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East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Saturday, December 17, 2005 23:06 EST



    When Meredith walked into her office, Herzer was sitting on the weight bench with a heavily loaded weight bar suspended over his knees and a book tucked into his crotch. He appeared to be reading. As she watched, the bar slowly rose up to touch his shoulder and then lowered back down. After one more rep he lifted it to the holder, turned the page on the book and lifted it back down. After four more slow reps he repeated himself.

    Meredith turned away from the sight, frowning and sat at her desk for a moment. Then she got up and walked to the filing cabinet, pulling out a file and sitting down at her desk again. The sound in the background was maddeningly repetitive. Flip of a page, clink of the weights leaving the holder, four long, slow, breaths with no real sound of effort, clink of the bar, flip of the page, repeat. Occasionally there would be a grunt of surprise or a disgusted snort. Occasionally there would be a long pause and she could imagine the bar hanging in mid-air, effortlessly held there, then the breath would be let out, the page would flip, repeat.

    Finally, after realizing that she'd just read the same page of a complicated bill twice and didn't actually read it either time, she turned around angrily.

    "Are you actually reading that or just looking at the pretty pictures?" she asked disparagingly.

    "I'm reading it," Herzer said without looking up. She could see a drop of sweat forming on the tip of his nose but if he noticed it wasn't apparent.

    "Well," she said, glancing at the close set text on the page, "if you are, you're reading it awfully fast. Skimming something isn't going to do anyone any good."

    Herzer paused with the bar in mid-rep, held out in front of him, and a muscle on his jaw flexed. He turned and looked at her, sharply, then began to recite.

    "The Mark-14 Quantum communicator has a range of..." he paused and frowned, the bar still held in mid-air, "sixty-four thousand kilometers. It works by something called a mee-zon generator, whatever the hell that is, and has up to one million discrete frequencies. Although it is unjammable and can't be intercepted, during the AI War when the system was used frequently, enemies would install interception devices in them. The systems we'll be using will be voice activated and frequency agile, whatever the hell that means. There is an alternate implant system which we won't be using because there's an attack method through them. Satisfied?" he asked, looking back down at the page. He set the bar down and flipped back a few pages, then grunted in satisfaction. "Yeah, sixty four thousand." He flipped back to the page he'd been reading, picked up the bar and began slowly lifting it and lowering it again.

    Meredith watched him for a moment and then turned around slowly to get back to work.



    "Hello," Shanea said to the older woman at the door. She'd been past by the sentries so, presumably, she was safe. "Can I help you?"

    "I'm looking for Herzer," the woman said, smiling. "I've got some lists to go over."

    "He's in the office," Shanea said. "Would you like to step in? And you're...?"

    "June Lasker," the lady said.

    "I'll go get him," Shanea replied, gesturing at a seat in the entry foyer.

    "Herzer," she said, walking in the office.

    "Yeah?" he grunted, pressing a mass of weights.

    "Come on up just a touch more," Bue Pedersen said, his fingers hovering over the bar. "Almost there. You know you're badly out of shape. That's only, what, a hundred and ninety kilos?"

    "Fisk you, Bue," Herzer said, dumping the weights onto the rack and sitting up. "What's up, Shanea?"

    "There's a lady named...June here with some lists..." Shanea said, blinking rapidly. Herzer had taken off his shirt and it was apparent that his upper body was getting corded with muscles, the veins in his arms and torso standing out against pale skin. "Uhmm..."

    "Crap," Herzer muttered. "Okay, Bue, I'm going to be at this a while; they're probably the technical personnel lists. You might as well get back to the War Department."

    "Can I ask what this is all about?" Bue said.

    "Not yet," Herzer replied. "Soon."

    "Okay," Bue said, shrugging. "Want me to come back this evening?"

    "No," Herzer grunted. "I'll be at this most of the afternoon and damned if I'm going to spend all evening pumping weights. Tomorrow is lower body. Say Thursday if that's okay?"

    "I'll be back," Bue said with a nod. "Have fun."

    Herzer picked up his shirt and wiped off some sweat then looked up at Shanea.

