"Can I come in?" Aanji asked as she strode through my office door.
"You just did, didn't you?" I asked with a smile. "What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to ask how you were doing," she said, pulling up a chair and sitting beside me. "I understand you accessed sixteen shadows last night. Does this mean you're going to join the team again?"
I took a deep breath, sighed. "Yeah. I'm ready."
Aanji shook her head slightly. "I don't pretend to understand what happened between you and Tylia. It couldn't have been just sex; what happened to you was too fundamental. What did she do to you?"
"I can't tell you. I don't mean to sound obscure or anything, but I promised her I wouldn't tell anyone about what she did or can do. It's personal. And I can't say that it's a cure-all. I'm not 'fixed' in any sense of the word. I'm just... better. I'm going to come back to the team and do the work I love to do. Like I told Cordelia, I'm a biological engineer; doing that is how I change the universe for the better. And with the Ritans, hopefully right a terrible wrong."
"Well, good," Aanji said. "I want you to know that Dan is up and walking around. He's not entirely happy but he's not going to self-destruct anytime soon. Sandahl is a little annoyed that Dan isn't taking this as well as he did. And Brieanna doesn't think Sandahl is dealing with this at all."
I smiled. "Sandahl is dealing with it as well as he can. Believe me, I know a little of what it's like to have the ground disappear from beneath your feet. I had it happen when two of the people I relied on to be a part of my world were suddenly no longer there."
"And Tylia-- ?"
I smiled. "Still digging, eh? Let's just say that Tylia reminded that there are a lot of people in the world who rely on me to be a part of theirs. It's a two-way thing. So, did my state of mind happen to be the only thing on yours at the moment or did you wander all the way down into this section of the base for other reasons?"
"Actually, no, that was it. I noticed the accesses and wanted to talk to you about them. Can you give me a hundred by the deadline?"
I reached out with my left hand and tapped on the keyboard casually. My hand's motions were a mere accessory to the thinking going on behind my eyes; implants allowed me to direct most of what I was asking for, but I still felt it necessary to participate physically in the process of work. "I can give you a hundred by the deadline, sure. And no shadows, I promise."
She smiled at the colloquial term we used for poor personality profiles, people who were pale shadows. While even shadows eventually did grow into fully realized people, it usually took them much longer to come out of incorporation shock than their better-made counterparts, and we had identified our last shadow back in the Pamthreat sequence.
"Good. I'm heading down to Visual Assembly. Meffera and Tylia are down there; he's showing her how to use the facilities."
I stood up and stretched. "Actually, that doesn't sound like a bad plan. I think I'll go down with you and see how they're doing."
Aanji nodded and led the way. Twists, turns, and an elevator later, I found myself in the observation center for Visual Assembly. Those of us who work here for real just call it The Room. "There's something mystical knowing that what I'm watching is the process of creation," Aanji said.
I gave her a long look. "I never knew you had that kind of romanticism in you, Aanji. I always took you for the hardboiled type."
She placed her hand on my shoulder. "I'm about as concrete as my brother," she said. "But you must know he has his soft spots. So do I. Besides, I have to do something to enjoy myself. Raising my blood pressure doesn't seem to do it for me anymore."
I chuckled and looked into the The Room to watch Meffera and Tylia maneuvering around some invisible creation. Meffera's eyes remained unfocused; Tylia wore a set of black wrap-around goggles that obscured the entire top half of her face, making her look like some giant insect. I wondered what they were until I realized that no AI would perform or permit the surgery necessary to give her cybernetic implants, not at her age, so for the next few years she would be one of the few people on Alpha who wouldn't be able to become part of the system the way most of the genetics crew regularly did. Oddly enough, about half of the medical crew was unwired-- possibly a consequence of their telepathic bents. It made for an interesting dichotomy. I considered that, under the circumstances, Tylia may never get the implants either.
Meffera gestured, and Tylia stepped into the center, reaching into empty space with her left hand. Her head jerked suddenly to the left, and she pulled her hand back, moved it up, and she seemed to shiver. I could only guess at what was happening to her but it must be interesting. Finally they stopped, stepped back, and both shook themselves free of whatever spell they'd been working under. Tylia removed her goggles, looked at the glass, and waved. "Ken!"
"Hi, guys. Come out here for a minute."
Both of them joined us, the short Markal barely the same height as the youthful Felinzi. "What's up?"
"What were you doing in there?"
"I was showing Tylia the cascade consequence software I wrote for the Han project. We were working on your patches; I showed her where your initial attempts would have worn through in a couple of generations. I'm working on adapting it for the Ritacha codes. Tylia made a change and saw an entire protein code fly apart into uselessness. She will learn to be careful."
