Jack greeted his day the same way he had every morning for the past year.

With a toe in his nose.

Actually, to be fair, it wasn’t always a toe. Sometimes it was a finger. Or the tip of a tail. On a few occasions, near the beginning, it was a sharp little tooth. That was no longer allowed.

He opened his eyes and a happy, mischievous little face looked down at him, the tiny foot still planted across his mouth and the toe… in his nostril.

He tickled the pads of the foot with the tip of his tongue and was rewarded with high pitched giggles, one from the owner of the foot and one from her sister hiding at the foot of the bed. The tiny foot left his mouth but rested on his chest. Jack had no trouble bearing the weight of the two foot tall being standing on his chest.

“Zaina? What do you think you’re doing?” he asked her as he did each morning. Well… the sister’s took turns on alternate mornings but both heard the question.

Her eyes twinkled with excited anticipation. “Papa was making monster noises!”

“Papa’s a monster?” he asked in surprise, his eyes wide. Zaina’s muscles began to twitch in anticipation, her tail whipping back and forth, and she couldn’t suppress the grin as she nodded.

He surprised her this morning by suddenly lifting his arms under the sheets and trapping her in a tangle. Two little voices shrieked in delight.

“Papa’s a hungry monster!” he growled and pretended to bite Zaina through the sheets. More shrieking ensued and Adina launched herself onto the bed to rescue her trapped sibling.

Exactly what he’d been waiting for.

With one trapped in the sheets he grabbed Adina’s leg and toppled her onto her back next to her sister. Then he pressed a foot from each of them together and blew a loud raspberry against the bottoms of the two’s wiggling toes.

Their shrieks of laughter had an oddly harmonic synchronicity as the two shared the intense tickling sensation like a feedback loop between them. Their brains had linked sensory centers. What one felt, the other involuntarily did as well. Somehow they were able to distinguish who the sensations belonged to and, most of the time, they could ignore the secondary input.

Additionally, what one saw and heard, the other could choose to see and hear. They’d discovered there were differing levels of transference and control when it came to some of the senses. Scent for instance, was only minimally shared and often faded quickly. The family had been keeping this unique ability a secret as best they could in the three and a half years since they were born.

When he let go of the two legs and pulled the sheet clear of Zaina’s head the two had matching expressions of dreaminess on their faces. They were blissed out within their connection. He knew from previous experience they’d come out of it in a few minutes and come looking for him again so he rolled out of bed, grabbed some work clothes, and went to take a quick shower behind a locked door. Just keeping the door closed no longer sufficed with three year old, curious kids in his condo.

He removed the protective caps from the points of his sharp horns, something else he had to do for the kids. Stepping into the shower he let it blast him with hot water and he quickly lathered up and rinsed off. He carefully washed his long sandy blond hair which hung down to his mid back. He ached to get a short haircut but he’d have to deal with a mutiny in both offices he worked in. He managed to wash and rinse his hair without scratching himself on his horns. He could have left the caps on but water always got inside and he’d forgotten to empty them before and had to listen to it slosh during a meeting or drip out at the worst possible moment.

He shut off the water and got out to dry off. He shaved, put deodorant on, put the protective caps back on his horns before brushing out his hair, and then brushed his teeth. Before he got dressed he used his towel to buff the slave collar which was fused to his neck. He’d like to ignore it but found if he didn’t keep it clean and shiny the skin of his neck became irritated. So he took care of it. He got dressed and put as smile on his face as he looked at himself in the mirror.

Yeah, he was fooling no one with that smile.

The Queen had spent an extraordinary amount of time with him after his rescue from the Allsa Komanae and he was almost back to his old self but something was still missing. He tried not to burden anyone else with it so the smile went back on his face and he opened the bathroom door.

“RRRAAARR” roared from throats as the two small, ebony cat-like beings launched from the corner of the bed into his arms. He wrapped them up tight against his chest and kissed their cheeks as he walked them out into the living room where most of his family were. SennLann walked up to him and he dipped his face down to her to give her a good morning kiss. The girls wiggled free to race away down the hall to their room. Playtime waits for no man.

SennLann watched them go with a happy smile. When she turned back she smiled at Jack. “We let you sleep in just a little longer today. It was not a running day.”

