David stopped at the door marked "Captain," and listened quietly for a few seconds. Hearing nothing, he pushed the doorbell button. There was still no sound from inside. He turned the knob and walked in.
His office was empty. He had begun checking it for occupants ever since he had startled the chief engineer and the steward in a less than delicate position on his desk. The memory made him smile, and then it made him frown. He glanced down at the black armband around his bicep and with a grimace tore it off, ignoring the small shocks of pain when he grabbed a few strands of fur in the process.
With a sigh he walked around his desk and sat down, easing his tail through the hold between seat and back. Damn you, Mickey, he thought. Why did you have to go and get yourself killed like that? And now you leave me without a chief engineer. I can't let Pat do it, she's not nearly qualified. I need a chief engineer, not somebody with less than a thousand hours under a chief engineer. David smiled. In Mickey's case he was sure Patricia had spent at least a few hours literally under the chief engineer. Mickey had always been a ladykiller.
David reached for the power switch on his terminal when the reflection in the monitor's glass caught his attention. He .tisked. himself under his breath. His eyes were dulled, his fur matted, his whiskers droopy. There had been days when he had been one fine-looking rat, but this was not going to be one of those days. The funeral and the legal administration surrounding Mickey's death had taken their toll. He pushed the switched.
The terminal beeped as it came up. David found the familiar sound annoying today. He sighed again as he typed in his access code and pulled up mail for the custom-request address he had created yesterday morning. "Now then," he said, addressing the monitor as he typed commands, "how many people applied for the job?"
YOU HAVE MAIL WAITING (17 NEW), the monitor replied. David didn't bother to look at the mail himself - there were other criteria he had to satisfy before sifting through seventeen resumes. From his terminal he typed "RESUME ASSESS."
The program ran for several seconds, then announced "RECORDS: 17. REJECTED: 17. 0 SUITABLE APPLICANTS BY PRESENT CRITERIA DATABASE."
David blinked, then typed "RESUME ASSESS REASON FOR REJECTION."
The program ran much quicker this time-- the data it had downloaded from various municipal facilities the first time were still in its telecommunication buffer. "RECORDS: 17. REJECTED: 17. REASONS FOR REJECTION: ACTIVE FELONY RECORD: 16. OTHER: 1."
David knew he was a rarity among free trader captains because he ran a clean ship. He never carried illegal cargo, never bought questionable papers, and never took on crew who had active felony records if he could avoid it.
Other? He blinked at the screen for a second. He'd never seen "Other" as a reason before. "RESUME ASSESS DOCUMENT ALL REASONS FOR REJECTION OTHER THAN FELONY RECORD."
"RECORDS: 1. REJECTED: 1. REASONS FOR REJECTION: OTHER: 1 CODE PO"
"Prag!" David cursed. This was more annoying than cleaning out a broken sewage line. What the hell did "CODE PO" mean? "RESUME ASSESS DATABASE CODE EXPLANATION PO," he tried.
"PO: Planet of Origin."
That was a new one to David, too. Usually, a planet of origin warning would come up as something else, such as interdicted species (meaning the Sinox) or incompatible biologies (meaning the llerkin). He found his frustration being supplanted by sudden curiosity. Where could the applicant have come from that it wasn't one of the other categories? "RESUME DISPLAY REJECTED RECORD CODE PO REASON PO."
"RECORD 14: Planet of Origin: PENDOR."
That, David thought, explains that. The last thing he wanted on his ship was a Pendorian. Pendorians had their own form of justice, and if one ever got in trouble they had their own law and the strength to enforce it. A recent incident in which a Pendorian girl had been taken hostage had resulted in the military occupation of a small city on Zephyr. People had gotten hurt. As a planetary policy, they cared about nothing but their own.
David leaned back in the chair and put the keyboard in his lap. "RESUME DISPLAY RECORD 1 FLAG IGNORE."
Three hours later David stood up and stretched. He had sifted through the records and not one of the sixteen others who had applied for the job looked at all promising. Most of the offenses were either weapon or controlled substance related, with a scattering of violent and sexual assaults throughout. The ones with the least amount of trouble also had the least amount of experience.
The trouble was, he couldn't afford to pay enough to really attract a good engineer. Times were hard recently, and he was as far off the llerkin-Pendor-Terra trade route as he had ever been. The ones who had applied also had to know he was in dire straits. They wanted off this mudball and back into better-known territories just as he did, and he presented a chance for them to get there.
He walked around his desk, stretched again, and sat down. Against his better judgment, he typed "RESUME DISPLAY RECORD 14 FLAG IGNORE."
"NAME: Dennielle Satpulov." He read through the resume quickly, glancing through her personal material to concentrate on her professional record. It was more than a little impressive. Six years with Pendor Naval Engineering, experience with a variety of FTL drives, including his own. According to the resume, she also had experience with computers of non-Pendor manufacture, a rarity even in Terra-controlled space, and a skill he could use.