"It's trial and error," Tylia said. "I understand about triads and quads, but you guys work through quads of quads of quads! How do you keep track of it all?"
"Usually, we don't. That's a number-crunching operation, which the people over in Mathematical Genetics are supposed to be doing for us. Meff there is just one of our hybrids; he's a mathematical genius who really prefers The Room, and since he's good at it, we let him. Besides, he's got the kind of acuity we need to recognize pattern flaws that even Hal doesn't always recognize. As for the trial and error, you can't make an error when you're working with living flesh. We're lucky to have these programs these days so we don't have to worry about running most of the more problematic cloning tests in the labs. We can know what's not going to work early on. Thanks to our hybrids here like Meffera." He blushed; it looked adorable on him.
Aanji turned to Meffera. "How close are you on the Han code?"
"Finished, I think. I'm just running it through tests now, throwing severe environmental changes at it. It's number crunching time, as Ken said. Why?"
"I'd like you to move over to the Ritans as soon as possible. We're a little behind schedule on the barrier immune system code and I could really use one of your miracles right about now. Can you turn it over to a few of your flunkies?"
Meffera smiled. "I can think of a few college students who would love to stay up late confirming my work. I'll move over to the Ritans tomorrow."
Aanji sighed. "Thank you. Why does the Ritan gene code have to be so complicated?"
"Because they all have to be complicated, Aanji. They define living systems. They're the most complex things we ever deal with in a direct fashion. In this case, it's easy because we have more than enough genetic samples; only the axolotl people have any trouble with the Ritans at this point." I sighed. "Although this means releasing them with unenhanced code and all that implies. And our medical personnel have to learn an entire new set of skills. And a generic solution to the immortality problem hasn't come up yet."
"Why make them so different?" Tylia asked innocently.
"Because that's what they are," I insisted.
"No, I mean, why make the new Ritans on a different gene base from us anyway? They don't have an ecosystem to live in, do they?"
I looked at her with what must have been a shocked expression. "You're not seriously proposing just making a species that looks like the Ritans, are you?"
"Isn't that what you want?" Tylia asked. "You've dissected enough Ritans to know what kind of thinking goes into the guss, you've got their own medical records, you know everything else there is to know about furred sentient species and you're ready to do it. Meffera could probably write a translation program between the Ritan genecodes you're extracting from the dead ones and your familiar gene base, right?"
"You are a little Machiavelli, you know that?" I said admiringly. "Join the club."
"She's right, though," Aanji said, staring thoughtfully into the glass. "Ritan emergencies wouldn't be White crises, the immortality codes would go right in... even the Terraforming operation would be simplified."
"What do we do with the survivors?" Meffera asked. "We could tell them that their rescue cost them their reproductive possibilities..."
"Tell them the truth!" Tylia insisted. "Don't keep it a secret. Tell them that you did the best you could. You're making a species to take the Ritan's place! A species that cares about being Ritan."
I smiled. "One that can wear the same clothes, fit into the same chairs, and appreciate the same movies, is that it?"
"Yeah!" Tylia insisted. "That's all that's really important, isn't it?"
"It would simplify everything," Aanji said. "Instead of thousands of possible emergencies, there would be just one. We'd have to develop a framework and we'd need it in four months but we needed one of those anyway. Does this really have to happen before the llerkin reopening, Ken?"
I shook my head. "It does not. But it's better if it happens now than later. Things are just going to pile up as time goes on."
Meffera was off in his own world. "I could work on a Ritan framework, and then their R-mammilian abstraction, and then the animal layer..." He looked up. "It's an idea whose time has come, Ken."
Aanji shook her head. "Damn. Meeting tomorrow... night. Meffera, you have thirty hours to demonstrate the possibility. I want it formal, understood? Formal and tenuous is better than completely sloppy."
He gave her a smart salute. "Yes, sir, understood sir. Ken, I'm going to need your help."
"You're the one who's fastest at converting this stuff into reality. I need to find a way to codify what you do. And you understand the Ritan code better than most people."
I sighed. "You're right. Aanji, Tylia, out. We need The Room now. Hal?"
"I am already requisitioning the stores you know you will want."
Sixteen hours later I was sitting on the floor of The Room and wishing I hadn't accepted this assignment. Before my eyes hovered the two strands of deoxyribonucleic acid. I had long ago taken it as a given that just as protons, neutrons and electrons form atoms, so do atoms form molecules, and this one molecule forms itself to form itself and so is the basis for all life in the universe. It's a good theory; I have yet to find a contradiction. It's called autocatalysis. I'm sure other schemes could give rise to self-reproduction but this one has a certain efficient flair to it.
