Encounters

BY : Jarkota
Category: +S through Z > Star Wars Rebels
Dragon prints: 2063
Disclaimer: I do not own Star Wars, nor any of the characters or settings therein. This is written purely for entertainment. I make no money from this whatsoever.

 

 

 

 

 

Star Wars: Rebels

Encounters

 

Chapter One:
The Child

by

Jarkota

 

Author's Note:

Once again I find myself apologizing for a delay. Aside personal life issues such as deaths in the family, finding enough time to work on this and restarting it several times due to not being sure of the direction I was taking the story, I'd also pretty much fallen out of love with most things Star Wars these days. What I saw of the second half of Rebels was just disappointing and I couldn't even finish it, plus the absolute trash fires that were The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker very much soured me on the franchise. But as I have done in the past, I found myself picking up the old pre-Disney Expanded Universe novels and finding a glimmer of what I used to love so much about the series, which led to ultimately deciding to go on with this in the direction I had originally planned. So, here is the first (and undoubtedly longest) chapter of this new series, which sets up a lot of what I intend for the eventual finale. I hope you enjoy this and that it was worth the wait.

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A few hours after Ezra's departure in the YT-1930-class light freighter Defiant, Kanan and Hera nearly had the Ghost ready for its own launch. Ahsoka had retreated to Kanan's cabin – no longer occupied since he now shared Hera's – and had been quiet since returning from her 'conversation' with the Defiant crew. Zeb and Chopper were making final preparations in the Phantom shuttle and cargo bay, respectively, ensuring that everything was secured and ready for liftoff. The hulking Lasat hadn't said a word since Shaak Ti's revelation that Anakin Skywalker, legendary hero of the Jedi Order and presumed killed by Darth Vader, had instead become Vader and betrayed the Jedi to his new master.

Between that, Hera thought to herself as she scrolled through the list of supplies to ensure they had enough to reach their destination, Maketh's vision, those ruins and Shaak Ti using Maris the way she did, it's no wonder they left. Doesn't make it any easier. Especially since we don't even know where they're going.

“I don't need the Force to know what you're thinking, Hera.” Kanan said placing an arm around her shoulder. “I've known you too long.”

“Ezra could have at least given us a copy of that map they found,” she admitted. “I don't like those four being all on their own. They're all undisciplined on the best of days and three of them are Jedi who haven't finished their training. What if something goes wrong?”

“Then we'll have to trust that they're smart enough to fix it. I'm not going to lie and say that this is for the best, but maybe it's not the worst thing that could happen.”

“I hope you're right. I just...” she trailed off as Shaak Ti walked up the entry ramp, placed her meager belongings – minus her lightsaber, which remained on Kanan's belt – in the empty berth that used to be Sabine's room and shut the door. “I have a bad feeling about the whole thing. And about having her aboard.”

Kanan sighed. “I'll agree to that one. She may be one of the old Masters, but her behavior hasn't been consistent with the Jedi Code. She lied to all of us, manipulated the kids to hide the truth about Vader from them and could very well have gotten them all killed.”

“That begs the question of why you didn't tell them about Vader, love.”

Kanan sighed. “As much as I want to, it's not my place. He was Ahsoka's Master and if she wants the truth to be known, it's hers to tell. Maybe that's why she wanted to talk to them before they left.”

Hera let out a huff. “You heard Sabine's scream just like the rest of us. There wasn't a lot of 'talking' going on.”

“We don't know for sure what happened. But Ahsoka was very emotional when she went in there.” Kanan said with a sigh, “And that worries me. I figured Sabine and Ezra would find their way together almost from day one, so that doesn't worry me. But then Maketh ended up being involved and if Ahsoka did what you think she did that would just complicate things. And then Maris...”

He turned to stare out the cockpit window. “We know she has, or at least had, feelings for Shaak Ti. And believe me when I say repressed urges usually come out when you least want them. If Ezra thinks that 'including' her in their little group will help her, I just hope he's not wrong. It could backfire in ways none of us could predict.”

Hera snuggled into him. “We'll just have to hope that we taught them well enough and that they're making the right decisions. As much as I didn't like her at first, Maketh has been a positive influence on them both and I think her maturity will be an asset to them.”

At that moment, Zeb walked into the cockpit. “I think they'll be alright. They might stumble here and there, but they're good kids and they'll do us all proud. Anyway, everything's all set and we can take off any time you want.”

“Thanks, Zeb,” Kanan replied. “Go on and get some sleep. This has been a rough day for all of us. Tell Chopper he can shut down and recharge. We've got enough of an energy surplus to manage until we get where we're going.”

As the Lasat walked away, Hera asked “Just where are we going, anyway? You never bothered to tell me.”

“Because I didn't know, either. Ahsoka just told me.”

“Some kind of Jedi mind-link thing?”

“Not really. It's less of hearing thoughts and more of picking up feelings. But it's enough that I know where she wants us to go.” He flipped the switches to retract the ramp, engage the liftoff thrusters and retract landing gear.

When they were free of Dantooine's atmosphere, Kanan brought the hyperdrive online and punched their course in. Just before the ship entered hyperspace, he turned to his lover and said, “We're going to Alderaan.”

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The Defiant exited hyperspace with a shuddering jolt, waking the crew from their slumber by unceremoniously dumping them out of their bunks. Ezra and Sabine stumbled out of the captain's cabin, he in workout shorts and her customarily nude save for the collar Ezra had given her at their wedding. They ran around the corner to the cockpit where Maketh was already sliding into the co-pilot's seat, her hastily-thrown-on robe open and doing little to conceal her body.

“What's going on?” Ezra asked, barely catching himself as the ship experienced a sudden loss of acceleration.

“Apparently there was a problem in the fuel regulator that we missed,” the older woman said, scrolling through readouts on her console screen. “It's been dumping too much fuel into the hyperdrive ever since we left Dantooine.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means the fuel equations were off and the course I set wasn't the course we ended up on. I had intended for us to go to Sernpidal to resupply – minimal spaceports, but no Imperial presence – but according to the charts we've gone way past that. “ The blonde turned to look at her young lovers. “We're in the Tingel Arm, at the edge of the galaxy.”

“And we're out of fuel,” Sabine noted grimly.

“Not entirely, but close,” Maketh pointed. “Low fuel is why we dropped out of hyperspace – and the reason for the alarms – but we've got enough to work with for now.”

“How far back to Sernpidal?” Ezra asked as Maris entered the cockpit. Her forehead sported a bleeding gash, likely having struck something when she fell.

“Too far. But I am detecting a stellar system not too far from here. Main sequence Type-K orange dwarf star. Long-range sensors show six planetoids. Three gas giants, one that is essentially a big ball of iron – probably the leftover core of another planet - and one too close to the star. But the fifth planet is habitable, at least as far as I can tell at this range. At maximum sublight it will take us approximately....four standard days to get there. We've got enough rhydonium in the tanks to get us up to speed so we can coast the rest of the way on inertia, but there won't be anything to get us back. The alternative is set course back for where we came until we run out, then drift for however long it takes for someone to find us....or we die.”

“But we've got plenty of hypermatter,” Maris said, pointing at one of the cockpit screens. “Shouldn't that be enough?”

Maketh shook her head. “Not without something like rhydonium to act as a catalyst for the reaction in the hypermatter annihilator.”

Ezra nodded in agreement. “Heading to this system is our only hope. We might be able to find something we can adapt into a compatible fuel that can get us back on course.” He pulled up a screen showing various chemical formulas and models of molecular structures. “Lucky for us these engines will fly on pretty much anything that will burn.” He then slid into the pilot's chair and started adjusting their heading. “Beats waiting around to die. Worst-case scenario, we land on that fifth planet and cool our heels until we find a solution.”

Maris raised a skeptical eyebrow. “And what if someone's already living there?”

“Not detecting any signs of artificial satellites or any kind of space travel. Odds are there's no sentient life. We should be able to hide there for a while.”

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Four days later, Ezra was proven quite wrong.

As they entered the system, a network of satellites around the fifth planet was picked up by their sensors. There were less than two dozen and they were so small that the entire lot could have fit in one of the Defiant's cargo pods with room to spare, which was why they escaped initial detection.

“Well, looks like someone's here,” Sabine commented. “Have we been detected?”

Maketh sighed in relief. “No, thankfully. The satellites are using scanning pulses, but they're directed at the planet. No sign of spacecraft in the area.”

Ezra brought the ship to a stop before they got too close.“Full sensor sweep; I want to know what we're heading into. Bring the data to me when you have it.” The young Jedi left the cockpit, trying not to let his nervousness show.

Maketh and Sabine worked in tandem for close to an hour, each pulling different batches of data from the sensors and condensing it into charts and graphs.

“Alright, here's what we've got,” Maketh said as she entered the common room and brought the holoprojector built into the ceiling online. A transparent globe appeared before them showing a world covered over almost entirely by ocean, save for an ice cap at each pole and an unbroken chain of islands around the middle.

“Standard Class-M planet, oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, size comparable to Naboo. One small volcanic moon in an elliptical orbit with an atmosphere consisting primarily of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, helium, neon and nitrogen in various amounts. The vast majority of the planet is covered by deep oceans with all landmasses concentrated along the equator, taking the form of islands of varying sizes. Naturally, any place that's habitable is going to have a tropical climate. Some are barely big enough for a person to stand on, but most are large enough to have settlements. The largest is three hundred and forty thousand square kilometers, give or take, with a population of roughly fifty-seven thousand, which is around eleven percent of the planet's total. There are definitely artificial structures, ranging in size from hundred-meter-tall metal towers to single-floor buildings, all constructed of various local materials we don't have names for.

“Energy readings indicate the inhabitants employ limited artificial ground transportation and air travel, with most vehicles we can detect being aquatic in nature. Populations are most concentrated on the coasts save for those islands large enough to boast forests or large fields, which we presume to be centers of agriculture. The satellites we detected earlier are the only artificial structures in orbit. Their scanners are primitive and, as we said earlier, pointed at the planet itself and only at the islands, scanning at regular intervals. Very peculiar pattern, as well; each device scans its area in a particular sequence. One performs its scan, then the next, then the next, until the scans have encircled the planet, then starts over. None are present over the ocean expanses or the ice caps; they seem to focus entirely on areas supporting humanoid life.”

Ezra was concerned, but he couldn't put his finger on why. “They've developed flight, but don't use it much, and can obviously launch vehicles into space, but stopped at a few satellites. No space station, no shipyards, nothing. No signs of expeditions to their moon or other planets?” Maketh shook her head. “That's damned peculiar. But we can't turn back just because of that. We have to land.”

“We thought you'd say that,” Sabine said, “so we already came up with a plan.”

She pointed to a relatively small island, shaped roughly like the profile of the head of a predatory beast to Ezra's eye. Compared to the others, it was the closest to the northern ice cap but far enough away that it would take months to get from one to the other by sea. “We've detected a heavily-forested area here growing out of a crater, probably the result of an ancient meteorite impact. A few kilometers south is a mountain range with large mineral deposits we can't identify from this range. There appears to be a small coastal community with fishing and mining operations on the southern side of the mountains, so it isn't without risk, but we should be able to explore and find what we need with minimal chance of encountering the natives.”

Maris pointed to the ring of satellites over the landmasses. “What about those?”

“It appears from our own scans as though they are set to monitor specific frequencies and energy types, not for lifeforms and especially not incoming ships. We shouldn't be detected at all,” replied Maketh. “But, erring on the side of caution, we've identified a gap in the pattern we should be able to exploit. To the southeast of our target zone there is a pair we can slip through. Their scan radii do overlap, but there's a larger time gap between them than the others. We believe that these two represent the 'beginning' and 'end' of the planetary scan cycle – it's the only explanation for such a weakness in an otherwise perfectly-timed system. Once the first has finished its pulse, we'll have just over a minute to get through the gap and over the open sea. After that it's a simple matter of approaching our target from the south, hugging the western mountains and landing in the crater. There is only one satellite that scans the island we've chosen and we should be able to land in the time interval between its pulses. Of course, we'll make our move when that side of the planet is dark. Not only will the ship, hopefully, not be seen by anyone on the ground, but we won't have to wait an entire planetary cycle to begin our first recon.”

Maris spoke up again. “But why do we even need to go between them? The scan pulses don't extend very far north or south past the islands. Couldn't we just approach from the northern pole in the first place and land in our target zone?”

“That was the first thing we thought of,” Sabine replied, “but with the amount of fuel we have it would be impractical. We're going to be cutting it close as it is. If we took the polar route, we would likely run out of fuel before we landed. And even if we made it to the target safely, we wouldn't have anything left to run the computers or sensors off of.” Then, she added, “But good job spotting that; never overlook the obvious. Sometimes the simplest way is best. Just not this time.”

Maris looked pleased for just a moment, as if she felt she contributed something even if her solution wasn't workable. It left Sabine wondering just how often Shaak Ti had belittled the Padawan in the past. Might explain that 'every cloud has a dark lining' attitude she's got.

Ezra stood and shut off the projector. “Looks like the best shot we're going to get. We'll land the ship and hide as best we can while doing recon. Sabine, you take the helm. If you need me, I'll be in the cargo bay getting our gear together.”

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The landing went exactly as Sabine and Maketh had said it would. There was no indication that the satellite network or any ground-based surveillance had picked them up on their approach and they nestled down into the crater, sliding the ship into a natural clearing just big enough to accommodate it.

The only trouble, oddly, came from Sabine.

“But I don't see why I have to put this thing on,” she said, dropping the dark bodysuit onto the deck. “We could just cover me in body paint. A camouflage pattern is easy.”

“We don't have that kind of time, Sabine,” Ezra argued. “It takes maybe a minute to put on the recon gear. It would take us at least an hour to cover you with paint. Look, there is a time and place for this sort of thing and this is not it. I don't mind you running around the ship naked if you want, but we've got a mission to accomplish right now.” He picked the suit up and handed it back to her. “This will help mask your body heat against thermal scanners, which a coat of paint wouldn't. And furthermore, if your little 'paint job' got compromised and you were seen, wouldn't it seem just a little odd that someone was running around the forest without any clothes on?”

“Well, then, I'll just stay here. Guard the ship. Don't need a recon suit for that.”

“Not going to work. Maris is going to stay behind and repair that fuel regulator. We don't know what kind of people live here, but on the off chance we are seen we'd probably have a better chance of not being immediately identified as alien than she does. I doubt anyone on this rock has ever seen a Zabrak before.”

Seeing that she had lost the argument, Sabine reluctantly unzipped the garment and began to slip it on. She was sorry that she had acted like a petulant child to her husband and vowed to make it up to him once they were away from the planet, but she was literally uncomfortable putting the suit on. It felt like the material was made of prickly barbs that were somehow also on fire wherever it touched her skin. Probably because I haven't actually worn anything in a while. Not since Dantooine. And I didn't wear much there, either. She took a deep breath and got both legs in, the tight cuffs feeling like vices around her ankles. You can do this. It's not even as tight as the bodysuit you wear under your armor. It'll pass. The words brought little comfort as she slide her arms into the sleeves.

Maketh came behind her and zipped up the back, leaving only her head, hands and feet uncovered, tucking the neckline under Sabine's collar. “Relax, dear; it's not all bad.” Maketh turned around slowly in her own suit. “These things make our asses look great, after all.” She gave Sabine's backside a playful squeeze, then handed her a box. “Now finish suiting up, and I promise you after we get out of here we'll find someplace where you can run wild and free. Okay?”

