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Disguised as a Responsible Adult

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Sara hadn’t cut her hair since the navy stopped promoting her. Buzz cuts were for girls who wanted to be Alec Jr.  

She’d fantasized about glorious rippling waves, luxuriant enough to stick in flowers and have them stay in place. Unfortunately it was past her shoulders now and it was still flat and limp, with odd little escaping wisps. At least it made her ears look less huge?

Cora and Liam were hogging the mirror. Sara stuck her face into the leftover piece of mirror at the edge, and started trying to twist her hair into a bun.

"Liam," Cora said. "We hit Aya in three days. Are you planning to run around Aya, being an unofficial ambassador for an entire galaxy, while looking like that?"

She blinked at herself in the mirror, and added a bit more eyeliner.

Liam glanced away from the mirror for a moment. "What? I'm wearing a shirt! Without Blasto on it! Unlike you!"

Cora insisted - absolutely insisted - on getting out of the shower and wrapping the towel around her waist, leaving her lovely freckled breasts free to jiggle about. Anyone who failed to make eye contact got a lecture on "distractibility" and "humans need to move past these primitive taboos."

Sara was pretty good at making eye contact these days, between all the exposure, two actual asari doing the same thing because they were asari, and Suvi picking up on the habit.

Cora punched Liam in the arm, which did fascinating things to both her breasts and her arm muscles. "Liam, trust me, I'm not going to walk round Aya in this towel. Your shirt is... adequate." His shirt was sleeveless lycra and said Don't Look for Love - Look for Pizza! "Your face, Liam. We have razors."

He stroked the longer-than-usual stubble on his chin. "I'm growing a beard."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "I think I'd look hot with a beard?"

Sara twisted her hair a few more times, shoved in an elastic and a few pins, and lo and behold it formed a smooth topknot bun that reminded her of Commander Shepard. Maybe her hair would be more interesting if she dyed it red?

"Ryder?" Cora said. "Are you planning to permit this?"

"Liam's beard?" If she ordered Liam to shave, he'd laugh. Polite requests would probably work? Heck, they were sleeping together on a pretty regular basis – maybe she could convince him he was more attractive beardless? "This isn't the Alliance, Cora, I think he can have a beard if he wants one."

Cora looked dubious. "We're unofficial ambassadors. We should look professional. I know Drack's a lost cause, but Liam, I should be able to hold you to higher standards than a man who literally fought for Warlord Shiagur."

She shoved the bleached part of her hair out of her face, glared at the rapidly-emptying bottle of hair gel, and wrapped a red bandanna round her head instead.

"Cora," Ryder pointed out, "All my clothing is Initiative issue." Except the pink leather jacket, and she'd found that in the back of her mum's wardrobe. "What makes you think I understand… beard etiquette?"

“Lieutenant Harper?” SAM said from the wall. “Well-groomed beards are considered professional on human males, outside the armed forces.”

Cora glared at his speaker.

“This is not the Alliance Navy,” he pointed out again. “In fact, despite our title as the Human Pathfinder Team, we are less than fifty percent human. This ship has a crew of five humans out of eleven.”

“Out of twelve,” Cora told him. “You’re a team member. Wait, do you count as human?”

“…hmm. That is an interesting philosophical question. 5.5 out of 12?”

"They're barely-contacted aliens!" Liam interrupted, waving his hands. "If they're judging my fashion sense they're probably doing it in some weird foreign alien way! Maybe thinking it's weird that we don't own any capes! I had a guy tell me he felt sorry for us because we're all boring colours! Why would they have a problem with beards when they don't even have hair?"

Someone banged on the bathroom door. “Are you clothed?” Jaal yelled.

“Yes,” Cora claimed.
Jaal walked in. Thankfully he’d remembered to wear pants this time, although Sara would have made better eye contact if he had a shirt. "Humans are, indeed, boring colours,” he said. “Liam, you are attractive but you would be much sexier painted blue. What is this argument?"

Liam flicked water at him.

"Jaal," Cora demanded. "Do you think Liam should shave before we hit Aya?"

Jaal blinked. "Shave off... all his fur?" He patted the top of his head. "Do you also plan to shave?"

Liam snorted.

"The face bristles," Cora clarified.

“Ah,” Jaal said. “I appreciate face bristles on human males. It makes them harder to mistake for females.”

Liam spun to face him. “Right,” he said. “I definitely need a beard, then. Either Ayans suck at telling human men from human women, or someone told them that “Miss” was a gender-neutral honorific. D’you think they’ll stop calling me “Miss” if I grow a beard?”

Jaal squinted. "Is “Miss” not the correct honorific?”