Trouble is, so many different configurations of DNA give rise to valid and functional superschemes; it's not true that the humanoid configuration is the ideal one, although of all the eight known species that rose on their own to sentience, four are humanoid, one is centauroid, one is ocean-going, one is vegetable, and one is just plain unknown (and some would argue that AIs rose "on their own" in a niche sort of way).
"Got it!" Meffera said. "And I know why, too! I can formalize this!"
I looked up at the window. The words barely registered in my brain but I tried to give him a smile. "Are you sure?" I asked wearily.
"Yes, yes! Watch... it translates the homeobox pattern perfectly!" He gestured for me to come over to where he watched the two monitors. I groaned and stood up, made my way through the door and into the observation room. "Watch!" he said again excitedly. I'd been in his shoes before; just feeling the joy coming off him made me smile.
"The sun's coming up soon," I muttered.
"It's a moonbase," he said tiredly. "The sun is always up. Look, though." I watched as he showed me two minor genes going through sequencing changes. "These are the developmental patterns. I must thank the geneticists back at Forcassa for keeping an entire copy of their genome on record in those supercomputers."
"They're dead," I muttered.
"I know. I... Hey, did you ever think it was strange that, there among all that other data, was just something labeled the Ritan Genome? It was off in its own folder, like someone had expected us to find it or something. That is kind of weird, you know."
I had thought about it. The Forcassa SIs had mostly had operational data and medical maintenance data for the cryotubes; the Genome list had been an oddity all its own. What we found in the list matched what we'd analyzed from the dead so we figured it was canon data. It still didn't make any sense to anyone on the team why that particular piece of data should be in there like that. And the way Meff said that... he was right. It was as if someone had known that recovering the Ritan species would require a working knowledge of the Ritan Genome.
"See?" he said. "Subs, Ops, and Devs. All right there, in order." I leaned over and looked at his screen. Sure enough, colorful patterns in red and yellow showed where the two gene sequences could be matched in purpose and pattern.
As I leaned over his chair I became acutely aware both of his body and of my own exhaustion. "Even Trace works," I pointed out.
"In theory, yeah. That's your doing. You came up with the trace patterns."
"More brains," I muttered, thinking that that particular phrase had probably lain dormant in the back of my head for a thousand years. Now, with my being so tired the cobwebs were rattling a little. And Meff was starting to smell good to me. I put my head down on his shoulder. "I'm tired."
"I am too," he said, patting me on the head.
"You smell good," I said suddenly.
He snorted. "I think I need a bath. What are you gonna do?"
"I'm gonna go to bed," I insisted, slurring my words. "Hal, save that redundantly," I said, pointing to the console. I stood up slowly and started to stagger toward the door.
The door had opened when Meffera asked, "Alone?"
I turned around and gave him a curious if bleary eye. "Yeah, I was expecting alone. Why?"
"You said I smelled good. I wondered if that was... you know... "
I made a one-fingered 'come hither' at him. He stood up out of his chair, none-too-steadily either. "It's funny," I said, "but we've worked together off and on for centuries, but our disciplines mean we almost never see each other and I barely know anything about you." I held out my hand. "I hate to say this, but I'm just going to sleep."
"That's okay," he said. "That's all I want to do right now too."
"Then come on. I have a flat bed."
"Fine with me," he said.
We made our way back to my cabin. I showed him the bed and we both shucked our clothing. I slid under the covers and he crawled in next to me. He fell into my arms gently, almost magically. After working so hard together, in our dead tired state we seemed to melt one into another. It's something that seems to come naturally with some mels. I kissed the back of his head and fell promptly to sleep.
In the morning I awoke with the feeling of something small and furry pressed against my belly. Without opening my eyes I allowed my hands to stray down and take in the lovely sensation of warm fur, whoever it belonged to. I still hadn't come completely awake and wondered who it could be. My first thought was Tylia but I rejected that one outright. It wasn't her; for one thing the fur was the wrong pattern. In fact, the pattern was unfamiliar to me, even on a species level. I sniffed and recognized the scent of a Markal, male. Meffera?
Meffera, I remembered. He had joined me last night. Had we done anything? We had not. Well, we had shared in the agonizing joy of creation, he with his translation framework, me with the supplied instruction sets for cerebral designs. I shall never cease to be amazed that, for all its complexity, we're made up of only four instructions repeated over and over in endlessly complex combinations. But now I had this complication-- I'd invited him home. "He followed me home, can I keep him?" I thought to myself wryly.
