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"Can't we do this in Comm Proper?" I ask her, shimmying forward to gain a smidge more shoulder room. This would be easier on my turf--in uniform and with the glitz of the communications array alight in the background. But instead, we're here, where my credentials mean nothing.
"Dad likes his privacy," Mai says, shrugging.
I bite my lip, trying to forget the anxiety pounding in my chest, trying to keep these stark white walls from closing in on me. Mai's quarters are cramped, barely fit for one person to sleep, nearly impossible for lovers to meddle, though through persistence and practice we've found a way to make it work over these past two years.
The screen flickers, a rain of static, then it resolves into the vague silhouette of half a man. I cringe as Mai bangs the console with the meat of her palm, but the image clears. The sight of her father sets a chill in my teeth--a brawny man submerged in a galvanized tub, water lapping at his pale, broad chest.
"Daddy!" Mai squeals. She kisses her fingertips and gently presses them to the screen. Sometimes I forget how delicate she can be when she's not clad in the bulk of her security uniform.
"Hi, Darling dear." Mr. Cheng smiles at her, though I notice the pits of his eyes are firmly trained on me.
"Daddy, this is Sean, you remember, the one I told you about? The officer."
Mai nudges me when the silence stretches thin.
"Hello, Mr. Cheng," I croak. I shift awkwardly, and before I can get in another word, there's a strange rumbling from his side of the comm., followed by fart bubbles rising from his murky bath water. I grit my teeth, force a smile, but the man doesn't bother to apologize.
"So you're the one boning my daughter..."
Suddenly, the 30,000 light years separating us doesn't seem like quite enough. My breath catches in my throat, the taste of Vero-Avalon's eternally recirculated air stale on my tongue.
"Of course not, sir! I would never consider such a thing."
"You're saying that you don't find my daughter sexually appealing?" His grating voice echoes through me.
"Not at all, I only, uh--"
"Daddy, we only have a few minutes."
Mr. Cheng grunts, farts again, then it's my move. I gather my wits, trying to form a sentence worthy of a communication's officer, though I'd settle for not sticking my foot further in my mouth.
"Sir, I'd like to ask for your daughter's hand in marriage. She makes me happy, and I make her happy, and I plan on doing so for as long as I'm breathing."
"You're in love, then?" Mr. Cheng asks.
"Hmmm. A bit scrawny for an officer, aren't you?"
"I can hold my own."
I survive the onslaught of extremely pointed questions prying into the details of my life. My parents, my schooling, the money I've got in savings. I can't help but feeling like Mr. Cheng has spent a great deal of time and effort scrutinizing me down to my genetic sequence. And after all of it, when I finally think I've made it through the worst, my manhood shriveled but otherwise intact, I get a ping on my mail--the personal one, not the dummy one published in the space station's directory.
"A little gift," Mr. Cheng says. The screen goes gray, the ghost image of Mai's father still burning through subspace.
"A gift? See I told you Daddy would like you." Mai speaks softly, but the sour tune of dread in her voice doesn't escape me. The bulge in my throat tightens as I bring up the mail on the console display--a gift certificate for Big Al's Gator Farm and Waffle House--best breakfast found this side of the Cascade, located on a dingy little swamp planet just a day's shuttle jump from here.
Neither of us mentions that he hadn't given us his blessing.
"There's just two things you need to know about gator wrestling," Big Al says as he leads us past a pool of stagnant water, flies buzzing at reptilian eyes poking just above the surface. Big Al holds up his index finger. "One, never let them sense your fear, and two--" he raises the stump of a middle finger. "Never take your eyes off the business end of a gator."
We approach a slightly bigger pond with a juvenile gator sunbathing on the mucky bank. I think maybe I'll have a chance against an opponent this size, but Big Al leads us right past it.
"You don't have to do this," Mai says, tugging at my sleeve.
But I do. Her father had thrown down the gauntlet, and I don't want to spend the rest of my life squirming under his judging eyes. This will prove that I'll be a loving, committed, responsible husband, even if it kills me in the process.
"It's probably easier than it looks," I mumble as Big Al stops at the third pond. A beast of a gator lies on the bank, half submerged, looking like some piece of prehistory catapulted through time. Its snout is nearly as broad as I am, teeth gleaming like knives in the sun.
