The heaters had finally warmed the room up to an acceptable temperature and life support had been established in the basement. All the glaring, buzzing neon lights had been replaced with steady glowstrips. The broken windows had been replaced with something far stronger but just as clear. With care and caution the University at Besnial began once more to radiate life. In the recovery rooms of their once and hopefully future medical school, aestheticians worked through the day to establish the kind of environment we hoped our patients would recognize as they came to. It would be the only thing they recognized. It had to be enough.
At the same time, the actual Alpha contact team rehearsed their lines, their options, the strategies and scenarios. Brieanna, bless her merciless soul, had agreed to script the battle plan for wakeup and had actually left the Ring to come join us. She, more than anyone else, held together this nervous scheme. We had nothing to work with-- there was no precedent. Not even the Han would be of help here although Cordelia Lear, the senior medical staffer for the Han at Cutter's, had agreed to come along. Her input, like almost everyone else's, had proved invaluable.
The archaeologists had done a lovely job of photographing and cataloging everything before we moved it. Not a single item in this room was out of place. We were overly fortunate that in many ways the Ritans had settled into a way of life familiar to both Pendorians and Terrans. The Ritans had a slightly stronger sense of a deity in this culture but all indicators were that the ones in the Forcassa Project had been among the most agnostic, the least likely to have fanatic inclinations. They treasured personal initiative and personal freedoms, believed in both personal respect and personal merit, and considered their way of life to be adequate to their needs but still strove for better in this life. They still had flaws, knew them, fought against them, and sought to rise above them.
My kind of people.
Aanji came into the observation room. "Okay, we're ready." On the other side of a one-way mirror, two Ritan males slept in separate square beds in a very typical hospital room. Curtains had been drawn just enough to stop them from seeing the other on wakeup, but not to stop us from seeing them. Erroll and Sandahl, as far as we could determine from their ident cards. The only survivors. Three months ago they had been cold slabs of meat, Sandahl a little colder than Erroll, but fortunately for both neither had been completely frozen through. Or perhaps a little unfortunately. Of 256 Ritans, they alone lived. No friends. No enemies. No females. Just them. And by all accounts in Sandahl's diary, they didn't have much to say to one another. Just two mels on the same team, no personal interests in common of which to speak. Even that they both flew aircraft didn't seem a common bond between them.
Brieanna nodded, looked down at her PADD and pushed a highlight on the display. The small SDisk on the table glowed briefly and an alphawave inducer appeared on it. P'nyssa glanced at a wall display. "Sandahl on natural sleep now."
It didn't take long-- they'd been artificially kept unconscious for a long time. He groaned softly, raising his head and blinking at the soft, low light within. I watched the translation which scrolled across the bottom of the observation window like a subtitled movie. "Oh. Ow. genexpl That hurts."
P'nyssa said, "Nix, could you translate 'general expletive' as 'damn'? Seems to be closest in meaning."
"Thank you. I think I have a good grasp on most of the other slang terms I am expected to deal with."
"Good enough," I muttered.
"Where am I?" He collapsed back onto the bed. Something seemed to catch his eye. "I am in the University Hospital?"
"How could he know that?" Aanji asked.
"It is written on the bedsheets and pillow cases. 'Property of Besnial University Hospital'," Nix pointed out.
"Gotcha," Aanji said.
"Nurse!" He looked around puzzled. "Nurse! Damn, where is a nurse?"
"Show time," Brieanna said. The door on the right wall opened and Cordelia eased herself into the hospital room, mindful of the top of the door. We had been fortunate that they made their hospitals large enough to handle themselves and their equipment, and therefore she had only to stoop some of the time.
"Who--" Sandahl stopped and stared, his eyes wide. "What are you?"
"Sandahl?" Cordelia asked. "Please don't panic."
"What are you?" he repeated.
She walked to his bedside. "Before I answer your questions, answer a few of mine. Are you Sandahl?" Sandahl looked like he was about to make another demand, then finally nodded, never taking his eyes from her. "Good," Cordelia said. "Are you in pain anywhere?"
"Everywhere. I feel like I have been run over by a rubbish truck."
"That's natural to feel after coldsleep resuscitation. At least your eyes are intact. We were afraid for a while that you might be blind." Cordelia reached out a hand. He flinched. "I'm a doctor, Sandahl. Stand still." She pressed her hand against his throat, and he looked frightened for a second. "Heartbeat high."
