This is another "side" story in the Snakepit universe. This one starts where the last chapter of the first volume ended, with Ann Rayner's descent into normality – well, as much as a Drakensis-born can anyway. There won't be any huge starship battles here, nor bloody ground assaults. As far as the plotline goes, it's a romance story. Yup. Romance. Or character development if you prefer. Decurion Rayner might play an important role later.

Rated T, but it could turn to M later.

Loving on the edge of a blade

A Snakepit interlude

Decades ago, the designers of what would become Homo Drakensis had aimed at further improving the traditional qualities of the Draka citizen, by literally engraving them in their descendants' base genetic code. Faster, stronger, smarter, hardier, the Drakensis was to become Homo Sapiens' ultimate predator as well as protector - an homo sapiens who itself would be tailored into a meeker, obedient strain to build, finally, Naldorssen's dream society. Forever dominant.

And the New Race had indeed met those expectations beautifully, as far as everyone could judge, filling their parents with pride as well as lingering regret that they would not share their children's destiny, bound by their own Nature-designed genes.

Now the children of the Drakon were spreading their wings towards the stars as well and meeting an even greater challenge, new foes and even friends - as outlandish as it seemed. And friends and foes alike witnessed Drakensis' qualities in action.

Among those qualities was the ability to stay still. As still as a statue, and perfectly composed as if wearing a marmorean mask.

And that was an artist's dream, as one particular Tollan was realizing. He was standing in the familiar surroundings of his workshop, a airy spacious room receiving uninterrupted sunlight during the day thanks to the full baywall lining one side, the remaining sidewalls and ceiling painted a brilliant white and magnifying the impression of light and spaciousness. There were trestle tables and shelves and toolracks in a quasi-haphazard fashion, but one corner was kept free of obstructions, save for the circular screens mounted on spindly articulated legs that cast reflected light on the subject of Lancor's study. Past realizations, miniatures and empty molds strewn atop the trestles where their aker had last set them down. Bodies, faces, human and animal, abstract shapes, flowing geometries of white plaster and chromed metal, random samples of the sculpted pieces that made their creator a celebrity among the Tolllan Empire's finest aesthete minds.

The simple (and extravagant) fact that all were born out of a creative process that didn't involve the slightest advanced technological intervention naturally commanded correspondingly extravagant prices. This allowed said creator to focus in turn on refining his art when not indulging in the affluent interplanetary lifestyle he could afford. Perks like this palatial apartment in the upper-crust district, a 30 meter in-system private yacht, and a smattering of secondary residences scattered along the most secluded, paradisiac and exclusive spots of the Empire.

Which was nothing, he reflected, compared to the social connections. Being on a personal standing with every Coucilor of the Curia, as well as the leaders of the military by virtue of being a Navy veteran - albeit long before the recent war and only for a four-year tour - and having contributed a few pieces to the glorification of the Service, allowed him to be on the List for every important public event. Like the Victory Reception at the Curia, two weeks ago. An event where the main attractions were the Draka diplomatic and military staff. And to Lancor's delight, they had shown a deep appreciation of artistic matters, one of them going to the length of showing a few exemples of his planet's art, paintings and sculptures fascinating both as masterpieces and windows to a whole other culture, a rich and ancient one as far as he could divine.

And so, like many of his Imperial denizens, he became more than a little mesmerized by the still-mysterious foreign power. And why, finding himself sipping a drink at the iconic (and oh-so-private) Cosmos orbital lounge, his contemplation of the seas and continents of Tolla filling the huge panoramic wall was hijacked by the apparition of the sculptural redhaired beauty walking panther-like in a perfectly-tailored black dress, followed by every pair of eyes in the sparsely crowded establishment. She walked unhurriedly on the mirrored black concourse that espoused the lounge's curving interior wall, overlooking the main floor and the tables arrayed on amphitheater-like steps to provide each an unblocked view on the outside vista. And she was heading in his direction, Lancor realized - well, towards the bar at least, sashaying on a pair of decidedly unending legs ending in stiletto heels, and he had an intuition that this woman could walk on such heels and never make a misstep. The asymetric hem of her dress slashed across her thighs, showing a light-gold tan and a firm skin - either she used the best cosmetics available or her body didn't know what cellulitis was, he decided.

