Two guards watched her walk in, a tall, brown-haired woman with a fair face, wearing very non-regulation black leather boots over her regulation shipside jumpsuit. They had seen her before, of course; to them she was an authorized regular. But her beauty continued to impress them even after many months and many rebuffs. She walked over to the main security door, ignoring the two gawking figures, and pressed the button to gain entry. With a voice that pretended to be human the computer asked, "Please place your hand into the reader and state your name."
"Natasha Sviatoslavova Nepotselveva," she said, her voice ringing clearly in the clean, white security room.
"Access granted, Natasha Sviatoslavova Nepotselveva. Welcome to the starship Gorbachev." The door opened and Natasha walked through, stepping into the long, thin tube that separated the space station Alexi Leonov from the experimental starship. Although long a runner-up in matters of space exploration after the United States, the Soviet Union had survived the end of the cold war and the establishment of market reforms to come back from the abyss of economic ruin and once again participate in the race for humanity to reach space. The agenda for this century was not to outpace the Americans, but to catch up to the Pendorians, to face them at their own game. Natasha thought it ironic that many, at least many outside the cosmonaut fraternity, thought of the Pendorians as the enemy when it was those very Pendorians that had saved the Soviet Union from collapse and her people from starvation.
Today, though, was to be a crowning achievement in that race for the stars. Today, they would not only break the light barrier but do it without the help of either the Pendorians, who were no help at all, or the Americans, who were racing to get there first. Natasha had waited for this day her entire life. She found such joy in being the one permitted to fly the ship, and how precious to be allowed to share this moment with that one other who had begun to make her life feel more complete after the death of her father. Then how strange, she thought, the coincidences she had begun to notice between them.
She stepped through the other airlock door and allowed it to close behind her. She cycled her way into the Gorbachev, a ship named for the man who had been there when a certain wall had come crumbling down. This ship was built to deliberately, if metaphorically, knock down yet another wall, the one that separated mankind from the stars. Today mankind, once allowed only to see the stars through the eyes of the Pendorians, would be able to go to other worlds on its own accord. Or so, she thought with a smile, the theory went. And if the theory was wrong so too would go its theoretician.
The Gorbachev was nearly a kilometer long, bulging in the center, with its fifth-order gravitic projectors ready to create the miniature black hole, spin it up to speed, and then to pull the ship along within a frame of space-time. Einstein's theory predicted that information (not energy, as most people naively thought, but its organization into meaningful signal or cohesive matter) could not travel through a segment of space-time at speeds greater than light, but no theory predicted the composition of space-time itself. It could be warped, as Einstein himself had demonstrated. Could it also be moved? The Gorbachev would find out. It was known that faster-than-light travel was possible-- the Pendorians seemed to do it all the time. Now humans would join the FTL club, a position that had proven significantly harder to enter than the nuclear club of a century ago. But then, there were no Soviet spies on Pendor.
Natasha made her way to the cockpit, a tiny room with four chairs. "Vasili, it is good to see you," she said with a grin to the little man who sat in Engineering Position 2.
"Tasha!" he responded with an equal grin. "You as well. Where are the other two?"
"Coming along. They will be here on time."
"I am sure they shall," he replied. "You are looking forward to sharing this with Talya, yes?"
"And with you, Vasili. And with Nechai. It is not just her."
"But it is her, Tasha," he replied, touching her arm briefly. It was the only touch he allowed himself of her. Both of them knew of his long-standing infatuation with her, but her heart belonged to another; it would never have worked out between them and they both knew it. Vasili found his release in the arms of other women and Natasha wrote of his pain only briefly in her journal, if ever.
"It is her, Vasili," she agreed finally. Her demeanor changed suddenly, taking on the professional tone for which she was justly known. "Are we ready?"
"The engines are running with the precision of a Stalingrad watch, Commander." Although the vessel Gorbachev was one of the largest spacecraft ever built by the Soviet Union, its crew was not sufficiently strong to justify nomination of its leader to the rank of Captain; the best that could be achieved was Commander, and Natasha thought it just as fitting a title. It did not matter what they called her so long as it was her hands on the controls.
