I looked up from my terminal. "Yes, Dave?" Although I was currently at Alpha and would expect the voice speaking to me to be Halloran's, I could recognize David Major's voice anywhere in the starsytem. "What's up?"
"I have reviewed the list of individuals you personally requested we attempt to recruit for this mission. Now that Etta Argent has accepted your invitation, there is only one person we've not contacted. I'm afraid that all records I have indicate she lives an isolated existence without benefit of AI."
I stripped the control glove off my right hand and dropped it onto my desk. "Could you put me in touch with the AI living nearest her?"
A short pause later, another voice spoke to me. Masculine but high-pitched, it said "A pleasure to meet you, Kennet. My name is Lancelot Masters, Lance to people who have to call me more than once. How can I help you?"
"I am attempting to locate Amanda Ohadi. I was told you are the nearest living AI?"
"Probably?" I asked, surprised.
"Yes. I'm afraid nobody has heard from Miss Ohadi in eighty seven years."
I blinked, surprised at this information. "Can you tell me where she lives?"
"She has an extensive compound some forty kilometers or so from the center of the small town I administer. Would you like to come visit and perhaps we can sort out her whereabouts?"
"Yes, indeed." I walked down the hallway past several of the quieter labs; we'd shut down Alpha except for administrative functions, of which there are none, for the time I was away. Alpha is my team, and without me they're a mostly quiet bunch with lives of their own.
I stopped at my Pindam apartment and grabbed a spare set of clothes, putting on my new Rahn boots and a sunhat. In the fitting room by the SDisk node I grabbed a Jialani Mark-IX. "Lance, what is the name of your town?"
"Pretty. Ciranda it is." I stepped on the SDisk and it took me where I wanted to go.
I appeared in a large, sunlit room constructed of unfinished wooden planking, which gave it all a very 'rustic' appearance, but for the off-white disk I stood on. A very mundane cork bulletin board dominated one wall, windows the other three. A small stairway set into the wall behind the bulletin board led upwards to a now-empty balcony. A doorway at the other end of the wall led to some administrative offices, sunlit but otherwise empty. A pair of Ssphynxes regarded me with curiosity, then surprise. "Vatare' Shardik."
"Uh... yeah." I never know what to do in this circumstance. "And you are?"
"My name's V'Ratta," said one, and the other said, "R'Sind." Both bowed, and I returned the bow, trying carefully to drop just as low as they did. "What can we do for you, sir?" V'Ratta said.
"I actually came to speak with Lance."
"Ah! The mayor's office is over there," she said, pointing towards the door to the empty rooms. Welcome to Ciranda, sir!"
"Thank you." I noticed that she seemed to be very pregnant. "How many months have you got?"
"Less than one, sir," she blushed. "It's Sindy's doing."
The male seemed to puff up with ridiculous pride. I patted him on the shoulder quietly. "Good lad. Hope you're up to the task of raising a kitten."
"Yes, sir," he replied. "We have both had kittens before. I think we both are."
I nodded, thanked them both and made my way into Lance's office. The door shut behind me with no visible mechanism. "So," I said, sitting behind a rather dusty desk and putting my feet up. "What can you tell me?"
"I am concerned that Miss Ohadi is either in some sort of medical or biocybernetic distress. Eighty-nine years ago she requisitioned a startling list of supplies which, given her enormous prestige, people readily granted her. There are six Nightingale Sixes at her disposal, as well as a completely functional suspension autodoc. She had four Magi working at her residence for some time and they gave me complete details on the inner layout of her home.
"She has two Pendor M-17 fusion plants, which, I believe, are primarily of Terran design, working for her, presumably one as backup as I find it difficult to believe that anyone personally requires two M-17s. There are, after all, only four in this area, and one supplies this entire town." I nodded, listening closely, but Lance seemed to be pausing as if for breath. "You are one of the few people who could interrupt her privacy without risking possibly life-threatening censure." He paused again, and for good reason. Privacy was one of the most powerful forces on Pendor, one of the strictest of taboo subjects. The definitive line between someone's private and public space was one very carefully watched. I was being asked to violate Amanda's privacy, not something I'd do casually. "Now that you and I have brought the subject out into the open, I ask you to do so."
