Usual caveats apply…
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Danny came off watch, grabbed a bite to eat, and headed for their cabin. He found Daniella scrolling through something on the system and asked softly, “Are you still mad at me?”
She spun around. “No, I wasn’t mad at you. It’s…a touchy situation for Gronk. She is ovulating, which means she needs to go home to find a mate and have a child or children. She’s just a bit touchy, as this is her first time, and it is screwing with her hormones and moods.”
“Oh!” Danny flopped down on the bunk and scrubbed at his face. “That…wow!” He shuddered. “She’s seven or eight times as big as you are, and I…no, just no! I’m staying away from her in case she gets mad at me! I’m glad I’m on the opposite shift!”
Daniella laughed. “It’s not that bad. I’m going to be her bridesmaid in her wedding when we get there!” She smiled. “Maybe I can wear the green dress you bought me.”
As the days passed, Gronk seemed to calm down, spending much of her off-duty periods with Mapper, who ensconced himself at the back table in the mess. The two of them spent divs pouring over something on his holoscreen, sitting side by side with Mapper taking copious notes. Danny didn’t ask, just glad that Gronk wasn’t tearing things apart and Daniella was calm, for redheaded versions of calm.
They dropped out of hyper and closed Hydra, as before, they were put in the same polar orbit they used on their last visit. Danny watched the small, dented shuttle approach Ghost, biting his lip. “Gronk, why are we stuck out here again?”
Gronk looked up as Danny stood over her. “I not go through station. Not good in my condition. I pay for shuttle.”
Danny shook his head. “No! You’re crew until you step off the ship. The Ghost will pay for the shuttle. You’re looking at, what, two years with no income? We’ll pay.”
Gronk changed colors again, and Danny took an involuntary step back, thinking he’d just pissed her off, but she said softly, “Gronk thanks you.” She got up and left the bridge, touching the plaque on the way out, leaving Danny standing there with his mouth hanging open.
The scarred shuttle inched carefully into docking position with the Ghost as Estrella extended the docking tube. Once they connected, Estrella said, “Equalizing… Pressure is equalized. Cleared to open the port hatch.”
Danny was surprised when Ish, the old, bent Hydra stepped through the hatch. “Ish? What are you…”
Ish bowed to Danny and said, “I thank you for bringing Gronk home. I was…advised of her condition, and I immediately made my way here. It is custom, if possible, for family elder to be present for first ovulation.”
Danny nodded. “Understood. I don’t know if she is ready yet. I am guessing the same rules as last time apply? Would you like some coffee?”
Ish growled, “Yes, sadly, the same rules apply. Only you and Daniella are allowed to come down.” He stretched all four shoulders and sighed. “I would love a cup of real coffee. I fear I have become addicted to that foul brew.”
Chuckling, Danny motioned him toward the mess. “What about the shuttle driver?”
“Ork doesn’t like to leave his baby. He will be fine with waiting.”
When they walked into the mess, Daniella met them and hugged Ish. “So good to see you! Gronk was worried you might not make it.” Cutting her eyes to Danny, she added, “Gronk said to pack for three days. She should have a beau by then. I packed our bags and included warm clothes this time!”
Danny chuckled and Ish snorted as Danny replied, “Thank you, Dani! When is the wedding, Ish?”
Ish gargled a chuckle. “After the fighting, of course.”
“Oh,” Daniella said softly, “I hope nobody is seriously hurt.”
“No, this is not to the death, only to mate, so certain body parts are not to be injured.”
Gronk walked in, her trunk trailing behind her, and immediately hugged Ish, changing colors rapidly as they lapsed into the liquid Hydra language. Finally, Ish said, “There is one more who may be invited.”
Danny cocked his head. “Invited?”
Gronk said softly for her, as she turned bright pink, “Doctor Yehudi.”
“Who? Oh, you mean Mapper?” Danny asked.
Ish looked at Gronk with a stunned look and said something in their liquid language, then turned to Danny with a look of wonder on his face. “Doctor Yehudi is aboard? Yes, he must be invited!”
Danny shrugged. “Fine. But why Mapper, er…Doctor Yehudi?”
“Do you not know who he is?” Ish asked in wonder.
“I’ve worked for him for a few years. That’s how we found the Rift. And he had me mapping it.”
Ish shook his head. “You…you don’t know he wrote the book on hyper navigation?”