He continued to observe her from the corner of his eye, pretending to focus on the electric blue fluid sloshing inside his glass. She was probably a runner - long limbs, athletic in a build that suggested endurance rather than brute power and just enough subcutaneous fat to smooth over the unaesthetic dryness of raw exposed muscles. Broad shoulders like a swimmer, left mostly bare by the thin stretch of dress looping behind her neck, the rippling silk molding the twin globes of her breasts like wet drapery. Coppery red hair pulled backward in a thick undulated bun, a thin strand left dangling lazily down her left temple and shading a sapphire blue eye, high cheekbones, a slightly upturned nose and wide sultry lips breaking what could have been frigid perfection.

His trained eye noticed the subdued sophistication of the jewellery discreetly highlighting her deceptively sober dress. A single platinum chain, thin and short, swayed under her right ear, complementing the asymetrical theme in combination with an intricately wrought flower of matching composition pinned on her left breast. Her neck was left bare, self-sufficient in its regal bearing, and a single blue gem glittered on her right hand, the one which wasn't clutching a small black varnished leather pouch.

Lancor wasn't surprised to feel the bite of curiosity and desire all at once. How could such a woman exist in the Empire and he didn't know who she was ? She looked like a young adult, fresh out of adolescence. Was she some kind of heiress ? An actress he'd have heard of, surely. Or… well, she might be a professional courtesan. Definitely an over-expensive one, too, and new to the scene as well or he'd know her face already.

He felt an electric thrill in his spine as her eyes met his squarely for the time of a heartbeat. Her iris were thin blue rings in Cosmos' perpetual subdued lighting, preventing him from noticing the Drakensis pupils, and he merely nodded a courteous informal salute to the furtive acknowledging smile she flashed at his attention before perching herself on the nearest stool, facing the laquered counter and leaning forward to address the drink attendant. As she did so, supporting the weight of her upper body on her elbows, she also offered an unrestricted view of her back, the tapering V cut of her dress ending with a loose draped hem right over the nascent crease of her buttocks and allowing her neighbour to confirm the absence of any underwear.

The Tollan felt himself twitch with physical lust. She was gorgeous, she was alone, and she wore clothes that screamed Fuck Me Tonight. Whoever she was, he'd find out even if it cost him the proverbial arm.

The uniformed attendant glided in place with smooth precision, his expression perfectly composed with lifelong training in keeping his full wits in the presence of fabulously desirable creatures.

"Noble lady" he intoned his customary greeting "how would your palate be entertained tonight ?"

Ann Rayner repressed a laugh at the slightly pretentious-sounding phrasing. And she had no idea what the drinks were. On the other hand…

"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with your liquid delights" she offered back with a suavish smile, and turned half-way on her seat to indicate her neighbour's glass "but if this tastes as fantastic as it looks, I'd be willing to try it." Her gaze met Lancor's again, as if to confirm the innuendo, before she faced the waiting attendant again.

"Ah, the Nova Blue. A discerning choice by a discerning man, a worthy choice to emulate indeed. Let me compose one for you, Noble lady." The object of the compliment sent a silent thanks at the host. If his just-drafted plans were met with success, the artist-socialite would make sure to send a proper token of appreciation. A Draka, she was a Draka ! No wonder she looked otherwordly good. It all made sense now. And unless the way her mind worked was radically alien, she might certainly be open to the possibility of, well… making further acquaintance, he hoped.

So he focused his mind toward the goal.

"Greetings. I'm Lancor Manim, and I must say I'm deeply honored to sit next to one of Nautona's heroic saviors" he attacked gallantly, albeit his words held truth beyond the calculated formality. Despite his assurance, he was as any human she'd met save her Old Race Citizen elders, transparent to her heightened perception. She found the sincere admiration, and the surrounding lust and calculated strategy to serve that lust was in no way shocking. It was, on the contrary, deeply gratifying. Feeling desired was something she'd been aching for since her recent mental transformation, and she kept her pheromones to a minimum at the moment although it was almost straining her control.