I nodded. "I get the picture. The stakes are pretty high, Lance, when an AI asks Shardik to violate privacy." I stood up. "I assume you have some remote drones?"
"Yes. Should I bring one for electromechanical maintenance out to her residence?"
"Please. You'll have to direct the way."
"I'm afraid I'm not equipped for gradio here. We rely on the SDisk system for communications channels with the rest of the Ring. It's fast and efficient; we are six light-seconds from the next residential establishment of more than fifty people."
"Got it." I walked out into the dusty street. Hand-lathed posts held up sun-shading porches that lined both sides of the streets. The buildings had a hand-turned, authentic look to them, as well as a sense of friendly use. I rather liked the place; the population seemed to be mostly 'taurids, both Ssphynx and Centaurs, as there were only two other hominids in view, both Tindals. Probably local doctors. People nodded to me; several recognized me and bowed, and I replied in kind, trying to emphasize a sense of equality.
When I reached the outskirts of town Lance told me that Amanda's home was thirty-seven kilometers down this road, on a dirt path that "by this time is probably so overgrown as to be invisible. You'll have to watch for it carefully. I'm sending a drone out now and it probably flies faster than you walk, so it'll be waiting for you. Do you need food or other supplies? I'm afraid that the time difference between here and Shardik Castle is almost six hours; it will be night in less than two."
"No, that's okay," I said. "I'm not walking." I reached into the shoulderbag I carried and pulled out three cylinders, joining them lengthwise and popping off the outside coverings. I hit 'power' and tossed the thing into the air. As it fell an image of a covered two- wheeler came into being around it, righted itself, and landed on the ground. I waited for a few second as the image seemed to waver and solidify, then hopped into it and drove off down the road. "That's amazing," Lance opined as I tuned the radio on the handlebars. "A Jialani Mark Nine, right?"
"Yep," I smiled. "Good forever on Pendor now that the micro- SDisk powercells are capable of the sustained output they need." The perfected motorcycle; completely solar powered, fits in your handbag, indestructible and unlimited in power or scope. They can even hover almost two meters off solid ground if necessary, a side- effect of their ability to drive over water.
"'Good forever' sounds like famous last words. Even with no moving parts, electronics fail sometimes."
"Don't remind me," I laughed. The drive took slightly less than half an hour, and I did indeed catch up with his orange-and- silver drone, a metallic ball slightly under a meter in diameter and sporting a myriad of sensor arrays and manipulator ports, although no appendages were extended. "This way," the voice on my radio said, leading me down a path that had indeed overgrown with weeds and flowers and all manner of growing things. Lance led me to a meadow, flat and overgrown to knee-high with grasses and flowering weeds. It made me grateful I wasn't allergic to anything. At one end a dome of grass appeared to erupt from meadow. The dome was nearly twenty meters in diameter where it became visible and stood almost three high. "That's where she lives?"
"Yes." I drove up and around it; on the far side from the path a stone slab now overgrowing with clinging vines indicated the opening. I slid out of the bike and powered it down; the cylinder fell to the ground. The doors were big enough to get a type 'KW' size cargo sled into, but I found the intercom and locking mechanism in a closed metal box, overgrown. I dug out my knife and cut the weeds away. "Amanda?" I asked, toggling the intercom switch. No answer. "Amanda, are you there?" I hit the button a few more times for good measure, trying to ensure that the intercom buzzer in her home was ringing loudly. "Well," I said, "She's not going to ignore a break-in. Lance, crack this thing."
"Is that an order, Ken?"
I hate rituals. "Yes, Lance, that is an order."
"Thank you, sir." His drone descended on the metal box and probes extended into it. A few minutes later a grinding noise erupted from stone doors and they began opening. After they were slightly parted, however, a hissing sound came from between them accompanied by a spectacular spray of some sort of white powder. I backed away in a hurry. "Analysis, Lance?"
"Spores, Ken, apparently growing along the inside of the dome. I detect the remains of vegetation lining the floor and walls of a large chamber."
"Is it safe? For me, I mean."
"I believe so. Although there might be some psychoactive materials down there, nothing currently airborne is inimical to you."
I thanked him and peered down into the murky depths that were not uncovered. "Lights, Lance?"
