"You are cleared for connection, Rat's Asking, in docking port 24-24. Do you copy?"
"Two-four by two-four, we copy, correct?"
"Affirmative. Pilot confirms. See you in twenty minutes. Welcome to Parma, Rat's Asking." The radio clicked off unceremoniously. Tasha leaned back in her chair and sighed. "Well, we're close, David. I'm going to get myself a cup of iced tea. You want some?"
"Nah," David replied.
"You should learn to like decaf," Tasha teased him, grinning before she unbuckled her harness and hauled herself out of the pilot's chair by her lanky Katckin arms.
"Only in my worst nightmares," David muttered, glancing over the controls. Docking a cargo freighter was an enormously dangerous task, but David felt confidence in Tasha's extraordinary ability to maneuver a ship against a docking ring. The next ten minutes, however, consisted of nothing more than waiting while the ship coasted closer to Parma, against which the 60,000 ton freighter would look like little more than an insect on a barn wall.
Tasha returned to her chair, a ship's mug in her hand. The mug found its place in a gyrostabilized holder Tasha had built herself, and then the Katckin found her own seat. She pushed the button to Engineering. "Denni?"
"Engineering, Tasha," a voice replied from the other end. "Power's at optimal control." David glanced over at the speaker and sighed. He didn't understand why, but her voice alone had become enough to give him a small frission of pleasure. "You'll have everything you need to make this docking as sweet as your reputation deserves."
Tasha smiled; there had been no sarcasm in Denni's voice, just an intent to help Tasha continue with her perfect driving record. "Thanks, Denni. I'll buy you drinks when we land."
"I know where the best bars are."
"I bet you do," Tasha laughed. "Bridge out."
Tasha spent moments examining her controls. She sighed. "It's hard to believe how good she is. David, can I ask you a question?"
"I want you to know that I'm having something of a breakdown." She glanced over at him, and he glanced back, surprised. "I've always believed in you. When I first came onto the Asking as your Navigator, I did so because I knew that you had never made a bad decision. You had made some losing decisions but your ratio was always in the black from the day you bought her. I checked your record and I knew that no matter what I was boarding a good ship. It's not often a junior officer gets to make that kind of decision; usually, we're forced to take whatever we can get.
"But this time, I don't see the outcome of your decision. It's all happening so fast, I can't tell if it's going to be for good or for bad. For the first time in my life I wonder if you're doing something that's going to put you in some sort of red. And to be honest, I'm forced to just have faith in you. You've always done me right in the past, I have to believe you're doing the crew right now."
"No, you don't have to say anything," she said, glancing back at the clock. "I'm impressed that it's taken you this long to do something selfish, something that you wanted strictly for yourself without thinking about us or the ship. But now that you've decided, I just want to remind you that we're still here, and we worry about you. And I want you to be sure."
David smiled, reached across and patted Tasha on the shoulder. "Thanks. I'm sure, Tasha. Don't ask me why, but I am. And I won't forget you."
"I have faith that you won't."
David grinned. "Docking in three minutes."
"I see it, I see it." She glanced out the window. "Space, I can't believe how big this thing is."
"Have you looked at the Ring yet?"
"Forget it," Tasha said. "That's just impossible to hold in my head. This thing, at least, looks like a space station."
David nodded. "You'll do fine, Tasha. You always do."
"Nervous?" Dennielle asked.
"Very," David replied, looking up at his... fiance? Coimelin? One very beautiful Mephit? That was for sure. "What do I call you?"
Denni seemed startled. "I don't know. What do you want to call me?"
"I was debating between coimelin and fiance." He smiled. "I am going to marry you, you know. Big in-house wedding, broken glasses, the whole thing."
She smiled. "I know. I wonder what I'll look like with the veil and everything."
"You'll look beautiful. Nothing makes a fem prettier than her wedding dress."
She swallowed nervously. "Come on," she said. "Let's go."
They made their way down the hallway and out the coupling into Parma. "It's hard to believe I'm doing this," David said.
"It's hard to believe I want to do this," Denni replied. "Here we are." She smiled. "SDisk."
A pleasant, masculine voice said "Listening. Destination, please?"
