme and did so.

“I am honored to acknowledge this season’s victors, the distinguished Earth team! It is with sorrow they have lost their home planet however they surpassed all that has come their way. Needless to say, the earthlings have established themselves as dominant racers this season and it impresses me still how they have adapted to their new home.” Statme announced, and they approached each individual member, remarking of their importance to the team and presented them with a silver medallion. They understood there were no real rewards for winning the races, only recognition as the best for that season. The earthlings became aware last year that Areiv won five seasons in a row before they overthrew him; Lindsay felt awful about it but the Baron assured her he didn’t take it personally.

After Statme issued every member a medallion, they turned to the crowd and proposed for them to congratulate the new champions. The applause died down as Emuh stood and made his position beside the Bunodic ruler; more proof given that the Royal Magistrate ruled the galaxy as Statme bowed to him, along with the six Legooms and was guided out of the facility.

“I seldom speak during the closing ceremonies however it is with great pleasure I welcome this opportunity to dedicate this feast to not only honor the Earth team but the announcement of courtship between Baron Areiv and Lindsay! It would please me if everyone will join me in this glorious celebration; my son has found his mate!” Emuh announced, and the facility filled with a blend of gasps and ovation.

“Wait, what?!” Steve blurted. The other members were in shock but not as much as Bradley. He gawked at Lindsay, finally realizing what the gem around her neck meant. He couldn’t move as the others crowded around Lindsay to congratulate her; Bradley looked towards their table at the blushing Esperian who received bows from the others.

As the feast began, everyone moved back to their seats, and the conversation focused on the soon-to-be mated pair.

“I still don’t know what to say…” Tim admitted.

“Yeah! And, here she was trying to convince us that they were just friends!” David eyed her and Lindsay reddened.

“How was I supposed to tell you guys? Everything happened so quickly…”

“Not too quickly, for you two to be engaged,” Yoji pointed out and everyone laughed. “Wait… this means… you’re leaving us. We won’t have an artillery specialist.” he realized. She threw him a half sadden look but Areiv squeezed her hand.

“We will make arrangements to participate in the next races.”

“Does that mean she’ll be racing as an earthling or an Esperian?” Keith wanted to be certain of, and the crew went into thought.

“It is up to Lindsay however, seeing that I have no need for an artillery specialist, she would need to train to operate an Esperian IR if she participates as an Esperian.”

“Ah; is that why we never saw an Esperian crew?” Malik asked and Areiv nodded.

“Father is capable of the duties the Earth crew works. In case of emergencies, he can also pilot the IR.”

“… Would you really come back and be the artillery specialist?” Bradley ignored the small talk, mostly. Lindsay glanced at him for a moment before shrugging.

“I… I don’t know. I’ll make that decision when the time comes.” Lindsay stared at her meal. Bradley opened his mouth to speak once more but Keith hugged his daughter and smiled. The gesture made everyone else at the table widen their eyes, especially when Lindsay returned the hug. Bradley wished to say more, he needed to say more, but he didn’t want his words to fall on deaf ears. What else could he say, he realized. Lindsay made her decision; there was nothing he could say to change that.

12.2: Esperia

Lindsay looked out the window, knowing full well all she would receive is the darkness of space. She didn’t intend to let out the sigh, but it drew Areiv’s attention and he took her hand.

“You are disturbed, my love.” the Baron gazed at her and Lindsay blushed; it delighted her to hear him say that expression.

“No…”

“Yes, you are. Talk to me; is there something the matter?”

“I… I dunno. Maybe it’s just me missing my folks, already.” she admitted; the Esperians offered Lindsay’s family residency inside the grand palace but they declined. Areiv smiled and kissed her hand.

“Everyone is more than welcome to visit; you were informed of this. And as Royal Magistrate and Lady of Esperia, we may visit Buno anytime we feel,” he continued to stare at her as she nodded. “Perhaps… you do not desire to become my mate after all?” he sincerely considered, which made Lindsay raise her eyebrows and laugh.

“That’s not it and you should know that! If I didn’t want to be your mate, I wouldn’t have said yes. You want the truth?”

“Yes, please…”

“I’m… I’m nervous…”

“You are nervous? What is there to be nervous of?”

“Seriously? Areiv… I’m human. You’re gonna marry a human; there’s gonna be a human on an Esperian throne! You’re not worried about what your people will think about that?!”

“I believe it is my turn to be honest with you. It does not trouble me what my people conceive of you. However, because I am quite fond of you, they will be as well. I love you deeper than my own life span, Lindsay and my people… our people will honor that.”

“Will it be because of who I am or who I’m about to be?”

“They will accept you as both. Do not fret so, my dear Lindsay; they will see what I see in you. When we land, you will understand.” Areiv smiled at Lindsay and offered her a small kiss, which made her grin wide and nod. Moments later, they prepared for landing as the Esperian ship entered the atmosphere and Lindsay was treated to a vision of a clear, rose sky. Below, she could make out patches of purple water surrounded by blue forests. Buildings came into view the closer they drew near land, and Lindsay noticed they varied, from the huts like the ones from the Bunodic ruins to the ones like their living quarters.

Emuh landed the vessel on a strip of field where it was at once surrounded by many Esperians. Lindsay forgot to unbuckle as she took in the scene of the different Esperians; they were various shapes, sizes and also tones of blue. Most wore robes but not as majestic and ornate as the two Esperians on the ship. Areiv’s chuckle drew her out of her trance.

“Come now; we must not keep our people waiting…” he helped with her straps and they followed Emuh off the craft. She expected an uproar of cheers but the three were received with deep and silent bows. A few Esperians in tunics and slacks docked the Esperian ship in place while a Carolina blue one approached the three and bowed deeply. Their robe appeared to be a size too large, as it covered their hands and feet, Lindsay noted. The short Esperian spoke in what she perceived was their native tongue but Emuh placed his hand on their shoulder.

“Reyarts, we stand in the presence of a human being and she does not understand our language. It would please me if you spoke Earth English in Lindsay’s presence.” he explained. Reyarts, embarrassed, gave Lindsay a courteous bow.

“Please forgive me, m’lady; we are most honored by your presence! Welcome to Esperia. I am Reyarts, the Royal Magistrate’s most trusted advisor. It will be my utmost pleasure to serve as your personal advisor as well.” he introduced himself.

“Oh… um… thank you…”

“Let us welcome home the Royal Magistrate Emuh, the Baron of Esperia Areiv, and m’lady Lindsay!” Reyarts turned to the crowd before Lindsay could utter another word and this time, the group cheered as they made their way through. Reyarts led them to a large carriage driven by black stallions and Lindsay studied them before turning to Areiv.

“Esperia has horses, too…?”

“Horses…?”

“You are referring to the pounals. They are indeed comparable to your Earth horses, yes. However, these are the infants.” Emuh explained as they climbed inside.

“The infants?!”

“An adult pounal can become fairly large and unwieldy. They are deemed… useless at that stage.” Areiv finished the explanation. Lindsay stared at the pounals in amusement.

“The infants…”

As the pounals carried the four through town, the Esperians inside watched and beamed as Lindsay peered through the pane. Her eyes widened at the sights before her as though they were from a fantasy storybook; the land was a rich mahogany while the blue leaves of orange trees wavered in the breeze. They rode through several villages and Lindsay noticed that everyone stopped whatever they were doing and offered respect.

“It looks like you copied some of our Earth eras…” she noted.

“Not much has developed since learning of your culture. The different eras, as you describe them, represent the individual social classes. Although we do not believe in such matters as poverty, there are those who are born into royalty and others who are born to become… merchants, for example. It is especially true in this region… which is called Dentales.” Emuh explained and Lindsay stared at him.

“Oh… so you have regions and continents like Earth…”

“Of course. All the planets here do. While Esperia is indeed smaller than your Earth, we have ten regions, compared to your… seven, I believe? Is Earth the only planet in your solar system with numerous land masses?”

“When you put it that way, it sounds silly that we’ve always assumed that! We never had your technology to explore the other planets; the closest planet would take us about six months to get there and we were just getting around to sending satellites and stuff to Mars! All the nearby planets aren’t Earth-like, like yours so there was that as well…”

“I see.”

“But, back to your social classes. You’re saying you’re born into them? So, a merchant couldn’t work hard enough to become royalty or mate with royalty?”

“Afraid not. However, we do not regard them any less. It is from the merchants we receive our supplies and food necessities and it is from the forger in which we obtain our weapons; they are just as vital as anyone if not more. As far as selecting a mate, an Esperian can choose whoever they desire to mate with… except for the Royal Magistrate, the Lady of Esperia and the Baron of Esperia.”

“Is it because they’re the rulers of this galaxy?” Lindsay always had her suspicions but never wanted to ask until that moment. Emuh gave her a gentle smile and a nod.

“You are correct. It is considered inappropriate for us to mate with an Esperian not born into royalty. Other species are the exception,” he quickly added when she opened her mouth. “However, it is very rare that we mate with anyone outside of our own species. It is because what one species deems as royalty, another may not.”

“It still doesn’t seem fair. I mean, if Areiv wanted to marry a common Esperian… you’re the Royal Magistrate; you couldn’t just allow it?”

“Unfortunately, that policy is older than myself. I could not give him my blessing for such a union.” he explained and Lindsay nodded. She turned her attention back outside and saw that her theory was right; they passed through a settlement whose theme reminded her of medieval ages. There was a forger’s cottage, which gave off a grainy, adobe effect. A few farmers tended to their crops and in the next field was a small marketplace.

The following village they passed donned pagoda-fashioned huts and narrow lanes but after a span of burgundy roads and blue meadows, an immense town square came into view. The many Esperians there had flowing togas; ancient Greece, Lindsay smiled to herself. Although they seemed as majestic as Emuh and Areiv, they stopped and bowed deeply as the coach moved through their area.

Lindsay became excited when she saw her first glimpse of Esperian children; after passing through the Greek-like territory, the region was more modern. The small children did quick bows but ran alongside the carriage, trying their best to peer inside. Lindsay couldn’t help but to smile and wave at them, stunned that they waved back. She gasped and looked at the Esperian men.

“The children! They waved at me!”

“… Of course, m’lady…” Reyarts tried to hide his laughter.

“Do you have to call me that…?” she shocked him and the small Esperian gaped at her before glancing at Areiv and Emuh.

“Pay her no mind, Reyarts; she is not accustomed to such formalities. My dear Lindsay, it is your title, now,” Areiv kissed her hand. “I am curious as to why it excites you that the children acknowledged you.”

“They weren’t afraid of me…”

“As they should not be. We have studied your culture for such a lengthy time; the children are very delighted to finally meet a human being in person.” Emuh explained and Lindsay smiled, going back to her sightseeing through the window.

After a brief journey, the carriage entered a region that proved how technologically advanced the Esperians were. The burgundy path converted into a paved one which led to a range of majestic yellow-tinted crystal towers surrounded by a twinkling purple lake; the buildings reminded Lindsay of the one in New Mexico. The carriage stopped by the banks of the lake and two Esperian guards approached to escort the four off; Lindsay was amazed that they were female. They opened the door to the coach and placed their lances in a port arms position as Reyarts stepped out first. The teal Esperian spoke and Reyarts responded; Lindsay paid it no mind until Emuh cleared his throat. Reyarts appeared to blush as he bowed deeply towards him.