“You know it’s not, Jaal, ya prick. You call me Miss, I call you Miss!”

Jaal bowed, Korean-style with his hands flat on his thighs. “My Lady?”

"Look," Sara said. "Grow a neat beard. Trim it and stuff. Please don't grow a mountain man beard. I don't know if the Ayans would mind, but I would."

Would she still want to kiss him if he had a giant straggly beard? He’d still be cute, as long as it was clean, but it wouldn’t help!

"We would mistake you for Cthulu," Jaal added unhelpfully. "Ia ia cthulu fthagn?"

Sara stared at him. “You get access to my species’ entire history of literature, and you go for Lovecraft?”

“Hey,” Liam yelled, “Lovecraft’s a classic!”

You showed him Lovecraft?”

“I like aliens with tentacles!” Jaal declared. “Except when they take eighteen samples of my blood for scientific purposes. Or throw me in a volcano.”

Liam hit him with a towel.

 

Two days later, Liam had a neat black beard.

It made him look older and… sharper. More defined. Less like a university student and more like a crisis expert. Suddenly you could imagine him in a suit. Wow, he’d look good in a suit. Did he own one? Probably not?

He neatened up the edges with a razor, finished washing his face, and winked at Cora. “See, boss? I’m disguised as a responsible adult!”

Cora groaned, and wiped some shaving foam off the bathroom mirror. “Liam, I’m not counting you as an adult till you’re… thirty.”

“Harsh!”

You got me thrown out an airlock. And mauled by adhi!She yanked up her trouser leg and waved her scarred ankle at him.

“Harsh but fair. D’you like my disguise, though?”

Sara had given up on the Shepard Bun – it looked good initially, but after a few hours it collapsed into a mass of tendrils which fell in her face and tickled her nose. She shoved her hair back into the usual ratty ponytail. “It’s almost convincing, Liam. If I didn’t know you…”

He put the razor away. “Aww, I’m being disrespected.”

“Nah,” Sara said, “it’s a good beard. I like it.”

He advanced on her, grinning. She spread her arms wide.

“Get a room?” Cora suggested. “Sara? You have a room?”

Liam flung his arms around Sara and started to kiss her face and neck.

It was rough and prickly and… oddly stimulating, in a way that non-bearded kisses weren’t. All he was doing was rubbing their faces together a bit, and suddenly she wanted to peel his track pants right off and…

It was also a little cold, because his face was still wet.

She tilted her head back to give him better access to her throat, and flung her arms around his waist. She hadn’t realized her neck was so sensitive.

“Don’t mind me,” Cora said. “My old squad did much worse in the showers. Please note, that’s not a suggestion.”

 

Sara was stuck cooking dinner for the crew - everyone was sick of ration bars, and it was her turn. Normally she could talk Drack into doing it for her, but his prosthetic arm was on the blink, and Lexi was having trouble finding nerve-pain drugs that worked on his metabolism. The last she’d seen of him, he’d wrapped himself in several blankets and he was using his real arm to drink too much ryncol.

They had real fresh garlic hanging in ropes from the ceiling to dry, three different kinds of fruit paste, chewy bitter rice-type stuff, the asari equivalent of tofu, and about half a frozen kaerkyn. Sara figured that if she cut up the stringier bits of the kaerkyn into chunks, slow-cooked that and the tofu in the sour fruit paste with huge amounts of garlic, and served it on the Not Rice, that’d impress everyone except Vetra.

Vetra got… oh dear, they’d run out of dextro Actual Food again. Vetra was getting some apologies, and a ration bar covered in jam.

The meat was mostly defrosted so she started to dissect the garlic. Fresh garlic, grown in real Eos dirt. On the one hand it was a luxury, and a symbol of how far they’d come, and a massive step up from Artificial Garlic Flavour. On the other hand… so many little papery bits. Lots and lots and lots of bloody paperwork.

“SAM?” she asked. “Can you take over my hands for a bit, and chop this garlic while I think about something more interesting?”

“Unfortunately I am using most of my processing capacity to plot a course through the Scourge. There is too much risk that I would injure your fingers.”

Bother.

Liam wandered in and started poking around in the top cupboard.

“Liam?” she said. “D’you mind chopping up the lump of meat?”

Instead he walked up behind her, shoved her hair out of the way, and kissed her on the back of the neck.

She squirmed. His face was rough and bristly in exactly the right way and… OK, now he was running his tongue up and down the back of her neck in little patterns –

“Liam, I’ve got garlic to mince. Stop distracting me if you want dinner!”

