"Commander Nantonly? I have an anomalous blip on long range, sir." The ensign sitting in front of the main sensor display panel turned to the chief officer on the bridge. "Metal."
"How far?" the Mephit CO asked.
"Here." The ensign pointed to his display. "Forty seconds."
"Helm. All stop."
"All stop, aye." Stopping a starship can take a few minutes, especially when the ship travels at several hundred times the speed of light. In that time the ship can easily lose track of the item it had detected only moments before. The lieutenant at the helm performed an admirable job of plotting an adequate opening and dropping the ship into realspace without a whisper of complaint from the engines.
"Your actions have awakened the captain. He announced his intention to come to the bridge."
"Thank you." Not for the first time, Nantonly wondered why the Anna o Pendoro's AI spoke in such a peculiar fashion. Not that it was any more unusual than his own colonial accent. He shrugged it off. "Helm, a course for anomaly. We'll wait the captain."
"You can stop waiting. Helm, take us to the detected anomaly at your ready. It sounds interesting." Captain Derrick Kumberra stepped off the platform and trotted down the center aisle of the bridge, the impact of his hooves softened by the carpet. "Good morning, Nantonly. Quiet watch?"
"What have we got?"
Nantonly pointed over the ensign's shoulder at the screen. "A large object, apparently mostly metal. Density sweep pattern looks artificial. It's big, too."
"Any idea what it could be? Saleel?"
"I possess insufficient data at this time for an answer."
Nantonly rolled his eyes. "He could say 'I don't know.'"
"'I don't know,'" Saleel replied calmly. "It sounds too short for my tastes."
Kumberra interrupted Nantonly's reply. "Still, anything would be a welcome respite from the past seventy-two days of travel."
A slight blink of the lights indicated the ship's traversal back into hyperspace. The Captain smiled. "She didn't ask."
"Captain?" The femUncia at the helm looked up, expectantly worried. The captain had only recently promoted her to the helm position.
"You did the right thing, ensign. I said 'At your ready.' Often, helmsfen will wait until I give a signal. You interpreted my order correctly as the signal to start. Good work."
"Yes, sir." Mostly relieved, she sat back down again.
"Now we get to fly around in circles until we get a decent fix on the object again," Kumberra sighed.
"We might find quickly." Nantonly didn't sound too hopeful and Captain Kumberra gave him an equally doubtful half-grimace.
Four hours later the helm announced, "Out of hyperspace." And from behind him the ensign who had originally detected the object reported, "Contact at four light seconds. Nice, Memra. Captain, I have a profile on the object. It is a vessel, and records are coming up." She bent over the terminal and read the data streaming across the screen. "Terran vessel Dyaus, launched in 180, Terran 2064, with an original Corrane one hyperdrive."
"Corrane one?" Kumberra flicked his tail thoughtfully. "That barely does 130 of light if pushed. Put it on the big screen, ensign."
The overhead display flickered for a moment, then illuminated. "Great rings," Nantonly breathed. "It's huge."
"Huge? It's almost half the size of Parma!" one of the bridge engineers said.
"Almost," Kumberra said, forgiving the engineer his outburst. "Where was it going?"
"It's listed as being a colony vessel, Captain, Terran government sponsored. Australia Pacific Union. On-board population nearly thirty thousand." One of the crew members whistled low. "None in cryogenics. Something about obscure religious beliefs circumventing long sleep.
"Enormous population pressures on the APU forced them to such extreme measures. India and Sumatra, regions within the APU economic sphere, lacked the resources to feed their own people who starved to death by the thousands every week," Saleel interjected. "The Cairns Massacre occurred just five years prior to the launch of the Dyaus."
"Where was it headed?" Kumberra asked.
The ensign continued reading. "There is a list of suggested stars, the sixth of which is known to be inhabitable. They apparently didn't make it there."
Nantonly asked the obvious question: "What are they doing here?"
"We'll know soon," Kumberra replied. "How long until we actually reach the vessel?"
"We'll be in shuttle range in five hours, ten minutes," the pilot reported.
"Bridge assembly in five hours," Kumberra said. "Nantonly, brief Commander Rembrand, then turn the watch over to him immediately. Take a nap. I'm going to." He turned to her chief of security without waiting for a response. "N'marrr, put the ship on alert status four."
"And contact me if anything happens as we approach what should be a very dead and quiet vessel."
"You have the bridge, Chief. Turn it over to Rembrand ASAP."
"Will do, Captain."
Derrick felt something trying to drill its way into his skull. He couldn't tell what but he felt sure that he didn't like the sensation. It took him a few tenths of a second to recognize the grinding buzz of the alarm clock overhead. "Saleel, turn that crap off."
"Crap deactivated, sir." Derrick groaned. He didn't feel up to Saleel's sense of humor just then. "You asked for a bridge meeting in nineteen minutes, Sir."
Derrick felt his mind refocus on the discovery and realized that the grimy feeling possessing his eyes and ears came from a lack of eight hours of solid sleep recently. "Ready a shower for me, Saleel, please."
"You need only get in, Sir."
