A hand on my shoulder shook me gently. "Ken?" a voice whispered in my ear. "Ken, wake up!"
Reluctantly, I paid attention to the voice, knowing that it had to be someone important-- else how would they have gotten into my sleeping quarters? As I came further toward consciousness I realized that the bed I lay on was not familiar to me and that the voice in my ear had a peculiar tone to it. I had heard a voice speaking llerkindi, for one thing. For another, this bed used a gelatin mattress whereas my usual bedding used a more traditional stuffing. I opened one eye and looked into the face of Queen Anlestin's bodyguard. "Pal?"
She whispered, "You instructed me to awaken you two hours after dawn." She placed a narrow finger over her thin lips. "Anni's next to you and she's still asleep."
I nodded, glancing over in that direction momentarily before rolling out of bed, carefully slipping out from underneath the covers. Quiet as a Felinzi I slid over to my bags and pulled out fresh clothing. "Thanks, Pal. Sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you," she whispered. "Very nicely." She smiled as she said it. Last night had been something of an adventure for both of us. I slid on a shirt, boots, and a knee-length men's skirt that it had taken P'nyssa a long time to convince me I should try. I'm not a creature of fashion. But I had come to enjoy the rough-cloth skirts that had become a standard part of the cycle of male fashions. She waved her hand to get my attention. "I will be downstairs making something for breakfast."
I nodded. After she had disappeared, I made use of the bath for all the usual functions, including brushing my hair back and pinning it with an elastic. I also wore a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of aviator glasses to keep my eyes comfortable from the bright day outside. I packed my bag in the bathroom, which is sound-shielded to prevent those outside from listening in.
I slipped out of the bathroom and tried to reach the elevator without waking Anni, but she had apparently heard us sometime during the operation. "Aren't you going to kiss me goodbye?" she murmured from her bed.
I put my bag down by the elevator and walked back to the bed. She lay on one side of the enormous mattress, an arm dangled over the side casually. I knelt down beside her. "Hi," she said.
"Hi," I said, kissing her cheek softly. "Will you take care of yourself while I'm gone?"
"I promise. Pal will, too."
"Good," I chuckled. "Hey."
"I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to play out some of your fantasies."
She smiled sadly. "I am a Queen and you are... something else. Sometimes we don't have time for ourselves, or our fantasies."
I sighed. "Yeah." I kissed her lips, and her tongue came out to greet mine and wish me a good morning... and a fond farewell. "Bye, my princess."
"Goodbye, my love."
I made my way to the kitchen. "'Morning," I said.
"Here," Pal said, shoving a warm sandwich into my hands. "Eat." She handed me a mug of something cool. "Drink."
I accepted the food from here, wolfing them down as she took my bags. "Come on."
"Hey!" I said around a mouthful. "A little rushed today, aren't we?"
"You said you wanted a four-after lift-off. If we are going to make that, you have to be on the tarmac in about twenty minutes."
"Pal," I said, "That's when I wanted to leave. But it's not like I'm on a schedule or anything. The Ille Pendoro isn't scheduled to make transit for another four days. That's how much time I have."
She stopped for a second. "I guess I am rushing things."
"I guess you are. Are you that anxious to get rid of me?"
She shook her head. "No, it is nothing like that. I hope it is nothing like that."
"You're not... a little confused about last night, are you?"
"What is there to be confused about? I expected to live only eighty, maybe a hundred years if I was lucky. I am now over four hundred. I generally cannot stand men. Last night the man who gave me that much lifetime gave me an orgasm, and then slept next to me with my best friend and Queen of my people between us. Confused? Sometimes around you I feel lucky if I have a single second of clarity to myself!"
I was surprised by the force of her words. "I... Am I supposed to be sorry, Pal? Help me understand."
"No, it is not your fault. I accepted all of those things. I just... sometimes wonder how I ended up here."
I swallowed the remains of my breakfast. "Come on," I said. "Let's get moving."
We took the same jeep she had driven two days ago. As we sped through the city, I said, "Thank you for last night."
She smiled. It looked odd on her-- shy, which was something Pal was not. "Thank you," she said. "Never tell my friends I told you this, Ken, but I like you."
I laughed. "You've already told me that. Do you still like me even if I make your life so confusing?"
"Even so," she agreed.
"That's good. I like you too, Pal. And I appreciate how good you are to Anni."
"I could not be anything else," she said. "Anni needs someone so badly and you are not available all the time. Not even some of the time. Which is a shame because she needs someone as strong and as good as you and as male as you, and I am afraid I fail to fit into any of those categories. I just pretend to it as I go along."
"I think that's all anyone ever does," I said.
We reached the starport. Pal again demonstrated her mad driving habits that she had apparently taught Anlestin as we careened through the front gate and out among the smaller vessels. "That must be yours," she said, pointing to one. "Mark 454 Starcruiser. Just like the vessel that started the increasingly poorly-named llerkin/Pendor War."
I laughed. "You're reading my editorials again."
"Everybody hears about them one way or another. Anni told me that one."
The jeep approached the Starcruiser. "Who's that?" I asked, pointing to two figures standing next to the ship.
