[From the author: I took some time off the holidays to rest and recharge, and I'm excited to see what 2021 brings. Thank you for reading and leaving comments, I really appreciate them. Happy new year! I hope it brings you only good things.]
Morning sunlight streamed through the wide, white leaves of the towering palms around the oasis. It warmed up fast on Genoria, and Jackson started wondering how they'd make it back to the Sela capital. He took a moment to reflect on the situation. The Rhorak were willing and eager to learn from him and they'd just discovered that humans and Rhorak could perform memory exchanges due to... similar bio-electric chemistry, maybe? The specifics eluded him, but he wasn't about to question a lucky break. He had the support of the Sela council, but what about President Luminalia? She was the unknown element.
His stomach rumbled, reminding him of more immediate concerns. Vera and Haeva were sitting near the storage crate, chatting. A teal humanoid sat in the crate, leaning over the top of it. It had to be Tinoqa. He hadn't seen her in anything other than a formless state. She had a thin feminine frame with a subtle hourglass shape. Her hair caught his attention immediately, it was the longest he'd ever seen on a Sela and the most elaborate by far. Cascading braids and curls with elements of different colors weaved in among the teal of the rest of her body, the storage crate she sat in hid the full extent, but Jackson guessed it would go down to her waist, if not further.
Tinoqa had shifted herself a simple dress, plain in texture and without embellishments. It drew attention away from her modest bosom to her slender arms and elegant neck, and of course, her hair. She also had glasses, wide circular frames with no lenses in them perched atop her cute button nose. They were part of her body, not a practical accessory like Vera's shoes. She smiled at him, wide and bright, but with a calm to it. The signature smoothness of the Sela made her look no older than 20, with an oval-shaped face, slender cheeks, and bowed lips. Tinoqa didn't have the same youthful enthusiasm as Vera. The intense depths of her pupil-less aquamarine eyes gave her a wise countenance, implying the kind of insight that could only come from experience.
Jackson also noticed the circular crystalline discs in her body, some floating freely, others still embedded in parts of her skin. They'd taken on a pale gray color, nearly white but not quite.
"Jackson," Tinoqa said, climbing over the edge of the storage crate and landing lightly on her feet. "I suppose gratitude is in order for your efforts."
When he saw her standing up Jackson guessed she was about 5 and a half feet tall, more than he expected, with her lengthy, graceful legs swishing the imitation fabric of her gelatinous dress as she walked toward him. She held out her hand and then stopped. She frowned and slowly retracted it.
"Not to be rude, Jackson," Tinoqa said, "but I'd prefer not to taste whatever went on in that tent first thing in the morning."
Jackson tried not to smile, but it happened anyway. "Can't argue with that," he said, feeling a little embarrassed and proud at the same time, "but I assure you it was all in the name of diplomacy."
"I'm sure it was."
Her political experience meant Tinoqa had an impressive poker face. Jackson couldn't read her at all, and there were no changes to her uniform teal hue that suggested what she might be feeling.
"Right, now that we've talked about the most awkward thing first, the rest of the day should be easy," Jackson said, smiling at Tinoqa.
She only nodded, ever the inscrutable one. "I concur," she said, "which brings me to my next question. What is the plan?"
"Food first," Jackson said, "I can barely concentrate."
Without waiting for a reply, Jackson knelt next to the backpacks and pulled out the rations. The escape pod had been packed with food for one person, and now they had to split between the four of them. Well, Haeva didn't eat, he reminded himself, so just three ways. That gave them about 10 days. Though he didn't know what kind of caloric intake the Sela needed, so it might be less than that. This was all pointless and he knew it, but it the basic calculations helped him wake up.
Jackson started with a hydration pill and then chewed on a processed ration. It wasn't the whole-day food like a dense nutrient bar, but that meant it had actual flavor. Blueberry and oats, in this case. He stared into the distance as he ate, thinking. As he saw it, there were a few main goals. First, prevent Luminalia from activating whatever kind of awful technology had been created. Second, convince the Sela population at large to reject Luminalia's position and embrace the Rhorak as co-habitants of Genoria. Third...
He couldn't think of a third item. The first two would be hard enough, but he might have a way of taking care of both of them in one fell swoop. They needed to find the Sela research facility that was developing the experimental tech. Luminalia was supposedly there now, and if he could expose and broadcast what was going on there, it might turn the tide of public opinion.
