The first signs came while I was sitting in my chair, reading. The first sign was a flicker of the hand, a twitch. I probably didn't notice the first one, but after a few seconds her movement caught my eye. I put down the book and stood up, looking around; I was alone with her in her private room. We were slightly over a day out of New Haven; it would be another four days before we pulled into orbit around Battia. I had returned to sickbay to look over the last of the Han who had been ill. The others had taken the procedure after these four, and they were all recovering to some degree. The blind could see again, the deaf hear, the lame walk. It's work like that I find so satisfying. Four were the brain-damage cases, and for them I was rooting the hardest.
The hand twitched again, spasmodically, then seemed to calm down. The lovely figure under the blanket moved slowly, the back arcing off the bed just a few centimeters, then falling back down to the mattress. A small moan, soft and somewhat pained, came from her muzzle. The hand that had moved now came up and touched her forehead, right between the eyes. Then her eyelids themselves seemed to tremble. Then, she opened her eyes. "H... Hello?"
Relief poured through my heart. I had been afraid this wouldn't work. Everything jury-rigged at the last minute, a matter of time. "Hi," I managed to say, grinning like a schoolboy. "How do you feel?"
"I feel... fine, I guess." She blinked. "Hey, you're a human!"
"You're very observant." I laughed. "Gods, it's wonderful to hear your voice, Lindsay."
"Who are you? Where's Callie? Where am I?" she asked, bewildered.
"Don't panic," I said, trying to calm her. "You're on the starship Nyano Handele, under the command of David Elohim. You're recovering from PRAIOR-induced coma."
"PRAIOR..." her voice drifted off. "That's incurable... Everybody else who had it, died."
"Incurable for your people, yes. Not for mine."
"Lindsay, my name is Ken. Ken Shardik. You've been in a coma for nearly 48 New Haven days. We rescued you. You're on a Pendorian Vessel."
She tried to sit up, but I stopped her, pushing her back down to her bed. "Easy. You've had a rough four days. We put you back together. Tell me how you feel. In detail."
"A Pendor... Shardik... " She looked around, almost as if she were about to panic, but then eased back. I cursed the fact that it was so late at night and debated waking Rachael and the others anyway, but decided against it. "I feel... " She stopped. "I feel strong, but tired, too."
I nodded. "That's how the others felt as well. You've been ill for so long that your bodies have almost forgotten what it's like to be well. As for the tiredness, well, you've been living for nearly two months now without a clue as to what time it is, and your biological clock is completely out of sync with the real time. All of the Han are sleeping right now; ship's time, it's the middle of the night. And, I don't know how your relationship with Callie was, so brace yourself..."
"She's dead, isn't she?"
She sighed. "Nearly two months," Lindsay repeated. "Was it really so long?"
"I'm afraid so," I said. "It's been a long time for you since you last saw the world." I smiled. "Much has changed."
She reached up, both arms coming out from under the bedsheets, and scratched at her headfur vigorously. "You saved us. Why?"
"Why wouldn't we?" I asked.
"I mean, why would you want to save us? According to the stories I heard, you--"
"Lindsay, Rheinhardt and Greaves were no friends of mine because what they wanted to do, I had already done. Looking back, I realize it may not have been the wisest of choices to hold the Methuselah codes to myself and my people, but that was my decision and there's nothing we can do now to change the results of that. And, right now, I'm not upset, because such loveliness as you is one of those results." I grinned. "That's beside the point. Rheinhardt and Greaves disliked me, not I them. And certainly, not I you. As far as I was concerned when we pulled into orbit and heard Sarah's voice for the first time, you were 37 members of a dying species on a nearly inhospitable ball of rock asking for help, and I saw no reason to withhold it and every reason to give it." I took a deep breath. "Wow. Long speech."
"So... What do I do now?"
"Well, Rachael is now in charge, if anyone is. She's agreed to deal with the 'inhospitable' part by allowing us to take you off of New Haven and head back to Battia with you. Tomorrow, you start your new lives, first as our guests, and then as residents of Pendor."