“Aww.” He detached himself. “Actually, do you want to hand me the garlic and you can do the meat?” He started washing his hands in the sink.

“That’s definitely a good deal!”

She didn’t think he was mincing it right. It wasn’t fine enough.

Then again, it was stew, right? It’d be OK.

She’d taken to using her omni-blade for butchery. If you were very careful and used the right settings, you could turn a joint into a pile of two-inch pieces that were already deliciously browned on the outside. It worked on tofu as well, although you had to cut it in slow motion to brown it properly.

Chuck in meat, space tofu, badly minced garlic, and several cans of fruit paste, and set it to cook at 110 C for six hours…

“Right,” said Liam. “They better appreciate that.” He scrubbed his hands again, sniffed them, and made a face. “Now I smell like a kebab. Man, it’s been centuries since my last kebab. What kind of Heleus animal d’you think would taste best in a kebab?”

“Probably kaerkyn?” She washed the bits of meat and fruit paste off her hands, walked round beside him, and wrapped her arms round his waist.

Her face sank into his hair. Whatever his hands smelled like, the bouncy curls smelled of Havarl flowers.

“Mmm,” he said. “Rylkor look enough like giant horrible chickens that you’d think they’d taste like chicken. Shame.” He reached back and squeezed her arse.

She’d never banged anyone before the couch thing and she wasn’t sure how it was supposed to go, and the closest thing she had to a parent was SAM and he certainly had no clue, but this was probably a boyfriend/girlfriend thing? There was too much cuddling for it to be anything else, right? Sometimes the cuddling was even better than the sex.

Although wow, sex took up a lot of her thoughts lately. She’d been told that two-person activities were even better than her awesome vibrator collection, but she hadn’t quite believed it till the couch incident. Skin on skin and feeling your partner’s joy and reflecting it back… was this stuff addictive?

She slid her hand down the front of Liam’s track pants. He wasn’t wearing underpants. She wrapped her fingers around the soft shape of his dick and he sucked in a breath –

Vetra stuck her head round the door. “You didn’t use all the garlic, right?”

They leapt apart. Liam adjusted his trousers. “Guys,” Vetra said, “kitchen. Public. That door doesn’t even lock.”

Sara decided to focus on the garlic issue. “What?” she said. “Vetra, that’s not how human cooking works, garlic’s strong. We had seventy-two heads. We still have seventy!”

“Good, because you wouldn’t believe what those things sell for on Aya. How many can you spare?”

Liam put his hands on his hips. “None. They last ages if they’re kept dry, and who knows when we’ll get more?”

Vetra tilted her head sideways. “What if I swap half of ‘em for dried akhu mushrooms and fishpaste? Come on, I’m trying to create demand for Milky Way goods here.”

Mushrooms and fish were also great for livening up food, if less familiar and comforting. “You can have half of them,” Sara said, “if you really think it’ll help with diplomacy. I’m keeping the rest for morale purposes.”

Vetra nodded. “By the way. Human contraceptive implants are still active, right? Lexi had to replace mine.”

What?” Sara yelped. “Yes! Kennedy cut hers out!”

Liam spluttered.

“Ah. Good. Because if anyone on this team accidentally acquires a baby, I guess I’ll help babysit… but I’ll complain about it, understood?” She bent her head to stare down at them.

Vetra.” Sara drew herself up to her full height, not that it helped much. “Credit me with elementary common sense!”

Vetra flicked her mandibles. “I’ve seen you charge a Fiend?”

“She did that once!” Liam pointed out. “And she broke its back leg and got out of the way before it turned around. And I don’t know what that has to do with contraception!”

SAM piped up. “I assure you, I monitor Ryder’s physiology closely and her ovaries remain inactive.”

“SAM?” Sara told him. “I don’t think she wanted to know that? TMI?”

Vetra nodded. “Thanks, SAM.”

 

Jaal was doing pull-ups in the cargo bay, shirtless. Gil was supposed to be upgrading the Nomad’s jets. He wasn’t making much progress.

Liam and Sara had just been passing through, but they’d decided to hang round for a bit. Jaal was… look, Sara hadn’t realised she swung that way till he joined the crew. But humanoid or not, he was the perfect combination of solid muscle and enough padding that he’d be comfortable to fall asleep on. His bright purple skin looked so temptingly soft.

One time, he’d decided to show off by picking up Peebee and holding her over his head. She got bored and started wriggling before his arms tired.

Sara had walked in on him wanking once and… honestly it looked a bit like a big fleshy flower, or a starfish. But in a good way.

Cora, amusingly, was still writing reports. Either she’d seen so many beautiful naked aliens that she was immune, or she preferred them a bit more human-shaped.