"Well, computer, do I hire her, or a crook?" There was no answer; David had decided long ago that he disliked the idea of an AI running his ship for him, especially since almost all AIs were still Pendorian in origin and were rumored to have divided loyalties. The fact that he had a computer of Terran manufacture sometimes earned him strange looks at customs points because usually only pirates and smugglers used them.
After a few seconds of thought he hit the 'T' button. The telephone light came on, and he waited.
The screen blinked, and the text of the resume was replaced with a live picture of a tired and disheveled Mephit. "Hello?" she asked quietly.
"Dennielle Satpulov? I'm Captain David Elohim, of the Rat's Asking. You applied for the position of chief engineer on my ship."
"Yes," the Mephit yawned, "I remember. What can I do for you?"
"I noticed on your resume you didn't put down a request for salary. I was calling to ask you why."
"I'm not looking for a salary. I noticed that llerkin was one of your major ports of call, and I'm looking for passage back into Pendor Treaty Alliance space."
David paused. Work passage? It was unusual, but he had taken on crew on a work passage basis before. Never a chief engineer, but he figured there was a time for everything. It occurred to David then that, as a Pendorian, this Mephit should have been able to get credit for a ride on the basis of her name only. There was no reason for her to be looking for a job, even this far from PTA space. He would have offered her high passage rooms with a single flash from a Pendor-rated bankcard.
"Miss Satpulov, could you come to my ship, say, ten this morning?"
The Mephit blinked and said, "Ten's fine. I'll be there bright and early."
"Goodnight," David said.
Patricia whistled low as she looked over the record David had called up on the terminal for her. "She's good," she said. "What's she asking for a salary?"
David pinched the bridge of his muzzle and closed his eyes. "Work passage."
"You're kidding," Patricia said, glancing over at him. She recognized that gesture-- David was getting another headache. "She could command six figures on a real starliner. What's she doing out here?"
"That's why I want you here when she shows. Tell me she's as good as she says."
The door chimed, and David said "Come." It opened and the Mephit David had seen the night before walked in. She was about 180 cm tall, gently overweight, with luxurious black fur and a short muzzle. Her ears were quite large for a Mephit-- David knew that was a trait of a sub-species of Mephit, a racial trait, but he didn't know the name for it. She wore a standard grey crewman's jumpsuit which did nothing to hide the fact that she was quite buxom. Her eyes were large, oval, and colored gold, and the only white fur he could see was a tiny shock about a centimeter wide and four centimeters long that started just above her eyes. She held her tail erect; he could see it over her shoulders, and what he could see was solidly black.
"Captain Elohim?" she asked.
"You must be Dennielle Satpulov," he said. He felt uncomfortable- she had to know he was in trouble, and her asking price was so ridiculously low that he virtually had nothing to haggle with. He held out a hand and she shook it in a friendly manner. "You're punctual," he observed.
"I try," she said, smiling. "So, what do you think of my resume?"
"It's impressive," he replied. "What can you tell me about my ship?"
"From the outside? It's functional. You've got a standard Terran model Voisma Jumpdrive, six Senoph-line fusion drives for in-system maneuver, and a standard Vienn statis net over the whole thing for emergency defense. Your guns are either IMI or Cloudrunners, I couldn't tell which with blast shields down. What have you got for power plants?"
"Four Morrow Industries model fives," Patricia answered.
"Four?" Dennielle asked. "That's quite a lot for a six-hundred ton starship, isn't it?"
David shrugged. "I like having a lot of backup."
"And what computer are you running?"
"Hallmark 4000-bis plus."
Dennielle paused for a second. "That's a bit unusual, but I think I can handle it. That's a Terran model."
"Something wrong with that?" David asked.
"Not at all. It just means I'm going to have to live without an AI for a little longer."
David caught himself wondering what she looked like underneath the same jumpsuit that Patricia wore everyday and almost missed what she was saying. He heard Patricia ask Dennielle a question, but he ignored it; his mind was more occupied with guilt and anger at himself for thinking about either of them that way, and with frustration at not having a choice in the matter.
"David!" he heard Patricia calling.
"Eh?" he said, looking up.
"What do you think?"
He looked flustered for a second, then sighed and said, "Miss Satpulov, you're hired. As a rule, I don't normally hire Pendorians, but in your case I'm going to make an exception. You start right now. Pat, you've got the spare room. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to ask you to give her the space."
"I know, I know," Patricia answered. "It's okay."
"Thank you, Captain," Dennielle replied.
"On this ship, there's aren't enough people to call me Captain," he said. "David will do fine."
"It is Day-vid, not Dah-veed?" she asked.
"Day-vid," he repeated. "Don't let the last name fool you, I'm not particularly religious. Could you excuse us for a second, Miss Satpulov?"
"Denni," she said.
"Denni, then." He gestured for the door, and she nodded, closing it behind her.
He turned to Patricia and said, "Well?"
"She knows her stuff, I'll give her that. She's good."