Sabine sighed, staring at how well Maketh's bosom was cradled and caressed by the fabric. “Well, I guess it's not so bad,” she said, trying to ignore the itchy fire that now seemed to cover her skin. “And I guess I was acting a little foolish just now.”

“More than a little,” Ezra agreed. “But we're all under a lot of stress. We'll talk about finding a 'vacation spot' once we can actually go somewhere.” Maris chose that moment to emerge from the cockpit. “Are you ready for guard duty?”

“As I'll ever be,” the Zabrak answered. “I've shut off artificial gravity, life support, running lights, everything we don't need while sitting here to conserve power. The only things still operating are the lights in this room and the passive proximity sensors to let us know if anything comes around. The gun turrets are in standby mode. I thought it prudent to have weapons ready at any moment, rather than waiting for the guns to charge up. I know it doesn't take long, but even a half-minute saved could be the difference between being able to defend ourselves or being a nice, big target.”

Ezra nodded in agreement as he finished pulling on his boots, gloves and headgear. “Good call. Maintain radio silence and watch the scanners for our return. We'll be back before daybreak. You two good to go?” His wife and their lover pulled their headpieces on, lowering the multipurpose goggles into place and snapping black plastic breather masks over their faces and necks, more to conceal their skin than for anything else, and flashed him a thumbs-up. He secured his own mask and Maris lowered the ramp.

“I wish you would take comlinks with you,” the Zabrak said as they departed. “If something goes wrong...”

“You won't be in any position to help anyway. Plus there's a chance the signals, even in standby mode, could be picked up by natives. We'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way.”

As soon as they left the ship, the ramp closed and the faint light visible through the cockpit windows winked out, indicating that Maris had shut off the light in the common room. Probably going to use the Force to sense where everything is and move around in the dark, Sabine thought. Not for the first time was she jealous of the powers her Jedi friends exhibited. She was a capable fighter, to be sure, and even Jedi weren't invincible, but sometimes she felt as though she was a burden to them not being able to sense the things they could.

I'll never be as good as Maketh, she thought for the hundredth time. She's smarter than I am because she actually finished her schooling. She's better at talking to people than I am. And she can use the Force. Everything makes her a better wife for Ezra than I am. And she's even willing to have his baby, no matter what. I'm too afraid I'd become even more dead weight to him if I got knocked up. She looked up at the stars through her tinted goggles. I can't sense people or read minds, especially a Jedi's, despite.... She shook her head and dismissed her self-recriminating thoughts, putting them aside as she had done before. If I just keep at it, I'll prove worthy. I'll make myself good enough for him. Just have to be patient.

They marched on for two uneventful hours until they reached the rim of the crater, which took another hour to climb in the darkness. They saw little of the local wildlife, only observing some slug-like creatures the length of Ezra's hand and nocturnal birds with piercing red eyes that would swoop down from the trees to pick them up.

“I hope that's the extent of the predators we encounter,” Maketh commented as they rested for a moment at the rim of the crater, masks and goggles cast off for a small bit of comfort. “I'm so exhausted I don't think I could outrun or fight off anything.”

“I know what you mean,” Ezra replied. “We've got to pick up the pace. We've got another two hours until we reach the mountains and sunrise is in six.”

“But that only leaves us an hour to look around when we get there,” Sabine calculated.

Maketh put a hand on her shoulder. “Remember, this is just recon to make sure there's nothing between the ship and the mountains that will interfere with what we have to do. Tomorrow we can get an earlier start and maybe even bring some equipment with us we can leave behind to help speed up the process later. Running the Defiant at minimum power we can spend weeks here, if we have to, until we find what we need. There's no rush.”

Sabine sighed. “I know, I know. I just...I just want to get back to explored space. At least there we knew where we could get fuel or whatever else we needed.”

“We all want to get out of here,” Ezra said, drinking deeply from his water canteen before standing up. “All the more reason to get moving.” He kissed Sabine gently on the lips before replacing his headgear.

They trudged onward in silence after that until they reached the base of the mountains. All three produced portable scanning devices and spread out. Sabine followed the curve northeast while Maketh went southwest and Ezra began climbing as high as he could without additional gear, all hoping to see if they picked up anything useful. Towards the end of the hour, Ezra and Sabine had regrouped at their starting point.

“Well, I found a big fat nothing,” Sabine reported with obvious frustration in her voice. “Nothing but solid rock out that way. No evidence that anyone had been there in a long time, either.”

“On the plus side,” Ezra added, “that could mean that this area isn't frequented by the natives and we might just get out of here without being detected. But if it makes you feel any better, I didn't find anything promising, either. There are some veins of metallic ores running through the eastern portion of these mountains. Probably good for bartering or construction if refined, but nothing that would work in the engines.”

Maketh came running up to them some time later. She was several minutes overdue and her face was uncovered, but she was grinning from ear to ear. She held up her scanner to show a multicolored molecular model on the screen. “Just before I had to turn back, I sensed the presence of something up ahead – an animal. I could tell that it noticed me, but didn't seem to care. I got curious and went quite a bit farther than I had planned to, but I noticed some bushes growing at the base and stretching out in a line. When I got closer I saw they were growing along the path of a small stream coming from the rock. The animal I sensed was a large rodent that was eating the fruit that grew on them. According to the readings, it's toxic to humans and useless as a food source, but I decided to scan the water to see if it was drinkable. I found strange mineral impurities in it, with even greater concentrations in the rock. One of them seems like it would be volatile under the right conditions.”

Maketh pulled a sample vial from her belt, showing it to be filled with water. “There should be enough in here for the ship's computers to tell me more, but this mineral is super-dense and appears to have properties that would amplify energy. Its exactly what we need. We could get back to known space with a fifth of the fuel it took to get here if we could make use of this.”

“That's fantastic!” Ezra said, hugging the older woman tightly. “Let's get back to the ship. We can run your tests and get some sleep while the sun's out, then come back here with collectors tomorrow. And maybe we can get even luckier and find some fuel and get out of here.”

There was more conversation between them, but Sabine heard none of it. All she could think of was how, once again, Maketh's Force senses had done something she was unable to do. The rodent led her to the fruit which led to the water which led to the mineral. I'm sure Kanan would say it was the 'Will of the Force' that we found it or something like that, but all it means is that I'm not good enough and may never be.

The sound of an explosion above her caught the Mando girl's attention. She looked up just in time to see a humanoid shape come tumbling down the slope, crashing through foliage and bouncing off of a protruding rock. Acting on instinct, Sabine ran up the slope and leaped as high as she could. She intercepted the tiny form in mid-air and curled around it, using her own body to shield it from further harm.

By the time she had landed and slid down to the ground again, Ezra and Maketh had taken notice and rushed over to her. Sabine gently unwrapped herself from the body and knelt beside it.

It was a human girl, or close enough to pass for human at first glance. Her skin was tanned a deep bronze, her shaggy hair was cut short and colored a vibrant red, though natural or dyed was hard to determine. She was very slim with long limbs and extremities and her ears curved upwards into sharp points. Bruises, scrapes and cuts, all very recent, covered her body and marred a face that otherwise would have been described as elf-like and very cute.

She was also completely nude.

Sabine looked up at Ezra and said, “So....tell me again how putting on clothes is less conspicuous.”

“Now isn't the time for snide remarks,” Maketh snapped. “We've got to get back to the ship before someone else comes along and finds us.”

“Agreed,” said Ezra, picking up the frail girl. “And we're taking her with us. If she's in trouble, she might just be willing to help us learn about this planet in exchange for not letting anyone find her.” She can't be any older than me, he thought. I wonder how she came to be all the way out here on her own....

***********************************************************************************

Ixia Berk woke up as the rays of the morning sun filtered through her bedroom window. Opening her eyes slowly until they adjusted to the light, she was aware that she was alone in her bed, which was a very unusual thing. Then she glanced at the chronometer on the bedside table and swore loudly. Throwing the lightweight sheet from her naked body, she raced out of her bedroom and down the stairs.

“Good morning, Ixy!” her mother, Vara, said as the petite girl tore through the kitchen and began hurriedly packing food into a small bag. Save for a white cloth apron that barely covered her ample breasts and the black metal collar around her neck, the older woman was also naked as she stood at the stove, frying fish in a heavy metal pan. Her glossy scarlet hair cascaded smoothly down to her ankles, unlike her daughter's which was much shorter and seemed to be in a perpetual state of disarray. Completely unfazed by Ixia's panicked demeanor, Vara calmly placed a piece of fish, two slices of toasted bread and a glass of fruit juice on a plate. “Make sure you eat before you leave for school. I don't want you passing out during exercises again just because you're running late.”

Ixia shoved one piece of toast in her mouth and washed it down with the juice, barely chewing. “Well, I wouldn't be running late if Sciza had gotten me up like he was supposed to!”

Vara merely smiled. “Well, he said you two were up so late last night that he thought letting you sleep a bit more might help. And he told me to tell you to not to move your hips so fast. He's concerned that you're going to strain your muscles. He really is a thoughtful brother.”

Ixia scoffed as she devoured the fish, ignoring its burning heat as she was impatient to finish her breakfast and leave. “If he was such a 'thoughtful brother' he wouldn't have insisted that we do it three times right after school and three more right before bed.”

“He is only trying to help you, Ixy. You need all the practice you can get if you're going to have the skills and stamina to become a Breeder. Speaking of, he left your logbook on the counter. He already signed and dated for all six of yesterday's sessions and I've initialed them to verify the number and elapsed time of each. All you need to do is sign them and you'll be that much closer to the next phase.”

Sighing, Ixia finished off her juice and nabbed the other piece of toast. “At least he remembered to do that. Maybe he's not all bad,” she said with a slight smirk.

Vara ruffled her hair. “He wants you to succeed. We all do. Being a Breeder is a noble thing and we'll all be proud when you make it.”

“I've always wanted to ask, Mama – why didn't you take the Breeder training? Grandma and all of your sisters were Breeders and I always thought it was strange that you aren't.”

Her mother looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well, I had originally intended to. But the year I became old enough to start the initial stages of training, I met your father. He had just moved here from one of the larger islands because his family was expanding their fishery. We met at school and I just knew there was something special about him. We spent the rest of the day together and made love for the first time on the beach that night. I was hopelessly in love and decided right then and there I was going to devote my life to him, so I focused my schooling on being a Matron instead of a Breeder. When Sciza was born the following year, then you the year after that, I knew I had made the right choice for me. Just as I know you've made the right choice for yourself.”

Ixia was about to reply when she heard a loud horn outside. “The transport's here! I can still make it!” She grabbed her lunch and her school bag, threw her log book into the latter and raced out the door.

“So much energy. She'll do well.” She looked down and patted her stomach. “And so will you, one day.”

Ixia ran for the six-wheeled open-air school transport parked down the street, a bag in each hand and the piece of toast hanging out of her mouth by one corner. Her bare feet made next to no sound on the soft grasses of her lawn or the hard-packed sand that made up so many of the roads on their planet. Just before the driver pulled away, she tossed her bags over the side and climbed aboard, eschewing the door in favor of leaping onto the middle wheel and over the side into her usual seat.

“Just in time, Ixia,” said the also-naked blond girl next to her. “We thought you weren't going to make it.”

“So did I. Thanks for saving my seat, Lini,” she answered after hastily finishing her breakfast.

“You'd do the same for me.” Only a week younger than Ixia, Lini Samno was the redhead's best friend despite being almost the complete opposite. The girl had pale skin, rare for their world, silky golden hair that came down to her soft, full buttocks, green eyes, shorter limbs with more muscle definition than Ixia's, gentle curves to her body, wider hips and heavy, rounded breasts that Ixia and every other girl in their age-group was jealous of. Their houses were not far apart and the two had grown up as closely as was possible, to the point where they each considered the other's family an extension of their own. “Sciza again?”

Ixia nodded. “Don't get me wrong, I am glad he's willing to help me train. He's even holding off choosing a Bondmate until I reach the next stage so I can have a consistent partner when Papa isn't around.” She sighed. “I'll never understand why Breeders are only allowed to train with immediate family for Stage One. Like it makes any difference.”

Lini ruffled her hair. “You know as well as anyone else it's to ensure that the trainee isn't taken advantage of before her body is ready. It's rare, but there are unsavory types out there who don't care about pleasure or breeding and just inflict pain. Limiting it to close family members is the best way to ensure that the trainee is eased into the life of a Breeder by people who love and care for her and won't hurt her during raining.”

“Yes, yes, I know. They covered all of that early on. But some days I'd like for it to be someone else – anyone else. Whenever there's nothing at Papa's office he needs to oversee, Sciza's like an overcharged power cell and just won't stop.”

“You act like it's going to be any different when you take the exam and they move you into Stage Two. Then you'll have every boy in school, not to mention the teachers, your neighbors and every other Unbonded male on the island to help you train. After that, you'll be lucky if you can walk by the end of a day, much less pull your usual stunt of leaping onto the transport.”

“Never gonna happen. The day I can't do that anymore is the day my belly's too big to let me climb, and at that point I won't need the transport because I'll already be a Breeder and can leave school.”

Lini shook her head. “You either really love the idea of being a Breeder or really hate school. The rest of us are going to go ahead and finish school while we do our trainings.”

“It's a little bit of both, really. I'm not going to need to know how to string sentences together or master equations or anything like that, so why bother? After my training is done, I'll be spending all of my time pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Besides that, they told me early on that Breeders who have completed their schooling are expected to take other jobs when they're not at peak fertility and a lot of those jobs require you to put on clothes.” She spat the word out as though it were a curse. “After having to wear that grapple suit two years ago when we were given that introduction to the mining industry, I swore I'd never wear anything ever again. And besides, I'll still be doing my part. 'Contributing to genetic diversity' and all that.”

“Well, being a Nursemaid is every bit as big a job as being a Breeder, but I'm also going to work with my aunt in the fishery harvesting crustaceans from the seafloor. I tried it out last year and I love being underwater. Plus, the dive suit makes my chest look bigger.” Lini smirked. “Not that it needs to, but still...”

Ixia heard a voice behind them. “I can't believe either one of you started training this early. You're only in your thirteenth season. Most of us are waiting two more seasons before we decide.”

In that seat was a tanned girl with bright blue hair and violet eyes. While not overly antagonistic, Anri Stahl was far from a friend to either girl despite living only a few houses down from Ixia. “And if we have already decided, then what's wrong with us going ahead with it?” Ixia fired back.

Anri rolled her eyes. “Just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should. Suppose you change your minds before your fifteenth and choose a different path? People do that, you know, and they have to start all over again.”

“And if we waited too long,” Lini replied, “then we'd have to make a snap decision on our fifteenth and risk making the wrong one. People do that, you know, and a lot of times they regret their choice.” Anri just rolled her eyes again and remained quiet.

The transport came to a stop at an intersection to let a similar vehicle, this one carrying equipment bound for the mines, to go by. Looking ahead, Ixia saw her future. The only one for her, as far as she was concerned.

“Look! There are some Breeders out!”

“They must have all hit their fertility peaks today,” Lini noted.