“Thank you. Yes, tomorrow I run,” he responded. “Any word from Eve?” he asked looking at SennLann and Diana.

It was Diana who answered. “They had a much better night at the hospital. Joseph’s fever broke and it’s on its way back to normal.” Jack sighed. The poor little tyke had one ear infection after another. The doctor said he would be prone to them during the next few years. Eve vigilantly stayed by his side. Jack called the Chuuruthian medical board to see if they had any suggestions but they hadn’t had too many human infants as patients.

Jack collected a kiss from Diana and his daughter Emily. SennLann handed him a breakfast shake and he headed off to work.

He had a shift at the Embassy this morning and the Trade Commission this afternoon. The offices were just across a lovely courtyard from each other and the walk from his condo wasn’t long. He made his way into the Embassy building and went up to the office. Stepping through the doors he said his hellos to the staff as he walked over to Denee, his personal assistant.

“Good morning Denee!” he said with a smile.

“Good morning Jack! You have some special guests waiting for you in your office this morning.”

“Really? How long have they been there?” he asked.

“Not more than a couple of minutes but you shouldn’t make them wait,” Denee said with a smile. When he didn’t move immediately she made shooing motions.

“Ok, fine!” he said with a grin.

He walked over to his office and knocked before entering. Once inside he paused and smiled at the two ladies smiling back at him from the chairs in front of his desk.

“Queen Elissa! Karrel! To what do I owe this pleasant surprise?” he said as he walked over and gave them both a quick kiss.

“Have a seat Jack,” Elissa said with a smile.

“Oh, maybe this isn’t a pleasant surprise?” he said with a worried tone as he moved to his chair.

“Don’t be silly Jack. Of course it’s pleasant. We have no bad news to deliver to you!” Elissa said.

“Ok, good. So, what can I do for you two?”

Elissa and Karrel shared a look and Jack’s unease increased.

“I do have a favor to ask of my Altarian Ambassador,” the Queen said and Jack unconsciously sat a little straighter in his chair.

“I need you to take a vacation.”

Jack froze and stared at the two women in shock. They looked back at him with concerned expressions.

He tried to speak but his voice failed him at first. He cleared his throat. “I’m… I’m sorry. Did you just ask me to take a vacation? You… you do recall how… badly… the last one went?”

“Stop! That wasn’t an issue with taking time off. That entire affair was the product of the insidious manipulations of a Mahrell Drun Prime! Who is now dead! Jack. You more than anyone know life moves forward. You cannot and must not allow yourself to fear what lies ahead. You also know we won’t put you in harm’s way, ever again. You mean too much to all of us!” the Queen exclaimed.

He nodded and looked to the windows. The climate on Altaria was stable and consistent so the view out his window rarely varied by much. This allowed his sense of time to sometimes feel like it was standing still. But he knew, as Elissa just said, life moves forward, regardless of our wishes and desires. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“What-” He began again. “Is the vacation the favor you need?” he asked.

“No, what I actually need is for you to visit a colony world of ours. The planet is called Chrystan. It’s ours only because it resides deep within the Altarian region of space. No Altarians live there as its climate isn’t really suitable to us. It’s a world of perpetual winter,” she explained.

“Wait, if no Altarians live there why am I going?” he asked.

Karrel picked up the story. “The planet is populated by the Shreen. Hundreds of years ago the sun above their original home planet began to show dramatic, sudden, and unexplainable signs of instability. It was suspected that the Allsa Komanae were somehow involved as Shreen was close to their territory. The populace of the planet needed to be evacuated but their requirements for survival were so particular none of the worlds in the Gate Network had a suitable offering. The Tik scoured the records of all planets located by all races and found a reference to an icy ball we had located and written off as unsuitable. They approached us and we immediately offered Chrystan to the Shreen. The Tik and the Altarians evacuated the entire populace from the Shreen home world to Chrystan taking with them everything they could save. Only months after the last group was evacuated the sun flared and consumed the planet.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a Shreen before,” Jack noted, curious in spite of his earlier anxiety. Queen Elissa was smiling fondly at him.