Danny just looked at him. “Yehudi? Sure, I studied that in college. But Mapper? Is him?” Stunned, Danny said softly, “That can’t be right. He’s not old enough…”
Mapper stumped into the mess and Ish bowed to him, startling Danny. “Doctor, we would be honored if you would come planetside with us. There are many who would be desirous of meeting you.”
Mapper cocked his head. “Um, I guess I could. Would I have a chance to talk to a few of your navigators?”
Ish nodded enthusiastically. “As many as you would like! We…three days is our planned stay on the planet.”
“Let me throw a bag together. Anything formal?”
Ish smiled. “At least one event.” Mapper nodded and stumped out as Danny shook his head. Ish mumbled, “And maybe more, if I can arrange it.”
Danny looked at Daniella. “Do you know what is going on?”
She threw up her hands. “Not really, and I didn’t know Mapper was Doctor Yehudi, either. He never said anything that I know of.” Ish wandered out, mumbling to himself as Estrella walked in.
Estrella looked around and said, “I swear, you two are babes in space. You shouldn’t be let out among the population.” She proceeded to give them a rundown on Mapper, including his history, his accomplishments, and the fact that he was famous in navigation circles throughout the universe.
Danny sank into one of the chairs as Daniella put her hand over her mouth and finally wailed, “But we didn’t know! He never said anything to anybody! How is that our fault?”
Estrella shook her head sadly, “And this is why it is better to be lucky than good. If you had done your research, you would have known—”
Danny snapped, “And what good would that have done? It wouldn’t change a damned thing I’ve done for him, or anything else.”
Estrella put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “He kept the Ghost safe. He got you out of trouble more than once. Think about all the things he did to help you. Is that something any normal person could have pulled off? Think about the connections he has. And the number of times he protected you.” She threw up her hands and stomped out of the mess, bypassing Gronk, Ish, and Mapper as they came back.
Danny looked at all of them. “Well, I guess we’re ready.” He motioned with his hands. “Lead on, Ladies.” Daniella and Gronk looked at each other and shook their heads at the same time as they picked up their bags and headed for the airlock.
Daniella lead the way aboard the shuttle and deposited her bag in the bin next to the lock, then slipped into the deeply cushioned shock chair, almost disappearing in it as she snapped the five-point harness together and pulled the straps tight. Pointing at the chair next to her, she said, “Sit. I need to hold your hand. I don’t like the bumping and stuff.”
Danny buckled in and offered up his hand as Ish closed the hatch and said something to the pilot. Mapper was sitting behind them and Gronk was across from them, with Ish sitting next to her.
Three divs later, after numerous bumps, bangs, and whoop de do’s, they were on the ground. Danny got his hand back from Dani and surreptitiously rotated his wrist to get the blood flowing again That was interesting, for versions of interesting. I think we only got upside down once during that descent, but the drops were…scary. He saw Ish getting up, and he unstrapped, then glanced back at Mapper, who was gray. “Are you okay?”
Mapper groaned and staggered to his feet, using Danny’s arm to steady himself. “Well, that is not a ride I want to repeat.” he rubbed his thighs and winced. “The prosthetics have hard edges and they dug in where they mate to my thighs. I’m going to be bruised as hell tomorrow.”
Ish moved back to them and said, “If you will follow me, we will go to the place set aside for you.” he faced Mapper and bowed. “I apologize for the turbulence.” The hatch of the shuttle flipped open and the wind, rain, and cold swept in. Daniella sneezed and said, “It stinks and it’s even colder than the last time we were here!”
Ish shook his head and gargled a laugh. “You are smelling the fish drying.”
Daniella cocked her head and pointed to the rain. “Drying,” she asked rhetorically, “In this?”
A ground car pulled up at the bottom of the ladder and Daniella said, “So, Ish, is this another of what you call a good day?”
Ish smiled at her and replied, “Of course! Any day on my home world is a good day! It will take us about thirty segs to get to your accommodations.”
“Where is Gronk?”
Ish shrugged. “She is being met by the women.”
Dani sighed. “Shouldn’t I be with them? I am supposed to be her best girl!”
Ish’s head snapped around at that and he goggled at her. “You’re…what?”
Dani chattered happily, “What we call a bridesmaid. I’ll be standing up with her when she gets married.”