"Better than Mickey?"
"Don't ask me to make that comparison, David. I'm not going to do it."
"But she can do his job."
"That she can do."
David's fears that Denni may have lied on her resume quickly vanished as she rather quickly proved to be a boon to their engineering staff. The word "staff" was another word that made David laugh when no one was around to hear, since the staff consisted of Patricia, Marder, and now Denni. Most of his crew was human. The only other recombinant on his crew was Tasha, his pilot, a Katkin from Terra.
He had worked for the Rat's Asking for most of his life; being a starship pilot had been his one and only dream since he had been born. There were days when it got to him, the constant pressure to maintain his ship. He had sunk a lot of cash into her, buying the best he could.
He realized now that doing so may have been a mistake. At the moment he didn't have the capital to effect some minor repairs that, while not critical, were necessary. He was in no danger of losing his hyperdrive, powerplants, or basic life support, but at any moment his toilet might back up. And some of the life support emergency circuitry was getting old. It had been an old hull when he'd bought it, and some of the hardware had come with the deal.
They were nine light years out from Simaj. The jumpdrive was on it's third recycle, and at present fuel reserves they were faring better than he had estimated. Denni was doing one hell of a job. The Fahrenheit starsystem was two more jumps, and then it was back to BD+32 and Pendor Treaty Alliance space.
He sat in front of the computer screen on the bridge, calculating costs on a spreadsheet. Tasha had long ago finished any navigation checks, and David preferred using the lag time between jumps to do his accounting work. Bored and tired, he hit the SAVE button and said, "Tasha, I'm going down to the galley for some coffee. Want some?"
Tasha had never been much for words or for coffee; she just waved over her shoulder. Smiling, David rose and walked the tight catwalk to the door when an explosion rocked his ship and threw him to the floor. "What the hell?" he said quietly.
"Pirates!" Tasha shouted, pulling hard on the manual controls. David swore that when she maneuvered like this he could feel the gravity compensators making their millions of tiny changes per second. His fur crawled with the images of hardware failure- puree of rat as his body was forced through the grating of the catwalk.
"We lost a fusion line," Denni's voice came over the intercom.
"Tasha, tell Chico I want him on gun two, now!" David shouted.
"He's already there," she shouted back. David picked himself up off the floor and leapt back into his chair, demanding access to gun one and launching four racks of missiles from his console. The screen shifted to an image of the ship, sighted along the front panel, split in two to give as much of an image as it could.
The pirates swung around again. Pirating was a duel to death- the victim's ship had to be completely disabled before any looting could begin. Any maneuvering jet still functional that was capable of moving the ship was capable of tearing airlock seals. David fired.
The pirates released glitter into the space ahead of them, an explosive cloud moving at a higher velocity, blocking energy weapons fire.
The next time I have the money, I'm going to a Pendorian drive, he swore. Using Jump drives made him a prime target for pirates, and he knew it. But they were so much cheaper to buy and operate, and the Terran model Stream drives were notoriously prone to breakdown.
"We're losing pressure!" Tasha shouted. "David, I'm showing a hole in bottle three!"
"Damn!" he shouted, launching another rack of missiles. "Compensate! That's what the extra fusion plant's for!"
The pirate ship came around again, this time from the underside, and in one small second the entire battle was over. Chico managed to get a hit on a maneuvering drive and the pirates careened wildly out of control, disintegrating in their own spin-induced destruction.
David sat back hard in his control chair, every nerve afire with fear and adrenaline. He wanted to do something as his body quaked in fight-or-flight response, and he knew the only thing he could do was wait it out.
"David?" Tasha said from the Pilot's chair.
"Huh?" he said, jerking nervously to stare in her direction.
"You okay, Captain?"
"Yeah, yeah," he said rapidly. "No," he said. "I'm gonna be sick." With that, he ran for the head.
Still trying to quell the shaking in his hands, David walked down to engineering. Tasha's report of what was left of the pirates vessel had depressed him further-- there hadn't been enough left to make even materials salvage worth the effort. He had lost a fusion plant and taken some serious scoring along the underbelly, and even though they were still alive they had little to show for their victory.
He wasn't within ten meters of the engineering blast-door when he heard shouting from within. "Dammit, That's p73-RTS you've got there! It doesn't go in the hyperdrive, it's designed for fusion plants! While you're here, give it to me-- it'll go to repairing bottle three." He walked in to find Marder rather sheepishly handing a large coil of room-temperature superconductor to Denni. The scene gave David his first smile since the attack. Marder was physically impressive for a human, and the idea of him looking at all uncomfortable in the presence of the smaller Mephit was almost laughable. But David, at 150cm and the shortest member of his own crew, had long ago learned not to laugh at such differences.
"So," he said, addressing Denni, "How are things, Chief Engineer?"
She laughed tersely and said, "They could be better. Come on, I've got to patch Morrow number three." She turned, her tail nearly hitting David in the process. "Actually," she continued, "it could have been much worse. You keep good hardware, David."