    "We'll probably need drinks and some lunch if you don't mind," he said, smiling. "I hate using you as a gopher..."

    "That's okay," Shanea said, blinking again and then smiling. "Whatever you need."



    Herzer nodded his head as she left and then frowned, replaying the reply.

    "Don't read anything into it that's not there," he muttered, walking out of the room and down the hall to his and Megan's bedroom. He stripped out of the shorts and wiped down hastily with a towel then climbed into a new set and a clean shirt.

    "June," he said as he came in the foyer. "It's been, what? Three years?"

    "About that, Herzer," June said, smiling and standing up. "You've come up in the world," she added, gesturing around.

    "Getting engaged to a council member will do that for you," he said, frowning. "I take it Edmund put you in charge of finding replacement personnel?"

    "Yes, and we're going to have a fun time," she added, picking up her valise. "Where?"

    "Living room," he said, gesturing the way. They gathered around the coffee table and June started pulling out files.

    "I found six people in Raven's Mill's files and Federal records that listed a background in late information age space engineering," June said, laying out the files. "I've put a request in to the Federal Intelligence Agency to find them and they've all been identified and located."

    Herzer picked up the first file and looked at the age and grunted. "This guy is over two hundred. I'm not sure he'll be up to it."

    "That is a problem with several of the personnel," June said. "the first three on the list are all over two hundred. Another I happen to know is claustrophobic. You realize you're going to have to deal with situational anxiety on this mission, right?"

    "I hadn't even thought about it," Herzer admitted.

    "The conditions in the shuttles will be tight," June said. "And the ship is better but not great. Then there's the fact that they might have to go EVA..."

    "I've seen that as an acronym," Herzer said. "That means space walking, right?"

    "Yes," June said, grinning. "It stands for 'Extra Vehicular Activity.' You're getting out of whatever vehicle and moving around. You weren't into space stuff I take it?"

    "Not at all," Herzer admitted, looking at another file. "This guy is old but another of his comments is that he's a long distance runner. That will at least mean he might be in shape. Pilots?"

    "That was somewhat easier," June said, smiling. "I've got nine of those. One of a little odd..."

    "Define odd," Herzer said, frowning. "And no ancient or cripples?"

    "Not crippled by any means," June said, frowning. "Her file actually came from the Intelligence Department; she had been some sort of an agent in Ropasa but is now in the UFS. She Changed herself, before the Fall, into a...well a bird, sort of..."

    "Jolie?" Herzer said, picking up the file. "No, Joie?"

    "You know her?" June asked.

    "I met her; she had joined up with Megan in Gael," Herzer said, looking at the file. "She doesn't have a current listed address. What is she doing?"

    "Working as waitress in Belmopan," June said, shrugging. "But she piloted before the Change including inter-planetary. She's trained, according to the records, in celestial navigation and orbital mechanics."

    Herzer considered his memory of the seven foot bird-woman and shrugged.

    "Odder things have happened," he said. "Get the word out to get her down here right away. What about computer techs?"

    "Fewer of those," June admitted. "Only six and one is nearly three hundred. He's still alive but mostly retired, he does wood working in Raven's Mill. And we can't find one," she added, slipping out a file and sliding it across the table. "A Courtney Deadwiler. I think she might have married and changed her name, but I didn't find it in the records."

    "You've got to be joking," Herzer said, opening up the file and glancing at the data. "Jesus Christ! Courtney?"

    "You know her, too?" June said with a faint smile. "Do you know where we can find her?"

    "Right here in Washan last time I checked," Herzer said. "She and her husband are here lobbying the Agriculture Department. They've got a farm outside Raven's Mill and are trying to get some of the opening land in the Sippa delta." He paused and shook his head in disbelief at the image of Courtney in a space suit. "She's got four kids!"

    "Fast work," June said, smiling faintly.

    "Courtney on a space ship?" Herzer said, shaking his head. "I have a hard time picturing that!"

    "She listed a background in early computer technology, hardware and software," June noted. "System analysis, routing...frankly she looks like the best replacement we have if she wasn't padding her resume."