“They don’t leave their new home. Ever. They’ve actually found it to be more hospitable than their original home planet. It isn’t brutally cold, has a more stable orbit around a young sun, is geologically stable, has plenty of geothermal energy, and the resources are easier to access. The Shreen themselves aren’t what you’d call a very adventurous people. Homebodies is a better description of their type. They do trade with the other worlds of the Gate Network but only through brokers,” Elissa offered.

“Sounds like a snowy utopia. Why do you need an Altarian Ambassador to visit them?” he asked.

Elissa shared another look with Karrel who chose to answer. “We’ve received word, rumors really, of unrest. We’d like you to go as our official diplomat to speak with them to carefully and discreetly determine the source of this unrest so we can figure out if there is anything we can and should do to ease their minds.”

“It is not our intention to interfere with their society. They’ve had a stable government for as long as they’ve been on Chrystan. We’re just… concerned as close neighbors. Go, meet with their Queen and King. Speak with the cabinet members and walk amongst the people. The Shreen are really nice. It’s distressing to hear this stability may be in jeopardy,” Elissa requested. “They have amazing hot spring resorts. You like snow, don’t you?”

Jack chuckled at the pleading tone in Elissa’s voice. “I don’t dislike it.” He thought for a moment. It had been years since he went skiing. It might be fun to do it again. “These resorts. Do they offer skiing?”

“Skiing? What’s that?” Elissa asked.

“Obviously, you’re no snow bunny,” Jack teased as he did a search on his computer filtering by Earth sports and found a vid. He spun his screen and played the vid showing a man carving his way down a mountainside in fresh powder snow up to his waist.

“Oh! How is he moving so gracefully and fast through the snow!” Karrel exclaimed. “Ah! What’s that on his feet!” she yelped as the skier in the vid leapt over a small tree.

Jack froze the vid. He pointed to the long skis. “These are skis. Long very slippery boards which support the weight of the skier on the snow and allow him to move through it quickly.”

“The Shreen have large wide feet for walking on snow. They wouldn’t fit on these narrow things.” Karrel said.

“I guess that answers the question of will they have skiing at the resort,” he said and both ladies shook their heads.

He thought for a moment then pulled up a different vid. Nordic skiing was also fun and didn’t require a mechanism to get you back to the top of the hill.

“Is this skiing too?” Elissa asked.

“Yes, this is a different kind but I also enjoyed it back on Earth. If you’re sending me to a winter planet I want to do some skiing. This kind is easier to do without the resort having to prepare anything,” he answered.

“Does this mean you’ll go?” Elissa asked.

“Have I ever refused you anything?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

She just grinned widely.

“Are you going to order some skis for yourself?” Karrel asked with a smile.

Jack looked at the two women. “No, I have to be fitted for skis at a shop that sells them.”

They lost their smiles. “That means-”

“A visit to Earth first.” He wondered if Queen Elissa would cancel her request but he saw a crafty look appear in her eyes.

“Challenge accepted. Be at the Gate Terminal in two hours for your trip to Earth,” she said with a smile as Karrel looked at her in worry.

Jack looked at her in surprise. “Today?”

“As of this morning you are on a Diplomatic mission with a few days of vacation. Karrel will cover for you in the Embassy. Your Trade office appointments have already been shifted until you return,” Elissa said.

Jack blinked in surprise. “Will I get time to pack before you push me out into the snow?”

They chuckled evilly.




Jack hadn’t traveled by Gate since the one visit to the Gate Network headquarters after his kidnapping to speak with the special council about the fate of the Allsa Komanae. Since then he’d stayed close to home. As he stood in the terminal he let the last of the chills run down his spine. He’d push through this. He held faith in Elissa’s promise not to ever send him into danger. She’d let him pick the destination on Earth this time and he’d worked out the time of day and season so he was assured to have enough time to shop and the place should have a store catering to his needs.

He had on a green hoodie, his black one having been shredded by his horns. He had his protective caps on but he would pull the hood up only when they went through the Gate.

He was waiting on his escort. The Queen said she’d check to see if his favorite team was available and he smiled when he saw Gee and Bal walk in the door. They smiled back to him. He wanted so badly to pull them into a hug but he saw they were on duty so it was all business. They gestured for him to walk up to the customs and security agent. He gave their destination and were given the Gate ID.