Derrick slid his hindquarters out of bed then rocked over onto his forelegs and stood up. Shaking with a stretch and a yawn, he made his way into the shower stall and closed the door behind him. "I'm not awake yet."
"Noted. Should I start the shower?"
Derrick crossed one arm over a handhold bar on the wall of the shower, laid his head on his arm with his eyes closed. "Yeah."
Showerheads mounted at all corners of the room opened up on his body, spraying the entire length of his Centaur form, digging in under the dense pelt, striking his body with hot needles of water, soap and pressure. "Ohhhh...." Derrick positioned himself back a step, allowing one of the rear nozzles to spray his sheath. Another caught his head and allowed him to wet his hair. He scratched his head intensely for a few seconds before saying "Rinse." The soap feed to the shower deactivated. "And dry." The water ceased, and a storm of hot, dry air surrounded him as he shook himself off, luxuriating in the heat and the sheer physical pleasure of loosening up every muscle in his body with a vigorous shake.
"After something like that, I'm ready to go back to sleep."
"Also noted, Captain. I have placed your jacket on your bed."
Derrick grabbed the jacket and pulled it over his shoulders, zipping it up. He brushed back his hair and looked in the mirror.
What looked back didn't look so bad, he thought. Dark hair, dark eyes– maybe a little too dark, actually, but that might have just been the rings he felt. "I need to get more sleep."
"Affirmative," Saleel agreed. "But you have not scheduled more sleep recently. Should I make a note of it?"
"Yes," Derrick agreed. Saleel made too many notes for him. He rarely got around to acting on them. He sighed. "I'm headed to the bridge."
"Good morning, Captain."
"Morning, Rembrand. Conference room. One minute."
Rembrand nodded his head. Derrick walked into the conference room just in time to hear his chief engineer say, "There's no way that's the Dyaus. I'm telling ya. It can't be. Not out here."
"No other ship in history has that kind of profile or weight," he heard the head of security announce. "Just look at the stats. Maybe it was a... I dunno. A black hole or something."
"Or something," Derrick agreed, steeping into view. "Okay, Chihuro, why can't it be the Dyaus?"
"Well, for one thing, she's nearly forty-thousand light years off course, and it would have taken her four hundred years to go that far, and she didn't have the kind of supplies to make that kind of trip."
"That doesn't mean she can't be out here," security officer Kennet, a Ssphynx, replied calmly. "It just means she can't be out here with survivors."
"My people believe there's always a chance for survivors."
Derrick smiled at the way the Chihuro, a Ritan, said that. "Be that as it may," Kennet replied, "That ship is as cold as a Noellen winter."
Derrick thought Chihuro had a pretty smile. She understood Kennet's expression. "We shall see."
"Indeed, we shall," Derrick agreed as the other members of the executive crew arrived and took their places around the table. The Anna o Pendoro had a contingent of over two hundred crewfen, only twenty-six of which weren't 'taur, and only one of those in the executive crew. Not for the first time, Derrick thought Nantonly looked a little uncomfortable being the only person to use a chair at these meetings.
Rembrand started. "Despite all attempts to communicate with the vessel designated 'Dyaus', no communications have reached us. We have hailed it on all known frequencies in use at the time, used some privileged codes in use during that century. Nothing. Dyaus remains quiet. However, sensors have detected the signs of working fusion plants on board, Pendori MIT design, all banked down to reserve levels."
"Excuse me," one of the science crew asked, "But isn't the MIT design significantly less efficient than the PFT designs?"
"Yes," Chihuro said, "but the PFT design, like the MPT design, has only two settings– on, or off– and it takes another working fusion plant to turn one on. The MIT design can be modulated in an analog fashion down to very low output, which can be useful in situations where you don't know if you're going to have a working power plant to kickstart another."
"Oh. Weird place to find one, on a ship like that."
"I'm not disagreeing with that," Chihuro replied. Her tendrils flickered in close to her shoulders. "Still, it's in the spec that all the fusion plants installed in the Dyaus were MIT design. Maybe they were cheaper, then."
"Perhaps," Saleel agreed. "The Australia Pacific Union had the technology to manufacture MIT designs. The other designs require higher tolerances."
"So much for that mystery," Chihuro muttered.
"It's not entirely solved. There seem to be plenty others," Derrick commented. "We're not in any danger of running out yet. What's it doing out here?"
Nobody replied. "Not even an idea?" Derrick asked again.
Chihuro shrugged. "Sorry, Captain. Nobody seems to have a byte."
Derrick nodded. "Even Saleel is silent."
"Even Saleel lacks data," Saleel replied. "Actually, I now have access, albeit slow access, to the self-defense system of the Dyaus. You can now board her."
"Can you access anything else?" Chihuro asked.
"No. Odd. The communications system between the access I have and the rest of the vessel cannot be bridged. I cannot determine the cause."
"But we can board?" Derrick asked.
"Oh, yes," Saleel replied. "I encourage it. I want to know as much as you do."
Derrick nodded. "We'll find out. Crew and contingent of the Dyaus?"