As the transport started up again, Ixia didn't take her eyes off of the sight which was common enough, but still managed to entrance her every time she saw it. There were nearly a dozen women on the grass by the road, some on their backs, some on all fours and some straddling their partners, but all were engaged in copulation with a male with anywhere from two to four others standing by and waiting their turn. To be able to spend my days like that, she thought, that's my idea of perfection. Rarely the same man twice, constantly being pleasured, and to feel a new life growing inside me. And then I get to repeat it as often as I can. It just doesn't get any better.

As the transport passed the orgy, Ixia had failed to notice her hand automatically going down between her legs at the sight of them. Lini had said nothing as her friend began to rub and caress her hairless slit, but instead began to masturbate herself, letting her fingers play amongst the golden hairs that already enveloped her mound. Together, the girls had three orgasms apiece before the transport stopped at the schoolyard and all the students disembarked.

Lini ran off to one side of the building, waving goodbye. “I've got hands-on training and another hormone treatment first off today, so I'll see you at lunch!” Ixia waved back and headed for her first class, which was mathematics. She just hoped she could stay awake this time.

***********************************************************************************

Three school periods – and three unscheduled naps – later, Ixia reported to the school infirmary for her monthly physical exam. She didn't mind most of it, though she hated the needle they used to take what she thought was entirely too much of her blood to check for infections. Finally free, she headed to her usual spot below a particular tree atop a hill overlooking the schoolyard. She preferred the quiet of the outdoors to the noise of the cafeteria when she ate and while technically a violation of rules, since the hill was off school property by a short distance, none of the staff had ever bothered her. She sat down in its shade, enjoying the smooth, warm texture of its bark on her back contrasting the coolness of the grass against her butt and legs.

Why do we ever even bother going inside? Ixia wondered for what felt like the millionth time. The sun, the wind, the smell of the sea, the warmth...it's perfect. Not like those cold, damp mines. She removed a large, succulent fruit from her lunch bag and ate it as she initialed her sessions from the previous day in her log book, noting with pleasure that she only had twelve more blank spaces left on the pages set aside for Stage One. After that, she would have to pass a rigorous exam lasting for the better part of a day to test her technique and endurance. For most it was a formality, as the three hundred sessions required to fill out the first section of the log were usually enough to get any girl used to being a Breeder. She went over the entire training process process in her head as she had done thousands of times before.

Once in Stage Two, I won't be restricted to family for my sessions. I'll still have the stupid implant to keep me from getting pregnant if I start my Cycles during training, but any unbonded man I meet can have me. I'll be able to fill those five hundred slots in the log book easily. Just during school I could probably get twenty or thirty a day. And then Stage Three....no exams, the implant will be gone and they'll begin the fertility injections, to ensure a regular, consistent Cycle with predictable peaks. I could probably have my first child by this time next year.....

“I would ask if you're lost in thought, but that would require thinking and not just mindlessly having sex all day,” said a firm, yet gentle voice from behind her. Ixia stood and turned in one fluid motion, relaxing slightly when she saw the tall, dark-haired man standing before her. His toned muscles and bronzed skin, as tanned as her own, spoke to many years of being outside and working the fishing boats which were the primary source of food for the islands. His name was Raia, and she knew him well.

“Papa!” She ran towards him, the few remaining bites of her fruit tumbling to the ground forgotten. The two embraced, Ixia sighing as she felt the familiar warm strength of his arms around her and the size of his member, the envy of many among the islands, pressing into her torso and slowly beginning to harden. “I thought you were going to be away for another month!”

“Well, I was,” he replied, pulling back a little to look down into her eyes, “but the haul was better than we anticipated and we've more than met our quota for the season. So I thought I'd come visit my special little girl.” Raia ruffled her hair. “I've already gotten permission from the school to excuse you for the rest of the day to assist with your training. I didn't think you'd mind too much.”

Ixia smiled. “You know me too well, Papa. I want to wait on Lini, though. We were supposed to be eating together, but she's late. Would you wait with me?”

“I think we can find a way to pass the time,” he replied, plucking the log book from her hand with a smile. Ixia pressed against him, feeling his erection, throbbing now in anticipation. She ran her hand up and down it, both to make sure he was fully hard and to feel the cold metal stud pierced through the skin right beneath the head – the mark that identified him as a bonded man. She loved feeling that inside her, especially at certain angles due to how it rubbed against her most sensitive spot. This is the only thing I'll miss when I become a Breeder. Mama is so lucky to have this.

She laid down on the grass with Raia following, nudging her legs apart before kissing her warmly, The redhead moaned, wrapping her arms around his neck to urge him on. They both sighed as he slid within her deeper than any other had ever filled her. Ixia's sessions with Raia were special to her and she made sure to let him know each and every time. Sciza had stamina to spare and was more than eager, but her father brought experience and techniques that her brother had yet to learn, if he ever would.

They carried on like this for what seemed like forever to Ixia, though it was really only a few minutes. His gentle, loving motions, the feather-light touches across her barely-existent breasts, the gentle licks and nibbles to the pointed tips of her ears, and the hemispherical nubs of his piercing all served to drive her into a frenzy. Her legs curled around his waist instinctively, urging him onward until they reached a mutual climax.

Ixia relaxed as she felt his seed fill her. More than enough for a baby, she thought, if this damned implant wasn't in the way. She could never tell anyone, of course, but once she reached Stage Three Ixia had every intention of Raia fathering her first child. It was far from forbidden for close family to marry or even have children, but as a Breeder she was supposed to be with as many men as possible and the only way to ensure Raia gave her a child was to be only with him throughout an entire Cycle. It could be done – in fact, she suspected it had been done quite a bit – but she would have to be careful.

Father and daughter said nothing as they lay on the grass, letting the breeze dry the sweat from their bodies. Ixia let out a sigh as she felt Raia slide out of her as he softened and already looked forward to the next time he entered her.

The silence was broken by Ixia's name being called from a distance. “Hey! Ixia! You won't believe this! Ixia!” Raia rolled off of her and the two sat up to see Lini running up the hill towards them, her impressive chest bouncing as she moved. “Oh – Boatmaster Berk! I had no idea you were here! My apologies – Ixia and I had planned to eat lunch and then....oh, right...the news!”

Raia laughed. “Slow down, Lini! Take a breath, then tell us. And I told you you don't have to be so formal. You used to call me 'Uncle Raia' when you were a kid.”

“Sorry, Bo.....Uncle Raia. They've been drilling a lot of social etiquette into our classes, particularly the Nursemaids.” She blinked. “Right! Nursemaid! I have to tell you about my classes today!” She took a deep breath, then continued. “Alright, so my first period today was the practical exercise – the instructors bring in actual nursing infants for Nursemaid trainees to hold and get used to the sensations while we take our normal lessons. There are only four of us in my first class so they don't see the need to interrupt the regular class time. Anyway, I'm sitting at my desk, holding this little boy to my chest and I feel something different than usual. He's suckling as they always do until they get tired and fall asleep, but I feel something coming out. Coming out of me. I look down at the baby and he's swallowing. It took me a minute to process it all before I realize that he's drinking. Drinking from me! I'm producing now!” To prove her point, Lini reached up and pinched each of her nipples until tiny white droplets emerged from them.

Ixia's eyes lit up. “That's fantastic! I thought you'd need another two months before that!”

“So did I! But apparently I'm more receptive to the hormone treatments! I get to move to Stage Two tomorrow!”

Raia hugged her. “Congratulations! What will that mean for you?”

“Well, I'll still be coming to school as normal, but now I'm going to have a scheduled period every day after lunch where I go with other Stage Two trainees to a room where they have infants, almost always the children of the Breeders, that need nursing and I'll feed one or two until I run dry, then back to my normal classes for the rest of the day. And I still have to take the hormone treatments just to make sure it isn't a fluke, but I'm that much closer to my goal!”

“Well, I'm very happy for you. And I'm sure your mother will be, too.”

“I know she will. The Headmistress even gave me the rest of the day off from school so I could go celebrate.”

Raia grinned. “Well, as it so happens, Ixia here has the rest of the day off, as well. Why don't you come home and celebrate with us for a bit and then I'll take you home to your mother.”

“That sounds great!” Lini jumped up and down, once more causing her breasts to jiggle. “I'll grab my bag and we can get out of here!” Lini grabbed Ixia's hand and bolted back down the hill, both girls laughing and shrieking as they ran, stumbling more than once and simply not caring. Raia grinned and followed after them at a leisurely pace.

***********************************************************************************

The two girls chattered excitedly about seemingly random subjects on the ride to the Berk household. Raia's enclosed, six-passenger personal vehicle was much more comfortable than the open-air school transport thanks to its overstuffed leather seats and cold air circulation system, a luxury few on the planet could afford. Despite Ixia's love of being outdoors she had to admit that the vehicle was a nice change of pace from the school transport or walking everywhere. As they pulled up to the house, Vara was already waiting for them by the door. Even from a distance, Ixia could see the sun reflecting off of the bars through each of Vara's nipples and the rings in her navel and clitoris which identified her as Bonded.

The girls bounded out of the transport and ran straight for Vara, who hugged them both warmly. Lini rattled off her news so quickly Vara almost didn't understand it, though the tiny droplets the girl excreted from her nipples told the story well enough. “Your mother will be very proud of you, Lini. Come on inside and we'll celebrate.”

Vara led everyone into the sitting room and closed the front door which was usually only done in bad weather or to turn on the house's cold air system on the hottest days. She then went over to the wall below the staircase and pressed a small section. An audible 'click' was heard and part of the wall popped loose, revealing a small doorway with a narrow set of stone stairs leading down below ground level.

Ixia was puzzled. She had never known this door existed despite living in the house her entire life. “Why are we going down there?” she asked, but Vara just smiled and disappeared through the door.

“Only a small group of people know about this and it is very important that it stays that way,” Raia explained. “If Vara is showing you this, Lini, it means she trusts you as much as a member of the family and whatever you see, hear or do down here must not be known to anyone else. Do you understand?”

Lini nodded, then admitted, “Well, not really.” It was difficult for the girl to even consider something that had to be kept a secret. From the time she first entered school, she had been told that their society was built on total openness and hiding anything from anyone was virtually unheard of.

Raia smirked. “Trust me – you will.” He let the two girls descend ahead of him and pulled the door closed behind them. The stairs ended at a small landing and another set of steps forming a switchback and going deeper into the ground. At the bottom of this was a second door, which was already open. Vara was reaching inside and pressing a switch that turned on the lamps recessed into the ceiling.

The room Lini saw was easily the size of the upstairs sitting room and kitchen combined. Dominating the center of the room was a circular bed with multiple pillows and soft-looking sheets. Against one wall was a long leather couch, designed to seat five. Lini had seen its type before in a room her parents hardly ever used – the cushions could be removed and the inner workings unfolded to form a bed. In one corner there was a large shower stall that seemed likely to be able to hold at least four people. A small refrigeration unit, single-faucet wash basin and table with a portable electric cooking plate were opposite the couch. The rest of the space was empty, though there were padded mats and sleeping pallets rolled and stacked in the corners, obviously meant for comfort should anyone wish to sit or kneel on the smooth stone floor.

In the center of the bed was Sciza, his spiky red hair and green eyes clearly inherited from his mother but the tanned skin and muscular build matched his father perfectly. He was on his back and sitting astride him was a girl not quite as tan whose black hair fell down to her wide hips which, combined with her large breasts, ample but firm buttocks and somewhat muscular build identified her not only as a mine worker, but also having the proportions of an 'ideal child-bearer'. All in all, Lini thought she was beautiful. The pair were kissing passionately, their hands roaming each other's body, though it was obvious he had yet to penetrate her.

What was shocking were the piercings on her body, identical to Vara's.

“Now, Sciza,” Vara said, “you were told to wait upstairs with Mele until we called for you.”

“I know, Mother,” he said, reluctantly breaking the kiss, “but when I told her you planned on bringing Ixia down here, she was so excited she wanted to see the room. We were going to go back upstairs and wait, but....well, you know how she is.”

“Yes, I do. That's why she's perfect for you.”

Lini spoke up. “Um, excuse me, but.....she's Bonded.”

Vara smiled. “Yes, she is.”

“But whose Bondmate is she? And why is she with Sciza? Bonded adults are only allowed to be with their Bondmates – they could both get in a lot of trouble with the Archons.....”

“She's Sciza's Bondmate.”

Ixia interrupted. “Wait – hold on! When did this happen? And why isn't he pierced?”

“Why don't we all sit down and I'll explain everything,” Raia said. He unfolded a large padded mat and had both girls sit on it. “Since Ixia is so close to her next phase of training, and you just entered yours, I think you two are old enough to understand this. And once again, Lini, I have to insist that you not tell another person about this. No-one is getting hurt, but we could all get in a lot of trouble.”

It took the blonde several moments before she agreed. “Okay. I won't tell anyone. If for no other reason than to protect Ixia.”

Raia sat on the couch next to his bondmate. “I knew you'd say that. This goes back to shortly after Vara and I were Bonded. She had, of course, had dozens of lovers before we met, and I had been no different. It's simply the nature of our society, as you well know. And she had enjoyed that life, which was why she initially had been set on being a Breeder. But neither of us could deny what we felt and so we decided to spend our lives together. But after a few months we both began to notice that we strongly desired sex with people other than each other. We didn't love each other any less, but the urges were still there. So we spent a lot of time thinking about what to do, and finally a solution presented itself. But before I get into that, your mother has a few things to say.”

Vara wrapped her arm around Raia. “It's true, I have loved your father like no other since we met. But my family was a little....unconventional. I am, in fact the first in over nine generations to be Bonded and become a Matron. I come from a long line of Breeders and Nursemaids, and very few in my family would even have any clue as to who the fathers of their children were. At least, as far as the Archons and the public at large know.

“You see, Ixy, my mother and my sisters and most of the other women in my family were Bonded....but in secret, and of course without the piercings. They Bonded to other women, in private ceremonies, and were very careful as to who knew about it. Usually, there was a Breeder and a Nursemaid together, raising and caring for the Breeder's children as a family. It isn't uncommon for a Nursemaid to live in the home of a Breeder for just such a convenience and so no suspicions were raised.”

Ixia and Lini's eyes went wide. “But....two women? Together? That's against the Cetian Compact! 'Any manner of sexual activity between two individuals which cannot result in impregnation and thus the continuation of the species is strictly forbidden and shall be punishable to the fullest extent of the law'.” It was, indeed, one of the earliest passages of the Compact and one that schoolchildren were taught to recite verbatim from a young age.

“Hence the secrecy,” Vara said. “That being said, my mother and her lover – I really should say lovers, as there were three Breeders and a Nursemaid in that house – had no problems with me choosing Raia. They wanted me to be free to do as I wished, but were obviously concerned about me telling Raia about how I grew up. If anyone were to learn that my sisters and I were lovers, never mind that we had brought several girls from our schools into our beds, the entire family would likely have been executed. As it turns out they need not have worried at all.”

“I had never conceived of such a thing when Vara finally told me, but I found that it didn't bother me in the slightest. Rather, I found it to be rather arousing, and one evening I came home and your mother had arranged a surprise for me. One of her sisters – your aunt Vahra – was here with her and she not only let me take Vahra as a lover, but I also got to see the two of them together. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The love they had for each other was as clear as day and I was honored to be allowed to share in it.”

