Chapter 1

Caution: This Science Fiction Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Mult, Consensual, Romantic, BiSexual, Post Apocalypse, Group Sex, Oral Sex, Masturbation, Petting, Slow, .

Desc: Science Fiction Sex Story: Chapter 1 - Sian, Gina and Heather Sion were out cruising one day in the airship 'Varyag' when they discover a stranger all alone and apparently living on an old tugboat moored in an arm of the Gulf of Memphis. What he told them was a tale of unrelenting horror and misery.

Jeremy Kroonstad made his way towards the West portal as he had for the last ten years, six times a day. At the first faint blueish tint of daylight greeted him, he pulled the respirator from his face and gulped the fresh air like a drowning man breaking the surface of the sea. Amid the coal dust stench was the sweet smell of the gulf and a hint of the sulfurous smoke from the waiting tug. Jeremy rounded the last bend and dropped his goggles down over his eyes at the sudden burst of sunlight. Guiding the trucks out over the loading pier the clear day exploded onto his senses.

The elevated railway ran to the end of the pier where there was a platform and a ladder. Jeremy lined up the trucks alongside the barge below before pulling the lever on the little locomotive they called 'a tow' that caused the buckets on the trucks to discharge their dusty contents. With a slowly gathering roaring sound, he watched the coal spill out as he'd done so many times before.

"Hey, Kroon?" Jeremy heard his name called from the tug's small bridge. "Mind the ship, will ya? I'm going in to see Belfort."

"Ok," Jeremy yelled back. His heart leapt with excitement. Miners would pay good money for even a half hour out of the tunnels. Jeremy knew 'the Captain' - they knew him by no other name - would likely spend up to an hour with the mine manager.

He took the ladder down while the Captain waited below. "Help yourself to a meal," he smiled, "and you'll find some nicosticks there if you've a mind. Only take one, y'hear? I know how many I've got and I'll be checking."

"Sure, Captain," Jeremy replied, with barely concealed joy. These times were the only holidays he'd ever had, or likely to have. He quickly descended the ladder and walked the narrow gangway to the tug.

"Half hour!" the Captain emphasized. He was a big, rough man with greying, unkempt hair and a bushy mustache. Already he was clad in an enviro and hi-viz vest as per regulations. He took Jeremy's re-breather and glo-helmet and began to climb the ladder to the tow.

Belfort, the mine manager, and the Captain were friends from way back and Jeremy knew they'd be drinking. In ten years he knew there were regulations for the miners and regulations for their masters and that was the way of it. Any miner caught with alcohol in the tunnels would have to stand double shifts for the next two weeks.

The 'Good Hope' mine was typical. Most of the coal in these mountains had been worked out long ago and what remained was what the old industrials had considered 'uneconomic to extract.' The mine was gassy and dangerous and stretched for 10 kilometers right through the mountain. The West Portal opened out onto an arm of the Gulf of Memphis and the East Portal, a narrow bridge over a forbidding canyon. The East Portal was an escape route, no matter how unlikely it was for anyone to reach it in the event of a cave in or explosion.

Minor 'ignition events' were common, documented as per company regulations, and ignored. The company had declared long ago the mine couldn't be ventilated any more than it had already. Blast doors had been constructed to seal off sections, but Jeremy knew they were always left open and the so called, ' critical gas level emergency response system' simply did not exist or was never made to work properly. Little stood in the way of profit for the company, and there was now no regulatory body to oversee mine safety.

Good Hope mountain was, in effect, an island of sheer rock cliffs and lofty peaks. Miners lived and worked underground and even the office of the manager was 200 metres into mine. It was too expensive to shift miners to and fro by ship to some village built somewhere on flat land. Miners stayed where they were - they were easier to control.

Jeremy found the nicosticks in the wheelhouse of the old tugboat. Shaking, he took one from the packet, struck it, and put it between his lips. He drew the soothing vapor deeply into his lugs and waited for the buzz. Nicosticks were handed out to the miners like candy. They were a reward for good behavior and withheld for the bad. They were all addicted to the things, and to withdraw left you shuddering and shaking, breaking out in sweats and unable to think straight. Jeremy sat back in the Captain's chair and looked out on the day.