"I do not know," Pal said.
She slowed, and we rolled up to the side of the Starcruiser. The two figures came into focus-- two Felinzi, both female, one significantly smaller than the other. As we came closer, I realized that the shorter one was quite a bit younger. "Good morning," I said as we came closer.
"Good morning," said the taller Felinzi. "I understand this Starcruiser is going to Pendor today, and I was hoping that the pilot could take my daughter back to Pendor with him if there's room."
"Well, there's room, and I'm the pilot." I took off the hat and aviator's glasses and let my hair fall about my shoulders. "Ken Shardik, at your service."
I could have knocked her over with a hairball at ten meters-- and I still don't know if I find that reaction flattering or annoying. "I... I'm sure she'll be safe with you, sir," the Felinzi stammered. "I'm... Kzarren Meffern. This is my daughter-- "
"Tylia!" the young girl said, standing up. "You're going to be the pilot?"
"That's what it looks like to me," I said, leaping out of the jeep. I grabbed my bags and tossed them through the open airlock door. "M'Tylia, if you'd put your stuff on board, we'll be ready to go in just a few minutes. M'Kzarren, is there anyone I should contact when I get to Pendor?"
"Her uncle is K'Nash. He knows she's coming home and I'll gradio ahead after you lift off to tell him which vessel. He'll probably meet you at Parma. You are going to Parma?"
"Yes, I'm going to Parma." The wind had picked up this morning and my hair kept trying to flay my eyeballs as I tossed my bags through the hatchway. "M'Tylia, pick one of the two cabins in the aft port and toss your bags in there. Then get seated in the copilot's chair." I turned back to M'Kzarren. "We should be home in about fifty hours or so. Long and boring. Does she have anything to do for that long?"
The Felinzi gave me an enigmatic smile. "She will now. Thank you for agreeing to take her, Sh'Ken. The next transport isn't for another ten days and she is anxious to get home."
"My pleasure," I said, peering back at the child who looked to be about the same age as my daughter, Sheja. "You'd better stand clear, M'Kzarren. I want to get moving. Looks like a storm is picking up. Pal, could you take this lovely fem to the edge of the tarmac?"
"Certainly. If you will get in the car?" The Felinzi nodded and walked over to the jeep.
"Goodbye, Pal," I said. "Be good to Anni, not for my sake, but because you want to. And be good to yourself, too. You deserve it. Besides, aren't you nobility now or something?"
"Something like that," she admitted. "You take care of yourself too."
I stepped back and closed the hatch, listening for the familiar sigh of sealant inflating the ring. "Reeds?"
"Here, Ken," the AI responded crisply. "And with you until your transit into hyperspace. How was your visit to the world I now administer?"
"Uneventful," I replied, chuckling. "How's the ship?"
"Fit for duty," he replied. "The young lady has taken the rear cabin and is currently preening herself."
I sat down in the command chair and looked over the status displays he had indicated. Pilots approach the 454 Starcruiser with a peculiar blend of anticipation and superstition. The 454, designed in the early sixth century, still holds the rank of most popular short-haul shuttle in all of known space. I like them, as do most of the pilots who fly them. Which is why we're superstitious about them. Almost every time there's an accident, it's in a 454, just because there are so many of them.
The engineering unit, which takes up slightly less than half of the ship's volume, weighs down the aft starboard side of the ship. Wedged up against it is the environmental module-- including the bathroom. That makes up about nine meters. Another meter for the hallway, and another two for the cabin space-- twelve meters wide. And about fourteen long, with another six meters tacked in front of that for the half-circle front cabin, which also affords a complete 180 degree view of glass, port to starboard and 90 degrees from floor to curved ceiling. It gives the front of the ship about 140 square meters of floor space and each cabin about twenty or so. Comfortable for short-haul cargo, exploration, and recreation. One of the most popular modifications involves installing a large bed and sailing to view romantic stars and nebulae nearby.
Right now the thing looked-- desolate. Huge. Too much room behind me on off-white metallic floors. Two chairs bolted to the floor in the very front of the cabin were all that disturbed the empty space. By tradition, the chairs were upholstered in bright hot orange-- an ugly color that nobody actually wants to look at, which is why you sit in them and face away into the blackness of space.
I toggled a switch. "M'Tylia, could you come up here?" She joined me, still so happy she seemed ready to bounce off the walls. I pointed to the other chair. "Sit. Please. And strap yourself in. We're about to get going and I don't want you leaping around the cabin while we're doing atmospheric maneuvers." I looked at the display. The wind blew by at twenty four klicks out of the south.
I looked down at the external controls and saw that we were hooked to a GEV lander. "Fair enough," I said. I warmed up the standby fusion drive to full power, then kick-started the two main drives. With the standby I fed power to the landing trolley, which slowly rose off the ground on four powerful fans until achieving full ground effect. I opened the two small air-breathing jets at the sides of the trolley and pushed us out onto the runway. "Okay, Reeds, how's the traffic today?"
"If there were any, I'd tell you. You're it until about seven after."