"What do you expect? Who are you? Damn, what are you? Where is Captain Razziress?"
"Tell the truth," Brieanna said into her microphone.
"Captain Razziress is dead."
"Captain Razziress took her own life in 1785."
Sandahl seemed to try to digest that information, failed, then tried again. "Sui-- 1785? That... that is four hundred years after the war. We froze in 1385."
"That is correct."
"What year is it now?"
"By your calendar, 2408. One thousand twenty three years later."
Sandahl's jaw dropped. He looked around. "Help me up," he demanded. "Please. At least tell me your name."
"Cordelia. Cordelia Lear." She pronounced it slowly as she took him by the arm and slowly helped him pull himself out of bed. He took to four feet carefully, his legs wobbly underneath him.
He shrugged her off as he seemed to find his footing, then walked slowly toward the window. He noticed the other body sleeping there. "Who is that?"
"Erroll Veray," Cordelia said.
He looked out the window then. The view on this side of the hospital afforded a look of the entire lake. "It looks cold out there."
"It is. The nuclear winter Heeram and Tream started is still raging."
"How... How many others survived?"
Cordelia took a deep breath. "Gently," Brieanna said. "But honest."
Cordelia touched his shoulder. "Sandahl... you are it."
"Me? Us? Erroll and I are all that survived? Two males?"
Cordelia nodded. "There might be a third male, Darch Danchlerri. He's in such critical shape we have already shipped him to our homeworld. The equipment we have there might save him." Nice touch, I thought.
I couldn't see the expression on Sandahl's face. "Oh, oh, damn. What are we going to do? What can we do?"
"I'm waking up Erroll now," Brieanna said. "Sandahl needs the distraction."
"Is that wise?" I asked as the SDisk glowed and another inducer appeared.
"We only get one shot at this," Brieanna said. "I've made some guesses, but I'm really running on instinct here. I think he needs a voice he understands."
A groan within the room brought Sandahl to attention. He crawled out of bed despite Cordelias's advice to him and walked to the side of Erroll's bed. "Erroll?"
"Erroll, it is I, Sandahl."
That sounded a little stilted, and I said so. "A little more colloquial, please, Nix. 'It's me.' Use contractions."
"Working on it," the AI responded.
"Erroll, it's me, Sandahl. You remember me, don't you? I flew with you on tryouts a couple of weeks ago." Sandahl caught himself as he spoke, realizing that, in truth, a couple of weeks ago was many centuries ago.
"Sandahl. Yeah. Remember you."
"Erroll, please, wake up."
"Tired," the other male Ritan said. He hadn't raised his head yet.
"Erroll Veray, I am your attending physician, Cordelia Lear. If you would please look at me."
"Doc?" Erroll opened his eyes, blinked, and then began to thrash on the bed. "Go away! Go away!"
"Erroll!" Sandahl said, putting his hands on Erroll's shoulders and grabbing him. "ERROLL! STOP!"
"What... what is she? What's happening here?" I know terror when I see it. Erroll teetered on the brink of an all-out panic attack.
"Erroll, I don't know yet either. Stop fighting me! Stop it, damn it!" Erroll had managed to claw himself an extra meter of distance away from Cordelia. "Erroll, please, calm down. You're not helping."
"Where... where are we?"
"Besnial Uni Hospital. We... there's been an accident."
"I couldn't have put it better myself," Aanji muttered, underscoring what had to be the greatest understatement of all time. Their commander's suicide, the failure of more than ninety percent of their cryo tubes, the end of the world-- I'd call that an "accident" too.
"What?" Erroll said. On the monitor, I could see his heartbeat coming down, but not by much.
"Erroll," Cordelia said softly, "You have to understand. It is 2048 on your calendar."
"What? That's... those tubes wouldn't last that long!"
"We didn't know how long they'd last," Sandahl pointed out. "We just knew that by 1400 about half of them would be gone."
"By twenty they should all have been gone!" Erroll argued.
"They all were," Cordelia said, her voice trying to remain calm. "All... but two."
"Two?" Erroll asked, looking at Sandahl. "You mean him... and me... are..."
