Z'Razzi tried not to look nervous as he boarded the Terran shuttlecraft. He had volunteered for this mission. It shouldn't have bothered him. Nobody yet had been hurt aboard the Freedom, but that didn't mean it wasn't a leaky, noisy, dangerous place to visit, much less live in for the next couple of months. He had expected to be nervous, but as the airlock closed he found himself gripping the chair with knuckles tighter than he would have liked to admit.
"Sir?" The voice came from Specialist Hunter, a physician and the person he would be seeing the most during his six-month rotation. "Are you okay?"
He turned his head to see her. "I think so, Specialist Hunter. I am not accustomed to your transportation."
"You can call me Doctor Hunter, Sir. Or just Doctor. Or Doc. How about just Shashi? 'Specialist Hunter' is way too formal, Specialist Zajhar."
He was impressed by her pronunciation of his name. "Then you must call me Raz, Shashi." He immediately felt better using her chosen name. It would reduce the impossible formality that would exist between him and this person with whom he would be living, and from whom he would be enduring endless pokes, needles, and probes. On the other hand, it meant that he would be on more intimate terms with her. He was not prepared for that at all. "I am sorry."
"For what?" she asked. "Being nervous? I'm scared to death, Raz. I've never been in space before, and now I'm about to do a six-month rotation on the Space Station as its chief medical officer. And I don't need to remind you that the Station is a million parts all built by the lowest bidder."
Raz nodded, understanding perfectly what she meant. He understood that "the lowest bidder" still had to meet certain safety requirements, and that the lowest bidder in each and every case had run over budget anyway, but that didn't make him any more comfortable. "I believe we will survive."
"I'm sure we will," she said. "The Russians did. Spacelab did, even if nobody wants to talk about it. I never did understand why we gave Mir the benefit of the doubt as the first manned space station. What was Spacelab?"
"An experiment?" Raz offered.
"They're all experimental," Shashi replied. "And they will be until people are born, and die of old age, in them. And probably not until a few generations after that will we get used to the idea that some people will live out their whole lives never visiting the Earth." She smiled. "I can't wait."
"Nor can I," he admitted. "I wonder what will happen after that, though. What would be humanity's next evolutionary stage? Do you have one planned out? I don't think we do, on Pendor."
"I don't think you can plan one out."
"No? That strikes me as odd. We plan many things out-- our agricultural expectations, our educational plans, our construction schedules."
"We can't plan those things out at the top levels," Shashi replied. "It just isn't in the nature of our governments to plan that far ahead, unless maybe for war. Planning for peace isn't something countries do. They just live with it when it happens."
"I have come to understand that," Raz replied with a smile. "I can understand why your species hasn't yet begun to plan its future as a whole. Maybe it is because there are many futures available to you and you will choose more than one of them."
"What about Pendor, then? Does it have a future?"
Raz found himself surprised that he would be engaged in such a conversation so readily, but he was happy for the distraction. And it meant that at least one member of the crew accepted him as a fellow, if only for now, if only conditionally. He tried to answer the question as best he could. "It has a future, certainly. But if there is a plan for that future, I don't know of it. I haven't even seen the matter debated in the media and you would think that it would show up there."
"Huh," Shashi commented. She tapped on the thin-screen monitor by her arm rest. "Hey, do you play chess?"
"I do. Not very well."
"Then we're even," she said. "Pull up a game. It's 'xboard' on the menu."
They were thirty-one moves into the game when the shuttle docked with the station. Raz had actually found Shashi a formidable opponent, although the computer judged both of them only as fair players.
Raz thanked the pilot, whose name he could not recall, and wriggled his way through the airlock and into the ISS Freedom. "Permission to come aboard?" he asked.
"Permission granted, Specialist Zajhar," said a large block of a human mel. He held out his hand. "Commander York Lutz. This is my second, Brad Burien. It is an honor to have you."
Zajhar seized the human's meaty paw in his own and shook with familiarity. He had gotten used to this interim ritual between privacy and intimacy. "I'm happy to be aboard."
"And we're very honored to have you with us." Raz knew what he meant. The tensions between Pendor and Terra had become serious since the death of Donna Lewis Shardik. 'Death' wasn't the right word. 'Murder' was closer to the truth. Raz understood; he was here to help mend fences.