"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind." 454's are about as aerodynamic as cinder blocks, but we still use waterway runways-- mostly to keep the damage from the fusion drives from tearing up roads. I pushed us down the runway towards the water. We hit with a spray of water and began tearing across the sea, reaching for the magical one-thousand KPH. It hit and I pushed down on the vertical lift. The rear drive roared to full life, the vertical lifts whined at high pitch. Finally the ship lifted into the air. I pushed a button. A loud CLANG rang out as the trolley let go and splashed back to the ocean. Once it floated back to the surface it would make its way to shore and get ready for another launch.
The 454 rumbled and roared and took to the blackening sky. I kept the ship's drives at full throttle, 40 meters per second squared, until the planet's pull dropped below five percent, then backed down to 25 mps squared. The engines quieted down to a more comforting rumble where they would stay for the next four hours until the ship had reached a height far enough above the planetary plane that we could safely go into hyperspace.
I clicked on autopilot and sat back in my chair with a sigh. "Well," I said. "I certainly hope you've got something to do, 'cause this is going to be a long trip."
"I can't believe you're going to be the pilot!" she said again, and behind the smile that went with her exclamation I could see wheels turning.
"Somebody's gotta fly the things, M'Tylia," I sighed. "Why not me?"
"It's just Tylia. It's a pain saying 'M'Tylia' all the time."
I nodded. "Tylia it is."
"Deal." She held out her hand. I laughed at the gesture, but accepted it for what it was and shook on it. "What are you doing on llerkin? If that's not a rude question."
"Don't you watch the news?" I asked.
I shook my head. "Visiting Princess Anlestin on my way back to Pendor."
"Visiting the Queen? Neat! You haven't been home to Pendor yet? Wow. When you left, I was-" She paused to do the calculation. "Five. You've been away a long time."
"Guess so. What are you doing on llerkin, if I may ask."
"Visiting my folks."
"You don't sound happy about it."
"They're planetologists. The big sort. Visiting them isn't too exciting. Llerkin is boring."
"I guess that depends on what you're there to do."
She unclipped her safety harness and stepped out, standing. She was very pretty, so much so that much to my frustration I found myself attracted to her. Frustrated because she couldn't have been much older than fourteen and I'd just survived through another similar attraction, that one to Sheja. She stepped lightly into the rear cargo area, her tail following her in the air like a big, furry 'S.' She returned a moment later with two 600ml containers. "Want one?" she offered.
I sniffed. Soda. "Sure."
She stood, looking out the window. Not that there was much to see; we were moving far too slowly to see anything. Her best view would have been one through a rear camera, watching llerkin recede from view, although even now we were already too far away for her to see it change much. She sat back down in her chair. It made a soft "whumph!" sound as she did. "Still can't believe I'm the same shuttle with you!"
"Tylia, will you stop saying that!"
"I guess it's the honor of having all this time alone with you." She didn't turn back to view me. "I've read all your Journal Entries."
"All of them?" I asked dubiously.
"Yeah, all of 'em. My folks went to Rhysh once in a while so they're level. Too level sometimes."
I chuckled. "Well, you can't have read all of them. There are so many of them and you're only... what?"
"Twelve? Gods, I would have guessed fourteen."
She laughed. "Yeah, everybody says that."
"You're twelve and you've read the Journal Entries? I mean, even the really strong ones?"
"The ones between you and Aaden?" she asked, mischievously. "Yeah."
"Wow," I said, not quite sure how to respond to that. "I can't imagine someone letting their twelve-year-old daughter read my kinky stories."
"Well, your kids can read them, right?"
I thought about that. "You're right. Never did think of it that way. So," I said, trying to change the subject before I turned a redder shade, "What do you want to do when you get back to Pendor?"
"I want to be a genetic engineer."
"Really?" I asked, fascinated. So few people actually wanted to be gene engineers. The risks were enormous and the competition fierce. So few paths that gene engineers took actually resulted in something you could release. "What, in particular, are you interested in? Any particular field?"
I'm not an empath. According to P'nyssa, telepathically contacting me takes more energy than with most people because my mind doesn't have the organization it takes to be receptive to psionics, much less actually have the talents. Even with that handicap, I could feel the waves of discomfort coming off of Tylia. Her embarrassment resonated loudly. She finally found the nerve to speak. "Sentient design."
I didn't laugh-- a good thing. If I had, I probably would have shattered any real drive she had at that point. There are, maybe, five people in the known universe who understand sentient design, and I'm one of them. Anyone undertaking this blackest of all the genetic arts had better be good. I hoped she was good. "Mmm-hmm."
"What does that mean?" she asked, turning to me.
"I don't know. Do you really want to try and learn something that really isn't taught anywhere? People study sentient design for years without ever really getting it."
She nodded. "I know. But I really think I understand it. I mean, I read Thankso and Gramm's paper last year on the acceptable limitations of hormonal unbalancing last year, and it made sense to--"
"Whoa, whoa. You read the T&G hormone paper?"