"You are the only surviving Ritans," Cordelia said, taking in a deep breath after she said it. "There. The truth."
"That's not true," Erroll said, shaking his head. The panic was returning. "That's impossible!"
"No, Erroll, it's true," Sandahl said. "I... I only woke up a short while ago, but... I have no reason to not believe her. You are a her, right?" Cordelia nodded. It was close enough to the truth. "Erroll, look at her!"
"Erroll, please. Take a deep breath. Take one. Two. Three... good. Listen to me. You have to listen to me." Cordelia tried to sound calming.
"Why bother saving us? Why save us at all? Two males... we can't reproduce!"
"Nice, Nix," I commented.
Cordelia pulled up a waiting bench and sat down on it. "Because... because we need you."
"Who is 'we'?" Sandahl demanded. "You still haven't answered my question. What are we doing here? What are you doing here?"
"Okay. Our story starts about eight months ago. A starship known as the Ille Pendoro pulls into orbit around Ritacha on a routine mapping expedition. They find one of the saddest things they can find-- a nuclear winter blanketing your globe and no life underneath. Hidden in all this, though, they find... you.
"A hastily-assembled team of specialists gets on a starship from home and heads to Ritacha. To save you two, the last surviving tankers."
She looked at them. "That's really all there is to it."
"But... why? Who are you? Where do you come from?"
"Like I said, my name is Cordelia Lear, and I'm a doctor. My species is named Han. I come from a world named New Haven, which is much further away from here than the world I now live on. The world I now live on is called Pendor, and they saved me and my species from extinction and now I have joined the team that did so to help save you."
"How... how many of you were there?" Sandahl asked.
"Thirty seven. And we had the advantage of being a hermaphroditic species."
"Well, if you're the doctor then you know damn well that we aren't!" Erroll's anger was rising. Good. Better than his fear. "We can't reproduce!"
"No," Cordelia sighed. "You can't. But we can get around that."
"Huh?" They said it in unison, then Erroll took the lead. "How?"
"I said that the other tanks had all failed. That's not entirely true. They had failed to a degree that there was no chance of reviving the body, but many of the females in the tanks had frozen into semi-solidity with the cryofluid still in their bloodstreams. We are currently trying to harvest ova and gametes, to see what we can revive, implant, and bring to term."
Erroll looked stunned. "You can do that?"
Cordelia tapped her wrist. "Ken, are you busy? I could use your team in here."
Brieanna turned to me. "You're on."
I nodded, stepped out into the hallway, and gestured with my hand to the rest of my crew. It was very ad-hoc-- me, P'nyssa, Baker and Aanji.
We walked in. I nodded to Cordelia, then addressed the two Ritans. "Not only can we do that, we want to do that," I said. "You must be Erroll."
This time, the look was more surprise than fear, and I felt more comfortable. "Hi. Kennet Shardik. I am a Human." I gestured around the room, pointing to the others, giving names to the others, and their species identification.
"So... what do you mean, you want to do that?"
"Erroll, these people all work for me. I am leader on the Ritacha Restoration Project. I was also leader on the Han Restoration Project."
"Although it was Seters and Hitoshi who figured out the cure. And, as I recall, you said it was your daughter who figured out the secret of PRAIOR," Cordelia pointed out.
I nodded. "Indeed. A good team is hard to find. I have great teams usually." I hopped up on the bed, folded my legs underneath me, and spoke to the two of them. "Look, I'm not good at speeches. Erroll, Sandahl, I need for you two to be the toughest, strongest people the Forcassa Project ever had. Our world, the one from which everyone behind you comes, is called Pendor. It is arguably the seat of our region of space. We have an agreement with the other spacefaring species we live near called the llerkin-Pendor-Terran pact, part of which is called the Noninterference Treaty, and part of that is called the Genocide Clause. Basically, it means that we don't interfere in the course of non-spacefaring species, unless they're about to blow themselves to oblivion.
"You're long past blowing yourselves to oblivion. I could have turned your tubes off and let you die, and then all this would just be an exciting academic exercise in genetic archeology. But you two are alive, and if you agree to it, we can bring your world back for you. We can rebuild the Ritan species, and the planet Ritacha."
"And if we don't?"
"Then we wait until you two die. And that, my friends, could well be a very, very long time. In the course of repairing you, we incorporated some of our most advanced medical techniques. You are now unaging, rapid-healing, and self-preserving."