It's not too late to back out. I could swallow my pride and use the gift certificate for a short stack with a side of bacon, drown my failures in syrup, and live out the rest of my life with four fingers and a thumb on each hand. But love and pride make you do stupid things, so I puff my chest, forget my fears, and approach the gator.
It growls at me, low and throaty, warning me of my imminent death. I crouch down and get a good feel for my new center of gravity. White teeth flash, seems like thousands of them. I nearly flinch, but manage to keep eye contact with the beast.
I get closer, holding onto all of my gator wrestling training, all eighteen words of it. I glance back and smile at Mai, maybe for the last time, then I launch myself onto the gator's back. I get a good grip on its snout, my legs clenched tight against its rigid body. Muscles writhe beneath me, and it thrashes its head. I keep calm and ignore the churning of my stomach as I match its movements.
Just when I think I might come out of this bout alive, maybe even the victor, the gator starts a death roll, and all at once, I'm knocked free and staring up at the ridged roof of the gator's mouth. Its teeth press at my neck without breaking skin. A grating croak echoes from the depths of its throat, bringing with it the rotting stench of dead fish. Far away Mai's muffled voice calls out "Enough, Daddy! He's played your game!"
The teeth lift from my throat, and I scramble to my knees, then my feet. I do a quick count of my digits, and check the rest of me over for holes.
The gator's smiling at me, smug and satisfied. Bubbles spring up from its still submerged rear half, and as it crawls out onto the bank, green scales blend into the pale flesh of a man's broad torso--right where the gator's tail end ought to be. The whole half-man, half-gator monstrosity turns around, lumbering awkwardly on two sets of arms, and soon I'm looking directly into the pits of Mr. Cheng's eyes.
He grins. The gator gurgles. "I expected more from an officer," he says. The words cut at my pride.
Mai's next to me now, fingers twined with mine. Mr. Cheng's gator end snaps, and with a forceful push, he plunges back into the murky pond. Bubbles rise.
"It's okay," Mai says. "We can do this without him." She flashes me a bashful smile, then wipes gator drool from my cheek.
I rub at my throat, skin still dimpled from my brush with death. Mai presses her lips against mine, and we lose ourselves in a warm, syrupy sweet kiss. As my body pines for the intimacy of her sleeping tube, I start to forget all about my bruised ego. Lust tugs at my loins as I imagine her straddling me, head crooked against the ceiling of her tube, our bodies writhing to the rhythm of the universe.
I pull back and look deeply into Mai's eyes. "I've got it!" I tell her.
Her voice echoes in my ear as I dive into the murky water. "Sean, you don't need--"
But it's too late. The loamy surface parts, and I find myself with a lung full of air and a mission. Gray-green water stings my eyes, but I stay watchful, looking for movement. Mr. Cheng's silhouette begins to emerge from the depths.
He sees me. His agitated bellow rips through the water, rumbles through my chest. I make my move. Our bodies entwine, my arms around his human half this time. My lungs burn as the meager light from the surface fades, but as Mr. Cheng wastes his energy dragging me deeper, I concentrate on wrestling him onto his back.
With a final strain, his pale stomach is fully exposed. Mr. Cheng struggles for a moment, then his thrashing ceases. When he's completely still, I kick back up towards the surface, his body rising with mine.
"Daddy!" Mai cries out when she sees me towing her upturned father towards the shore. "Sean, you didn't!"
"Relax. He's sleeping. Just like you do when you're on your back." I bob my brow at her. It was a hard lesson to swallow when we'd been new lovers. Nothing like the sudden sound of her snoring echoing through her tube to squash passions and egos all in one fell swoop. I'd thought it was just a strange quirk of hers, but now it all made sense. Turn a gator upside down, and it'll pass right out.
"Well, you can't just leave him like that!"
"Of course not," I say to Mai, as I help her to flip her father back over. "I never would have pegged you for a gatorsapien,"
"My brothers are all full-on gator. Recessive genes work funny that way, I guess."
We step back. A few seconds pass, and Mr. Cheng's eyes blink open. Both sets of them.
"Well played, son," he says to me. "All the snooping in the world wouldn't tell me what kind of man you really were. You're something, all right. Brave, and stupid, but you're my kind of stupid."
"Love will do that to you," I manage to say. Mai squeezes me tight. I prickle all over--my ego swelling in my chest, smile too tight across my face. "Now, I don't know about you guys, but I could sure go for some pancakes."
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