She nodded, blushing. On a Felinzi, that means her nose and her ears grew a little darker and her ears drooped downwards. "That's why I was so amazed when I saw you were going to be the pilot. I read theirs, and I read the Shardik and Shardik documentation on designing towards a non-humanoid frame with telepathic implementation. I've been studying a lot in the past year, mostly xeno-stuff. I... I was going to write the University at Sinaloa when I got back to Pendor, but something must be guiding me, 'cause I have a chance to ask you."
"Ask me what?"
"Can I... Can I study at Pindam?"
I almost laughed again. As I record this, I'm grateful I didn't. "Well... " I said. "What are you asking for?"
"I want to be an apprentice. Kinda like a sorcerer's apprentice. I want to be your apprentice. I want to work for you. Study for you. Get to know you. Figure out what you do that makes you so different from everyone else, makes you know how to do this stuff."
The earnest desire in her voice to be a part of something came through very clearly, but likewise something else did too. Maybe it was just my typical perceptions coloring everything in that way that it does, but I had to admit that I found this far-too-young lady in the chair opposite mine to be very attractive in that youthful and energetic way that's all too rare among adults. Aaden achieves it on rare occasions, but he's special. I sighed; I think she took that the wrong way, because her face drooped a little when she heard it.
"I don't know, Tylia. Let me think about it. Can you allow me to read your school records?"
She nodded. "I think so. I might have to call my mother."
"Then do it." I gestured towards the console. "Now. We're going into hyperspace in three hours, and she might not be available."
She began the process of contacting her mother. Fortunately, we had the help of the third member of our crew, Reeds, who I had forgotten about in all the rush to get off-world. Lots of AIs are like that-- they want you to forget that they're even there, just allow them to do their jobs with a minimal amount of interference. Reeds was like that. Fortunately, David isn't like that.
Within twenty minutes we had contacted her mother and received authorization to review her records. They were downloaded to the ship in a matter of another couple of minutes. I secured the station-- nothing to do for the next couple of hours anyway-- and sat down to read them. "This is going to take a while, Tylia."
She nodded. "You mean, I should find something to do."
"Exactly." She picked up a PADD from the small schoolbag she had brought into the cabin and began looking for something. I sat back with my own PADD and began reviewing the data she had sent me.
Tylia Meffern, age twelve, thirteen next month. Her parents are botanical planetologists-- hmm, they should get along with Aaden real well, then-- and she's, well, precocious. Cloned her first rat when she was nine, apparently, and in the four years since then has spent a lot of time doing a self-directed study of sentient design. After more than two hours of reading through the report, I looked up. "It says here that last year you won a recognition award from Sinaloa for designing a better rat."
"Two awards. One for my work on the brain-- better pattern recognition, faster maze-learning systems. I figured out what made the best maze-learners work and made the genes that did it propagate into the next generation."
"What was the other award for?"
She smiled wider. "Security control. Build a better rat, and you don't want it to get loose."
"What do you know about the non-brain influence of t2-aphedrine?" I said, trying something out of thin air.
Her response was almost immediate. "T2-aphedrine is a compensation mechanism found in the Han for the emotional stress related to having cycling rates of testosterone and t2-estrogen in their bloodstream. You can't say there's a non-brain 'influence.' All of it comes back to the way the brain perceives the body's response limitations. That's from your old essay, 'The Shape Of The Body.'"
I chuckled, caught. "Okay, I'm impressed. On the other hand, my first son knew the names of every dinosaur that had ever walked across the face of the Earth when he was ten years old." I realized as I said it that comparing Richard's memorization of names that clearly impressed young minds to her ability to synthesize even simple answers from the material she made were worlds apart.
I sighed. "Look, Tylia, I don't know what I'm going to do with you. I can't... I don't know if I have a place for you. I don't even know what you really want?"
"I want to work for you!" she protested. "I want to learn... everything. See?" She held up the PADD she'd been looking at for the last hour. "I've been studying Ritan design, endocrinology, stuff like that. I want to be part of the project. I want... I want you to be my... mentor." It felt to me that she had torn that last word from somewhere else. The word had meaning to her. Meaning that I hadn't heard from her yet-- and almost instantly recognized.
"Tylia... " I said. "You better not be asking for what I think you're asking for."
"Why not?" she demanded, suddenly shifting into pouty defiance.
"Do you really want to sleep with me?"
"If that's the price for getting into Alpha and learning from you, yes! I read that story about you and Aaden and what was his name... Khai. Yeah. Aaden said he didn't know many girls who went through the kind of thing Khai did but he was sure there were some. Maybe I'm one of 'em!"
"Maybe you are," I said. She had me backed into a corner, but I saw an easy way out. "Maybe you are not. I could say no, just so that you wouldn't look like a whore trying to get something out of me. On the other hand, if I accepted, it might be because I want to look like a man of principles who you don't have to sleep with to get what you want." I grinned. "Bad move."
"I just want to talk first. Please?" Her eyes were wet and pleading. "I just want to talk. I just want to know if there's a chance you'll be my mentor? I'm not a child."
"Yes, you are."
"You know what I mean!"
"No," I admitted. "I don't know what you mean. I don't read minds." Flustered, I wasn't sure where to go with this conversation. I just stared at her, churning thoughts in my head and feeling manipulated. I didn't know where to go with this conversation and I was afraid of where I could end up. This went on for quite a few minutes, long enough for the alarm to go off. "Look, I have to pay attention to the ship. We're about to make the jump to lightspeed."