    "I don't know if they're currently here," Herzer temporized. "Hang on a second."

    He went to the door and gave the sergeant of the guard orders to go check their hotel and see if they were still in town.

    "If they are, leave a message that I need to see them this evening. Not before then but it's urgent."

    "Yes, sir," the sergeant said.

    "Go yourself," Herzer added. "Tell your lieutenant I ordered it. And send a message for Cruz to be here at four."

    "Yes, sir," the sergeant said as Herzer shut the door.

    "We'll see if they're still in town," he added to June. "Find someplace at the War Department for interviews and start rounding all the rest up except the ancient and the cripples."

    "I will," June said, picking up the files.

    "I'm going to need copies of all that," Herzer said, gesturing at the paper. "More reading. Bleck. And tell Edmund that we'll either need copies of all the planning data up at the camp down here or we'll have to move up there, soon."

    "Will do," June said, stuffing the last file away. "I don't suppose I could go?"

    "The lure of space," Herzer asked, shaking his head. "Got a background in early technology?"

    "No, unfortunately," June sighed. "But this is going to be the last chance to work with technology for most of us until the war is won. It would be nice to ken again."

    "I don't know that the ship has that ability," Herzer pointed out.

    "Oh, I'm sure it has replicators at least," June said. "But I get your point. I guess I'll have to remain ground bound."

    Herzer considered June's words after she had left. Prior to the Fall there had been many people attracted to space. He didn't know why, there wasn't anything out there. But it was a major lure in a time when finding something to pass the time was a major factor in survival and boredom came on easily. Some people had even moved off planet and a few had Changed themselves to be able to actually live in space for short periods.

    There had been a brief heyday when terraforming of Mars and the moon had been considered but eventually abandoned. There simply weren't that many people interested in moving off Earth given reduced populations and the diversions available on the planet.

    But there were...he searched his memory for a moment... habitats that existed in space. He had no idea what had happened to most of them, if anyone survived. He wasn't sure how they could but, then again, he wasn't sure that they had been as drained of power and function as Earth. It might be that some people survived to this day. There wasn't much that anyone could do for them; the only reason the shuttles were going to work was that the power drain protocols wouldn't affect them. So anyone who had been off-planet was stranded; any attempt to enter Earth's orbit would mean loss of power in their vehicle.

    Shanea came in the room with a tray of cold cuts and bread and looked around.

    "Your guest is gone already?" she asked, unhappily.

    "Sorry," Herzer said, shrugging. "It didn't take as long as I thought it would, mainly because there wasn't much to choose from. I'll eat it, though."

    "Oh, okay," Shanea said, sunnily, sliding the tray onto the table. "Do you mind if I join you?"

    "No," Herzer said, making a large sandwich of various meats and cheese.

    "I hate eating alone," Shanea said, picking up a slice of cheese and nibbling it, sitting on the edge of one of the chairs.

    "I don't," Herzer said, shrugging. "I've eaten alone and I've eaten in a crowd of thousands of people. You can be just as alone there," he added.

    "I mean alone like nobody to talk to," Shanea added. "I like to talk to people when I'm eating."

    "Don't get a full mouth, then," Herzer said.

    "Depends on what it's full of," Shanea said then blushed. "Sorry."

    "That's okay," Herzer replied, looking at her with one eyebrow raised. "Harem humor?"

    "Something like that," Shanea sighed. "I don't miss the harem, much, but sometimes I get more bored here then there. I feel all cooped up. Megan hardly lets me go out at all."

    "Uhmmm, Shanea?" Herzer said. "You're your own person. You can go out any time you want.' He paused and thought about it. "Can't you?"

    "Well..." Shanea said, then shrugged. "Megan doesn't like it. She's never really said it, but she always says no when I ask if I can go shopping or something. And Mirta and Meredith and Ashley go out all the time. I think it's because she's, you know, important now. And I hear things, you know? And, face it, sometimes I do some dumb things, too. So she's afraid I'll embarrass her. At least, that's what I think," she ended, miserably.