Ixia blinked a few times. “Auntie Vahra is a Breeder, but even they aren't exempt from the Compact. Breeders are explicitly forbidden to mate with any Bonded male, to ensure that his bloodline stays accounted for and eliminating the problem of illegitimate heirs to any estate he leaves behind.”

“Ixy,” he said, “for someone who hates school as much as you do, you seem to pay a lot of attention.”

The redhead stuck her tongue out at him. “Just because I'm lazy doesn't mean I'm not smart.”

Raia sighed and continued. “Everything you said is absolutely true, but despite that Vahra and your other aunts are regular guests in our bedroom. I know for a fact that Vahra's oldest son is actually your brother. But because I can't legally admit he is my son we weren't able to ask him to help with your training, which is why Sciza has been trying to make up the difference.”

“That's the first secret we wanted to tell you,” Vara said.

First?! You mean there's more to all of this?” Ixia could barely believe what she was hearing. Lini had been shocked into silence already.

“The rest is a little simpler,” Raia added. “Thanks to your mother's family, I was able to connect with a group of people who feel, as Vara and I do, that some of the restrictions placed on our people are unnecessary, perhaps even harmful. Most people involved are Bonded men and women who gather together with other groups and trade off partners. A few people in each group are single and some even find Bondmates this way, though of course they never leave the group if they do. And so, two or three times a year, Vara and I will take a small vacation for a few days to meet with these other people and have some fun we ordinarily can't. Well, except when your aunts and their children visit, but we could only do that when you were spending the night at Lini's house. Until now, anyway.”

“Wait – only when I wasn't here?” Ixia pointed at Sciza. “How long has he known?”

Vara laughed. “I can't remember a time when he didn't, really. He found your father in bed with my youngest sister while I was being loved by her two daughters and son. Thankfully he was old enough to understand the need for secrecy. I took him to my bed for the first time not long after that. He's been a great comfort to me – and a welcome addition at the group meetings – for a long time. That's where he met Mele, as a matter of fact.”

The older girl spoke up for the first time. “My mother is an officer in the Miner's Guild and my father is a deputy inspector who inspects the mines and ensures that conditions are safe, miners aren't being mistreated and the quotas are being met. They worked and slept together a lot and became Bonded not long after I was born. But they also got lured into the groups your parents talked about – my parents' group calls it 'love-sharing' but there are as many names for it as there are groups. I was initiated into it as soon as I was old enough for Dad to have sex with me for the first time, and the entire group got to see it happen. It was the greatest night of my life....until I met Sciza.”

“That happened last year. I had gone with Mom to one of the meetings. It's not something I do often, but Dad had taken you with him to see our fleet working to bring up the catch and I didn't want to be sitting around the house by myself. Early on in the night I met Mele. When I found her she was laying on a table with one man and another woman walking away from her. She was, I admit, rather incoherent and I waited until she noticed me before I introduced myself. We spent almost the entire night just with each other, and many nights since.

“Since her father is a government officer he has the ability to oversee and legitimize Bonding ceremonies and he was more than happy to agree to ours last month. We went through the entire ceremony, with our parents and the love-sharing group as witnesses. He pierced Mele himself, but 'misplaced' the paperwork and we're sure he'll find it after you've gotten through Stage One. Since Mele works in the mines she can cover her piercings the majority of the time, though she can easily show them if a man approaches her for sex to get him to back off, but I've held off getting mine done so there won't be any questions if anyone sees me helping you with your training. Once you're in Stage Two, though, we'll make it official and Mele will be moving in with us as part of the family.”

Vara stood up. “Though, like Lini, we feel she already is.” And with that, she pulled Mele towards her and planted a deep kiss on the girl's lips and it was plain to see that the other girl not only expected this, but welcomed it. Ixia stared in shock as the two began to play with each other's breasts, kneading the soft flesh and flicking the metal bars back and forth.

Lini finally spoke. “This.....this is too much....I don't know.....”

Ixia looked at her friend. “Don't know if you can keep it a secret?”

The blonde shook her head. “Don't know if I can.....”

“....Don't know if you can keep from kissing my daughter?” Raia asked. Both girls were stunned. “Lini, you weren't very good at hiding it. The way you stared at her when you thought no-one was looking was telling enough. And more than once I've seen you looking at her and masturbating while she slept. Do you even find men attractive at all?”

“I....I do.....but.....”

“But you're also attracted to girls, or at least Ixia.”

As if the barrier holding her back had been broken, Lini broke down and sobbed, holding Ixia tightly against her. “It's more than that....I don't know how or when it happened, but I realized that I love you. That's why I decided to be a Nursemaid when you said you were going to be a Breeder – I thought we could live together and I could at least nurse and raise your children, even if I couldn't tell you how I felt. I....I'm sorry....can you forgive me?”

Ixia looked into her friend's eyes. “Lini....I....I don't think there's anything to forgive. Look, this is all as shocking to me as it is to you. But you're my best friend, and I wouldn't be much of a friend....if I didn't at least try it.”

“Oh, Ixy! Thank you! I love you so much!” She hugged the redhead tightly. “Oh....but we absolutely can't do anything unless we're here. My parents would....”

“Would be very happy for you, Lini,” Vara said, having finally broken her kiss with Mele. “Did I forget to mention? They're a part of our group, too. Your mother and I went to school together, as a matter of fact. It's been obvious to her for a long time how you felt about Ixia and we were curious as to how long it would take before we could spring this on you. Guess I can tell them tonight, though - there's going to be another party. The four of us are going, but you two can have tonight all to yourselves.”

Lini looked at Ixia. “So....you and me...tonight....?”

“I said I'd try it, for you. But I want you to do one thing for me in return.”

“What's that?”

“Since we're breaking a lot of rules anyway.....” Ixia whispered something into her friend's ear.

“You want me to WHAT with your dad? But I've never.....I mean.....I guess.....”

Raia put a hand on Ixia's shoulder. “That's a lot to ask of her, sweetie. She's never had sex before, not even with her father like you'd expect. I'm not exactly small and you know how much it can hurt the first time.”

Ixia sighed. “You're right, Papa. I'm sorry, Lini, I shouldn't have...”

“I'll do it! It's going to happen sometime and it might as well be here and now.”

“Woah, there,” Raia said. “Don't make any sudden decisions. And you could get in trouble yourself if it got out you had sex with a Bonded man.”

Lini shook her head. “No, it's alright. I'll get in trouble if anyone finds out how I feel about Ixy anyway. At least I'll be able to relax about it. I always wondered which man would be my first, and if I'd really want it or enjoy it. But if it's you, that's just as good as it being Dad and I don't have to worry that I'm going to be hurt.” She lay back on the mat and squeezed Ixia's hand. “I'm ready.”

“This I have to see,” Sciza said. He, Mele and Vara all lay on their stomachs, heads peeking over the edge of the bed to get a better view. Ixia, for her part, knelt next to her friend and never looked away from her.

Raia spread the girl's legs and noticed that her opening was already slick with moisture, and the outer lips already separating. He placed the head of his erection at her entrance and waited. Lini grabbed Ixia's hand and nodded, indicating that she was ready. Raia made one sudden thrust and penetrated her.

The girl yelped as she felt her muscles stretching and tearing to accommodate him. Tears welled up in her eyes, but Ixia wiped them away. The redhead leaned in closer to her friend, their foreheads touching first, and then, slowly, gingerly, their lips. They held this kiss for a long time, and neither could deny how right it felt.

For his part, Raia held off on moving until he felt Lini relax. When she finally did, he kept his pace gentle so as to cause her minimum discomfort. He only sped up once she began moaning into Ixia's mouth and he could tell she was beginning to enjoy the sensations. He leaned in and whispered into Ixia's ear, “Try sucking on her nipple.”

The redhead didn't hesitate. She broke the kiss and latched her lips around her friend's breast. It only took a few gentle sucks to make Lini moan and only a handful more to feel the warm, sweet liquid flowing onto her tongue. There was little to be had, but it was enough to excite Ixia and without being told to decided to share it she locked lips with Lini once more, passing the milk between them while her fingers clumsily massaged one of Lini's breasts, which sent her over the edge.

Raia felt the girl tighten around him as she climaxed and knew he would not last much longer. He signaled Vara and she moved onto the floor beside him as he withdrew from Lini. Vara took him into her mouth and began sucking.

“What...what are you doing...?” Lini asked, sitting up and once more breaking off her kiss.

“I can't finish with you, Lini. I don't want to get you pregnant. It's not my call.”

“But it's mine...do it.” She looked at Vara. “And...why is she...her mouth....?”

“Well, that feels really good. Just as good as what we were doing. There are.....many ways to feel pleasure. But are you sure you want to....”

“Do it. If I have a baby then I have a baby. It's not like anyone will care. And it's as close to having Ixia's baby as I can ever get.”

With those words, Raia knew the true depth of Lini's feelings. He gently pushed his wife off of him and resumed his position within Lini. Vara, deciding to not let her talents go to waste, leaned in close and began flicking her tongue back and forth across the girl's clitoris. The combined sensations caused her to orgasm a second time, tightening around Raia like a vise and refusing to let go. He buried himself deep within her and filled her young, previously untouched womb with his seed. He slipped out of her, his penis coated with their combined juices, and his wife eagerly pulled him back into her mouth to lick him clean.

“Hey, don't forget to share!” Ixia exclaimed and gently nudged her mother aside. Vara smiled and let her daughter take her place. She watched her tentatively kiss and lick the fleshy shaft before taking the head into her mouth experimentally, then slowly worked more and more in until it hit the back of her throat. She tried to imitate what she had seen Vara doing, not entirely sure why she was so ready to break so many rules all at once. She was sure if she had been given the chance to think things over she would not have agreed to any of it, but at that time, in that place, with the sex-charged air all around her, she wasn't doing much thinking. Tasting her father and Lini at the same time was a unique experience, given that she had tasted neither before, but somehow she found herself able to tell which was which.

Lini, for her part, decided she wanted more. She looked up into Sciza's eyes and said, “You. Down here. Now.” and pointed to her crotch for emphasis.

Sciza blinked and didn't move until Mele nudged him. “Go on,” she said. “She's obviously hot for it. And I love seeing you with other girls.” Not needing any more encouragement, Sciza slid off of the bed and onto his knees, entering the girl in a single smooth thrust.

Raia at this point was on his back, Ixia riding him for all she was worth. Her mother stood over them, legs on either side of Raia's torso, and holding her pussy open, giving quick explanations to Ixia on where and how to lick. Ixia's initial foray into this new and forbidden world was clumsy at best, but the very thought of inducting her daughter into such a thing was more than enough to make up for it in Vara's mind. All three spared glances to Lini and Sciza, who were so caught up in their own love-sharing that they hardly noticed the trio beside them, nor Mele on the bed fingering herself for all she was worth.

This carried on for a while, with Vara and Ixia swapping places and the young redhead getting her first experience with getting her pussy eaten. For the life of her, she could not figure out why it was illegal. It feels so good...why wouldn't everyone want to do this? Eventually, Sciza climaxed and added his sperm to Raia's, causing Lini to overflow.

Mele leaned over and kissed Lini gently. “Welcome to the family,” she said before latching onto the girl's tit to get her own taste of milk. Ixia climaxed twice on her mother's tongue by this point and lay down on the mat next to Lini, both of them breathing hard. They joined hands and kissed once more.

No words were needed between them. At this point, they knew what they wanted and had been shown how to get it. Ixia straddled her friend, then turned around so that her mound was in front of her friend's lips and she was looking down at Lini's, slightly red and puffy from the enthusiastic mating with Sciza, the fine gold hairs matted down from sweat and other fluids. All eyes in the room were on them as they licked and kissed one another, moving slowly and deliberately avoiding the truly sensitive places for the time being.

The four adults watched as the girls discovered one another. Tears were flowing from Lini's eyes; tears that told not of pain or sorrow, but of joy and a love at long last realized. Ixia, for her part, was too caught up in the new sensations to really process what she was feeling. All she knew for sure was that being there, in that moment, with Lini completed her in a way she couldn't describe. It was as though a piece of her she had never known was missing and had been returned.

The girls stayed this way for some time, licking and sucking and kissing and probing with tongues and fingers. For those moments, they became each other's entire world. They didn't need anything else. They brought each other to climax multiple times, each more powerful than the last, and by the time they separated, both were trembling and needed to catch their breath.

Eventually, Ixia turned herself around and kissed her friend, now her lover, once more. Life was going better than either had thought possible that morning and as Sciza pulled Ixia's legs apart to enter her while his Bondmate was intertwined with his parents, the girls knew they could get very used to this.

A loud crash from upstairs broke them all from their reverie. Raia went pale and held up a hand. “Everyone stay absolutely quiet,” he whispered as loudly as he dared. The sounds of muffled voices and heavy boots above had terrified everyone into silence anyway. Lini held tightly to Ixia's hand as though it would somehow protect them from whatever was happening. For well over an hour the occupants of the room could hear others invading the home – doors opening, furniture being moved and one voice giving instructions, though not clearly enough to be identified. Finally, the disturbance stopped and all was quiet again.

It was still another quarter-hour before anyone dared move. “I'll make sure it's safe,” Vara said finally and carefully made her way upstairs. She returned a few minutes later motioning for everyone to follow her. The group hurriedly opened and exited the hidden door, which thankfully had gone unnoticed.

The door leading outside had been forced open. The hinges were intact but the portion of the doorway that held it closed lay on the floor. The furniture had been moved haphazardly as though someone were looking for something. The low table that the entertainment screen sat on had been pulled away from the wall so forcefully that the screen had toppled over onto the floor. It lay there, the housing cracked and the glass shattered.

Every room was the same. The food in the kitchen had been scattered as whoever had been in the house searched the cabinets and refrigeration unit. The table Ixia had hurriedly eaten her breakfast at just that morning was overturned and the chairs scattered. The rear entrance to the house had been forced, as well, and the door hung from only one hinge. Upstairs, the beds had all been moved, closets and drawers ransacked. It took the rest of the day for Vara, Ixia, Mele and Lini to put everything back together.

Sciza and Raia stood watching the doors during this. Ixia tried to ask what was going on but her mother silenced her, saying only that they would explain later. At one point Raia used the communication panel in the living room and briefly spoke to another man.

“You know how it is,” he said, trying to act normally. “You think you have your day planned out and then an unexpected meeting gets dropped on you. I hate to cancel dinner tonight but these things don't fix themselves.”

The voice on the other end was clearly recognizable. “Believe me, I know all too well. We'll make arrangements for some other time. Lini won't be in your way, will she?”

“Not at all. In fact I think it would be a good idea if she stayed the night. She can keep Ixia company while I get bored to tears with quotas and profit projections.”

“Alright, then. If you need anything, just call.”

Raia turned off the comm unit. Mere minutes later a group of men showed up at the house, carrying tools and building materials. They moved quickly, repairing both doors and the pieces of furniture that had been damaged. One of them even repaired the entertainment screen and had it back in working order in very little time.

Not a word was spoken, other than “Hold this here” or “Tighten that down” and the workers left as suddenly as they had come. When they had gone, Ixia asked “Okay – what just happened? I think we have a right to know.”