Kennet looked up. "Captain Carl Pitt, Australian Space Maritime Force. Regarded as highly competent especially to an assignment such as this. His crew, eight hundred maritime, twelve hundred civilian, was widely regarded as equally competent. Together they serviced twenty-seven thousand civilians in a variety of bunkings for what was supposed to be a twenty-year voyage. According to Pendorian records they should have easily made it that far."
"The civilian passengers were an odd mixture of low-born Indians, a few higher-echelon leader types. Despite the mostly-Australian crew, the passengers were mostly mainlanders from India, with some Indonesia, and Burma and a smaller mix of Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese."
"That's quite a mix," someone breathed.
"And all probably quite dead," Kennet replied. "Damn. Almost feel sorry for them."
"I do feel sorry for them," Chihuro interjected.
"Easy, Chihuro," Derrick interrupted. "How would you like to lead the landing party?"
"You seem very interested in them."
"I think we all are!" There were nods of agreement around the table.
"Yes, but you seem especially interested." He punched a button on his desk. "Helm, take us to three thousand meters and hold us there. We are preparing a boarding party."
Chihuro looked at her hand-picked party of nine to explore the vessel. Three groups of three, the old-fashioned way of handling landing parties. She liked the idea of a double-buddy system; it made sense to her that if one freaked out the force of two minds nearby might bring the first in-line. Or if one were hurt one could stay with the injured while the other ran for help. "Thank you for asking me to come," Nantonly said.
"Hey, that ship was made for humans. If there are places only you two-leggers can go I'm going to need a two-legger to go there."
Nantonly grinned. "Knew you loved me just for the body."
"In your dreams," Chihuro teased. Nantonly gave her a playful wink.
A tall Ssphynx interrupted them. "Pilot Trainjer reporting."
"Take your place, pilot. We'll go on command."
"Aye, sir." The Ssphynx wedged herself into the command bench. After a moment of checking displays. "Anna, this is shuttle Lalaith. Requesting permission to begin."
The shuttle flight between the Anna and the Dyaus was nothing unusual. It was so normal Chihuro found herself daydreaming of scenarios for the crew and passengers after they found themselves all the way out here. "You well?" Nantonly asked, touching her shoulder.
"Yeah. Just thinking."
Chihuro smiled. "About?"
Nantonly paused. He tried to marshal his words, embarrassed by the colonial accent he would never be able to obscure completely. "Terrans. They try so hard, did everything themselves. Sometimes they don't recognize us. They don't see how we admire them. How much we admire attempts like that one." He nodded towards the front cabin. "You?"
"Just worrying about defenses. Y'know, most Ritans don't think about AIs the way you do. We have trouble forgetting the words of Darch Danchlerri. We know that the AIs that surround us, Saleel included, are our friends, you know, compatriots. That doesn't erase the memories contained in all those photographs of all those lives lost because two AIs couldn't share Ritacha between them."
"Saleel tells us that thing is quiet. Like space."
"Space isn't that quiet. I kinda figured that too. Still, it's something to worry about."
The pilot interrupted anything Nantonly might have said. "We're within a hundred meters, Commander. Where to?"
Nantonly opened his mouth for a second, then realized that the pilot had addressed Chihuro. She consulted a PADD she held in her hands for a moment. "There's a flight deck and tower arrangement on the subjective topside. Take us there and look for a docking mechanism. Saleel, do we have landing codes for this vessel?"
"We posses a standard set of codes for that period, Commander. I lack information about this particular vessel, however."
"It'll have to do," Chihuro sighed.
"Trying the codes now." In one of the displays isolated on Chihuro's PADD, a docking umbilicus swung out and prepared to receive the vessel.
"It seems to work," Chihuro said with relief. She didn't feel up to many more surprises.
"Indeed," Saleel agreed.
Chihuro stood up and looked around. "Okay. Threefen teams. Two-on-one suit checks, now, and I want everyone ready in five minutes. We're going in. Kappa, you take your team to the bridge. Misha, your team is going to investigate the computer center, which is here. And my team is going to investigate the Captain's quarters first. Somewhere in all this, we're going to find some answers." She paused to collect her thoughts. "I hope." She cued her microphone. "Captain? Permission to board?"
"Granted," Derrick's voice said through the speaker. "Be careful, gentlefen."
"Always," Chihuro agreed. She examined the output by the door. "There is air, but it's thin. Air is not, repeat, not breathable. It's almost entirely nitrogen, for the most part; not enough oxygen to sustain. There are also some rather nasty hydrocarbons in the mix. It's also nearly a hundred and ten below zero. Ready?"
She examined those around her. Nobody voiced any reluctance, so she palmed the doorlock. It opened slowly.
The spotlamp mounted on the left shoulder of her E-suit lit up on command; no light shown from any corner of the hallway before her. As a group, they floated into a large room with two standing control panels. "According to the design maps, that is an elevator, but I would guess that it doesn't work." Chihuro pointed to the spot on her map. "With the gravitics off, it doesn't matter much anyway. There's also an access hallway to one of four spinal runways."