“M-My apologies, your majesty and m’lady! M’lady does not understand our native language; the Royal Magistrate insists that we speak Earth English while in her presence.” Reyarts announced to the guards, who bowed.

“Very well, Sir Reyarts. The royal court awaits your return.” the teal guard announced as the others stepped off the coach. Lindsay wondered how they would travel across the lake until she noticed a hovering carriage the same size as the one they left. Their course led them across the lake towards the highest and widest of the towers, which Lindsay assumed was the grand palace. The closer they drew near, the larger the castle became and Lindsay let out a whistle of approval.

“Is there something the matter?” Areiv asked and Lindsay shook her head.

“No; this place is huge! And beautiful.”

“The royal family deserves only the best, m’lady.” Reyarts answered as the vehicle settled. Another guard opened the door and Reyarts climbed out first to a small group of Esperians.

“The Royal Magistrate wishes for all Esperians to speak Earth English in the presence of m’lady Lindsay; let us welcome them home!” he announced, and the group bowed as Emuh, Lindsay and Areiv got out. Before Lindsay could take a step, two Esperian women approached her, bowing. Her eyes widened at the display and glanced over at Areiv, who smiled.

“Good day, m’lady. We are your personal attendants. I am Asi…”

“And I am Noin. We will also help prepare you in becoming Lady of Esperia.” the other tall Esperian continued. Lindsay wondered if they were related; both were the same tone of royal blue.

“Noin, Asi; I will escort m’lady into the palace if you do not object. She is quite taken over the presence of so many Esperians.” Areiv mentioned as he grasped her hand.

“Good day, Baron Areiv. Whatever you please however…” Noin blushed and bowed as Areiv gave her a glance.

“With all proper regard, Baron: Noin was simply establishing that you are in the beginning of your courtship and wishes not to leave m’lady.” Asi finished for her. Areiv blushed while Lindsay let out a giggle, causing the Baron to give her the same look.

“They require no further encouragement from you…”

“Oh, what? Don’t get mad because they’re right!”

“They are not…” before he could finish his sentence, Lindsay gave him a glimpse, fighting another smirk. Areiv sighed but gave her hand a loving squeeze. “Let us go inside the palace.”

“Sure.” she beamed at the Esperian.

12.3: A Realization

Lindsay forced herself not to reveal her amusement as the group went inside the palace. Everything appeared made from the same crystal as the outside, even the floor as everyone’s reflection was visible. She gaped at the ceiling which gave the same reflection as the floor except for the massive chandelier that shimmered and changed various shades, like the Esperian gems she admired. Ahead was a broad staircase where the entire Earth team could walk up, side-by-side with no problems. Emuh and Reyarts started for the left hallway before reaching the steps and the Royal Magistrate gave Lindsay’s attendants a smile.

“Please make certain that m’lady is not late for the feast this evening.”

“You, too…?” Lindsay mumbled as Areiv chuckled.

“Yes, your majesty,” Asi answered as both bowed. “If you will follow us…” Asi carried on, and they ascended the stairs. Areiv kept Lindsay’s hand in his as they followed, causing Emuh and Reyarts to offer him curious looks.

“Baron…”

“I shall return in a moment.” Areiv rushed as they made a right into a corridor. The four went inside an area that Lindsay assumed would be a bedroom. She was taken by surprise to observe other Esperian women bustling about; they eyed Areiv but bowed.

“This is the dressing area for the Lady of Esperia. It houses all her gowns for any occasion.” Noin explained.

“So, I take it that the Baron isn’t supposed to be in here?” she noticed the looks they gave him.

“I am permitted anywhere within the palace.”

“While that might be true, I think you’re supposed to be somewhere else right now…” Lindsay teased and beamed. Areiv sighed but returned the smile, grabbing both her hands.

“I do not wish you to be uncomfortable around the attendants. If you would rather for me to stay…”

“I think you just want to see me naked!” she teased once more, causing Noin and Asi to giggle. Lindsay laughed along with them despite the embarrassed glance she received from Areiv. “I’ll be fine, I promise. Now, go and do what you need to do and I’ll see you at the feast. You know someone will have to stop Emuh from going overboard…” she smirked and Areiv gave her a level face.

“You are correct. I shall see you at the feast, my love.” he gave her a light smile before leaning in for a lingering kiss. The servants gave him a bow as he left and Lindsay turned to them. Asi and Noin appeared to flush and kept their heads down.

“F-Forgive us for that outburst.” Asi started. Lindsay gave her a look.

“What? Oh… for God’s sake; get up! It was perfectly normal to laugh at something like that,” she smiled as the two Esperian women arose and gazed at her. “So… can I ask for a favor?”

“Anything m’lady demands…” Noin answered but Lindsay shook her head.

“That’s just it; I don’t want to ‘demand’ anything from you or anyone here. I’ve noticed that Esperians are really courteous and all that. But… could you just… not be so formal around me?” she asked. The women gave out gasps and eyed her.

“O-Oh. The Royal Magistrate and the Baron will not allow for attendants to disrespect m’lady…” Noin mumbled and Asi nodded in agreement.

“Oh, where I’m from there’s plenty of ways to be respectful without being so formal! Please; I don’t deserve it. I’m not… royalty.” her words made the women gasp once more.

“You are in courtship with the Baron, m’lady. He will become Royal Magistrate soon and you will become Lady of Esperia; that is indeed royalty and we are to regard you as such.” Noin explained. Lindsay opened her mouth but Asi grasped her arm, leading her to the middle of the room.

“Do not trouble yourself over such concerns, m’lady. We have to record measurements for your gowns, now; the previous Lady of Esperia was… much taller than yourself.” she decided to change the subject. Lindsay sighed but smiled as she approached the other Esperian women waiting on her, one with a measuring tape and the other with a notepad. She looked down at her own body and shrugged.

“She was probably thinner, too! Oh… what?” she noticed that the women eyed her funny.

“… M’lady must undress… to make certain the measurements are exact.” Asi stated. Lindsay hesitated before removing her tank top and jeans and a navy-blue attendant folded her clothes. As she was measured every which way, Noin left the area through another door and returned as the last of her measurements were called out in Esperian. Lindsay refrained from rolling her eyes as the woman bowed.

“Your bath is ready, m’lady.”

“A bath? You’re… not gonna bathe me, too… are you?”

“The bathing waters do so naturally. We are simply to draw your bath and cleanse your hair if desired.”

“Oh…” Lindsay gave a pleasant smirk towards Noin; it had been quite some time since she had anyone else wash her hair. She followed the woman into the next room, which contained a small pool filled with glowing pink liquid. Lindsay kneeled and placed her hand in the water, which was the perfect temperature for her. She was surprised by the tingling sensation and removed her hand. Asi joined the two and saw her abrupt hand withdrawal.

“Is the water not to your liking, m’lady? We have done considerable research on human beings.” she asked but Lindsay nodded.

“Sorry. We don’t have self-cleansing waters on Earth. Wasn’t expecting to feel that,” she laughed and drew in her surroundings. “Why is it so huge? This can’t be just for the Lady of Esperia, alone!”

“It is not, m’lady. This is the common bathing area however due to its proximity to the gown area, the Lady of Esperia has used this room whenever she desired.”

“No one but her personal attendants are allowed here when she bathes.” Noin explained further. Lindsay nodded and saw they anticipated her next move. She looked and realized that she was still in her underwear and removed them blushing. Stepping nearer, Lindsay noted that there was a curved dip and realized that was where she would lay her head; Noin sat on the tile behind it, ready to wash her hair. Asi helped her descend into the water and she laid back, allowing the waters to engulf her. Lindsay giggled and shifted as they tingled all over her body and hair; the longer she lay, the more she sensed the waters cleansing her. Noin undid Lindsay’s ponytail and gently rinsed her hair. She moaned at the sensation, surprising both Esperian women.

“Sorry! That was a good sound!”

“Ah. You are pleased, m’lady?” Noin asked and Lindsay smirked.

“Very…” she relaxed as Noin continued rinsing her hair. Lindsay reflected back to the events of the day and before her setting foot on Esperia. She couldn’t believe she would become Lady of Esperia, ruling alongside Baron Areiv. Royal Magistrate Areiv, she corrected herself. Everything happened so fast; Lindsay wondered how the former Lady of Esperia accepted it, if she was also rushed into becoming royalty.

The thought lingered in her mind. Neither Emuh nor Areiv ever mentioned a single thing about the last Lady of Esperia. Lindsay assumed that she passed away, but that was all she could guess.

“Noin?”

“Yes, m’lady?”

“Were you and Asi the attendants for the former Lady of Esperia?”

“… Yes…” Asi answered.

“How was she? I mean, what happened to her?” Lindsay wanted to know. The only time Areiv mentioned anything of her was when Lindsay received the Rerecro during the past holiday. She didn’t want to pry and ask him, especially when he said nothing more about her.

Lindsay knew she hit some kind of nerve within the two as she noticed Noin stopped washing her hair. A few moments later, she continued. “… I’m not supposed to ask about her, am I?”

“… We were simply astonished that the Baron has never spoken of her to you, m’lady.”

“I guess… I never wanted to ask until now.”

“Lady Oerh was a lovely Lady of Esperia. She was valiant and uncompromising. However, her love for the Baron was rather apparent. There was high regard for her during her reign.” Asi stated.

“So… wait, you said her reign…?”

“Yes.”

“… Her reign…”

“… M’lady, who do you believe rules Esperia and the Ecilavi galaxy?”

“… The Royal Magistrate!”

“No, m’lady. It is the Lady of Esperia.” Asi gave her an easy smile. Lindsay couldn’t respond for a moment; she settled in the water, going over what they revealed to her. It wouldn’t be herself and Areiv ruling the galaxy but… herself.

“The Esperian women… are in majority here, aren’t they?” she remembered the guards she saw on the route to the palace; all were female.

“It is true that most hold important positions; your regiment will be composed largely of female Esperians. Any Esperian can be born a warrior whether male or female. However, the sergeant-at-arms has always been female; the two of you will command the Esperian army.”

“I’ll… have an army…” Lindsay reflected back to the Rerecro. It wasn’t a mere symbol of courage but the Lady of Esperia’s battle sword. “So, there are wars here.”

“Not since the death of Lady Oerh. She… suffered injuries in our last conflict, a surprise attack.” Asi explained, her eyes dropping to the floor. Lindsay swallowed the lump caught in her throat.

“Areiv must’ve been devastated…”

“Indeed, he was, as were the rest of Esperia. A good thing he was an annual span away from enlisting into the army; he would have been by Lady Oerh when she was attacked if not a close observer to her demise.”

“… Wow. Did he… act out afterwards?”

“I do not understand, m’lady.”

“Was he rebellious? On Earth, depending on how close you are to your parents, for them to die when you’re young, most kids do things they usually wouldn’t.”

“Ah. The Baron became terribly distraught over the loss of Lady Oerh. He did not smile or show amusement. He also did not enlist as required the following span and therefore forced to participate in the Great Buno Races. He did not take well to it; for quite some time, the Royal Magistrate and himself did not speak to one another. His demeanor took a turn for the worse, to where we were concerned the Baron would not find someone to mate with in time.”

