I had spent the past four days tutoring two wonderful young Markals on the inner mysteries of Avogadro's number. I admit, they made me feel good being around them. I think they were a little disappointed when I turned out to be someone who actually expected them to learn something, rather than the fun-loving legend of Ken Shardik. Tough. They shouldn't have forgotten that I have kids too, and I expect them to learn.
Speaking of learning, looking at the layout of classes Sheja has been studying during the trip, I think my fears are realized: she's a spacer in the making. Interstellar navigation, introductory Corrane theory, the entire gamut of basic stuff. She's starbound. I smiled as I reviewed the roster on my PADD. It wouldn't be the first time.
"Ken?" Lance's voice said from in front and slightly above me. I had gotten used to addressing AIs in the fashion of looking up at the ceiling, and many returned the gesture by speaking from that point.
"You asked me to advise you when we were ten hours from transition. That moment is in half an hour."
I smiled. "Thank you, Lance. I hadn't thought of wording it quite that way and I appreciate you giving me warning." I rose up from my chair and pushed it back. "Tell Dao when he's on his way back that I've gone to bed early. I'm sorry I'm being antisocial, but I want to be awake for the transition to normal space."
"Sure thing," he replied. I chuckled. Lance's voice always sounded stiff and the use of a colloquialism like "sure thing" just didn't sound right. But he was trying. Tired, I fell into bed.
Sleep evaded me for a while; I was going to sleep out of sequence for my body, which is used to being pushed for hours and then allowed to sleep until it's ready to get up. Eventually, however, I started to fade out. I was in that pleasant stage before complete unconsciousness, where I'm aware that I'm almost asleep and I'm probably drooling onto my pillow (as P'nyssa is fond of reminding me) and I could move but I really don't want to... when Dao crawled into bed beside me. That roused me just a little, enough to kiss him hello and then flop back down onto the pillow.
But Dao had other things in mind, apparently. As he lay beside me, his hand reached out and stroked my ass with just a feather's touch. The fur sticking out between his fingertips caressed the small hairs on my skin. I took in a deep breath, dividing my desires between wanting to fulfill his, and sleep.
He took my refusal to shoo him off as consent and his fingers grew bolder, playing over the crack of my ass, sliding between the cheeks playfully. He was still staying away from my asshole, but he was getting closer. I let out a soft sigh, trying not to sound too anxious (although I was, now) and spread my legs a little wider. "Do you want me to stop?" he asked.
"Uh-uh," I grunted, too relaxed to try and form a coherent sentence. His fingers closed about one cheek of my butt and squeezed. Being handled is one of my favorite pleasures. Being fucked is another, and I had been spending the past four days trying to convince him that not only would I survive his fucking me, I would enjoy it. He didn't seem to believe me.
He had confessed to me that Tonni never let Dao fuck him. Tonni was rightly intimidated by the thickness of Dao's Ssphynx cock. I would be too if I weren't already passionately attracted to him, and to it, and well-experienced even with some smaller (and one larger) 'taurs. I hoped tonight he would believe me. "Do you really want me to.. ?" he asked, as if reading my thoughts.
"Yes," I hissed.
He reached for the bedstand and the bottle of lubricant. The thick, cold liquid dripped onto my asshole and his fingers spread it over a wide area. Then slowly he pressed one wet fingertip into my hole. Desire flooded me as his finger invaded me. It was a wonderful beginning; I just hoped he took it to the end.
He pulled the finger out and replaced it with two. I shook under his touch, waiting for more, wishing for more. "I'm still worried I'm going to hurt you."
"You won't," I said. "Just do it, Dao. Please!"
His fingers slid out of my asshole and he stood up, taking his position above me. I waited, reaching back and up (not an easy thing for a human) and grabbing his huge, meaty cock in my hands. I guided him to my asshole, then concentrated. "Now, Dao," I said.
He pressed down and, probably to his surprise, he slipped right in. He pressed down until he had every cent within me, then dropped down on his foreknees, pressing his animal ribcage to my back. I looked up the length of the bed and saw his hands pressed to the bed a meter out of my reach. I reached up but couldn't quite reach his hands. I wasn't sure he wanted me to with my hands all covered with lube. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Dao," I gasped. "No lie... I'm in ecstasy with you inside me. I've taken larger and less considerate lovers in my history. How do I feel to you?"
He thought for a second, shifting slightly on the bed. The feeling of his cock shifting within me sent intense signals of pleasure shooting into my brain. "Moist," he said. "Hot. It's like being held everywhere on my cock."
"Move a little," I said. "Pump me."
He complied, still careful, and began pumping his cock back and forth within my guts. The massage against the length of my rectum was phenomenal. My mouth went dry from the panting and the pleasure. "Are you okay?"
"Yes!" I gasped. "Yes! Yes! Yes!"