She smiled back.

"Ann Rayner, Decurion, Stargate Expeditionary Command" She offered her upturned right wrist to the brush of his lips in the formal gallant manner of the host culture, having picked up on Tollan cultural codes in her spare time.

"Again, it is an honor and a pleasure, Decurion Rayner."

"Just Ann. I'm not on duty."

"I had gathered that much" they shared a knowing chuckle. "So what brings you to our Capital, if asking's not so indiscrete ? I was at the Victory Celebration and I would have noticed your presence among your state's embassy staff."

"I was on Luna at the time, on our main base of operations. And…" she hesitated. The destruction of Complex Alpha was a military secret, the circumstances of it kept under tight wraps. The Tollan high command had not been noticed of it even. "I suffered an injury in the course of duty, and I'm currently on leave to, well, unwind, you might say."

The man received the explanation with a frown of concern, a subtle change in posture as his mind's eye saw the woman in front of him injured and suffering. She felt his sudden rush of empathy and immediately elaborated.

"I'm fine, thanks for worrying" her right hand rose from the counter, palm outward in gestual support of her words "the wounds healed quickly enough. I'm using the opportunity to visit the Empire, really" her smile was reassuring, but her mind's voice was conscious of the lie. She wasn't exactly fine and her wounds weren't exactly minor. But the sarcophagus and its unpredicted side effects weren't something she wanted to confess about. Not to a stranger, not to her closest friends even.

Right then, the attendant returned with her Nova Blue, and she took it with a thanks. She raised the inverted-cone of the glass, seeing Lancor's face distorted and tinted blue through the exotic cocktail. He returned the gesture with his own lighter glass and pronounced the customary words.

"Your loves"

The concoction tasted as brilliant as it looked, she decided after the first sip. The underlying alcohol was familiar enough, but the rest of the contents were definitely not something she knew. It was sweet and zesty at the same time with a hint of something that reminded of lime, yet different. And the whole impression was of a star bursting over her tongue, as the name implied. Fitting, she concluded. She might have to torture the attendant for the recipe as well, although getting the ingredients outside of the Empire would probably amount to a lost cause. She was in no danger of getting drunk, courtesy of her New Race metabolism, despite the high proof of the mixture, but she nevertheless regulated her sipping. Doing otherwise would appear rude.

By the time her glass was empty, she knew a lot more about her drinking companion, and she was also admitting to herself that she wouldn't mind taking it to the next level. She also knew that he wouldn't mind that either.

"That's fantastic. I'd love to see you work, you know. One of my aunts dabbled in sculpture as well and I loved to visit her when she was working on a piece, but she left us eight years ago, unfortunately."

"Oh. My condolences for your loss. I'm sure she was talented - and of course you're welcome to see my work. In fact, why not tonight ? After dinner, maybe ? We could take a private shuttle down to my tower. What do you say ?" He flashed a hopeful smile.

"Dinner sounds fine" she returned a toothy grin "I came up here because the dishes are supposed to be the best in the Empire, after all !" And then her smile changed to pure seductiveness. "And… your invitation for later suits me."

Thus Lancor was standing at his working spot, three days after this encounter. Three passion-filled days with a woman whose bedroom appetite and stamina had seemed insatiable, and whose intelligence he'd discovered during their long after-sex discussions. Ann Rayner was truly fascinating and the feelings he suspected himself to harbor and nurture were suspiciously similar to love. He took that with philosophy. After all, it had to happen one day. Only he wasn't certain of hers. She did seem to enjoy her time with him. Yet there were the known and unknown but suspected obstacles. She was a foreigner. She wasn't even the exact same species. She was a soldier, and she was to obey the orders of her leaders, orders that would undoubtedly send her away one day, probably earlier than he wished.

Yet here she was, posing for him in her glorious nudity. The sketches he was tracing, in various angles and various positions, would stay with him if all else vanished, and his creative mind worked to think up the composition that would best show her amazing beauty and grace, to be immortalized in bronze and marble. And she watched him work with a silent smile and questing eyes.