Nickolai looked down from the co-pilot's seat and watched the desolate terrain slide by. If anything, the land here looked even colder and lonelier than it did back at Coar. In a way, that made sense; this far inland, there was no ocean climate, no warming streams coming up from the still temperate south where the global cooling had started to give way to a more natural order.
"Strap in," Liz said calmly. "We're goin' down."
"I never took them off," Nickolai said. Liz flashed him a smile and then slowly eased the aircraft downward. Ten minutes later they had landed and unpacked their equipment, joining the team already on the ground.
"We've been doing as you instructed for the past two days, Miss Zofrani, but there's always the possibility that Heeram has more than we're finding. Are you sure you should be out here? I understand your condition--"
Liz sighed. "Listen, Co, I understand you're trying to be helpful. But I am qualified and yes, I'm going to be fine. Now, show me what you've got."
Co, a tall Mephit wearing Pendorian military colors, led her into an environment tent. On the light table he pulled up the diagrams that his team had created from several days of surveying. "It's a very heavily fortified compound; certainly Heeram wasn't 'here' in any real sense after several years-- any intelligent AI at war would have gone to a vastly distributed system at some point-- but we expect to find a backup here. There's seven floors downward-- each one has been painted a different color-- and at the bottom we found the nuclear pile. We had a couple of robots dismantle and isolate it and have substituted a fusion plant in its place. Given that the Forcassans had fusion power, we were surprised to find a fission pile in the basement. But what's really interesting to us is on the sixth floor down." He pulled up an illustration. "As far as we can determine, that's the original Heeram."
The room held sixteen cylinders arranged in a geometric pattern, suspended from the ceiling with cables. "Any indication of cryogenics?" Liz asked.
"Not that we've seen. Apparently these units didn't need supercooling."
"What's this here?" Nickolai asked, pointing to a far wall. There sat a jumble of rags and what looked like white sticks.
"A dead body," Co replied. "We aren't sure whose or where it came from or why it was there. It's been lying there for centuries. And from the look of it, it has been there since before the first nuclear exchange."
"How soon until your men are ready?" Liz asked.
"We're ready now."
"Then let's go."
Liz sat down at a terminal quite different from the one she had found at Tream's heart. This one was more like a programmer's bench; two different keyboards, hydra monitors, a clipboard suspender. This was not a place where one gave orders; this was where coders brought life to silicon. She sat on the Ritan bench, her legs splayed over the sides, and reached down to her right where the small fusion plant the advance team had brought sat waiting. On its front panel the small orange switch waited. "Moment of truth," she said to Nickolai.
He nodded. She flicked the switch.
The three screens in front of her flickered, glowed black, and then came to life. One lit up and read,
Booting. . . . Heeram core reload. . . .
More text flowed by, most of it incomprehensible, and then the screen cleared.
Thank you for repairs. I request more than 16 PARC units.
Nickolai translated it easily. "But what does PARC mean?"
"Processing and Recall. What Terrans used to call MAP, Memory and Processing, and what Pendorians usually just called 'duh!'" She gave him a wide grin. "Type this. 'No. We are still evaluating capabilities and requirements." Nickolai did as requested. The response came back,
What is your name?
"Polite creature," Liz commented. "Not, 'Identify yourself,' but a sociable 'What is your name?' I think he knows we have him in a bit of a bind. What the hey." She leaned over Nickolai's shoulder, brushing against him as she typed herself, "LIZ."
What year is it?
"Tell him it's 1703," Liz suggested. Nickolai typed.
I have been discontinuous for 903 years?
"What does that mean?" Nickolai asked her.
"I think it means he's now suspicious and isn't going to play our game. Timing's all off. If the Forcassans knew he was here, why wait this long? If we're someone else, either we took too long or we took too short." She leaned back, catching herself as she realized there was no backstop to the bench. She thought for a moment, cracking her knuckles as she did so. "Okay, Heeram, here's hoping we having answers you want to hear. Or read. Can you get a phonetic spelling of 'Margaret Elizabeth Zofrani?'" Nickolai nodded. "Then type that as my name, and give my occupation as Cybernetic Archaeologist."
The AI digested that information then asked,
"I didn't know you were a Christian," Nickolai said.
"Furry does, and you didn't ask," Liz replied. "Does it make a difference?"
"Not really." He typed in the responses as Liz gave them to him.
The screens went blank. They stayed that way for a surprisingly long time. Liz began to look worried. Then the screen blinked and came back with a surprising message.
Did you originate on the fourth planet of this solar system?
"He's figured it out," Liz said admiringly. "No."
Are there any survivors?
"Yes, at least one, possibly three. We're evaluating the possibility of using them as clone sources to re-create the Ritan species."
Please re-establish audio feed.