She glanced over those controls, noting each one separately and with her full attention, before taking a seat in the pilot's chair. She had sat here several times in the past, and had participated in many other drills in its duplicate in the simulator, but today the feel of the cool chair against her back and bottom gave her a special and intricate thrill. She had waited so long for this day.
"Nechai Stefanov Lashev has been granted access," the impersonal voice of the computer spoke over the intercom. "Natalya Liubii has been granted access," the voice spoke again.
"Our crew is complete," Vasili noted. Nechai, a large, hairy man with a Belarus accent and a smile wide enough to encompass the world floated into view, followed behind by a woman who could almost have been Natasha's twin. Just a touch shorter, but with the same elegant brown hair restrained by the hairnets space travel made necessary, and the same delicate features of nose and cheek, she drifted into the control cabin with a look of surprise and apprehension. "Talya," Natasha said, trying to hide her enthusiasm from showing too much.
"Tasha," Natalya replied with a smile. "It is good to see you again. It has been two weeks, yes?"
"Yes," Natasha replied.
Nechai laughed loudly. Laughter was a habit with that man, and although it could sometimes get on Natasha's nerves she admitted that most of the time she liked the friendliness that Nechai radiated. "Come, come, you two. You will have time for that later. We have a mission to run!"
Natasha allowed herself to smile at Nechai's enthusiasm, even while the smile hid her apprehension. Was it that obvious? Natalya and she had been friends for only a short time-- a few months, and the prospect of them becoming lovers weighed in on everyone's mind, but it had not happened. Yet. It would not be proper for the Commander to be intimate with a subordinate. And there was that other detail. The one she tried not to think about too closely.
"The General wishes to speak at you," Nechai said even as he took the copilot's chair. He indicated the display.
"Yes, General Grigor'ev," she said, pulling her own headset over her ears and taking her seat. She buckled herself into the chair to keep from floating away; there were few expected violent maneuvers on this trip. "Yes, General, my crew is currently going through the preflight check. Yes, your groundcrew is in agreement with mine." She glanced over at the engineer's chair to confirm the truth of her quick lie and Natalya returned a thumb's up.
"The tug is here," Vasili said. "They're on the map."
"Good. We just have to wait for them to tow us out. Let us earn our pay, da?" Natasha said. The four of them became busy, monitoring the many components of the Gorbachev even as the tugboat approached cautiously, coupled with the large starship, and began to power them down and away from the station. Another tug took up position on the opposite side of the ship, providing complete vector coverage in case they had to maneuver quick. Natasha hoped that would not happen; the Gorbachev was not designed to take a lot of torque across its long axis.
At two hours, the tugboats released the Gorbachev along a vector perpendicular to the plane of the solar system, then began their own long deceleration back to the solar system itself. At four hours, Natasha radioed back that they were preparing to attempt the jump.
"How are we doing?"
Natalya, her voice full of her characteristic cheer, glanced at the screens and said, "Everything looks good. I'm ready to bring up the pressors."
"Do it," Natasha said.
Natalya reached up and flipped two switches, then typed something into her keyboard. "Pressors on. We have a kilter of zero-point-zero-one degrees on each. That should be enough to get us a rotating black hole."
"If we get one at all."
"We'll get one," Natalya reassured her, taking a clipboard from its velcro holding and marking off status with a pencil. In their Gemini missions, the United States had learned that without gravity ink does not flow to the tip of a pen. For Apollo, NASA spent over a million dollars developing a pen that worked in space. Russia, when confronted with the same problem, had taken a pencil.
"Vasili, how are the plants?" Natasha asked.
He checked the status of their American-made fusion powerplants. "Up and running, Commander. We're fine."
Building a black hole was not a task to rush, but two hours later Natalya announced, "I'm starting to get signs of singularity. Ten seconds " She counted down, and at zero she said without much surprise, "We have singularity."
Natasha looked over at Nechai, who gave her a grin. "We are the first human beings to sit this close to a black hole. And we're still alive. An amazing achievement, Natalya."
"I just thought of it," Natalya said. "It was the engineers who built this beast. People like Vasili."