Someone was talking to him, it was Tinoqa.
"Sorry," Jackson said, "lost in thought."
"The plan?" Tinoqa asked again. "Do you have one or are we just rolling down the stairs?"
That must be another Sela idiom. Unlike Vera, Tinoqa didn't bother to explain it. She was starting to annoy him, but he'd dealt with brusque politicians many times before and he wouldn't let his feelings get in the way.
"The plan," he said, turning to face Tinoqa and swallowing the last of the energy bar, "is to stop Luminalia from taking peace off the table. Ideally without killing her, or anyone, and through legitimate political channels."
"Hm." Tinoqa scoffed at him. "Is everyone in the Stellar Alliance so naive or is that a human specialty?"
"Both," Jackson said, in no mood for whatever she was up to.
He could see Vera and Haeva watching, but neither looked like they were going to say anything. Tinoqa started to object and Jackson cut her off.
"Listen, former councilor," he said, knowing the dig would upset her.
To her credit, Tinoqa didn't visibly react. No color changes.
Jackson continued, "your world is not special. Think of the amount of time, resources, and energy that you've put into developing weapons and tools of destruction. We've poured a hundred times as much into understanding peace. We know more about ending wars than you do about starting them, and whatever speech you're about to give me, I've heard it before."
Tinoqa stared at him with such intensity he didn't know if she was about to insult him or kiss him, but she did neither.
"Well put," Tinoqa said. "I'm glad you can stand up to me, maybe you can stand up to Luminalia too."
Another trial, just like with the other councilors.
"I'm tired of being tested, Tinoqa. I have no time for your silly games. Either do something to help or don't do anything at all."
That came out meaner than he'd intended, and Jackson felt bad, but only a little bit. Logically he knew that Tinoqa hadn't been there to see him convince Amasa and Yucce. She hadn't truly met him before this moment and her little jab had been the fastest way for her to get a good measure of him. But emotionally, she was one more potential problem for him to deal with and he had plenty of those already.
She nodded. "I will help. But don't expect me to stop pushing back." Tinoqa grabbed one of the energy bars and removed it from its wrapping. She absorbed it into her hand with no fanfare, and it floated in her arm as she digested it.
"So..." Vera said from off to the side, "now you've met, and nobody started yelling, so I think we can say it went well."
"We do need to discuss the plan," Jackson said, spreading out a blanket and sitting down on it. He gestured for the other three to join him and they all sat. Haeva cross-legged, Vera with her legs folded underneath her and leaning to one side, Tinoqa sat with her legs in front of her, her knees pulled up to her chest.
"I need time to teach Haeva enough to get the Rhorak on board," Jackson said, half to himself, "so before I do that, we need to find something for you two to do." He looked at Vera and Tinoqa. "Vera, can you catch Tinoqa up on what we've learned about everything? I don't know what she's missed, but I trust you to figure it out."
Vera nodded. "Sure."
"Tinoqa," Jackson said, looking right into her large eyes. "We need you to figure out where the research lab is. Or at least a best guess. Any insights you have on approaching it are welcome."
"Given the attempt on my life I can say with some confidence I know where it is," Tinoqa said.
"Great, now..." Jackson said, turning to Haeva. "You and I need to chat, because I have a wild idea."
"I am prepared to get wild," Haeva said, blissfully unaware of the implications of her word choice.
"Perfect," Jackson said, choosing not to respond to the innuendo. "Vera, Tinoqa, do you want the tent or the outdoors?"
"I think you want the tent," Vera said.
Jackson shrugged, once again not responding to the implication. "Sure," he said, then to Haeva, "let's get started." He stood up and gestured for Haeva to follow him to the improvised tent.
Haeva jumped up quickly, eager to begin. Vera began catching Tinoqa up, relaying the events that had led them here. Their conversation faded as Jackson lifted the nanoweave and entered the tent, holding the cover up so Haeva could come in after him.
"Jackson," Haeva said, "I must ask you a question."
He let the nanoweave drop and sat down on the sleeping bag. Haeva took position opposite him, legs crossed.
"Anything," Jackson said. He had no idea what Haeva might ask him, but his curiosity had been piqued.
