“NO,” RHYS AUBREY said loudly and firmly. They had been allowed to withdraw to a small, sterile room to discuss their options. “No, no, no. No more rituals. What is it with these primitive alien cultures and their obsessive need to ritualize everything? It’s as bad as Hallmark with a card for every occasion. No offense.” His aside was aimed at Marin, who had opened her mouth to speak.
Marin closed her mouth and narrowed her eyes, obviously waiting for the right time to interject her usual soothing input. Rhys knew that Marin thought he needed “managing,” that she would wait patiently until the right time and deliver her insight with that air of grace that always made him feel petty and small. She didn’t say much, but when she rendered an opinion, it was with the precision, beauty, and dead-on accuracy of one of her self-defense training sessions. Which, come to think of it, were equally patient and brutal. He’d gone to her for his defensive training because he’d thought she’d be easier on him than the team of grunts onboard Fearless. He should have known better. As a natural empath, Marin had picked up on his reasoning and was twice as hard on him as a result. Though he’d die of embarrassment before admitting it, he’d come to rely on her input during these missions very much. He was also fitter than he’d ever been in his life.
“I thought you said this polymer could be useful.” The major offered his two cents’ worth in that lazy Texas drawl, granting syllables to the word polymer that the English language never intended. It made Rhys itch to smack him. Smacking was good. It distracted him from other things he could picture his hands doing to the major. Which, considering that the major was not only the team leader but also his friend, was probably just as well.
“It is, it is,” Rhys ground out. “Extremely useful. It has properties that I can’t explain, and the implications for its application are staggering. And the word is ‘pol-uh-mer’ not ‘polly-mer’, Major.”
Major James Tanner merely frowned. “That’s what I said.”
“No, you said ‘polly-mer’. It’s ‘pol-uh-mer’. Are you saying you can’t hear the difference? Oh, you know what? Never mind. The point is, no to the ritual.” He turned to Marin and asked somewhat plaintively, “Can’t you talk them out of it? I don’t want to return to Fearless shaved hairless, tattooed, or married. Why do we need a ritual to demonstrate trust anyway? I trust Grylis to shoot people and blow up things when necessary. You can always count on him for a nice diversion when we have to run back to the shuttle, as well.”
Grylis bared his short, sharp fangs in what Rhys hoped was a friendly grin. It was hard to tell with Grylis sometimes. His long, leonine face seldom changed expression, save when his golden eyes narrowed into half-closed slits. Rhys had taken to watching his tail, which would start to lash about when he was getting really pissed. If the tail was lashing and puffed out, then all hell was about to break loose.
Rhys spoke to Marin again. “I trust you to smooth over any ruffled feathers I might have caused and to make friends with everyone we meet.” Unlike Grylis, who looked like some sort of Saturday morning cartoon character—with short, spotted fur that gleamed over impressive muscles as he moved—Marin could pass for human. In fact, Rhys frequently forgot that she wasn’t human, until she used her voodoo powers over mood and thought to influence the people around her. Her real name was something totally unpronounceable that not even the translators could put in a form human tongues could manage. If she was bothered by the nickname Tanner had given her, she never showed it.
If it weren’t for the fact that her skin turned lavender right before she ovulated, it would never occur to Rhys that she wasn’t human. It was probably a good thing she did, though, because it gave them all some warning. The last time Marin ovulated, half the ship’s crew, both male and female, nearly killed each other trying to gain her attention.
“I also trust you to kick ass when the people aren’t friendly anyway, which often seems to be the case.” He mentally rubbed a bruise on his hip from his last training session with her. The look she sent him was just a little smug.
He hooked a thumb in Tanner’s direction. “I trust the major to be ridiculously charming and to come up with ludicrous plans to save our asses when the shit hits the fan. Or when that fails, to call in the Marines so that they can kick some ass on our behalf. I trust you guys with my life. It’s these people I don’t trust.”
“Nor they us,” Marin said calmly, landing her verbal one-two punch after all. Her smile, as always, was serene. Her composure always reminded him of some Earth-side yoga instructor. With her tall, lithe form and shoulder-length blonde hair, she looked the part as well. Rhys couldn’t ever recall seeing her lose her temper, and he had the sneaking suspicion it was something no one should witness. “I believe that is the point of the ritual, Dr. Aubrey.”