She nodded, then looked down. "Forget it."
"What?" I asked, surprised.
"Just forget it. It was a dumb idea. Forget I asked." She hopped out of her chair and ran for the rear of the ship and her cabin.
I examined the controls. I had about four minutes left. "Reeds, I don't know what to do with her."
"Neither do I," Reeds intoned casually. "But then, she is no longer my problem. Should I forward the gist of your conversation with her to her mother?"
I thought about it. It disturbed me to think that someone else might know of our conversation. Someone other than an AI, I mean. "No, not just yet." Jump in two minutes. "I still haven't decided I'm going to accept."
"Very well. I shall keep it in mind if we need it."
"Thanks." I dropped the fusion drive down to zero and coasted into position for the jump past lightspeed. Forty seconds passed. A gentle lurch occurred, more in my mind than in reality, and the stars through the front window began to fly past at high speed. These 'stars' were more projection than reality, created by a common computer program to simulate the feeling of movement.
I retreated to my own cabin to read, and to think.
Nine hours later an alarm buzzed above my head. "Wha?" With no AI on board to tell me what the call was about, I fumbled to get to the controls on the head board. The image resolved quickly. "Hullo?"
"Did I wake you?" asked the lovely, if too-thin, Mephit on the other side of the screen.
"Yeah, 's okay. How's life, Aanji?"
"Hectic. That shouldn't surprise you. You're the cause of all this insanity. Nice haircut, by the way." She sighed deeply. "The people on the Ille Pendoro have just sprayed the ring with a Huffman transmission in the clear-- they obviously wanted everyone to hear it." She saw my eyebrows rise a cent at that. "The message requests permission on the part of two of the crew, their Chief Engineer and their Chief Medical Officer, to accompany the survivors quote through every step of the recovery process unquote."
"Okay..." I said. Then I realized what they were trying to accomplish. "They're right."
"I beg your pardon?"
I laughed. "Aanji, they're trying to keep us from murdering those males."
"Why would we do that?" she asked, now more confused.
"Because if we let the tanks fail, as they would without drastic intervention, then this whole thing becomes an archaeological expedition which I could direct at my whim. If they survive, the matter becomes much stickier, since it will then become a rescue, subject to the Genocide Provision of Article Five of the llerkin-Pendor-Terra Pact."
Aanji stroked the tip of her muzzle with her hand. "You would do that? Let them die?"
"Honestly? It wasn't an option that had occurred to me until the Pendoro crew suggested it as a possibility, but yeah, if I were Machiavellian enough I might have done it." I looked down at my PADD. "Does the Pendoro crew know they might have to turn right around?"
"The Pendoro crew isn't going to be up to that. The Handele, however, will be. A whole new crew is readying it to space in four weeks."
She smiled. "Etta."
"Good for her!" I said. "It's crazy, Aanji. Crazy, crazy, crazy. Hey, speaking of madness, I've got a request for you."
"I'd like to take on an apprentice."
"A what?" she asked, surprised.
"An apprentice. You know, a sorcerer's apprentice. Something like that."
"What does he know?"
I forwarded the report I had to her. She worked her muzzle thoughtfully. "Doesn't seem like a very good student. Maybe first year of postgraduate although a little light on theory. Why her?"
"Would you be surprised if she was twelve years old?"
"Twelve?" Aanji asked. "Twelve? You want me to invite a twelve year old girl into Alpha?"
"No, I'm asking you to allow me to invite her."
"And the rest of Alpha has to put up with this?"
I glared at her. "Alpha is my team, Aanji, don't forget that. You're here because it's in my best interest to have someone with your skills here. Look, this argument is stupid. If you can't handle working with a reasonably mature twelve-year-old girl walking around my lab asking questions and learning, tell me now." Even as I said it I realized that she knew exactly what she could say to convince me otherwise. I had hired her to do her job. She knew better than I did what the team could and could not sustain.
She sighed and glanced offscreen at someone or something. "It's just one more huge complication."
"I can see your point, Aanji. If she's a problem, I promise she'll be on an Sdisk back to her uncle first thing in the morning. We've got three huge lab assignments coming up, none of which are in our traditional line of work. The Ritans aren't from our evolutionary line, the Han are hermaphrodites engineered by someone else, and in Unity we're going to be targeting sentience to avoid it, not create it. This does make your life more complicated.
"On the other hand," I continued, "There's a tradition of having student apprentices and she looks like she could be a good one. I mean, she's only twelve and she's already demonstrated that she can re-engineer rat brains and clone then in-vitro."
"Cloning rats is a childish experiment."
"Aanji, how old are you?" I asked, exasperated with her. "How old were you before you cloned your first rat?"
"I've never cloned rats, Ken. I'm here because I'm a program manager, remember?" She smiled tiredly. "It's entirely your decision, Ken. I appreciate your telling me first, but she's to be your responsibility. Remember that when it's comes to key coding, it's your mission priority. If you want a twelve-year-old girl on your library team, that's up to you. I question if it's your brain or your hormones making this decision, but ultimately you make or break the sentient design team."