Ish made a face and shook his head as he turned back to face the front of the car. Danny glanced between the two of them and wondered What the hell set Ish off? Maybe…maybe he’s not used to a human being a bridesmaid, best girl, or whatever…I hope… The rest of the ride to the accommodations was quiet, with Mapper apparently napping as he leaned against the window.
Once they got to what appeared to be something like a guest house, Ish walked them up to the front door and pointed to two doors off the hall to the left. “Those are your rooms. I would like to invite you to dinner. It will be at my favorite restaurant when I’m home. It’s a little fisherman’s tavern down by the waterfront. A ground car will be here at eighteen to pick you up, if that is acceptable.”
Mapper nodded. “That should give me time,” glancing at his wrist comp, “Six divs to at least get some pain meds in me.”
Daniella sat in the chair by the door, idly swinging her legs as she watched Danny slip on his shipsuit. “I feel like a little girl again,” she groused. “I can’t even touch the floor! And that bed…my Deity, that would sleep a family of five, at least!”
Danny jumped up on the bed and started pulling his boots on as he replied, “Well, the Hydra are a bit bigger than we are.”
She nibbled on her lip as she jumped down out of the chair. “I know, but I guess it just didn’t connect. I don’t remember the chairs at that dinner the last time being that much larger.”
He shrugged. “Probably have some human size or, for them, kid sized chairs that got brought out for us.” He started to say something else when a knock on the door startled them. Danny’s hand went to his pistol, then relaxed as he chuckled. “Paranoid…I’m getting paranoid.” Glancing at his wrist comp, he added, “Time to go.”
They stepped out the door and met Mapper coming down the hall, dressed in a shipsuit. They walked out into a misting rain toward the waiting ground car. The ride to the restaurant was in silence, each of them looking out the windows at the city. The ground car pulled up in front of a small building across from the piers, and Ish opened the door as it came to a stop. Mapper cocked his head and asked, “Ish, is this your home place?”
Pulling the door open, Ish replied, “I started life as a fisherman. I spent my formative years on this waterfront, and this place was my second home.” Pointing up at the windows over the door, he added, “Second window on the right was my room. More like what you call a…place where you store cleaning supplies. Very small.”
Danny and Mapper chuckled, and Daniella asked, “Did it have a fresher?”
Danny turned red and exclaimed, “Daniella! Really?”
“Well, that’s an important item for some of us,” she retorted.
Ish gargled a laugh. “No, one shared between four rooms. And it was small, too! Enough about that,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I’m for some of their fish stew.”
Three divs later, Daniella leaned on Danny as they walked down to their rooms. “Night, Mapper,” she said.
Mapper nodded. “See you in the morning. Interesting to see how the other half lives. Ish said tonight was quieter than usual.”
Danny shook his head. “Quiet? Three fights, and twice we had to go hide behind the bar? That was quiet? I’d hate to see noisy in there!”
Mapper chucked. “When in Rome…”
Daniella pushed Danny into the room and said, “Out of my way. I need to get the smell of fish out of my hair!”
The next morning, Ish picked them up at the appointed time, and they stopped at a little shop for the Hydra version of breakfast, which had Daniella ohing and ahing over the choices. “This is just like a Japanese breakfast,” she said, as she took a variety of little dishes. Danny poked at a few things and took what looked like a miso soup and something like crackers. A half div later, they pulled up in front of the pavilion again and were surprised at the size of the crowd milling around.
Ish ushered them in a side door and they saw Gronk pacing back and forth, growling, and smacking her fists together. She rushed over and hugged Daniella. “Thank you for coming. I am close and need to…make a decision quickly. I saw the one I want outside. As soon as the males get in here, I’m going to challenge him and we can go from there!”
Daniella, muffled by the crushing hug, mumbled, “Just let me know what to do.”
Gronk stepped back and smiled. “I will!” She turned away and went back to pacing and growling as Ish pulled at Danny and Mapper’s sleeves.
Danny looked at him and Ish said, “We need to be…away from her.” Pointing at an alcove, he added, “That would be about as safe as we can get. This will probably be ugly.” Danny started to reach for Daniella, and Ish stuck out a pair of hands. “No! She has to stay here with Gronk!”
Danny blew out a frustrated breath, but allowed Ish to drag him away. Moments later, the priest opened the large doors and a parade of male Hydra started trooping through the doors. Danny glanced at them, then saw a separate door on the far side open and three more, much older Hydra enter. One of them looked vaguely familiar, and Danny leaned to Ish. “Who are those three?”
