Although the need for it had passed nearly a century ago with the death of his first chief engineer, David still paused at the door to his own office and knocked. When he was satisfied that there was nobody inside, he took his seat behind his desk and turned on the terminal, listening to the familiar beep.
"This is a stupid routine," he said aloud to an empty room, punching in his Captains Authority just to get an Internet connection. The screen dutifully announced "Identity Address Suffix of The Rat's Success... Prior Address... Present Address... Originating Address... Identity Established. Mail Routing Underway; Please Wait Fifteen To Twenty Minutes." David nodded, touched a few more buttons on his keyboard, and summoned his spreadsheet program. What he saw initially made him frown; although he made his way to Augustus mostly to pick up raw materials, good trading practices dictated that he try and find cargo he could sell here as well. Prices weren't wonderful. A more in-depth analysis revealed a different situation; some of the processed timing circuitry he had in the back would sell very well to the local mining operation. He rarely turned a profit on the outward leg of the Augustus route, but it seemed this time he would actually succeed in paying profits to his crew.
As he worked his way through his manifest and juggled numbers, a red circle annoyingly popped up in one corner and announced YOU HAVE MAIL. "That's a surprise," he playfully mocked the announcement. He brushed his finger over the circle on the screen and banished it to the background.
When he closed the spreadsheet, the circle returned. Deciding to get it over with now, rather than later, he asked to see his mail. The list was short; only seven letters had accumulated in the nine days since he'd left Wisdom. Two were official, one was from home, one was from a consortium of art dealers he had dealt with before with some success. The fifth address stopped him momentarily.
Kennet Shardik at Shardik Castle, Rocchodain, Pendor.
David looked at the header with concern. Why was Denni's grandfather contacting him? He touched the screen over entry five and proceeded to read. He wasn't halfway through the letter when he snapped his terminal off and left his office, running.
He reached his cabin a little out of breath, opened the door and walked back to the bedroom. "Denni," he said, sitting on the bed and shaking his wife. "Wake up."
"Mrf?" she replied grumpily, looking up and blinking at the clock. "David... my shift ended less the five hours ago. 'M exhausted."
He smiled, stroking her head gently. "I know, love, but I got email from your grandfather, Ken."
"So?" she said into her pillow. "'ll read it when 'm awake."
"No, you don't understand, Denni. I got mail from Ken Shardik. A business deal. Here, read it!"
"What?" Denni said, sitting up suddenly. David noticed with satisfaction that she treated business with seriousness; an offer from a Pendorian trading group was nothing to be looked at lightly. Taking one could be extremely lucrative or ruinous. So far, any such deals he had accepted had been the former, probably in no small part because his wife was Pendorian. Not to mention a member of the Shardik household.
She stretched out on the bed facing the bedside terminal and punched up her access. David unlocked the letter and she read it with apparent interest. David spent the time looking over his wife's body. In the past century she'd gained a little weight about her hips, but nothing could destroy the beauty he saw in her. Her dark skunkfur was still lush. And he still had trouble not wishing to reach out and stroke her butt. He knew it would distract her, but he finally did reach out anyway and touched her, running the bare pads of his fingertips down her back and butt, over her fur. She squirmed softly under his touch. "David, I'm trying to read."
He smiled and stopped reaching for her more secret places, simply rubbing her back instead. She turned and looked at him when she was done. "What do you think?"
"I think you have the most beautiful butt in the galaxy."
Denni rolled her eyes and dragged her husband down onto the bed by the lapels of his shirt. "And I think you're silly, David. But, coming from a starship captain who's seen a lot of the galaxy, I guess that's something of a compliment."
"You don't mind that I tell you that often, do you?" he asked.
She shook her head, smiling. "I don't mind. Maybe you say it too much sometimes, but I don't mind." She smiled, letting the second pass. "So, what do you think of the offer?"
"I think it's incredible. A three-planet joint mission? A chance to explore uncharted space? Did you see what he's offering us in the end?"
She nodded. "'Anything your heart desires. We'll talk.' But do you want to do it, David? You're no Fleet captain, no explorer hero. You're a merchanter, not a kirk. And this isn't a crew of twenty or so plus stewards; ships like this have nearly two thousand people on board. It's three years without seeing a standard P of C. Think, hon, before you make your decision."
David nodded soberly. Among the other things this trip would mean abandoning his present trading effort, which up to this point had been coming along quite well. For the first time in a long time his holds were full, his ship was maintained, and his guns were charged. He reached for the screen and pulled up the bottom of the letter. "Denni," he said, "I want to do it."
"Why?" she asked. "Not that I'm telling you not to, but I'm curious why."
"Because I've been a free trader for my whole life."
"It's all you ever wanted," she pointed out quietly.
"Yeah," he said. "Then I met you." He leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss.
"Flatterer. So what are you saying?"
"Think of this as a vacation," he replied. "Down here at the bottom. 'I'll cover transportation costs to Pendor, including lost revenue and severance for your crew that doesn't want to go with us.' I think that's pretty blanket, Denni. He wants to see us on Pendor. We should head there now, if I'm going to become accustomed to this enormous ship he wants me to captain."
She nodded, a little confused. "A vacation?"