"Thank you," he said. "Doesn't help turn a profit nowadays."
She pulled out a power ratchet and began spinning out the eight bolts that secured the normally sealed fusion plant to the floor. She pulled the casing off and tossed it aside easily, landing with a clang on the floor. David caught himself envying her the strength her creator had given her.
"Still," she said, scanning the guts quickly with a rad counter, "It may have saved our lives. You may not buy Pendorian computers, David, but using Parma hullmetal on your fusion plants may have saved me and your two friends from rad poisoning."
He smiled. "Thank you." He wondered if her wording implied she was not one of "his friends," and what that could mean to him.
Denni sighed as she reached in with a chip-puller and began throwing individual chips and whole circuit boards to one side. "Can't believe the processor power these things need. I'm going to have to go through every one of those and find out what's still working."
"I can do that," David offered.
"I'm not incompetent, Denni. I know how to fix my own ship."
"I didn't mean that. I meant, well, you're the Captain. I thought Terran ship's captains didn't 'lower' themselves to doing repair and maintenance."
He frowned at her very Pendorian attitude and said, "This ship's too small for me not to." He walked out of the room and returned with a testbed console. Sitting himself on the floor, he proceeded to type ident numbers from various chips and plug them into the breadboard.
"You know what your problem is?" Denni said. "Your creators are still herd animals. You put enough humans in a room together and they'll all alpha-male each other until one's in charge, and then they'll all follow him unquestioningly, no matter how lunatic his ideas are."
David looked up at her for a second, trying to decide how to respond to that. She was talking about his creators, his gengineers. "At least," he started, "I wasn't gengineered to be a sex toy."
Denni looked up sharply, staring at him. "Hey," she said. "Don't take that attitude with me, David. You Terrans all make those jokes about Shardik, talk about him as if he weren't even a real person, just some thing, and you don't really know what he did for us. You don't understand him at all. You don't understand us at all."
"From the looks of his books, I'd say he created every single species he's got just for so he could sleep with them." He felt the tips of his ears getting hot. This was making him uncomfortable.
Denni smiled a strange, crooked smile and said, "You don't know, do you?"
"Don't know what?"
Denni paused for a second and said, "I can't tell you."
"Can't tell me what? What aren't you telling me?"
"Captain... David, How long are we going to stop at Fahrenheit?"
"I don't know. A day at most. Why?"
"Can I get time away from the ship?" Her smile had changed. David found it pleasant to look at.
He thought about if for a second. In-system recycle was something Pat could probably run by herself. "I suppose. Care to tell me why?"
"No. It's... Personal. I have to pick something up."
He shrugged and resumed digging through his chips. Every once in a while he would look up at her with a strange mixture of longing, frustration, and confusion. Just once, he thought he caught her looking at him. He wondered if she felt at all like he did.
The bell to his office rang. David rubbed the bridge of his nose again-- his headache was returning-- and said "Come." They were on their way out of the stellar gravity well so they could effect Jump, and he'd negotiated just half an hour ago a rather steep price for the processed deuterium he'd taken on from the Fahrenheit station's fuel office, and he didn't like the feeling that he was getting screwed.
Dennielle entered and said, "Hi."
"Hello," he replied. "Did you get what you were looking for?"
She nodded and said, "Yeah, I think so." She dropped a small packet of paper on his desk. "Don't bother to read it all right now. Just the summary on Page 5.
David picked up the sheaf with a raised eyebrow, pulled off the paperclip and rifled through to page 5. At the bottom, boxed off, was a summary of the document. It read:
JANUARY 16, 2655. Persuant to Article XVI of the Charter for Project Jersey, This United Nations Ad-Hoc Committee for said Charter does agree to revise the ultimate goal of said Project. Therefore, in agreement with Alpha Laboratories of Pendor, Project Jersey agrees that NeoRattus Norvegicus will be invested with full sentience, in exchange for which Alpha Laboratories will provide the necessary technical data and precision genetic CRX documentation required to effect full sentience.
Signitaries: Lancombe', Petre, for the United Nations.
Slammas, Arraon, for Alpha Laboratories.
David looked up with a wide-eyed expression and said, "This is real?"
"You can look it up yourself. As far as I can tell, it's not a classified document. David, weren't you ever interested in your own creation?"
David shrugged, embarrassed. "It never occurred to me that my folks might lie. They said they were created by Project Jersey."
"And they never told you that Shardik or one his people actually may have gone as far as writing the very code for their brains?"
"Denni, get it straight. They probably didn't know! How do you think the people at Project Jersey felt?"
"I know they didn't give much of a damn about NeoRattus. You were originally intended to be slaves, you know that? You were meant to be deltas, David, made just to follow orders. Shardik had to literally shame them into making you full members of society."