"Battia? Pendor? It all seems so unbelievable."
"It is," I said. "That's what makes it all so wonderful."
Lindsay looked up at me. "You're the most unbelievable part. I mean, I know we're thousands of light years from Pendor. Do your ships really fly that fast these days?"
"Oh, no," I said. "They're faster than in your era, but this was still a three-year jaunt for us. We were out here investigating a new, possibly sentient life-form, and those always catch the Pendorian eye. You, the Han, are simply the most wonderful thing that could have been thrown my way in the meantime."
She smiled when I said that. Which I found reassuring. Of all the Han I'd met so far, she was by far the prettiest. Perhaps that was just all the work I'd put into saving her life shining through. I did feel that way for her.
She started scratching herself again. "I'm itchy."
"So I see. You're probably still very weak, but if you want, I can arrange a bath for you."
"A bath?" Her eyes lit up.
"Baths, you probably aren't aware, are one of my specialties. Baths, food, all the pleasures of the flesh. You look like you could use a few pleasures." I picked up her chart, imagining that I felt the white doctor's coat and pockets full of sensing equipment. "According to this, you've lost nearly thirty kilograms, other than air-drying you haven't been adequately washed since you became comatose, and..."
"And?" she asked, curiously.
"And nothing," I added, smiling. Dammit, I'm letting my gonads get the better of me. Again. "Just looking down the list here. I didn't find anything else. So, about that bath?"
"It's been so long since I've had a bath. New Haven was so dry... I must have been only a little girl when I last had a bath." Her eyes focused back onto me, and for a few minutes she seemed to be searching for the words to say. Finally she found the one word she had been looking for. "Vatare'--"
I felt bad. After such an effort, I had to take it away. "Ken."
"We've always been very informal. Nobody really calls me Vatare' anymore except during moments of the utmost formality. And, to be honest, Lindsay, I've come to know quite a bit about you. You may not realize this, but some of your memory, well... it isn't really yours."
"What do you mean?"
"Lindsay, you had PRAIOR of the brain. Much of your memory was wiped out. Of those Han who could still talk, we interviewed each one intensely about you, and the other three who were here, the ones whose brains were all torn up. We... we put back what we could, but we can't guarantee that they're really what you were like when you were younger."
"So... I'm not really Lindsay Summer... Is that what you're saying? My God, I'm some kind of... mental android, is that it? I'm not real, just a machine, some kind of Frankenstein? That everything I know might be the truth, but I can't be sure? IS THAT IT?"
"No!" she screamed. "No! No! No! Look at me! Look at me! I'm real, I'm telling you! I remember being Lindsay Summer!"
She tried to rise out of bed, but I leapt upon the bed and grabbed her by the wrists. Set, she was strong! It took all my strength to hold her down, and then I remembered that she was still in a weakened state! "Lindsay! Listen to me!"
"You're telling me I'm not real!"
"I'm telling you what we know! Stop fighting!"
"Ken..." she breathed. "Please."
"Lindsay, listen to me. Everything I know might be the truth, but I can't be sure of that any more than you can. Look, here." I reached over the edge of the bed, to the table by the side. "This is your diary, from when you were eleven. Read it. It really is yours."
"It... might not be mine anymore."
"All the memories in there, we tried to put into there," I said, pointing at the top of her head. "If you want to believe Lindsay Summer is dead, then we'll hold a funeral for her. But whoever you are, and for my sake you need a name and Lindsay Summer is a very beautiful name, you need to go on."
Her eyes still wide and her chest heaving with fear, she stopped fighting and stared up at me. "I... don't... know who I am."
"Yes, you do. You're you. You don't need a name to be a real person, you don't need an ID, you don't need anyone's approval. All you need is the breath in your lungs and the evidence of your senses. But if you want to be sociable, please, take a name that we can agree on. I like Lindsay. Your friends recognizes you as Lindsay."
"Okay," she agreed. "Lindsay, it is. For now."
That would have to do, I though. She didn't seem very convinced, but I hoped she would come around soon. "Good. Now, about that bath?"