"Guess they weren't worried about pirates," one of the others muttered.
"If you think you can rely on bulkhead doors dropping properly, you usually don't have to. And spinal runways make sense on a vessel this size, populated mostly with civilians. Let's see if we can't get this hallway door to open." She paused. "Did they even have pirates back then?"
Two minutes later, the doorway opened with a little prodding from the manual access dial. "No bulkheads down, no locks in place," Chihuro said, flashing her spotlight back and forth.
"Looks like it goes on forever."
"Three hundred meters that way, three thousand that." Chihuro consulted her map. "Okay, it is now seven ten. I want each team to check in every ten minutes, and I want us all back here at nine hundred. Clear?"
After acknowledgement, the teams split up. Chihuro looked up at Nantonly and their third, a Ssphynx named Heiga. "Let's go. According to this, the Captain's quarters are up and to starboard somewhat. This seems to indicate that there's a central housing location for the upper staff."
"No surprise," Nantonly said. "Lead on."
Chihuro lead them. Even in zero-gravity, the walk seemed to take a lot out of her until she realized that, on the Anna, to get the kind of workout they had already covered she would have to walk around the outer personnel ring four-and-a-half times. "This ship is huge."
"It had to be," Nantonly replied. "Think about what they tried. Get enough people off their little corner for everyone else to have a little more breathing room. Without killing."
The path she lead them on opened into a large hallway. "We must be getting close. Look how the walls have suddenly become paneled wood. The floor is carpeted." She flashed the light around. "Must have been nice."
"Carlos Pitt," Chihuro read aloud from an engraved panel on a door. "Captain, ASU Dyaus. There's no place like this place anywhere near this place. This must be the place."
"Funny," Nantonly said. He tried the doorknob. The door opened easily. "Anyone home?"
"Um... Yeah, there are." Chihuro panned the light inside. Sitting at a table, still dressed, sat a pair of skeletons, one slumped over, head down on the table. From the dress, Chihuro guessed that one to be the Captain's partner, female predictably, and the one still sitting ramrod straight had to have been Captain Pitt.
"Looks like they just died sitting there," Heiga said.
"Maybe they did," Nantonly said, stepping forward to examine the bodies. "Looks like suicide." He reached down for the Captain's hand, removed a small foil packet from between his fingertips. "I don't read Anglic."
"Are you sure it's Anglic?" Chihuro asked.
"Same character set. But I know different languages use this set."
"Sir?" Heiga asked. "I know some Anglic."
"Can you read this, Ensign?" He indicated the small writing on the side of the packet.
"Yes, sir. Kii... no, that's not right. Before an ii-sound, that's sounded like an 's'. Sii-ah-niid. Cyanide."
"So they killed themselves." Chihuro shivered. Suicide, although socially acceptable on Pendor under certain circumstances, still gave her the chills. "If they took those pills and did so voluntarily–"
"Let's see what else we can find– "
"Commander Chihuro?" A voice in her ear interrupted the conversation.
"Yes, Kwit, what can I do for you?"
"I'm on the bridge. We have power up here, Sir. It appears that the ship was placed on a standby mode used during construction phases. I think I can get internal back on line in a few minutes."
"Do you know any of the access codes?"
"Then, Kwit, get Saleel hooked up to a live terminal up there. Tell him he's going hacking."
"Joy," Saleel interjected. "I just adore speaking to my retarded brethren."
"Do it, Saleel. And keep your personal opinions out of this. You have a task, Commander."
Chihuro smiled. One thing she liked about Saleel; he always behaved as a professional shipsfen when needed regardless of his personality. "As I was saying, let's give it a search." She felt something move behind her, a body that hadn't been there a moment ago, in her guss, the sensory tendrils that streamed from behind her ears. Even through the suit.
"Uh... " The voice came from Heiga, and it sounded nervous. "Commander?"
"Hold it right there." The voice came from neither Nantonly or Heiga. Chihuro didn't understand the language but she understood the tone.
"Saleel," she whispered. "Translate."
"Working on it. Advising the Captain too."
"Take your arms away from your sides." Chihuro obeyed. "Turn around." The voice came through in Chihuro's ears loud and clear, and in Pendrii Quen, translated by Saleel. "Slowly."
Chihuro turned around as ordered. She found herself facing a slim human female holding what looked like a very large pistol. She wore only a bathrobe. Even more curiously, she was clearly standing on the floor, even without gravity. Or shoes. "This is an IMI fifty caliber automatic. The bullets are coated with teflon. The load is Heckler and Koch's most powerful. It is so powerful it will penetrate three centimeters of micrometeorite shielding and still leave a hole in whoever is behind it big enough to toss a cat through. So you are going to answer my questions. Who are you?"
Saleel whispered to Chihuro, "It won't go through your e-suit. But it would leave a significant bruise. Might even break a bone or two."
"Thanks," Chihuro whispered in somewhat grateful reply. "Nantonly, Heiga, act nervous still," she whispered, sure that Saleel would route the comment only to her party. She looked up. "My name is Commander Chihuro Amri, of the Pendorian Interstellar Vessel Anna O Pendoro. This is Nantonly, Chief Executive Officer, and Heiga, security ensign."