David watched as the world vanished, to be replaced with a long, gleaming hallway that opened up into a wide room. Within, David saw a bewildering collection of a half-dozen children swarming around, a rather harried-looking melCentaur trying desperately to catch one of the smallest ones. "Hello?" Denni called.
"Hi! I'm Conrad. And you must be Dennielle!"
"Um, yes. This is my fiance, David Elohim."
The Centaur, who had finally managed to round up the Satryl infant that had tried to walk away from him, stepped carefully around the other children and walked over. With his free arm he reached out and shook David's. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. I assume you're here to see Ken and Aaden?"
"Dad's home?" Denni asked.
"Yeah, they're up on the roof."
"Thanks. Are you one of Carroll's?"
"Yep," Conrad replied. "I think you might want to go up as soon as possible. You never know how long they'll sit still in one place."
"Not long enough," Denni grumbled, smiling. She led David over to an open hole in the floor, mirrored by another in the ceiling. "Ever use a G-tube, lover?"
"A few times," David said. "Usually at refined metals operations." He followed her into the tube and up to the ceiling, where they dismounted from the tube and walked the short hallway to a set of stairs. Denni led him up the stairs into the sunlight. David blinked, feeling nervous. It was hard for him to believe that at the end of this walkway Kennet Shardik sat, waiting for them. "Like a spider?" he wondered.
Denni led him down the catwalk. To his left a small pool of water circulated lazily; despite its small size, it seemed to be in something of a constant state of agitation. To his right, a small grove of trees seemed to occupy the entire length of the Castle roof, from where he stood to what appeared to be the opposite edge.
Looking around, David was stunned by the surroundings. A moment ago he had been on a starship and a few steps later he was standing on the roof of the most powerful house in Pendor, possibly much of the galaxy. A wind blew through his fur, carrying the scent of the ocean that looked like it was just a few steps away. The sun shone down, and he had to shield his eyes from it as he looked up and watched the Ring disappear up and away from where he stood.
"David," Dennielle said. "Come on."
She walked away from him, and he followed, feeling small compared to the building, the construct, the world he stood on. Or was it correct to say 'in?' She turned a corner, and at the end of it a railing ran along the edge of the roof. Before that a large, wooden table in the shape of a ring, with an opening in it facing him, stood there with several chairs around it. Two mels sat there, talking over a PADD. The larger of the two, holding the PADD, was a tall Mephit with black fur. He was very broad and David recognized him as Aaden Satpulov. The Human next to him was unmistakable; the pronounced chin and long hair were all there. Kennet Shardik. Denni cleared her throat.
Shardik looked up. "Aaden, I believe this is one of yours," he said, smiling.
Aaden Satpulov glanced up as well. "Denni!"
"Hi, Dad," she said, crossing the short distance as he stood up. She gave him a warm and friendly hug, and he returned it just as warmly. "How have you been?"
"Not bad," she said. "I saw the stars and I made it home in one piece. In fact, I came here because I need to ask you for something."
Aaden looked back behind her. David's feeling small intensified under the calm, close examination of the big Mephit. "Who's this?"
"This is David Elohim. He's the Captain of the starship The Rat's Asking, the ship I'm working with right now. I, uhm, this is kinda silly, but I want to ask you for your permission to marry him."
David saw Shardik's look confused for a moment, and puzzlement crossed Aaden's face as well. "Marry? You mean, like, a ritual sort of bonding?"
She nodded. "David, come here." She reached her hand out.
He walked forward, nervously, and she eased him close to her, her arm around his waist. "David, this is my father, Aaden Satpulov. Daddy, this is my coimelin, David."
"I'm pleased to meet you," Aaden said. "I guess I should make the other introductions. David, I'd like you to meet one of my coimelin, Kennet Shardik."
Shardik reached his hand out. David took it and shook, briefly. "My pleasure. You must really have caught Denni's heart. She was a very choosy young girl."
"I think it's the adventurer she loves in me," David smiled, trying to joke.
"Must be it," Aaden said. "She always was going after the daredevils."
"David is hardly a daredevil," Shardik said, glancing at a PADD of his own. "According to your registry at Parma, you've been a very successful cargo hauler for the past forty years. You've never been charged with taking on illegal freight, and you've always lived within the law."