Vasili was too busy talking to the ground crews to acknowledge the compliment; as Engineer Two, it was his duty to coordinate observations with the "ground" crew. This left the other three free to continue working independently, going through the checklist, making the final decisions. "Stage three," he said. "Rollout."
"I'm go," Natalya said. "Go," Natasha agreed. Nechai nodded. "Go," he said.
"Ten seconds," Natasha said. She counted down, reaching "Three. Two. One. Roll." She pressed one button.
There was a lurch as the ship seemed to suddenly come alive; no longer pushed about by tugs or gravity, it found its wings and flew forwards. Through the viewport reality skewed and went black; the ship thrummed with the energy harnessed back in her central housing, the black hole that spun and vibrated, created and captured by mankind's ingenuity. "It's working!" Natalya cried. Although Natalya was a cheerful person, Natasha had rarely seen her quite this happy. "It's working!"
"Yes, it's working," Nechai agreed. "Amazing, but it is true. We are travelling at the speed of light now."
"Well within the expected, Commander," Natalya replied. Vasili nodded his agreement.
"We are making history," Natasha sighed as she looked down at her own suite of readouts. An indicator showed the ship's anticipated position relative to their motion. It didn't look all that impressive, on an interstellar scale, but truly, compared to the speeds man had achieved in the past, this was a monumental achievement. "We will continue to make history for one hour, and then fall out. At that point, we should be one light-hour from the Alexi Leonov. Fifteen minutes afterwards, we should receive a message the Leonov sent out fifteen minutes after our departure. If we receive it, we will know that we have succeeded beyond all measurable means."
The time passed too slowly for Natasha. She worried. The transition to light speed had been so easy, so simple, that she worried that transition back wouldn't be accomplished with quite the same ease. She wondered if the ship had left any backwash, any effect on the Leonov or any of the other vessels in the area. The Pendorian vessels had never left any apparent backwash, but their ships were of a different technology, similar but not the same as this. Perhaps simply more refined.
"It's time," Nechai pointed out. She had allowed herself to slip into reverie, a bad thing for the commander of an experimental starship. She thanked him for his attention, then took the controls again. "Are we ready?"
There were agreements from the other three. "Ten seconds then."
The countdown began. Natasha became more nervous the closer the time came. She leaned into the controls and pressed the designated button.
The ship spun out of control as if kicked by some interstellar soccer player. Natasha heard a scream. Nechai shouted, "The hole is not damping as predicted!"
Natasha saw the diagram on her monitor and agreed. The oscillations had slowed as desired, but they were also growing in amplitude, not the effect they wanted. She watched as the theoretical edge of their captured black hole threatened the water tank at the crew end of the vessel, then sagged back towards the rear of the ship. As it reached a point halfway between center and nadir, she slammed her hand down hard on the pressors. The tensor waves drawn on the screen seemed to slow, slow, and then suddenly they snapped like a spider's web trying to hold a falling pebble. Metal sheared with the passing mass of the black hole even as it dissipated, freed from the forces that had created it and kept it alive. Unnatural even to a universe that hosted native black holes, it disappeared forever into the void from which it had come.
Alarms erupted throughout the ship. "We're losing air!" Vasili shouted. "This is not good!"
"Anything we can do about it?"
"No. The gravity on the water tank provided too much stress. It is going to go. When it does, it will probably take out the back wall here. And when that happens, we will be out of air."
Experience and practice took over. "Beachballs, everyone! Now!" She slapped the emergency rescue beacon even as she grabbed one herself from overhead. She jumped for the seat behind her. "On your feet, Natalya!" she said. "Get in!"
"My ship " Natalya cried. "Our ship!"
"Our ship is doomed! Get in!" She grabbed the other woman in one hand and pulled the loose sack of cloth over her head. "Get in!" she demanded.
Natalya finally recognized the authority and demand in that voice, recognized the immanent danger and the emergency device in which she found herself, and reacted. She pulled herself into the bag and Natasha followed her. The opening, less than a meter across, was covered with a pair of large zippers, followed by a self-sealing flap. Natasha pulled the first one up, the second one down, and then closed the flap over it. She cued her microphone. "We're in, Vasili."