"Well, thanks for that vote of confidence."
"Next item--" I waited for the bad news. "Terraforming is proceeding as planned. The processors are now on their way to Ritacha. It's going to take them four years to get there, since the engines don't push them nearly as fast as we'd like. The archaeologists want more time, as always."
"Aanji?" I asked. "I should probably warn you. Something huge is going to be leaving Pindam in a couple of days."
She looked up at me with alarm. "Huge? How huge?"
"Oh, about eleven kilometers across, shaped a little like an emergency landing capsule. You don't know where it is right now, and Hal will give you six hours warning before lift off. I just want you to be aware of it before it moves."
"What is it?"
I smiled. "Nazkrimpatul."
Aanji's eyes went wide. I love seeing that in her-- it makes her look so much like her brother. "Ringmaker?"
I nodded. "You said in your letter three days ago you had a star picked out."
"Well, yes, but... " She shook. "I thought Nazkrimpatul was a legend."
"You're not an evolutionist, are you?"
"Well... Um... No. But, I mean, a thousand years seems plausible. There are a couple of hundred people still alive who were here a thousand years ago and remember the beginning."
"In another eighty years, you'll be one of them."
"Don't remind me. But, the Ring-- I mean, it's millions of years old. Sometimes, it doesn't seem real that... that you made it." She sighed. "I forget who I'm talking to."
"No, you remember right. Ringmaker is just a tool, Aanji. An impressive one, but a tool nonetheless, and no more impressive than statis fields." I grinned. "Come on, you've slept with me. You know how awkward and gangly I can get."
She smiled. "You're right. So Ringmaker is on its way. At eleven kilometers, it's can't be any faster than the terraforming processors."
"You're right. In fact, it's on a Corrane-one drive. So it might not be actually leaving for a few days after it awakens. It might have to retrofit for the new technologies in space flight. Ringmaker isn't AI, but it's smart. And fast." I neglected to add that it cheats, too.
Aanji jotted something down on her PADD. "My life is too complicated."
"It's not going to get any better," I pointed out cheerfully.
"I'll remember you said that. We seem to be caught up." She pointed at me through the screen. "Do me a favor, and don't come to Alpha until the day before the Pendoro transits. You need a vacation. Take it. Use it. Stay home. Fuck my brother's brains out. That is an order."
I smiled. "Yes, Ma'am!"
"Until then, Aanji."
As the screen blinked out, I realized that I couldn't afford to get too much sleep on this trip. I looked at the clock and decided to get up. I was now three hours early out of synch with daylight at the Castle. I could probably get back to my normal schedule if I went to bed an hour early-- but then I realized that there was damned little to do on this ship to wear myself out enough to want to go to bed that early.
I sniffed myself and looked at my hair in the mirror. I stank all right. The hair was greasier than day-old fried chicken. I sighed and decided to head for the shower.
I opened the door to the hallway. Tylia was nowhere to be seen, so I sneaked across the hall with only a towel around my midriff and closed the bathroom door behind me. It suddenly occurred to me as I opened the door that she could be in the bathroom. Fortunately, she wasn't.
As the warm water hit me, I started to relax. I hadn't realized how tense this whole incident was making me. As the spray of water hit my shoulders and cascaded over my back and front, I could feel the heat penetrating me, loosening muscles and easing away a deep ache in my bones. I wondered if that came just from the past day. I hoped so.
I poured soap into my hands and proceeded to wash my hair, then the rest of me. When I got down to my crotch, I grabbed something solid. "What are you doing?" I asked my dick, which was hard for no apparent reason. I never get an answer back, which some of the fems in my life tell me is unusual. I slid my hands over my erection to wash it like everything else, and as is usually the case I found the pleasure of doing so inviting.
"Oh, what the Hell," I said to nothing in particular. I began stroking my cock slowly, enjoying the sensations that made me shiver every time I felt the crown of my cock head slide through my closed hand. With my other hand, I reached down and stroked my balls, tugging on the scrotum and enjoying the difference in sensation between the two. I couldn't remember the last time I masturbated, although memory served me well enough that it had been on the Handele and I had been in the shower then, too.
The water was running down my back as I leaned against the wall of the shower for support, letting myself get lost in the warm water and the hot, delicious sensation of my hand stroking my hard penis. The piercing I had gotten two years ago was still there, and I could feel the hard knobs at the ends of the barbell running under the pads of my fingers. After two years I still notice it, what a change it is.
As I started to breathe a little faster, my mind wandered, looking for something to fantasize about. I always do that, always have something to dream about when I'm masturbating.
My mind just wouldn't let her go, though. I couldn't close my eyes without wondering what Tylia looked like under those clothes. In my imagination, she looked less like a Felinzi and more like a Mephit-- I think I was confusing her with Sheja. But her name was Tylia in my fantasy. I wanted to kiss her, to grab her, to pick her lithe, little body up into my arms and hold her to me. I wondered how much she'd weigh, and how much I would feel if she were on top, taking my cock inside herself.