"I've tried," David admitted. That sensation that he was small enough to put under a microscope returned.
"Dave?" Shardik asked, looking up at nothing.
"Huh?" David asked.
"Not you," Shardik said. "Oh, great, I've got two Davids in my house. David Majors."
"Here, Ken. I figured you were asking for me."
"We're going to need two more spaces for dinner, and I think these two lovebirds are going to need a room for the night."
"We have space on my ship," David said suddenly.
"Oh, wouldn't you like to spend one night here? I mean, we have big, comfortable beds and an unlimited water supply and the widest array of entertainments imaginable." Shardik smiled. "For some, you might have to order out."
David thought about it. "Can I at least call my ship?"
"Feel free," Shardik said, tossing the PADD. It skittered across the table and stopped right on the edge. "Yes!" Shardik laughed. "Perfect shot!"
David picked up the PADD, eyeing Shardik curiously. Celebration like that seemed out of character, immature almost. It certainly didn't fit a man many believed to be a deity, although from where David stood it was obvious he was not. "Do I just ask for the Rat's Asking?"
"Connection secured," the AI replied. The screen cleared and Patricia peered out at him. "Captain!"
"Hi, Pat. How's the ship status?"
"Not bad at all," Patricia admitted. "We've got the full refit, the bank has cleared the financing, and we're fully refueled."
"I estimated a profit of eighteen percent. What did we make?"
"Nineteen point six," Patricia said. "How's that?"
"Better than usual," David admitted. "At that rate, I wonder why you need me."
"You hold the lease," she pointed out, smiling. "What do you need?"
"I, uhm, I'm going to spend the night here. If you need me..." David looked up. "How could she get in touch with me?"
Aaden said, "Just tell her to ask the AI for T.R. David Elohim."
"Pat, if you need me, ask the local AI for T.R. David Elohim. I'm going to be at Shardik Castle."
Patricia's eyes widened a little, then she nodded. "Take care of yourself."
"I will," he replied. "David out."
"Rat's Asking, out."
David placed the PADD down on the table again. "I'm guess that's it. My ship is ready to lift in a moment's notice, so we're just going to get a night's sleep and take off first thing in the morning."
"I assume you've got a flight schedule already laid out?"
David nodded. "I'm going to Terra next. I know Pendor's attitude about marriage and commitment is casual, but my parents aren't going to be so easy to convince. They were first-generation Neorats and their Patrons were Conservative Jews. I don't know quite how that happened, but they were raised very well, and absorbed some of their Patron's views. I think they mean marriage as a lifetime commitment."
Shardik's puzzlement returned. "As I recall, Jews are not especially sanctioned against divorce or polygamy. Maybe I'm wrong."
"I wouldn't really know," David admitted. "But I intend on going down there and asking them for permission. I know it'll be hard; Jewish Orthodoxy had many strong objections to my parents' being given the right to say Mitzvah."
"No surprise there," Shardik said. "As the religion grows smaller, it becomes more desperate to solidify its position and make itself look like the right answer. How many Jews are there on Terra right now?"
"One point four percent," David said. "Last time I checked."
Shardik scratched his chin. "Fourteen million people is nothing to sneeze at. I assume that's by a process of self-identification?"
"Ken?" the voice of the AI interrupted their conversation. "I just rang the dinner bell. People will be congregating up here for dinner soon. Please stand away from the table."
"Right. Okay, everybody move towards the crosswalk." Shardik stood up and led the way down the catwalk.
The table lifted itself from it's current position, and David had trouble telling if it floated or walked towards the large grassy quadrant of the Castle ceiling. He was also quite sure that it grew as it moved, until it filled nearly the entire quadrangle. Chairs began to appear, both within and without the circle, as did placements. Shardik smiled. "That is such a fascinating effect."
"How... how is it done?" David asked.
"Teleportation, mostly. Some robotics in the table, and some illusionware to make you think you're seeing something that's not there."
David nodded. "I thought teleportation was a power-intensive activity."
Shardik pointed up. "You see that thing up there?"
"The sun?" David asked, squinting his small black eyes.