Out over the expanse of the Gulf of Memphis, perhaps 150 kilometers away from the 'Good Hope' mine, the sleek, silver grey airship 'Varyag' cruised majestically over the dense bank of clouds that seemed to perennially smother the blue/green waters below. It's four motors snarled constantly, care of their contra-rotating twin props. The radial induction motors were powered by electricity, gathered by the heat of the sun beating on the hull and converted via selenium photo electrics. But for the airflow characteristics of the spinning props, they would make no sound at all.

The Varyag had been built from the remnants of the huge 'Normandie', crashed through sabotage by its pilot, Armin de la Perriere, onto the Bakhunin lands of the Arks. The smaller airship had taken two years to build and even longer to make the many modifications necessary to correct the trim, climbing and descending characteristics, and maneuvering ability. The many months of proving and testing had enabled its pilot, Heather Sion, to fully familiarize herself with the difficult, and sophisticated aircraft.

Three women stared intently through the clearview panels of the control car, set conventionally underneath the hull of the airship. They were dressed in tight fitting, Ark allsuits - the tall, slim Sian and the shorter, Gina, sported the black/red neck scarf of the Black Guard.

"Any landmarks?" Gina asked her two friends. Sian shook her head. "So, Heather, you're the pilot - what do we do?"

"We can always fly a reciprocal," Heather replied. "Back the way we came. There's some lateral drift, but, we ought to come out somewhere to the North."

"North of where, Heather? Are you saying we could wind up over Cityplex?"

"We might - ah - probably would, actually." Heather told her, briefly scanning the screen in front of her. "We should turn into the wind and run south for a spell."

"Yah, but would that be any fun?" Gina asked. "I mean, we haven't been this far east before. Why don't we just keep going till we come to the Great Waters. I mean, I haven't seen the sea before - might be cool."

"I have," Heather said, peevishly. "And it's just miles and miles of water. It's not that interesting."

"So, what does this old map tell us?" Sian asked, glancing back to the chart table behind them.

"Shit," Heather shrugged. "Even if we could see the ground, it's all changed since that was made. It might tell us where the high ground is. Those mountains they used to call the Appalachians are, like islands, and, hey, we'd better fix the elevations because I'm not going over them at night unless I know how high they are. Even with this cloud, I can't say for sure whether we're not heading for some mountain."

"Right," declared Sian, going to the map. "Now, we are, where?"

"Shit!" Heather rolled her eyes. "I don't fucking know, that's the point!"

"Chill," Gina told her. "Just, like, climb until you're above any high point - just to be on the safe side."

"Sian?" Heather looked behind.

"Errm, lessee. Um, 2037 metres. That's this point, there, look?"

"Okay," Heather said, slowly nodding. "That's pretty high and I'm not sure about this altimeter. It's never really been tested properly."

"You worry too much," Gina told her.

"Well, who are going to blame if we run into a mountain, huh?"

"You, won't," Gina said, making a dismissive gesture. "Besides, you've got that proximity what-cha-call-it."

"'Ground proximity alarm', and that hasn't been properly tested either."

"Well, maybe it's a good time to find out if it works?"

"Aw, chill out, you two," Sian intervened. "Whoah, hey, is that a peak? Look, dead ahead!"

"And there's a big area of clear air, see? I'll head for it and let's try and find a landmark, huh?"

Jeremy Kroonstad awoke, suddenly, to a sound that was both vaguely familiar and, at the same time, one he'd never heard before. It was a low rumbling like the sound of the steel wheels of the coal trucks on the downhill stretch to the West Portal but without the clanging of the buffers. He looked out over the waters and thought it ruffled and disturbed. Below, the very pier appeared to shake and, back at the mountain, he thought it was vibrating, sending mini rockfalls tumbling into the gulf. Suddenly a burst of debris erupted from the portal followed by a searing hot blast that tore a section of railway gantry loose from its supporting struts and flung it up into the air. Kroon watched it tumble into the water followed by an empty coal truck, its two tonne weight seeming like a toy before the breath of hell. As Kroon looked up, he saw a puff of brown/black smoke shoot from the top of the ventilator shaft.

Gradually, the hot rush subsided and, just as suddenly, a gale of wind was sucked back the way it had come as the raging fires inside the mountain drew oxygen from the outside. Kroon stared disbelieving. Above his head, debris and coal dust still showered down as his brain began to comprehend what had just happened. He ducked into the wheelhouse as debris began to pelt down on the little tugboat.