    Herzer considered her words for a minute and then frowned.

    "I can see part of the point," Herzer admitted. "You do have access to some very high level intelligence and you'd be surprised how easy it is to make the mistake of giving something away. But you shouldn't be held against your will. And you shouldn't need Megan's permission to go shopping. There are other ways to handle it."

    The first that came to mind was getting the poor girl a husband or a lover or something. Someone who was trustworthy. If he'd ever seen the type to land on her back with her legs open, that was Shanea and she clearly wasn't getting any here. Neither was he, come to think of it, which led quickly to thoughts he shied away from.

    He wracked his brain for a moment, repeatedly pulling it away from the entirely pleasant image of escorting her around himself, and then hit on a face. Not the brightest officer he knew but one that was solid, dependable and trustworthy. Now if he could just remember the guy's name.

    "I'll see about setting something up," Herzer said. "What we need to do is get you an escort; someone to show you around town and make sure you stay safe. You're going to need nearly as much security as Megan, you know. But we'll make it so you can get out and spend some of your pay."

    "What's that?" Shanea asked, picking up another slice of cheese.

    Herzer froze as he was about to take a bite out of his sandwich and lowered it.

    "You're not getting paid?" he asked, frowning.

    "I don't know," Shanea said, suddenly wary. "What is it?"

    "You know that shopping requires money, right?" Herzer asked.

    "Yes," Shanea said. "I guess."

    "So if you go shopping, you'll need some money," Herzer explained.

    "I guess," Shanea said. "The times I've gone out it's been with Megan or Meredith. They do that."

    "Oh," Herzer said, shaking his head. "Shanea, can you add and subtract?"

    "Oh, sure," she said. "One plus one is eleven. Two plus two is twenty two...I get kind of confused after that," she admitted, taking a bite of cheese.

    Herzer bit into his sandwich thoughtfully. He shouldn't have been surprised. Before the Fall there had been no need to have any skill in mathematics or reading and the number of people who had the skills were, therefore, vanishingly small.

    However, since the Fall, people had started picking up the skills quickly. There were still vast groups that were illiterate and unable to add but not like before. It was impossible to do most highly skilled jobs in the UFS without some moderate academic training.

    Shanea, however, had clearly gone from the pre-Fall condition to some position that didn't require those skills in Ropasa to Paul's harem and then into Megan's care. She'd never had the need to be able to read or do math and obviously didn't care to pick it up on her own.

    Clearly he'd have to ensure that Ensign Whatsisname could do simple math. No, he wouldn't, he'd had him as a student and knew his mathematical skills, what there were of them, to an instant. Okay, the guy could probably make change.

    He pulled out a pad and made a note then considered some other needs. He needed someone to handle the information flow on this project and one name came to mind. Unfortunately, it also called up some negative history that would not fit in well with this crowd. Van Krief would be the perfect assistant for this mission but he wasn't sure he wanted her and Megan in the same city much less the same room. What was the other Ensign's name? Destrang. He'd been one of three that Herzer had tapped to accompany he and Edmund on what turned out to be a very long field trip. They'd been given credit for Officer Basic Course based upon the fact that they'd been aides to an admiral during a major ship battle and a general during a major land battle. The third one...Tao, that was his name, still couldn't add worth a damn. But he had good common sense skills and was fairly charismatic.

    He scribbled a long oval on the paper that had become his standard mental image of the ship and began filling in details. Trying to seize all the shuttles was inviting defeat in detail. Just holding the control room wouldn't ensure either controlling the fuel or destroying the ship. If he could think of using the shuttles to adjust its trajectory, so could Chansa or Celine or whoever was in charge of this mission on the other side. New Destiny was not stupid at the tactical level.