The drone hovered overhead and four bright spotlights illuminated the large room. It was about as wide as the entire dome, and at the bottom was indeed a large, slimy pit of deliquescing vegetation, now roused back into life by the apparent re-introduction of oxygen. Directly below the clamshell doors I could see a cargo platform. "Can you get that up here?" I asked, pointing.
He did, although like the doors the platform made horrible grinding sounds as it climbed up to me. "Thanks," I said as I climbed on. "Joining me?"
"Surely," Lance said. "But this unit is independent of gravity. I'll lower you down and join you."
"Thanks." The platform dropped and me with it. The smell was intense, making me pull out the small handtowel I carried and cover my nose and mouth. I wished that along with my usual bag of tricks I'd brought a flashlight. Lance joined me. "Get this door open," I said.
Lance performed as expected. As the door opened he said "Curious. There appears to be no security at all in this entire facility."
"You did say she had six Nightingales, right? Those aren't AI- capable."
"No," Lance agreed. "They're the most advanced computational and relational machines available that aren't accrued the ability to claim sentience. They fail modern Turing tests." I nodded. We walked down the darkened hallways, eerily silent of any signs of life or sentience. I began to wonder what had happened here. "You fear the worst, don't you?"
"Yeah," I sighed. "I hope she's at least still alive."
Following Lance's lead, we passed her bedroom, empty, her office, empty, and finally made our way down an isolated cement- lined hall to her laboratory. This door was the first to seriously resist Lance's machinations, but eventually it opened.
The other side confirmed my second-worst nightmare. Amanda was indeed in her laboratory. A large pool formed the centerpiece of her laboratory, and she was at the bottom of it, a mask to her face, drones attending to her body, her mind... somewhere else. "In the next room are the Nightingales," Lance said.
"Connect to one. Find out her condition."
As Lance made his way into the other room, I knelt by the side of the pool. "Oh, Amanda," I sighed. "You're never going to solve the Ohadi Disunity Paradox that way. Lance!"
"Call a biocybe detachment medical team from D'Tangent. We need a full compliment here, with isolation-withdrawal specialists as well. Give them the full run-down."
"They are already on their way."
Ninety hours later I walked into her infirmary ward room. "Hi," I said. "They told me you were awake, so I decided to..."
"It's okay," she whispered, smiling at me from her hospital bed. "Thanks."
I grinned. "You're welcome. I was worried. For a while there it was pretty touch-and-go. I, uh, I brought these for you. Aaden cut them." I held out the bouquet of roses he had prepared for me, thirteen blood-red and one white, surrounded with a thin green cloth. "Is there some place I can put these?"
"I already have sixteen vases. I suppose one more won't hurt, especially not from you."
I nodded, summoning a vase on the supply SDisk and arranging the flowers in it. I looked at the cards on the other flowers. Most of them were from university math and science departments around the galaxy. "Did anyone tell you what I came looking for you for?"
"Nope." Her voice wasn't going to be more than a whisper for a while. I noticed that most of the intensive-care equipment was off of her body; a remote drug-deliver cuff was about her right foreleg, but other than that she was just lying on her side on the hospital bed. The room was comfortably warm, allowing her to lie without covers. She looked terrible compared to the plucky young Centauress I'd known centuries before.
"You know how long you were in the spin, right?"
"Spin cycle for nearly eighty years. According to the reports, I missed a lot. The llerkindi live here now, right?"
"Yeah. Look, in about three months Aaden, P'nyssa and I are putting to space for a long-duration mission. Like, up to ten years. I've managed to convince Etta to go along, and I've been in contact with Kathy although I haven't yet gotten a yes or no answer. That's what I came looking for you for. Instead I find you trying to lock your brain cells away for eternity."
"That's something I'll never do again."
"Promise," she swore. "I'm sorry I'm not going to be able to go with you. I want to go."
"Really?" I asked.
"Yes. I... It's strange, but I remember the spin. I remember being there, locked forever. I feel like I've been crying for eight decades without really having the power to cry. Does that make any sense?"
"I don't know," I admitted.
"Never get stuck in a spin, Ken. It's frightening. It's the most frightening thing I've ever been in."
"That's one reason why we have AIs, Amanda. To keep direct- feed neural interfaces from becoming uncontrolled feedback loops. I've been in garbage loops before, but they get cut fast. I've never been in a spin the way you have. I think it's a first. Not a good one, either." I reached down and patted her arm softly. "I'm glad your alive."