"Okay," he growled back, shoving the full length of his cock within me until it hurt and I gasped in pain instead. "See, I can go too deep."
"Bet your sheath hurts."
"A little," he replied. "I had to push too much for me too."
"Then just fuck me to your limits. Believe me, they're probably my limits too. But not before."
He took up the challenge. His feline hips pistoned like an old IC engine, his cock driving in and out of my asshole, his furry pelvis bumping up against my furless butt. His big, lynxine body weighed down atop me and held me in place as we made love. He wasn't going to last long from the sounds he was making, and I was right.
He came with a loud "Oh my fah!" I could feel his cock pulsing inside me and wiggled my butt to encourage it to give me one last spurt, one last pulse of his semen to hold inside my body.
He slipped out while I lay there, panting. He hadn't come anywhere near my limits, to be honest. But it had felt wonderful, and now, looking up, all the lights seemed brighter, the world a little more sparkly. It's one of the side effects of anal sex, all the endorphins, and it's one of the reasons I love getting fucked so much. I grabbed the mel responsible for my state of mind and hugged him close, gasping "Oh thank you, Dao! Oh, thank you, thank you."
He grabbed me back and kissed me, hard. "That was incredible! I've never felt anything like that!"
I laughed. "Oh, come on."
"No, really," he said, looking askance. "I've had anal sex with some mel'taurs, but that was a long time ago and... now I realize how much I miss it. Thank you, Ken."
"You're welcome, then," I said, still catching my breath.
He suddenly frowned. "I woke you up, didn't it?"
"For that, Dao, you can wake me up anytime." I kissed him again, and then grabbed a towel. I was dripping from all the lube he had used, and I bet he was too. "We have a wet spot."
"You go clean up," he offered. "I'll change the sheets while you do, and then clean up myself."
I kissed him again, feeling an odd tear welling in my eye. "Thanks. I'll be right back."
"At least give me the time to change the sheets."
"I will," I said.
He came into the bathroom just as I stepping out of the shower. "It's all yours," I said. He stepped forward to get in, but I stopped him. "Dao, thanks again."
"I still don't believe how it felt. How you took it... " He shook his head.
"Amazing, huh?" I said. "We can do it again tomorrow if you like."
He grinned. "Let me think about it."
"Do that." I made my way back to the bedroom. I don't know when he came to bed. I was unconscious before my head hit the pillow.
I awoke with the sound of a soft chime. "Time to wake up," Lance advised me. I nodded, groaning as I got out of bed. The dull throb within my pelvis told me that I was going to have a bit of an overdoer's ache but I would survive, as always. Actually, it made me smile to think of the pleasures of the night before, the beautiful feeling of Dao's body over mine, his cock within my body, his will fucking me slowly, gently, with care for a partner he perceived as fragile.
Lance had put the alarm into my ear and Dao hadn't heard it. I walked out into the living room and then into the bathroom from there. Evidence suggested that Sheja was already awake; a small puddle of water lived around her toothbrush. I brushed my own and dressed, heading for the bridge. "How long, Lance?"
"Will I be welcome on the bridge?"
"Your presence is requested. You're part of our expert crew, remember?"
I grinned. "Yes, I do."
As I walked on the bridge, I heard Tasha Reah saying, "The star is catalogued as RD+54.4o. A blue-white star in the F5-range, we have one world nominally in the temperate zone, with a mean surface radiating temperature of 3200 m-above-zero at approximately 1.42 AU's out from zero. Other than that, we have a total of six planets in the system, four of which are gas giants. One gas giant is well within the proto-stellar range. The sixth world is within the corona of the star, with an MSRT of over nine thousand."
"Thank you for joining us, Mr. Shardik," David said, noticing my presence.
I examined the monitor by my station, looking that the world Tasha had pointed out. "Nice place," I commented dryly.
"Commander Reah, plot us a course that takes us to the second planet. Optimize for flybys of as many other worlds as we can pick up."
"Aye, sir. Lance is giving me four projections, none of which do better than two. Best time in-system is three hours."
"Two worlds it is," David said. "Fly, Commander."
The gas giants were, in a word, unspectacular. Of course, the planetologists loved every minute of the flyby, cameras whirring at a million changes a second. It wasn't until we were under a light- minute from the 'temperate' world that alarms went off at three stations, followed almost immediately by three cries of "Captain!"
"Tactical first," David ordered.
"Yes, sir. Sir, I have what appears to be the wreckage of a ship in orbit around this world."
"Wreckage? You're sure?"
"Yes, sir. On main viewer." We all turned to look, and I had to agree; either these people had a really surreal view towards engineering, or that was wreckage, nothing more. "Definitely the remains of a spacecraft of some sort. Probably not a satellite from the size of it, although it could have been a populated space station."