She thought for a moment. "Yes. I would like one."
"How about some food?"
"That would be good, too."
"I've already taken the liberty of preparing one for Miss Summer."
"Lance, is there anything I can ever do for you, just ask for it."
"I'll consider it," the AI replied.
"Who is that?" Lindsay asked.
"That's the ship's AI. Lance, meet Lindsay. Lindsay, meet Lance."
"A pleasure to meet you, Miss."
"I can't see you."
"I am the ship itself, Miss Lindsay. I am all about you. The walls, the floor, even the bed you are lying on are parts of me. Some I can feel, some I can move. You most certainly can see me."
"Oh." She turned to me. "It's all so bewildering."
"Good word, 'bewildering,'" I commented. "Says it like it is, right now. Come, Lindsay, we have a bath and other luxuries for you to enjoy. Lance, please inform Dao..."
"Done," the AI announced.
"A friend of mine. We had an arrangement for the evening. Very informal, Lindsay. You're more important to me right now."
She nodded. "Now then," I said, easing myself off the bed, "We have to get you down to the bathroom. Do you think you can stand?"
"I... I think so." She slowly lowered her legs to the floor, easing her butt to the edge of the bed. "Do you have something I could cover myself with?" She held the bedsheet to her collarbone, covering her body with it.
"I'm your doctor as well as the cultural contact expert, Lindsay. I think I can handle the sight of you naked."
She sighed and dropped the sheet. "Then again..." I said, my eyes going wide.
I swallowed hard. "Oh, no. Nothing... nothing wrong."
I thought about what I as going to say very carefully. "I've seen many of the Han naked in the past couple of days, but most of them were in medically tenuous situations and I didn't have time to consider them in terms of their beauty."
"Now you do," she smiled.
I nodded, turned around and pulled a robe out of the requisition SDisk. "Here. Put this on."
She looked down at me and smiled as she pulled the robe on. She was incredibly tall from my point of view, but according to her stats she was, at 232 centimeters, short for a Han. They averaged around 260 and the general maximum was around 300.
I stood away from her while she tried to stand on her own. "Ooh... ow," she groaned. "My legs hurt."
"Probably stiff," I agreed. "One of my talents is massage. Would you like me to demonstrate?"
She shook her head, laughing. "You are just like your legend!"
"To a fault!" she exclaimed.
I grinned. "Would you like me to stop?"
"I haven't decided. I think your attention will keep me from going crazy. I... I guess I'm the stranger in a strange land."
I nodded. "Come on. Bath's this way."
"Why is my bed so big?" she asked, turning around to look at it.
"It's a Centaur's bed, normally. But she's down on Battia, so I used the gradio to ask her if she minded loaning it to you. She's an old friend of mine, Amanda. You might even like her."
Lindsay nodded unsurely, then followed me into the bathroom, limping slowly. Inside, the huge Centaur bathtub dominated the center of the room. I didn't tell her that she shared it with three of her kind, since four centaurs shared this particular bathroom. "I didn't even hear water running."
"It filled from the bottom. It's a feature we designed to keep it from being noisy." I ran my hand through the water. "You try it. See if you like it."
She knelt down, wincing from the pain, and ran her hand through the tub. "It's nice." She untied the knot in the robe and slid into the water. As she did so, I caught my first glimpse of her genitals. I nearly dropped the bottle I had just picked up.
Lindsay, lovely, feminine Lindsay, was hung better than most stallion centaurs. And believe me, I've known a few stallions.
She sighed as she slipped into the warm water, her eyes closed. "Stay here," I said.
"I don't think I'm going to move from this spot for a month, Ken." She gave me a grin. "All this water!"
"Good," I agreed. I wandered out into the bedroom, walking over to the SDisk again. "Lance. That meal you preprared would be a good idea right about now.. And a carafe of wine."
"That pink stuff P'nyssa likes."