She began crying, softly. Most of her muscles had atrophied to the point where she was effectively paralyzed, but she could still sob. I stroked her face. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for saving me."
"You're welcome," I smiled. "I did what I had to. Thank Lance for having the courage to ask me to break your privacy."
"I will." I stood there for a while, my hand against her cheek, watching both of her chests rise and fall in the cycle of breathing Centaurs did to get as much oxygen out of the air as they needed. Tears dripped across the bridge of her nose and I wiped them away. "Thanks," she whispered. "Ken?"
"I... I probably look terrible, don't I?"
"You'll look a lot better when your hair and pelt have grown back in and you've had a chance to dye them your customary purple, yeah."
"I wouldn't ask this of anyone else I know, except maybe Kathy. But you're one of the, well, most bent people I know, and I mean that nicely." I snorted a brief laugh. "The longer I'm awake the longer it feels since I've done a lot of things. I had my first solid food this morning and it was just incredible. It made me cry to taste something in my mouth." Her eyes implored me. "Could you... could you get a vibrator and give me an orgasm?"
Frozen momentarily with surprise, I finally broke through with a loud laugh. She blushed, embarrassed, but didn't say anything. "Oh, Amanda. I'd be glad to. But I need to discuss it with your doctor first."
"Okay," she replied.
"I'll go right now, if you like."
"Okay." I slowly pulled my hand away from her face and made my way into the hallway. "Lex, who is her doctor?"
"Chief Medical Officer for Amanda is a Doctor M. Marcus Hitoshi."
I found Dr. Hitoshi making his rounds and cornered him. A short, overweight Markal, he regarded me calmly. "Dr. Hitoshi?"
"Dr. Shardik," he replied, shaking my hand and extending to me a title used rarely, but one that made me feel immediately comfortable. I found I liked this little skunk. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm intimately concerned about your patient Amanda Ohadi."
"Ah, yes. I heard you were the one who found her. Very serious trouble, that one. But she will recover."
"Good. I understand that she's being reintroduced to sensory stimuli, and that included solid, tactile food this morning." He didn't contradict me, and I continued. "She asked me for sexual stimuli this afternoon. Unless I am forbidden to do so, I shall."
He glanced down at his PADD briefly, tapping the glass cover a few times, then nodded. "I see no reason to forbid it. Please. Have fun. I will see to it that unless noted on her chart you will not be disturbed."
"Thank you, Dr. Hitoshi."
"Kennet, then," I said, shaking his hand again.
As I turned to leave, he spoke again. "Kennet?"
"Please do not think this too forward of me, but I am starship trained and would like permission to join the crew of the Nyano Handele."
"Have you applied?"
"Yes, but there are so many good applicants." He looked distinctly embarrassed, and I was glad that he wasn't interested in bullheading his way into the crew roster.
"I don't think there's anything I can do, Marcus. I would like to say 'yes,' but I'm afraid that I'm as bound by the rules as everyone else. If you're qualifications put you at the top of the list, so be it."
He nodded. "That was as I surmised. Thank you anyway."
"Thanks, Marcus. Most especially for not putting me in a difficult situation."
"That was what I wished to avoid most."
I returned to her room a few hours later, my handbag slung under one arm. "Amanda?"
"I'm awake," she replied. "I had a short nap this afternoon."
"You're not afraid of sleeping, are you?"
She shook her head weakly. "It's not like spinning. I enjoy it. It feels good to sleep, rather than spin." She smiled. "What did you bring me?"
"Remember this?" I asked, reaching into my bag and pulling out Mjolnir, the largest dildo I owned.
"You brought it! I remember that. Do you still play with that?"
"Not that often at home. After all, here I have access to Aaden."
She laughed. "And I brought this. It's the same thing P'nyssa uses. As one of her lovers once said, 'That's not a vibrator, that's construction equipment!'" I held out a small grey ball that barely fit in the palm of my hand. A 'nipple' of soft, white rubber protruded from it, and when I moved my middle finger over the 'on' stud it vibrated strongly. "It's very powerful."
Her arm flopped out spasmodically, trying to grab mine. I took her hand. "Thank you," she whispered.