“He eventually spoke to the Royal Magistrate once more. We still dreaded that he would not mate; he declined outings regularly. Then, news spread of his outings with you. We were… hopeful. We were most pleased with the discovery of your courtship; we had not seen the Baron this elated in many spans.”

“A true blessing, indeed!” Asi nearly smiled but caught herself and bowed. Lindsay had no words to express and laid in silence, grinning to herself.

“Forgive us, m’lady; we have devoted enough time here. Your gown for the feast should be prepared by now; the Royal Magistrate does not wish you tardy.” Noin announced as she lifted Lindsay’s head. She covered her dreadlocks in a towel that felt like silk as Asi offered her a larger one to wrap around her body. Whereas the water tingled, the towels appeared to warm her.

“But… we’ve only been in here for a few minutes. My gown is already ready…?”

“If it pleases m’lady, the attendants can alter all the gowns while you dine.”

“O-oh. You’re not allowed to attend the feast? What will you eat?”

“Attendants cannot take part in this feast. Worry not, m’lady; we shall eat later.”

“… I don’t want you guys starving yourselves over some dresses. I’d rather for you to eat first and then you can go back and alter dresses to your heart’s content!” Lindsay glanced at Asi who appeared to blush. She was about to bow until Lindsay placed a hand on her shoulder and sighed. “Stop bowing! Please?”

“… B-But… the Royal Magistrate and the Baron will not toler-”

“I can handle those two. You don’t have to bow to me after every little thing. Do I have to demand it?” she stared at both Esperians who remained fixed in their places. “Fine! Whenever you are in my presence, I demand that you not bow to me every two seconds! Okay?”

“Y-Yes, m’lady…” Noin struggled to keep herself from bowing and Lindsay smirked.

“Since I can’t stop anyone from calling me that, I’ll settle on cutting down on all this bowing stuff!”

 

Her attendants accompanied her back into the other room where a brilliant emerald gown awaited her. Lindsay was seated in a chair as Noin unwrapped the towel and tended to her dry dreadlocks.

“We do not have the components to fashion your hair properly but will do the best we can.” Noin explained as she twisted and pinned her locks upward. With Asi’s support, Noin styled Lindsay’s hair in no time and they helped her into the gown. Lindsay stared in the mirror, admiring the gown’s perfect fit. The v-cut was snug and deep enough to allow only a modest notice to her cleavage but cleverly slack around her stomach. The sleeves almost concealed her hands and the silver hems dusted the floor, making Lindsay wonder if there was any need for shoes. Noin and Asi had woven her dreadlocks into a crown that rested around her head, and Noin wrapped a silver-wired tiara dressed in emerald-colored Esperian gems around her hair as Lindsay smiled. She turned to face her attendants, who bowed except for Noin and Asi.

“M’lady is as charming as Lady Oerh. We doubt not you remain just as pleased as we are.” Asi couldn’t help herself as she gave a quick bow.

Her main attendants escorted Lindsay out the room and the three moved their way to the stairs. Reyarts waited at the bottom and Lindsay quickly turned to the Esperian women.

“Is anything the matter, m’lady?”

“When we were talking about Lady Oerh. Esperia seems so peaceful; who would’ve attacked?”

“Lady Oerh was struck by General Ehsa…” Noin responded softly. Lindsay gasped before narrowing her eyes at the name.

“Qees. I should’ve known!”

“Please, do not let what we spoke damper your mood,” Asi rushed. “Unless you, yourself will it, no Qees can step foot on Esperia.” she said. Lindsay gave a heavy sigh but nodded at her.

“Thank you, Asi and Noin.” Lindsay approached Reyarts, who stared at her in awe. He gave her a bow and ushered her to the main dining section. Before he opened the doors, he gazed at her.

“… Forgive me, m’lady.”

“What’s wrong?”

“You are… most lovely this evening. I understand why the Baron is enchanted with you.” he surprised her. Lindsay smiled to keep from blushing.

“Thank you, Reyarts. Will you… escort me all the way to where I’m sitting…?”

“It is my duty, m’lady.” Reyarts mentioned just as he opened the doors. Esperians filled the room; straight ahead were Emuh and Areiv at their lone table. On cue, everyone stood and looked at Lindsay.

“O-Oh… my…” Areiv thought he murmured his approval but Emuh smiled.

“Asi and Noin have brought about a most remarkable job even though… Lindsay is a lovely creature, already.”

“Y-Yes… indeed…” Areiv gave her an encouraging smile. Although Reyarts escorted her, Lindsay felt as though she drifted towards the two royal Esperians. As she passed, the other Esperians bowed; while Lindsay wanted to roll her eyes, she glanced and examined each Esperian instead. She noticed, like traveling through the regions of Dentales, the royal Esperians were various sizes and tones of blue. She saw that they were tall and lean except for Reyarts, who was as short as she was. Each had distinctive qualities that separated them from each other but all the Esperians shared the small onyx eyes. They were humanoid in their facial features but, Emuh and Areiv carried the trait stronger than the others.

Reyarts and Lindsay made their way to the back, and he pulled a chair out for her beside Areiv. He bowed deeply towards the three and glanced towards the crowd.

“Let us welcome home the Royal Magistrate, the Baron and m’lady Lindsay.” he announced, and the room applauded. Areiv looked at Lindsay with approval as her cheeks ached from embarrassment.

“I anticipated this moment all evening however… I underestimated how lovely you truly are, my dear Lindsay.” he couldn’t contain himself much longer. Lindsay blushed harder as he gestured her to sit.

“Why… thank you, Baron.” she smiled.

“I never understood your persistence of calling me by my title.”

“You like hearing me say it…” her smile widened when he appeared to blush and looked elsewhere.

“You are… correct…”

Emuh placed his hands up and the crowd grew silent.

“Thank you, my Esperians. It was a great pleasure for my son and myself to participate in the Great Buno Races this season. It is with slight regret we did not return victorious however I anticipated the Earth team performing to the best of their ability. Nevertheless, it is reason for celebration! In seven evenings, my son will mate with the earthling, Lindsay and the two will become your new Lady of Esperia and Royal Magistrate. Please accompany me in honoring this glorious event!” Emuh announced and everyone applauded once more. Lindsay looked towards Emuh as he sat with confusion in her eyes.

“Seven evenings…?” her brow furrowed before she widened her eyes. “Do you mean, days? We’re getting married in seven days?!”

“My reign as Royal Magistrate will expire in that time span. The new Royal Magistrate must be mated to the one he is in courtship with before he can become Royal Magistrate. This is especially so in our situation where there is no Lady of Esperia.” he made an effort to explain. Lindsay stared at him for a while.

“What would’ve happened if Areiv didn’t find a mate in time?”

“… One would be selected by the royal court. One would argue that my son would be just fine ruling on his own. However, that procedure is older than myself… and I rather preferred he found a mate.” he gave her a smile and patted her hand.

“It appears she wishes not to mate with me, father. Lindsay has… cold shoulders.” Areiv glanced over at the two. Lindsay’s brow furrowed before she gave out a snort.

“That’s cold feet, not shoulders. And, don’t start with that, again! It’s just that… I thought the courtship had to last a year?”

“In ordinary circumstances, it does. As we both realize, this is not a common situation.” Areiv said as he grasped her hand and kissed it. Lindsay sighed and gave him a grin. She knew Emuh mentioned she would become Lady of Esperia sooner than she expected but she never guessed it to be within a week of arriving on Esperia. As the dishes arrived, she thought on how the Earth team would react. They’re not gonna be happy, she told herself as she stuffed her face with ortinu.

13.1: The Esperian Union

With envelope in hand, Yoji left his room and headed towards his friend’s. It disappointed him he had to knock several times, and even more so as it seemed that Malik just woke up. He offered him a sleepy grin.

“Yoj…”

“You’re just now getting up?”

“Long night…” he smirked but let Yoji in.

“Oh, yeah; with who?” Yoji joked as he grinned.

“Uh… Agnab…” he responded as he reached the refrigerator. Yoji gave a sharp laugh.

“That’s hilarious!” he started but realized that Malik wasn’t laughing. Yoji studied the man as he turned back to him and noticed that not only was he shirtless but there were deep scratches over his chest. Yoji gaped at him. “You’re… you’re serious. You’ve been sleeping with Agnab?!”

Slept with her. Only once.”

“… How was it…?” he couldn’t avoid staring at the deep red marks. Malik smirked and gestured towards them.

“Painful, in more ways than one. You really want the details…?”

“I’m… not sure…”

“Let’s just say that she has other sharp objects besides in her mouth…”

“Ahh!” Yoji winced and covered his groin.

“Yeah. Really embarrassing to explain to the medic so… never again!”

“So… why?”

“… I was drunk. And she was curious so…”

“Yeah, I ask too many questions!” Yoji shook his head as Malik laughed. He looked at the envelope in his hands and nodded towards it.

“What’s that?”

“Oh! Check your mail receptacle; we all got one.” Yoji beamed. Malik shrugged and discovered he had a letter inside the tubed-mailbox receptacle. It took him a moment to realize who it was from, especially seeing it was from Esperia. As he opened it, Malik knew what it was, the elegant writing alone a dead giveaway. Malik skimmed through it and widened his eyes at Yoji.

“Lizzie’s getting married in four days?!”

“Right! Gives us little time to get ready for it. I knew for sure we had at the least another month.”

“… Why are they rushing?”

“Beats me. So… you going?”

“W-What? What type of question is that?” he glared. The question made him wonder who would turn down the invitation and why. His own questions made him realize who would: Bradley. The pilot had taken the whole ordeal hard, whether Malik was the only one who noticed or not. He had a hunch they would be one guest short on the voyage in a few days. “I’m definitely going! Kristen would kick my ass if we didn’t. Besides, we get to witness a real-life coronation; I’m not missing a chance to see Lizzie crowned queen or… whatever the Esperian equivalent is!"

 

The whole Earth team, Lindsay’s family and whoever could make the journey from Buno traveled to Esperia to witness the union of Areiv and Lindsay, and the coronation of the new Royal Magistrate and Lady of Esperia. The Earth crew followed the large crowd into a crystal tower on the left side of the royal palace. As the other aliens passed through the massive double doors of the cathedral, Asi and Noin greeted the earthlings with deep bows.

“Greetings to you. We are the personal attendants of m’lady; Noin and Asi. She has requested that we escort you inside as well as translate the ceremony to you. Although we are required to speak Earth English in her presence, the union ceremony is performed in our native language. We shall guide you to your seats; the ceremony will begin shortly.” Noin explained. The earthlings were split into three groups and Steve noted that Keith sat with Lindsay’s family and Emuh. As they sat a few rows behind them, he nudged Malik.

“Yo; why does Keith get to sit with Lizzie’s family?” he whispered and Malik looked towards the row as he shrugged.

“No clue. That’s… weird, right? Then, again; he’s been nicer to her lately, too.”

“Yeeah; I noticed that, too…” David overheard the whispers and chipped in. The gentle murmurs from the crowd faded out as the Esperian musicians behind the small altar began a soft and melodic tune. From the side of the room, a door opened and an elderly Esperian walked inside; unlike the robes the earthlings were used to, this Esperian’s was three layers of material, each a vibrant color: orange, green and yellow. The earthlings realized that everyone else in the church bowed and they did the same.