"And how do you think they'd feel about that?" David was nearly shouting. "How do think? He never lets up, Denni, he never lets go. He had to embarrass them with their own lack of technical knowledge. Do you think they appreciate that, especially when every Terran hates Pendor so? When all we can do is envy you, your bodies, wealth, power, and technology? When since forever we've known that you were all immortal and we only got our own sort of immortality years later? Denni, it's no wonder my parents hid that from me, or their gengineers hid it from them." He sighed and sat back in his chair, his headache getting much worse.
Denni's ears lay down against her head. "I'm sorry," she said.
"For what?" David snarled. "I didn't mean that... My head is killing me."
He watched with a curious expression on his face as she walked around the back of his chair and said, "May I?"
"Do what?" he asked.
"Give you a neckrub? My grandfather used to give me one when my head hurt."
David closed his eyes and said, "Please."
Denni reached down placed her paws on his shoulders. She began to gently rub, ruffling the reddish brown fur on the back of David's neck, seeking out what she could of his tensions. "I'm sorry," she said, "for telling you the truth. That's another thing my grandfather used to tell me, that it's not always important to tell the truth because you lose friends that way. What I wanted to do was show you that you're wrong about Shardik, that he's not just interested in... boffing... his kids." David laughed silently at her "indelicate" vocabulary. "I mean, he really wants just to be with people. It's loneliness, and the memories of loneliness, that drive him. I mean, if he really was just interested in mechanical sex, he could have made us all mindless idiots. Do you think I'm a mindless idiot?"
David shook his head, trying not to interrupt her touch. Although his head still hurt, it wasn't nearly as bad as it had been when she had first walked into his office. His usual turmoil in her presence was oddly missing, and he felt good about it.
An alarm went off. David recognized it instantly. "Fire," he said, leaping out of the chair. "Damnit, that's a fire!" He looked over the console and consulted the map. "Level three. The galley! Let's go!"
He ran out the door, not waiting to see if Denni followed. He heard footsteps behind him, assumed that that was her. He reached level three, the alarms now screaming in his ears, rotating red incandescent lights blazing every ten meters. He grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall, wondering where the internal AnaOx system was. He threw open the door to the galley.
Whatever had ignited had started a blaze inside. The plastic countertop by the ovens was burning brightly, and as he played the fire extinguisher over it he realized he didn't have nearly enough to douse the blaze. "Denni!" he shouted. There was no answer. Where the hell was she? Where was the AnaOx?
The answer was immediate as a bright white gas erupted from the floor and flooded the room. It struck the ceiling and swept over everything, scavenging the oxygen from the room even faster than the fire. David was standing on one of the vents, and the force of its sudden expulsion toppled him, pushing him over. Impact with the floor made him gasp, taking in a lungful of the gas. Fear swept over him as he realized what it was he had breathed, and he expelled as much as he could, but already he could feel his lungs beginning to burn. He rose and made for the door. His head was starting to spin, and he felt sick to his stomach. The door opened.
The hallway was also full of the settling gas as he made his way for the ladder. It was getting harder to think. He eyes teared as he grabbed at a rung, trying to pull himself up. The effort was enormous. He pulled another rung, and his body hurt, his arms burned. His lungs screamed for another breath, and his fingers let go of the ladder.
He fell back to the floor, painfully, into the swirling AnaOx. It covered his vision, and then so did blackness.
"David?" He heard the voice from an eternity away.
There was a long silence as he was left alone, then the voice returned. "David?" it said. He recognize the voice.
"Chico?" he asked, forcing his lips to move. They felt like they were cast of clay.
"You're going to be just fine, David. You got a lungful of AnaOx, and it's taken a while to purge your system. How do you feel?"
"There's nothing wrong with her. Just a little kitchen fire, one we all handled badly."
David opened his eyes. They hurt, even in the lowered light of sickbay. He looked up into Chico's face. "Good to see you again."
Chico laughed. "Don't thank me, David. Thank that Pendorian girl. She's the one who saved your cojones." He gestured to the other bed.
David glanced at the other bed, on which Denni sat, looking nervous. "You saved me?" he asked.
"That she did," Chico continued, sweeping a lock of his straight, black hair out of his eyes. "She walked right through that AnaOx like it wasn't there and pulled you out of there. Threw you over her shoulder and climbed the ladder like a trooper."
David looked over at her again. He held out one arm weakly in her direction and said, "Thank you."
Denni leaned over slightly and took the hand. "You're welcome," she said. "You Terrans, you think just because you have Zaman transformation you're all as indestructible as we are." Shaking her head slightly, she continued, "We know we're not immortal, but we're harder to kill than you all are. You should have known better than to run into the kitchen when you knew it was going to flood with fire- control."
David sighed and said, "It wasn't that, Denni. I wanted to save my ship."
"I know. Just be glad someone was there to pull you out." She leaned over and gently kissed his throat, giving him a slight nip as she did so. He recognized it as the Pendorian version of a kiss to the forehead. "Get better," she said.
"I'll try." He watched her go with a wistful expression.