"Communications, then science."
"Sir, we probably have the same thing to report. I have ground signals."
"Partly, sir. They use analog signals relying mostly on frequency modulation."
"Put them on."
The bridge was filled with static, but through it I heard "Message repeats: We have a plague situation. We are seeking assistance. Anyone who hears this message, please respond. Message repeats..."
"Plague?" I asked, looking at David. He suddenly seemed thoughtful, but continued. "Science, do you have anything to add?"
"Yes, sir," Macaff replied. "We have the location of the signals and a probable landing site. The world is remarkably free of weather conditions. The signals appear to be emanating from a continent near the southern pole of the planet."
"Commander Reah, station-keeping over the signal source."
"Aye, sir. Course laid in."
"Hailing frequency, Mr. Shardik."
"Yes, sir," I replied. "It's all yours, David."
"This is Captain David Elohim of the Pendorian Exploration Vessel The Rat's Inquiry. We are answering your distress signal. Are you hearing us?"
The turn-around time seemed to lag forever, but finally a message did come through. "Oh, thank God you've found us!"
"Who am I addressing?"
"My name is Sarah. Sarah Covington!" The voice sounded breathless, excited, and tired.
"Are you the leader of this colony?"
"Leader? No, no, uhm... Callie died a few weeks ago. We don't really have a leader anymore."
"What is the nature of your medical emergency?"
"We're dying! Isn't that enough of an emergency?"
"How many were on your ship?"
A new voice broke in. "Captain Elohim, my name is Rachael Covington. I'm afraid my sister has become a little hysterical; she's going on nearly her fiftieth hour without sleep. I can try and answer your questions."
David gestured to cut signal. "Get Doctor Hitoshi in here."
We waited until Marcus showed up. I gave him my station. "Rachael Covington, my name is Marcus Hitoshi, and I'm Second Medical Officer of The Rat's Inquiry. Could you please give me an epidemiology, symptoms, and the rest?"
"Epidemiology... uh... Our ship was the Simple Needs out of Terra, date 2311. We've been in situ for ninety-seven years now. We had an initial ship's compliment of six hundred people and have had 186 live births. There are thirty-seven colonists alive at present, and if you don't hurry up, there won't be any soon!"
David's jaw dropped. "My God," he whispered.
"The disease is called PRAIOR, for Pronounced Random Abscessing of Internal Organs. Every one of the colonists is presently showing symptoms, myself included."
"Is the disease presently contagious?"
"No," Rachael replied. "We have reason to believe it's a genetic fault."
"In every member of the crew? Is that a viral mechanism? A... radiation sickness?"
"We'll explain when you land! Please, please come help us!"
"We will, Rachael. Stand by." Marcus made the throat-cutting motion. "My fah," he swore, "From 786 people down to thirty-seven. I can't believe..."
"Is the disease catching to more than humans? Maybe humans shouldn't go down," Macaff pointed out.
"Wait, wait," David said. "Nobody said anything about anybody going down there yet, although I certainly would like to save these people, if they're really in a medical emergency."
"Captain," I said after reviewing several logs at a library station, "I have some data for us." David nodded. "The Simple Needs left starport in 427, just as Rachael Covington said. It was purchased by the Rheinhardt foundation with additional funds thrown in from the entire personal fortunes of Hans Rheinhardt and Sarah Greaves. They were nominal organizers of the colony effort. The ship did indeed vanish into the Void, never to be heard from again."
I paused for more information. "Given the nature of the Demeco Mark Nine warp drives they were using back then, and the capacity of their cryogenics plants, I would say that the data they have given us is correct; it's very possible they have been in place for less than a century."
"Engineering to Commander Shardik," my console beeped.
"Go ahead, Kathy."
"That's the ruins of the forward module of a Demeco Spindle. Your supposition is correct, Ken. They blew up their ship to get one last desperate scream to propagate through hyperspace."
"With only forty survivors," I pointed out, "It's quite possible they didn't have anyone who knew how to program or otherwise manipulate a hyperspace signal. All they knew to do was blow it up and hope someone saw the bang."
David nodded. "So, we're looking at a lost colony. Status, people?"
"They don't know we're immortal," I said evenly. "They knew we are," I said, pointing around to the Pendorians. "But they don't know that there is a sizable Terran population on board that is also immortal. They don't know that Terra has done a little of its own gene manipulation, David. They don't know that Terra and Pendor are presently getting along rather well. In 427, Terra and Pendor were pretty much at each other's throats over quite a number of issues. They don't know about the llerkindi at all."
"We might want to be very careful with the survivors," I continued after a few seconds. "The ideological outlook of the Simple Needs is not in our best interest."
"Maternalists," I said. "They saw that Saman was heading for a production-by-tank method of incorporating the Methulselah Codes. Rheinhardt and Greaves were leaving Earth after their failure to make the Methuselah Codes hold after birth resulted in the death of fifty pre-terminal volunteers."