“He is the High Priest of Esperia. While we have many elder priests who perform the mating union, because it is the Baron, the High Priest performs this ceremony.” Asi lowly explained to her assigned group. The High Priest made his way to the altar as the music ended and held his hands out, speaking in Esperian.

“The High Priest has requested that we stand to show respect for the two that will become united.” Noin translated as everyone stood and glanced back at the large doors. Emuh took his place beside the High Priest and whispered to him as they awaited the couple.

Outside the doors, Areiv clasped Lindsay’s hands when the music changed, signifying their cue to walk inside. He gave her a smile.

“Are you ready, my love?” he asked as she sighed and rested his hand over her heart. The rapid thumping made him frown. “Oh, my. Is… everything fine? Do we require the medic?” he asked and she gave out an unsteady laugh.

“No! I’m just… nervous, again! I’ll… be fine,” she took a deep breath to steady her heart and gazed into his eyes. “Only wanted to show you how excited I am.”

“As you should. I, too, am over elated.”

“Alright. I’m ready.” she smiled and Areiv nodded. The doors opened, and the two started their walk down the aisle.

“… W-Wow…” Bradley couldn’t help himself. He felt he was looking at a different person. Lindsay was beautiful; her blue Esperian gown shimmered as she walked. Various gems adorned the collar of the gown, giving off the effect that Lindsay was glowing. On her hands, neck and forehead, smaller Esperian gems were in a unique pattern. Her dreadlocks were wavy and cascaded to her hips as a blue wired tiara adorned around her temples.

“She’s gorgeous, daddy!” Kristen gasped out and Malik let out a smile and nod.

“Yeah… she really is…” he agreed. As Areiv and Lindsay passed the rows of humans, Kristen waved at her. Lindsay gave an unnoticeable glance towards the girl and let a smile creep on her lips before it disappeared.

“M’lady cannot regard anyone in attendance during the ceremony; it is tradition.” Noin explained to Kristen who stopped pouting and nodded.

“They… don’t look bad together.” Tim noted. Areiv’s tunic and slacks matched the blue in Lindsay’s gown and the same pattern of gems adorned his forehead.

“What’s the gems for?” David asked Asi.

“It signifies one from the royal court. Because m’lady is soon to be Lady of Esperia, she may don them,” she explained. Areiv and Lindsay reached the altar and the High Priest put his hands down, prompting everyone to sit. He spoke and stepped aside for Emuh. “O-Oh. Is this an earthling ritual?” Asi looked towards her group.

“What? What’s happening?” Steve asked.

“The High Priest has indicated that… while the Royal Magistrate will provide the Baron and m’lady his blessing to unite… m’lady’s father will do the same.”

“Ah. Yeah, it is, actually.” Steve nodded. Emuh cupped his son’s face, giving a peck on each cheek and his forehead; he approached Lindsay and did the same. He gazed towards the row where her family sat as Carl gave Keith a nod with a smile. Lindsay’s eyes widened as she watched Keith get up and approach the two, shaking Areiv’s hand and giving her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“W-Wait… that’s…” Tim’s eyes widened.

“Whoa; what the hell is going on…?” it took Steve all his willpower to whisper. Bradley gave out a sigh.

“Keith is Lizzie’s real dad.” he mumbled loud enough for the row to hear him.

“W-What?!” Yoji caused the others in the cathedral to glance their way.

“Ssh… we-we’ll get an explanation later…” Malik eyed the scene in amusement. The humans became silent as the ceremony resumed. Lindsay and Areiv turned their bodies towards one another but looked at the High Priest. His voice echoed throughout the church as Asi and Noin translated his words. Minutes later, the High Priest stopped his sermon and gazed upon Areiv and Lindsay, who went to their knees and held hands. The High Priest aimed his remarks towards Areiv and the Baron responded.

“The High Priest has asked the Baron if he is willing to unite with m’lady and the Baron answered: ‘with my life span, forever and through eternity’. He will ask m’lady and she shall answer the same.” Noin explained. Just as she stated, the High Priest looked at Lindsay and spoke. She looked at Areiv, drew a deep breath and responded… in his native tongue, causing the entire cathedral to gasp, including the High Priest.

“I am most impressed! When m’lady stated she desired to speak her lines in our Esperian language, I was most concerned. Her pronunciation was immaculate; she practiced her lines nonstop!” Asi marveled. The High Priest gathered his composure and cleared his throat, making the cathedral quiet once more. He smiled at Areiv and Lindsay, who leaned towards one another, allowing their foreheads touch. The High Priest hurriedly spoke towards the crowd.

“The ceremony is almost over; this ritual symbolizes the couple united as one. The two joining as mates are to share one another’s glow. If one does not glow, the union will not take place. The High Priest has, however, emphasized that since m’lady is not an Esperian, she will not glow.” Noin said. As Areiv and Lindsay closed their eyes, an immediate blue light radiated from the Esperian. The light moved across to Lindsay, consuming her for a moment before carrying itself back to Areiv’s body and dissipated. Pleased, the High Priest placed his hands on their shoulders and turned them towards the crowd, speaking with enthusiasm.

“He has remarked that their love is ever binding, and the union of the Baron and Empress is sealed. We must stand and show regard to the mated couple.” Asi said.

“Empress?” Malik asked and Asi nodded.

“He is still Baron, which makes her Empress for now. Not until the coronation will the two become Lady of Esperia and Royal Magistrate.”

Everybody in the cathedral stood when Areiv and Lindsay did, offering a gentle applause and the two smiled at their guests as they walked out. As the guests filed out, Asi and Noin gave the earthlings deep bows once more.

“We thank you for permitting us to interpret the Esperian union ceremony. Everyone will gather in the main tower to offer their blessings to the Baron and Empress and within a short span, the coronation will occur. Per our Empress’s request, it will be performed in your Earth English and therefore, we are no longer required. Good day to you.” Noin said, and she joined Asi as the others made their way to the main tower.

13.2: Coronation

Visitors from all around gathered inside the royal palace, waiting for their turn to give the Baron and Empress of Esperia their blessings. In the main throne room, only two chairs stood to accommodate Areiv and Lindsay. The blessing ritual called for everyone to lay their forehead on the back of the couple’s hands and bless them out loud; the presentation of gifts was optional to those not of the royal court. Because it was the Baron and Empress, everyone arrived from all over the galaxy to offer their blessings.

Areiv and Lindsay sat at their thrones, waiting for Reyarts to announce the start of the blessing ritual. As Emuh stood beside his son, beaming at both, Areiv took her hand and kissed it.

“So… will these be our seats from now on?” Lindsay smiled.

“Afraid not, my love. Your throne as Lady of Esperia will be much nobler than this. But that is not what I wish to speak on at the moment. Oh… my wife, is it?” he asked and Lindsay nodded. “How you amazed me! Why did you not inform me you researched my language?”

“I wanted to surprise you. Let’s just call that my wedding gift to you! I mean, you and the others have gone through so much to learn my language; I figured why couldn’t I put in the effort to do the same? I’m gonna be Lady of Esperia by the end of the night, right? It’s the least I could do. It wasn’t bad, was it?”

“Oh, my dear Lindsay… it was beyond compare.” Areiv beamed as he gave her a kiss.

“I have no doubt you startled everyone in attendance. I was most pleased, your grace…” Emuh bowed towards her and Lindsay blushed as she glared at him. Before she retaliated, Reyarts announced the beginning of the ritual. One by one, guests crossed the few steps towards the thrones and provided the couple their blessings. It surprised Lindsay that many people gave her presents and described the purpose of the items or what they were eaten with; she received a large amount of food items.

Thirty minutes into the ritual, Lindsay lit up as she made out the start of the human beings. It didn’t surprise her that Kristen was first; she giggled as the small girl ran up and embraced her instead of keeping to the ritual. Lindsay's laugh drained out Malik’s warnings as she hugged her back.

“Kiddo!”

“You look so beautiful! I can’t believe I know a real princess!” she gushed and Lindsay laughed harder.

“I’m gonna have a lot of responsibilities soon! And, as much as I miss you, you gotta let everyone else get a chance to talk to us.”

“Oh! Okay… your highness!” Kristen smiled and gave a curtsy, making Areiv chuckle and Lindsay roll her eyes. Malik approached the two and bent towards Lindsay, who yanked her hand away from his grasp.

“W-What the hell… you know I ain’t letting you guys do that! And don’t you start on that ‘your highness’ crap, either!” she pointed a finger at him. He smirked and offered her a hug.

“Fine; can I at least say that you do look beautiful today?”

“I guess…”

“Congratulations, you two.” he gave Areiv a handshake and left with his daughter.

Bradley was the last human in line and he gave Lindsay a warm embrace.

“I’m glad you came.” she said to him and he gave her a funny glance.

“What? Why wouldn’t I be here?” even as the words escaped his lips he knew he had plenty of reasons to not show. But Bradley understood none of them were good enough reasons to skip his friend’s wedding. “We’re friends, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So, as long as you’re happy, I have no problems,” he smiled, and she returned the gesture. Bradley gave her another hug and reached to shake Areiv’s hand, giving him a hard stare. “Her happiness is the priority here.”

“That is without question, Bradley.” Areiv returned the stare.

An hour after the last guest gave their blessing, preparations begun outside the palace for the coronation. The palace was massive but not large enough to accommodate all who traveled to Esperia to witness it. Deemed one of the most important coronations in Esperian history, the royal court preferred the ceremony televised. Emuh and Reyarts made their way onto the temporary platform and everyone bowed deeply.

“Thank you, honored guests for joining myself and the royal court on this day of glorious celebrations. My reign of Royal Magistrate is at its end and I have enjoyed leading our people through the peaceful… and not so peaceful eras of our history. It has been many life spans since the last coronation and I am elated that this one involves my son and his mate.” Emuh announced. Both Esperians moved to the side as Areiv and Lindsay stepped on the podium. While Areiv was shirtless, Lindsay changed altogether, no longer in her royal gown: her top and leggings were of a black spandex material. She also changed her hair; her wavy dreadlocks were up in a bun. The two turned to Emuh as he smiled. “Baron Areiv: I bequeath onto you the title of Royal Magistrate.” he continued and kissed his son on both cheeks. Reyarts removed Emuh’s robe which changed from white to a golden brown. Lindsay stepped aside as the shorter Esperian helped Areiv into the garment and she held her breath.

She was grateful for Reyarts; he took the opportunity, along with Emuh to explain many Esperian traditions to her. It was seldom that a Royal Magistrate ruled but when they did, the robe he wore was the key to how long he would rule. There was no particular time frame but when the robe worn changed from red to white, the current Royal Magistrate had only ten more Earth years under his tenure. If the Lady of Esperia passed and there was a daughter of age, the Royal Magistrate’s robe would not change. Yet, Lady Oerh and Emuh only had Areiv and the Royal Magistrate had to wait for his robe change to pass the title to his son.

Another interesting thing Lindsay found out was how complicated the passing of the robe could get. The robe’s color would determine if the son was able to become the next Royal Magistrate. If the robe turned red, the son became the succeeding Royal Magistrate; if it changed to a brown, a bright yellow or stayed golden brown, he was not worthy to rule. That would complicate matters in their case; it would mean that Lindsay would not become Lady of Esperia and a member of the royal court would have to become the new Royal Magistrate. Emuh and Reyarts assured her that the rare occasions a Royal Magistrate reigned, the robes had always changed to red.