My gods, I was fantasizing about a twelve year old girl. But it was just fantasy, and I let it go. I dreamed of what she'd be like, lying in bed, facing me, her legs parted just slightly. What would it be like for me to crawl on top of her, to look down into her eyes and have her say "take me?" I could just barely imagine the feel of her fur under my hands, the excitement in my heart, the feel of her tight cunt as I penetrated her...
I barely noticed what I was doing with my hands. In my ears, over the sound of the falling water I could hear myself whispering her name, moaning her name as I came closer to orgasm. In my mind she was crying with pain and joy, feeling the way I do when I'm being flogged, or fucked, or fisted by someone who I know loves me.
I started to wonder what it was like to be her. I could feel her anxiety, her concern over what was happening, what would happen. I could imagine her voice, so full of life and so close to that indecisive edge between lust and fear. And as I made love to her, I imagined her holding onto me for dear life, for an experience we all go through once. As I came, I could hear my fantasy self thanking my fantasy of her for letting it be me.
"Whew," I said, again to nobody in particular. I pulled the shower handle off of its bracket and sprayed the wall where my semen had landed, washing it down the drain to the recycling plant. I blinked a couple of times-- spray from the shower had collected on my eyelashes-- and stretched. Standing like that for so long had made me cramp up again. Damn, I was out of shape.
I cleaned the rest of myself off and got out. I felt refreshed. I also didn't feel at all guilty. It was just fantasy, and I knew on which side of that line I stood. I also knew where I stood with Tylia.
"You bored?" I asked as I watched her touch her PADD for the fifth time in under a minute. I know very few people who read that fast. She was either channel surfing, or just flipping static material at random.
"A little," she said, petulantly. She didn't even bother to look at me.
"Wanna do something?"
"Like what?" Again, voice low and disinterested. If it was an act, it was a good one. For someone who had been so thrilled to have Ken Shardik as her sole audience for over thirty hours, she sure wasn't taking advantage of it.
"A round or two of Raider?"
I picked up my own PADD and looked to see if the game in question was in the database. Sure enough, it was. "Come on." I stood and led her back to the cargo area, a huge space, relatively speaking. In the middle stood twelve metallic canisters, all barely knee-high. "Raider is a silly game I used to play a long time ago. Got nostalgic for it suddenly. These canisters--" I ran my hand through one to show it was just a hologram-- "are ours. Now, out of the walls are going to come ships, first in waves of one, then two, then three, then four, then five, and they're going to try to grab these cans and run with them. They will get faster. We have to keep our cargo as long as possible. Hands are the only valid tag. And if you tag a ship that has a canister, the can stays where it is. Sound easy?" She nodded. "Want to play?" Nod again.
I hit the 'go' button on my PADD and tossed it across the room. It sailed through the air and landed on my chair perfectly. "Yes!" I said. The attack started. "Whoops!"
Tylia got the first one, and I got to see how fast she was. Fast enough. At this point in the game, the attack ships are pretty slow. They're just holograms, about the size of a medium-sized dog, squarish and glowing and hard to miss.
The second wave came. One ship, then another, staggered. I took care of the first, Tylia got the second. The battle continued.
The game got faster. I found myself diving for ships that ran off with canisters. By the fifteenth round we were facing waves of three moderately fast ships and already had lost two cans.
Tylia started breathing fast around round twenty-one-- and four ships came out. These were slower than round twenty's, but still more of them. I managed to tag one, fell forwards, looked up to see a ship getting away with a can, and rolled in the way. It's a little creepy to watch one of those things roll over you and not feel it, but a swipe of my hand and it disappeared, leaving me with a canister in my lap. I stood quickly for wave twenty-two.
Wave thirty, and five ships were coming at a time. They came from all sides-- from the walls, from around the corner to the cabins, even leaping out of my chair. They skittered across the ground and grabbed the canisters, and I was running to keep them from getting to the walls and disappearing with our cargo.
Tylia and I both dove for the fifth ship-- and knocked heads together. "Ouch!" I remember saying. She shouted something more appropriately incoherent. "Time!" I shouted at the ceiling. The game froze. Not that it mattered-- we were between waves. "You okay?"
She nodded. "Uh-huh." She rubbed her head appropriately. "You have a hard head, Shardik."
"So I've been told," I agreed. That got me the first grin I'd seen since "turning her down." I decided to work with it. "By the way, call me 'Ken.'"
"Okay, sir. 'Ken.' I figured you were gonna ask me that eventually."
"They why didn't you just start off calling me 'Ken?'"
"Well, I don't know. I mean, I don't know what you want to be called, really. I figured I should play it safe."
I nodded. "Do you really want to stay around me? I mean, do you really know what you're asking for?"
"I've read your journals; I know what you've taught other people, all the way back from the beginning!" She smiled. "And that includes the, uh, the sex."
"That interests you?" I asked.
"Rings, yes, it interests me!"
Her enthusiasm caught me off guard. Sitting on the floor as close as we were I could feel it coming off her in waves. I'm starting to wonder about that "psychically dead" part. "Woah, wait, I wasn't offering. I'm just talking, like you said."