“The Archons,” Vara said, closing the front door and slumping down into a padded chair. “This has happened a couple of times before, though you were too young to remember.” She fingered the collar around her neck. “It must have malfunctioned again.”

“What do you mean 'malfunctioned'? I didn't know it did anything.”

“And you were never supposed to. Only those who wear them are to ever know.” She took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. “If it weren't for this, I would be an Archon. I would have no choice. Like them, I was born with the Gift. I can hear the thoughts of others as if they were my own, tell when someone is lying to me and once or twice when I was younger I accidentally moved things without touching them. My mother told me never to tell anyone about it. Those born with the Gift are taken away from their families and put through a school which teaches them to use their powers in service to the Archons and their masters.”

Ixia blinked. “Wait – someone gets to boss the Archons around? I thought they ran everything because they are Gifted.”

“That's another thing most people are not supposed to know. I only know because one of our friends in the groups has a sister among them and she talks in her sleep. The Archons are given their orders by ten who are chosen from their own ranks known as the Decemvirate. They are secretive even to each other, wearing masks when going about their duties inside their chambers. Each has his or her own secret way in and out that none of the others know of that each member tells only their chosen successor. When they are not in their chambers, they walk around as anyone else – you could pass one in the street and never know.”

Raia sighed. “Meeting me wasn't the only reason your mother never became a Breeder. She was identified as one of the Gifted not long after we met and was able to convince the Archons to let her marry me and start a family rather than join their ranks, but the price for that is the Inhibitor. None of us are entirely sure how it works but it prohibits your mother from ever using her Gift. There are others on this world who have them, though Vara is the only one on our island. Most choose to join the Archons. If they ever detect that an Inhibitor has failed or been removed without authorization, they send the Constables to find and secure the wearer. They want everyone with the Gift to be under their control.”

As he said this, Raia pulled out a small device that looked as though it was built from scrap, holding it over the collar and scowling. “Exactly like the last times – the sensor overloaded.” To Ixia, he said “These Inhibitors are able to measure brain activity and suppress anything that's strong enough to be part of someone's Gift. Your mother's Gift is rather strong, which is why they were so insistent on recruiting her in the first place, and sometimes during sex her Gift can trigger in a massive burst that the sensor can't compensate for, so it has to shut off and reset. It only takes a moment, but it's enough to signal the Archons.”

“I think that's enough talk. It is getting quite late and we must have a meal before we retire for the night,” Vara said, standing on shaky legs. “You girls go on upstairs and wash yourselves. I will have dinner ready by the time you finish.”

Ixia asked “But what about your party?”

“It's been canceled. That was what your father called Lini's father about – to hold off the party and to get some of the group members here to repair the house.”

“Aren't the neighbors going to ask questions about the Constables and how we got everything fixed so fast?”

Raia shook his head. “They won't, because asking questions will lead to getting answers and most people would rather remain in the dark. Besides that, the news services will likely be given a story by the Archons to explain it and that will be enough to satisfy them.”

Sciza stood, his Bondmate following. “I should take Mele back home. I can stay with her family tonight. I think we'll have her father finish the paperwork on our Bonding before I return. That way we can throw off some of the suspicions.”

Raia agreed. “It might slow down Ixia's training a little, but we have to be careful. You two stay in public areas and let me know when you get there.” Without a further word the couple left through the front door. “And you two get cleaned up like Vara said.”

The girls obediently headed up the stairs and Raia could not help but get slightly aroused as he saw them going hand in hand, Lini stealing a kiss on the cheek as they disappeared up the stairwell. He had no doubt that they would be late for dinner.

***********************************************************************************

More than an hour had passed before the girls returned. Raia and Vara had both already eaten but left enough for their daughter and guest. The two had been unable to keep their hands off of one another and their shower had long gone cold before they actually got around to washing, though neither had truly noticed or cared. After some idle conversation and watching a news program on the entertainment screen – which had described a “training exercise” undertaken by the Constables in one of the residential areas unfortunately causing some accidental property damage – Ixia and Lina went up to Ixia's bed, snuggling together and falling asleep almost immediately.

Downstairs, things were not so calm. Vara confronted her husband, anger in her eyes. “I saw the scanner, Raia. The Inhibitor didn't malfunction.”

“I had hoped you wouldn't notice.”

“Why didn't you just say so? What is to be gained by lying?”

“You mean what is to be lost by telling the truth.”

“You're not making sense. Please – just tell me.”

Raia sighed. “The satellites didn't detect your collar going offline. The Archons themselves picked up something through their Gift. There must have been one close by.”

“But picked up what? I'm the only one here who has the Gi.....no. No, Raia, don't you dare tell me what I think you're about to!”

There was a long pause. Raia opened the refrigeration unit and produced a bottle containing an alcoholic drink, twisting the cap off and taking several long drinks before answering. “Sciza has been tested over and over by the Archons, always with them hoping he would have inherited what you have. Mele is not among the Gifted and I doubt Lini is. But Ixia....”

“She can't be! They tested her, too!”

“They tested her once, when she was an infant, and it cost me a lot of money to bribe that doctor into swapping her test results with one of Sciza's. Thankfully, after that one test, the Archons gave up and left us alone. But I saw the true results of that test. She's strong, Vara. Stronger than you. She was overwhelmed today, with everything she learned and did. It triggered her Gift. I've seen it happen once or twice before, but this time I guess an Archon was close enough to feel it and investigate. If this happens again, they will find her and she won't be given the option to take the Inhibitor like you were. Not with her potential.” Another swig gone from the bottle.

“And if she knew....”

“If she knew, she would turn herself over to them in a heartbeat in order to protect us.”

“What are we going to do, Raia?”

“I don't know.” He took his last drink, almost disappointed that the bottle was now empty. “I don't know.”

***********************************************************************************

The next four days were a flurry of activity. Sciza and Mele's Bonding was made public and the Berk house saw a never-ending stream of friends and relatives coming by to congratulate them. Ixia and Lini returned to school as though nothing had happened and few of their peers could even tell that anything was different. The two had always been inseparable so them spending every free moment together was not unusual. But they had not had the time or the privacy they had truly desired, and as the seasonal break from school loomed just days away their thoughts were only of the pleasure they could seek from one another and their families.

Raia and Vara repeatedly cautioned the two to be careful, to not get carried away or draw attention to themselves when they finally did get their time alone, but the words largely fell on deaf ears. On more than one occasion, when they were alone in the hallways or having lunch out beneath their tree, the pair had hugs that went on just a little too long to be friendly or even had dared to share a kiss before parting.

When the break finally arrived, it seemed like a dam had burst. The school day was longer than usual, as the headmaster and several teachers wanted to make speeches to close out the season and so it was well into evening before the students were dismissed. The girls could not get to Ixia's house fast enough and were on the floor in a tangle of limbs almost before the door had shut. They kneaded and massaged one another to a quick orgasm before stumbling upstairs to the bed. Raia and Vara were nowhere to be seen and Sciza had taken Mele on a sailing trip to a neighboring island, so the young lover had the house to themselves.

Lini was exactly where she wanted to be for the rest of her life. She was on her back with Ixia on top of her, each of them licking the other in a way they were still clumsy with, but looked forward to perfecting as they got older. Lini could not help but smile as she beheld the taut, firm globes of her lover's buttocks, easily the smallest the blonde had ever seen and a perfect fit for the wiry frame of her friend. As she ran her hands over the tanned flesh, the small, puckered hole nestled inbetween those globes drew her attention and, before she realized what she was doing, slid her tongue up and pushed it into the opening.

Ixia shrieked as an entirely new sensation washed over her. The suddenness of the intrusion shocked her and the unexpected pleasure triggered a powerful orgasm that froze every muscle of her body.

Finally, Lini spoke. “Ixy...? Are you.....are you okay?”

“What...what did you do?”

“I don't know......it was just there and I....did I hurt you?”

“No....no, it felt good. Really good. Could....could you do it again....?”

Lini smiled. “Anything for you, love.” She pulled Ixia's cheeks apart and was about to dive in once more when they heard the crash from downstairs.

Before they could pull away from one another, an armored Constable kicked the bedroom door down, his sidearm drawn and leveled at the two girls. “You two are under arrest for violation of the Reproduction Clause of the Cetian Compact. You will surrender yourselves to our custody and await your trial or be further charged with resisting arrest.”

The girls stood up, visibly shaking. “Please,” Lini said, “just....just let us go. We aren't hurting anyone....”

“What you are doing is harming the gene pool of our society,” the Constable replied. “Any further outbursts will be construed as resisting arrest. Now, downstairs.” Their heads hung low, the girls walked past the Constable and down to the living room.

Standing in the middle of the room, wearing only a feathered headdress and speaking to a man in red-and-black robes with a shiny metal cylinder attached to his belt, was Anri Stahl.

“Anri?!” Ixia shouted. “What are you doing here?”

The other girl had a self-satisfied smirk plastered on her face. “Why, I'm just doing my civic duty and telling my older brother all about the nasty, filthy things that have been going on in this house.” She stepped closer to Ixia, her naked chest bouncing a little as she strutted. “I'll give you points for remembering to close the door when you came in, but you should have remembered to close that front window. And you really should have been making sure nobody followed you two here. And you really, really shouldn't have been kissing and fondling each other under that tree yesterday. That was all I needed to bring you down.”

The Constables were tearing the house apart once again, leaving nothing unchecked. Ixia's heart sank as they found the hidden door and began exploring downstairs. One returned with a recording device, showing several still images to the robed man. “It's as we thought, sir. Signs of criminal perversion everywhere. Multiple DNA readings.”

Lini was staring at Anri, her lower lip quivering. “....Why are you doing this? What did we ever do to you?”

Anri shrugged. “Nothing, really. I've just never liked either of you and I like seeing you hurt. Plus, I'm going to get rewarded rather nicely for helping my brother.”

The robed man stepped forward. “I am Keldan Stahl, Archon of the First Circle. Which one of you has the Gift?”

“What are you talking about?” Ixia asked, barely able to hold back her anger. She recognized his voice as the one she had heard days before, when she had been in the secret room with her family.

“I have been feeling a presence from this area through my Gift for some time now but have been unable to determine its source. When Anri reported your activities to the Constables I had a feeling this would lead me to my prize and what I felt moments ago was proof I was right. Now, which of you is it?”

“We're not Gifted!” Ixia yelled. Lini was down on her knees, sobbing with tears flowing down her face. “We've been tested and they never found anything! You're wrong!”

Keldan shook his head. “You wouldn't be the first to show no signs of a Gift as an infant but develop it later in life. If I recall the files correctly the same was true of your mother.” He looked down at Lini. “And it is also common for someone to be born Gifted into a family that has never produced one before. It's entirely possible that both of you will be of use to us. Take them!” He shouted this last to the Constables as he grabbed Lini's arm to pull her up.

“Leave her ALONE!” Ixia tried to strike Keldan as she cried out, though her fist fell well short of its mark. Keldan was knocked to the ground anyway, along with Anri and two Constables that were nearby.

“Well, well, well,” the elder Stahl said, getting to his feet. “It looks like we have a new 'volunteer' after all.” He helped Anri to her feet as a Constable stepped forward with a black metal ring – an Inhibitor. “You, my dear, are going to make a fine Archon. And if you do as you're told, then we'll be nice to your little friend here and make sure she gets sent to the women's prison. Otherwise, well, paperwork can get shuffled around and sometimes a female prisoner can wind up in the men's facilities before anyone catches the mistake and transferred to the proper place. Unfortunately, by the time the mistake is found, there usually isn't enough left to be worth transferring.” By this time, Anri had taken her brother's hand.

“So, big brother, was I a good girl? Do I get my reward?”

Keldan's only response was to lean down and kiss the girl on the lips.

Ixia lashed out again, trying to replicate her attack, but nothing happened. The Constable was fitting the collar around her when the room exploded in white light. There were voices, other noises and a sensation of motion, but neither Ixia nor Lini could make sense of it. By the time they had regained their senses, they were outside, huddled at the base of the mountains and concealed by thick shrubbery. Night was falling and they were surrounded by people.

Raia, Vara, Sciza, Mele, the Samno family and a few others were there. All were dressed in dark, form-fitting clothing and most carried weapons. Raia was trying to get his daughter's attention.“Ixia! Ixia, can you hear me?”

“Barely....there's a ringing in my ears.”

“That will pass soon. That grenade was designed to blind and deafen rather than kill. We barely got you two out of there. Are you hurt?” Both girls shook their heads.

“Thank the stars for small favors,” Sciza said. “If one of our group wasn't a Constable we never would have gotten tipped off.”

Ixia looked up at her brother. “I thought you and Mele were supposed to have left this morning.”

“We were,” the dark-haired girl replied as she slid a pair of daggers into her belt, “but the boat we were supposed to take had been rented to someone else for the day and set us back. We were having an early dinner with your parents when we found out about the raid.” She kissed both girls on the cheek. “I'm glad we made it in time.”

Lini's father stepped over to hug them both. He was shorter than Raia and much wider at the hip and shoulder, his muscular build having been honed by years of making a living as a wrestler. “I'm glad you two are safe. I don't know what I would have done if we had lost either of you.”

“Odan, we don't have time for this,” his wife said. She was carrying a handheld scanner and some sort of baton with two metal prongs on the end. “They're going to figure out which way we headed and have every Constable on the island looking for us.”

“I know, Vila,” he replied. “Listen, you two – we're going to draw them away. You have to get over the mountains and into the forest. At the northern end you will find a cave entrance. It is well-hidden but you shouldn't have any trouble once you get inside. We have people there. They will protect you. We'll join you when we can.”

Odan stood up and drew a sidearm, much older than the ones used by the Constables, then placed a headband with a small lamp on each girl's head. “We need to draw them off. Let's go.” The adults split into two groups, each headed a different way. The girls were again alone, but they at least knew what to do. Finding an area where the rock face was not so steep, they began to climb.

Conversation was kept short and related only to pointing out handholds or hazards, as though they feared their voices carrying. Ixia's thoughts were consumed by what she had done, pushing those people over without touching them. She knew, for sure, that she had the Gift, but it made no sense to her. The test was negative, so how was I able to do that? Is this the kind of thing Mama could do without that collar?

They climbed for more than three hours before pausing on a ledge to rest. They were nearly halfway up the mountain and it was absolutely pitch black save for the light from their lamps. “Lini, I'm sorry,” Ixia said after they had been silent for some time.

“For what?”

“For not staying in control. For being stupid enough to get us caught. For a lot of things.”

Lini rested her head on her lover's shoulder. “Don't be. I'm with the person I love more than anything else in the world. That's all I need.”

Ixia smiled despite the situation. “If you were any sappier we could make syrup out of you.”

“Don't know about that, but at least with me around you won't go thirsty.” She squeezed a nipple for emphasis, forcing out a small squirt of milk that made Ixia giggle. They then shared a tender kiss, one not meant to arouse, but merely to comfort.

They sat there for another few minutes, looking down at the lights of their hometown and wondering if they would ever walk its streets again, before resuming their climb.

An hour later, as the moon was reaching its zenith in the sky, they found the beginning of a footpath. “Look, Ixy – I think this is one of the trails the miners use.”

“What would they be doing up this high?”

“Probably surveying. Taking core samples of the rock up here to see if it's worth digging in to find something valuable.” She walked up the path a little way, the soft dirt feeling much better to her bare feet than the rock had. “Looks like it curves to the west, then down to the base of the mountain. We can be in the forest before dawn.”