He remained there for what seemed like hours, thinking, panicking, unable to move. He curled into a little space under the wheel and waited for something - someone to come and tell him what to do. In ten years there'd been few opportunities to make any but the most basic, personal decisions. Everything he did was governed by the rule book or the fickle, sadistic brutality of the guards. His fear was accompanied by the constant growling of the mountain as the fires continued to draw fuel from the very rocks the mountain was made of.

He was hungry and thirsty and, although there was food aplenty in the tug's small galley, he daren't touch it. Theft was punished by a severe beating by the guards that could leave the victim incapacitated for a week or more. He'd seen plenty of that in ten years. Never mind the Captain was now likely dead and burnt to a crisp, the conditioning that had been beaten into Kroon was too strong. Initiative was a bad thing - you learned that pretty early on. Anyhow, who's to say the Good Hope Mine wasn't going to be swarming with company men very soon?

The tug had a radio, of course, but no-one had shown him how to use it. Kroon was never given any information at all about emergency procedures - he wasn't expected to use it - for the obvious reason he wasn't expected to survive a major mine explosion. But, no-one envisioned an 'ignition event' on that scale, either. The mountain had followed its own agenda.

The stress of fear made him light headed and he began to imagine things. He heard a fluttering sound and through the cabin skylight he saw something he thought was a large dragonfly. It came lower and Kroon jammed himself even tighter into the confined space. The fluttering sound grew in intensity until he could feel the vibration through the wooden wall of the wheelhouse. A maelstrom swept the deck outside and blew into the open door. Then gradually, the noise decreased.

"Coo-ee!" Kroon heard a voice. "Anyone on board?" He managed to peer quickly through the door and saw a slight figure dressed completely in black. He saw enough to know it meant trouble. Kroon shut his eyes as footsteps came to the doorway. "Hey!" the voice said. "Why you hiding? Um, my name's Gina of the Black Guard, Fladomirova of the United Bakhunins, Captain of the airship Varyag - well, not exactly 'captain', cos I know shit about flying them and Heather Sion does all the flying, but, y'know, I kinda make the big decisions, sometimes, if you know what I mean. But, you can call me, Gina. What's your name?"

"What?" Kroon replied, his voice cracked and parched. The girl was making absolutely no sense at all, but on her wrist he saw a silver cylinder that reminded him of the electric batons the guards used.

"Hey, fella, do you know you've got some kind of fire back there?" the girl asked.

"I didn't do it," Kroon blurted out. "It's not my fault."

"Hey, did I say... ? Um, didn't do what, exactly?"

"It just happened," Kroon continued. "I'm not responsible, officer." With that, Kroon felt the urge to be sick. His head began to spin and he felt his mind drift away.

"Officer, huh? Hey, are you alright? Hey, Sian, we've got a situation, I think. You'd better come back down. There's a guy here who doesn't look in good shape."

Kroon was dimly aware of the girl holding something against her ear. He heard the thing squawking in response. Then he blacked out.

When Jeremy Kroonstad awoke, he lay on a single, collapsable bunk bed. Above him was a poly-kevlar grey roof and, to his right, windows that let in a blinding glare. Kroon screwed up his eyes.

"There, there," he heard a voice. A soft finger touched his lips - cool and moist - and then he felt a trickle of water that mostly ran down his cheek. "You need to hydrate, buddy," the voice continued, soft, sweet, and suffused with concern. "Y'know, scrub you up a little and you're not bad looking. But, boy, are you pale. I guess you don't get out in the sun much."

"How is he?" Kroon heard another voice, further away.

"Dunno. He's dehydrated and in shock, I guess. But, there's something else wrong - I'm not sure. Baby, I'd sure like to know your story," she added to Kroon, her voice low.

"We should head for Bluefields," a third voice said. "Roger has erected a tower there for us, and maybe, Sean Beth or Matthew Kohn might have a better idea what's wrong with him."

A cool flannel was placed on Kroon's brow. He couldn't remember the last time someone had treated him like this - with so much obvious compassion. He decided it was safe to open his eyes. He tried, but the glare was too much and he closed them again.