There was a pause, a moment of sheer loathing for my coimelin's plebeian tastes that came through loud and clear as he said "Zinfandel. Yes." I laughed. A chuckle came from his speakers. "Done," he said as the request appeared on the SDisk. A very common ploughman's lunch. Light cheese, some fruit, some bread. Aaden's idea of lunch.
"Thank you, Lance," I said, picking up the tray. "Hey, never know. If you ever go meat, you might even like zinfandel."
"Only in my most terrible nightmares," he assured me.
I smiled, shaking my head slightly, and headed back for the bathroom. "Lindsay?" I asked.
"I brought you some food. Would you like some?"
She splashed water around a little as she leaned out of the inset tub. I handed her a slice of apple and a piece of bread. "Oh, and there's soup in that tall jug over there. It's a thermos to keep it warm. And I brought some wine."
She glanced at me curiously. "Ken, if you're anything like your legend, which from everything I've seen, you are, you're probably trying to seduce me. I'm flattered, but... if you really got me into bed, would you have any idea what to do with me?"
I looked at her evenly. "Are you always this forward?"
"Not always. But usually." She grinned.
"Okay, then." I put on my metaphorical Rhysh Castle hat. "In the short term, I would have no idea what to do with you. But I would figure out something fast. I've slept with people with fur before, I've slept with people who outmassed me by a factor of three-to-one before, and while I've never slept with someone with both sets of genitals, I've certainly slept with both of the kinds of people who come equipped with one set or the other. You're certainly one of the most beautiful people I've met in a long time. And I put a lot of effort into putting you back together, Lindsay. I've become attached to you." I tried to smile, managed only about half a cocked grin in an embarrassed way. "Making love is my favorite way of saying I like you. I don't want something from you, I want to give you something I think you might like."
She stared at me for a moment, then managed to swallow slowly, glancing away. "I've never heard anyone ever word it that way."
"'I want to give you something you might like, because I like you.'" She brushed a lock of that damned hair out of her face. "I'm... not exactly the oldest Han, as you might know from the records."
I nodded. "Fourth from the youngest. Second among the survivors. Which is why it's so weird that you got hit with PRAIOR so hard."
"Everyone I knew... I grew up when the disease was just starting, and all the Han around me, the one's who weren't sick, either cared for me like they were my mother, or wanted something from me. It was hard to believe anyone really liked me. And a lot of people were like that." She sighed, taking a bite from the dark, rich bread on the tray. "We were all so desperate. I think you can understand that. Desperate to live, to prove we were still alive." She sighed. "We didn't handle it very well, did we?"
I shrugged, curling up beside the tub. "You did the best you could. Which isn't bad, considering you had no adult supervision." I ran my hand through the water of the tub, thinking. "I think you people did okay."
She smiled softly, then continued eating. We ate in silence, eyeing one another occasionally. Once, we locked eyes, stared at each other, then broke away, both laughing nervously. "You never answered the question," I said.
"Do you want a massage?"
"Do I have to get out of the tub?"
"Nah, I can get in with you. I mean, if that's all right."
She thought for a moment, then nodded. "It would mean my taking off my clothes," I pointed out.
"I know," she smiled. I slipped out of my clothes and joined her in the tub. The warmth soaked into me quickly, and combined with the late hour, I felt tired. But, determined to fill my promises, I reached down into the water and took her foot in my hand.
This tub was built to hold Centaurs; in its present configuration it was over a meter deep and ringed all around with a bench for humanoids to lie upon. I found a convenient ledge to sit on and began feeling around her foot, looking for tense spots. As my hands worked into the fleshy part of her foot, she moaned softly. "That feels so good."
"Glad you like it," I said. "I'm not entirely sure about what Han like but I'm learning fast." Her foot was proportionate to her body, and in my hands it felt enormous. Her toes wiggled as I played with them and she jerked her foot back when I threatened to tickle her. "Don't," she warned.
"Okay, I won't," I said, smiling. I rubbed her calves next, working my way up the length of her legs to her knees. "How's that?"