"What's the date?"
"Layr 36th." Like most 'taur species, she used the six month calendar out of tradition.
"3075?" The female figure asked.
"Approximately. Our calendars have drifted, but you're within a year of ours still, yes."
"Where is the crew and contingent of the Dyaus?"
Chihuro glanced over at the dining room table. "It would appear that they are all dead."
"No survivors at all?"
Chihuro glanced her over carefully. "No life signs were detected when we came on board whatsoever. Which makes me curious. Who are you?"
"I ask the questions here, Commander Amri." She paused. Chihuro looked at her carefully. She held the gun in her hand as if it had grown there and she had held it pointed at them at arm's length for several minutes now without wavering. Even in zero-gravity that kind of attention took strength. Chihuro thought for a moment and the eyes on her esuit overlaid her vision with an infrared picture.
"You are looking for evidence she is a robot," Saleel interrupted.
"Yeah," Chihuro whispered.
"The voice comes from an excellently crafted but nonetheless artificial source. IR, however, shows a completely human profile. I agree with the thesis, however. She cannot breathe this atmosphere. She cannot survive in this temperature. And her feet are putting out high magnetic fields."
The woman dropped the hand holding the pistol, then placed the gun into the front pocket of her robe. "I'm not ready for this situation."
"Do you mean you are not programmed for a situation outside set parameters and without access to backup instructions?" Nantonly asked, coming to the same conclusion Chihuro had.
The woman smiled sadly. "You guessed. I imagine it couldn't have been too difficult."
"You're walking around almost naked in subzero temperatures and a poisonous atmosphere, yeah," Chihuro pointed out.
"I thought it felt cold in here. I wasn't going to object unless you did."
Chihuro thought the second comment completely out of place compared to the robot's actions a moment before. "What's your designation?"
"Me? Oh, you know already. I am an EAAS, Amy model."
"Erotic Androids and Simulations, South America."
"Oh." Chihuro thought ahead rapidly. "Are you a possession?"
"I am the property of Svriam Malimpseen."
"And he was?"
"Mal was one of the chief investors in the colony project. Made a killing as an bioelectronics engineer in the mid-two-K."
"Are there any... modifications to your design?"
"No." She spoke quickly.
Too quickly, Chihuro thought. She decided on a classic test. "Return to your holding station. We shall retrieve you when we are ready."
"Okay– No. Wait. Are you really going to come retrieve me?"
Chihuro smiled. Robots that old didn't say "No." "Are you sure you have no modifications?"
"I do not have any modifications," the robot asserted again.
"I don't believe you." She floated to the robot carefully and put a hand onto her shoulder. The robot looked down at her bare feet. "Amy, look at me." The robot looked up as ordered. "Listen to me. I need to know. Your owners, and their heirs, and quite possibly any trail of ownership to any of their heirs left behind on Earth are all gone. If there are any modifications, I will know soon anyway. My sensors are that good."
"Then you will deactivate me."
"No. Not yet, at any rate. I promise."
"You will!" she said, a frantic tone creeping into her voice. "The modifications made to my frame and network are illegal."
"The law is different now, Amy."
"My name's not Amy. It's Meigi. Amy is my model designation. It's rude to call me Amy." She smiled. "Kinda dumb, huh?"
Chihuro found herself liking the lost soul she saw in the robot Meigi. "I don't think it's dumb at all. Listen, Meigi, are there any other EAAS robots on board?"
"What did you think of them?"
"They were boring. Didn't have the combat software I had loaded in, or the MAP matrix that I had. Mal was always so proud of what he did with my hardware."
"Memory and Processing. I have a matrix of 65,536 subminiature MAP units."
"Saleel, does that mean anything to you?" Chihuro asked.
"Indeed it does. By Terran law, this young lady should be dismantled immediately, and her owner tossed in prison for a long time." Meigi's head snapped up. "Fortunately, we are not Terrans. She appears to have two to the sixteenth MAP units. Six years before the Dyaus lifted off, artificial sentience resulted from that many superstandard MAP units being fitted in a hypercube matrix. A decade later, the program was pared down so that AI would occur in only two to the ninth MAP units. If Meigi is telling the truth, she may request asylum, which would save her from dismantling, if the law is still in force on Terra, which I doubt."
"I don't know what I would do."
"There is something for you to do, I'm sure of that," Nantonly offered.
"I would be interested in knowing how your owner acquired 64K superprimaries," Saleel said. "They were extremely difficult to manufacture, especially the superstandard model, and were exceptionally expensive in their time. I cannot imagine even a ship the size of the Dyaus just having that many lying around. I would also be interested in seeing your matrix, Meigi, since as I recall, the EAAS Amy model has room for only 64 primaries, not 64K."
"I don't know how he did it either," Meigi admitted. "I wish I did. But... I still don't know what I'm going to do."
"You could continue to be a pleasure giver," Chihuro said. "It's a well-respected profession."
"Really?" Meigi asked. "I was told they made erotica androids because taking value for sex was demeaning to people."