Erroll looked down at his hands, then at Sandahl. "You mean..."
"You are immortal, so long as you don't do anything stupid."
"My God," Erroll said. "And... if you... make more Ritans?"
"They will all have the benefits of Pendorian descent, yes. They will have what you have. There will be trade-offs to their coming out of our laboratories, Erroll. They will not know much of Ritacha, of what it means to be Ritan. They will be immortal, and the first generation will come from the tanks full grown. That is how we do things around... there. That is why we need you. To agree to our plan of action. To take steps to see to it that we are working our way toward that goal. And... when they are decanted, when they wake up, to teach them what it means to be Ritan." I took a deep breath. "Will you do that?"
Erroll looked at Sandahl. Sandahl nodded first. "I agree."
Erroll paused, weighing the question, weighing Sandahl's rapid acquiescence, then finally said, "Do it. And I'll do what I can."
"Good!" I said.
"They're not in the best of shape," Brieanna said. "Erroll, especially, is going to go through bad depression. I don't want to speculate on his survival."
"Do so anyway," I muttered, drinking down another cup of tea. "Why do I never feel warm in this building?"
"Because you never wear enough clothing and this place is cooled to furry temperatures," P'nyssa pointed out. "They're so... lost."
"And they're likely to stay that way," Brieanna said. "They must find a place to call home. This isn't it. They're already anxious to head to Pendor and start the process. They're going to get tired of the debriefings soon, too."
I mulled over that while staring out the window at falling crystals of something that might be water. "Maybe the shrinks got it wrong and we didn't need to bring them here. No offense."
Brieanna waved off. I was probably right. "None taken."
"Do they know how important it is that we understand them?"
"Reality takes a while to sink in," Brieanna muttered. "It took me a year to get you to accept that."
"I'm glad you managed."
"How long have you two known each other?" Fezzik asked. "Just curious. You two talk like one another."
"I met you... in '57, wasn't it?" I asked her.
"957?" Fezzik asked.
"Zero zero fifty-seven," Brieanna replied, chuckling. I enjoyed the surprised look on Fezzik's face. Few people are expected to stay close for a thousand years. "A long time ago. I hope I never forget those days. Oh, and thanks for leaving that hulking monstrosity of a PAPA out on my lawn."
"Sorry. Did you remove it?"
She shook her head. "Took out the stuff that could really rot, and then left it there. It's overgrown now with lots of weeds and shrubs around it. Very sad."
I smiled. "Good." I took a deep sigh and stood, feeling woozy. "Long day."
"Yeah." Fezzik yawned around the word. "I'm going to bed. Guess I'll catch you two in the morning."
"I'm going too. Don't be too late, Ken." P'nyssa patted my shoulder. "But if you should end up elsewhere tonight, leave me a note."
"I'll do that. See you, Fezzik," I said as the lovely Vulpin and Tindal tottered off down the hallway, leaving Brieanna and myself alone. "So," I said. "How do you think we did with Erroll and Sandahl?"
"Pacing was good," she said. "Let's hope it stays that way for a while. They need to pick things up slowly. Like language. We can't assume that in the three months it takes to return to Pendor that they'll know enough Quen for more than asking for the bathroom, but we have to hope that they do pick it up. These aren't people used to being cooped up in a spaceship for long periods of time." She sighed and stretched, and it reminded me just how lovely she was. It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't been next to someone with skin in... years. Since Beth, I think, and that was somewhere during the mission to Battia.
"You're looking at me odd." It was not a question.
"Just thinking. Wondering if you would be interested in an old goat like me after all this time."
Her eyes twinkled suddenly. "Oh, Ken, I'd love to." Hands reached out for mine, entwined around them. In many circumstances that might have felt like entrapment, or maybe I'm just neurotic, but with Brieanna it just felt right.
After ten centuries, perhaps I should explain this woman. She's not human. Sure, she looks human-- even has the right thermal pattern. Her skin is skin, her body flesh, her frame bone. She has a heart that beats like mine, and eyes that see as mine see.