"Yeah, that thing. It provides more power than we could ever use. The shadow squares are covered on their sunsides with klystron tubes. You should see them. They're constantly converting the sun's power into microwaves which then get masered to receiving stations on the walls. The accuracy required is pretty intense, but we've never had a problem. An alternative method was to build the reflectors beyond the ring, and have the maser beams shot into receivers along the underside of the ring. That become untenable when we realized we were going to need the underside for environmental maintenance and the like. Besides, the ring walls are fifty kilometers thick and the beam spreads to a maximum of two kilometers at any given moment. There's backup upon backup upon backup to make sure that nothing ever goes wrong."
David nodded. "Sounds like a dangerous plan."
"It can be. It means that along the circumference of the southern polar rim there's a good chance of running into a fatal dosage of microwaves at any second. We're talking about millions of Joules per second. But we keep traffic away from the region."
"I bet it would make a good defense weapon," David said.
"It will," Shardik smiled, "if we ever need it to. That's why there's a matching set of projectors on the northern polar rim of the shadow squares, even if there are no receivers on the northern polar wall."
People started filtering in slowly. David found himself surrounded by an array of Pendorian species, and Denni was kept busy catching up on old times and introducing everyone to the mel she was going to marry. Some people found the idea positively entrancing, although others seemed to think it was a bit silly. But all of them were willing to go along with the plan, if that's what she and her coimelin wanted.
Dinner, David found, was a relatively informal affair. A small cadre of people were apparently volunteered to serve dinner that night, one of whom was Shardik himself. "What'll you have, Captain Elohim?" he asked, smiling.
"Uhm..." David pointed to a few items, and Shardik dished them out of the wheeled cart he was leading around the table. Finally, after everyone seemed to be served, he sat down between Aaden and a femTindal that David guessed, although it was pretty apparent from her white eyemarkings, to be P'nyssa Traken. Denni sat next to Aaden, and he next to her. Shardik looked down the table. "So, tell me, David, can you promise my little girl a long and happy life?"
"Daddy!" Denni objected.
"No, wait. It's a fair question. I should be able to answer it. All I can say, sir, is that I will try to give her the life she wants."
"Fair enough," Shardik said. "Denni, do you really want to be a starship crewfen for the rest of your very long life?"
"Yes," she said easily, smiling. "Absolutely. It's really the only life I can imagine for myself. And now, with David, I think I could do it as happily as I could ever after." She reached down and took his hand. He squeezed back.
"Sounds like a match made in heaven," Aaden said, smiling.
"Or at least in a vacuum," P'nyssa observed. Shardik laughed.
As desert was being served, Aaden turned to David and said, "Can you tell me something? What does the name of your ship mean?"
"Oh, that," David replied, smiling. "It comes from something my parent's Patrons used to say. I was a very inquisitive child, but I would ask first before I tried to take something apart. I was always asking questions. Even though I was the second child in the household, and my Patrons had already raised my folks, they always called me 'the rat.' I guess because I was the runt in the house at the time, being only four or five when this happened. But they would say, 'The Rat's asking again,' when I wanted to know something, like where do babies come from or how does an oven work. 'The Rat's asking again,'" David repeated. "I attribute my success to my ability to ask questions over and over until I get to the right question with the right answer. I figured, when I bought my first starship, that it needed a name to symbolize that success. 'The Rat's Asking,' was it."
Long after night had fallen, Aaden led David and Dennielle to a room that had been set aside for them. "I understand I won't be seeing you in the morning?"
"No, we'll be leaving early. Almost at half-past 13," Denni replied, turning to face her father.
Aaden nodded, pulled Denni close into a hug. "You're as bad as Rainy is, Denni. You know you'll always have a place here."
Denni nodded. "Give everybody my love, Dad. I know where you think my home is, but I really think my home is in the stars, and I need someone like David to share it with."
Aaden separated himself from his daughter, turned to the nervously shifting rat that stood to one side. "I don't know if you know what you're getting yourself into, young mel, but I agree with my coimelin; you've always taken good care of your loved ones in the past, even if that loved one was a starship. Take care of my daughter; I don't have very many."
David nodded, gulping air. "I will sir."
"Good mel. Well, goodnight you two. I'll probably be up for another three hours or so, and our dom is right there, across the hall. Just knock."