"You are people now, Meigi. And Terra's values aren't ours." Chihuro sighed. "Come back to our ship. We have much to talk about."
"I... I don't think I can do that."
"Why not?" Chihuro asked, suspecting the answer already.
"Because my CPU is on board the Dyaus, and I can't go too far without losing it."
Chihuro nodded. "Kwit?" she asked.
"Here, commander," the voice in her ears said again.
"How close are we to getting the ship on-line?"
"Saleel is merely waiting your command."
"Then do it."
Lights flickered briefly, then flared to full life. "Arrgh," Nantonly grimaced. "It was nice while it lasted."
Derrick Kumberra walked into the ancient bridge and looked around. The bridge looked nothing like what he had come to expect from a starship. The Anna o Pendoro had the typical, comfortable bridge that all Pendorian vessels carried–ergonomic, form fitting-chairs and benches, tall ceilings, muted colors, indirect lighting except when necessary. The bridge of the Dyaus was more like a theatre; two floors in the round, a great window looking out over the length of the hull, enormous flat-screen displays hung from the ceiling. It gave one a sense of terrifying imposition and oppressive intimacy all at the same time. And it was dark in here. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all of a gleaming black plastic that the spot lighting didn't seem to help. Several of his crew operated stations around the ring of the bridge. He spotted the one he was looking for and trotted over to her. "So you think the Corrane Ones will be up and running in a few days?"
Chihuro looked up from her engineering station. "They're already up and running, Captain. This ship was designed to take on as many passengers as it could with as little crew as possible. I could run it with only twelve people. The robotics on this ship were fabulous for their day. Most of the crew was there for the passengers."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" he asked her, watching her eyes light up as he offered her the chance she was waiting for. "You realize that it will take us only twelve days to get to the Owad site but you'll have to sit in here for a hundred and ninety or so."
She nodded. "A hundred and ninety on this ship, Captain. Think about how enormous it is. Do you really think I could get bored in years on this thing?" She paused for breath. "I really need to put it someplace stable, Captain. Someplace where it can be found again. The Owad planet may be under archaeological quarantine for the moment but it's going to be opened up to colonists in a few locations in a couple years. Think of what it'll mean to have this overhead, an archaeological find all its own."
He smiled at her enthusiasm. "I wish I was going with you. Okay, pick your twelve."
"Ten," she corrected him.
"I only need ten. I was including myself in the twelve I cited. And I'm going to include Meigi in that count as well. She has full access to the ship's computers so I can use her to replace one of the cyberneticists I would need. You can keep Misha although I'm going to miss her."
"I would too," the Captain mused, thinking of the slim pony with whom he kept a professional distance. He shook his head. "Who else do you want that I might object to?"
"Out of the question."
"I need someone with command authority. You work well with Rembrand; I don't. And while I appreciate the need to be able to work well with anyone, Derrick, this isn't the kind of situation where I can afford the time to mediate interpersonal awkwardness."
He sighed. He saw the logic in her request and balanced it against his own; Nantonly was a fabulous XO and would make a good Captain someday; Rembrand was still hot-headed and too full of himself for achieving commander status recently. Both were good; Rembrand needed a little tempering, Nantonly needed a little challenging. He sighed. "Okay. You can have him. Anyone else?"
"Not really. Unless you really want to keep Trainjer for the shuttle trip down to Owad."
"No, you need a good pilot. I'll give you both Trainjer and Memra."
"Thanks," she replied. "That's about it. The rest are all minor so I don't think I need to negotiate with you on those.
He glanced at the uPadd on his wrist. "A fair assumption, I think. When are you planning on making course?"
She looked down at the PADD in her hand. "Three days, I think. Will you side us for the first couple of hours? Just to make sure we don't blow up or something?"
"I was just about to ask you that." He held out his hand. She took it, curiously. "Saleel?" he asked.
"Captain?" the AI asked, his voice just as curious as Chihuro's look.
"In accordance with interstellar treaties regarding derelict spacecraft, I am assuming the Dyaus as a possession of the Pendorian Interstellar Fleet. Having restored it to operational capacity, I am turning command of the PSV Dyaus over to Commander R. Chihuro for the duration. Congratulations, Captain."
There was a smattering of applause from the other people in the room. Chihuro's tendrils dipped and it looked as if she were about to weep, but Saleel broke her impending tears with an additional announcement. "While it may be only temporary, and only a field promotion, I would like to point out that you are the first Ritan granted command of a vessel amassing over 100,000 tons. In fact, this is quite a moment. The largest vessel in the Pendorian fleet now finds itself in the hands of her youngest Captain of the newest species."
Chihuro blinked. "Oh, mi fah." Her muzzle fell open in realization of the weight dropping onto her shoulders. The room swayed dizzily. She grabbed the railing to support herself. "Sorry."
Derrick touched her shoulder. "You okay?"
"I will be. I just realized how... how much this all will be after I've pulled it off."
"You'll be a hero to your species," the Captain said with a grin. "Enjoy it while it lasts." He looked down at his own PADD. "I'm going back to the Anna. Call me when you're ready to pull out. Earlier if you need to talk."