Ish looked over, gulped, and looked away quickly. “The old women. The one in the middle is Santi, the chef. They are…here to observe.”
Ish shrugged all four shoulders. “No idea. I kinda remember some old females when I was fighting my woman, but that was many years ago.”
Their attention was drawn back to Gronk and Daniella, as Gronk flashed pink and called out, “You, pretty boy! Yes, you! You’re mine!” A huge, scarred Hydra pointed at himself and Gronk nodded, “Yes, you!” She pointed to Daniella and added, “Since I am ovulating, my best girl will fight you in my place!” She pushed Daniella forward and said something softly to her, as Daniella’s eyes grew huge.
The huge Hydra swaggered forward and laughed. “Tik will kill this puny one. Then you are mine!”
Danny started forward and Ish grabbed him, hissing, “You cannot interfere!”
“That’s my wife he’s threatening, and she’s pregnant! No way is she fighting anybody!” He tried to twist out of Ish’s grip until Mapper put a hand out.
Danny glanced at Mapper and snarled, “You, too?”
Mapper chuckled. “Pay attention, Danny. Daniella’s got this.”
He whipped back around, now held by both of them and Daniella with her hands on her hips, saying loudly, “Since I am with child, I will kill this lump of gristle without a brain! Rather than waste Gronk’s wish, I would propose a different fight! Bring on your best boy, because it’s obvious you don’t have the brains deity gave a gnat. I challenge your best boy to a cooking contest. That way, you get to live, and…”
Tik interrupted growling, “You lie, hooman!”
The priest held up a hand, immediately quieting the rumbling crowd. Turning to the three old women, he said something softly, and they immediately approached Gronk and Daniella. Gronk had turned blue and was sobbing as she hugged her, whispering in her ear. Daniella merely nodded and shook off Gronk’s arms as the three old women approached.
Danny watched as there was a discussion and each one took Daniella’s hand, sniffed it, and touched her stomach. “What are they doing?” Santi said something over her shoulders to Daniella as they walked away, and Daniella put both hands to her mouth in surprise. Moments later, the three old women were clustered with the priest, and a lively discussion took place. Finally, the priest nodded and turned from the women. “Now what?” asked Danny.
Ish translated the liquid Hydra. “The priest says she is with child, therefore, a cooking contest, while unusual, is allowed to prevent bloodshed. He is telling Tik that he has a quarter div to come up with a best boy.”
Danny sighed. “So what do we do?”
Mapper said softly, “We wait.” He pointed to two chairs being brought out toward Gronk and Daniella. “Guess they’re going to let them sit down.”
A few segs later, Tik and another, much smaller Hydra, stepped forward. The smaller Hydra showed all his teeth as he made a loud pronouncement to much laughter from the male Hydra. Danny looked at Ish, who was a bit paler than normal as he said, “That is Santi’s biggest competition. He’s challenging Daniella to cook koo fish and do a standard presentation plate.”
“Koo, a soup, and a…what you would call a…sushi roll.”
Danny laughed, and Mapper cocked his head. “What’s so funny?”
“She knows how to cook Koo. And she grew up cooking in a Japanese restaurant. She’s fixed it before on Ghost. Remember that, Ish?”
Ish shuddered. “I remember her going into Santi’s kitchen! That…is never done!” Ish turned back as the priest said something that brought laughter. “They will do the cooking challenge here, right now. Santi will prepare two identical trays of ingredients and Tik’s best boy will have the first choice. There are two kitchens here, the big one and apparently a little one for intimate dinners here. They will have one div to prepare the meal and the priest will be the judge.”
Danny shook his head and waved an arm. “Intimate? In here?”
Ish gargled a laugh. “There are private rooms in the back.”
A half div later, Santi stepped out of the kitchen area and waved to the priest, who called Daniella and the Hydra male Danny now knew was named Pok, toward the kitchen area. Danny started to follow, then growled when Ish shook his head. “Not allowed. We might as well go get something to eat.”
Danny snapped, “I’m not hungry, I’m worried…”
Mapper interrupted, “I want to go sit down. I need to get off these prosthetics for a bit. And I could eat.”
Danny threw up his hands, but followed the two of them as they left the pavilion.