Jaal curled himself up, grabbed the bar with his prehensile feet, and started doing some sort of upside-down core muscle exercise. The soft skin flaps on his chest flopped upwards and landed under his chin. Sara tore her eyes away and headed for Liam’s room and his video collection. Liam followed, slowly.

He closed the room’s door and sighed. "Always thought of myself as some hot beefcake dude, right, put me in charge of moving the furniture and everyone else can make me tea?" He flexed his biceps. "But put me next to Jaal or Evfra and... suddenly I'm more of a cupcake. It's sad."

What a nice cupcake. He was wearing that Blasto shirt again, the one that hardly covered anything… all smooth brown skin and sleek muscle, and just enough chest hair to ruffle…

Impulsively, she grabbed his head and licked his nose. “I licked the cupcake! Mine now!”

“What?” He raised his eyebrows and pulled back slightly. “I’m yours, am I?” He looked worried.

Oh shit, I’m getting weird and clingy and – it was just supposed to be a bit of fun –

“Well, obviously you’re your own! And, like, whatever you want to do! I just thought it was funny!” She disentangled herself in a hurry. “Er. What was that salarian anime you were talking about?”

He looked startled, but he seemed to cope with the subject change. “Ah. The one where Kallo’s culture got hold of Pride and Prejudice? And turned it into a miniseries about five sisters who inherit the family business way too young and need business partners?” He reached out to put a hand on her shoulder, then turned the gesture into fixing his hair. “Oh, I have to show you that. The Liz character’s just mean enough that it’s funny but not mean enough that you stop liking her, and their Jane’s adorable. Last episode I saw, Liz and Darcy were on their way to Nos Astra to un-indenture the idiot youngest sister, and try to get her shares back. And the costumes!” He flopped down on one end of the couch and started flicking through episode titles on his omni-tool.

He seems OK? “Isn’t Pride and Prejudice supposed to be about marriage?” Sara had never seen the point of Jane Austen, but she was willing to give Kallo’s soaps a try.

Liam shrugged. “I expect this version ends with Liz and Darcy swearing eternal friendship and going into business together. And he might fertilise a couple of her eggs, I wouldn’t be surprised? She already had a daughter with annoying priest guy, though. There’s a running gag about how he thinks that makes them friends.” He waved at the bottles on his homemade shelf. “You want the last bottle of Sahuna’s homemade… space pineapple… cider? Or Gil’s decent beer? Or Gil’s weird beer?”

She sat next to him. His leg was warm and solid against hers. “I’ll take the weird beer. It’s not bad.”

 

Drack’s arm was still freezing up the next morning, but Lexi had given him half a kilo of salarian painkillers and that seemed to work pain-wise. The dose needed further adjustment - he’d lost all his coordination and he’d already fallen over twice - but he was lucid, in a decent mood, and fit to watch bad action vids in the dormitory.

That seemed like a good time to approach him for assistance.

“You want advice on your love life?” Drack yelped, pausing his vid halfway through a gunfight. “From me? Kid, I’ve got my areas of expertise, and that’s not one of them!”

Sara made shushing gestures – he was yelling loud enough to attract nosy people. “Er, you’ve got more experience than anyone else on the ship... I figured Lexi probably wouldn’t know either?”

“You’re human. You’re a human female. I don’t even like females!” He paused. “To fuck, that is. Like them fine as friends. Obviously.”

What? “You don’t?” Now she thought about it, it wasn’t like she’d asked.

He shrugged. “Damn flattering when one of them asks for you specifically, and of course you’ve gotta do your breeding duty... sorry, kid, I don’t think you could understand that if you tried... but if I want a cuddle, if I want a burrow for my pet maw? I’ll go for a kranntmate any day. Er, a male krogan kranntmate.”

Sara tried not to picture that. She’d managed not to walk in on Drack with his bits out, yet. “Still, you might know something? Men aren’t that different from women, right?”

He stared over her shoulder. “Dav, now. Me and Dav, we made a fine team. I think I got him into bed the first time after we fought those Vanguards together? Course, I think I screwed most of that gang at some stage. Not Kol, the poor guy was only into women, and Aja, heh, he preferred ‘em blue, the old perv, and of course Vae was a woman, just,” he tapped his lower belly, “the bits really didn’t work so she quit trying, but that didn’t make her any less a woman, right?” He glared at her.

I never said she wasn’t!”