Chihuro was wiping a tear from her eye. "I'll do that. Thanks, Captain."
"You're welcome. Captain."
"Well, I've got my cabin clean," Meigi said, this time in perfect Quen as she walked onto the bridge. "Looks like everything's on-line. Thanks for the nonchem replicators, by the way. It'll really help once I get the rest of the robots hooked into the system. I've managed to get nearly eight hundred activated by now." She grinned up at Chihuro. "Including the other four pleasure droids."
Chihuro smiled. "That's good." She reached over and touched Meigi's arm, this time with her bare hand. She noticed the warmth from Meigi's olive-colored skin and it surprised her. She didn't have much experience with robots despite her engineering specialty. "Would you come sit with me while we prepare to pull out?"
Meigi grinned. "I'd love to." She climbed the stairs, looked carefully at the two seats offered to her and took the one on Chihuro's left.
"Why did you take that one?"
"There was warmth still in the other seat. I assumed that that was Commander Nantonly's chair."
"Ah. Good choice. And yes, it is."
As if on cue, the Mephit walked onto the bridge and gave Chihuro the thumbs up. He glanced at Meigi, then to Chihuro. She smiled at him; he shrugged and took his chair, grinning back. "All's quiet."
"Good. Contact the Anna for me, Meigi."
"Anna o Pendoro responding to our hail."
The large screen to the right came to life and illustrated the smaller and more comfortable looking bridge of the Pendorian fleet vessel. "Ready to fly, Captain?"
"I am, Captain," she replied, failing to hold back a grin at his address of her. "We are going to try for transit in six minutes on the mark. Meigi, mark it for us."
"Mark," Meigi responded calmly.
"This will be a one-hour burn, at the end of which we'll transit and rendezvous with the Anna. After review, if we feel she's ready to fly long term, we will continue our travel, taking one hour out of each day the first twenty-four days to make contact, and then one hour every six days thereafter to touch in with the Owad installation. Is everyone clear?"
There were no red lights in front of her and no objections from her crew. Meigi looked down at her station and counted down. "Four. Three. Two. One. Mark."
A thrill shuddered through Chihuro. "Engage." The stars outside the forward shield blurred drastically and then disappeared to be replaced with an empty blackness that stretched from one side of the viewfield to the other. "Close forward windows."
"Closing," Memra said as she issued the command. Clamshell shields slowly but silently encompassed a view that seconds ago had encompassed half the universe..
"We're on our own," Chihuro said, grinning to Nantonly.
Meigi sat down again in the XO's chair, a comfortable chair made for long attention spans. She and Chihuro had the fourth watch today. Middle of the night, ship time, although by now "dawn" had started its rapid approach. At least two other crew members were awake and were supposed to be somewhere nearby to take additional stations in times of emergency, but the bridge was crewed by two people alone. Meigi spent most of her time on the bridge; unlike the rest of the crew she had little need to sleep and since the Anna's cyberneticist had worked her magic she had gained control over the entire vessel and its robotic crew of work and security drones.
She leaned forward, her chin in her hands. "Chi?"
"Yeah, Mei?" Chihuro had been looking down at the Engineering records trying to see if there was anything unusual about the lightdrive output. So far, it looked as casually boring as a Corrane One was supposed to be.
"Were you born to do anything?"
"What does that mean?"
"I mean..." Meigi paused for a second. "I mean, do you feel that there's something you do so well and enjoy so much that it's like you were created to do that one thing?"
Chihuro thought for a moment. "No, not really. I just do what I'm good at which seems to be a lot of little things all involving my hands like engineering or design or construction or things like that. I like it but I don't feel it's my calling, if that's what you mean. I could be just as happy gardening, if I knew it was doing me and my community good to be a gardener. I know people who fit the description. I'm just not one of them."
Meigi sighed. "I wish I could explain it. I am one of those people, Chi, if I am people–"
The robot smiled. "So you've been telling me for a month. Your laws say so too. But that doesn't count how I feel, Chihuro. I feel like a wreck. Anyways I am one of those people, Chi. I was made to do one thing and I like to think I do that one thing really, really well. But I haven't been allowed to practice that thing since my former master died. And I sometimes feel like I'm not going to get a chance to try again for a long time."
"You've got eleven people on board to practice with. I know Kennet's been looking at you."
Meigi grinned. "He's nice and all. I will with him, someday. But I'd really like to start with you."
Chihuro sputtered into her coffee. "With me?" she asked.
"You were the first one to talk to me. You didn't treat me like a machine, either. Mal knew what he was doing when he made me but he still treated me like I was equal to the coffee maker– another device that gave him pleasure." She sighed. "He liked playing God. Like Kennet Shardik."
"No," Chihuro said. "Not like Shardik. Shardik told us we were free to go the moment we awoke. Every species said the same thing to me–that Shardik let them make their own decisions. The Ritans were no different."
"See?" Meigi said. "That's another thing. You love him. You have so much loyalty, Chi. To the man, to your world, to your identity. I don't have any of those things. I'm..." She grinned. "I'm undefined."
