Opening Worlds

"Sir?" Florence appeared at his elbow in the loading bay. "We have embarkation starting in five. Time to smarten up and impress the masses."

"Mm," Jason replied, watching as his hold was rapidly emptied of its cargo. "I'll be right there."

"Of course you will, sir. And I'll just wait here for you."

"Commander Zelenkar, I'm not going to stand you or our passengers up," Jason gently chided, knowing what she was thinking.

"It will mean a lot to them to be personally greeted," she said unrepentantly. "I'm only staying in order to take over if something goes wrong and you're unavoidably detained or something like that."

Jason stared flatly at his first officer. "You're coming very close to implying dereliction of duty on my part, Commander."

"That isn't at all my intent, sir. I merely wish to facilitate the execution of your many duties as best I can," Florence said with a perfectly straight face. "That includes me being on hand to assist you in any way possible."

Jason glanced down at his chrono. "I should probably leave now if I'm going to get to the doors on time." Florence just kept looking attentive. "Thank you."

"My pleasure, sir. I'll finish things up here."

"When you're done, meet me in the bridge. Ceyla's control tower is opening the shields for us in forty-five minutes, and we don't want to be late."

"Yes, sir."

Jason walked away with the barest hint of a smile on his face. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he had been thinking that he might be a little late, but time was tight, and it was important to get the cargo unloaded as safely and efficiently as possible. His first officer was perfectly capable of overseeing that, however, and the cartel he worked for did specify that the captain of the ship be on hand to greet all incoming passengers, as well as see them off at their destinations.

He made it to the doors with thirty seconds to spare. The rest of his crew was on hand as well, to welcome the passengers and guide them to their cabins.

"How many are we taking on?" Jason asked in a low voice as he stopped next to Kayle. The Dorn was bent gracefully in two, a ritual posture signifying welcome, or so Jason had found out a while back. Kayle was still a foot taller than most of the Terran crew.

"Twenty-seven, sir." Kayle's harmonics were serene. "All human except for the Perels. I have prepared their cabins to their specifications."

"Good." Naturally, Kayle had everything well in hand. He should; he had six of them, after all. Jason looked at his chrono again. "Open the doors."

The cruiser's wide passenger doors opened, revealing the high-ceilinged entrance hall, his uniformed, attentive staff, and himself, hopefully looking friendly. Blake had often told Jason that his poker face couldn't improve on his normal imperturbability, and that he'd seen statuary with more emotion. Or some variation thereof. Well, expressionless was better than unhappy, Jason reasoned.

He did his part in welcoming every passenger aboard, shaking hands, clasping shoulders, or bowing depending on the newcomers' preference. Jason was well acquainted with most of the human-inhabited systems in this part of the 'verse and their protocols. The new arrivals were whisked away, and finally there were only the Perels left to board.

All three were male, the only gender allowed off of Perelan without a vast accompaniment. Two of them were perfectly identical, answering a question Jason had never bothered to wonder before about their reproductive process. The twins were slightly shorter than he was, with moon-pale skin and glossy, silky hair that tapered to sharp, quill-like protrusions from the top of their head in a line down their spine. Their stylish black jumpsuits, made of far better material than usual for the standard spacer's clothes, were backless to accommodate their alluring anatomy. They had nearly-human features, but their eyes were twice the size of a human's, dark brown and almost without white. Their chins were sharp and pointed, and their ears were shaped like tea leaves, pointed back alongside their heads. They were beautiful, dream-like creatures with the morals of an alley cat, and judging from their perky welcomes and lingering caresses to his hand, they were both in the market for partners.

The third was similar, but also strikingly different. Every Perel Jason had ever seen before was a single tone, from the smooth skin over their front halves to the lustrous pelt across their backs. This one was two-toned, the same white-pale skin, but his hair darkened as it changed, becoming an amber brown at its tapered points. His ears were slightly tufted with darker pieces as well, and his large eyes were the same amber as his head and back. His features were a little less pointed, a little less ethereal, but he was just as beautiful as the other two. He looked curiously at Jason, who suddenly realized that he'd been keeping the Perel waiting.

"Welcome aboard," Jason said stiffly, disturbed by his lack of focus. He offered his hand, and the Perel shook it gently.

"Thank you, Captain." His voice was a warm, husky sound, not exactly a purr, but not a normal speaking voice from a human perspective.

"This is Kayle, the steward on the Silver Star. He'll accompany you to your quarters and answer any questions you might have." Jason stepped back slightly, more than glad to pass the responsibility of settling their passengers off to the capable Dorn. "We'll be departing shortly."

"I am Ferran," the Perel said quickly, his introduction cutting off Jason's retreat. "These are Neyarr and Parrel, my cousins." His bright eyes were fixed on Jason's face, startlingly intimate.

"Honored to make your acquaintance," Jason said automatically. "Please excuse me; I need to supervise our departure." He nodded slightly, and then turned and walked away, trying not to move faster than he normally would. Externally, he was fairly sure he looked the same; internally, he was unsettled. Jason had never been affected by a Perel before. Generally, he found them beautiful but not attractive—sexual but not sensual—creatures. He certainly had never been aroused by one before.

Not, Jason mentally berated himself, that he was aroused now. Interested, perhaps. Yes. Interested. And so would all twenty-four of the other passengers be, and most of his crew as well. He didn't care to be one more brief conquest for a voracious Perel. He didn't want to be anyone's brief conquest. Transitioning in and out of relationships with ease had never been one of Jason's traits, and he wasn't going to change at his age. Squaring his shoulders, he made his way to the bridge.