Their lovemaking flowed fast, fierce, and intense. Christine lay under Gannon, a receptacle for his passion, clutching him tightly as he thrust with single-minded focus. With her chest rising in a rapid tempo, she watched his tense features trembling so closely above her. Sweat trickled in erratic streams down the lines of his unshaven cheeks, glimmering in the silver light of the full moon coursing through their open bedroom window.
The ebb and flow of her husband's body quickened. Holding his breath, Gannon locked his gaze with Christine's. A moment later, he shuddered in violent pleasure, a reaction Christine had experienced herself only minutes before.
Inhaling deeply, Gannon sought to calm his panting. As he stroked his wife's brow, he kissed her and waited for the afterglow to fade into exhausted relaxation.
"I love the way you fill me up," Christine whispered, even though no one else shared their home. Somehow the low tones served to accent the intimacy she desired so thirstily. "I can feel you all the way to the end."
Gannon's mouth curved into an impish grin. Sliding his tongue across his upper lip, he hugged Christine and slid in and out of the woman he loved in wet, easy strokes. Christine swiveled her hips under him in luxuriant waves. "I'm glad," he said sleepily.
"You must be so tired," she said sympathetically.
"I'll be all right," Gannon said, yawning. "Just need a few hours of sleep. Got to rescue Dave from Tratton."
Christine cupped her palms around Gannon's stubbly cheeks and lightly rocked his head from side to side. "I love you so very much."
"And I love you, too." Gannon's heavy-lidded eyes drooped as he spoke.
Gannon nodded and pulled himself free. With a sigh of contentment and fatigue, he rolled onto his back.
Christine lay beside him for a long time, touching him lightly with her hands and her body as though to reassure herself that he was real and truly beside her in the bed they had shared for so long. She smiled happily as she mentally replayed every movement, every sound, every sensation, every emotional and physical orgasm she had experienced in the caress of the man Abelard knew as Warrior, but whom she appreciated as Gannon Reeves: husband, father, and diligent carpenter.
Tiny, furry feet padded across Christine's exposed legs. Glancing down the length of her naked, cooling body, Christine saw Georgia, their long-haired and oh-so-lady-like simcat pause in her traditional sojourn across their wide, disheveled bed. The genetic recreation of an animal similar to the old earth-style companions had been a "pet" project (as he called it) on an earlier Abelardan scientist.
Christine, for one, was eternally grateful Gehlan had persevered in his hobby.
As Georgia headed for the hard-muscled torso of the Warrior, Christine encircled the simcat around its fluffy stomach, scooped it up, and eased herself from the rumpled bed.
Tiptoeing across the thickly carpeted floor, Christine grabbed her white, versa-robe draped over the rocker and stepped out into the hallway. As it measured her skin temperature, the versa-robe changed its molecular structure ever so slightly to better hold in her body heat. Carefully Christine closed the door on Gannon's rhythmic snoring and headed for the kitchen.
Flicking on the light, she buried her face against Georgia's neck, relishing the faint tickle of the long, soft hair. "You're such an angel-baby," she said, kissing Georgia lightly on the forehead.
"Murr-ow-w." Georgia's wide, dark eyes looked up in child-like expectation.
Christine laughed. "Okay, okay. You can have some milk."
After pouring an inch of the treat into Georgia's favorite cracked china bowl, Christine fixed herself a large cup of extra strong black tea. Laced with tailored biologics, the favorite beverage of Abelardans also served to supply her body with the proper blend of active and passive toxic scrubbers and preventatives. As she waited for the water to boil in the self-heating mug, she tightened the sash on her robe and leaned against the gray stone counter top. Her palms rested on the edge as she looked down at Georgia. Delicately, the six-year-old simcat lapped up its late-night snack.
"I'm glad he's home, Georgia, even if it's only for a little while. It's been too lonely without him, too long since we last made love." Christine lifted her gaze in the direction of their bedroom. "But I'm worried about him."
Georgia glanced up at the sound of her name then diligently resumed her repast.
"Yes, I know. I shouldn't worry. Intellectually I realize he's right when he tells me that," she said, wearily threading her fingers through her tangled hair. "But I do, anyway." She shrugged. "I guess my emotions haven't quite caught up with my head."
Folding her arms across her half-exposed breasts, Christine frowned. "I know that if it's at all possible to do so, Gannon can take care of himself. But what about Preston?" Her mouth quavered. Tears brimmed in her eyes. Cupping her chin in one hand, she clasped her elbow with the other and shook her head. "Why didn't he stay close to Gannon as he was supposed to?"