Lutz continued, "Your equipment is being offloaded from the shuttle right now. I understand that the reactor you will be installing has a lifespan of thirty years, right?"
"That is correct."
"And is that based on usage patterns, or is that just the lifespan of a typical Pendorian fusion reactor?"
"That's the lifespan regardless of usage. It has a maximum output that cannot be exceeded, and whether you use it or not, it will shut down in thirty years. You're free to disassemble it after that, if you wish. It will be somewhat radioactive, however; we recommend dropping it into the sun."
Commander Lutz stroked at his chin. "Well, we'll get you settled in in just a moment." He turned his attention to the next person, Shashi, and performed much the same ritual. "Now that both of you on are board, Brad will show you to your bunk."
"If you'll follow me?" said the other mel, a slightly more compact version of the commander. As they were led down the tube, the second pointed to various facilities-- communications stations, water stations, the hygiene closet, rescue facilities, emergency centers, and the like. Raz took careful note of the placards set in many places indicating where to go and what to do if there was an emergency. He had trained in Houston, of course, but there was a difference now that he was free of gravity. They left Shashi behind at her own quarters in a different module. He would have to find his way around with a reference to 'up' or 'down.' He felt that it presented a greater challenge than he had anticipated. And every time he thought about the thin metal shell that protected him from the hard vacuum of space his heart sped up with alarm.
"This is your living space," Lt. Commander Burien said to Raz as they glided into a room near the center of the space station. "This is the US Habitation Module, your home for the next six months." He pointed to a dark, red flap of canvas over a scaffold-like frame. "You're there, next to Specialist Chang. He's in Research 3 right now."
A grunt came from the curtained box besides the one Burien had indicated for Raz. "No I'm not. I'm trying to sleep!" A hand reached out under the curtain, undoing a few spaced snaps, and a head peaked out. "Hey, you're Specialist Zahjar!"
"And you must be Specialist Chang," he observed.
"Yossi," the man replied. "Please, call me Yossi."
"I'm Raz, then."
"I'm going back to sleep," Yossi replied, as if nothing interesting were happening outside.
Burien, however, took a moment to rap on the metal of the frame. "Yoss, were you up all last night again?"
A deep sigh came from behind the curtain. "Yes. I needed to stay up and watch the iridium metallurgic process myself."
"That's what cameras and computers are for, Yoss. What if there's an emergency? Command needs you to be at full capacity when you're awake."
Yossi stuck his head out of his compartment. "Yeah, I know. But I have an obligation..."
"Which you can meet and still get enough sleep." Brad pushed Yossi's head back into the compartment in what Raz hoped was a playful gesture. Yossi grumbled something in a language Raz didn't recognize and rebuttoned his compartment.
He found his own box, a compartment little larger than a coffin, with netted bags for his personal equipment, not that he had any other than the clothes on his back, the spare set, and the fusion system being unloaded from the Atlantis. The only consideration he had was his uPadd, this one custom-built with an incredible amount of memory, a rarity on Pendor where constant contact with AIs made such extravagance unnecessary.
"Hygiene facilities?" he asked Burien.
The officer indicated a small closet at the end of the cylindrical space with both a hose and a fan. "It keeps the water flowing in one direction. The same is true of the heads, which use airflow to keep everything in one place after you've gone. Everything is quite well-sealed here."
As he spoke, a red ball about fifteen centimeters in diameter floated into the room. It hummed very gently as it slid by. In the front of it were three small glass ports, one of them clearly a light of some sort not now illuminated. "Ah, one of the maintenance robots," he said. "I was told about these, but they don't work on Earth so I didn't get to see one in operation."
"Right," Burien said. "Drone, attention." The red ball stopped in midair. "Illuminate the exit." The light on the ball came on, and it sailed towards the hatchway Raz and Burien had come through. "Cease illumination. Resume previous task. End command." The light went off and the ball floated back into the sleeping chamber intent on something. "They'll respond to your orders if you need them. They make very useful flashlights, for one thing. And with their vacuum cleaner port keep the place dust-free."
Raz nodded. He didn't need the tour right now; it had been a long flight from the Pendorian vessel to this one, and right now what he wanted most of all was sleep. "If you don't mind, Sir, I'd much rather just head to bed right now."
"Be my guest. Orientation is in nine hours. You know the rest."
