No longer the time for exploration. There will be time for that—all the time in the world. But not now. Now is for more urgent things. Now—

Now is when that thick and intricate appendage between your thighs ceases only to be between them. Its fine tendrils withdraw, leaving the skin of your sex again naked—of your sex, and of the stubby but proud and eager little shaft that rises from their upper confluence, sticking up heedless into the cool night air.

Now is when it insists upon the fluted tip of that cock it's made for you—that cock, that ovipositor, that everything and endlessly protean, reshaping itself by the instant to fit the tiniest contour of your need—and of your body, too. It loses shape, gains shape, all but flows into you—driving you painfully wide, its surface regaining those tiny toothed and sucking mouths that batten onto the inner walls of your sex, tiny delicious pinpricks of pain as needle-fine thorns sink briefly into you there against the small suction, as more of it flows inside you, and more, and more—not like anything you've ever known before but as if it were pouring itself into you—and it is! in thick spurts as its flesh goes liquid and squirts itself into you from the thickening tip of an ever lengthening shaft that only grows as you open around it—

—your body moving of its own accord, hips shifting, thighs flexing, the tentacles holding you in the air writhing into a tighter grip as the deep thing senses your desire and pulls you down onto itself, seating the thick bulbous base it has chosen to make in the vestibule of your sex, and the whole of the alien pseudopod within you beginning gently to writhe, peristaltic waves of expansion flowing up its surface from base to tip, and the thick turgid stretch of it verging just barely upon the edge of true pain before it lets you relax again, before it pushes you out to your limit once more—

—and still, you know, is only getting started with you.

You are not looking down. You are not looking anywhere. Every part of you is taken up with the sheer alien sensation of it—that, and the rapidly rising heat of yet a third orgasm, except—no—what will it be? You know your chest is heaving, faint keening from your throat with each breath, every now and again a whimper or a yelp or a deep, low, moan as the deep thing finds some new thought or image in your mind—finds it, and makes it for you—and even the unspeakable sensation of its thoughts within and around your own, delving as deeply now into your mind as its body delves into your own, seeking to find more and more to give you—even that is almost too pleasurable to stand, and all of it meanwhile coming back to you tenfold from the mind of the deep thing, as it partakes of everything you feel and shares that partaking with you too—a perfect feedback loop—

And then a part of that thick tentacle between your thighs humps itself up, and rises, and forms a second smaller limb with a deep invagination at its tip, and it reaches out and finds that part of you which stands heedless proud up from your sex—finds it, and enfolds it, and begins very firmly to suck on it—

—what's left of shame smashed asunder for the moment by the sheer pleasure of it, like nothing you'd ever dared imagine—you've never even touched yourself there! And certainly no one else has, there or anywhere, not like this and such a release you find you've denied yourself as suddenly that and everything is far too much to any longer stand and every muscle of you goes wire taut against the tentacles holding you firm and unyielding as you shriek out your climax to the sky and the stars and the crew and the Bitch and the world at large, in a moment of time outside time as the force of it crashes through you and fulfills you beyond imagination—

—and it does not end! You could not bear it but for the deep thing in your mind, driving you onward and itself as well, finding the limit of its own vast and boundless mind as you careen far beyond the limit of yours, that feedback loop of sensation become a thing of transmutation that in the merest instant has the both of you beyond everything—

—the merest instant only, for otherwise you would both surely die of such joy; it would explode your heart and annihilate the deep thing's mind. And though it does not, and after that merest instant does end—for you and for your lover, it is a thing that seems to go on forever and forever and forever, a tiny instant of perfect bliss stretched out into an infinity of pleasure—and though the limits of flesh are as they are, and even the deep thing cannot sustain such ecstasy for more than the merest instant, even as the great vaulting white flame of it begins to subside in you both, there is a shared recognition so profound as to be almost beyond even the incredible sensorium you both now intimately share that, in a part of you, that perfect bliss will go on forever. That it has become inextricably part of you now, just as you have become inextricably part of one another, and have been forever changed by it.

But the limits of flesh are as they are, and in the wake of that forever moment, you are utterly spent—between your exertion at the capstan and that just now, your body is just done. You cannot move your smallest finger, just now—even if you would.

But you need not, for the deep thing still holds you, and its strength is only little diminished—though in the mind you both now share you can feel its enormous sense of repletion—not wholly unlike the afterglow you have often enough known before now, to be sure, but magnified by some unimaginable factor into an ocean of gentle peaceful bliss that flows all through you both—though to think of yourselves as separate, now, has come to seem quite strange.

It still has you—and it still fills you, too, though not with the same thrusting urgency as before; it is content now simply to remain within you, its dark slippery convoluted skin now relaxed and relaxing against your own most tender membranes—a shared intimate warmth that is as comfortable now as it was pleasurable before. Just as the envelopment you still feel, of that appendage which you now remember being—but do no longer just now feel—so troubling to you, is a gentle comfort in its own right; in that embrace, you feel, that part of you is cherished. No longer an open wound in your soul. And perhaps that will not last—but perhaps it will, too. But you know you will never forget it, no matter what may come.

As you settle further back into yourself—as you and the deep thing both begin to regather yourself from the farflung places you have just now gone together—your awareness of the mind-sense begins to return, and it is something of a shock to realize that, in the extremity of your delight, you did not scream it only from your throat. The sense you have now, of your captain and of Quen and Lu and the Bitch's crew altogether—it is different, too. Deeper, and warmer, and richer, and—

You open your eyes knowing what you will see, and see it indeed you do: there is much activity, now, among the Bitch's crew. It is not wholly unlike what went on earlier, during the celebration of the prize whose hold was full of rum—but it is much livelier than that, and more intent; no one is drinking of any strong liquor now, except the joy they find in one another, and that stronger by far than any spirit one may find in mere bottles—the weather deck is strewn about with piles of clothes and piles of people—here, old friends lovingly embraced; there, rivals of old, their longstanding enmity at once discarded and put to rest; elsewhere, a salty old chief with never a kind word for anyone, making the most tender of love to the young able seaman who has ever been the target of the sharpest side of his tongue.

And there—in the middle of it all—the captain herself, your strong and powerful and beautiful captain, her mind the brightest central thread in the great glowing tapestry of thought and emotion that arises from your mates as they share whom they are with one another.

But there is a dark thread, too—one that does not glow brightly as the others, but whose light gutters only weakly, sickly. Of all those aboard transported by the heat and light and power of the deep thing's mind and your own, so perfectly intermeshed as your bodies joined and learned the true shapes of one another—there is one who was untouched.

Quen, on her knees, is dying.