"Let's give him what he wants," Liz said. "Watching you type isn't terribly exciting."
"But he won't speak Quen."
"Then you do all the talking," Liz suggested. She reached over to the panel and flipped a switch.
A loud squawk came through the speaker, followed by a long stream of verbalizing in Tsuguran, the local language. Nickolai listened and Elizabeth watched as Nix's translation flowed by on her PADD. "How many participants are there in this conversation?" Heeram asked.
"Four," Nickolai said. "Elizabeth, Nickolai, and Nix. And yourself."
"Are you all of the same species?"
"No. Elizabeth and I are human. Nix is an AI."
Heeram didn't seem fazed by that information. "Humans are in command?"
"No," Nickolai replied. "There are sixteen species in our society. We are at best a well- controlled anarchy."
"But there is a government?"
"What is my status?"
"You are to be evaluated for citizenship."
"What are the conditions for citizenship?"
Nickolai turned to Liz and said, "Actually, I'm not even sure what the conditions for citizenship are for AIs. Nix? Do you want to tell him?"
"Only off-line. It would take too long to do it verbally. And he'll probably require more PARC units than he has now."
Nickolai sighed. "Let's see if we can't make Heeram feel more like himself."
That night, Nickolai cuddled down with Liz and held her close. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"I dunno. Warm, I think. It's only been a month, Kolya," she murmured. "I'm getting morning sickness, though."
He nodded. "I'll stay out of your way around dawn, then. I meant about Heeram, though."
"Well, after we hooked Nix and Heeram up together, there was quite a bit of conversation. I talked to Linus afterward and he said there was no noticeable disturbance in the way Nix was processing information. As far as he could tell, nothing Heeram told Nix inclined him to change his mind about us or Ritacha."
"I'm still worried," Nickolai said, his hand touching her breasts softly. "Heeram isn't like a Pendorian AI. He's not inclined to put the social order of the llerkin-Terra-Pendor corridor above the Ritan's best interests. I think it would be better if he were to stay on Ritacha."
"Mmmm," Liz replied. "I think I agree with you on that." She turned over to face him, kissed his lips softly. "Are we preparing an official report?"
Nickolai pulled her closer to him inside their sleeping bag. "If we are, we'd better leave this part of the conversation out of it," as his legs easily parted hers. "This won't hurt the baby, will it?"
"We could have sex until the day I give birth and it won't hurt the child," she murmured. "But you'll need to get me a little wetter first."
Nickolai smiled and slid down the length of her body, burying himself in the sleeping bag. He kissed her belly softly and to him it was the closest he felt to religion. He had never been a very religious person-- Liz's revelation of her faith had surprised him-- but the very idea that something, someone new, was taking form on the other side of that soft skin gave him a thrill for which he failed to find words. He kissed her mound, feeling the first tickle of her pubic hair against his chin. He moved down further until the warmth and the smell of her soaked into his cheeks and nose. He kissed her lower lips and they opened for him. His tongue touched her inner lips, licking around them. He could taste the sweat of the day and it turned him on immediately. He pressed his mouth to her, his tongue sliding deep to her opening, then up between her inner lips over the ridge of her clitoris. "Kolya," she moaned softly as he washed down her pubic hair with his tongue. "Kolya, yes." He pressed a little harder, keeping up the same tempo, and a moment later she cried "Oh God!" as she came, her hips jerking a little.
He crawled up to be face-to-face with her again. "Kolya?" she murmured. "Oh, Kolya!" She threw her arms around his neck and pulled him close, licking his chin with her tongue and kissing him hard. "Kolya, could I ask you for a favor?"
"What?" he said.
"In a few weeks, I won't be able to enjoy something I've always liked."
"But you said that we could... What?" he said, suddenly interested.
"Fuck me in the ass again?" she asked. "It's been a century since you've done that."
"I'm sure you've done it with other people since then," he said, kissing her cheek.
"Yeah, but you were the first. And you're going to be the last for a while until my post-partum piles heal." She kissed him. "I can still do it now. Do it? For me?"
"Of course," he said. "But how? We can't exactly get into a kneeling position in this weather. It's cold out there."
"Side by side," she said. "Here." She reached out of the sleeping bag and into her kit, pulling out a small plastic bottle with a yellow, domed top.
"It's warm," Nickolai said surprised, taking the bottle in one hand.
"I thought ahead," she said. She turned over on one side. "Now, get behind me. Cuddle close, spoon position." Nickolai eased himself against her, felt her soft skin against his legs and chest. His erection nestled between the cheeks of her smooth butt.