Raz nodded as he hauled himself into the cubicle next to Yossi's. He was grateful Yossi didn't snore. Then he was out.
Over the next four weeks he learned that the Space Station crew got along well because they wanted to as much as because they had to. These were people much like the crew of the Pendorian starships that had brought him here; they wanted to be in space and any personal difficulties would be put aside to make that happen. The two fems on board were treated like members of the crew, although it was obvious to anyone who cared to observe that Cosmonaut Helenka was engaging in some serious off-duty recreation with Astronaut Burien. Shashi, on the other hand, fended off the attentions of the others in the station.
"You're always so quiet," she said to him. "You never say a word. Not even 'ouch.'"
"Do the others say ouch?"
"Some do, some don't. Doesn't the daily draw hurt?" she asked.
"It does, of course." He rubbed his arm where she had withdrawn the needle. "And shaving that patch is not something I would prefer to do."
"And you have to do it every day."
He nodded. She smiled and patted him on the muzzle. "I'm grateful that you decided to come on this mission, Raz. You make the mission more exciting. And it's rewarding to consider that very soon we will be able to ditch the solar panels."
"Are they that troublesome?" he asked. "It seems to me like an excellent alternative power supply. It is the one used on Pendor."
"Solar?" she asked. "I thought you guys used fusion."
He shook his head. "All non-mobile power comes off a regionwide power grid. The grid is fed by solar panels in orbit around the sun."
"How does the power get to the ground?"
"Microwave beams aimed at several isolated reception stations along the rim wall of the outer ring."
"I see..." she said, letting her thoughts trail off. "A defensive weapon?"
"I can see that it could be used for that, although I would not have thought of it if you hadn't mentioned it. Thus far there is nothing to defend ourselves from, but that may change in the future. No, it will change. You will get into space, and when it is a commodity, there will be those among you who will make it dangerous."
She sighed. "You're probably right. I can't help but wonder if Burien and Helenka will make a kind of detente' in their own right." She looked into his eyes. "You're so much better than that, Raz. You're not a walking bundle of testosterone."
"No, but I am a walking bundle of a closely related molecule that serves the same purpose in my species." He grinned to cover up the nervousness he felt. He did not really want this conversation going in its current direction. "It just would not be proper to express it here. We must live with each other for another one hundred and fifty days. I would not want to jeopardize the smooth functioning of this station."
"It would not jeopardize anything," she said, her voice dropping down below where microphones would probably pick it up. "It would just be another way to exercise, let off some steam, and relax."
"I do not get that impression from the briefing. It was very clear on our responsibilities towards one another. And it was very clear that NASA is not interested in experiments of that nature." And although he was reluctant to admit it and show a kind of ignorance in front of a Terran, he was not familiar with such experiments himself. Although, he admitted to himself, if he had to schedule such experiments, Shashi would surely be the person to do them with. He was less inclined towards the other members of the crew. Yossi was the only other one to whom he was attracted, but even there he would not know how to proceed. Not that Yossi showed the slightest interest in males.
"No, what it said was that NASA is not prepared to delve deeply into the private lives of the very professional and very human people it puts into space." Her hand touched his arm gently, in a manner completely other than the one she used when she was drawing blood. This time, it started his blood pumping faster. "Would you, could you, with a human?"
His mind raced with the possible consequences of such a decision. He didn't know if he wanted to get this involved. He didn't know what would happen if he proved to be a failure.
He found himself caught between the Pendorian reputation for sensuality and his own history of reluctance, between the Pendorian character of honesty and openness, and the developing rivalry between Terra and Pendor. He decided one last dodge. A simple one. "What if it doesn't work?" he asked.
"If it doesn't work I won't have any hard feelings. Come on, Raz, you can't tell me that in the month you've been here you haven't learned how to jag off in complete silence?" He nodded, feeling the tips of his ears warm with the suggestion. "If you think that's hard," she said, "consider that I didn't get to bring a vibrator with me, I'm no good with my hands, and I haven't got a boyfriend up here." She floated closer to him. "I hope I'm not presuming too much when I hope that you're good with that tongue."
"I would not know."
She looked at him with a curious glance. "You've never gone down on a woman?" She quickly corrected herself. "Or any female?"
Caught, he admitted, "I have never done anything with any fem, Shashi. Or any mel."
"How old are you?" she asked, surprised.