They made their way into the Gate room and he pulled his hood up to hide his horns. Then they walked through the mirror surface. Jack felt just the slightest tingle and he was in Stockholm, Sweden on Earth. He marvelled once more at the simplicity of such an action and the magnitude of its significance. The Gates really were the most amazing invention ever! He looked around and froze when he saw the smiling faces. Here was Queen Elissa’s answer to his challenge.

Tall, muscular, and truly imposing in her commando gear, with a nasty assault weapon over her shoulder and knives strapped to her thighs, Major Cha’Risa Ash stood front and center. Next to her a tall, slim redhead with a perpetual crooked smile, Captain Nann Graf nodded to him. Two almost identical, solidly built greying brush cuts carrying nastier looking assault weapons, Corporal Leo Orlov and Corporal Maxim Volkov grinned widely at him.

Finally, the last member of their team, a shiny Tik hovered at their side. Tik were neutral, always, and didn’t take roles in the military. This meant this particular Tik was Lieutenant Ray Sharif. The first and only sentient AI created from a human mind. The Tik saved him and gave him a Tik body to preserve his mind as the matrix it was built on was degrading.

“Oh my god! I didn’t expect to see you guys here!” Jack exclaimed happily.

Cha’Risa grinned and shook his hand. “We were in the neighborhood, London to be precise, when the request came through from a certain Queen to take care of her special package. Who could pass up a task like that?”

“It’s so great to see you all! How have you been doing?”

“Really good! We just got back from hunting some smugglers,” Nann said with a grin and the two men shared her delight but on them the grin looked a little bloodthirsty.

“Ray, is our transport ready?” Cha’Risa asked.

“It will be at the door when we arrive,” he answered.

“Any chatter?”

“No Major. No indication that our presence has been noted at all.”


With a nod they made their way to the front of the building and stepped outside just as a small bus pulled up. They stepped inside, Jack spoke an address into the mic, and were moving back out into traffic in seconds.

“Do you have to get a security detail escort like this every time you shop?” Ray asked Jack.

“I haven’t been back on Earth since… then,” Jack answered.

“Oh, sorry,” the man in the Tik body said.

Jack shrugged. “It’s fine. I had to get back on the horse sometime.”

“Where are we taking you today?” Cha’Risa asked.

“There’s an outfitter for sporting goods I read about. I need to get fitted for Nordic skis. The clothes and all the gear,” Jack said, suddenly feeling silly for having the commando team as escort on a shopping trip.

“Us as well,” Gee offered.

Jack looked at Gee and Bal in surprise.

“Did you not know that we were going with you?” Gee asked.

“No! Nobody mentioned it! I was told there are no other Altarians there. Too cold. Are you sure-”

“We will be fine,” Gee assured him.

“I don’t think they will have any shoes that will fit your hooves,” Jack said looking down.

“We will find something and make a custom solution before we leave,” Bal said, scanning the traffic outside the window.

Twenty minutes later they pulled into a side street next to a busy sporting goods store. The commando team got out first and indicated the coast was clear.

Feeling more ridiculous with each passing moment Jack made his way inside with his jet black escorts. Naturally heads turned in the shop, from customers and staff.

An older man in the shops uniform approached and said something in Swedish then shook his head. “My apologies, Ambassador Danner. Can I help you with something?”

Identity out of the bag and he really had to admit the hoodie thing just wasn’t cutting it anymore, Jack pushed it back and smiled at the man. “Yes, hi, I was hoping I might get outfitted for some Nordic skis, poles, shoes, gaiters, thermal wear, bodysuit, the works. My friends here need the same.”

“Certainly Ambassador!” the man said with a delighted smile.

“Please, call me Jack.”

The man nodded with a smile and gestured for them to follow. Jack was aware of each and every eyeball turned in his direction.

The man took time explaining their options and took weight and measurements of all three of them. Due to Gee and Bal’s petite natures they were being outfitted with skis for teens. Jack’s options were more limited due to how heavy he was. Finally they made their selections and the man moved off to get the order started as they tried on thermal clothing. Jack insisted they all get wicking undergarments and then wondered how that worked for furred beings. Item after item went into their baskets.