David nodded. "That is important information, Mr. Shardik. Okay, the initial contact crew will consist of Doctor Hitoshi and a medical crew of five additional, if the doctor considers that adequate?" Marcus nodded. "Denni, you will go as command representative; Fari, nominate four people, but you yourself will not be going. Lance, I need two pilots. Thirteen total."
"Captain," I said. "I'd like to go."
"Commander Shardik, we are looking at a disease that is potentially fatal to humans."
"Sir, if I may point out, we are looking at something that, according to Rachael, is some sort of genetic fault. It may be something insinuated into the population by Rheinhardt and Greaves, it may be completely dead, it may not even survive well on my boosted and slightly non-mammalian genecode. I would like to go. I'm willing to take the risk."
"Get yourself Braced beforehand, if you advocate Bracing," David said.
"I don't," I said.
"Then go," David said, taking a deep breath. "And be careful!"
I'm not stupid, however. I dressed up in full Stark with biologic weaponry support, as part of the security team. Part of our mission after setting down was to open up the back of the shuttlecraft and use the SDisk installed in the back, if we determined that the biological situation was not going to be a threat to anyone on the Rat's Inquiry.
"Commander," the pilot intercommed from the front, "We've spotted some sort of landing field and we're ready to put down."
"We're ready," Denni replied. "I think," she breathed to me.
"We're ready," I echoed. "As ready as we can ever be."
The shuttle landed slowly and easily on the airfield, sending wisps of dust flying off into the high desert. That, by the way, finally signaled to me just how hot this place was; their Antarctic qualified as 'high desert.' We landed almost about an hour before dusk, local time, although back on the ship it was still early afternoon. There was nobody immediately out to greet us.
"Inimicals running," Lance announced after three minutes. "Nothing so far. But we could be looking at other vectors. The air, at least, seems to be safe to breathe."
"Thanks," I said, taking off my helmet.
"You trust him that much?" Denni said.
"You grew up with Dave, remember? Pretty much the same in terms of trustworthiness."
"I think I'd trust Dave more."
"Commander, I have two... humanoids... heading out from the complex to our starboard side," the pilot called back.
"Could you qualify that, Lieutenant? We're expecting humans."
"Yes, sir. No, sir, they are not human. One is in some sort of wheeled vehicle."
I blinked at Denni, who stared at Doc Marcus. We all shrugged somewhat simultaneously, then headed for the door.
As they approached, I agreed with the Lieutenant. These were not human. They both wore unimpressive uniforms of a light grey, a single black stripe falling off-center from the throat on the left to the belt, presumably the closure. The visible mammae on the walking one, impressive even by human standards, immediately caused me to label her as 'her.' She was clearly fully hominid, with broad shoulders and muscular arms. The uniform was sleeveless, and the fur on her arms and face was of a light feline-grey color. Her neck was much longer and thicker than most of the species I'd made.
Her head and face captured most of my attention. Larger by proportion that a human's and slightly more rounded, she had a short muzzle extending outwards, tipped with a visible brown nose, the accompanying jaw small enough that I would have called it a 'chin' rather than a muzzle or jaw. Her eyes were very large, and the eyelids appeared to fold outwards rather than recess, forming a very convenient sunshield. I admired that touch. She had two ears, high on the head like most gengineered anthropomorphs, but they faced away from each other, like a human's, rather than forward. As they approached, the ears swiveled forward.
I laughed quietly to myself as they approached, however, because Rheinhardt and Greaves (I was sure they were responsible for these people) had given them hair. The only species on Pendor that have hair are Humans, Satryls, Centaurs, and Tindals. And the Tindal I regard as something of a mistake, because Furries just shouldn't have hair; I think it subtracts rather than adds to the appearance, and it certainly isn't functional. In both of the individuals I saw, however, the hair fell in a mane towards the back and any long growth wasn't visible from the front. It did make them appear slightly more feminine, which I imagine may have been the effect Rheinhardt and Greaves sought.
They also had tails. Thick, heavy tails that, from what I could see, were almost completely feline. And somewhat expressive; the one standing swished hers back and forth nervously.
The other female, who I now saw was in a medical wheelchair, had a slightly different shape to her. The head was more triangular shaped, at least from the front, and although they were clearly the same species, her fur coloration was different; dark- brown towards the middle of the face, but the head and ears were more of a cream color. And the head itself; there was a 'pinching' between the cranial region and the jawbone, as if the one had been mounted above the other.