"Incredible," she said. "It's been a long time since someone rubbed me like this." She sighed, leaning back and spreading her arms across the floor of the cabin, closing her eyes. Her prodigious breasts floated just above the surface of the water, creating little ripples that spread slowly away from her body when she shivered in time with my caresses. My hands explored the soft musculature, weakened from bedridden weeks, feeling the subtle differences between her design and my own. Her fur, difficult to judge under the water, waved slowly and caressed the backs of my hands. As I reached moved upwards along her thighs, my hand brushed against her cock, also drifting under the water. She jerked suddenly. "Sorry," she said.
"That's okay," I lied. "I'm almost done." I let go and drifted away from her.
"Thanks," she smiled. "That was really wonderful."
"Listen," I said. "I, um, want to apologize for what I said earlier. I tend to be forward, too, but I didn't take into account a lot of the things your culture gave you."
She nodded. "Me too. I'm still thinking about your offer. Will you give me time?"
"All the time you need." I reached back behind me and pulled up a bottle of shampoo. "Wash?"
She nodded. I started again at her feet, raising first one leg above the water, then the other, working the shampoo in to her fell and then letting her rinse off. By the time I had reached her groin, bubbles covered the surface of the water. "Lindsay, do you want me to wash your, uh..."
"I'll do it," she said. The way she said it caught my attention; it was as if she were trying to prevent my embarrassment, not my involvement. I didn't think she would have minded if I had touched her. But she washed her own genitals. I watched in fascination as she peeled back her sheath to wash inside the foreskin of her cock, then slipped a soapy hand down underneath to where her vagina lay. It was a fascinating display. "You can do the rest."
"Deal," I said. I began washing her belly, then her chest, paying perhaps a little more attention to her breasts than I should have, but she didn't seem to mind, then moving around to her back, neck, and head. She cooed as I scrubbed my fingertips into her scalp. "Feels good."
"All done," I said.
"Now, how do I rinse off?"
"Like this," I said. I hit the drain button on the bathtub. It took less than twenty seconds for the water to vanish completely. Then, the shower button. Water fell from the ceiling in torrents, a temperature slightly less than the tub had been. She closed her eyes and indulged her face in the falling stream, stretching. That, of all the things I had seen tonight, had to be the most enticing. Her muscles tensed and defined, no matter how atrophied, under her beautiful golden fur, her head tilted back into the falling water, her breasts and her cock both jutting out from her body magnificently. I began doing DNA sequences in my head to make my impending erection go away.
I climbed out of the tub. It was deep enough that only her waist up was above the line. "Now, you dry by turning those dials, there," I said, pointing. She looked down. "Power," read one, and "Heat," read the other. She turned the one labeled "Power" up a little bit, and a small whirlwind erupted in the tub. Slowly, she turned "Heat" up as well until the temperature suited her, then began cranking "Power" up faster and faster. I grabbed a towel. Although I wasn't within the actual effective range of the whirlwind, I could still feel the effect of the tornado she was using. "Rub your fur to dry off!" I shouted over the din of whistling air. She did as I said, and soon was turning the dial down.
"Whew!" she breathed, her eyes alight. "That was fun!"
"Like that, huh?" I said. "How do you feel now?"
She sighed. "Tired, again."
"That's not surprising. Your body is still undergoing a lot of healing. Come on, I'll put you to bed. Lance will wake you on ship's time, which will be about four hours from now, and you can meet the rest of the survivors."
She nodded, her eyes seemingly growing heavy even as I watched. She shuffled back into the bedroom and lay down in bed. I rejoined her after putting up the towels. "Here's some clothing for you tomorrow; I understand your people were used to clothes. So are mine, still." I smiled. "Goodnight, Lindsay."
I turned for the door. "Wait," she said. I walked back towards her. She reached a hand up. "This isn't a dream, but it feels like one. Do you promise me it's not a nightmare?"
"I can't promise, Lindsay. Only you can decide if this is a good dream or a bad dream." I took her hand.
She nodded. "It figures you would say something like that. Ken?"
I leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Lindsay. Goodnight. See you in a couple of hours."