"Why should the Rhorak forgive the Sela?"
A very good question. He gave it some thought before he answered. "As I see it, the Rhorak are essentially in complete unity, yes?"
Haeva tilted their head. A gesture for confusion they'd picked up from either him or Vera. He took it as an indicator that he should clarify.
"What I mean is that you're all on the same page. You share your experiences completely, so you understand each other completely, and doing something that would hurt another Rhorak is as unpalatable as something that would hurt yourself."
Nodding, Haeva reached out and took Jackson's hand in both of theirs. "But you are distinct. Sela are distinct. It is hard to comprehend."
"But you must," he said, squeezing one of Haeva's hands. Their stony surface felt comforting. Solid and stable, with a subtle warmth. "That's the difference that I have to teach you. We, and I mean humans, we can never fully understand each other. I could spend my entire life with someone and still be surprised."
Haeva's expressions were almost imperceptibly subtle, but Jackson had started to pick up on the nuances. Micro-shifts to their face moved the corners of their lips down mere millimeters, paired with changes in position and posture that conveyed frustration. It was, essentially, a frown.
"Consider this," Jackson said, "when you meet a Rhorak who you haven't seen in a while, they have some new experiences to share, right?"
"It is so," Haeva said.
"Well, before they've shared their experiences, there's something mysterious about them. Do you feel... curiosity? Anticipation? Anxiety? I'm tossing out words here, I hope one of them feels right."
Haeva pondered what he'd said, and the silence lasted nearly a minute. Jackson waited patiently.
"Anticipation," Haeva said at last. "Tension. Excitement. These words are true."
"Great," Jackson said, beaming. Progress at last. "Excitement is a big one for us humans, and most sentient creatures, it's part of what motivates us to seek out new experiences with new people. We even program our artificial intelligence to be somewhat unpredictable because it makes them more exciting." He thought of Ace felt a pang of sadness. He hoped he'd be able to get her running again soon.
"Yes," Haeva said, "I wish to learn more of your experiences." They pointed at his chest. "I feel excitement before the sharing." They scooted forward until their knees were almost touching his.
Jackson noted the graceful curve of Haeva's cheeks, the scintillating reflections in their eyes. Everything he'd heard about the Rhorak's beauty was true and then some.
"To answer your original question," Jackson said, trying not to get distracted, "imagine never being able to share. Imagine that you met a Rhorak who had new experiences, but you couldn't receive them."
Haeva shook their head. "I am confused."
"That's how it is for humans. For Sela. We are disappointed by people we love, and we disappoint the people who love us because we can never truly, completely understand each other. We aren't in perfect unity, we're in loosely organized chaos."
Though Haeva hadn't reacted in any way, he got the sense they wanted him to keep going.
"Whether or not to forgive the Sela isn't the question you should be asking. The Sela aren't a single entity, they're a collection of individuals. Some of those individuals have done you harm. Others have enabled that harm either directly or through inaction. Still others worked hard to prevent the harm from occurring, but they failed."
Haeva nodded. Just once. Solemn, with deep sadness. He knew what they were thinking of.
"If there is to be peace, you must be specific. What you need to ask yourself is not whether you can forgive an entire species. You need to ask yourself if a Sela, just one Sela who did you wrong came forward and said, I was wrong, I am sorry that I hurt you, would you accept it? If you had the power to decide the punishment they would face, what would you propose? If there is a stalemate, can you make the first move toward peace, or are your wounds too deep?"
Silence hung in the tent. Haeva had gone completely still, save for the shifting fractals in their body. Jackson's gaze jumped from one to another, wandering over Haeva's lithe, slender form. He didn't know exactly how the Rhorak formed their bodies, if it is was a continuous process or something that happened... at birth? Once they reached an age of maturity, maybe?
"It was easy for Rhorak to forgive," Haeva said. "In times past, when one Rhorak would wrong another, they would share experiences. Understanding creates forgiveness, because all Rhorak have good intentions. But—"
"Can I challenge that?" Jackson said, interrupting. Haeva had cut him off enough times he was pretty sure he could get away with it.
Haeva nodded. "Challenge me," they said. They put their hands on his thighs.
Not the reaction he expected, but he couldn't lose his train of thought now. "Have all Rhorak always had good intentions?"
"No." Haeva said.