“Then let's move,” Ixia said. “I do not want to be in the open when the sun comes up.”

“I'm afraid that is the least of your problems, little girl,” said a gruff voice from behind them.

They looked to their right to see a man dressed in gray and tan. A mining suit! Ixia realized. He must have used it to get up here before us. The sidearm in his right hand and the badge affixed to his chest identified him as a Constable. “You've used up your chance to be treated nicely.” He pointed at Ixia. “Now you're going to be put through hell until they condition you as an Archon and your little friend is going to the Archon slave pool.”

“The what?” Ixia asked.

“Those guys have to have their fun, too, you know, and they're forbidden from consorting with the Breeders because that could lead to too many Gifted to effectively control and then you'd just have chaos. So every few months a bunch of criminals get 'misplaced' and wind up as playthings for the Archons. Sometimes has the nice side-effect of breeding a new Gifted, too, and in a place where it can be immediately identified and trained. Nice, neat and orderly.”

Ixia raised her hand toward the officer. “I won't let you do that to her....I will stop you.”

“No....I don't think you will,” he said as he fired off a snap shot at the ground by Ixia's feet. The green plasma projectile impacted the loose dirt, causing her to lose her footing and tumble, falling a short distance down the path. She looked up just in time to see Lina tackle the man, almost knocking him backwards over the edge. She grappled with him, trying to wrench the weapon from his hand.

“Run, Ixy! I won't let them take you! No matter what happens, remember that I love you! RUN!” Another energy bolt fired from the pistol, striking a rock mere inches from Ixia's head. The rock exploded and the next thing Ixia knew, she was tumbling down the mountainside. She heard one more shot fire before she lost consciousness.

***********************************************************************************

When she awoke, Ixia registered three things. The first was that she was laying on a hard surface. The second was the bright lights shining directly into her eyes. The third was that she was not alone.

Standing over her was a young girl, slightly older than herself, with blue and green hair dressed in a dark jumpsuit. Sitting at a computer was a tall blonde woman with a blue-haired boy looking over her shoulder.

“Hey – looks like she's awake,” the girl said.

Ixia shrieked and tried to run away, but the girl grabbed her shoulders. “Woah, there. You took a pretty nasty fall. You should take it easy.”

“I won't let you take me! I just want to go home!”

“Sabine, is she speaking Basic?” the boy asked.

“There's a definite accent, but yeah. It's Basic.”

“Blood analysis confirms she's one hundred percent human. Rather odd to find a human settlement this far out that isn't on any of the charts,” the blonde added.

Ixia stopped struggling for a minute. “You're....you're not with the Archons?”

The boy shook his head. “Never heard of an Archon. I'm Ezra Bridger. This is my wife, Sabine Wren, and that is Maketh Tua.”

The girl relaxed. She wasn't sure how or why, but she felt she could trust these people.“Ixia Berk. You......are you from the Republic?”

The trio stood silent for a moment before Ezra spoke. “Well....sort of.”

Maketh walked over and checked one of the now-bandaged cuts on the girl's head. “The Republic hasn't existed for almost two decades now. The last Supreme Chancellor declared himself Emperor and now rules the galaxy with an iron fist.”

Ixia blinked. “But the Republic was supposed to stand forever, a monument to peace and stability after the Unification Wars.”

Maketh raised an eyebrow and asked, “How long have your people been living on that planet?”

“That's a long story. And I'm thirsty.” Ixia accepted a glass of water from Sabine and drank it down. Then, as if reciting something from a textbook, She took a deep breath and said, “Following the Unification Wars, several colony vessels equipped with hyperdrive prototypes were sent out by the recently-established Galactic Republic to find new worlds to live on and draw resources from in order to help recover from the conflict. One of them, known as the Archon, malfunctioned. Its crew and passengers found themselves flung across the galaxy with no way to return. Operating under their limited sublight engines, they came across what they named the Alpha Ceti star system and were able to land on the fifth planet. Their ship would never fly again. They had the necessary supplies and materials to set up a colony, but the hundred or so survivors of the accident were too few to establish one that could survive the genetic bottleneck that would surely result from such a limited breeding pool.

“At first it was suggested that promiscuity and sexual openness be the norm rather than the exception to help mitigate this problem, but there were some couples among the passengers who had already taken vows of exclusivity with one another and did not want to be forced to break them. So the Cetian Compact was established, allowing those who wished to remain exclusive to do so and be exempt from what came to be known as the Diversity Mandate which keeps the gene pool from stagnating. However, those who break their Bonding vows are severely punished and forever forbidden from ever being in such a relationship again. To aid this diversity, the Compact also established the Breeders, a group of women forbidden to Bond with any one man and instead dedicated to having as many children by as many different men as possible, so long as those men had no Bondmates. Nursemaids were later introduced to help care for and feed all of the children being born from the Breeder program.

“The leaders of the colony used the remains of the ship as their headquarters and eventually became known as Archons. They had been called something else before, but the word was lost to history. Little is known about them save that they are born with a Gift that lets them see the thoughts of others. It was decided by them a long time ago to not even attempt to return to the Republic, since we were sent out to establish a colony and had done just that. And so it has remained ever since.”

Maketh's eyes were as wide as a sensor dish. “A 'Gift'......The dawn of the Republic.....twenty-five thousand years ago....How many people live on your world now?”

“Around five hundred and sixteen thousand.”

“Well, at least they succeeded at something. But they never tried to return to space?”

Ixia shook her head. “Small rockets were launched around five hundred years after our ancestors arrived here, but that was only to put weather monitoring satellites in orbit. Most of our culture relies on the sea and the last thing anyone needs is to have an entire fleet taken out by a storm.”

Ezra sighed. “I doubt weather is all those things monitor. We found them when we arrived in this system and they were scanning the planet in a specific way, apparently monitoring specific frequencies.”

“The Inhibitors!”

“The what?” Sabine asked.

“I only just learned about them – my Mama has one. The Archons put them on people with the Gift to keep them from using it if they refuse to join the Archons.”

Ezra put a hand on her knee. “These Archons aren't very nice, are they?” Ixia shook her head. “If I'm right, then where we come from, the 'Gift' is called the Force, and those who train to use it are called the Jedi. The original Archons must have been Jedi Knights sent by the fledgling Republic to protect the colonists. And it sounds like they rather quickly got corrupted by the Dark Side.”

“If they weren't already when the mission started,” Maketh added. “From what we've heard they started taking charge pretty quickly and making some rather radical choices. Why don't you tell us how you came to be on that mountain, dear. And why you're naked.”

“Well, I've been naked almost all the time since I was born. Only put clothes on when I have to. Most people are that way, save for the Archons, their Constables and anyone who needs protection while doing dangerous work. When you can literally walk down the street, find someone and just have sex with them anywhere, clothing and modesty stop mattering after a while.” She did not miss the look of fascination in Sabine's eyes. “As for how I got up there, well....”

Ezra smirked. “Another long story?”

“I'll try to make it shorter.” Ixia then recounted the last few days, everything she had learned from and done with her parents and Lini, up to her friend's sacrificing of herself and Ixia being knocked out.

“Wait, so it's a crime to have sex with someone you can't have children with?” Maketh asked.

“Punishable by either death or forced servitude into the Breeder program, depending on circumstances. The Cetian Compact addressed that because there were two women among the survivors that were lovers and had no interest in producing children. They resisted for a long time and eventually were put on trial and found guilty of violating the Diversity Mandate. They were imprisoned, never to see one another again for the rest of their lives. At one time I thought that they had to be crazy, that there was no way two women could be together, but now I don't know.”

“Because of your friend.” Sabine's eyes gave away her sympathy for the girl even if her voice had not.

“Yes. And now I don't even know if she's alive or dead.” She drew her knees up to her chest. “My parents, my brother, Mele.....they could all be dead for all I know.”

Maketh drew the girl in for a hug. “Why don't you lay down and rest for now. We're still trying to fix our ship, but we'll try to help you as much as we can.”

The trio left the medbay and closed the door behind them. “Finding her was no accident,” Ezra said as they sat down in the common room. “It had to have been the will of the Force. Either she's meant to help us, or we're meant to help her.”

“Maybe we can help her and maybe we can't. But can she help us?” Maketh asked. “I know that sounds cold, but we need to be pragmatic here.”

“I know. But I just can't shake this feeling.” Maris walked in from the galley bearing four steaming mugs of caf. “Thank you, Maris.”

“There isn't much I can do with such limited power,” the Zabrak replied.

“This is enough,” he replied, taking a sit of the hot, bitter liquid. “You don't have to earn our friendship or our loyalty – you've had it since we met.” Ezra's words brought a smile to the girl's face.

Sabine popped the collar on her bodysuit and shrugged it off of her shoulders with a sigh of comfort, leaving her chest exposed. “You heard her talk about 'mining suits', right? If she's used them before, she might be able to help us by gathering some of that mineral for the hyperdrive so we can get out of here.”

“And then what?” Maketh asked. “We're one ship. We can't fight a planet.”

“Maybe we don't have to,” Maris offered. “If she helps us, we can just take her with us. It doesn't sound like she has anything to keep her here now anyway.”

“It may not be the worst thing. If this 'Gift' of hers really is the Force, she could join us in learning how to properly use it. Another Jedi against the Empire isn't the worst way we could come away from this little detour.”

“Let's sleep on it, then,” Maketh said, draining her cup. “We're all tired and we have a lot to do no matter what we decide.”

***********************************************************************************

They rested until night was about to fall once more. Ixia emerged from the medbay and ate with her rescuers. Upon seeing Maris the girl was initially startled, but quickly recovered. “You're a Zabrak, aren't you? From Iridonia?”

“How did you know that?”

“Not all of our knowledge was lost. We still have copies of the databanks from the colony ship. We know about the Zabrak, the Twi'lek, the Duros, Wookiees, all kinds of other species. There just weren't any of them that survived the accident.” She picked up a spoon and took a mouthful of the yellow paste that came from a ration pack. “Not exactly gourmet, is it?” she asked Sabine.

“Hopefully we'll be able to get some real food when we get back to known space. So, those mining sits you mentioned – if you had to could you use one again?”

“Yes, I think so. But why?”

“Your planet produces an energy-enhancing mineral that we believe can power our ship and allow us to leave. If you can help us harvest some of it, we'll take you with us and you can be free.”

“We call it dragonite, after the Star Dragons. Without it we wouldn't have been able to accomplish what we have. We use geothermal power now and so it isn't mined as much these days, but until we figured out how to do that we had to make do with small nuclear fission reactors enhanced by the dragonite. The only things we mine for now are metals needed for our boats, houses and other things. Oh, and the Archons always have miners looking for specific types of crystals.”

I bet I know what they use those in, Ezra thought. But rather than bringing up the subject of weapons, he asked, “So this dragonite isn't used at all now?”

“Not really. It has a unique texture and a particular sheen in sunlight, so the lower-quality samples are used as jewelry or decorative plating. The purest ore is still mined in a handful of locations – it's almost exclusively used in generators on large ships or construction sites.”

“What powers those generators?”

“Hydrogen fuel cells, produced in factories next to the geothermal plants. A cell alone would only power a worksite generator for around a half a day, but by using the dragonite, you can extend that one cell to last a little over a month. It's a lot cheaper to buy a few chunks of ore than to stock hundred or thousands of fuel cells.”

Maketh smiled at the girl. “Sounds like you know what you're talking about. Can you help us get some?”

“I can. But I want your help with something in return.”

Ezra chimed in. “We're already going to take you with us. What else could you want?”

“I want you to help me find my family and Lini. They're alive...I just know it. Wherever they are, I want to rescue them.”

“Odds are they're dead already,” the boy started, and when he saw the crestfallen look on Ixia's face, he amended his statement. “But we can at least try to look for them before we leave. Either way we're going to need to fix this ship. So, are you going to help us?”

Ixia nodded. “Yeah. I'm in.”

***********************************************************************************

They rested until night fell. Sabine and Maketh divested themselves of their clothing, partially out of comfort and partially to make their guest more comfortable. It was not lost on Maketh how attractive Ixia was, especially to someone whose tastes gravitated towards younger girls. Best to put such thoughts out of my mind, she thought. We have a mission to accomplish and I'm not sure Sabine would like it if my eye began to wander. Nevertheless, she found herself staring at the well-tanned posterior of their new friend and realized that this was going to be a long day.

When the sun had set, Maris once again stayed behind in the Defiant while Ixia led Ezra and his lovers to the entrance of the mine. To his dismay, Sabine had decided to forgo her recon suit and make the journey nude, arguing that they didn't have a suit for Ixia and someone was going to have to go naked anyway. Maketh, at least, was wearing her suit, but with half of their party naked Ezra wasn't optimistic about their chances should they run into anyone on the journey.

The mine entrance Ixia led them to, as it turned out, was not far from the stream where Maketh had found the first traces of dragonite, but it was unlikely the rebels would have found it searching on their own. It was safe for them to explore, Ixia explained, because that particular entrance had not been used in some time by the regular miners due to the almost nonexistent use of dragonite and was instead used to only give demonstrations to groups of schoolchildren. “They're after the more valuable ores in other parts of these mountains – the ones that can be used in construction or electrical equipment.”

The entrance was sealed by an old metal door with a mechanical lock. Ezra drew his lightsaber and activated the blade, now glowing dark red due to the crystals he had been given by Sabine and Maketh. Ixia gasped when she saw it, her mind going back to the cylinder she had seen on Keldan Stahl's belt. When Ezra sliced the locking mechanism off of the door and pulled it open with a gesture from his hand, the redhead realized how much danger she truly had been in had Keldan decided she wasn't worth the trouble of keeping alive.

Once inside the opening, Ixia used the light cast by the saber to find the switch that operated the overhead lights, revealing a short tunnel that started angling downward lined with cloth-covered boxes along the walls. “The good news is, the dragonite deposits aren't far from this entrance and everything we need is right here. The bad news is, because of the way we mine on this world, the shaft leading to the main deposit is pretty much straight down.”

“What do you mean by 'the way you mine'?” Maketh asked. “And I don't see any equipment here. No drills, no mining picks, nothing.”

“Because we don't need them.” Ixia pulled one of the cloths away to reveal a stack of crates made from local hardwoods. Lifting the lid from the create she then produced a black cloth pouch. She popped open a vacuum seal and pulled from the pouch a pair of brown boots and gloves, a gray bodysuit that appeared to have circuitry woven into it, and a beige jacket that had various straps built into it secured with button closures. From the adjoining crate, she produced a flexible metal harness that at first glance seemed to line up with the straps on the jacket, a pair of matching gauntlets and a thin circular headband. The harness itself was essentially a wide belt that went around the waist, a matching strap over the chest and two vertical arches that connected them with the peak resting upon the shoulder.

“These are mining suits. We designed them so that we can dig down to the rock level where most of the dragonite is. There are trace amounts here, but not enough to do anything practical with. The big deposits are hundreds of meters down and using traditional techniques would have been too costly and time-consuming given our energy requirements at the time. So we developed a new system.” She then sighed. “The last time I put on any clothes at all it was one of these suits. I had hoped I'd never have to wear one, or anything else, ever again.” She pulled on the bodysuit and zipped it up, then started sliding her feet into the boots. “There are a lot more in those crates. We'll each need one.”