Blinking away the blurriness, Christine chuckled and bent over to scratch Georgia behind one ear. "You have such a rough life."
The insistent beep-beep-beep of the mug jarred Christine back to the matter at hand. She held the container with a rainbow-hued hot pad. That family heirloom had been woven by her daughter, Michelle, at summer camp fifteen years earlier just before her eighth birthday. Dipping a tea bag into the steaming water, Christine looked at Georgia.
"What do you think? A spoonful of flutter-by honey?"
"I agree. Excellent choice." Placing a dollop of the golden-brown, native honey into the steeping tea, she stirred the mixture absently and headed for her office.
"Lights on," she said. As the illumination ramped up, she settled into her cushioned swivel chair.
A multi-colored dawn glowed slowly to life on the flatscreen. The rising sun melted from red to orange to yellow-white. The shining coin bathed her face for a few seconds before dissolving into an image of a happier time, a period before Gusteenian invaders, before war and missing children, before traitors and doubts about whether anyone would survive the trials to come.
"Hello, Christine. Rather late for you to visit me, isn't it? Or should that be 'early?'"
Christine stared at a younger her, a picture of her former self captured at age twenty-three, the day she married a thoughtful, caring, and confident young man named Gannon Reeves.
"Sorry, Liz," she said matter-of-factly, addressing the computer with the shortened form of her middle name. "No chit-chat tonight."
"Of course. Program?" Liz raised her right brow.
"Um. I don't think so. Keyboard." Despite her solitude, Christine felt heat suffuse her face. Some things just should not be said aloud.
Pulling the keyboard closer, she settled in to write. The first draft poured from her subconscious like water gushing from a pent-up fountain. The nudging of the words and phrases into the proper relationships, the substitution of this word for that one, the silent recitation of the rhythm until it sounded just right, however, took nearly two hours.
When at last she had the poem precisely the way she wanted it, she leaned back in her chair and stretched the kinks from arms, legs, and back.
"Save as 'Poem, nine slash eight,' and print two copies."
Reaching over to the printer, Christine picked up the top sheet and scanned the poem once again.
While dawn treads lightly
Through the house
Languid love awakens.
The drowsy lovers gently stir,
Responding to caresses,
And intertwine, aroused
By fervent kisses
And passionate embracing.
The dozing simcat,
A tidy mound of fur
In crescent-shaped repose,
Nestles in a tousled heap
Of undulating bedclothes.
Christine smiled sheepishly, proud of what she had accomplished and stimulated by the images and emotions she had frozen forever in clear, objective print. Contentedly, she sipped at her tea.
Neatly folding the sheet, she stood, placed the poem in her pocket, and picked up the nearly empty teacup. Walking out, she said, "Lights and computer, off." Behind her, the lights faded and the computer did a quick fade to a multi-hued sunset, a dark, starry night, and finally a blank screen.
For awhile, Christine tried to decipher the latest report from the genetic center where she served as assistant director. The details of funding, personnel, and shortages which might at another time have absorbed and challenged her now served merely to bore her.
After fifteen minutes of zombie staring at the same pages and having none of the information coalesce, she tossed the hardcopy onto the tan cushion of the couch where she sat and plopped her feet onto the cluttered coffee table.
Her repose did not last for long.
Rising, she slipped into the bedroom. Gannon lay on his back, his right arm flung up, the back of his hand resting on his forehead. His half-curled fingers twitched in response to whatever chaotic scenes swirled through his dreaming thoughts.
Christine gazed down on the still-healing gash which marred her husband's forehead. The image wavered. She blinked, mildly irritated at herself. Weeping at hardship did not mesh well with her self-image. Yet she refused to deny the signal her emotions insisted on sending her. Now, if she could just interpret that message...
Chewing on a corner of her lip, she inhaled a deep breath. "Whatever happens, we'll get through it together."
She stood there a moment, uncertain precisely why she had chosen to return to the bedroom. On impulse, she reached into the pocket of her robe. For a moment, she fingered the folded paper nestled there. Suddenly grinning, she took the poem, unfolded it, and placed it gently on the wrinkled spot on the sheet where she had...not slept, exactly...
Gannon stirred, a grunt escaping him as he shifted position.
Escaping to the living room, Christine put away the report she had been attempting to analyze and instead opened the mystery novel she had dipped into months before yet rarely had time to enjoy.