He nodded. “You didn’t, that’s fair. So Dav. I, ah.” He blinked. “Guess I just asked him for what I wanted, and he asked me for what he wanted, and if we didn’t want the same thing we worked it out somehow?” He nodded. “Once I hit four hundred or so I started only screwing people I liked, unless it was my duty. Doesn’t matter how good they smell or how many mercs they can splat or how well they can fuck. Me, I say if you don’t like them you’re better off using your hand, and if you do like them you’re halfway there already.”

Sara didn’t know if that was good advice, but it was probably better than she’d get from SAM.

Who the hell was Dav? She didn’t think she’d met him in New Tuchanka.

“Er. Can I ask what happened to Dav?”

Drack tapped metal fingers on his metal thigh. “Dead these hundred years. Went the same way as half of me. Still miss the old bastard sometimes.”

“Ah. Sorry.”

He nodded. “We made a damn good team up till then. I… might’ve had some clue what I was doing? Probably not? I mean, we weren’t just sticking it in each other, we were krannt. I didn’t know what he wanted, I asked him. Er. Best advice I’ve got?”

 

The Aya market smelled like the most delicious collection of tropical fruit in two galaxies. Once Sara finished telling off Maur Asthanas, the Resistance demolitions guy, she was buying an enormous fruit salad.

She’d politely maneuvered Asthanas into a blossom-covered side alley. (Not dragged. He was two feet taller than her and had thighs thicker than her waist – she’d have needed biotics.) He stared at his neon floral-print shoes. “I was… quite drunk. And I lost my temper.”

Sara sighed. “I’m sorry that my scientist’s a douche, but next time you lose your temper, can you do it in a way that won’t start a diplomatic incident?”

“He deserved punching,” the Resistance fighter growled. “Not by me, though. By someone his own size.”

“You have a point, but diplomatic incident.” She glared at his chest and considered standing on the edge of the raised flowerbed. Nah – that’d look even sillier. “Also, please don’t punch salarians in the head. Or humans. We’ve got fragile skulls. We might die.”

“Really?” His huge green eyes met hers for a second. “This sounds like bad design! …I am glad he was not seriously injured.” He went back to staring at his toes.

“So Maur?” SAM knew his exact ethnic background, and said that using his given name was a show of dominance without being impolite. “If you physically assault any more aliens, I will let you be extradited to face Nexus justice. Which is mostly community service at this stage. Any more slightly concussed douchebags? I will drag you in front of Tiran Kandros, who will hand you over to Nakmor Kesh, who will force you to scrub toilets and eat nothing but yeast paste till she decides you’re sorry enough. Understood?”

He shuffled backwards a little. “I would not like to disappoint Chief Kandros. He is a… stalwart ally to my people. I am sure his disappointed expression would be fearsome.”

“Do you take my point, Maur?”

He wrapped his sun-embroidered rofjinn tighter around his chest. “I will not… physically assault… douchebag aliens. Or use inhibition-loosening drugs in the presence of douchebag aliens. On penalty of toilets. And disappointed expressions. Do you have children my age, Pathfinder? Or does Chief Kandros?”

What? He was older than Tiran! Ah. He probably had no clue how to tell alien ages. He’d probably mistake Liam for a woman next, beard and all.

Well, if he thought they were old enough for their jobs, she wasn’t about to disillusion him! “Neither of us have children. Only officer experience.”

She’d been a commissioned lieutenant before Alec ruined everything. She’d been twenty and ordering around eighteen-year-olds - it wasn’t exactly Tiran’s Spec Ops command - but she had taken a management role, as well as the whole Vanguard thing.

Asthanas nodded. “Your point is taken. And also my commanding officer has already made me scrub many toilets, with a “violent idiot” sign taped to my back. May I, ah, leave now?”

“Dismissed.”

He slunk off, trying to look smaller.

 

Liam was sitting on the museum floor, swarmed by squishy primary-coloured children. Three of them were poking his hair and watching it bounce back. He had his shoes off and one kid was prodding his foot.

“Hi, Sara!” he said. “I think I’ve become a xenobiology specimen!”

There were three adults minding the children. They were also staring at Liam’s foot. He wriggled his toes at them.

The grey-and-pink kid leaned in towards Liam. “So… you could have babies with my mum, right, if you wanted to?”

“What? Nah, that’s the blue guys with the...” He waggled his fingers over his head. “I don’t even have a uterus.”

“Oh no! What happened to it?”

“I’m not supposed to have a uterus. Your dad doesn’t have one, right?”

“Ah! I see!” The kid turned and looked up at Sara, his pupils widening like a cat spotting a mouse. “You’re the Pathfinder, right, so do you have a uterus? Does it work?”

What? “Er. Yes? I think so?” Not that she’d tried to use it, but pre-artificial-hormones it did the bleeding thing like it was supposed to!