The Defiant crew did as they were told. Ironically, it took Sabine less time to get into her suit because Ezra and Maketh needed to strip down, as the bodysuit was far too snug to fit over their clothing. Once they had the basics on, Ixia showed them how to fit the harness over the jackets and secure the straps. The headband had a trio of delicate-looking wires coiled up inside, each revealed by pulling out a small portion of the headband which stretched down and plugged into the top horizontal brace of the harness. The gauntlets went on last, using similar wires as the headband to connect to the rest of the device.

“These are pretty complicated but I'll try and show you as best I can,” Ixia continued. “The headbands pick up your thought patterns and carry them into the gauntlets, which have miniaturized force field projectors built into them. You direct the projectors to create the field around your hands, which will allow you to punch through the rock. With a little practice you can even reshape the energy however you want – you can make a sharpened tip for more precise strikes, or even make a protective shield in case of a cave-in.” She demonstrated each of these functions as she spoke, the barely-visible energy crackling around her changing shape as quickly as her thoughts.

“The other important thing is in the harness itself. It's more than just a conduit for the gauntlets.” She sent a particular thought through the headband and four panels opened up in the harness, revealing a quartet of harpoon-like spikes. Two were at the top of the device, positioned on top of the shoulders, and the other two were set into the belt portion directly below the shoulder blades. “These grapplers are connected to monofilament spools in the harness. You can direct them the same way you do the energy shields. The launch tubes are multi-directional with very few limitations. The lower pair can't fire straight ahead and the upper ones can't fire downward, but other than that your only limit is your imagination. You locate a point you want to attach to, send the right mental signal, and...”

Her sentence was punctuated by her upper grapplers launching straight up and anchoring into the ceiling, the connecting wires almost invisible, and then Ixia raised a few inches off of the floor. The lower grapplers then launched, sinking into the cave wall on either side, and the upper ones retracted, which left her suspended by two cables. She then fired the upper grapplers again, this time ahead of her and towards the cave entrance, one at a time, releasing the lower cables and letting the grapplers retract into their housings as she went. She went back and forth along the roof of the cavern, even moving side to side a few times, to demonstrate the three-dimensional movement capabilities of the mining gear.

A few minutes of practice made the rebels competent enough with the devices that they would likely not injure themselves or one another, though a great more would have been needed for mastery. Satisfied that his crew could do they could do what they needed to, Ezra hung his lightsaber off of the harness and signaled his readiness. They each took the bag their suit had been stored in and, with great care, walked farther into the cavern, where the floor sloped down five degrees, then fifteen, then thirty, and then straight down. Ixia turned to face her new friends.

“Here's where we drop. The cavern these miners were excavating is a little over six hundred and forty meters down. Just stay calm and stay focused. Climbing down with the gear, it will take us about five minutes. But if you mess up, you'll reach the bottom in about seven seconds and you won't like the landing.” She engaged her grapplers and maneuvered herself until she was hovering over the hole, then began her descent. Maketh followed a few moments after Ixia's head had vanished down the hole, then Sabine. Ezra brought up the rear.

As they went down and darkness enveloped them, light-emitting diodes built into the headbands and gauntlets turned on, allowing them to see where they were going. Looking down, Ezra could see Ixia's lights well ahead of Maketh's – the redhead's prior experience was serving her well. After about three minutes, she had gone too far down for him to see.

After what seemed like an eternity of anchoring and retracting the grapplers, Ezra saw the shaft abruptly widen in the beam of his headlamp. Looking down, he could see Maketh and Sabine touching down about four meters below him. Once they were clear, he retracted all of his grapplers and let the Force cushion the rest of his drop.

“Showoff,” Maketh said with a wink. “I had to lower myself with the cables, but our brave Jedi Knight didn't. I doubt he really needed the mining suit at all.” The blonde then planted a kiss on his cheek. Sabine said nothing, but Ezra thought he caught a small scowl on her face before she turned away.

Something is definitely bothering her and it involves Maketh. If she's getting jealous, that is going to have to be dealt with. And soon.

“Is it supposed to be this dark down here?” Ezra asked.

“No,” he heard Ixia say from behind him. Turning, he could see her moving around near the far side of the cavern. “Last time I was here it was lit up, but they may have turned the lights on before we got here. I'm trying to find the...wait. Hold on.”

A few clicks and a loud thunk later, the lights came on. Ixia had her hand on a large lever. “Found it. Had to reset the breakers and then close the circuit. Not exactly like switching on the kitchen light, but it worked.”

The cavern they were in was roughly large enough to set the Defiant down in. Aside from the generator that operated the lights, it was free of any heavy equipment. There were several elongated baskets with handles on either side stacked up against the rock wall, but the area was otherwise empty. “Somehow, I expected it to be....I dunno....more,” Sabine commented.

“This stopped being a commercial operation decades ago. The only time this cavern is used is for training new miners to operate the suits and locate the dragonite, or for showing around wide-eyed schoolchildren during that oh-so-riveting time when they show off all these 'wonderful' and 'exciting' careers you can embark on when you finish your basic schooling. Help me with these.” With Ezra's help, she pulled one of the baskets off of the stack, then another. “It takes two people to haul one of these baskets up the shaft, so we'll fill these two with as much ore as we can and then get out of here. I doubt we'll have the time to make another trip.”

“That will be fine,” Maketh said. “I'm not exactly sure how much we'll need to fire up the engines, but as potent as this ore seems to be, one trip should suffice.”

Ezra looked at the glittery blue-green-gray streaks in the wall. “Even with this dragonite, we'll still need some fuel. Any thoughts about that?”

Maketh shook her head. “I highly doubt we'll find any rhydonium here and our engines would take too much time and work to adapt to using their hydrogen cells even if we could find one large enough. If we had some anthracite, maybe.....”

Ixia perked up. “Oh, that's easy! Our ancestors found it everywhere. So much that the first ships we built used steam pressure built up by burning the anthracite. In fact, it's in this cavern. Find portions that are darker than the dragonite and lighter than the surrounding rock.”

“That's the best bit of news I've heard so far,” Sabine said. “Before I joined the Imperial Academy, my mother insisted I go to this science camp on Alderaan. They had us doing these silly little experiments with magnets and whatnot, but one thing I did find interesting was how to liquefy anthracite. We only made small amounts that could make an oil lamp burn for a few minutes, but it did get me to thinking how it could be used to make a nice, loud bang, so it was the only thing I actually paid attention to.”

Ezra raised an eyebrow. “And you could make this stuff if you had to?”

“With enough anthracite, something to crush it with and some water, yeah.” She gasped as Ezra drew her close and kissed her deeply.

“Every day, you remind me why I love you, Sabine. Let's grab one basket of anthracite and one of dragonite. Maketh, while we mine, start running the numbers in your head as best you can.”

For the next several hours, the quartet worked on using the force field digging tools to extract what they needed from the rock. It was slow going and by Ezra's reckoning the sun as reaching its peak by the time they had filled the baskets to capacity. They stopped to rest only once the work was done and they were ready to haul the fruits of their labor to the surface.

“So,” Ixia said as they dragged the baskets beneath the shaft, “once we get your ship running, how will we find Lini and my family?”

Ezra sighed. “I'm really not sure that we can. I don't even know where to start looking. Those who haven't been captured could be hiding anywhere and those that have been will definitely be guarded.”

“But you promised! I can't leave them! I won't leave them! I have so much to tell my parents, my brother, Lini....”

“Oh, don't worry. You'll get your chance soon enough.” The sinister-sounding voice echoed through the cavern.

Ixia turned pale. “Stahl...”

“You remember me. I'm touched.” The voice was closer now, and a moment later Keldan floated down the shaft without the need for a mining suit. Gripping his neck was a blue-haired girl dressed in the uniform of a Constable. “I take it you remember my sister, as well? Helping to capture you was her final examination.”

Two more Constables wearing mining suits quickly dropped out of the shaft – they clearly were experienced with the equipment. One of them carried a heavy rifle. The other held a bound and gagged blonde girl in his arms.

“Lini!” Ixia started towards her friend but Keldan held up his hand to stop her.

“Your perverted little friend is here to make sure you don't do anything stupid. So, tell me...who are your new friends?” Ixia only glared at him. “No matter – we'll figure it out soon enough. Especially since.....yes, I thought as much. They are Gifted, as well. I can sense it. In him,” he said, pointing to Ezra, “and her,” indicating Maketh. “Far too old to train as Archons, I fear. We'll simply have to execute them.” He signaled to the Constable with the rifle. “Set for stun. I don't want them killed yet.”

The Constable smirked as he brought the weapon up and fired a blue-white bolt at Ezra. The self-assured smirk on Keldan's face disappeared with the snap-hiss of Ezra's lightsaber coming alive, deflecting the bolt back to the Constable. Without the armor the enforcer normally wore, he had no protection from the stun blast and was knocked backwards, his rifle clattering to the rocky floor.

“Well. Well. Well. I guess I get to have some fun after all,” Keldan said as he unhooked his own weapon from his belt. He pressed the activation stud and a silver blade emerged. “I've never actually been in a duel to the death. Have you?”

“I guess you'll find out,” Ezra responded as he closed the distance between them and thrust with his blade.

The second Constable was taken aback by the suddenness of what had happened and had failed to pay attention to Sabine. Taking full advantage of what was available, she had activated her force gauntlets and dove at the man's legs, forming a blade that sliced through his right kneecap and sent him tumbling to the floor, howling in pain.

Lini tumbled to the ground, her bare skin offering no protection against the rock and adding to the scrapes and cuts already inflicted upon her. Ixia ran to her friend, cutting through the bindings and removing the gag. The two stared at once another for a long moment, then embraced in a passionate kiss.

“Ugh! Could you two be any more disgusting?” Anri asked, drawing a small sidearm from her holster.

“Love isn't disgusting!” Lini screamed. “I care about Ixia more than anyone else. Why is that a bad thing?”

“A little thing called the Reproduction Clause, for one,” was Anri's arrogant reply.

“That shouldn't matter! Ixia was going to be a Breeder and I doubt I'd have remained childless my entire life....so what if we spent our lives with each other? How is anyone hurt by that?”

“If we allowed that, then who knows how many would take the same path? And how many of them would refuse to have any children at all? We need a diverse gene pool to survive and mandatory reproduction is the way to do that.” She pointed the blaster first at Lini, then at Ixia. “It's clear that neither of you will ever truly be useful to us. I just have to decide which one to kill first. And Ixy? If you even think about turning your shield on.....it'll be her.”

Ezra, meanwhile, had his hands full with Keldan. The Archon was around ten years older than Ezra and had obviously been combat trained his entire life. More than once in their duel Ezra had to use his suit's force field to ward off a blow that would have taken off a hand or a leg. But the strain of using the suit and drawing on the Force was wearing him down faster than he would have liked. Parrying a horizontal slice with his crimson blade, he looked for something, anything, that would indicate a weakness he could exploit.

While neither combatant knew it, Keldan's single-minded focus was the deciding factor. And, as it turned out, ran in the family. He was so intent on fighting Ezra that he failed to notice Sabine coming up behind him, the blaster rifle in her hands and no longer set to stun. By the same token, Anri had completely failed to notice Maketh at all.

Their attacks were near-simultaneous. Sabine put the blaster bolt into Keldan's back and Maketh drew on the Force to leap over Ixia to land a two-footed dropkick on Anri's face. The siblings dropped, Anri onto her back and Keldan to one knee. Unfortunately, the armor beneath his robes diffused most of the energy. But before he could rise, Ezra was on top of him, raining blow after blow down upon him. It was all the wounded Archon could do to keep the heavy strikes from cleaving him in two.

Anri lay unmoving on the floor. Maketh could have checked for a pulse, but the dull, lifeless eyes and unnatural angle of her neck told the woman all she needed to know. The girl was dead. It hadn't been Maketh's intention to kill her, but she felt no remorse for the act, either. Glancing at the man Sabine had attacked first, she could see he was unconscious and with the amount of blood he had lost, if he wasn't already dead, he would be before anyone could save him.

Out of the corner of her eye, Ixia saw the Constable that had held the rifle starting to stand. Her eyes filled with tears, she stood up, grabbing Anri's fallen pistol as she did so, and fired a bolt into the man's leg, collapsing him to the floor once more. Still walking forward, she continued firing, not really aiming, and most of her shots hit the cavern around him. But enough struck the man that by the time she was standing over him, the power pack depleted, he was most assuredly dead. Her hand trembling, she cast the weapon aside and sunk to her knees, sobbing.

Ezra had almost completely given in to his anger. All he could think of was killing the man in front of him. The sheer power he had found within that anger both terrified and excited him. Part of his mind began to think of all the things he could do with such strength. The people he could save, the worlds he could liberate from the Empire, and he allowed those thoughts to distract him for one unfortunate second.

Keldan took advantage of the distraction and shoved the boy backwards with his mind. Rising to stand once more, he gripped his lightsaber with both hands and brought it down in what was clearly intended to be a killing blow. Panicked, Ezra lashed out with the Force, hoping to do to Keldan what had been done to him, but as unfocused as he was all he managed to do was nudge the other man's arm slightly.

Ezra's head was still safe and secure where it was supposed to be, but the emitter cowling of his lightsaber was not. The weapon sparked and fizzled in his hand, no more useful to defend himself with than his bare hand.

“You were entertaining for a moment; I'll give you that.” Keldan smirked, twirling his weapon one-handed before pointing the tip at Ezra's throat. “But you are, in the end, just a child. And after I kill you, I'll take your friends over there as my slaves. I need someone to replace my sister in my bed, after all, even though she did prove rather useless. Maybe I shouldn't have brought her here, but....well, our family never liked her that much anyway.”

Maketh and Sabine had turned toward Keldan, but the Archon sensed them. “I wouldn't do that. You take one more step and he dies now, cowering in the dirt. Surrender, and I'll be sure to grant him a noble execution.”

“You won't win today,” Ezra said defiantly. “You think only of yourself, of what you crave and desire. Your ancestors may have been Jedi, but you're as much a Sith as anyone I've seen. You're evil, and evil never wins.”

Keldan laughed. “Jedi? Sith? Oh, this is too good to be true. If you know those words, words known only to the First Circle and the Decemvirate, then you can't be from Alpha Ceti. And that means you're from the Republic and you have a ship that can leave this system. Oh, how long we have been waiting for this day. You see, this backwater world doesn't have the resources to build or even repair starships. But we can use your ship to leave, and then we will capture more ships to bring more of our people out. And if all modern Jedi are as weak as you, then we Archons will have no trouble conquering the galaxy.” He threw his head back to laugh. To Maketh, it was like the sadistic laughter of the Inquisitor and she shuddered at the memory.

The laugh was his final mistake. His lightsaber flew out of his hand to the far wall of the cavern, where it smacked into Ixia's palm. She clenched it in her fist, a cold fury burning in her bloodshot eyes. She let out a primal scream and ran toward him, blade extended. He tried to dodge, but found himself between two walls of invisible energy – Ezra had activated his gauntlets and shaped the force fields into a narrow channel that Keldan could not escape from. By the time the Archon realized how trapped he was, he was looking down into Ixia's face and his own blade had pierced his gut.