"We're in ours, too. Air looks good. I brought a monitor. It looks bad." A loud noise rang through the ship. "There goes the water tank." Another loud noise, followed by a hissing sound. "The cabin is losing atmosphere," he added, stating the obvious. "Mother Russia!" he swore.
"Fusion plant four is going wild. We have to evacuate. It's going to explode."
Cold fear crept down Natasha's back. Natalya looked at her, eyes wild with fear, and Natasha resolved now to keep her cool. "Blow the roof, Vasili."
"Commander! There's sharp debris out there! If we should run into it..." Nechai's voice objected.
"We'll die in here if we don't, Nechai! Vasili!"
"She is right, and she is still in command. From three."
The air had mostly leaked out already, so when the explosive bolts blew the roof of the forward cabin loose there wasn't much in the way of noise or motion. On her hand-held monitor, Natasha could see the two beachballs being pushed away from the dying Gorbachev, her precious ship disappearing into the night between stars.
The beachball had inflated to its full size, a cylinder three meters long by one and a half in diameter. She looked at the readouts and was assured that everything was green. They had air and water as long as the power held, and food supplies for five days. She turned to her companion.
"Natasha?" the other woman said, looking up. Her eyes were wet with tears that went nowhere in zero gravity. It was the most pitiful sight Natasha had seen in many a year. She reached out and gathered the other woman in her arms, holding her close. The intimacy of the gesture surprised both of them, but Natasha put aside the feelings that rolled through her; now was not the time for such things, now was the time for human comfort.
Natalya sniffed and held Natasha back. "If you wished to get closer to me, there were better ways to arrange it, Tasha," she joked.
Natasha laughed bitterly. "Talya, this hardly the way I would have wanted to become intimate with you."
"We are going to die out here, da?" Natalya asked.
"Very likely," Natasha agreed. "We have a week of food, but there is little chance of rescue. The American ship is nowhere near complete, and we did not build two Gorbachevs."
Natalya shivered. "I knew we could die on this trip. But I did not think about it too closely." She let loose of Natasha and turned around. "I am afraid."
"Me, too," Natasha admitted. "But I can't do anything about my being afraid. So I am going to ignore it."
"Are you going to ignore death, too?"
"To the very last," Natasha agreed. "I do not want to die, Natalya, but I cannot do anything to prevent it. If it happens then it happens. In the meantime, we must conserve our strength and our patience. Maybe we will get lucky and the Americans are ahead of schedule. Maybe by some miracle the Pendorians rescue us. We are still alive."
"You are too hopeful, Natasha Sviatoslavova. There were no Pendorian ships in the system that we know of-- that is why the experiment was conducted today."
Natasha reached out and pulled the other woman close once more. "There is always room to be hopeful, Talya." Natalya looked up into her eyes, and Natasha found herself wanting to be everything for her, savior as well as friend, lover as well as coworker. Somehow, Natasha wasn't even sure how herself, they found themselves in a tentative first kiss, a kiss as plaintive as it was affirming. They had been thinking the same thing for too many months together, too many practice missions. She adored Natalya for her innocence and her brilliance. Natalya, she knew, admired her strength and her experience. And Natasha knew from her own past that men admired her body, desired her as she walked down the streets, and made fools of themselves in their attempts to get at her.
Natalya's hand was on her breast, clenching at her through the thin material of her jumpsuit. "I... I waited... Tasha, I waited for this."
"I too," Natasha agreed. "Talya, I am so sorry that this had to happen this way."
"I am as well." She nestled her head against Natasha's shoulder. "It is so sad, that our attraction to one another, our respect, our love, should be found this far away from Earth, further than humans have ever flown before by themselves, so far away, and yet never to get home." Her hand pulled down the zipper of Natasha's jumpsuit and slid inside. Natasha's body warmed instantly to the feel of Natalya's hand about her breast, her fingertips against her nipples. "Oh, Tasha, you are so warm."
"And you are so gentle, Talya." It was Natasha's turn to begin undressing Natalya, pulling the zipper down from her throat to her left thigh. Without separating, the two of them eased the jumpsuit off of her, and then Natalya completed the pull of Natasha's zipper.