After the door had left he sagged back onto the bed, feeling tired. Chico looked down at him with an amused expression. "She's quite a hot looker, isn't she?"
David opened his eyes again to look at his chief Medical officer and second gunner, remembering that Chico was from Mahstitutta, a colony world that had been saved from starvation by a massive starlift of supplies from Pendor, no conditions, no questions asked.
"Frustrated that you can't get her attentions, Chico?" he asked. Chico rarely had trouble attracting women. His sharp, oriental features seemed to be a tractor-field for women. Unlike Mickey, Chico just never put any effort into his womanizing.
"Hell, no," Chico replied. "Sleep with a Pendorian, David? You know how often that happens? Not once in a lifetime, David." He smiled. "Besides, she seems to like you. She slept the night in that bunk, waiting for you, my rat friend."
David looked back at the door quickly to ensure it was still closed. It was. He sighed and lay back. "Can I get some sleep, Doc?"
Chico laughed and, in a mock-British accent, not unlike David's "London Standard" that he'd picked up with his voice training, said "As your doctor, it is my professional opinion that, once you have received adequate rest, you are fit to return to duty." Chico's smile widened as he spoke, and when he was done he broke out in a laugh.
David laughed along and said "Goodnight, Chico."
"Pretty, isn't it?" he said, looking out the front window.
"Yah," Tasha replied. "llerkin, at last. Maybe I can get some real chocolate here."
David laughed. "Too much of that will make you sick, Tash. Go easy on it."
"I know. And you go easy on the women, David."
David laughed again, but this time the laugh was muted by Tasha's gentle teasing. This was his ninth trip with Tasha as a pilot. She was a good pilot, so good David had trouble figuring out why she stayed with him when he paid so little. "I like the company you keep," was all she had said when he'd asked. In all that time, David had not once gone barhopping with his CMO or his engineers, and he wasn't at all attracted to Patricia or any of the many stewards he'd taken on in that time. He was actually somewhat grateful that this trip his passenger holds were converted to hold dry cargo. Passengers paid more, but it had been pleasant with just his crew... and Denni. And if Tasha had any interest in him, he hadn't seen it.
"Plot us a course and take us in. Fourth planet on the left." He patted her shoulder in a friendly way and walked out, returning to his office to look over the numbers. As it turned out, if he managed to sell his free-trade material at 68% of commodity value as he was getting over the intra-system Hoffman radio, he would break even. David knew he could negotiate 80%, and at that rate... He calculated the rate and realized that he might actually have enough to pay the crew bonuses. That made him smile.
There was a knock at the door. He repeated the ritual "Come," and Denni walked in again. "Can I talk to you, Captain?"
"We've reached llerkin and unless you intend on going to Pendor, I'm getting off in a few hours." David looked her over carefully. "I just wanted to thank you. It was... exciting."
He laughed wryly and said, "It was terrifying, Denni, for me as well as for you."
She nodded. "Still, you have a good crew. Thanks for the trip."
"That all?" he asked.
"That's all," she said, hesitantly. She rose and walked to the door, putting her hand on the knob, then stopped, turned and said, "I.. uhm, I wanted to know if you, uh, wanted me to finish that neckrub I was giving you a few days ago."
David looked up at her, a dozen thoughts passing through his mind in rapid succession. He tried to settle on one, found one finally and said, "Just a neckrub...?"
She smiled, nervously, and said, "If that's all you want."
He looked up at her across his desk and nodded his head towards here, a 'come hither' gesture. She nearly ran around his desk and dropped into his lap. He let out a "Wuff!" She was heavier than he'd expected.
Without saying a word, she leaned over him and kissed him gently. David responded, opening his mouth slightly, feeling her tongue rove over his two front teeth, the chisel teeth, and then against his tongue in kind. He wrapped his arms around her and he could feel her body shifting under the Rweave jumpsuit.
He pulled away from her slightly and said, "Denni... I want you, but I don't understand why you would want me."
She looked down at him. "I don't either," she said. "I just want you, David. Now?" She paused for a second. "Please?"
"Let's go into my cabin," he said. "It's more comfortable there." Except, he told himself, I live like the bachelor I am, and the place is a mess.
They walked out into the hallway, and Denni offered her paw. David paused for a second. This was public, and holding hands with a Pendorian in public tended to get one talked about. Then he shook his head. This was just his crew. If any one of them saw, so what? He doubted seriously any one of them would turn against him just because they were holding hands. He took the offered paw, and the two of them walked to his cabin.
"This is where you live?" Denni asked as they walked in. "MyFa, but it's a disaster area."
David shrugged. "It's just cluttered. I don't leave food or old laundry lying about. Nobody ever comes in here, except maybe Chico, and his room looks like mine."
She smiled and pushed him against the bed. He sat down on. "Well, now I'm in here. But I don't care what the room looks like. Just it's owner." Bending over, she kissed him again.