My personal reaction was one of confusion. Coming from a basic Terran origin, I would have assume that Rheinhardt and Greaves would have followed some basic animal design familiar to them. Instead, they seemed to have borrowed from all over the place. The fur was definitely felinoid, the eyes primate, the nose canine. The ears were some sort of genet derivative. The mouth was probably some sort of attenuated mustelid design. The neck, long and sinuous, was unrecognizable, although if I could I would have said 'owl' as I watched the second one swivel it a full 180 degrees to look behind her. My impression of an avian origin to the neck was emphasized watching the one in the wheelchair; as it pitched and moved, her head remained perfectly steady, tracking us like a bird of prey. Perhaps that sounds threatening. I'm not sure it wasn't.
I couldn't put a label onto what they were, other than that I found both of them immensely attractive and I was curious to know what kissing one of them felt like. I shook my head, smiling to myself. Hopefully, I'll never turn those desires off.
As they approached, one last fact about them made itself painfully apparent to me; these people were huge. The standing one was at least 280cms tall; and the one sitting down, if she hadn't been an amputee, had probably stood nearly four meters tall.
"You came," the one standing said. "I'm Rachael Covington." She held out a hand for Denni, who took it and shook it warmly, returning the introduction. Another data point; they had four fingered hands; three fingers and opposable thumbs. Oddly, Covington wore two rings on her left hand, on her thumb and middle finger. The one in the wheelchair had only one, about her thumb.
"We would like to know that status of your emergency."
"Of course, of course. This is Annette Rheinhardt."
Annette nodded her head tiredly. "Come," Rachael said, "We'll show you the infirmary."
She led our party across the tarmac and down a ramp into a buried underground bunker. Six of the security personnel stayed up top, two with the shuttlecraft. The smell as the door to the bunker opened was rancid, choking. "There it is," Rachael said, pointing into the darkness. "Thirty of our colonists survive in there; another six are still ambulatory to some degree and occupy sites adjacent to here. Sarah, the one you heard on the radio, is in the best of health of all of us; she seems to be barely touched by the disease, but part of that we attribute to the fact that she was the last person to be decanted."
I startled at that word, glancing up at Rachael. "Perhaps..." Denni said, reading my thoughts, "Perhaps you had better explain to us who you are and how you came to be here, speaking perfect Anglic."
She nodded. "You're the medical doctor?" she asked Hitoshi. He nodded. "That sleeping form over there by the table is Cordelia Lear, my chief medical officer. She'll show you what needs to be done. If you two are the commanding officers, would you accompany me to the briefing room?"
We nodded. Rachael led us out of the stench of the hospital into a short corridor of steel doorways, choosing one and leading us inside. The walls were bare concrete, interspersed with nails holding up a display board and clipboards and a few pens and pencils lying around. "Take a seat, and tell me what you know," she replied.
We started at the beginning, telling her what we knew of The Simple Needs, of what I had surmised of her origins, and of my curiosity for her to "fill in the blanks."
She leaned forward on the conference table, scratching at her forehead with impatience. "The blank, sir, is that Demeco drives and the support fusion drives on the Simple Needs required that the ship transit from space seven months out of system. The crew had planned on spending most of that time in cryogenics, suspended animation, thus saving wear mostly on their patience." I smiled. She reached behind her and pulled out a scroll of paper. Laying it out on the table and holding it down with four rocks apparently reserved for this purpose, she showed us a general-purpose layout of the Simple Needs.
"The ship was built on a colony probe design, since essentially that's all the ship would ever be. Any packages requiring gravity were put on a standard spinning wheel design amidships, here, directly opposite the shielding curtain that protects the rest of the ship from the engines."
"Somewhere in the fourth month of transit, a meteor punched a very neat hole through the ship, directly through the shielding. The crew awoke to alarms and the information that they were already dead of radiation exposure. Some would survive for up to four years, according to the statistics, but all had taken guaranteed fatal doses."
I shivered. "No matter how the balanced the numbers, they were all going to die."
"Exactly," she said. "Although this barren world wasn't the Eden they hoped for, they did set down here and with the Demeco construction hardware built what you see around you. Most of which is now a ghost town. Rheinhardt and Greaves managed to convince the colonists that all was not lost, that what was damaged of our codes could be salvaged."
I saw where she was heading. "With the animal codes from the front of the ship, where the livestock and such were stored. They were protected by the Demeco construction hardware."
"Right," Rachael confirmed. "The Maternalists weren't happy; they felt that Rheinhardt and Greaves were, in effect, selling out to the Pendorian model because they were arguing for a first- generation requiring decanting."
"How did they react when they discovered that the first generation wasn't even going to be human?" I asked.
"They were even less pleased," Rachael responded. "I was among the first to be decanted, and the general reaction I was to read in the logs later was mostly frustration, along with no small deal of anger. But it's hard to not love children, and given between hating us and loving us, the crew opted for the more humane option."
"It is hard not to love children, no matter what you may think of them," I agreed. "Congratulations. How long did the crew survive?"