“That’s a bit of a personal question, Lal,” said the short adult wearing the knock-off Blasto shirt. “She didn’t sign up to be a biology specimen. I think she’s just looking for her friend.”

“Sorry,” Lal said. “Are you a real Matriarch yet?”

“…Let’s go with no.”

Sit next to him, have sticky kids pull her hair, and explain human biology? Or see if he wanted to do something romantic?

“Sorry, kids,” Liam said. “I need to stop being a biology specimen now and spend some time with Sara.”

They groaned in unison as he stood up and put his shoes back on. He waved goodbye.

Liam detached himself and Sara followed him into the next room. His hair was mostly squashed and partly standing up in tufts, and she wondered whether it would be disrespectful to fluff it back to normal.

“Sara,” he whispered, “I found the coolest thing, I have to show you!”

She turned to check the kids were out of earshot, and whispered back. “Is it your dick?”

His eyes widened. “Sara! Actually it might, you know, involve my dick if you want it to, but that was not the idea!”

“Something even cooler? Nice!”

He elbowed her in the ribs. “Over this way… come on…”

Sara’s Shelesh wasn’t great, but that door was clearly labelled AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY. “I don’t think we’re authorized personnel?”

Liam shoved it open anyway. “Nah, Avela showed me this and told me I could come back any time.”

She’d expected a lab or a tearoom. Instead, there was a narrow marble corridor with a long flight of steps leading downwards. The only light was a faint, sourceless green glow from the ceiling. Something was whirring quietly.

“It might look a bit Remnant-y,” Liam added, “but it’s perfectly safe. This is where the museum staff go to skive off. Or there’s another opening near the Resistance headquarters. Definitely no angry robots!”

Well, Sara was always armed. Pistols and grenades were nice when you had to fight batarians or kett or violent robots, but all she really needed was her brain.

Further down, there were huge glowing letters on the walls.

“It doesn’t say anything,” Liam said. “Avela said it looks like letters, but it isn’t. There’s one bit that almost looks like “bathtub” in a Voeld dialect.”

Avela Kjar had the martial skills of a bowl of ice cream. If she hid out here to drink tea and read trashy novels, it was probably safe, as long as you didn’t fall down the stairs.

Sara switched on her omni-tool’s torch function and followed Liam down the dark tunnel. SAM couldn’t decipher the alien letters either.

The passage flattened out before opening up into a square chamber the size of Sara’s Tempest cabin. The floor and walls and ceiling were inlaid with familiar green wires. Two irregular glowing pieces of metal flash-forged themselves into existence and hung in mid-air at the centre of the room, turning slowly and lighting up the room.

“Unknown technology,” SAM said. “It appears Remnant related, but not identical.”

“Remnant disco balls!” Liam chirped. “Just stand here while I walk between them!” They were about a metre apart. He jogged across the floor and stood between the metal globes for a second, before running back.

Twenty little floating, glowing things flash-forged themselves out of the upper wall. Six-inch… rainbow-coloured… Observers? Without the eye beam, thankfully? They formed a neat line and zoomed around the chamber three times.

“The fuck?” Sara said eloquently.

“Agreed,” SAM declared from her omnitool. “I like that word. It has so many uses.”

The micro-Observers bounced rhythmically in mid-air before settling into a precise zigzag, which kept bouncing.

“The scientists don’t know what’s going on either!” Liam told her happily. “They make different patterns every time you try it! Sometimes they show up in people’s houses and steal bits of metal!”

Half the bots turned blue and half turned orange. The blue and orange bots formed pairs and started to twirl around each other.

“Waltzbots,” Sara said. “Someone built an artificial planet and put waltzbots in it.”

“If I was building an artificial planet,” Liam said, “I’d put weird shit in it for fun. Why not waltzbots? I mean, you know angaran sexual fluids are bioluminescent, right? Just the sex fluids, not anything that’d actually be useful?”

The orange and blue bots formed opposing lines a few metres apart and flipped end-over-end in mid-air, before dissolving into swirls of metallic confetti which fluttered to the floor.

A two-foot spider-shaped robot bulged out of the wall like a blob of mercury, skittered across the floor looking solid and jointed, sucked the confetti into its blob of a body, and merged into the opposite wall. The disco balls kept turning.

“Voila!” Liam said. “I hear it’s even cooler when you get stoned first.”

“Avela Kjar comes down here to get high? I always figured she just, like, mainlined archaeology papers…

His hair was a complete mess. She fluffed up the squashed bits.