Lindsay attempted to maintain her composure as the instant the robe brushed over Areiv’s skin, it turned to a deep crimson and adapted to his height. Emuh and Reyarts bowed towards Areiv, and Reyarts handed him the Rerecro sword before both walked off the platform. Lindsay recognized her cue and approached Areiv who knelt in front of her.

“Lindsay Rose, we are united as one. As I am now Royal Magistrate, I deliver to you the Rerecro: a symbol of true valor. Please accept this sword and the title of Lady of Esperia.” he declared and held the sword for Lindsay to accept.

Lindsay was further told that she had a choice to accept the title of Lady of Esperia. But, if she did not accept the title, it would void their union. She could accept and later strip Areiv of his title but she questioned why on Earth would anyone do that? She offered him a small bow and took the sword.

“I accept the Rerecro and the title of Lady of Esperia. May we rule in harmony and peace.” she replied. Areiv gave her a smile as he stood and made way for Asi and Noin, who carried many objects. They fixed pieces of metal armor on Lindsay’s body: gauntlets, shin covers and a belt sheath. She placed the Rerecro in the sheath and stood at attention as Noin tied a burgundy cloak around her neck; her heart pounding as she stared at Areiv. It took all her willpower not to giggle or smile; she knew Emuh instructed him not to smile or show any emotion but Areiv was gleaming. Lindsay widened her eyes to warn him and he stopped grinning.

Asi handed Lindsay a metal-plated helmet that reminded her of a medieval knight’s but didn’t cover the face; she tucked it under her left arm as Noin attached a red and blue striped ceramic mask on the right of her belt sheath. The two attendants bowed before leaving the stage which prompted Reyarts to return; he bowed towards Areiv and Lindsay and addressed the crowd.

“Please acknowledge Lady of Esperia Lindsay and Royal Magistrate Areiv,” he announced as the people bowed before applauding loudly. Reyarts looked at Lindsay. “My grace, your first duty as Lady of Esperia is to establish where we shall feast.”

“Wait… what…?” she blinked at the Esperian.

“It is your decision, my love. We can feast inside the palace however there will be no accommodation for all in attendance.” Areiv confirmed, and she bit her lip.

“Would there be enough to feed everyone here?”

“More than enough, your highness. The royal chefs are prepared.”

“Oh… okay. B-But… how do I get their attention…?”

“You merely step forward. Do not over analyze matters, just… be yourself, as you earthlings say.” Areiv smiled, on the verge of laughter. He kissed her hand and gestured towards the front of the platform and Lindsay nodded. It amazed her that the Royal Magistrate was right; she went three steps towards the crowd and they became silent.

“Whoa…” she gasped under her breath but cleared her throat. “To thank everyone for their blessings and attendance, the feast will be held outside for everyone to attend.” Lindsay struggled to cover the shakiness in her voice but found that it didn’t matter; the people cheered at her last word and she grinned at everyone.

13.3: Forgiveness

It didn’t take long to set up outside, as a space was roped off for the royal court, Lady of Esperia and Royal Magistrate. Lindsay ate and gazed in silence as her human friends and family talked and laughed amongst themselves. Areiv noticed and caught her hand.

“I will not become offended if you prefer to feast with them…” he smiled and nodded towards the large table in front of them. “We have an eternity to be together; I surely do not mind a few moments away from you.”

“No… it’s not that.”

“Are you certain?”

“… I don’t know. Areiv, you’re not overwhelmed…?”

“Should I be?”

“Yes! They televised the coronation!”

“My love… why does that amaze you? Did you not expect we had the resources to do so?”

“Well…” she offered him a timid expression and Areiv laughed.

“We have given Earth many of our technologies; why would we not utilize them here?”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. You’re so right; look at your IR,” she sighed and laughed. Lindsay gave him a peck on the lips. “Thanks for letting me invite them.”

“There was no need to exclude them. As they are your family and friends, they are mine.”

“Really? Even Brad?” she wanted to know and Areiv sighed. He glanced towards the humans and watched as Bradley ate; David spoke to him but he halfway paid attention to the other man. Areiv smiled at Lindsay.

“I have no hostilities towards Bradley… although it is not the same for him. It disheartens me that he will carry a resentment for as long as we remain one.”

“If you want me to talk to him, I can. You’re uncomfortable with him here.”

“He does not make me-”

“Don’t sit here and lie; you’re supposed to be the truthful and honest one, here!” she raised her eyebrows at him. Areiv gave out a small laugh and returned the kiss from earlier.

“You are familiar with me greatly, my dear Lindsay. It is only because he does not favor me and he is in love with you.”

“Oh, Brad is not in love with me!”

“If he is not, then why is he so envious of me?”

“It’s because… he just likes me. That’s all. I was the only female human for almost a year. And then we were close partners.”

“Lindsay, he has attempted to suppress his genuine feelings however I sensed it. He has passed from mere fascination. Why else would he continue to threaten me, even on the day of our union ritual?” he gave her a smirk. Lindsay’s face grew hot as she recalled what the man told her husband during the blessing ritual; the procession moved too quick for her to react towards the slight threat Bradley issued.

“I’m so sorry…”

“You are not to blame for his actions, Lindsay. And, I do not fault him for his sentiments for you; it is quite mutual.” he gave her a full smile before giving her a lingering kiss.

“It better be! My offer still stands as far as talking to him.”

“As you understand me, I understand you. It does not matter what I say, you will still speak with him on this subject. And I know you still would rather sit with your family. Go; be with them. I can wait.” he assured her. Lindsay smiled and excused herself from their table. Before she could leave the area, Reyarts, Noin and Asi approached the rope.

“Lady Lindsay, is there something the matter?” Reyarts asked but Lindsay shook her head.

“No. Just going to talk to my family and friends. I can… do that, right?” she noted the looks on the Esperians’ faces. Reyarts bowed but noticed that Asi and Noin were reluctant.

“Asi, Noin; you should bow to your highness! You are aware of this.”

“It’s fine, Reyarts. I told them they didn’t have to. And, you don’t either.”

“I… pardon me, my grace?”

“If you bow down to me one more time, Reyarts, I will… punish you…” she narrowed her eyes at the Esperian. The women widened their eyes at Lindsay as Reyarts darted his down to his feet.

“Y-Y-You would… punish me, your grace…?”

“No, I’m kidding. Just… please, stop bowing to me. I understand why but… just stop doing it… okay? You can bow down to the Royal Magistrate until you’re sore for all I care, if it makes you feel better! So… can I go and visit my friends?”

“Y-You are Lady of Esperia, my grace; you can do as you please.” Asi said and raised the rope for Lindsay to pass. She nodded to the three and suppressed her laughter as they struggled not to bow.

“If there is anything else you require, do not hesitate to inform us, Lady Lindsay.” Noin nodded.

“Thank you.” Lindsay smiled and moved to the table where her family and former team members dined. David and Steve noticed her and bowed.

“Oh, your highness is joining us mere peasants this evening…? We’re very humbled, m’lady…” Steve said, and the table laughed as Lindsay blushed.

“Stop that! Don’t make me use this on you,” she placed her hand on the hilt of the Rerecro but laughed. “Smart asses; was just wondering how you guys liked the food.”

“It’s actually not bad.” Tim admitted.

“Good.”

“Hey, since you’re here, you can clear up a few things for us.”

“I’ll try. I don’t know how long I can stay here; my royal attendants look like they’re ready to put this area on lockdown to keep me from moving!” Lindsay said to Malik but glanced back at the royal section. Emuh stood beside his son, speaking to him while Reyarts and her two attendants lingered by the edge of the rope, watching Lindsay.

“Which is weird; they’re not all over Areiv like that.” Yoji pointed out and Lindsay smiled.

“Oh… that’s because, well… remember when Emuh spoke at the closing ceremonies and we kinda figured out he ruled this galaxy?”

“Yeah…?” William looked at his sister.

“We were half right. It’s not the Royal Magistrate that rules the galaxy… it’s the Lady of Esperia. Only reason why Emuh did was because the former Lady of Esperia died.”

“W-Wait… what?!” Bradley widened his eyes at Lindsay.

“So… wait… you have control over this whole universe?!”

“The details are a little sketchy but basically? Yeah…” Lindsay shrugged at David.

“That’s why you look like you’re going into battle…” Malik looked over her outfit.

“Wow… the greatest author in the world couldn’t write this in existence…” Yoji shook his head.

“I know! It feels weird to me still. No one told me what the title actually meant until I got here. It probably won’t sink in until… I don’t know. Never?”

“So, how did this whole ‘our manager is the artillery specialist’s father’ happen and when were you going to tell us?” Steve asked. Both Keith and Lindsay blushed as they glanced at each other.

“We were… working on that. Don’t take it all out on Lizzie; she just found out herself.”

“… Did you know? When you first saw her; did you know that was your daughter?” Bradley’s voice was barely audible. Keith sighed.

“I… had a clue. Long story short: the last time I saw Lizzie, she was maybe three days old. It was her mannerisms that gave it away somewhat. And… she looks so much like her mother. It was… fate that brought us back together.”

“No. It was Emuh,” Lindsay smiled and glanced back at her table; the Esperian had taken his seat but smiled at her. “He’s the one who handpicked all of us to be a team. He has these… visions. I’m pretty sure he knew before I did who my real father was. Sorry, guys; I have to go. We’ll talk later.”

After the feast, the guests remained for dancing and socializing. Bradley had the need to talk to Lindsay but realized she was under the watchful eyes of her royal attendants and advisor, and her new husband. He wasn’t in the mood to mingle or dance; Bradley took it as a sign to slip away from the festivities.

He had no clue where he was going but admitted the view was spectacular. There were guards at the palace’s entrance that prevented him to go inside but he found his way towards the back of the smallest tower. A raised gazebo caught his attention, and the sight of no guards; he could see that the platform gave a wonderful view of the rest of the lake surrounding the towers. Bradley climbed the steps and was shocked to see someone there, alone.

“… Lizzie.” he tried not to startle her and was glad she turned around and smiled at him. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t. Everyone’s leaving?”

“Nah. Looks like they’re all tipsy off the Esperian wine. Emuh’s offered for us to stay the night in the palace; they’re gonna be partying for a while!”

“Oh. Why aren’t you with them?” she asked, and he shrugged.

“I dunno. Just felt like taking a walk. What about you? Shouldn’t you be entertaining guests or condemning folks to a guillotine or something…?”

“Ha… ha…” Lindsay rolled her eyes as he smirked at her. Bradley joined on her the platform and looked at the lake with her. “I would be having fun if someone would let me!”

“Talking about your entourage? Yeah; we’ve noticed they’re not letting anyone too close to you. Speaking of: how are you here…?”

“I snuck away; lied and said I needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t need them to babysit me through that! I’m shocked the royal army hasn’t been summoned to look for me. I honestly just needed some time to… breathe by myself.”

“That bad?” he waited until Lindsay looked at him and she sighed.

“It’s just… everything’s happened so fast. One minute, I’m in Areiv’s room, accepting his proposal of courtship and then, bam! I’m ruler of a whole fucking galaxy! I… I have an army. I take orders, not give them; how do I lead them…?”

“Okay, I’m gonna stop you before you really start to panic…”

“Do you think I moved on too soon?”