    The big battle would be for the control room, he was sure of that. But he was pretty sure it was possible to...disable some of the shuttles and just leave the remainder under guard. But he had no idea what numbers or type of fighters the enemy would bring. One of those Changed elves, for example, could go through a squad of Blood Lords like it wasn't there. But Megan was sure they didn't have many of those, yet. The ones they did have were actual elves that had been tormented into something...different. Evil was the only word to use. Most of the force would be more normal than those. They were unlikely to be able to fit many ogres into the ships and once you knew about them they were easy enough to kill. Celine would probably come up with something monstrous. No dragons on either side, no room in the shuttles. What would Celine come up with? What monster was she going to produce from her labs? That was what had him worried.

    He looked up and saw Shanea watching him like a cat.

    "What?" he asked, carefully.

    "I was just thinking about when you came to rescue us on the ship," she said, nibbling at her cheese.

    "I thought you were out cold?" Herzer said.

    "I was playing dead," Shanea said. "And terrified. But when you pushed through the door I half opened one eye. I've never seen anything like that. It was horrible but you was amazing. I thought that the little guy, Baradur, was fast. You were amazing."

    "It's one of the things I'm good at," Herzer said, shaking his head. "I don't make too much of it, don't you. It's just butchery."

    "Well, I never said thank you," Shanea said, frowning. "I know you came for Megan, not me. But I wanted to say thank you, anyway."

    Herzer opened his mouth to reply, paused, took a bite of his sandwich and chewed for a bit.

    "You're right, I came for Megan," he finally said with a shrug. "Rescuing Keyholders is a mission, rescuing damsels in distress is sort of a sideline," he added with a grin.

    "Have you rescued many?" Shanea asked, her eyes wide.

    "A few," Herzer said with a grin that changed to a frown. "And failed to rescue at least one too many. It's one of the reasons I tend to try harder these days."

    "You were right about something," Shanea said as the silence extended out into awkwardness.

    "What?" Herzer asked, taking another bite.

    "We hadn't seen you when you were in shape," Shanea said. "You're looking... really good."

    "Uh...thanks," Herzer said, swallowing against a dry throat. He poured some water and washed the mouthful down carefully.

    "Hello, Herzer," Megan said from the doorway, coming over and sitting down next to him. "Having fun?"

    "Shanea didn't want to eat alone," Herzer said, hastily, then looked down at the remnants of the huge sandwich in his hand and over at the morsel of cheese in Shanea's. "June Lasker turned up with the records of the people they could find with technical skills. We were going to go over them over lunch, but there weren't enough to bother."

    "Oh," Megan said as Meredith softly entered the room after dropping off her files. Meredith raised one eyebrow at the tableau and silently picked up a slice of meat, sitting on one of the chairs and nibbling at it.

    "You won't believe who one of the techs is," Herzer added after a moment.

    "Don't keep me guessing," Megan said, pouring a glass of water.


    "You're joking!" Megan snorted, blinking her eyes.

    "You're getting the same image I did," Herzer said, laughing.

    "I don't know," Megan replied, smiling. "Does it include one channel entirely filled with chatter?"

    "I hadn't thought about that," Herzer admitted, frowning. "Gods."

    "Maybe we give her her own channel?" Megan said, grinning.

    "If she even goes," Herzer pointed out. "She's not the adventurous type. And I don't think we can exactly conscript the people for this mission. I'm going to call for volunteers from the Blood Lords for an unspecified mission with 'high hazard and high chance of death.' Which means more than half of them will volunteer and I'll pick and choose from the other half if I need to. They'll be the ones that have already seen enough war to know that I mean it. But the techs...I don't think we can force them. We'll have to ask them without being specific about what the mission involves. And most of them aren't going to volunteer."

    "Which means we'll be critically short of techs," Megan pointed out.

    "Yep," Herzer said, frowning. "Which means more care about protecting them. Especially since we won't have time to more than half train the Blood Lords on onboard systems so they'll be lost if they run into anything technical." He paused again, frowning.

    "I want to bring in some assistants. I don't know where they'll fall in the TO&E but the information load is getting beyond me. I'd ask to borrow Meredith but she's busy enough with your stuff and she's not available for the mission." He paused and frowned again then shrugged. "One of them is a female that I have some history with, but she's got damned near as sharp a mind as Meredith. The other two aren't as sharp but I think I'll need them both, if not on the mission. Van Krief might not be shipboard; somebody is going to have to handle shuffling forces on the Earth for reinforcements. I need to get them headed this way, soonest. But that means taking time to go over to the War Department myself. Which is one of the reasons I need them."