Behind those eyes, however, lies a mind that courses through semi-crystalline matrices of ineffable complexity, a mind that doesn't need this body to go on-- just a replacement of her small battery once a century or so. The mind gets inputs from the body, and responds to the body's needs, such as when she stretches, or yawns, but it's hard to say how much of that she feels as opposed to merely does because it looks good to outsiders.
Brieanna saved me from myself a long, long time ago. She was built specifically for the task-- Paul had thought at the time that nobody actually on Pendor at that time could handle being my shrink without succumbing to my reputation. So a cybernetic shrink, in the kind of body that might appeal to me, had been his solution. He had deliberately made her to not be ideal-- human, blonde, short hair, as tall as I, all things I don't particularly look for in a partner but have no strong objections too. And it had worked. I had found a reason for living, through her, although I won't say that she showed it to me. She just told me where to look.
I yawned as I thought about Brieanna, entirely from my exhaustion. "Don't expect much out of me."
"Just a cuddle from you would be wonderful," she replied, smiling. "My quarters are down this way."
She led me down the hallway and a flight of stairs. It had once been a recovery room, and Brieanna's bed was a patient's bed. But a bed for a Ritan was a far larger construct than a single patient's bed for a humanoid-- these were large square mattresses, with all the electronic gadgetry one would expect to maneuver a patient up and down and left and right. She had tossed some lovely, soft blankets on top of it-- black, with deep red, purple, and blue diamond patterns criss-crossing the tops. The blankets made stark contrasts with the white walls, curtains, and fixtures of the ancient hospital. The white was intended to make stains and other signs of contamination visible, but it often made such places seem harsh and depressing.
I tossed off my shift and unzipped my pants, dropping them into a pile on a chair. "Hmm. You've had a white tornado come through here," I said, noticing a lack of dust on anything. "They're useful. We've had them at work all day cleaning up the campus. The archaeologists are convinced they're blasphemy."
"They're right," she said. "They're not always perfect, especially when it comes to recognizing print for what it is. If the room isn't to their programming, the master control unit does make bad calls."
"I guess. I'd think they'd be set to stupid mode and let Nix make the calls."
She shrugged as she removed her own clothing. Her small breasts bounced free. They looked larger than the last time I'd seen her, but that could just be a trick of memory. Her skin was still fresh and pale, although I noticed a few fading stretch marks about her belly. "You've had children?" I asked.
She grinned. "Did you think I couldn't? The rest of me is as human as can be."
"No, no," I said. "Just surprised. I didn't think it was something you wanted."
"I have to find something to do to fill my days and nights. I can't be the best shrink on the Ring all the time. I've come close to burning out. Having a baby always seems to give me a decade or two to sort it all out and make me come back and want more."
"Interesting," I said, crawling under her covers. The bed was as solid as I would expect from a hospital, the sheets as crisp and clean as I could imagine, but all in all it would do. The pillows, I noticed, were not standard issue; Brieanna had brought them. For a robot who could turn off her physical sensations at the touch of a thought, she was very much into her creature comforts. I've seen her eat and I know she can cook. She likes food and sex as much as a biological creature.
She joined me, making the bed frame creak only slightly. Together, we didn't weigh as much as a whole Ritan. "Mmm..." she sighed as our skin slid together. "I've missed this."
"When was the last time you had a human lover?"
"The last time I had a lover, period, was about three years ago." She sighed as my hands stroked the smooth skin of her arms, shivered as I reached her back and tickled the tiny hairs that grew up along her spine.
"Why so long?" I asked. Her body curled up in the bed besides my own, waiting for our heat to warm the mattress and the sheets, to banish the cold from this one spot in the world of Ritacha.
I traced circles and lines on her back and legs as if inscribing her with ancient runes, coaxing her into a state of mind she already agreed to enter. Her body responded to my touch and the responses came from her mouth in the shapes of little cat noises. "Haven't gone seek-- ohh!-- seeking in a while. Didn't meet anyone who really struck my fancy." Her hands reached out for mine, and her fingertips traced those same sigils on the backs of my hands, making me whimper with the power of so delicate a touch. In the darkness of the room, illuminated only by the deflected light of the floodlamps outside in the main yard, her smile radiated with a joy I had not seen in her eyes since the last time we had been in bed together.