“Ah… well… Lizzie, you know I’m gonna be biased with my answer on that one,” he kept his smile and Lindsay let out a laugh. “But, I’m gonna be a friend here and remind you that it’s a bit too late to back out of it, now. You’re having second thoughts about this?”

“Just on the whole ruling part. It was fine when I thought that it would be Areiv’s job.”

“Well… maybe he knows how nervous this makes you. He’ll help you, Lizzie. I highly doubt they’ll throw you to the wolves like that. And then, you got someone who’s ruled before to help out. What, Emuh has to move out because he’s not Royal Magistrate anymore?”

“… Oh. I forgot about Emuh. No; I think he’s been downgraded to the royal court. I’m not sure. He did say I would make a fine Lady of Esperia. I’m sorry; I think it’s my nerves making me panic like this.”

“That’s a sure bet.” Bradley chuckled and squeezed Lindsay’s shoulder. She let out a heavy sigh and relaxed.

“Brad, for what it’s worth… I’m glad you decided to show up. It would’ve hurt me if you didn’t.”

“I know. I had to stop making it a habit of hurting you…”

“You didn’t hurt me, Brad; you pissed me off.”

“Same difference, right?”

“Why am I surrounded by smart asses?” Lindsay laughed. She looked at him and remembered the conversation she had with Areiv earlier. “I wanna ask you something.”

“Alright.”

“… Could you not hold a grudge against Areiv?”

“Lizzie…”

“I understand you like me and was jealous, but we agreed to continue to be friends. And, Areiv doesn’t have anything against you.”

“Lizzie, this ain’t a movie. I can’t just stop holding a grudge all because you ask me to, friend or not.”

“Wow. So, you lied.”

“I did what…?”

“You lied to me. You told me that as long as I was happy, things were fine. He makes me happy, Brad.” Lindsay pointed out. Bradley removed his hand from her shoulder and sighed.

“I am happy for you, Lizzie, trust me; I am. But that don’t mean I gotta like the guy who makes you happy. Of course, I still want to be your friend but… does that mean I gotta be friends with Areiv, too?”

“It makes him uncomfortable that you’re not.”

“Good; the feeling’s mutual!” Bradley huffed out and Lindsay widened her eyes at him.

“You know, as shitty as you’ve been towards him, Areiv still tries to be civil with you!” she fumed. At first, Bradley was glad Areiv seemed uncomfortable in his presence; it served him right for wooing Lindsay away.

Then, after listening to what she said, he realized it wasn’t anyone else’s fault but his own. He should’ve told her how he felt from the beginning, even when she was married and he was struggling to sort his feelings out for himself. It was possible she would’ve still been on Buno with him. There were so many ways he could’ve went about telling her, subtle or not but Bradley chose to keep his mouth shut. It was the fact Areiv did what he should’ve that made Bradley show disdain towards the Esperian.

When Lindsay stopped looking at him, Bradley sighed.

“Damnit… I’m sorry, Lizzie. I’ll try, okay? I can’t help being jealous.” he tried to negotiate and Lindsay hugged him.

“That’s all I ask for. Well… you apologizing to him for-”

“Not happening, Lizzie!”

“You owe him one for what you said to him today.”

“What? I didn’t say anything bad t-”

“You threatened him to keep me happy!”

“No, I didn’t. I said your happiness was priority. He was the smart ass to me!”

“Okay, Bradley; whatever. He thought it was hostile. Would you apologize? Or at least tell him that you weren’t trying to threaten him?”

“You’re gonna force me…?”

“Heey… I could force you, now…”

“Damnit!”

“But, I won’t! Just guilt trip you into it. Because if you’re my friend and you love me, you’d do it,” Lindsay tried. Her words made Bradley freeze up as his face reddened; he released the hug and looked away from her. Lindsay took notice and her eyes widened. “Wait, what…? Oh, my God…”

“Lindsay…”

“Oh… my, God; he was right.”

“P-Please… stop looking at me like that. It’s hard enough that I think I feel that way about you without you-”

“You… think?”

“Truth is: I don’t know how I feel. I really want to be your friend; it’s how we started, right? And I do want to see you happy. It’s just… I dunno. I have a hard time being nice to a guy who… who has the girl I wanted. And I don’t know if that means that I love you… like that.”

“Are you… in love with me?”

“… Maybe. I dunno. All I know is that I really like you and I should’ve told you a while back but it’s too late, now. And that…”

“Lady Lindsay!” Reyarts’ voice echoed towards the gazebo. Lindsay and Bradley turned to watch the short Esperian move towards them with two guards. Before either could say a word, the guards seized Bradley and yanked him away from Lindsay.

“H-Hey!”

“Wait, what are you do… stop!” Lindsay shocked herself as she raised her voice. The guards stopped in their tracks and stared at Lindsay. She peered at Reyarts, who studied her nervously. “What’s going on?”

“We searched for you throughout the palace and could not find you. Please forgive me, your highness but you cannot wander off without notifying anyone of your whereabouts.”

“And you can’t just have them snatch people up like that. If you two don’t release him at once, I will have both of your asses! And you might not know what that means but let me tell you, it ain’t a good thing!” Lindsay glared at the guards. The two released Bradley and kneeled with their heads down.

“H-He is not permitted here, my grace…” Reyarts tried but glanced down when Lindsay focused her glare on him.

“Then, they’ll escort him back politely; there’s no need to manhandle him!”

“Y-Yes, m’lady. I b-beg your forgiveness h-however… the Royal Magistrate is most distressed of your whereabouts.” he stuttered and Lindsay huffed.

“Lizzie… it’s fine. I’ll go back to the party.” Bradley said and walked off along with the guards.

14.1: A Surprise Development

After the end of the celebrations, members of the royal court led Areiv and Lindsay not to the main tower but the tower to the left. It confused Lindsay, but she said nothing as they climbed a set of stairs which led to a double-door room. As the doors opened, she saw that there was a large bed in the center of the room surrounded by lit candles which emitted smoke of varied colors. Stepping inside made Lindsay lightheaded, and she grasped onto Areiv’s arm. He glanced at her in slight alarm.

“Are you okay?”

“I… what is this room?”

“This is the room where the mating ritual occurs for those of the royal court. Is the aroma too great for you?”

“A bit. Um, Areiv-”

“Extinguish the candles and open the window. It seems that Lady Lindsay is overwhelmed.”

“Yes, your majesty.” Reyarts nodded and went on as instructed. Lindsay switched glances from her new advisor to the other members.

“Areiv… you mean to tell me that there’s been others in this bed?”

“Do not worry; the area is cleansed before and after each ritual.”

“Still a little creepy. But, um… they’re gonna leave… right?”

“This area, of course. However, they must remain to escort us ba-”

“They can’t.” her eyes widened and Areiv gave her a strange glance before realizing what she meant. He turned to the other Esperians before they departed.

“I must request that there will be no need for the royal court to accompany myself and Lady Lindsay back to our quarters.” he surprised the others; they looked at one another before returning their gazes to the Royal Magistrate.

“We mean no discourtesy, your highness. However, the Royal Magistrate must acknowledge it is tradition for-”

“I am well aware of the traditions; however Lady Lindsay has reminded me of the consequences of mating with a human being.”

“Oh… they don’t know…?” Lindsay looked at her husband but the members bowed towards the two.

“Forgive us, my grace. It appears that we forgot about that… detail of the mating ritual between a human and an Esperian. We shall take our leave.” the royal court members bowed once more as they left the room.

“Reyarts…” Lindsay stopped the shorter Esperian, and he turned to her. “Could you send for Emuh and make sure to let him know that we’re about to perform the mating ritual?” she asked. As expected, her request confused the advisor, but he nodded.

“Yes, m’lady.”

“Oh, and Reyarts…” Lindsay approached him before he left. “I’m so sorry for how I reacted earlier. I wasn’t really upset with you; just with the way the guards handled Brad. I shouldn’t have put my anger out on you, though,” she apologized. The Esperian widened his eyes at her words and opened his mouth but nothing came out. It surprised Lindsay to see his eyes moisten but before she could say anything, Reyarts fell to his knees and placed his head on her feet. “Oh, my God; what is he doing?!” she turned to Areiv as the small Esperian wept.

“You did not need to apologize for whatever way you reacted towards him, Lindsay. No Lady of Esperia has ever done so.”

“W-What? That’s horrible! Reyarts, please; stop crying and get up…”

“I am not deserving of an apology, m’lady.”

“Yes, you are! And I promise, I’ll never yell at you for no reason, again. Just, please; get up!” she was glad he stood but huffed when he looked down. “I don’t know how the last Lady of Esperia ran things or treated people but trust me; you’re dealing with a different one this go ‘round! You’re not a child, Reyarts… wait; are you a child…?”

“N-No, my grace. I am older than the Royal Magistrate.”

“Okay. So, I won’t treat you like one; I promise. Now, could you bring Emuh here?” she gave him a smile. Reyarts returned the gesture and nodded.

“Of course, your highness.” he left and closed the door. Lindsay sighed as Areiv hugged her.

“You will become accustomed with your responsibilities soon enough, my dear Lindsay.”

“You make this look so easy…”

“I was groomed for this. Your apology to Reyarts; is that related to why Bradley apologized to me?”

“He did what…?” Lindsay gazed up at Areiv and the Esperian gave her a light smile.

“Before you returned to the festivities, he approached me and apologized for his behavior. It was… surprising, yes but highly appreciative.” Areiv explained. Lindsay smiled and nodded.

“And, you didn’t want me to talk to him about it! So, on to this…” she waved her hand over the room. “You’re not gonna get into trouble for, uh, breaking tradition, are you?”

“Of course not. They may carry a peculiar impression of me however I am not distressed over that matter. If you have not observed, you can affect even their opinions, now. We serve you… m’lady.” he said with a sly smirk and she rolled her eyes. Her eyes widened when he grabbed her hand and went down to a knee, kissing it gently.

“I’m so gonna ban this bowing crap…” she laughed along with Areiv and he drew her near him.

“We should begin the mating ritual although… I am in no haste to… oh…” Areiv concentrated on her stomach and Lindsay gave him a curious glance.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“My dear Lindsay; why did you not inform me?”

“Inform you of-”

“You are with child!” he gaped at her in excitement but Lindsay gawked.

“I-I-I’m with who what?!”

“You… did not know…? Can you not sense the child inside of you?”

“W-Wait… slow down. I… I can’t get pregnant; have kids.” she corrected herself when he tilted his head to the side at her.

“I am most positive you are carrying, Lindsay. I can sense him… or her; I do not know the gender. Ah… my senses are finer than your own; you would not feel the child at this stage, I am assuming.”

“… N-No. Oh, my God; can this day get any more overwhelming?!”

“Oh. You are not pleased by this.”

“It’s not that. It’s just,” she sighed but guided him to the bed where they both sat. “Me and Trace had been married for ten years, dating for two. And all that time, it never happened. I never got a positive test or anything. There’s, um, ways to prevent pregnancy on Earth. Pills, condoms, shots; we did none of that. After all that time, I just assumed that… I couldn’t. And now, you’re telling me you did something in a few months that’s never happened in ten plus years with someone else?”

“I see. I understand your reaction, now. I do not have an explanation as to how it occurred. Perhaps it is because I am alien? Whatever the case may be, I am beyond elated you are with child.”