    "Tell Meredith what you need and Ashley will run it over to the War Department," Megan said, frowning in thought. "I still don't have any technical data to start training on, for that matter."

    "I sent a message about that as well," Herzer said, brow still furrowed in thought. "And I want to find out if there's any intel on what Celine is going to throw at us."

    "If dad has found out anything, he hasn't told me," Megan said. "Of course, I haven't talked to him since this came up. Put that on the list."

    "I don't even know if Van Krief can write an operations order," Herzer groaned. "I'm probably going to have to write the damned thing myself. All two hundred sub paragraphs." He frowned and shook his head. "I need a copy of FM-196-4, damnit!"

    "What in the heck is...?" Shanea said. "That...what you said."

    "Manual on Field Operations," Herzer said, distantly. "I can practically recite it – especially since I was on the committee that wrote it – but practically and actually are two different things. It helps, it's like an outline that you fill in the blanks. Part of that is you find where the blanks are."

    "Herzer," Megan said, gently. "You're getting so wrapped up in this you're practically spinning. Tell Meredith what you need and then take a break."

    "You're right," Herzer said, shaking his head. "Thank you. We still need more staff. I'll put Van Krief in charge of setting up the operations order, probably Destrang in charge of keeping us updated on intel and Tao will be general runner. And I can use him as a spotter when Bue's not available. But I need them soonest, by tomorrow preferably."

    "Why don't you and Meredith go work it out," Megan said.

    "Oh, and Mike and Courtney may be coming over this evening," Herzer added. "I sent a message to their hotel. And I'm meeting with someone, here, at four."

    "Okay," Megan sighed. "I guess I should have run you over to the War Department when I had a chance, huh?"

    "Sorry," Herzer said, standing up. "Meredith, if you have a moment?"

    "Of course, Major," Meredith said, coldly.

    Megan picked up a slice of cheese and took a bite, frowning.

    "Megan," Shanea said. "Can I ask you a question?"

    "Sure," Megan replied.

    "Are you and Herzer..." Shanea furrowed her brow in thought and then said: "Screwing?"

    Megan flinched and then swallowed the cheese.


    "Can I borrow him?" Shanea asked. "I mean, have you seen him? He glows! And he's got the most enormous..."

    "Shanea!" Megan said, sharply.

    "Pects...." Shanea drifted off. "Please? Just for a few minutes? Hours? A couple of days at the most? You're not using it and I haven't..."

    "Shanea," Megan sighed. "No. A definite no." She stopped and thought for a moment then shook her head. "It wouldn't work, Shanea. Really. Don't do this to me, please."

    "You're so mean!" Shanea spat, standing up. "You're worse than...Christel," she added, storming out of the room.

    Megan set down the rest of the cheese uneaten, dropped her face into her hands and sighed.

    "You look like hell, dearie," Mirta said.

    "Did you catch any of that?" Megan said from inside her hands.

    "Most of it," Mirta replied. "I'm surprised it took this long for them all to start panting."

    "All?" Megan said, sitting up and looking at her poisonously.

    "Open your eyes, Megan," Mirta said, sharply. "All."

    "Ashley?" Megan spat. She and Ashley had not gotten along in the harem initially. When Megan arrived Ashley was the unspoken leader of the girls and could be, and was, poisonous to the point of sadism. They had arrived at a truce only after Megan had more or less beaten her half to death. Without any marks. The truce had lasted well enough but now a stab of pure jealousy shot through her at the thought of the tall, gorgeous blonde and Herzer.

    "And Meredith," Mirta said.

    " Meredith?" Megan snapped, looking at the corridor to the office and weight-room. "Meredith?" she repeated, shaking her head. "She never so much as...she hates men!"