He reached up with his hands and found the zipper securing her jumpsuit. With an pull he eased it down past her belly until it stopped, then slid a hand inside to touch her, to feel her thick, rich fur against the pads of his paw. It felt silky and smooth, not at all like his coarse, heavy fur, clipped short and tight.
Denni's hands found his jacket, tugging the small silver buckles open, and he lowered his arms to allow her to ease it off of him. Exposed as he was, the coolness of the room seeped in through his fur and he was suddenly possessed with the desire to have her near him, against him. He grabbed her by the waist and pulled her around in a circle, against the edge of the bed until she fell down next to him. She let out a "whoops!" as she fell.
He followed her fall and lay down by her side, snuggling close. Her arms wrapped around him and held him close. He buried his muzzle in the crook of her throat, nuzzling close and inhaling deep, drinking in her musky, Mephit scent, sighing. Then an old curiosity came to him and he said, "Denni?"
"Your ears... which Mephit racial trait is that?"
"Ictonyx," she said. "The others are Mephitis and Spilogale, if that's what you're wondering. I got them from my father." She laughed gently. "What makes you ask that now?"
He shrugged against her wonderful body. "Just curious. I wondered about it the day you came on board, but I couldn't remember the names."
She chuckled, her hands stroking along the length of his body. He squirmed at her touch, moaning softly. "Ticklish, aren't we?" she said.
"Very," he said. Actually, her touch was exciting him. "But I like it," he said, encouraging her.
She fulfilled his hopes, running her paws against the grain of his fur, making the nerves in his body sing. As her paws passed over his bicep, he exploded in moans, involuntarily squirming to get away from her, and she wrapped her legs around his, holding him to her. He squirmed and groaned in her grip, her one arm holding him to her chest solidly as she tickled him, just on the arm for a short while then slowly making her way up to the fine fur on the back of his neck. He shivered and groaned, burying his head in her throat, trying not to scream.
She stopped. He let out a long sigh, sagging against her. "You liked that, didn't you?" she said.
"Did I try to stop you?" he asked, still panting.
"No, but you did try to get away."
"But I didn't ask you to stop."
He felt her hand stroke against his groin, and he closed his eyes with anticipation. "I guess you did like it," she said. He heard the gentle ripping sound of velcro clasps giving way, and felt her paw against his fur, his sex, gently closing her hand around it. She smiled and said, "I know you liked it."
"Hard," he gasped, "Hard not to. Not with such a pretty partner."
"Think so?" she said. "I don't know. I don't think I'm pretty."
"You are," he said. "Oh, you are." He buried his muzzle against her neck, rubbing his chin against her shoulder, nipping her gently. She shuddered. "I like that," she said.
"Good," he said, the word muffled by her fur. He was falling completely in love with her fur. He never would have fur like this. He always thought of his own as rough, unpleasant.
She pushed against him gently, easing him away from her. He looked up, worried for a brief instant that she was going to stop things right here, but instead she just shrugged her way out of her jumpsuit, tossing it aside. "How do I look?" she asked.
David's mouth went dry. Naked, she was gorgeous. Her tail splayed out between her legs and down the bed, the tip quivering slightly. Lying down, her breasts sank against gravity left and right into two large mounds of fur, and the slight belly she had when standing vanished, leaving her looking soft and lovely. "God," he breathed, "your beautiful."
She smiled and said, "I'm fat."
"No, you're beautiful, Denni. I mean it." And he did. He reached a hand out to touch her throat, easing down between her breasts to her belly, pressing ever so slightly just to feel the texture of her body. She sighed with pleasure as he did, squirming almost unnoticeably.
"I'm glad you think so" She paused. "David?"
"Make love to me."
David looked along the length of her body, from her feet to her eyes, then realized he still had his pants on. He kicked them off quickly, trying not to look too anxious, then eased himself over her body, between her thighs. With one easy push he slid inside her.
"So good. So long," she sighed.
He smiled, feeling his need mount as they made love. Her hips rose to meet his, her legs pressed against his sides. He leaned over, smiling as he searched for her nipple at what he guessed was the center of her breast, but there was so much fur it was hard to tell.
"Feels so good," she said. "Gods, yes."
He found it, running his thin tongue around it quickly. He could feel her bodyfur against his whiskers as he made love to her, with her. She sighed a long "Yessss" as her body tensed and she let out a small, deep groan of pleasure. David felt his own body responding, becoming more tense, and when his climax hit him he closed his eyes and tried not to scream. He didn't succeed.
He opened his eyes to look down at Denni. Her smile was happy and her eyes were wild. "Yes, David, yes, thank you!" she said, reaching up and pulling him down. He lay on top of her, holding her fiercely.
After they had lain together for a while he said "Turn over."
"Turn over. I want to do something." He rolled to the side and off her body so she could. She complied, lying on her stomach. He straddled her thighs and leaned over, digging his fingers under her fur and rubbing the muscles of her shoulders. He pushed her tail to his left and out of the way. "I want to return the favor you did for me."