“I’m excited, Areiv. It’s just… everything will hit me soon… probably like a ton of bricks… dropped from five hundred feet…” she laughed and Areiv wrapped her in a tender hug.

“Oh, you and your Earth terms. Am I to understand that there will be no mating ritual performed tonight?”

“Is that all you can think about? Oh; no, I was kidding: don’t frown!” she saw the expression he gave her. Lindsay sighed and laughed as she placed her arms around his neck. “It’s tradition, right? Who am I to break that?” she was glad Areiv gave her a smile as he leaned in for a passionate kiss.

 

It bothered Lindsay it was her royal attendants who woke her up and not her new husband; he wasn’t in bed as she rubbed her eyes. By the time she dressed for breakfast, Lindsay decided to take Areiv’s absence to her advantage; she needed to speak to his father.

She shooed Noin and Asi away as she made her way down the steps; Lindsay held in her sigh as Reyarts approached her. He offered her a smile and nod.

“You are finally awake, my grace.”

“Sorry. Was I supposed to be up earlier?”

“Only if it was your desire. The Royal Magistrate is in council with the court; it was his order to let you rest. Shall I retrieve him for you?”

“Oh… no. That’s fine; he’s not needed for a while.” Lindsay smiled at him. She struggled to figure out a reason for Reyarts to leave her until Emuh appeared. Lindsay gave him a smile as Reyarts bowed.

“Reyarts, Lady Lindsay. I assume that you rested soundly?”

“I did… okay, what do I call you, now that you’re not the Royal Magistrate anymore?”

“You can address me the same as you did when I was Royal Magistrate. Others will greet me as Sir Emuh; there is no need for you to do so. You outrank me now, Lady Lindsay.”

“Is it safe to say I outrank everyone in this galaxy, now…?” she smirked and was glad Emuh chuckled. “Well, if I can’t call you ‘Sir Emuh’, then no more of that ‘Lady Lindsay’ crap around me! Emuh, can I talk to you?”

“Of course.”

“Alone…?” she glanced over at Reyarts who remained by the two. Emuh nodded and gave the shorter Esperian a smile.

“Reyarts, please inform the Royal Magistrate that Lady Lindsay is up and about,” Emuh requested and Reyarts complied, leaving the two alone as he went down the hallway. “I sense we need to walk… and that whatever you wish to speak with me on is too important to mention in the presence of Reyarts. Is this concerning why I was summoned to the mating ritual chambers?”

“Kinda. Areiv told me that I was pregnant, already.” she attempted to explain as the two walked. Emuh stopped in his tracks and gave her a curious look.

“I am afraid I am not familiar with that term.”

“… I’m with child.”

“Ah… I see.”

“Not to say that Areiv’s wrong but… I would really like to get more proof. I wanna get checked out by a royal medic… if there is one.”

“There are several royal medics. However… it would be wise to seek advice from the common medics, instead.”

“Oh? Why? Wouldn’t they run their mouth about me being pregnant so soon?”

“You can prevent that. With the royal medics, news would advance faster amongst the court and they would chastise my son, regardless if you condemn them for it. However, outside the royal palace, the residents will be fearful of more… severe punishment if they were to spread that bit of knowledge.”

“I… I would never do something like that.”

“And I am elated that you feel that way. The common Esperians are more prone to the fear of displeasing you and acknowledge any and all the consequences of doing so. Which is why we shall go into town rather than here. I will escort you into town.”

Emuh and Lindsay took the royal carriage into town, choosing to walk the rest of the way to one of the common medical clinics nearby. The building reminded Lindsay of a modern clinic found on Earth as they entered. As soon as she stepped foot into the waiting room, everyone stopped what they were doing and bowed. An Esperian nurse approached the two with a light smile.

“Lady Lindsay, Sir Emuh. It is a pleasure to have you in our presence. All is well in the palace?”

“Yes. However, we request your aid in this special circumstance.” Emuh announced. The nurse was as tall as he was but she kept her eyes on Lindsay.

“Of course. If you will,” she nodded and walked towards a door to the left. The two followed her and walked into an empty examination room, Emuh closing the door behind him. “How can I assist m’lady?”

“Lady Lindsay believes she is with child and requires further confirmation.”

“O-Oh,” the nurse gave her a surprised look but darted her eyes to her feet as she blushed. “A blessing, your majesty. I am confident that the Royal Magistrate is most elated.”

“Can we trust that this doesn’t leave this room?” Lindsay raised an eyebrow at the Esperian who gasped but bowed.

“A-A-As you wish, your highness. I will see to the exam, personally.”

Thirty minutes later, Emuh and Lindsay walked inside the palace and was approached by a flustered Reyarts. Areiv tried to soothe the Esperian down but his mouth set in a tight line as he stared at Lindsay.

“Lady Lindsay, we have been most concerned over your absence!”

“Come now, Reyarts. Lady Lindsay was in my presence the entire-”

“Forgive me, Sir Emuh however, m’lady was told on not revealing her whereabouts. She is Lady of Esperia and cannot-”

“Are you insinuating that she is not safe with me? I am her royal deputy, now.” Emuh returned the stare and Reyarts gaped before lowering his head.

“It is perfectly fine, Reyarts,” Areiv gave a light smile at the scene as he rested a hand on Reyarts’s shoulder. “Make certain that the table is arranged for breakfast; I am confident Lady Lindsay must be famished.”

“Y-Yes, your highness.” he bowed and left. Areiv chuckled as he drew his wife in for a kiss.

“If you desired a tour of Esperia before breakfast, you should have informed me, my dear Lindsay. While I do not mind my father taking you on one… I would prefer it be myself.”

“I’m sorry; we didn’t mean to make you guys worry.”

“My father accompanied you; I was not troubled in the least. Reyarts is not accustomed to your ways, yet. Now… where did you two venture off to?” he asked with a smile. Lindsay smiled and returned his kiss.

“Not that I didn’t believe you, fully but… I needed to make sure. Emuh took me to the medical clinic in town and you were right.”

“Most wonderful news, my son! This is a call for a feast.”

“Father…” Areiv warned as he grabbed Lindsay’s hand; the three walked towards the hallway leading to the dining area.

“Ah… you are right; it is not my duty to order a feast anymore.”

“I think we should wait, anyway. Everyone’s still tuckered out from the one a few hours ago!”

“Yes. I am curious as to why your friends did not stay in the palace…” Areiv wondered but Lindsay shrugged.

“I dunno. Would’ve been nice for them to stay a bit. But, yeah; let’s hold off on the feast until later. I don’t think the others will take the news of this well… at least not right now.”

“You are correct, Lindsay. Now; shall we enjoy breakfast?” Emuh smiled as the three made their way down the hall.

14.2: The Esperian Child

Lady Lindsay believed she had enough time to tell everyone else of her pregnancy. But, three months passed, and she showed quicker than she expected. She could hide it no longer and cringed when Sir Emuh made the announcement of the bundle of joy. Lindsay had to inform the Earth team.

She was on a call with her father, who smiled.

“So, how’s training?”

“Tiresome. Praying for a break soon.”

“Yeah? Something special coming up?”

“Funny you ask that,” Lindsay smirked and lifted from her seat. She didn’t need to look to know Keith gawked at the sight of her pregnant belly, something that even took her by surprise. Lindsay sat and grinned, tears threatening to fall from her eyes. “Dad, don’t cry…” she tried but her words alone made him cry more; even after accepting that he was her real father, it was the first time she called him “dad”. Keith wiped at his tears with a grin on his face.

“Wait… you’re pretty far along.” He realized and Lindsay smirked.

“So, this kid is growing faster than it’s supposed to! The docs here say that everything is fine though. As long as they’re not worried…” she shrugged.

“I’m really happy for you. Am I the only one who knows?”

“Well… family-wise, yeah. Everyone else will find out at the feast…”

“Another one?” Keith raised his eyebrows and laughed as Lindsay sighed and rolled her eyes.

“They love to celebrate every little thing here! Not that this is little; this is huge.”

“When is it?”

“… In three days.”

“It’s good to know you gave us plenty of time to prepare,” he winked at his daughter who laughed. “I won’t tell them why we’re going, just that we have to. M’lady’s orders.”

“God, not you too!”

 

She sighed heavily as she sat at her throne; Lindsay was about to get up until Areiv entered the room carrying a plate full of food. He sat next to her and prepared to feed her.

“You don’t have to do this, you know?”

“I insist. You are with child, my love.”

“I’m pregnant, not handicapped!”

“You had such a time getting out of our bed. You declined me carrying you down the stairs as well as having breakfast brought in our sleeping quarters.”

“Don’t make me order you around.” Lindsay narrowed her eyes as Areiv laughed.

“I am merely looking after the well-being of my mate… my wife and child. That order will be denied.” He smiled at her. Lindsay let out another sigh as her husband fed her. Their breakfast was cut short as an Esperian guard entered the room. Instead of bowing, the tall, aqua blue female made a brief salute, placing a fist over her heart.

“Pardon the interruption, your highness. There is an unknown Bunodic vessel seeking to dock.” Oday, Lindsay’s sergeant-at-arms said. The Esperian was as towering as the former Royal Magistrate and was the sergeant-at-arms since Lady Oerh’s reign.

Lindsay perked up and nodded.

“It’s my family, Lt. Oday. I invited them for the feast. Give permission to dock and escort them personally.” Lindsay ordered.

“As you desire, Lady Lindsay.” Oday saluted once more and left. Within thirty minutes, the earthlings were brought into the throne room. Oday bowed and took off as Areiv stood, smiling at the group.

“Lindsay did not mention you would attend the feast. This is an unexpected surprise. I am certain you have not eaten? Let us take care of that.” He nodded towards the group and the others agreed.

“Um, a little help…” Lindsay grunted as she struggled to get up from the throne. Areiv turned to her with a bright smile.

“I apologize, my love. We can dine in here if-”

“Nope! We’re going to the dining facility. Just help me up.” She said as Areiv helped her stand. The others couldn’t help but to gape as Lindsay’s pregnancy was unmistakable.

“Um, wait, what?” David stared at her pregnant belly. Lindsay approached them with a huge smile.

“Wow… Lizzie. You, uh, you look very-”

“Pregnant. She looks very fucking pregnant!” Steve finished for Malik. Areiv gave his wife a glance.

“You did not inform them?”

“I… told dad.”

“Surprise?” Keith looked at the earthlings as all eyes were on him.

“So, that’s what the feast is really for!” William smirked and Lindsay nodded.

“So, is no one gonna ask if Lizzie’s having the kid tomorrow or-” Steve pointed to her stomach and she laughed.

“Esperian women carry the same amount of time as Earth women. I suspect it is because a human and Esperian mated that Lindsay appears to be deep in her… brident…?” Areiv gave Lindsay a face as she suppressed a giggle.

“Do we have to wash your mouth out with soap…?” Valerie asked, her own laughter finally bursting out.

“While that does not sound pleasant, I am unable to think of the Earth term for carrying a child.”

“Pregnancy.” Lindsay corrected and Areiv nodded towards her.

“I see. Shall we make our way to the dining facility, now?” he asked and tenderly guided Lindsay, much to her dismay.

The group sat in the large hall as they dined and chatted amongst each other. Lindsay was glad the talks of her pregnancy ceased but liked when her teammates and family caressed her belly.