    "Oh, she's getting over it," Mirta said, pouring some wine and sipping at it. "Quickly. I suppose it was the sudden change in him that caused it. He was, face it, more or less cooling his heels at your beck and call. More of a kept man than a soldier for the last few months. Give him a mission, especially one where he knows he has to be in tip-top shape, and he turns into something...different."

    "I've seen it, too," Megan said, biting her lip. "Was it that bad? I knew there was something...different. He was different on the ship."

    "He's a caged bird here," Mirta said, shaking her head. "You know what that's like. He's in the cage of his own will, but the bars are there nonetheless. But now, he sees the cage opening. A tough mission, a command? He's in heaven. And the bulging...muscles don't hurt. Meredith, poor, poor soul, has to be in there with him as he builds up those rippling muscles, grunting and sweating with all those huge weights, pumping away..."

    "Enough," Megan said, gritting her teeth. "I get the picture."

    "And of course, he's giving off enough signals of blue balls to fell a mare at a hundred paces," Mirta pointed out.

    "Not you, too?" Megan said, sadly.

    "Oh, I'm a bit beyond the game, dearie," Mirta said, laughing. "But it doesn't mean I can't look!"

    "What am I going to do?" Megan practically wailed.

    "Well, getting him laid would help," Mirta pointed out. "If the rest of us can suddenly realize we have parts south of our stomach, I'm surprised you haven't. Especially given the pheromones running around in the apartment. It's not the food or water, we're all eating and drinking the same stuff."

    "I'm not ready, yet," Megan said after a brief inventory. She could feel the pull as well but it wasn't able to overcome the continued revulsion.

    "Well, it would only help partially," Mirta admitted. "Face it, we're coming alive again. Lord knows it's been long enough and we were fairly sex starved in the harem for that matter; Paul was never Mr. Super Stud."

    "And Herzer most definitely..." Megan said and stopped. "I suppose he is, isn't he?"

    "Under stud in the dictionary they have his picture," Mirta said. "But, basically, we've been hiding in the apartments. Part of it, I think, is that we're still unsure about the world outside."

    "Agoraphobia," Megan said, bitterly. "Every harem girl's friend."

    "Yes, that," Mirta said. "But we're also afraid of doing something that will reflect badly on you. But we've got to figure something out; the cucumber delivery man is starting to wonder."

    Megan leaned back and laughed at that until she could feel tears coming in her eyes. Finally she stopped and gasped for breath.

    "Thank, you, Mirta," she gasped.

    "You're welcome," Mirta replied. "There is another option. And think about it after you get over wanting to rip my head off..."

    "Share him," Megan said, taking a deep breath and gritting her teeth. "I..." she stopped and shook her head.

    "It does three things," Mirta said, implacably. "It ensures that the girls get what they need and that they're getting it from someone that is not an enemy agent that might...ahem...pump them for information. It ensures that Herzer gets what he needs and doesn't go wandering off with someone that could be a threat..."

    Megan got a very clear image of Herzer with the Duke's "doxie" at that.

    "And it gives you more time to get your head together," Mirta finished. "There are, however, problems."

    "I'd have to accept it, emotionally, with entirety," Megan said. "And I don't think I can. It's all tied up with the not feeling like I can have sex, yet." She paused and thought about it for a moment then shrugged. "Meredith. Meredith I can almost accept. Shanea and," she said, shaking her head. "I don't trust them to...understand the nature of the engagement, I guess. Shanea, bless her, is just too..."

    "Dumb," Mirta inserted.

    "I would have said something a bit nicer," Megan said. "Eventually. Ashley...Ashley could be poisonous. I almost wish I hadn't brought her in but she's good at what she does. But in this I'd have a hard time trusting her. Meredith would see it as what it was; a release. Nothing more."

    "I think you're overestimating her, there," Mirta said, shrugging. "She wouldn't try to take Herzer from you, but she's more interested than you realize, I think. I'm not sure you're seeing what they, we, are seeing in Herzer. I'm not sure you'll be ready to bed him until you do. And I'm not sure what it will take to open your eyes."

    She nodded at that and walked out, quietly, leaving Megan to contemplate the tray of cold cuts and another knotty problem.

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