"Hey, you're awake - here." The girl placed a pair of tinted goggles over his eyes and he opened them again. Trembling, Kroon scrabbled for his breast bucket and sighed inwardly when he found his nicosticks. While the girl looked on, he pulled one out, struck it, and placed it between his lips. "What's that thing?" the girl asked.

Kroon was surprised the girl didn't know what a nicostick was. In his world, nicosticks sealed friendships and deals and provided the means to get through the day. Nicosticks were better than any currency. He fumbled for another and handed it to the girl. "What is it?" the girl asked, again, and examined it.

"Some kind of drug?" another asked, coming over.

"He tapped it then put it between his lips and sucked."

"Hmm, we should let Roger see it - he might know."

"Heather reckons 5 hours at our present speed, Gina."

"Good!"

Sian and Gina helped Kroon to sit up. It was his first view through the clearviews of the airship's gondola and he recoiled in shock. Outside was blue sky clear to the horizon and down below, a solid mass of thick, white cloud. Kroon realized he was up in the air and he couldn't figure how. He looked forward at the girl driving this machine, a flaxen haired young woman called Heather Sion, and watched her sitting relaxed in front of a bank of screens and switches. Next to his bunk was a table upon which was spread sheets of paper - charts. He took in his surroundings in fearful wonder until he set eyes on the faces of the two girls on each side of him.

"How?" he asked the shorter one with reddish hair, Gina.

"Gas," she smiled. "Hydrogen is lighter than air, see, so it rises. Put it in a big balloon and the balloon goes up. It's quite simple, really."

"There's ten gas balloons we call 'cells' in the envelope we call 'the hull'," Sian added. "It holds us up in the air - add a few motors to push us along and, voila!"

"Gas!" Kroon gasped. Gas was very bad news in the mine. To harness it to lift a machine into the air seemed crazy. Gas had just destroyed the lives of everyone he knew. He shook with fear, looking upwards at the roof of the gondola and, above it, gas.

"Are you all right?" asked Gina.

"Tell me?" Sian asked, trying to distract him. "What were you doing living all alone on a boat? You got family, somewhere?"

"Family?" Kroon struggled. "No, just, ah friends."

"Kay, so where are your friends?"

"Gone," Kroon screwed up his eyes. "All gone - manager, guards, everyone, all gone."

"Guards?" Gina raised her eyebrows.

"Gone?" Sian asked. "Where?"

"Ignition event," Kroon told them. "I didn't start it."

"You mean an explosion?" Gina gasped in shock. "Fuck! How many?"

"Um, 150, maybe 200? I don't know for sure."

"200 people were killed in that mine?" Gina exclaimed. "Oh, god, I'm so sorry! And you're, like, the only survivor?"

"What the hell were you mining for?" Sian asked.

"Coal."

"Coal? Why?"

"I don't know. They never said."

"Should we go back and find out if there're any more survivors?" Sian asked.

"There's none," Kroon answered. "No-one came out. It was too big. It blew the trucks clean out the portal. The fire sucks up all the oxygen in the tunnels then sucks up more from outside. When that happens you know there's no air left in the tunnels to breathe. The rebreathers last maybe 2 hours - if no-one comes out, you know they're not going to."

"Sheeit, who'd want to work in such a place?" asked, Gina.

"No-one wants to," answered, Kroon. "We have to."

"Says, who?"

"The Law."

"What, 'Law'"?

"Any law - doesn't matter."

"The hell!" chimed Gina and Sian together. The looked at each other in shock. "Take another of those sticks and tell us all about it," said Gina.

Kroon felt calmer after his second stick. His fear - of these strangers, of floating high up in the air underneath a great bagful of explosive gas - leeched slowly away. They wanted to know where he'd come from and he told them, slowly, deliberately, not missing any detail unless they got mad. He was even able to appreciate the scenery, of the clouds far below and the little clearings exposing the greenish swampland. As he related his story, he saw some distant mountains crowned with puffy clouds. He watched Heather, the pilot, out of the corner of his eye pushing switches and turning knobs while guiding the craft with two levers. Every now and then she would interrupt his story with things like, 'I have a ping. It's the beacon from Bluefields, ' and, 'Sian, triangulate using the compass and the chart. I think we can fix our position almost exactly.'