Immersed as she was in the interplay among suspects and the woman sent to investigate the murder of the well-known entrepreneur, the turning of the kitchen doorknob did not at first register with her.
When she heard the heavy thump of something falling to the tiled floor, she jerked up her head. Her eyes flickered towards the bedroom. Only the sound of water from the kitchen sink splashing into a glass kept her from shouting Gannon's name. Surely an intruder with evil intent would not pause to quench his thirst.
Uncurling her legs, Christine eased herself up from the couch. As she passed an occasional table occupying one corner of the room, she swerved. The small drawer slid open with only a faint scraping of wood on wood.
The weight of the personal needler in her palm eased any doubts she entertained about approaching her unannounced visitor alone. She kept the cartridge fully loaded at all times. Her father had raised no prissy daughters. The conditions on Abelard did not permit it.
Still, her heartbeat thrummed against her chest as she glided towards the kitchen. The sound of chair legs shuddering across the tile floor broke the silence. Christine's brows furrowed, as much puzzled and angry as frightened now by someone so bold that they would just make themselves...at home...
Hope blossomed with the realization of who her clandestine guest might be. Rushing through the door, she surprised the young man who sat at her walnut dining table with a large, half-eaten chocolate brownie raised to his mouth.
Christine's pulse accelerated even more, her breath catching in her throat as she attempted to assimilate the sight before her.
"Preston!" In three steps, she crossed the distance separating them. The leaden agony of uncertainty lifted from her as she put aside the needler and encircled her son's body. With all the pent-up anxiety within her, she squeezed tightly.
At the flat tones of Preston's greeting, Christine drew back and searched her son's face. Clutching his arms, she sought to fathom the blank expression upturned towards her.
"Preston? Are you okay?"
A small corner of his mouth lifted. "Oh, sure," he said matter-of-factly. Without elaboration, he resumed consuming his treat.
An all-too-familiar annoyance warred with the relief flooding Christine's body. Biting back the sharp words pushing against her teeth, she pulled out a chair and sat facing her wayward son across a corner of the table.
A surreptitious glance noted his needler rifle and field pack piled on the floor beside the door. Dried mud and grass stained both the latter and her son. The scent of old sweat and dirt exuded from his rumbled black and green uniform. His youthful and handsome features provided a canvas for an unbelievable mixture of elements. The dark hair upon which he had expended so much devotion before the advent of the Gusteenian threat plastered his skull in a matted mess.
Gripping her hands together under the table, Christine leaned closer. "Would you like something to drink?"
A "V" split Preston's brow. "Hmm. Sure. A beer would be nice."
Only the incongruity of the scene kept Christine from blurting out all the questions, concerns, and frustrations roiling within her.
Rummaging through the refrigerator, she grabbed a blue-and-white bottle from the lowest shelf and straightened. The door whooshed shut as she rejoined the unmilitary-looking private.
"I hope this is all right. Since I didn't know you'd started drinking --"
"No problem, Mom," he said generously, opening the bottle. The hiss of escaping gases sounded loud in the room. "No need to fret."
A hazy image of her son nearly fifteen years earlier at his fifth birthday celebration superimposed itself over the current tableau. He had sat then at this same table and in that same place. Munching on a brownie not much smaller than the one he tackled now, he had gulped at his glass of milk and then giggled hysterically as he proudly displayed the white mustache covering his upper lip.
The innocent snapshot faded into memory. Preston belched and popped the final wedge of brownie into his mouth. A heavy sigh accompanied the last swallow. Slouching in his chair, he draped one arm indolently over the slatted back and regarded his mother.
"You're looking well," he said abruptly.
"Thanks. And you're --"
"But then you always do."
Christine blinked and closed her half-opened mouth. Though she felt like slapping Preston, she restrained herself. She would make allowance for circumstances. She would.
"I love this poem, Christine. I appreci--"
Simultaneously, mother and son looked up as Gannon entered the room wearing a tattered pair of gym shorts. His warm smile froze at sight of the pair seated at the table. Slowly it melted into a frown.
"Dad!" Preston scrambled to his feet. The chair skittered across the floor. Overbalancing as Preston backpedaled, it clattered to the floor.
"Preston," Gannon said evenly.
"I thought you were dead." Preston's voice crackled higher in bewilderment and...a hint of some emotion not to Christine's liking.