"Yeah," he said. "We've always been free traders; we know every P of C in the galaxy; remember the time we agreed to take Bantha carcasses to Remus just so we'd have an excuse to be there during a planet-to-planet eclipse?"
She laughed softly. "Yeah, I remember. That was so romantic."
"Speak for yourself; those carcasses made a disgusting mess of the hold." In his mind's eye he remembered the high-powered steam hose and the dark-brown, almost black blood that had dried to the floor of his cargo holds, making them stink with a ferocity he knew would never be matched anywhere in the galaxy.
"I was talking about your getting me to Remus in time to watch the eclipse, lover."
He grinned at her and nodded. "Anyway, I just want to do something where it isn't 'just another port of call.'" He smiled. "Maybe it sounds funny, but with entire centuries ahead of me, maybe I'm suddenly feeling the need to do something that will get me into the history books."
"David... do you remember the name of the first human to go as fast as light?"
"Natasha Sviatoslavova Nepotselveva," he said, smiling.
"Damn," she said quietly. "I keep forgetting your interest in history."
"Exactly, Denni. This is a chance to make history." His smile faltered for a moment and he looked down at his wife. "Please tell me you'll be my Number One."
She reached up and stroked his cheek, brushing aside his whiskers and making them twitch gently. "David, my love and my captain, I will always be your Number One."
He nodded. "So, do I send Ken mail telling him we're on our way?"
She nodded. "And then tell the crew. We have to lift as soon as possible. How fast can you move the cargo?"
"Two days. Maybe faster. Depends on how fast we can get fuel. The real market for most of our hold is on the larger moon."
"Let's do it." She smiled at him.
"Are you going back to sleep?" he asked, looking over her naked body as she stretched and yawned in bed.
"I was having such a nice dream before you woke me," she said, her voice deepening and taking on a husky, dreamy quality. "You were there, and the sea was there..." She nodded once, slowly, and then David felt sure she was asleep.
He shook his head, smiling, and started to rise to leave when her hand reached up and grabbed his tail. "David?" she asked gently.
He turned. "Hm?"
"Help me back to sleep?" She opened her eyes and looked up at him, her smile wistful and wanting.
He sat back down on the bed as she released his tail, leaning over to kiss her chin and lick her muzzle. She murred softly, a sigh escaping from deep within her as his hands roamed over her chest, feeling her breasts underneath his fingers, touching her nipples as they hardened.
He unclipped his jacket and tossed it aside, followed immediately by his pants. He rolled into bed besides her, their bodies melding together. David found it fascinating how the decades had made them so accustomed to each other, how every time they lay together they just fit. Her hands stroked along the sides of his body, and he touched her back, caressing his wife urgently. She took her time, dreamily touching his body in the places she knew. He took his care; Denni was always so very ticklish. His melhood hardened under her caresses, and as she rolled him onto his back and slid him into her, David appreciated just how much he loved, her broad, blackfurred body, her bright eyes and her soft voice.
They made love without urgency; their life together had often demanded that, together or independently, they act with all speed-- such was the life of a starship merchanter. They had both long ago agreed that they would not bring that kind of impulse to bed with them. She leaned over and rested her hands on his shoulders, her hips rising and lowering slowly, her eyes open to stare into his.
"I love you," he whispered up to her as he ran his hands through the thick, deep fur of her thighs.
She rolled her head around, never taking her eyes off of his, as they made love. "I love you too," she replied, meaning every word of it.
Their lovemaking went on, David feeling his climax flowing into him as if it came from her, and when he came she joined him. Neither was particularly noisy or overcome by their pleasure, for it was a soft, pleasant release shared between them, and it was all they asked of each other. Contact, reassurance, and love; they gave it to each other unreservedly and unquestioningly.
As David rolled her over onto her back, slipping out of her as he did so, she was already well on her way down into sleep again, this time for sure. He smiled, gave her a kiss on the cheek, dressed and left.
The Katckin on the screen looked composed and reserved, fitting her usual demeanor. She was sipping from a steaming mug of decaffeinated coffee. "You need me, David?"
"Set a course for Pendor. Best possible of speed; no ports of call."
Both of Tasha's eyebrows shot up, her ears swiveling forward as if to confirm what David had said. "Pendor?"
"Pendor. Specifically, the Pelcityran Shipyards, but we'll probably have to go through Parma to get there. Is that clear?"
"Yes sir." She was still staring at him. David could hardly blame her; she had been with him longer than Denni, and she knew better than anyone just how rarely he gave in to impulse. This order was, literally, coming out of nowhere.
"There'll be a conference in CF3 at 011:00. It's already in your mailbox."
She nodded. "I'll be there." She set to fixing a course. "David?"
"None. Burn all of it if it'll get us there faster."
She nodded. "The money's good on this one?"
"I don't know," David admitted. She turned back to the screen again, the look of incredulity returning. "You know how curiosity killed the Katckin?"
She looked nervous suddenly, and David realized that, from one direction, it almost sounded as if he was about to tell her to mind her own business. He smiled in hopes of relieving her concern and said, "Tasha... this one's just full of satisfaction."
She smiled, easing. "Course set, David," she said in her most forward and professional voice.
"See you in four hours, Tasha."
"I'll be there."