The door to their own room opened as Aaden retreated down the hallway, and they entered the room as the door closed behind them. It looked like a living room; to their right was a fully stocked kitchen. The back wall was apparently a sliding glass door; David stepped out onto a narrow porch (barely two meters wide) and looked out. To his left, the ocean; to his right, the mountains. Leading away in front of him was the flat stone surface of what he knew must be the Marbletop Mountain Range. "David?" Denni asked, her voice floating by him.
He turned. "Yes?"
"I'm going to take a shower and get ready for bed. Would you... like to join me?"
David thought about it. It's not true that starships are usually desperately low on water supplies; in fact, most ships have an abundance of water that would have shocked the maritime sailors of yesteryear. Nor is it that starships lack hot water exclusively; starships very often have an overabundance of heat, and engineers are constantly looking for ways to redistribute that heat about the ship. Cold water is more likely to be the missing commodity than hot.
What starships lack, more than anything else, is space. So much of the wallspace, floors, ceilings and hull of the ship is dedicated to either life support or cargo that there's usually very little room left over for creature comforts like a shower that can hold two. Despite the largess of his bedroom, David's shower was still nothing more than a cubicle built to the specifications of one (1) standard human frame. For him, it was quite spacious. But Denni, who was both taller than the average human and probably a little thicker about the middle, filled his stall to capacity. They could never shower together onboard.
Now, though, he was land-bound, and probably they had ample room in the shower downstairs. Pendoriads did have reputations as a bit sybaritic, and that probably extended towards their bathrooms as well as anything else. "Denni," he replied, "I'd be delighted."
"Come on, then." She held out her hand, and he took it. He wasn't surprised to find another gravity well leading downwards, this time into a bedroom. "That's the bed?"
"Uh-huh," she said. "Huge, isn't it? Come here, you've got to see the showers. I grew up in these things!" She giggled and led him through a very ordinary wooden door into the bathroom. Done entirely in blue tile, the room was dominated by a giant, frosted-glass box in the far corner from the door he had entered. "That's the shower?"
"That's it. Go on, get in. I need to use the toilet. I'll see you when I get in there. The controls are easy." She opened the door and shooed David inside before closing the door again.
David surveyed the room; vaguely square, but for a slice that ran across the two main walls of the bathroom, giving the room a lopsided- pentagon geometry. On one wall a small spherical showerhead made of gray was stuck into the tile. Below it he found three touch controls marked "Temperature," "Pressure," "Massage." He touched the "Temperature" control. Nothing happened. Then the "Pressure" control.
Suddenly, water spat out of the showerhead and flowed into the stall. He ducked under the falling stream and put his hand out. "Ow!"
"Too hot?" Denni called.
"Yeah. How do I turn it down?"
"Run your finger down the 'Temperature' control until it's where you like it." David did so, and he finally found a temperature he liked. A bottle of liquid soap completed his needs, and he dove into the needling stream, sighing.
"Like that?" Denni asked as she entered the stall.
"I feel like I'm washing in a basketball court in the rain. It's huge!" He laughed, glancing over at her beautiful, naked figure. She laughed and stepped forward, hugging him. "I love you," she sighed.
"I love you too," he replied, his hands reaching down to caress along the insides of her thighs. She shivered slightly. "Your tickling me again," she warned.
She grabbed him tightly and pivoted on her heel, turning him around until they had rotated half way and she was in the shower stream. "Let me get washed, would you?"
He smiled and said "Can I wash you?"
"Would you?" she asked, smiling down at him.
"You'll have to kneel for me to get your headfur." He felt thrilled as she dropped down to her knees. There was something vaguely obscene about the gesture, but he ignored it as he poured soap onto his paws and began stroking it onto her head and about her cheekruffs, down the backs of her rounded ears and onto her neck. She let out a soft moan of pleasure as his hands worked against her fell, stroking deep against the tired muscles underneath. "Can I take that showerhead off the wall?" he asked.
"I think so," she said. "I don't imagine they'd have the guest room arranged differently from the rest." David reached up and pulled the showerhead away, and the sphere came free in his hands, still spitting water. He was surprised at the amount of strength it took to hold the thing still. Three controls, like the ones on the wall, were located on the back of the ball, and he dialed the pressure down low. Once satisfied, he rinsed her head and face clean of soap. "There, now you won't get suds in your eyes."