I wondered if that smile was something for my eyes only. It bothered me to think that it might be, but on the other hand it reminded me that she was built specifically for me and nobody else. She might find happiness with others, but her true joy in life was seeing to it that I was happy. She rarely came and visited me for just that reason-- she knew that what made me happiest was that she interfere as little as possible in my life. This, here, now, however, hardly counted as interference.
I ran my fingers along her belly, tracing out the lines of her stretch marks, admiring them. I like stretch marks. I think they're wonderful battle scars in the war against entropy. It pleased me so to see them on Brieanna.
My fingers reached down between her thighs, touching the full richness of her pubic hair, so tangled and complex, not at all like the furred people who occupied so much of the rest of my life. She parted her legs and my fingers slid between her lips. "Oh, yes, Ken. Yes."
I slid down under the covers. She pressed them down so that I wouldn't suffocate as I slid between her legs and looked at the jewel before me. More red than pink, her lips were large and complex. I remember that the left one was larger than the right and folded over, closing her secrets within.
I dove headfirst into her cunt, pressing those lips aside with my tongue, opening her without waiting. I wanted to taste her now. I found her clitoris and attacked it, first around and around, circling, closing in. Nothing she moaned indicated that I shouldn't. My tongue touched her clit, pressed in, suckled. Her body surged with desire, a loud moan, an "Oh, yes." I had found my prize.
Her legs tightened. I wrapped my arms underneath them and splayed my hands across her belly, touching her and feeling her warmth. Her stomach muscles rippled as pleasure ran through her, pleasure I created.
I pressed my face down against her cunt, sealing my lips around her clit and licking directly. I tried to make it soft but rapid and apparently I succeeded. Her body bucked hard, her legs pushing down against the bed with such force I was afraid she might pull my arms from my shoulders. But that was tension, not climax. She was trying to come, yet I could tell that she was still a long way from there. She relaxed her legs and let me continue. I alternated between a strong press and a gentle flicker and she responded with grateful moans. "Uh-huh, uh-huh," she whispered as I licked her cunt happily.
The intervals between tension and relaxation grew shorter as she drew nearer to her coming. A loud, clawed-up moan escaped her lips as she came, and then her hips bucked as her clit became too sensitive and she pulled herself away from my lips.
I crawled up over her. "That was wonderful," she sighed, looking up at me.
I grinned. "Glad you liked it."
"You always did pride yourself on that little skill," she chuckled.
"Do I deserve to?" I asked as I flopped down next to her.
"Yes!" She turned on her side and kissed my cheek. "You're very good." Her hand wrapped itself around my cock and her tugging did more than suggest I get inside her. "I want you."
"Good," I agreed, rolling over on top of her. My cock nestled in her pubic hair, but it took her helpful fingers to guide me into her.
After my licking her, she was so slick inside I felt only a gentle warmth surround my shaft as I slipped all the way into her. She smiled up at me, her eyes moist with... love? "Missionary?" she said. "I recall you as a fan of the crouching position."
I grinned. "Times change. I like seeing your face again, Brieanna." I began a gentle rocking, back and forth, inside her.
"Like seeing yours again, too." She reached up and put her hands on my face. "You're so beautiful."
"So are you." Her sex tightened around my cock. I wondered if that was something she did consciously or not. Whichever, it felt good. But so did her smile. We made love like that for quite a while, slowly, gently. I looked down and watched her and sometimes she watched me. Sometimes her eyes closed, but her mouth was always open. Sometimes when her eyes were closed she whispered "Yes, Ken, yes, Ken."
And on we went, my cock slowly stroking in and out of her. I could feel her pubic air grasping at the skin of my shaft, adding a texture unlike anything I felt with my furred lovers. Her hands played over the skin of my chest, and her smile made me warm. When we came, it felt like we came together and merged into each other.
"That was nice," she sighed as I slid down next to her again. "You're so gentle, Ken."
"I'm supposed to be the Ring's biggest sadomasochist."
"I know better. You're just the best-known, but compared to some of the people at Rhysh, you're quite mild."
"Hmph," I said, snuggling under the covers. She turned over, presenting her back to me, and I cuddled up behind her, my arm over her body and reaching down to rest my hand on her thigh. "Shows how much you know."
She giggled. "I know you." She patted my hand. "And I love you."
I kissed the nape of her neck. "Love you, too." She reached out and turned off the light. Past the window, the snow still fell in waves blown from the sea.