She sighed and said, "You're doing a good job." He took that as a good sign and kept rubbing. As he did so, he felt his sex responding to it's place, lying against her buttocks as it was, and his excitement returned to him. He pivoted his hips against her and pushed, entering her. "Again?" she asked with a whisper.
"Are you objecting?" he asked, smiling.
"Of course not, silly," she giggled, and as he stroked into her the giggle dissolved into another sigh of pleasure.
This time he made love to her more slowly, enjoying the feeling of her furry body against his, the tickling sensations as they rubbed against each other. She lay her head against the pillow and he delighted in her calm smile as he made love to her. This time she was simply passive, letting him take his time, his pleasure. He felt that pleasure mount again, and this time his climax wasn't quite so loud.
"Like that?" she asked.
"Better than the first time," he replied with a laugh.
"Really?" she asked. "Why?"
He shrugged, lying against her back. "Dunno. It just was. I guess I got to concentrate more."
She chuckled. "Let me turn over?"
They shifted apart, and he reached over to shut off the cabin light. Then he returned to her, snuggling close, lying against her side.
David tried to sort out the thoughts in his head. It was all a jumble, and his brain didn't want to deal with a jumble just now. He was still happy, enjoying this chance to touch and hold her, since this would be the last time he'd see her, probably forever. And other thoughts came to mind, thoughts he didn't want to deal with. His musing was interrupted.
"David?" she asked quietly.
"When I first came on, you said you didn't hire Pendorians. Why not?"
"Two reasons," he said quietly. Her question set a whole new train of thoughts in motion, ones which brought to mind emotions he didn't want to deal with. But he continued talking. "One was tradition. I mean, even before you told me about that UN order, I tried to stick with tradition and claimed to dislike Pendorians. Terra doesn't like Pendor and that's that."
There was a long silence, and finally Denni asked, "And the other reason?"
Another long silence. "I don't know why I feel safe telling you this," he said, "but I do. When I was eleven years old-- And you have to realize that rats grow up physically a lot faster than most species-- I met my first fur-fetishist. He couldn't have been, oh, more than sixteen himself. And he started coming on to me, and I didn't know how to deal with it. It was at one of those game arcades, you know, the kind most kids go to." He felt Denni nod. "When I realized what he was talking about, I ran away from him, ran home. And I told my mater, and she told me that what I did was the right thing."
"But what got to me was just how angry I felt. Not frightened, angry. Because even though I was only eleven, I knew that what that kid wanted was wrong. Not because I was too young, or he was, or because we were both male, but because what he wanted was just my fur. That was all he was after. He didn't care about me. Just my fur." He paused again. "And if that was the kind of attitude that created Pendor, I wanted no part of Pendor, or its products."
She sighed and snuggled him close, hugging him tight. "Well I hope you don't think of us as products."
"Not you. And probably not Pendor in general." He sighed. "I'd really like to meet Shardik, but then I guess most people want to."
"It could be arranged."
"How so? You're just another Pendorian. There must be millions of you who want to meet him."
"Except there aren't millions of Satpulovs."
"What do you mean?"
"Remember my grandfather I was talking about?" David nodded. "My grandfather was Aaden Satpulov."
The name took a few seconds to register in David's brain. "Shardik's lover? You're related to Shardik himself?"
Denni nodded. "I grew up at the Castle."
David shifted away from her and looked her in the face, carefully. "Are you telling me your..."
"My last name is really Shardik. I don't use it, obviously."
"Obviously," David said, shuddering gently.
They were silent for a while. "You're afraid of me, aren't you?"
David looked up at her and said, "It's hard not to be, Denni. I want you to stay, to be with you, but I know I won't be able to hold your hand in public, because species-mixing is really considered 'cool' if it's just sex. But I'm not allowed to fall in love with you. Especially not if you're a Pendorian." He sighed. "And getting beyond dealing with my people, what about yours?"
Denni sighed. "I know what you're thinking. And you're probably right. If I were to get hurt, or wounded, Pendor would have starships to us so fast... " She laughed. "Think of it as insurance."
"I guess," he replied. He shook his head quietly and lay against her. Despite his misgivings, he was still fascinated by her.
"David?" she asked.
"You said 'I'm not allowed to fall in love with you.' Are you?"
David felt the heat of embarrassment return to the tips of his ears. "Did I say that?"
"Yes, you did."
David couldn't think of any diplomatic way to word it. "Then yes, I meant it. I am falling in love with you, Denni."
She smiled. "Remember that scene over the fusion plant?"
"I wanted you then. But I couldn't come up with how to tell you. I think I love you, too."
"You think?" he chided playfully.
"Let me keep thinking about it."
"We make dock in--" he looked over at the clock-- "forty six hours. Long enough?"
"We'll see," she replied, snuggling him close and kissing him. David reached down and pulled up the blankets. Rat's tails don't have fur, and his was getting cold.