"Forty-two years, Terran."
"And you've never done anything with anyone?" She floated close to him, looking him over. "Why? Or, I mean, why not?"
"The opportunity never really presented itself. I was an engineer, a... what do you call it? A 'geek.'" He paused. "And while that is no stigma where I am from, it meant to me that I spent most of my time on my interests. Having a relationship never moved up in my priorities."
"Can I make it move up now?" she asked.
He felt a tension across his shoulders. "Do I dare?"
"Like I said, no hard feelings if we don't have fun. I'm trusting you not to be some crazed rapist, not that that's possible after all the head shrinkage they did at Houston." She smiled at him in a distinctly new way. "What do you say?"
He reached out and touched her cheek with the furred back of his hand. She reacted with surprising warmth, tilting her head to make the contact more solid, closing her eyes as she did so. "I would like to try."
She glanced down at her watch, then reached for a small pouch in one of the storage boxes. "Then come with me. I'd like to show you something." She floated up towards the hub, and then back towards Connective Node 1, then down to Pressurized Mating Adapter 3. "Remember the other part of your cargo? It was more living space." Where PMA3 had been was now a standard hatch, through which he could see a relatively huge open space that the two of them glided into. "This is the pressure-maintained tent that we got. The walls are made of the same stuff as our suits, only in more layers. Nobody's using it yet and it's meant as a rec-room of sorts, so let's recreate."
She turned to him. "Now, while everybody else is asleep..." She pulled him close. "Have you ever kissed anyone, Raz?"
"Just my mother," he admitted with a grin.
"Oh, boy," she said with gentle exasperation, then kissed him lightly on the muzzle. His body reacted strangely to the touch, with impulses both wanting and scared, and he supposed that that was normal. He kissed her back; he seemed to know what to do, if only by applying what he had seen in Terran movies.
He didn't know quite what to do when he felt her tongue against his mouth. He tried to return the favor as best he could, touching her tongue and lips delicately with his own. That worked, if her reaction was anything to judge.
They floated together in the vast and empty recreation room. Her hands found the zipper of his jumpsuit. With an efficient zzip! she peeled his clothes off of him with the expediency of a starving person peeling a banana. He was left with just a pair of shorts covering his erection. "I appear to have let the cat out of the bag," she said, her hand reaching for his shorts.
"Wait," he said. "I would like to see you naked, too."
"Take those off, then. And hold my hand." She held out her hand and he took it. She unzipped her own suit and shrugged her way out of it until it hung on the one wrist that he held clasped in his own. "Take the other hand," she said. He reached for it and she broke the grip on the first. With her one free hand, she grabbed the small mysterious pouch out of the pocket, then pushed her clothes away from the two of them.
She was a small woman of dark skin and black hair, what there was of it. Like most spacers, she had chosen to wear a close-crop skullcap up top and little more. She was blessed with a fine, full figure and surprisingly large breasts for her size. Raz wondered where she had hid them; he would have never suspected such bounty from the clothes he had seen her in. Her face was average, with a sharp nose and wide, curious eyes. Only the relative bulkiness of her jaw and chin kept him from thinking her a truly beautiful woman.
But his detached observations didn't prevent his cock from standing straight up. He could feel desire starting to burn in his chest, desire for this human woman with plans of her own.
She pulled on the zipper of the pouch with her teeth and a length of rope emerged, three meters of thin cord. "Tie it about your ankle," she directed. "I'll do mine, and we won't have to worry about drifting too far apart."
He grinned as the two of them both set to the task at the same time, drifting apart as they did so. But she had been right; once done they couldn't have drifted too far away from one another. She pulled herself to him and in a moment Raz had his hands full of naked Earthwoman. She grinned up at him. "I intend to turn you into the best lover I've ever had."
He thought about that. "Will that make me a good lover to others in the future?"
"Trust me. The skills are transferable," she said, kissing his chest. "You smell good. And your fur reminds me of a cat I once lived with."
"I like the way you say that," he whispered, getting hotter as he thought about it. "Most people say they own a cat or have a cat."
"No, most cats own their humans," she said. Her hands were at his sides, touching him in ways he had never experienced before. She seemed to know exactly where to touch him, how to arouse him. They eased down his hips and across his skin to close about his cock. She had his shaft firmly in one hand while she steadied the two of them with the other. He groaned quietly as she stroked him. His hands were on her breasts, touching them, squeezing them softly with just his fingertips. She moaned herself as he drew a light touch across one nipple.