“Hey, she has to relax sometime!” Liam pointed out. “Nah, she’s not into drugs except the odd stimulant, that was third-hand information. But I think most of her sex life happens down here. Her parents’ place is always full of refugees sleeping on the floor and eating all the good snacks, she’s lucky if she gets to sleep in a bed with none of her cousins in it, never mind any privacy.”

Er. That raised questions. Also, bioluminescence? Avela seemed fascinated by human males, and not just in a scientific sense.

You’re so lucky, she’d told Sara that one time. They smell so good!

First time Sara had heard that! Er, she’d said, when they’re clean, maybe.

And, she stared at Sara’s hands, all those extra fingers look so dexterous…

“Liam. Why was Avela showing you her sex dungeon?”

“Well, mostly because I thought it sounded cool and I made lots of “ooh!” noises, but yeah, while we were down here, she asked…” He looked away. “Er. Are we… like… sort of relationship where I’m not meant to do that?”

Sara was pretty sure Avela wasn’t trying to steal Liam, but the primitive animal part of her brain was going nooo, mine! Mine! “Um. Maybe. Wait.” She’d seen Jaal’s equipment, and she’d read some sex-ed textbooks badly translated from Shelesh, and… “How? Did she have anywhere to… put it?”

“Hands! And mouth, I guess, but I was a bit sweaty so she wasn’t up for that... sorry. Should have thought.”

And, look, he was an adult. He could do what he liked. Bioluminescent or not. But… even with someone as sweet as Avela, it didn’t feel right.

He looked sad so she kissed him.

He kissed back, vigorously. His mouth was warm and soft and… ooh, no more worries about stubble burn, his new beard was pleasantly rough against her skin but not abrasive or harsh at all. She stroked him under the chin. Excellent – the hair growth seemed to have made his skin more sensitive, so that he gasped and leaned in when she stroked against the grain.

“Er,” he said, “sorry,” and kissed her on the nose. His eyes fluttered closed.

He smelled like clean sweat and flowers and spilled fruit wine. She ran her tongue round his lips, and he flung his arms around her and squeezed her against his firm body.

There were too many clothes in the way. She disentangled herself to yank off her T-shirt and bra and fling them into a corner, and then she lifted her breasts with her hands and pressed them together to watch his eyes widen. He thought she was attractive, anyway.

He peeled off his clothes quickly. Just look at him standing in the half-light, sturdy and smooth-skinned and smiling at her like she was the sun. That beard really did add the final touch to his beauty, sharpening and framing his face.

Actual penises were such darling little things. His had snapped to attention and was pointing straight at her. She squeezed it and he made a hilarious squeaking sound.

“Ooh!” he said. “Ooh, hey, can I stick it in you?”

Her parts had gone right into action mode, suddenly far too sensitive against her tight underwear. Something to fill her up and squeeze against… “Yeah! Definitely!” She peeled off her pants then realized she still had her shoes on, and there was a lot of awkward hopping, and Liam failed to hide his laughter.

“Oh, shut up,” she said, and grabbed him by the head and stuck her tongue in his mouth.

He spat it out. “Aargh! Mollusc invasion!”

“Mollusc!” She grabbed his face and licked up and down his cheek. “Molluscs everywhere!”

He thrust his hips forward, poking her in the crotch with his erection. “Hey. I have a mollusc that wants to invade you…”

“Mmm. Mollusc. You get the barrier on your mollusc, you’ve got better apps.”

The floor was warm and marble-smooth under her bare feet.

“Half a tick…” He freed his arms, flicked through a few options on his omni-tool, and grinned. “Hey. You want to try the massaging field?”

“Sure!” New to her, but sounded good!

He pressed a button, and a sheet of orange light settled over his crotch and inner thighs – an infinitely thin but impermeable mass effect barrier, proof against any possible disease. He blinked. “Yeah – that’s some pretty good massage! Do you need to loosen up or anything?”

She probed her vagina with a couple of fingers. Slid in easily, felt good going in… yeah, seemed pretty ready. “Lie on my back?”

He nodded. She arranged herself on the warm smooth floor, knees up and legs spread wide, and held out her arms for him.

He lowered himself carefully on top and she guided him in with her hand, enjoying the gentle stretch. The massaging field tingled and occasionally stroked at her like fingers, and when he started to thrust it added a nice little buzz at the end of each thrust.

He was warm and solid in her arms and his face was screwed up with pleasure. He kissed her all over her face, quick little pecks to her nose and cheeks, beard pleasantly abrasive against her face. She tried to kiss him back, missed the timing and accidentally headbutted him in the eye.

“Ow!”

“Sorry!”