"Thanks," she smiled. He poured more soap into his hands and began his way down her back, scratching in small, sudsy circles. She sighed gently, and in a moment of daring he reached around her chest and stroked her breasts. She moaned softly, and he caressed them with a little more strength, enjoying their massive firmness, enjoying the feeling of her large nipples passing underneath his fingers. She cooed. "David..."
He grinned as his hands slid down her belly, rolling the soft skin under his palms. "I love you, Dennielle."
She turned slowly, the suds still covering her body, and leaned forward, taking his unerect sheath into her mouth. David gasped as the warmth of her tongue spread over his sheath, and he felt the blood rushing into his groin, his erection becoming apparent almost instantly. Her mouth slid along the length, and he hissed into the echoing shower stall at the intense pleasure her suckling mouth was causing him. "Oh, Dennielle..."
"That got you excited, I see," she said, grabbing the soap and pouring some over David's erection. "I need to be cleaned, David. Outside and inside." She grinned. "Can you do the insides, first?"
David smirked. "That, my love, I can do right now." He slowly pushed her down to the padded floor and slid between her legs. Between the soap and her excitement, his cock slid into her cunny without hesitation. "Oh, yes," she gasped. "I love you inside me."
"Good," David said. Holding himself up by the arms, he began a slow, easy stroking as his cock slid between the lips of her cunt. The slickness was almost too much; he didn't feel much, but looking down at the sudsy mass of foam collecting between their groins, watching his cock sliding in and out of her blackfurred and tight cunny, made his pleasure seem all the more intense.
Denni's hands reached down between them and held her lips open, a finger stroking her clit softly. The top of his pubic bone struck against her fingers every other stroke or so, and he found the sensation odd. He knelt between her legs, making love to her, his hands pressed against her sides. He felt his climax rise, and when he came he growled loudly, his voice heading into high octaves and ending in a whimper. "Oh, Denni," he gasped. "I love you."
"Love you, too," she said. "Hand me the showerhead, would you? I need to rinse off."
"Watch," she said. She aimed the water at her cunny, dialing the pressure low and rinsing the sudsy mess out and off with the water. David watched, feeling somewhat peculiar as she dialed the pressure higher and higher. Her breathing became rapid and shallow as her cunny seemed to swell, pushing out against the pressure of the water. When he looked into her face, her jaw was off-center, biting her lip, and eyes were clamped tightly closed. Her breathing came faster and deeper, and suddenly she came loudly, moaning and shaking. "Oh, wow!"
"David?" she replied, looking up at him. "What?"
"Your orgasm seemed really strong. I can't do that with you."
Denni reached out, her hand stroking his cheek. "You do other things for me, David. We don't know what we're capable of as lovers, but even if you could never bring me orgasms as powerful as that, it wouldn't change that I love you. That's different, it exists for different reasons."
David nodded, then lunged for her and hugged her tight. "I love you."
She murred her reply, hugging him closely. "Let's get finished."
"Okay," he said, reaching for the soap.
A soft buzzer went off over David's head. He opened his eyes and looked up at the mirrored ceiling and shook his head. "David," the AI's voice said over the speakers, "You said you wanted to be awakened at thirteen and twenty."
David yawned. "Yes, thank you, Dave." He felt a little self-conscious about addressing a room with his own first name, but he figured he would get over it eventually. He nudged Denni lightly. "Denni?"
"Hmmm?" she said, looking up. Her eyes were pale and unfocussed.
"Ship pulls in an hour and a half. Let's get ready to go."
She was immediately sitting upright. "Let's go, then." They dressed efficiently in light-blue jumpsuits with The Rat's Asking logos, a rat, rampant, with a question mark hovering before its eyes, emblazoned over the left breast pocket. She kissed him softly on the cheek as the SDisked back to Parma. Twenty minutes later, they were in their respective stations.
David took the microphone and pulled it towards him. "Okay, people, we're going to watch Tasha do her stuff in reverse, and in less than thirty hours we should be seeing the beautiful blue skies of Terra."