"Yeah, whatever," was Gina's response, before urging him to continue.

The two girls were beginning to affect him in a physical way. He grew increasingly conscious of their femaleness, accentuated by the the black suits they were wearing that clung to their bodies like film. Gina's hair fell in a cascade about her shoulders, while Sian, the taller, had long hair like silk tied into a pony tail. Gina's eyes danced with mischief and she had a smart mouth that couldn't resist the sarcastic comment. Sian, on the other hand, stared intently into his face as he talked and he imagined her eyes were dark pools of mystery.

Their easy familiarity with him, and with each other, had unnerved him at first. At New Hope, no-one dared called anyone 'friend' lest it was an invitation to take advantage. No-one had any friends, anyway, lest they'd disappeared by the morning. At New Hope, you looked after yourself as best you could. Grief was far too heavy a burden to bear.

"Okay, I've got the mountain," cried Heather. "About half an hour. I'll circle to the south to come into the wind. I have Roger on transceiver, now, any messages?"

"Yeah," Gina said. "Tell him we have a freed slave with us."

"A what?" Heather turned back. "Isn't that an exaggeration?"

"I don't think so," Sian told her.

The Varyag approached the mooring tower over the high country to the south of Bluefields. It was a difficult maneuver as Heather had to descend very quickly or risk overshooting. Over the last peak, she vented gas and the airship dropped as she struggled to maintain fore and aft trim. The nose plunged alarmingly and she pulled hard on the elevator control. Backing the motors, the Varyag porpoised like a child's seesaw until the forward speed decreased to a walking pace. Sian ascended the ladder to the nose in preparation for mooring - using a probe and drogue technique. With Sian guiding from her perch by the nose hatch, Heather was able to inch the airship into mooring position.

Kroon stared through the clearviews throughout this maneuver seemingly unconcerned. He drew on another of his nicosticks and took in the mountains, cabins, barns, fields and the trickle of the river Passion as if watching a movie. A crowd of spectators were watching - perhaps 30 or more - and ran over as soon as the airship was safely fastened to the tower. Kroon saw the gondola was now barely two metres above the grass and watched as some people brought over a wooden ladder for them to step down to the ground.

"Is this him?" a tall, well muscled man with long, greying hair moved forward.

"Yeah, Roger, you can't believe what this guy just told me," Gina said.

"Get a meal, and lets all settle down to hear what he says," Roger suggested. "Heather, that was some approach," he smiled. "Well done for getting it in undamaged."

"Um, I wasn't sure..." Heather replied.

"Some things I don't want to know," he grinned at her. "We've had some severe gusts today and what with the turbulence from the mountains, I didn't think you'd get it in."

"Oh, and you told us that?" Gina said, "like, before?"

"It's good practice for her," he laughed. "Anyway, Rada and John are here as well as George. Rasida and Schecter are due in a couple of days. We've all been a bit bored lately. A bit of distraction will do us all some good, I think."

Kroon stepped down and Gina put an arm around his waist. Sian came onto his other side and patted him between his shoulders. Kroon fished for another nicostick, tapped it, and put it between his lips. Roger peered at him curiously, then looked at the two girls.

"He, ah, sucks those things all the time," Gina told him. "We're sure it's some kind of drug."

"Hmm, let's see it?" a woman in her fifties stepped forward - tall and good looking. "Matthew Kohn should be able to analyze it for us. Don't either of you two girls try one until we can figure what's in them, y'here?"

"As if? Sean Beth," Gina replied.

A meal was spread in one of the houses, but Kroon could find no appetite. Gina and Sian sat on each side of him and tried to tempt him with tasty pieces of chicken and fresh fruit. He nibbled half heartedly. A pewter tankard of beer was pushed across and this Kroon downed in one go. He wiped his mouth extravagantly with the back of his hand and waited while someone refilled his cup.

"So what's this all about?" Roger finally said. "Rada and John? I want you two in on this." Gina's biological parents came over and joined the group. George and his partner Charity also came.

Clearing a space on the table, Heather laid out the old charts they'd been using - redrawn from old original sources onto more durable synthetics. Roger looked intently, as Heather retraced the route they'd taken to Good Hope mountain.

"You could've taken a sun sighting?" Roger asked.