“Don’t know what you’re griping about, Aubrey,” Grylis grumbled. His spots and his lean, muscular body always reminded Rhys of a cheetah. Sadly, like the cheetahs of Earth, the rest of Grylis’s people were nearly extinct. “It’s Tanner that’ll get the worst of it anyway.”
“Yeah, Rhys…,” Tanner began with a smirk, only to trail off as Rhys threw a speculative gleam in his direction. Tanner had the look of a dog that had just walked into a plate glass door and was pretending he’d meant to do that. Rhys had to suppress a snigger. This could be good. Tanner rolled a wary eye in Grylis’s direction. “Um, Grylis? How do you figure that?”
Grylis flashed a look at Marin that said Earthers, clearly pitying and superior at the same time, before turning back to Rhys and Tanner. “Well, the ritual is about trust, right?”
Rhys nodded and noted out of the corner of his eye that Tanner did the same.
“Well, it goes without saying that we trust Tanner as our leader; otherwise, we wouldn’t follow him, or we’d have killed him long ago.” The smirk Grylis gave Tanner was toothy and feline. It always caught Rhys off guard when he did that. Grylis only stood 152 centimeters tall, and the team joked about the fact that he was always “wearing a fur coat.” He walked bipedal, carried a gun as if he’d been born with it in his hand, and laced his speech with American colloquialisms he’d soaked up by hanging out with Major Kemper’s marines. After the one and only time someone made a “pussy” joke in Grylis’s hearing, Captain Ardwell had made the poor soldier undergo sensitivity training—once he was released from the infirmary, that is. Most days, Rhys could forget that he, too, was an alien. At least, until Grylis bared his teeth. Grylis had explained to Rhys once that showing fangs was considered a challenge or an insult among his people, so Rhys never knew how to take it when Grylis’s canines appeared.
“Gee, thanks, buddy.” Tanner’s smile was more of a grimace, and Rhys caught Marin hiding a smile of her own.
“So,” Grylis continued, “it only figures that the ritual will involve putting Tanner in a position of having to trust us.”
There was complete silence for a moment.
“Okay, well, if Rhys doesn’t think it’s worth it, then I guess we’ll just head back to the shuttle now.” Tanner gave a little nod as if the decision had been made. Making a small adjustment to his thigh holster, he turned for the exit.
“Oh, wait a minute, not so fast,” Rhys interjected, enjoying the mission for the first time since the word ritual had been mentioned. “Like I said, very useful polymer. Able to withstand a wide range of heat and cold, combines tensile strength with a unique flexibility. I think we need to secure the possibility of a trade alliance here so we can investigate this polymer more.”
The look Tanner leveled at him said that the major knew exactly what Rhys was up to, and that he wouldn’t be forgetting this anytime soon. Rhys carefully ignored the possibility that Grylis was right about the ritual. Leave it to an alien race to re-invent the corporate retreat. He focused instead on the promise of unspecified retribution, which shouldn’t have felt as hot as it did. Rhys briefly enjoyed the little shiver of excitement it roused in him. Sadly, one had to get one’s thrills where one could. Rhys recognized that this was as close as he’d ever come to receiving the kind of attention he’d like from Tanner.
It was just a matter of time before Tanner would give in today and accept the ritual idea. Rhys knew how badly Tanner wanted to be able to tell Captain Ardwell they’d found some unique and cool technology for a change. They’d been going through a dry spell lately as far as bringing back anything useful on their missions, save for the recent supply of matuck. The root vegetable that Marin had aggressively negotiated for had proven to be highly versatile and tasty, once you got past its violent green color. Which was just wrong. Every instinct in his brain screamed out to Rhys that he shouldn’t eat fluorescent-green food whenever he was presented with a plate of the stuff. He’d had to close his eyes in order to eat it at first.
Rhys had hopes that the kitchen staff would be successful in their boast of creating a sweet matuck pie, and his stomach growled just a little at the thought of the matuck patties, fried to perfection, he’d eaten that morning.
Tanner shot a look of amused disbelief at Rhys’s stomach before he glanced pointedly at his watch. Okay, breakfast wasn’t all that long ago, but damn it, Rhys was hungry. He countered Tanner’s unspoken derision by folding his arms across his chest and waiting Tanner out, raising an eyebrow at him when they all continued to stand in silence.
Rhys mouthed the word polymer and looked at his watch in return. He cleared his throat for good measure. Everyone stared at the major, who finally sighed and shrugged out of his pack. “Okay,” Tanner said in resignation. “Let’s get this show on the road.”