“Hold still! I’m going to kiss you all over. That’s a threat!” He rubbed his face against her and thrust faster and faster. Oh, yes…

He gasped, went stiff and collapsed on top of her.

She snorted, and kissed his nose. “Um,” he said. “My stamina’s not normally that awful. Blame the massage field?”

The field was still rubbing itself deliciously against everything between her inner thighs and her navel. She ran her nails gently down his sweaty back. “I’ll blame the massage field. Or does someone get overexcited by tiny robots?”

“Come on, Sara, that sounds more like you than me.” He stroked the back of her neck. “Let me just lie here for a second and see if I can get hard again?”

He couldn’t.

“Right,” he said, “plan B. Use my tongue?”

“That definitely sounds like a plan!”

He slid down to kneel between her thighs, kissing her inner thighs and nipping gently. Pleasure flashed right up to her groin and she yelped.

“That’s a good sound, right?” Liam asked.

“Absolutely a good sound! Keep doing that!”

He nuzzled his face in between her legs and flicked his tongue around and across her clit, and she twitched and squeezed her thighs around his head. The field was still buzzing away and adding joyful little sparks to everything and he’d moved his hands to her outer buttocks and kept squeezing and tickling them, and oh yes!

She wrapped her legs round his head as the climax carried her away.

“I’m being cuddled,” he mumbled, “or possibly squished. Help help. Squashage occurring.”

She loosened her grasp. “Sorry.”

“Nah, don’t be, it didn’t hurt.” He kissed her thigh again and she gasped – her whole body had turned hypersensitive. “What is it with you and this beard? I’m never shaving it off again.”

In lieu of an answer, she reached down and fluffed up his beard. “Fluffy.”

He rubbed his face on her thigh and she squeaked and tried to squirm away. “Sorry,” she said, “too much.”

He sat up and flicked off the massage field. “Sure. Be my mattress?”

She spread her arms wide and he lay down full-length on top of her, heavy and soft and warm. He pressed his face into the side of her neck and she wrapped her arms and legs around him and clung on tight.

“Er,” he muttered into her neck. “Talking about me being… yours. Does that mean you want me to stop sleeping around, and just stick with you?”

Shit. Don’t be too demanding, or he won’t want you…

Nah. Be honest! Don’t mess people around!

“I, er…” She swallowed. “I… would like that. If you’d be OK with it?”

Shit, how’s he going to react? She clutched him tighter.

He lifted his head and looked her in the eye. “I can do that. Er well, you, my hand, and my porn collection. Let’s be totally honest here. I’m not up to giving up on porn.”

“I can live with that.” He had some great porn – she should spend more time watching it with him. “Are you… sure you’re OK?”

He kissed her quickly on the nose. “Look, it’s not my favourite, but we all have to make compromises, right?” He rubbed his cheek against hers. “I can do it, and it seems like a fair deal.”

And yeah, she could live with whatever he was up to with Jaal. Jaal was zero threat. Jaal just liked telling aliens they were pretty.

“If… If you’re OK.”

“I’m OK.” He kissed her forehead. “Right, then. No more playing Captain Kirk with beautiful native maids.” He kissed her quickly on each cheek.

She raised her head to rub their noses together. “The native maids will live. Hey, they can have Peebee.”

He chuckled. “I don’t think she’s seen this place yet. Hmm. Well, if she keeps hanging round the museum, I’m sure someone will show her!”

How many people were using this as a sex dungeon, anyway? Aya had a lot of overcrowded housing. “Hey, Liam. We should move before any random Ayans walk in.” She unwrapped her legs.

She didn’t want to move or shove him off. But she’d somehow managed to convince half of Aya that she had dignity, and she didn’t need them realising otherwise.

Liam grinned, and stroked a strand of her hair out of her face. “Evfra. That’d be a bad moment. Evfra and some random chick, or guy or whatever he’s into, show up undoing their pants…”

Sara had never thought of “Evfra” and “sex” in the same sentence before. Most angara were into sex, right? It was quite likely that he did something, sometimes, with someone…

“You have to get off me then. I’m not having Evfra disapprove at me while I’m naked!” She couldn’t quite bring herself to unwrap her arms, though.

“Nah, he’s got better places to do it.” He rubbed his beard into the side of her neck and she squeaked and wriggled.

Evfra probably did. The random Ayans, on the other hand? “Er. Do we need to clean the floor?” The massage field had dealt with a lot of the mess, but between the humid air and the warm floor they’d sweated enough to leave trickles.

“Nah. The spiderbots do that.”

“Right. That’s convenient of them! We probably should move?”

“No other sapient beings are nearby,” SAM told them.

She squeezed Liam tighter, and didn't move.