"It does!" she continued in the same strong voice. "I mean, I I even play with myself."
Hearing words like those from a twelve-year-old girl surprised me. A lot. It was one of the few times I'd ever heard someone that young give such strong praise for their own sexuality, and her voice was full of appreciation. "Tylia," I asked, "Have you ever had sex with someone yet?"
"No " she begun.
"Then you don't know what you're asking for."
"I'm not asking for a repeat experience. Don't you understand? I know what it feels like. I know what I've read and what I've heard. I want to know what it's like with someone else. The fact that I don't right now is no reason for me not to ask I mean, just ask. Somebody's got to take my virginity sometime." She laughed. "Well, I'm clasisted, like everyone these days. I just figured... you know "
"And you want me to be the one?"
"I don't know yet. Wait," she said as I opened my mouth to interrupt. "I know that that's the answer you'd want to hear. So I know you're gonna be suspicious when I say it 'cause you know I've read all your stories. But it's also the answer I want to give."
I stood up. "I have to check the controls."
She interrupted my examination by taking the copilot's chair again, saying, "I think... I think one of the problems you're having is that if you accept an offer from me, who else will ask you in the future?"
"That's a very mature thought," I said, smiling at her reservedly.
"Well, somebody had to say it. Look, how many kids... " She laughed. "Oh, rings. Yeah, you're right. How many kids my age have access to your journals and have read and understood enough of them to even ask what I'm asking you for?"
"I have a good enough idea!" She was going to pout.
"Yeah, I bet you do. You're one of the smartest twelve-year-olds I've ever met."
She grinned wide. "Thanks. You know, I think that by itself is going to make my day.
I smiled and checked the readouts again. In my mind I thought about who I would need for advice on this. Aaden, certainly-- despite her features Tylia came across as a tomboy. I wondered at the power dynamic involved in her being a fem, though unlike Aaden and those rare "students" of his, Tylia literally could not give as good as she got. P'nyssa probably. A few others came to mind.
I thought about the funk she had gone through all morning and I realized that her sulkiness was the other side of her youth. I guess if I was prepared to enjoy one I would have to learn to help her through the other. The mere suggestion that I wanted to 'enjoy' her bothered me, but isn't that exactly what Aaden had asked me many years ago. I enjoy young people already, for their athleticism, their energy, their boundless curiosity. Was Tylia really offering me something different in asking me to enjoy her sexuality as well? I didn't have an answer for that yet. But I wanted to give her that chance.
"Tylia," I said, still checking over the last of the readouts, "I've already spoken to Aanji on Alpha. I'll have to get advice from some other people and I'll have to talk to your parents, too. But I'm willing to give you a fair chance. Fuck this 'I don't have time' crap. I better make time. I'm going to live for a lot longer, and that's time enough for me, but you're not going to be young forever and I don't really have the right to take away from you such a wonderful possibility. I'll see if I can get you into Alpha."
There was complete silence from her chair. Then, in a careful voice she asked, "Do you really mean that?"
"I mean that with all honesty."
She bounded out of her chair and dropped into my lap, throwing her arms around me. "Thank you, Ken! Thank you so much! I won't let you down."
"I hope not. I think we're sticking you with either Kamron or Baler. Probably Baler."
"Baler?" She stuttered the word. "B...Baler? The one who solved the evolutionary problem of Egan's Sheets?"
I nodded. She lunged for me, gripping me so tightly she cut off the circulation to my brain. "You won't regret this!"
I rubbed my head. Her sudden action had made the pain return. "I regret it already. Ouch."
"It's okay. You'll be working as his understudy on Ritan sensory mechanisms, if I remember my assignments clearly. I'll be working on DNA translations into Pendorian schemas-- so you'll end up reporting to Baler, who reports to me." I paused. "That is, after I get both Baler's and your parents' permissions."
"You'll get my folks, fast!" she said.
"I plan on telling them everything we've talked about."
That stopped her. "Oh." She looked at me.
I nodded. "I'm extreme, but I'm honest. At least, that's how people tell me they see me. Which will your parents focus on?"
"I don't know. I guess they'll let me work with you. Would you work with me if they don't want us to... ?"
"It's not like I can't find excitement elsewhere, Tylia. I'm not even sure I want to find it with you. I do know that you have a tremendous opportunity to make a lifetime of respect out of the Ritans right here and now."
"Good." She eased herself out of the chair, noticed the game still running behind us. "Score?"
"Twenty Nine to Twenty Six, Meffrn." The voice sounded stilted, mechanical, unfriendly. I wished for an AI.
"I won!" she said.
"I'm thirsty," I said. For some reason, that lump on my head wasn't clearing very quickly. I hoped it wasn't anything serious. She put a glass in front of my nose. "Here. More soda. Your favorite." She made a face.
"You do read closely," I observed.
"Nah. I saw you drinking some earlier and could smell it."
"How soon until we get home?"
"About six hours," I said. "I'm going to go lie down. I feel dizzy."
"You want me to bring you anything?"
I shook my head. "No, but if I'm not awake when we get to transit, could you make sure I do wake up?"