"Good to see you, too, son." Despite the words, no glimmer of humor lightened Gannon's grim expression. "Have you reported in yet?"
"No. I haven't. I wanted to --"
"You should do so immediately."
Blood mottled Preston's face. Though thinner than his father, he stood nearly three inches taller. He, too, could be imposing when he chose to be.
"I know what I should do," he yelled. His clenched hands hung at his sides. "I don't need you to tell me what I should do. I'm old enough to live my own life."
Gannon took in the half-empty pan of brownies and the opened bottle of beer. "I see. You know what you should do. You just choose to ignore it."
Preston surged forward, his fists swinging upward in a defiant threat.
Before he could reach his intended target, Christine leaped up and pushed hard against Preston's chest.
"Preston! Gannon! Stop this. Stop it right now. I am so sick of this. Why can't you two act like rational beings instead of --"
"Wild animals? I've heard this before, Mother." Sarcasm laced Preston's words.
Christine dug her nails into her palms. Her trembling arms echoed the compressed line of her mouth.
"I don't believe he'll ever change, Christine," Gannon said, waving a hand in his son's general direction. "You can't change what you're not aware of, what you can't accept as a part of yourself. He'll never admit he could possibly be responsible for any of this." Throughout the confrontation, Gannon did not budge from where he stood in the arch of the kitchen doorway.
"That's all you ever care about. Assigning blame. Fine." Storming away, Preston snatched up his needler and gear. The door rattled in its frame as he disappeared.
"Who said anything about blame?" Gannon whispered to his absent son.
Noticing the paper crumpled in his hand, Gannon laid it on the table and smoothed it out as best he could. "I love the poem, Christine." For a long moment, he stood there staring down at the white rectangle. Christine did not believe he saw it, however. "I love you," he said softly.
Exhaling a long breath, Christine wrapped her arms around Gannon's slim waist and hugged him to her. "I love you, too," she said. The clock above the stove hummed quietly to itself. "It never seems to get any easier with him, does it?"
Gannon engulfed Christine in his arms and clung to her as though she were his lifeboat in a swelling sea about to capsize him. "I don't understand it. Not fully, anyway. With Michelle and Jason, there's none of this melodramatic scene playing. When we get angry with each other, we simply state the situation and express our emotions as we see them and just...deal with it."
"I know," Christine said into the hollow of his bare neck. "Preston tries what little extra patience I have these days."
Pulling back a bit, Gannon sought Christine's eyes. "Did he explain what happened?"
Christine shook her head. "No," she said, frowning. "His behavior was odd even for him. He acted as though he had merely sauntered in for a break from school, not escaped a massacre."
"Hmm. Stress can do strange things to a person. Nearly three-quarters of his comrades are dead. I suppose he may be reacting this way in order to handle the trauma in a fashion which seems perfectly natural to him."
Gannon dropped his hands from his wife's arms. "The person who has to help Preston is Preston."
"But if he's sick or --"
"He's not sick. He made the decisions that resulted in the man he is today. Bad choices do not equate with illness."
"I can hear you perfectly well, Gannon."
"What? Oh. I -- Sorry. Didn't mean to raise my voice." With sudden concentration, Gannon folded Christine's poem into a neat square. "I'll go down and try to discover what he's up to or, at least, been up to."
"Thank you. I appreciate it."
Gannon nodded distractedly. "Besides, I have a six o'clock strategy meeting."
Christine accompanied her husband as he headed for the bedroom. "Does it look bad?"
Shrugging, Gannon pulled on his trousers. "It doesn't look good. Ingraham's presumably up at Roark. Who knows how long Tratton will let him live?"
"If he's not already dead," Christine said dourly.
"Plus, we need to move on his plan soon. Someone may have to take his place if I can't rescue him in time."
"You?" Christine's brows rose. "Why you? Don't you deserve some R and R after what you've been through?"
Gannon smiled indulgently and kissed her on the forehead. "First of all, you were wonderful R and R, my dear." He tightened his belt. "Secondly, there are no other Warriors available at the moment."
When he hesitated, Christine said irritably. "And...?"
"And last but hardly least, he's a good friend of mine. To abandon him while there's still a reasonable chance of saving -- or at least avenging -- him would be worse than anything the aliens might have in store for him."
"What about the things they'll have in store for you, if they catch you?"
Shoving his hands into his pockets, Gannon gazed into Christine's anxious eyes. "I won't let that possibility happen."
Unfortunately, that prospect was precisely what Christine feared most.