It was almost more than he could bear, this woman giving herself to him in this manner. She pulled with one arm, pressing her body against his. The warm smell of her hair reminded him of home, but where he couldn't begin to think. "Raz," she whispered. "I want you to..." She giggled. "I don't suppose you'd know what I meant if I said 'eat me,' would you?"
"I've read enough to know," he grinned. With both hands he pushed her upwards until a thick patch of pubic hair lay before his eyes. With a gentle kiss he probed inwards. She spread her legs for him. The smell was rich and wonderful, and the taste had an undeniably sweet tang to it. It wasn't until he'd already located her clitoris that he realized he was actually kissing a fem's sex; it hadn't occurred to him that this intimacy was actually his.
"Oh, yes. Just lick me there," she whispered. "Just like that." He opened his mouth further and pressed against her flesh, against that tiny nub that rolled like an appleseed over the tip of his tongue with every flicker. Her legs tensed and he felt them press against his shoulders. He needed his hands to keep her in place. The string holding them together floated just within his visual range. Her pubic hair was wet with fluids from both of them. Her body tensed, and her back arched against a gravity that was not there. She came with a moan that she suppressed by pressing her mouth against her forearm.
"Oh, Raz. You're a natural! But then, I'm sensitive now. It's been too long since I had a lover." She descended to be eye-to- eye with him, hugged him, and kissed him, not at all reluctant to taste her own wetness on his muzzle and fur. "You feel so... good. The fur is wonderful. I wish I could sleep with you."
"I talk in my sleep," he said. "I'm glad you liked that. I didn't know if I would do it right." He wanted to touch her, and her skin invited him to do so. He pressed his hands to her ass. She moaned, "Put yourself inside me." She lifted her legs as she did so, wrapping them around his thighs.
With his free hand he guided his cock into her. His fingers brushed against the warmth and wetness, a prelude to the enveloping feel of her body as he entered her. "That's it," she whispered.
"Yes," he gasped. He knew this was supposed to feel good; he hadn't been prepared for how good. His heart pounded in his chest, his whole body yearned to merge with hers as they slid together.
He would thrust his hips towards her, and with her legs she would draw them back together. It took effort, but it was worth it! Shashi came again, this time muffling a cry against his shoulder. Her soft breasts crushed against his chest. His cock was close to bursting but for some reason his body was not ready to come. It was the effort of it, the strength it took. He finally came with his own, silent gasp of pleasure, his semen streaming into her willing body.
They floated together then, unmoving. He noticed that they had drifted close to the wall but hadn't quite yet touched it. He closed his eyes and luxuriated in the warm feel of her against him, her hands on his shoulders, her buttocks against the thin fur of his palms. He listened to her breathing, slowing down as she came back to reality.
He felt something touch his leg. At first he thought it might be her, or their clothes that had been floating around, or maybe it was just the string. But then he heard a sound, a distinctly mechanical whine. And then another near his back, and a third near his head. He opened his eyes to see one of those red maintenance drones closing in on him, the custodial port open. The whine he heard was the vacuum cleaner.
He let go of Shashi. "Huh?" she murmured softly.
"Shashi! Help!" He was being attacked by six of the things! They were all around him, attaching themselves to him in all manner of places. "Shoo! Go away!"
Shashi looked at him, the look in her eyes halfway between concern and outright laughter. She recovered enough to order, "Drone! Attention! Self-maintenance. Return to your cubicles."
The drones stopped and slowly jetted towards the maintenance egress. "I guess they've never seen you naked. They must have been programmed to recognize you dressed or something. All this loose fur must need to be cleaned up." She giggled. "They didn't hurt you, did they?"
"No, just embarrassed me." He brushed his fur down where the vacuum cleaners had pulled it up.
"Next time we close the maintenance egress." She pulled on the string, and after a second of fumbling they were again embracing. "If you want a next time."
He warmed to her suggestion readily. This was an experiment worth repeating. "Do you want a next time?"
"I'd like one."
He smiled. He realized that she was going to complicate his life in ways he had definitely not planned and wasn't sure he wanted to encourage. But, he supposed, that was what made life exciting. "I would too."