I couldn't really. There was no way I had the time or the room in my life for someone else right now. I was still dealing with Tylia; I was still recovering from the shock of losing Carroll and Paul. But my body has a way of its own and in that way I found my cock hard up against Meff's warm buttocks. My hands were still ruffling the light, short fur that covered his belly. He stirred against me. "Mmmm."
"Morning," I whispered, opening my eyes finally so I could kiss the back of his head. He had the large, rounded ears of a Markal, the mouse-like species among Pendorians, and I tickled the edges with my lips.
He shivered. "I thought you said this was just for sleep."
"Sleep's over," I said. "But you're right. I didn't invite you for anything more rigorous than snoozing. I'll stop."
"Only if you want," he said with a grin. "I won't object if you keep going."
"And you don't expect anything afterward?"
He turned his head to look up, and I obliged the familiar gesture by propping myself up on one elbow to look at him. "Only that you treat me as a colleague just like you've always done."
I kissed his nose gently. "I think I can manage that. What do you like first thing in the morning?"
"You were doing pretty well," he said, turning his head away from me once more. I wondered if that wasn't an invitation to enter him; I had had an erection pressed up hard against his butt. But I suppose he had meant more in the foreplay than in anything else. I resumed my slow kisses along his ears and received soft whispers of encouragement and gentle shivers up and down the length of his furred body as my rewards. My hands strayed along his chest and belly, feeling the sweeps and whorls of his fur as I slid down the length of his torso. He pushed his fine body back against my own as my hand touched the base of his cock. He was already hard, just like me. Just like most mels in the morning. I slid my hand up along the length of it; it was smaller than average but I rarely find that disappointing; it just means he's easier to give head to.
I released it for later, concentrating instead along his back. I kissed the back of his neck, nuzzling my nose against his soft fur. He made soft, accepting noises as I kissed my way further down; my cock had to leave its treasured place in the cleft of his butt; I didn't know if we would put those two back together and I didn't think it mattered, really. We had all morning, more or less, before the meeting.
I kissed the small of his back. His fur slid under my hands, tickling the pads of my fingertips even as I tickled his sides and back. I stroked his butt with one hand, finding it small and delightfully firm to the touch. I mused that it would be two mels in a row, an unusual condition even for me, but for some reason that was definitely the mood I was in. I pushed his tail up and out of the way, parting those firm cheeks and exposing a small hole that looked too small for me to get a finger into, much less anything larger.
I kissed that small hole. His whole body seemed to bunch up as he bent his hips, pushing them up to meet my mouth. "I might come just from you doing that!" he gasped.
"I just started," I replied as I kissed his hole again.
He whimpered. "I don't get it much!"
I kissed his hole again, extending my tongue to taste the texture of the wrinkly skin that surrounded his hole. He moaned a high-pitched, loud moan that filled the room, as my tongue pressed against that delicate opening. I could feel his asshole flex under my tongue. It was like he was asking me for more, but when I pressed against it, his hole would tense and close. His desire for the special pleasures of the asshole were at war with his basic instincts to defend that hole against invasion. I understood the battle all too well and went to it often.
"Relax," I said.
"I know how it's done," he whispered. "It's just been a while."
"For both of us," I agreed as I applied tongue and lips to his asshole and loosened him up with my tongue. I found myself getting that familiar high, that wonder at having another person so willing and vulnerable to let me play with their naked bodies, and although it took some time I found myself jamming my tongue deep into his open hole, sticking my tongue so far in that I wondered if he was going to feel it tickling his heart anytime soon. "Oh, Fah, oh, fuck," he groaned aloud as his hole opened and closed around my tongue. I was definitely reaching for the skies already.
"Would you like to get fucked?" I asked him.
"Yes!" he groaned. "Yes, now!"
"Now?" I asked as I eased myself into position over his body. He pushed his butt into the air to emphasize his certain, understandable hunger. An asshole so awakened and ready is usually owned by someone equally awakened and ready.
His asshole was wet with spit already; I spat a little more onto my hands and slathered it all over my cock as well. "Here it comes," I whispered as I pressed it against his asshole. He groaned, bending his head down against the pillow to muffle strange animal sounds as my cock slid its way into his asshole. He collapsed against the bed even as just the head popped past his sphincter; he almost pulled me out, but I stayed with him. "How are you doing?" I murmured into his large, sweet ears.
"Good!" he groaned. "Fuck, but you're big."
"Just average," I said.