“I just thought of something. Now, you’re definitely not going to be our artillery specialist for the next season.” Yoji pointed out. Lindsay finished the bite in her mouth as she nodded.

“Yeah, that’s out the question, now.”

“Keith, do we even need an artillery specialist? I mean, can we race without one?” Tim asked.

“There’s nothing that says we can’t but everyone’s IR is equipped with ammo to fight off the others. Bradley would have to do more work.” Keith admitted. Bradley pushed food around in his plate, thinking of the situation. He’d become comfortable knowing Lindsay was in the gunner’s pit, doing her part. It made his job easier, he admitted.

A notion occurred to him and he looked at Steve.

“Hey, Steve. You can shoot, right?”

“What? Just because I was a Marine, you immediately think I know how to fire a weapon?” his eyes widened.

“Oh… I… well, yeah, I kinda assumed…”

“Okay, you’re right but that’s beside the point! No way I’m climbing in the Stallion! You can cancel Christmas on that!”

“Hmm. No one else has military experience.” David sighed.

“Wait. Dad does,” Lindsay looked at Keith who reddened. “In fact… me and him had the same MOS. He’d be a perfect replacement!”

“Oh, Lizzie, it’s been years since I fired anything. Emuh chose me to be manager.”

“The assessment. The rest of us had to test for all the positions available. Who had the second highest score after Lindsay?” Malik asked and Keith smirked.

“Steve.” He confirmed and Steve shook his head.

“Yeah, no. I belong on the ground where it’s safe.”

“You saying I can’t pilot the Stallion?” Bradley gave him a playful smirk.

“Being shot at while racing isn’t my idea of fun, thank you.” He narrowed his eyes at Bradley as he laughed.

“It’s no use to have any of you substitute for Lizzie. We’d be short a man, either way.” Keith realized, and the others nodded.

“Tryouts,” Carl spoke up, and the others stared at him. “Why not have tryouts? Of all the earthlings that are here now, one of them has to have the skill to be in that gunner’s pit.” He continued.

“Hey… he’s right. And then, imagine how many people would show up. Besides Steve, who wouldn’t want to say they’re the backup gunner for the Lady of Esperia?” William asked. Keith considered his words before nodding.

“That’s not a bad idea, actually. We’ll have to make the announcement as soon as we get back to Buno. That’ll give us enough time to filter through whoever wants to tryout and have them practice before the season starts.”

“You don’t have to wait. I can take care of that. Reyarts?” Lindsay looked at the other side of the facility where her advisor stood and he approached her.

“Yes, your highness?”

“See that the word gets out that the Earth team is looking for a replacement artillery specialist. I don’t think there’s earthlings on other planets but… better safe than sorry.”

“As you request, your highness. Any specifics?”

“Would a week be too soon to hold the tryouts?” she asked Keith, and he shook his head. “Let it be known that tryouts will be in a week. And make arrangements for anyone who can’t make it to the Earth bay or Buno on their own.”

“Of course, your highness.” Reyarts nodded and left the room.

“… You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” Bradley smirked at Lindsay as she shrugged and took a bite of food.

“Part of me did, yeah.”

 

The months passed as Lindsay prepared for the birth of her child. Because she was Lady of Esperia, she was still responsible for training until she physically could not do so. As the days winded down, she found herself often in the strategy room in exchange for her physical training. Although there were no conflicts since the death of Lady Oerh, Lady Lindsay still required the judgment to know what to do in those situations. Pregnant or not, she was commander of the Esperian army.

She was glad that Emuh sat in many of the lessons provided to her if not being the one advising her. It stopped Lindsay from dozing off during the many exhausting things she faced as ruler. The strategy sessions were the ones she didn’t particularly liked and being pregnant hurt in the energy department. As usual, she sat adjacent to her husband as Emuh presented another sample plot on the large touch screen in the room. Areiv often noticed that she nodded off and tried his best to wake her in subtle ways: grabbing her hand, rubbing her back or even, his favorite, caressing her pregnant belly.

Lindsay noted that he didn’t have to do anything as she felt a sudden movement from her stomach. She stopped breathing for a moment so she could sense the movement. The next one hit as a sharp twinge and she grimaced.

“My love? Are you well?” Areiv took notice as she put her hands on her stomach. Emuh stopped his lecture and stared at the two.

“I don’t know what I did, but this baby is moving something fierce!” she winced as another spasm occurred. Emuh gasped and approached the two.

“Oh. Lindsay, I do trust you are ready to birth the child.” His words made Areiv’s eyes widen. Lindsay opened her mouth to argue that it wasn’t the case until she realized a few things. Areiv was right when he stated Esperians and humans carry for the same amount of time: she was near forty weeks. The other thing: it was the first time she felt the baby move. While she chose not to find out the sex of the baby, it worried her that the child hadn’t moved. Yet, the medics told her it was typical for an Esperian pregnancy.

She had no time to respond as the two Esperians helped her out the chair.

“Wait, wait, wait…” she breathed and realized that the pain was gone. She gave out a long sigh and smiled. “Okay. The pain’s gone. Yeah, I think… I think it’s just a false alar-ahh!” Lindsay doubled over as a deep and stinging pain coursed throughout her entire body. Areiv caught her before she collapsed to the floor and glanced at his father who gave out a light smile.

“Reyarts…”

“Yes, Sir Emuh?”

“It appears Lady Lindsay is ready to give birth. Contact the royal medics. Let us take her to the birthing room.” He nodded at his son.

“O-Oh, right away!” the short Esperian rushed out the room as Areiv lifted Lindsay to carry her. By the time they reached the end of the corridor, the royal medics waited for her. Areiv put Lindsay on her feet and stared as two Esperian nurses guided her inside the room. Lindsay was in so much pain, sweat beaded on her forehead and she drew deep, steady breaths. Areiv was left staring at the closed door and remained for a moment until Emuh put a hand on his shoulder.

“Let us sit. There is no telling how long this will be,” He told his son as the two sat in two chairs across from the door. He watched as Areiv stared into space. “You have not said a word. You are nervous.”

“Father, please. I am Royal Magistrate, now.”

“That is correct, my son. And as much grooming as you have obtained throughout your life span for the title, you were not groomed to handle fatherhood. At least not in the way you will experience it now.”

“I do not understand.”

“Your facade is admirable. It has crossed your mind how this half-Esperian child will carry itself, and how you will react to it.”

“Father… Lindsay may choose to treat the child as the common Esperians treat their young. Why would she require such a thing?”

“It is how the earthlings raise their young. Both are engaged.”

“I am… terrified of that.”

“It is quite natural and I am certain Lindsay will help you conquer that worry. This may be her first child as well however I sense that her maternal instincts will prevail. Whatever may be, I am here for you.” Emuh laid a gentle hand on Areiv’s shoulder. He thought of his father’s words and nodded.

The room resembled one found in the clinics out in town, Lindsay noticed as the nurses carefully laid her on the lone cot. The medics busied themselves as they placed monitoring devices on her and images of her vitals and the baby appeared in mid-air. No matter how many times she went for her checkups, it still amazed Lindsay at the technology the Esperians had. Her thoughts turned elsewhere as she noticed that someone was missing.

“W-Wait,” she sighed out, trying her best to breathe through the pain. “My husband.”

“Pardon, your highness?”

“The… Royal M-Magistrate. W-Where is he?”

“The Royal Magistrate may not see-”

“W-What? N-No. He can’t… miss this…”

“We… we are sorry, m’lady however it goes against tra-”

“Look, I’m Lady of Esperia and if you don’t bring the Royal Magistrate in here, there will be so much hell to pay! Now!” she barked, and the medics jumped at her words. Two exited the room and bowed to Areiv and Emuh, who both stood.

“Lady Lindsay is making quite a commotion. Is all well?” Emuh spoke.

“M’lady has demanded the Royal Magistrate.”

“But… I am not allowed…” Areiv glanced from the medics to his father.

“We do not understand her Earth terms h-however we expect it will not turn well if you are not escorted inside, your highness.”

“Areiv!” Lindsay yelled and his eyes widened.

“Oh… my…” he rushed inside and took her hand. “I am here, my love. You are in discomfort. Would you prefer for me to-”

“Yes. Please!”

“As you please,” He set his hand on her belly and started his chant. Within moments of the glow fading from his hand, Lindsay sighed in relief. “The Royal Magistrate is not allowed in the birthing room however… with the torment you are creating, I feel compelled to remain by your side.” Areiv smirked and gave her a loving peck on her forehead.

“Smart man…”

 

Lindsay only received minor discomfort as she gave birth to their child, the procedure taking a little over an hour. The aftercare was like Earth’s as the medics cleaned the baby and checked its vitals. She could tell they were overexcited as they neglected the rule Emuh put into effect and spoke in Esperian amongst one another. She looked at Areiv wearily, whose attention spread over the room where they still monitored the infant’s vitals.

“What are they saying?” she asked, and he gave her an apologetic expression.

“They are merely remarking on the child. Nothing is amiss. This is the first time in our history that a half Esperian, half human has been birthed.”

“When can we see the baby? What did I have?” Lindsay’s attention went over to the medics, especially as her child cried.

“I… do not know. If you are finished, Lady Lindsay will prefer to hold the child.”

“O-Oh… yes, your highness. Please, forgive us for speaking in our native tongue.” A medic turned and bowed. Moments later, he wrapped the infant in a small blanket and walked over to the new parents. Lindsay’s eyes watered as she noted the baby’s steel blue complexion even before they placed the child in her arms. She gasped as her tears spilled, grinning widely as the baby quieted.

“I-Is it a boy or girl…?”

“It is a boy, my grace. He is remarkable indeed.” The medic smiled. Lindsay ran a finger across the infant’s cheek, delighted at the softness.

“He… he looks just like you…”

“So he does. Does that upset you?”

“What? Hell, no. It’s what I wanted! Oh… these are happy tears.” she sniffed and snuggled her son.

“I see. You desired our child to resemble… me?”

“Of course! Areiv… what should we name him?”

“We do not consider names until the christening ceremony. Unless you are breaking yet another Esperian tradition.” Areiv smirked at Lindsay who blushed and laughed.

“I don’t mean to-”

“It is perfectly fine. The Lady of Esperia may do whatever she pleases. If that means naming the child before the ceremony, then by all means… let us name our son.” He smiled and looked down at the infant. Lindsay reflected for a moment before glancing at her husband.

“You know… I’m trying to learn more and more Esperian words.”

“And I am appreciative of whatever you have studied so far.”

“I don’t know a lot of words. So, what’s the word for… miracle?”

“Miracle?”

“Yeah. After all this time, I knew for sure that I would never get pregnant, let alone have a child. I thought that my body was… flawed. On Earth, some people feel that’s what you’re supposed to do: get married, have kids. But if a woman can’t, she sometimes doesn’t feel… adequate, you know? That’s how I felt until now. So, he’s my miracle child.” Tears formed in her eyes once more as she studied the quiet infant.

“Alyor.”

“What?”

“The Esperian term for miracle is… alyor.”

“Alyor,” She let the word roll off her tongue and looked at her son. “His name is Alyor.”

“Then so be it. Baron Alyor.” Areiv reached out to caress Alyor’s cheek and gave the two a broad smile.

 

The End