When no further elaboration followed, Jackson said, "Just a shot in the dark here, but I'm guessing when early Rhorak shared experiences and felt the hurt caused by their actions as if they had suffered it themselves, they cleaned up their act real quick." He noticed himself slipping into casual speech, which he hoped was a sign of a developing bond with Haeva. He couldn't let it go too far, but a slight lapse of decorum could do wonders for building rapport.
"It was that way. I remember it, even though I did not live it. You are insightful." Haeva slid their hands up his thighs slightly, leaning closer.
"Thanks," Jackson said, starting to feel a bit warm under his flightsuit. "We humans took a long time to get there. The Sela aren't there yet. They still don't understand the true impact of their actions on others, they still have a self-oriented philosophy. We were that way for centuries, and it almost destroyed us."
"But you changed," Haeva said. "Will the Sela?"
"You have to help them," Jackson replied, leaning closer and putting his hand on Haeva's cheek. "There's a saying among humans about being the bigger person. It's not actually about physical size, it's about strength of character. Yes, a Sela killed Khraesk. Luminalia probably made the decision, someone else likely carried it out. Your hurt is valid. Your sorrow is true. But you are so much stronger than they are. Emotionally, mentally, physically. In every way."
By now Jackson had really gotten on a roll and he leaned closer, lightly squeezing Haeva's cheek. "If you step out in the open," he continued, "if you share your experience in whatever way you have to for them to hear it, that's the only thing that could save them. I can't guarantee they'll respond in kind. I won't promise you an apology, or even if you get one, it may not make you feel better. But this is the one path that might work. You have to give them a chance to grow."
He leaned back, letting go of Haeva's face and putting his hand on top of theirs. He waited, giving them time to think.
After two full minutes Haeva answered him. "There is a concept in you, Jackson. Empathy. Your ability to identify with the other as yourself. Another person, another species, even an animal, yet you see yourself in them. I brushed it when I scanned you, and I wish to learn it."
Jackson nodded. "Some think that's the best trait humans have to offer."
"I have considered how to connect with you. Remove your clothes."
"Sorry, what?" Jackson wasn't expecting Haeva to be so direct.
They reached up and started sliding down the zipper of his flightsuit. "You like it when Vera does this, should I seduce you first?"
"Woah there," Jackson gently grabbed Haeva's hand. "Tell me what you want to do first, consent is still important here."
Haeva nodded. "Full body contact," they said, "I must feel as much of you as I can. You have many nerves in your dick, it is an efficient means of contact." A short pause. "Please. You are so unknown to me, and I must know you." They leaned closer. "I feel impatient. I have not known impatience before."
Jackson let go of Haeva's hand and touched their cheek again. "We have time."
Haeva slid the zipper of his flightsuit down once again, slowly this time. Then they put their other hand on Jackson's chest and gently pushed him onto his back. They straddled him, sliding one warm, firm hand into the flightsuit to help him remove it.
With his torso exposed, Haeva put both hands flat on his chest and leaned down. Their face over his, they kissed him. It was like a peck, no movement in Haeva's lips, no tongue darting out, just gentle contact.
The instant their firm, smooth lips touched his, intense sensation sparked through Jackson's body. His cock stiffened immediately, and he gasped as his heart started to race. It was like Haeva pressed the arousal button directly in his mind.
He kissed them back, his lips yielding against Haeva's firmness. The sparks intensified and he grabbed at Haeva with his hand, cupping the curve of their waist. He couldn't think of anything except orgasming, it was all he wanted. In the moment, he didn't even care what Haeva wanted, just his own needs.
Haeva leaned back, scooting back and pulling Jackson's flightsuit down. He lifted his hips up, and Haeva slid it all the way off him, exposing his hard cock. They immediately reached for it, wrapping one hand around his length.
"Fuck," Jackson gasped, intense sensations flowing along his body. Every nerve ending fired in sequence, and he almost came on the spot, but barely managed to hold back.
"This is good for you," Haeva said. Definitely a statement, they weren't asking. "But I want to receive as well."
Steadying himself with a deep breath, Jackson reached down and grabbed Haeva's wrist, taking their hand off his cock. "Come here," he said, pulling Haeva closer. He guided them until Haeva was over his waist, squeezing his cock flat against his stomach with the smoothness between their legs.