"For a human," he pointed out. I decided not to contradict him; as far as I could recall, Markals were very similarly hung compared to humans. Instead, I decided to fuck him. I pressed downward, giving him time to adjust each time he seemed to tighten up. I soon had my hips pressed against his delicious backside, his short fur pressing against my thighs, and my cock buried to the hilt in his guts. "You've got it all," I whispered.
"You'll need more lube for what I want," he said.
"I've got that," I said, reaching for the bottle by the bedside. I slid my cock out of him until just the head was showing, then squirted some freely between us before sliding back in. "That's better?"
"Much," he said.
"Good." I pushed myself up on my hands so I could watch the action between us as I fucked him. I decided to be gentle, laying down on top of him and embracing his body as my hips rocked back and forth, my cock slowly easing in and out of his very tight asshole. He whimpered as his guts gave way and gave me what we had both asked for this morning. I couldn't believe how long this was taking; quakes wracked me as little orgasms threatened to come and go; I was on the edge quickly, and then hovered there for what must have been ten minutes as we eased back and forth.
"Fuck me, Ken, just like this forever," he moaned as he turned his head to kiss me. Our tongues met as our bodies pressed one against the other, an easy action that surrounded us and took us away from the duties that were to come today. His tight butt had loosened a bit but the pleasure was just as great as before; I found myself wanting to keep going, but the head of my cock was tingling with a special kind of pleasure, a sign that I wasn't meant to last forever. I treasured that sensation even as it spread down the shaft of my cock, down into my belly.
"Close," I whispered to him. I rolled us onto our sides, my cock deep in his ass, and fucked him in that position so I could also touch his chest and his cock. "So close."
"Yes," he gasped, his hands interfering with mine as he reached for his own cock and stroked it. "So close... Yes!" His last word was a shout as he came. I could feel his body tremble with his pleasure, and a few more strokes of my own and suddenly my climax was torn out of me in a long, low scream that I barely muffled with my head in the pillow while my hips kept pumping with an instinct all their own.
I was soaked in my sweat; he was panting and wet already. Our bodies were still joined, cock and ass, although my cock was already shrinking back to its more usual configuration. It took us both a minute or more to recover. "Oh, wow," I sighed.
"I'm sticky!" he complained, then laughed softly. "You were wonderful."
"Sorry I lasted so long."
"Oh, no, no, that was great!" he said. My cock slid out of him and he took that as a cue to turn over and face me. "You were really great."
I kissed his cheeks and was met with a wet tongue; we kissed and cuddled and lay in our post-coital bliss until finally, one of us, me I think, suggested a shower.
"You go first," he replied. It took me an entire minute to convince my body that it was time to get up. But eventually, rise we did, staggering, to the shower.
He joined me after a few minutes. Showering in lunar gravity is interesting; the water falls with familiar force thanks to the pressure but it tends to splash higher off the walls, floor, and bodies. He had rich, soft fur, and I loved putting soap to it, running my hands through it. I cleaned between his cheeks as carefully as I could. He sighed gratefully.
Then it was his turn. As he cleaned me he said, "I like her."
I knew what he meant. "Tylia?"
"Mmm." He continued to clean me.
Somehow, despite the running water, a silence reigned. "Are you telling me something?"
"Nothing you don't already know," he said as he washed my hair. "I like you too, Ken. I just want to ask you to be careful. She's so... needy."
I turned around and pulled him into a kiss. He objected, surprised, but then eased down into it. "So are you, sometimes," I whispered. "I'm trusting you, Meff, like I'm trusting everyone else. Tell me when I'm fucking up. I'm doing the best I can."
He smiled, then kissed my cheek. "I know."
"You guys watch each other, and me, every day. We have to. People's lives are on the line, people who don't even exist yet. Do you think I... we... would be any less careful with one who is already living?"
He looked down, and I realized he was ashamed of himself. "I never thought of it that way. I don't think of the ones in the tanks as living."
I sighed. "You're right, though. With them, we can turn the tanks off, and not really feel all that guilty about it, they weren't conscious in the first place. I won't get a second chance with Tylia if I really mess up. I'm happy you like her. And I'm glad you trust me."
He threw me up hard against the wall and returned the fierce kiss I had given him earlier. When he finally gave me a chance to breathe, his eyes were dancing back and forth between my own, looking for something. "You're welcome," he said. "For everything."
I grinned. "So are you. We'll have to do this again sometime."
"What? Have circumspect conversations about suspicious subjects, or fuck?"
"Fuck," I agreed.
We dried off and headed out to the day. I couldn't help but feel good, despite the recent sorrows. Somehow, in my melancholy, I had found a friend and a comfort, and with him and the good people that surrounded him, and me, I had found reasons to continue.