"Actually, the crew turned out to be more tenacious than previously thought according to the radiation estimates. Greaves herself lived eleven years. She died when I was four. The last colonist, Paul Heisenberg, died three years later."
"I'm sorry, Rachael."
She looked up. "Still, we made it this far before PRAIOR snuck up on us. I can only hope you can succeed where we failed."
I smiled to Denni, then turned to Rachael. "Don't worry, Rachael. I'll see to it personally that we solve this problem and let you get on living your life as you choose." I slowly rose and held out my hand. "I don't believe my daughter introduced me by name. I'm Kennet Shardik."
Watching her jaw drop, she looked all the more attractive. "Va..."
"Vatare'," I completed for her. "One and the same. You got very lucky."
"Thank God we blew up the ship when we did. We could only hope you could help us. Now we're sure."
"I hope..." My communicator beeped for my attention. "Ken here."
"Ken, SDisk up to the Medilab and see Doctor Seters, would you? He'll have an assignment for you I need done ASAP. It's definitely something for you."
"Gotcha," I replied. "Excuse me, both of you." Denni nodded, as did Rachael, still staring, and I made my way back to the ship. Four minutes later, with a fresh uniform, I was in Medilab. "Seters?"
"In here," said a Tindal coming out. "You could have done the work from your office, Shardik. I have a couple of dozen viri genecodes in there, along with a pointer to the Han standard genecode."
"Han?" I asked.
"That's what the call themselves." I nodded. "Okay, so what's the deal?"
"The Han are suffering a form of pinpoint deliquescence of their internal structure. PRAIOR is a little misnomer; the disease strikes everywhere, reaching the brain extreme cases. Usually, the points are only a millimeter or so, but in extreme cases we have dozens of half- centimeter gaps filled with blood plasma or lymphatic fluid, depending on the site. Some are even larger. We extracted those from the wound sites, and they're just swimming with protein-coat viruses. They're dying, and the mechanism is very strange." He looked up. "We need that report in ten hours."
"Will do, Commander," I replied.
Ten bewildering hours later I thought my brain was frying, slowly, over an open griddle. Sheja sat at another terminal, tapping her chin with a lightpen and swishing her tail back and forth in a way that made me want to snap at her. But I realized that it was only my own frustration, and not my daughter's tail, that made me tense. "Hey, Sheja?"
"Could you do me a favor and get me a sandwich?"
"Sure. Whatcha want?"
I thought for a second. "Meatloaf. With mustard."
"Sure thing," she repeated. "Be right back." She walked out into the kitchen.
These viri codes were useless! I had found sixteen unique types of viri, fourteen of which were completely dead, useless, inert. There was nothing along the Han genome record that these viri would infect. The other two were just as useless; they didn't make duplicates of themselves; they could penetrate a cell, but there was no duplication of viri code in the RNA read.
What the Hell was going on? "Medilab," I said loudly.
"What can I do for you, Doctor Shardik?"
"Do you have the bloodwork report ready?"
"On screen three," Lance replied. I glanced to my right, noting idly the click of Medilab snapping off and going back to business. Fortunately, as far as blood was concerned, the Han were boringly mammalian. Their blood was the same comfortable combination of materials distribution, hydration maintenance and immune system that I was used to. I read the 'Identification of Native vs. Non-Native Organisms' with special care, looking for my viri.
"Here, Dad," Sheja said, interrupting my thoughts. "I even brought ya a glass of kfi."
I pulled her closer to the chair and gave her a hug. "Thanks, kiddo. I appreciate it."
"Whatcha working on?"
I explained the situation with the viri the Medilab had given to me, and where I was focusing my research. I was still muttering to myself, reading the Native Organism's identification list, when I sat straight up. "Leukocyte analog originally assumed to be inimical because it was observed destroying healthy cells... possessing between four and eight nuclei?" I was stunned for a moment, then kept reading.
Sheja stood there, watching. "Daddy?"
I love hearing that word from her lips. "Hmmm?"
"The big deal is these viruses destroying cells, right?"
"But the viruses don't copy to destroy more cells, right?" I nodded my agreement. "Then maybe the viruses are supposed to be there."
"You mean like the Tinker Viri?" Her turn to nod. "Well, the Tinkers were meant to effect genecode variations in a percentage of a population, but they were meant to die out after a while, not create inert versions of themselves." An idea began forming in the back of my brain.
"Maybe these are like that," Sheja said, continuing her thought. "Maybe those cells the viruses destroy are being destroyed for a reason." The thing in the back of my mind was crawling forward, trying to get my attention. Sheja continued on through. "Maybe those leuko-things are making the viruses. Kinda like torpedoes."
"Sheja!" I said as I finally figured out what I was looking at. "You're a genius!" I jumped out of my chair and hugged her tightly. "That's the answer!"