"No sextant or tables," Heather replied. "Anyway, we didn't figure on going so far east." She glanced at Gina. "Then there was so much cloud over the Gulf I lost the coast."

"So you used comparative elevations based on these old charts?"

"Yes."

"And this 'Good Hope' was here? 'Mount Mitchell'?" Heather nodded. "Hmm, If we trace the line of the Floral River down to the Southern Mountains, then East through the swamplands, then, at least technically, this Good Hope lies in the Ark Preserve. That mine is not worked by the Arks, so, who is?"

"Kroon said he was born in Cityplex," Gina explained. "He said he was abandoned by his family and left to fend for himself in the service tunnels under the plexes. Then, apparently the cops picked him up and he was sent to work in the mines."

"Was he now?" Roger looked up. "Kroon, why were you abandoned by your folks?"

"I don't know," he shrugged. "I can't remember. I was a kid."

"He was a 'vag'," Gina said. "That's all he said. There were lots of kids like him and every now and then the cops would pick them up. He said many died in the tunnels and they just brought in a few more. And, Roger, he said some were sent to other mines - when they had labour shortages and such."

"There are other mines? How many?"

"Don't know," Kroon replied.

"It's fucking scandalous!" Rada exclaimed. "We'll find these mines and close them down. John, this is work for the Black Guard."

"Whoah, Rada, first things first. How are you going to transport Black Guard units all the way to these islands - through the swamps then over the Gulf? And just where are these mines located, or are you suggesting you just roam around until you find one?"

"How many can the Varyag carry?" Rada asked Heather.

"Six, maybe, plus a pilot."

"Pretty rough terrain for operating an airship. Plus, weather, cloud..." Roger said.

"I could do it!" Heather said.

"Maybe, but let's trace all this back, first. Is this Cityplex policy or some corrupt officials? Why are all these kids living in the service tunnels in the first place? How do they get down to these mines? There's a trafficking process in place and I'd like to find out how it all works. I think we must cut off the lifeline then find these mines."

"So you agree it's Black Guard business?" Rada asked.

"It's an external issue, so..."

"Good!" Rada sat back with satisfaction.

Kroon seemed largely oblivious to the discussion unless he was asked a direct question. His last nicostick was beginning to wear off and he was starting to feel twitchy. That's when Matthew Kohn came in and announced he'd analyzed the drug.

"A cocktail of organo-alkaloids," he announced. "Starting with methylpyrrolidin, or nicotine, a relaxant, stimulant and hunger suppressor. Benzyloxycarboxylate, or cocaine, a stimulant and also appetite suppressor. Then we have a bunch of other stuff to control nausea and other side effects from the first two drugs. These drugs are highly addictive and, I'd say, if this gentleman has been sucking this shit into his lungs for ten years, he has real problems ahead of him. No way can we maintain this guy's habit. I wouldn't' know where to get supplies of this junk, anyhow."

"What can we do for him?" Roger asked. "What happens when he withdraws?"

"I don't know for sure. He'll suffer cramps, anxiety, nausea, cravings. I guess all I can do is supply something for the anxiety and nausea - some herbal infusions. In some ancient literature they say that keeping the sufferer tanked with alcohol may ease the transition."

"So we dose him with poiteen?" Sean Beth asked. "For how long?"

"Maybe up to a week for the worst of it," Matthew Kohn replied.

"A week of bingeing?" Rada chuckled. "Sounds like Convoke."

"Without the sex, I'm afraid," Kohn smiled. "Some of this other stuff suppresses the sex drive. A hogshead of poiteen will no doubt prevent the means, also."

"So, girls," Rada laughed. "If you had any thoughts of going a round or two with him you might as well forget it. I'm afraid your pet won't be up for the performance."

"Shit, Rada, you've got such a smart mouth," Gina exclaimed. "You really thought..."

"Haha. Gina, you two just look after him, okay? Get him a bath and scrub him up. His skin's dirty as hell."

"Coal dust!"

"So, Roger, why do they mine coal?" Rada asked.

"Carbon. Y'see, steel oxidizes over time and to recover it for construction, they need to smelt it back down to the iron. Then, to make it back into steel they have to heat it up in the presence of carbon - most commonly coke. Most of the old coal mines were worked out in ancient times and what was left in the mountains was too difficult, and expensive, to extract. My guess is some of these old marginal mines have been opened up again as a cheaper means of obtaining carbon for steel recycling."

