It had all begun with two notes - one, an e-mail from the Human Resources department thanking him for his hard work, and the other, a yellow stickynote on the refrigerator announcing that Lirabelle had left to join a women's commune in southern Oregon, and that she wouldn't be back, and he could help himself to the TV dinners in the freezer if he was hungry.
Baxton had never been the superstitious type, but when two notes like those arrived on the same day, he figured the Universe was trying to tell him something. By the time his dinner was out of the microwave, he was on the phone to the Space Command recruiter.
The training had been tough, but hey, it was something to do. His first duty assignment had been in the communications center of a station in low Earth orbit - not very glamorous, but it was a change of scene and a steady paycheck.
With asteroid mining in full swing and Earth still adjusting to the new realities of post-Contact life, space was the place to be. There were new worlds to be explored, cultures to be encountered, exotic technologies to be studied ... oh, and money to be made. Or so they said; as a Space Command rookie, he'd have to take that one on faith. So when, about a year on, one of the guys in the comm center (and they were mostly guys) had spotted Coulich's name on a message and told him, "Hey Bax, looks like you're gonna be hanging out with the space lesbians!" - he'd taken it in stride.
The new posting was on the edge of Earth Force territory, adjoining the region of space claimed by the Gilkesh Federation. It was a small logistics base on a largely unexplored terrestrial planet about twice the diameter of Earth's Moon. Officially its main function was to provide supplies, communication, and other support for travel between the Gilkesh and Human regions. From the utterly nondescript look of the base, and the number of offices with vague names like "Joint Support Detachment", he guessed that it was home to more than a few Intelligence spooks too. But that was way beyond his clearance level and pay grade.
From what he'd seen of them, the Gilkesh weren't hard to work with. They were humanoid and looked more or less like human females; somewhere along the line, they'd evolved parthenogenesis, like the whiptail lizard and (more recently) the Komodo dragon on Earth. Their language was hard - he'd mastered a few phrases, but could never manage to pronounce those voiced gutturals. The Gilkesh themselves were capricious, subtle, and generally inscrutable ... again, he thought, not too different from human females.
You just had to know the rules, and you'd be okay. Now Pell Orner, there was a fella that didn't know the rules. He'd made the mistake of getting fresh with a Gilkesh warrior once. Pell had been all right in the end - that new arm was growing back quite nicely - but they'd still busted him to the loading docks and made him go to sensitivity training. But Baxton wasn't interested in any monkey business. He had a job to do - and that job had just started getting a whole lot more interesting.