“You...bitch....” was all he could say before he fell backwards and breathed his last.

Breathing heavily, Ixia turned the blade off and dropped it. “Let's get the hell out of here.”

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It took them longer to ascend the shaft than it had to come down, especially with Lini hanging tightly to Maketh's back. Sabine had also slung the blaster rifle over her back, unsure if that would need it. Keldan's lightsaber was now hanging from Ezra's belt along with the ruins of his own. Once the group reached the top of the shaft, they found a hoversled and three crates that had not been there before. One contained a dozen black metal collars, which Ixia identified as the Inhibitors. Another had a pair of long-range comm units, obviously meant so that the Archon could signal his allies after his mission was completed. The third held two blaster rifles identical to the one they already had with space for a third as well as a half-dozen pistols.

They piled their goods onto the sled, including the rest of the box of mining suits since their usefulness as weapons had already been proven. Maketh insisted that Ixia and Lini ride on it so that they could rest from their ordeal. Other than holding each other's hand and sharing a brief kiss, the two girls did nothing on the entire trip to the Defiant. Maris helped the two lovers into her cabin and they slept while Sabine and Maketh worked out the exact formulation needed to make liquid anthracite.

Ezra sat at the worktable in the cargo bay, attempting to repair his lightsaber. Most of it I can salvage, he thought, and the emitter cowling is easy enough to replace. But the stun blaster is wrecked. No way I can fix that. Sighing, he stripped most of the handle away, removing the boxy portion that had housed the blaster components. He salvaged the lens from the emitter, spliced in some new wiring and set a gray ceramic ring around it. After checking the power cell, crystals and circuitry, he closed everything up, took a deep breath and pressed the activator.

The blood-red blade sprung forth, bathing the cargo bay in its light. The saber was roughly half the weight it had been, and though he regretted the loss of the blaster mode, it would definitely be easier to wield in a duel.

He was weaving the blade in a lazy figure-eight to test its new balance when Maris poked her head through the door. “Sabine says the fuel should be ready soon. Maketh has figured out how to use the dragonite in the engines, so we should be out of here in a couple of hours.”

“That's good. We'll take the girls and get out of here.” There was a coldness to his voice Maris didn't like.

“Given what we know, should we leave? I mean, with this ship, we could...”

“We could what? Try and attack an army we know little about and outnumbers us probably a hundred to one? I barely beat one of them and that's only because Ixia and Sabine helped me. We would need an army of our own to free this world. I hate leaving the Archons in charge here but there's just nothing we can do. We have to be pragmatic.”

Maris looked down at the floor. “I know. I just...I thought...”

“We're Jedi. And sometimes, Jedi have to make hard decisions.” He deactivated his lightsaber and clipped it to his belt. “But I won't forget this world. One day, when the Empire is defeated and the Rebellion can do something about it, we'll come back and free everyone here. Maybe by then we'll have found other Jedi that will help us stand against the Archons. Kanan, Shaak Ti and you can't have been the only ones to survive. Maybe one or two more of the Council survived, and we could have a fighting chance.”

The Zabrak nodded. “Then we'd best get out there and find them.”

When they emerged into the Defiant's common room, they found Ixia and Lini huddled together, both as naked as the day they were born, eating from a ration pack and drinking hot, steaming cups of caf as they had a hushed conversation.

“And what would you two be conspiring about?” Ezra asked.

Ixia sighed. “I want Lini to come with us.”

“She's welcome to.”

“But I want to stay here,” the blonde replied. “I know Ixia needs to go with you – she needs to be taught to use her Gift and the Archons will never stop hunting her. But our families escaped, and I need to get to them. With what I know we might be able to put up a resistance against the Decemvirate. Let people know the truth. That we're being kept here as breeding stock until there are enough Archons to be able to start capturing ships like yours and then other worlds will have to fight our battle. I was telling Ixia that I could take one of those comm units with me and you could signal us when you're ready to come back and help us fight.”

“Lini,” the redhead interrupted, “that could take years. This Empire they're fighting doesn't sound any better than the Decemvirate and it's a whole lot bigger. I couldn't stand being away from you that long.”

Lini put a hand on her lover's cheek. “It will be hard, but we will endure it. I know we just got together, but if we found each other once, we can do it again.” She kissed Ixia tenderly. “Now, I can direct them to the cave Father told me about. That crate of weapons isn't much but it will help, if you'll let us take it.” Ezra nodded. “Then, as much as hate to say it, it's time for me to go.”

An hour later, Ezra had finished the pre-flight sequence for the Defiant. As he brought all the systems online, he felt the hum of the sublight engines through the deckplates. Not quite as smooth as it had been, but that was likely due to the unorthodox fuel supply they were running with. As night fell on Alpha Ceti 5, the freighter lifted just above the treetops. Lini sat in the copilot's chair, looking for the portion of the mountain her father had told her about.

Before too long, they had found it. It had been cleverly hidden with what appeared to be a boulder, but was actually a hollow shell, easily moved by hand. Ezra nestled the ship down in front of the entrance and they all walked down the entrance ramp just in time to see the fake boulder move.

Ezra wore the robes of Anakin Skywalker and Sabine her silver armor. To Ezra's relief, she had not put up a fuss about wearing it and agreed that they needed to make a good impression. Maris only had her leather top and pants to wear, but Maketh had somehow managed to hang onto the suit and headdress she often wore during her time as Minister of Lothal. Ixia and Lini were customarily nude and ran full speed towards the cave when they saw their fathers. Even though the two men were dressed in what amounted to battle gear and brandished weapons, the love in their eyes for their daughters was unmistakable.

“Ixy! Oh, my dear, sweet Ixy, I thought you were gone forever!” Raia said, tears of joy flowing freely from his eyes.

Odan was likewise pleased to see his own daughter. “We heard that the Constables had found you. How did you two ever get away?”

“Our new friends,” Lini said. “All but one of them is Gifted, Father, and they are not of this world. They came here by accident, but Ixia helped them fix their ship and they saved both of us.”

Introductions were made followed by a quick retelling of the battle in the cavern. Raia was saddened that his daughter would be leaving, maybe forever, but he also knew it would be the best thing for her. Especially with the hope of one day taking the Decemvirate down and freeing their planet. “I had always hoped we could change our world peacefully, but I guess I knew it would never happen that way. Go with them, Ixy. Learn what you can. And come back to us.” He embraced her and kissed her tenderly on the lips before letting her go.

“Lini, I wish you would come with us....”

“We're not having this discussion again. I'll do what I need to do and you'll do the same. And when we meet again, our love will be just as strong as it is now. Stronger, even.”

Ixia slowly nodded. “Just don't get knocked up until I get back. We have to raise our kids together, you know.”

“Wouldn't have it any other way.” The two shared a long, passionate kiss, the last they would have for a long time, before parting ways.

“I will do my best to teach her to use her powers. I'm only a student myself, but we are all on a journey to learn. She will be safe, and she will be cared for.” Ezra said to Raia as he went to the boarding ramp. He handed one of the bulky comm units to the man. “We have one of these on board. Keep it nearby at all times. When we return, we will signal on the frequency that one has been set to. When that day comes, it will be time to fight.”

Raia took the device and nodded solemnly. “We will be ready.” He took one last look at his daughter standing atop the ramp and went back to the cave. He and Odan slid the cover over the hole just before the ramp completely closed.

The Defiant took off northward, wanting to be well away from the hideout before leaping to the atmosphere. Maketh was able to time their ascent so as to avoid the scanning satellites as before and soon they were on their way.

Ixia was shivering, her knees pulled up to her chest as she sat at the dining table. “It's cold.....”

Sabine smirked. “No, your planet was just very warm. You'll get used to it.” Turning to Maris, she asked, “Until we figure out something more permanent, can she bunk with you?”

“I don't see why not. Unless Maketh wants to volunteer.”

The former minister raised an eyebrow. “I would have thought you and Ezra would want to 'keep her warm', as it were.”

Sabine blushed. “Well...the thought had crossed my mind.....”

They felt the ship lurch as the hyperdrive engaged. Ezra appeared from the cockpit and said “We're back on course to Sernpidal. Maris, I don't know what you did to that regulator but it's working at one hundred and eight percent efficiency.” He leaned against the chair Sabine was sitting in and lightly stroked her hair.

“The Gray Pilgrim was always on the verge of something breaking down. Never hurts to learn how to fix a ship,” she replied.

“So, 'Captain',” Sabine said, leaning her chin on her hands, “where will our new guest sleep? No-one is against sharing a room with her, but therein lies the puzzle.”

Ezra thought for a moment. “Well, she could alternate. Say, Maketh's cabin first, then Maris', then ours. Or we could try and make some bunk space in the cargo bay.....”

Ixia shook her head. “Taking turns doesn't sound so bad. This may be odd coming from me, but I can't promise sex to anyone.”

“We don't expect you to, dear,” Maketh said while taking the girl's hand. “We know you just left behind someone very important. You do not need to feel pressured. Just because you're in our beds doesn't mean you have to sleep with us.”

“Sabine and I are married and even we don't have sex every night.”

The Mando girl nodded. “It's been a while since Maketh and I did anything.”

“And I haven't ever had sex,” Maris added. Upon seeing the stunned looks on her companions' faces, she said, “Oh, is it really that shocking to find a virgin nowadays?”

“With this crew, it is,” Sabine said, giggling.

“Well, Master Kota was too busy drilling his militia. And you know Master Ti never took me to bed. Other than them, I've not really known anyone outside of you bunch of nutcases.”

Ezra looked at Sabine. “Do you think we could....?”

Sabine punched him in the shoulder playfully. “Keep it in your pants for now. We can't rest until we reach Sernpidal. And anyway, that's Maris' choice. For now, we all need sleep.”

“I agree,” Maketh said, standing up with Ixia. “Come, dearie. You can sleep in my cabin for tonight.” She looked at the girl for a moment, running her fingers over one ear. “I was meaning to ask, Ixia, but you're completely human and we didn't see anyone else with ears like this down there. How do you have them?”

Ixia smiled a bit. “A little bit of cosmetic surgery. I don't have a shapely butt, or a big chest, or anything else to make me stand out, so I convinced Papa to let me do something with my ears. It's becoming more popular with younger people – tattoos, changing hair or eye color. But I think I'm the only one with ears like this.”

“They certainly are distinctive,” Maketh said. “And they make you look even cuter than you already are.”

“I almost forgot,” Ezra said, unclipping the slimmer lightsaber from his belt. “It belonged to that Archon. I fixed mine, so I don't need it. And if you're going to be a Jedi.....” he trailed off.

Ixia looked at the weapon, knew what it had represented and what it could be made to represent. She took it in hand with a quiet nod, then turned away with Maketh. They walked away and Sabine could not keep her eyes off of the perfectly-tanned backside of the redhead.

“See something you like?” Ezra asked, teasingly. This time he dodged the shoulder punch.

Maris sighed. “Okay, just to be clear: Yes, I do have a lot of conflicting emotions. I really did love Master Ti, and I don't know that I'll ever be completely over it. You both are attractive, and if I had to choose a first lover, it would likely be one of you. But I just don't think I'm ready.”

“Would you have been ready if Shaak Ti had made love to you back on Felucia?” Sabine asked.

“I don't know. I want to think I would have been, because of how I felt about her, but there's really no way of knowing. But if I'm ready......when I'm ready......we'll talk. Okay?”

“There's no pressure. Just like we told Ixia. However and whenever is your decision,” Ezra said.

Sabine hugged him close. “I admit, I get a little jealous when I see him with another woman, but it's also a big turn on. Especially if I get to take a turn with her. So, yeah, we both think you're sexy and we would never turn you away, but we won't push you.”

“That's all I ask,” Maris said, smiling. She stood up and headed for her own cabin.

“Well, my dear, this voyage just got more complicated,” Ezra said as he made his way across the room. “I'm going to get some rest. I want to be awake before we come out of hyperspace. You coming?”

“I'll be along in a minute. I just want to make sure everything's ship-shape before I lay down.” She watched him leave, then doubled over and let the tremors she had been suppressing for the last few hours take her.

It's been too long. I've tried to fight it, but I can't. I need it.

Pushing herself up on shaking legs, she made her way back to the starboard escape pod. Quietly opening the hatch and shutting it behind her, she sat down in one of the two chairs and reached under the instrument panel. Secured to the underside with adhesive tape was a small bag. She opened it and pulled out a stoppered glass vial wrapped in black paper. She had gone through four full vials on Dantooine without realizing it.

Only one dose left. If I can't find any on Sernpidal..... She didn't allow herself to finish that thought. Initially, she had started procuring the glitterstim due to its telepathic properties. She had thought, with Maketh also training as a Jedi, that Ezra would one day leave her for their blonde lover so that his children would also be strong in the Force. The spice would at least allow her to 'see' into their enemies' minds in combat, putting her on a more even footing with Maketh, and perhaps she could even fool Ezra into thinking she was a latent Jedi so he would stay with her.

But the only one she had been fooling was herself. She wasn't sure whether or not she still believed Ezra would leave her. All she knew was that the spice had left its mark on her, and she could not keep herself from answering its siren call despite the high price. Her near-breakdown back on Lothal that had left her referring to herself in the third person for a week should have been a wake-up call, but her willpower wasn't strong enough and she wound up buying more of the drug.

With tear-filled eyes, she opened the vial and let the last bit of the spice fall into her mouth.

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The journey from Dantooine to Alderaan had been uneventful. A brief communication between Ahsoka and a bored-sounding individual had secured them clearance at one of the private landing pads of Senator Bail Organa at the royal residence. As the crew descended the ramp, they saw Bail and his wife, Breha, emerging from a gazebo where a meal had been set out. From around the corner of the residence burst three teenage girls, dripping wet and wearing bathing suits.

One was tanned with bright silver hair that fell down to her shoulders wearing a modest purple one-piece. She was quite lovely, in a severe sort of way, and her piercing blue eyes made Kanan nervous, giving him the feeling as if they were cameras recording everything. The second was a brunette with her hair done up in a long braid in a white two-piece that showed off her trim stomach but was otherwise tasteful.. Last, and most surprisingly, came a Togruta wearing the skimpiest blue two-piece bathing suit Kanan had ever seen - in fact, had she been wearing any less, she would have been naked.

Her head crest was completely white and more rounded than Ahsoka's or Shaak Ti's and her skin was a much paler shade of orange. When she turned around, waist-length dirty blonde hair was plainly visible. Her blue eyes shone with nothing but cheer, especially as she kissed the cheek of the brunette, causing the other girl to blush severely.

“Ani! What have I told you about doing that in public?” Ahsoka shouted.

The younger Togruta cringed. “Sorry, Mom. We just got back from swimming and...”

“That will be quite enough of that.” Turning to Kanan and Shaak Ti, she said, “This isn't the way I wanted this introduction to go. The brunette is Leia, Bail Organa's daughter. The other is her handmaiden, Winter. And this,” she said, pulling the Togruta to her side, “is Annika Tano. My daughter.”

To be continued....

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Well, that certainly took a lot longer than I ever intended to write. I went back and forth a lot, crafting and rejecting ideas until I almost went insane. Developing an entirely new planet and society is not easy, and I wouldn't have done it if there wasn't a big payoff later. I'm just going to have to ask that you trust me and with any luck the next chapters will not take nearly so long.



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