"By using slaves?" Gina protested.

"The cheaper the better as far as their bottom line is concerned. I doubt Cityplex safety regulations have much relevance so far below the line of the Floral."

A little later Matthew Kohn administered a sedative for Kroon's anxiety, then the girls took him to have a bath. They got him out of his clothes and into the water - it taking at least three refills before the water was free from the black dust ingrained into his pores.

They took turns scrubbing, while Kroon lay back impassively thanks to Kohn's ministrations. He even allowed them to dunk his head under the water feeling no panic. The girls scrubbed his hair with soap smelling of fresh flowers and even under his scrotum, gently lifting his flaccid penis out of the way.

"I don't believe where this shit gets," Gina said. "How does it get up his arsehole?"

"Is it? Or do you just want to play with his dick?" Sian asked.

"Hey!" Gina laughed. "Anyway, it's even here under the foreskin, look."

"I don't think you'd better scrub it, Gina, I bet it's real sensitive there."

"I know that, dummy. I'll use the washcloth and give it a good rub."

"Oh, sure," Sian giggled. "You just want to find out whether he can get a hard on."

"Hey, I'm a girl of science. I just want to prove a hypothesis," she laughed.

Kroon laid back with his eyes closed and luxuriated in the sensations of the two girls' hands on him. The questions had exhausted him and the warm water, the girls hands, as well as the infusion given to him by Matthew Kohn, so relaxed him he felt himself drifting off to sleep. He was vaguely aware of one of the girls, Sian, telling the other she was going to see her mother and to call her if she needed any help. Gina then shuffled up and put an arm around his neck, placing her cheek against his.

"Poor, baby," Gina cooed. "Y'know, no-one should have to go through the shit you have. We'll find these mines - and your friends - and, hey, we'll look for your mother, too, huh? Like, everyone's got a mother and I bet she didn't have a choice. Would you like that, baby? Find your mother, huh?"

Kroon was aware he'd been asked a question and he answered with a grunt. Gina's words wafted about him, but there was something comforting in her presence, in her smell so close to him.

At Roger and Sean Beth's house, the Black Guard seniors - Rada, John and George - sat down with the leaders of Bluefields by popular acclamation. Heather brought them in some more charts and Sian arrived, having left Gina alone with Kroon.

"These islands, here, are what remains of the Appalachian Chain from ancient times," Roger said. "Good Hope is here, on this big island and clearly the only way you can get to it is via the Gulf of Memphis. Unless, of course, you have an airship or a heavier-than-air such as the Varyag's 'floeg, ' okay? In any case, neither a floeg, nor an airship could carry that many people unless it's something as big as the old 'Normandie'."

"The Normandie couldn't possibly maneuver into those islands, anyway," Heather told them. "It was six kilometers long."

"Precisely! So we're looking at boats out of - let me see, hmm. There's an old port at the head of the Gulf in what used to be Castro Prov when there was the old Committee Provinces. There were extensive fish farms there. I know, that's where I was born. Nowadays, it's a seedy little commercial port with all the vags and associated riffraff you'd find in any old port fallen on hard times. I believe it's still called 'Havana'. Rada and John, I suggest you go there for a snoop around, maybe, find out who's working the trade from that end? George, how about putting some of your diplomatic skills to work and pay Cityplex a visit? See if you can find out who's running these mines and whether the Cityplex Board have any knowledge of them, officially or otherwise? Heather, can you take George up there - maybe pick up de la Perriere on the way - he knows his way around Cityplex officialdom. If you like, we can make it an official Ark diplomatic mission."

"What about Rasida and Schecter - not to mention Gina and Sian. They won't like being left out."

"The girls can look after Kroon until he regains his wits. Then I want them to borrow a couple of Bakhunin floegs and start exploring these islands. Sian and Schecter can both fly them okay. Sian can chart them as well as she can - anycase, Schecter's got a memory like a steel trap."

"Thanks to his Inkubis builders," Sean Beth said.

"And you guys? What part are you playing?" Rada asked.

"We shall be co-ordination, research, and emergency back up should any of you screw up," Roger replied.

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