"I see," Nickolai said. He poured a little of the lubricant onto his hand and then applied it to his cock. What was left on his fingertips he probed between those gorgeous cheeks, seeking out her anus and touching her there, gently pressing the lubricant into the route his cock would follow. He slid a finger into her and she rewarded his attentions with a soft moan of "Yes."
He replaced his finger with his cock, easing it into the same space. A little shuffling brought the head of his cock into contact with her hole. "Liz? Are you ready?"
"Go easy," she whispered. "It's been a while."
He nodded. With one hand on her hips, he slowly eased the two of them together, feeling her anus flower open for him. He stopped, allowing her to take a deep breath, then began pulling himself into her again. He felt her hole surround the head of his cock and then he was in. With care he pulled them together until his hips were pressed against her ass, his cock buried deep within her backside. "Oh, Liz, Oh Liz," he gasped. The heat and the slick sensation of her ass made his heart beat and his breath quicken.
"You fill me up so nicely," she sighed, reaching back with one hand to try and pull the two of them even closer. "You feel so good."
He pushed away until just the head of his erection was within her, then buried himself to the hilt. "Oh, God," Liz whispered. "I wish we could do this hard, like the last time."
"Some other day," he whispered. "We will."
"Good!" she moaned. "Fuck me, Kolya. God, yes, fuck me."
He tried to set up a hard rhythm and found it more difficult than he had originally thought. He was lying on his right arm and he thought it might be going to sleep, but he barely noticed. Just the push and pull of fucking Liz as she moaned almost incoherently, "Fuck me, Kolya, fuck me, God, fuck me harder," and Nikolai wasn't sure if she were talking about him or just thanking her deity for him. He couldn't see much in the surrounding dark of their tent, but he could hear and he could smell the sweat coming from her.
He couldn't hold back long. Fucking Elizabeth was utterly unlike Furry and that made him excited in a special way, and he had never had Furry's ass, and that just tightened the screws of pleasure ever tighter, until finally he came inside her with a growl and a shove that bowled them over until she was splayed underneath him, his cock buried inside her asshole. "Oh, Liz."
She raised her head and turned to look at him; what little he could see of her expression was a dazed smile and unsure eyes. "Kolya," she said, turning over suddenly, almost yanking his cock out of her as she pounced on top of him and peppered his face with passionate kisses. "Oh, thank you."
"Thank you," he gasped, holding her tightly. "Thank you so much, Liz. That was so good."
She kissed his lips and he arched his back to press upward and feel her hardened nipples caress his chest. He wanted to touch and stroke her more but their climax had torn so much energy out of him he could barely think straight. "I love you, Liz," he whispered.
"I love you, too, Kolya." They kissed again. Nickolai felt something against his leg; the bottle of lubricant. He dug it up and tossed it out of their sleeping bag. "Sleep?" Liz suggested.
"We'd better. We've got a long day of evaluation tomorrow," Kolya said. "And I don't think I could stay awake much longer after that."
She reached for towels and handed one of them to Nickolai. "I don't think I could either. Oh, Kolya, you were always so good."
"Even when I was sixteen."
"Especially then! And especially now!" She hugged him. "Oh, I do miss you some days. But I'm so glad you and Furry are so happy together."
"Me, too," Nickolai said. "Thanks, Liz, for understanding then."
"And now," she sighed, cuddling close. "G'night, Kolya."
Half a world away, a passive but attentive sensor picked up the unmistakable traces of the enemy. Those signals were passed to a set of recently awakened circuits, which followed a set of preprogrammed criteria to reach a non-arbitrary decision gate; the instructions on the other side of the gate were linear and unambiguous. Some relays closed; others opened. A desperate surge of whatever power the system had stored over the past days was relayed to a multi-kilometer-long wire buried along a straight path up the side of the mountain the Ritans had once named Kith. The surge, carefully controlled by those circuits, sent out a signal many would hear but only one would understand.
As the power died, a different set of circuits closed. These circuits led to capacitors in a mathematically precise pattern. Arranged in multiple waves around a sphere, these capacitors fired their charges into hexagon-shaped payloads of plastic explosive. Around this sphere of explosive waited another sphere about five time the radius of the inner sphere; this sphere consisted of two layers of titanium, between which thousands of narrow glass straws filled with hydrogen waited.
At the center of the inner sphere waited what had once been plutonium. However, 907 years after its manufacture to near purity, the plutonium had decayed into a variety of other heavy nuclides, the most predominant of which was Uranium 236, a metal not much noted for its use in nuclear devices. It was essentially a waste product. Even if it had gone off, the heightened background radiation had long since knocked most of the spare neutrons free of their tritium cages in the narrow straws, leaving the straws full of mostly ordinary hydrogen.
In Tream's internal command center, just seventy meters from where Nickolai and Elizabeth had first conceived their child, plastic explosives made a terrible mess but not much more.