"You're very welcome," I said, climbing into bed. "Now, let's see what we can do with a mostly paralyzed but sensitive Centaur lying on her side."
"I'd kick you if I could!" she gasped.
I smiled and slid my fingers under her tail region, applying pressure until my hand slid between her equine cheeks to fondle her large and lovely cunt. "If you kicked me I wouldn't want to do this, dear."
She gasped again, differently, and I smiled. I applied more pressure, sliding my fingers into her, feeling the warm walls of her cunny around my four fingers, pressing my hand into her, my thumb against the soft ridge of hypersensitive flesh that formed the femCentaur clitoris. She shuddered weakly as my fingers wiggled inside her body.
"Now, then," I said. I sat down on the bed and with one hand lifted her left rearleg up, propping it against my knee so as to leave her cunt and belly exposed. "You're still a beautiful fem, Amanda."
She didn't answer. I slid my hand out and covered it with lubricant from a new bottle, slathering it against her opening, making sure to get her clitoral ridge, too. Then I slid my hand back into her, this time tucking my thumb under the palm and sliding the entire thing into her. She moaned softly, her head lolled back and her eyes glazed over as she watched me.
I picked up the vibrator in my left hand and turned it on. As my wrist disappeared within her I brought the white nub against her clit, making sure the power was on 'low.' Her body shook; I felt her cunt contract around my hand, the walls of her vagina fluttering. "Don't press so hard," she whispered.
Listening, I lightened the touch with the vibrator, but my right hand slid deeper into her, going halfway up my forearm until I felt something brush my knuckles. Turning my hand slightly, my fingers touched the closed ridge of her cervix.
I fondled her cervix gently and she gasped. "Too much."
"Okay," I said. I was being careful with her because of her weakened condition. I didn't want to press to hard.
I began stroking with my right arm slowly, pulling it out until just the hand was within her, then sliding it back in. With the left I held the vibrator, slowly circling her clitoris without really rolling over it. "Faster," she whispered.
She knew what she wanted and I appreciated that. I turned up the vibrator. The one problem with the design is that it tends to put the holder's hand asleep. That doesn't seem to bother P'nyssa, but I have to remember that when I wield it, it needs a shock- absorbing handle. As I circled her clit, I began to pump her cunt with my fist a little harder.
I put the vibrator down momentarily, liberally pouring more lube over my arm and her cunny, then went back to play. I won't call it work. I could feel the biggest smile I'd had in ages across my face, not to mention a healthy erection as well. I was too busy to deal with either, really; I was having too much fun fucking Amanda. She gasped and, inasmuch as she could, writhed on the bed. Her arms trembled and her weak fist pounded the mattress. "Yes, yes, yes," she gasped as she came, her body shuddering with the exertion. My eyes flickered to the silent cardiac monitor over her head; both lines were fluctuating but were still well within safe ranges.
I kept at her. I wanted her to come again, and she obliged. One spasm that rocked her body pulled her leg off of mine, falling down and trapping my hands between them. My hand was all the way in her, so I left it there and stroked gently, looking for a soft, sensitive spot along the lower wall of her cunt, where the two walls came together in a slight angle. I slid one finger down that length as with my left hand, also trapped, I pressed the buzzing ball against her clit. She gasped and came again, moaning and actually managing to thrash a little.
"Please, enough," she gasped, and I heard that, snapping the vibrator to 'off.' There was enough lube on everything that I managed to slide both hands out from between her legs without needing to move her leg again.
I crawled across the bed to lay aside her belly, propping my head up on one hand and watching her face. She was crying again. "Tears of joy?" I said softly.
"Yes," she whispered, managing a little nod. "Oh, yes. Fah, Ken, thank you so much, thank you for everything."
I patted her shoulder gently, stroking down across her body. "You're welcome, beloved Amanda." I smiled at her, then leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Now, get better. Get stronger. Because you are coming with us."
"I am. I promise."
I dampened a towel in the bathroom and returned, wiping up as much of the water-based lubricant as I could, then dried her off with another. I dropped all the toys into my bag; I could clean them later. As I stood by the bed and looked down at her, her eyes had closed and the heartbeat monitor above her head was steady. She had fallen asleep in her exertion and exhaustion. "Good night, Amanda. Get well soon." I shouldered my bag and made my way out of her room.