"You mean I'm right?"
"Almost. The leukocytes don't have the resources to make the viri we're worrying about."
"But they can be messengers to the cells that do." I forwarded the information to Doctor Hitoshi's office. All of what I had been thinking for the past dozen hours flooded my mind. I made a decision. "Now I have to go see the Captain."
"David, have you ever read Machiavelli's The Prince?" I asked.
He sat on the corner of his desk and folded his hands in his lap. "No, I can't say that I have. Why, do you recommend it?"
"In a way. Look, that planet down is a hellhole. It's hot, it's dry, it's unfriendly, and it's dying. It's going the opposite direction of Battia; where the one is freezing, this one is burning up." He looked at me curiously. "I want your permission to take these people off this world and bring them home with us."
He looked at me like I was crazy. Then he laughed. Then he stopped. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"I've never been more serious in my life. These people are... they're here because of the rejection of the world by their parents, but they don't reject us. They need us, and for longer than we're going to be here."
"And if I don't give you permission to bring 37 Han on board?"
"I'll call home and have another ship sent out."
David glanced down at a monitor on his desk. He was puzzling something out in his head, and he seemed uncomfortable with the fact that he didn't have to move to do so. "We have plenty of room on board. We're not violating the NIA. Have you asked them?"
"Not yet," I said. "That comes next."
He nodded. "If you can get them, they have my permission to seek haven on the Handele."
"Thank you, sir."
"That's it, then," Hitoshi said two hours later, showing the display to Rachael and Sarah. "Failure to breed true mechanism running wild."
"Can anything be done about it?" Sarah asked.
"Oh, Sarah," I said, "Now that we know what it is, we can fix it."
"I still don't understand," Rachael said.
"Okay, it's like this. Gene sequences never reproduce exactly. It's one of the most common truisms of genetic engineering. A genetic mechanism can't really afford to be delicate; it has to put up with a lot, or the organism it represents just doesn't survive. R and G wrote you a new immune system mechanism designed to edit out of your system those cells of yours that didn't match the accepted standard. The leukocytes create latticeworks of comparative enzymes that determine how badly greyed a certain cell complex is; it recognizes cancer and destroys it. The trouble is, your entire bodies are going grey with old age; cells all over your body don't match each other. The network apparently has simply gone berserk and is just creating fault-fixing structures out of control."
"How do you fix it?"
"Two stages," I said. "The first is to filter out as many of these leukocytes from your bloodstream as possible. Not a difficult task; a few hours in a custom-filtration dialysis system should take care of that. From the leukocytes, we're going to manufacture true images of your individual genetic codes. Then we're going to reinfect you with a new subcellular mechanism that's going to repair your genecode. Then you're going to war."
"War. We have to keep the leukocyte mechanism from reactivating. To do that we're going to have to keep your genetic code normative and render the leukocytes themselves ineffective, probably by destruction."
"You can do that?"
"We can. There's a catch."
"There always is," Rachael said, smiling. "What is it this time?"
"You have to come with us."
"What?" Rachael nearly shouted.
"The first two parts can be accomplished in two weeks." I paused. "We, however, have left our original mission behind. We can leave you with the hardware and technology and leave you to do the monitoring of your ongoing systems." I leaned over the table, spreading my hands. "But this is an offer from Vatare' Shardik. I've talked with the Captain of the Rat's Inquiry and he has agreed that there's room for all of you on board. We've set up a temporary mission housing on a planet seven light years away, and we want you to join us. Come home to Pendor with us."
Rachael looked up at me, dumbstruck. I smiled. "I want you to come with us. You can present the option to your crew as soon as they're healed, but think about it. What does this shortlived, white-hot star blaring down on a world that's made of sand and stone have to offer you? You're not your parents, and while you may not wish to desecrate their memory, I'm offering you a chance at freedom. Life. If there's anything a parent would wish for their children, it's a chance at life."
Sarah looked off for a second, then turned to Rachael. "If we do, Rachael, I'll give you that fourth ring."
Rachael turned, shocked at the other femHan. Then she eased. "Okay, Ken, I'll talk it over with my crew."
"Thank you, Rachael. Thank you so much."
"When do you begin?"
"As soon as you're ready."
"To be honest, I'm ready now."
"Well, actually, you two are last in line, since you seem to be the healthiest," Marcus said calmly. "Abigail and Lindsay are the first."
After we had procured permission from Rachael to proceed as planned, with the schedule approved, Marcus and I were standing in the meeting room alone. He turned to me and said, "You know perfectly well they could do the monitoring themselves."
"I know. I want them to come with us. They're a treasure, Doc, of unparalleled value. Think of it! Two people who beat Terra to the sentience genetic template."
He grinned. "You had to fix the mistakes."