Natasha felt Natalya's touch all as a rush, a sudden flow that made her want to shout with pleasure and defiance. Even towards the end of the 21st century the Soviet Union often did not look kindly on those whose love was deviant and unproductive, although the hostility today was far less than it had been. She sighed as she felt her breasts crush against Natalya's own. Of all her features, her breasts were the least impressive; small, almost flat, they were beautiful only in the perfectly circular symmetry of her areolas and the continued compliment of flawless skin. Natalya's body reflected that symmetry and cleanliness of line, but the reflection was distorted and softened, as if someone had smeared the lens. Where Natasha had limbs of muscle to reflect her military studies, Natalya had the body of one who studied all day, sat at a desk, and rarely, if ever, exercised with purpose; a figure maintained more by the luck of good genes than anything else. But Natalya was beautiful nonetheless. Her free hand was at Natasha's breast again, stroking and caressing what little there was, less even than on her own body, which had the benefit of good food and the soft lines of a woman of learning. "You are so beautiful, Tasha."
"Then so are you, Talya," Natasha whispered. Her lips were soft against Natalya's, and so was the touch of her tongue against the other woman's teeth. They hung, suspended in space, protected from the killing, cold vacuum only by a thick bag of cloth and the radiant fusion battery. "So are you." She kissed Natalya's throat as her hand slid between the other woman's legs, find the hollow between them, finding the tangle of hair that protected her cunt from the view and touch of another. Today, Natasha thought, had started out a good day, and it would end a good day, no matter what. She would at least hear Natalya scream with lust once, she thought, before she died. Anything else would be to admit failure.
Her hand cupped the other woman's cunt, two fingers digging through the tangle of black hairs to find the full lips underneath. Natalya squirmed against her as she pressed two fingers in between those two lips, found her way to her core, found her way inside Natalya's willing, giving body. In the zero gravity, her fingers made an easy anchor to maneuver them both, allowing Natasha easy access to the other woman's clit. She admired the beautiful pink color that greeted her eyes for mere moments before dropping her lips to Natalya's pearl, sucking it with her lips and caressing it with her tongue. Natalya's body shook as if touched to a live wire. She moaned, a low, full sound that begged for attention. "Tasha, Tasha," she gasped. "More."
Natasha slid a third finger into Natalya's liquid cunt, cupping the fingers upwards and pressing them against one of the few truly secretive spots inside a woman. She doubled the ferocity of her storm against Natalya's clitoris, and with her other hand cupped Natalya's ass and made a threat to enter her there as well. Natalya shook her head no at the threat and Natasha took her newfound lover seriously. But her tongue made quick work of the solid nub underneath it and her fingers pumped at Natalya's opened flower. "Tasha, Tasha! Harder!" Natasha doubled her efforts, pressing up with the flat of one hand, pressing down with her neck, sandwiching Natalya's whole delta as she suckled the inflamed clitoris into her mouth. Natalya's body shook as she came, screaming loudly. Natasha held on until the final throes subsided. When they parted, it felt more as if Natalya slid off her fingers than that her fingers slid out of Natalya.
She gathered her into her arms and held on. "You were wonderful," she whispered.
"You gave me such pleasure," Natalya whispered. "How can I..." Their bag deformed suddenly, bending in on one side. "What?" she shouted. The bag roiled, turned, and then straightened out again.
"I do not know," Natasha said, grabbing hold of one the many handloops scattered about the inside of the bag. "Maybe some debris from the ship?" A soft hissing sound attracted their attention. Natasha panicked at first, worried that they had been hit by something and a tear in the rescue bag had started to leak out air. A tear small enough to make that sound without wind should have self-sealed. The hissing grew louder even as the structure of their bag seemed to fail.
"Hello in there!" The voice from outside startled them. It spoke in Russian, but the accent was something entirely different. "Are you well?"
Natasha scrambled to pull on a jumpsuit. "Get dressed!" she whispered. "I think we're saved! Yes! Yes! We are in here! We are well!"