I shrugged. "I'm glad I got the chance. I'm not going to deny that. But I don't feel like I'm one-upping Rheinhardt and Greaves. They did the best they can. Damn, but I admire that."
He smiled. I looked down at my PADD and said "Abigail and Lindsay? Doc, isn't there a single male among the Han survivors?"
Marcus looked at me, his brow puzzled. Then he laughed a small laugh. After a few seconds he sat down hard on the conference table to keep himself from falling over. "What?" I asked. "What did I say that's so funny?"
"Oh, Ken!" he gasped, then collapsed laughing. "That's... That's the problem with you micro people!" He continued laughing, then finally grabbed the collar of my jacket to keep himself from falling off the table even. "Ken, you've missed the obvious thing, the forest! The Han are hermaphrodites!"
"With such obvious female characteristics?" I asked, my eyebrows shooting up.
"Some of these females would give you some pretty stiff competition." He glanced aside and said, "Four of them haven't got enough of a brain left to get stiff."
"Get me their names," I said sharply.
"Get me the names of those four patients. And any others who have significant amounts of brain damage." I pulled out my gradio. "Lance!"
"Do we have any psychologists who specialize in assembling life histories on board?"
"We have two who I assess as capable.."
"Call them; I'm going to need them to squeeze every fact they know out of the Han about four brain-damaged comrades. Can do?"
"As soon as possible."
"I need a favor. Can we get a high-speed link to Pendor?"
"With a gas giant available as the line target, easily. Why?"
"I need you to send a message to Halloran. When he replies to it, I need you to follow his instructions to the bit. Can you comply?"
"You'll have to talk to David."
"Copy. Get to work, Doc."
When I was younger, cloak and dagger sometimes appealed to me. Once, that tendency even saved my life. And remnants of it remain. "Okay, Lance, I want you to transmit lines 248 through 254 from act three, scene two of Carthage. Tell me when you've been acknowledged."
"Ack," Lance said almost immediately. I sat at my terminal and began doing, by hand, the separation of processes and priorities. I reached over and manually dialed David's number. "Captain, I've got Lance off-line."
"Understood, Commander. Good luck."
I walked quietly through the Medilab with my seven hand-picked assistants. Marcus and I were keeping watch over a lovely young Han named Lindsay, the one in the worst shape. Which was especially odd considering that, of the survivors, she was almost the youngest. Only Sarah was younger. More tubes and wires came out of her body than I've seen in most robotic repair labs. Marcus shook his head quietly as we watched the monitors pulse and beat in time with Lindsay's vital functions.
There wasn't much to do except watch. After all, all we were here to do was keep watch over those things Lance would normally have done for us: feed and water the last four patients. The war with the leukocytes was over, and the physical healing had begun. Lance had watched as the two psychologists had dragged, by tooth and nail at times, every last shred of personal history that applied to these four people in here. Their brains holed and torn by the disease that had attacked them unchecked, we now fought to keep them alive as Lance slowly put back them back together with pseudomemories, much like the original Tleils had been built.
Life, as they say, is unclimatic. Day followed night, as people manually controlled the ship. Talking to people in the mess, I got a strange sense that people didn't mind not having Lance; they understood that he was busy saving our guests, and that they liked having a measure of control over their lives for once without an AI overlooking. But they also all wished him good luck and a safe and rapid return.
After sixty-four hours, Lance came back on-line with a sudden rush of activity. I was asleep at the time. I awoke in my own bed with Dao. Marcus was still in Medilab.
Rachael conducted a service on a hill overlooking the landing sight and final resting grounds for the crew of the Simple Needs. Reading from Psalm 23 slowly, the Han slowly buried the last of their dead. Then, one by one, they boarded through the rear hatch of the shuttlecraft that had lain on their runway for over a week and teleported back to The Rat's Inquiry. I was the last person to SDisk back; I stood on the Hill overlooking the campsite, thinking to myself how sad it was, how close Rheinhardt and Greaves had come, and how, out of horror and tragedy, I might be able to help them realize their dream of children, born of mothers, who live forever. As I walked downhill my communicator beeped. "Vatare'?"
"I understand that, other than Halloran, I am the only AI ever to perform the procedure we began five days ago."
"I want to thank you for the privilege. I understand the necessity, but still... thank you."
"Thank you, Lance. Now then, let's get back to the mission. We have a world to explore. And," I paused, feeling oddly sad, "new friends to know."
I SDisk'd back to The Rat's Inquiry. We waited another hour for the shuttlecraft to fly back to the ship, and then we were on our way. David took breaking orbit very slowly; the recovered Han, twenty-six in all (nine were still too weak to move and two were comatose) piled into the rear lounge to watch the only world they had ever known recede into the great curtain of stars. Then the world went black as we jumped into hyperspace and were, once again, headed to Battia Two.