"Can you open your rescue bag?"
"In a moment!" Natasha shouted. She zipped up rapidly, noting that Natalya did the same. It probably would not make much difference; the rescue bag smelled of sweat and sex. But then, what would their rescuers think of them in either case? "Who is this?"
"I am Captain Jon Frisby of the Pendorian starship Monitor. The pressures have been equalized. It is safe to come out now."
The bag had lost all structural integrity; since it was essentially a balloon, without a difference in pressure it could not hold its shape. It would have collapsed on them completely had the air inside had anywhere to go. Natasha examined the readouts on her handheld before pulling open the sealing flap and then working the two zippers loose. As she did so, the air finally did escape and the bag collapsed along its length, leaving the two women sitting within it. Natasha worked her way out first, then helped Natalya out of it as well, until the two stood in what looked like a large cargo airlock. She heard a noise, turned, and saw one of the doors opening; a two-layer interlocking door, she watched with fascination as the two halves pulled free of their securing hinges and slid into the opposite walls.
"Welcome aboard, my friends!" said a voice she had worried she might never hear again.
"Nechai!" they both shouted as they closed in on their old friend. The other occupant of the other beachball stood there as well. "Vasili! You are alive!"
"Da," Vasili said, smiling. "It seems our intelligence was wrong. The Pendorians were watching us, after all."
"Didn't want you to get hurt, what playing with black holes like that," said the voice that had identified itself as Captain Frisby. "Welcome aboard the Monitor." He was a Markal, that short, rounded species with the mouselike characteristics. His fur was even lab-mouse white. "You almost had it right."
"I know what we did wrong," Natalya said. "We overcompensated with the dampers and lost control of the oscillating singularity. It won't happen next time."
"See that it doesn't," Frisby said. "In the meantime, come aboard. As you can tell, we have a new secret for you to figure out-- artificial environmental gravity. It is more than merely computationally complex. Make sure you tell the Americans about your discovery, Natalya Sviatoslavova. I would hate to have to save them as well." Natasha shot Frisby a curious glance, and then another to Natalya, who turned away. Did Frisby suspect, as she did, or did he actually know? The Pendorians, it seemed, knew everything before the Terrans had a chance to figure it out.
"Come. I will have people show you to your quarters. I know you were only in those rescue tubes or whatever they are for an hour or so but it took you a few hours to get out here. Go get some rest. It has been a long and eventful day. We'll have you home before the sun rises on Moscow tomorrow."
True to his word, a human showed Natasha to a room that she was to have by herself. Compared to the bunk behind the command bulkhead of the Gorbachev, this was luxury. She threw herself into the unfamiliar bed and tried to get some sleep.
But sleep was an unfamiliar friend tonight. She could not get Frisby's comment out of her head. She was about to rise and get some answers when a knock came to her door. "Who is that?" she asked.
"Talya," said a gentle voice that made her heart soar.
"Talya, come in." The door, a simple, common door with a handle and a jamb, like any door found on Earth, eased open to reveal a face Natasha thought she saw every day in the mirror. It wasn't an exact likeness, but it was close enough to raise the suspicion. "I was just about to..."
"I know. I was coming to you for the same reason. When did you suspect?"
"I began a few weeks ago. Things my father said about you, before he died, about my brother, Alexi. He hinted that he and mother had had a daughter, another one, that they had not been able to care for, and so had turned over to the state. She had been sick, and they had been broke."
"Should we get a blood test and be sure?" Natalya asked. "It may be a state secret."
"The Pendorians do not think so. We can ask them to do the test. Their genetics is better than ours, at any rate."
"And if it is true?" Natalya asked. "What then? Can you love me still? As you loved me when we feared for our lives?"
"I will always be able to love you, Talya, if you are as true to me as my heart yearns. And if the tests are negative, I will still consider you to be special." She reached out and touched Natalya's cheek with the back of her fingers. "My sister."
Just saying the word, finally getting it out into the open, made a shiver creep along Natasha's spine. But Natalya made the strange discomfort fade with a loving hug, a friendly smile, and at last her impassioned kiss. She never returned to her cabin that night.