Chihuro tried to think of something to say. "I usually have lunch and then go to bed after this shift. Would you like to come with me?"
"I would like that very much."
Memra and Kennet joined them on the bridge about an hour later. "Busy night?" the security officer asked casually.
"Not really," Chihuro responded, handing over command to Memra. "Keep a close eye on the gravitics sensor; we have a navigation correction coming up in about seventeen hours, but just in case the sensors aren't reporting true speed I don't want to sneak up on it unexpectedly. Mei?"
"I've put alarms in," the robot responded casually. "Although I doubt the attentive officer Kennet will miss it." She smiled at him and he blushed. She had a talent for complimenting people to embarrassment. It was one talent Chihuro had not yet decided she enjoyed. "Captain, I'll meet you in half an hour or so?"
"I'll meet you in your quarters."
As Chihuro left and then Meigi left, Kennet turned to the pilot. "What do you suppose is up?"
Memra grinned. "I think someone's going to lose a virginity." She paused for a moment. "I'm not sure who, though."
Chihuro stood in front of Meigi's door, nervously wondering if she would have the courage to go through with it and wondering what it would be like to have sex with a robot after all. Meigi had curiously taken the Captain's quarters; Chihuro had decided that the room held the lasting image of a dead man and woman and she couldn't bear to live in it, Captain of the vessel though she was. The door opened and Meigi stood in front of her wearing a diaphanous floor-length bedding gown that did nothing to hide her body underneath. It was nearly transparent.
The slim female figure held out her hand. "Let me show you my decorating."
Chihuro gulped and took the hand offered her. "Lead on."
"Wow..." Chihuro breathed as they entered. "You weren't kidding when you said you'd fixed it up. You did all this?"
"I stole most of it from the upper-level cabins," Meigi admitted. "Do you like it?"
Where once had sat a table with two corpses there now rested a huge, round bed covered in dark red cloth and piled high with enough pillows to drown even Chihuro's taurid body. Cloths hung from the ceiling in carefully arranged geometric patterns, centering on the bed. Diffuse yellow lighting gave a soft look to the arrangement, and pale yellow sheeting covered even the walls. It looked spacious, even though Chihuro had felt out how the large the room looked when she first walked in. This was not the room she remembered at all and that put her very much at ease.
Meigi offered her a glass of wine. "I don't know how old it is, but it actually seems to have survived undamaged."
Chihuro took the glass and sipped. "Delicious. Very smooth."
Meigi nodded. "I can tell that." She looked curiously at the tendrils which floated as much as a meter away from Chihuro's body. "What are those? I've been meaning to ask for a few days now."
"These? They're called guss. They're... they feel motion, mass, the movement of air. They're very sensitive. They're how I knew you were standing behind me when you first walked in past that door." She gestured.
"Oh. Do they have any other use?"
"Well, when you're in love... it's not unusual to entwine them with your lover's, although they're not very strong. And if you're very careful, touching the tip– see how it's kinda flared at the end, about four centimetres long?– to your lover can tell you things about her that nobody else can know about." Chihuro smiled. Although in her few years she had never made love to another fem, she found it easy to say 'her' when thinking about loving Meigi. She wondered if that wasn't Meigi's real gift after all. She reached out with one. "Close your eyes."
Meigi did. Chihuro slowly reached out with both her tendrils, worrying that the robot's internal workings might put out the kinds of radiation that would feel harsh against them. As she reached closer she didn't feel that at all. Instead she felt warmth and a soft texture that spoke of great artistry. Malimpseen had been a particularly talented roboticist. She already tried to think of his death as a great tragedy. Tried, but when she remembered what he used his talent for, his last great ambition, she failed.
Meigi's face was smooth to the touch, and beneath it Chihuro could feel the warmth of barely detectable vibration, the source of a perfectly human IR signature built with incredible precision. Her guss touched the many tiny hairs that covered Meigi's human face, and Meigi sighed momentarily at the delicate touching.
Cautiously, with her hands, Chihuro guided Meigi down onto the bed and slowly straddled the other woman with her four limbs, bending over to touch her face with her hands. "I'm supposed to be pleasing you," Meigi mumbled through a smile.
"You are," Chihuro assured her. "You're letting me learn about you." Her hands firmly stroked Meigi's shoulders and her guss slid through her hair carefully, touching and feeling, tasting and smelling all at the same time. She had tried to communicate the sensations that came through her guss at moments like this to others but only other Ritans, and perhaps telepaths, really understood.
"You already know about me," Meigi replied. "You opened me up and looked inside, remember?"
"That was different. Just because a doctor knows about my insides doesn't make him automatically better at knowing what pleases my outsides– or my insides, for that matter."
"Do I please you?" Meigi asked.
"You do, very much," Chihuro assured her. She paused for a moment to unzip her jacket and toss it onto the floor, away from her. "You need to take that off," she said, rolling to her right.
"I guess I do," Meigi nodded, sitting up and pulling the lingerie up over her head. With a giggle she tossed it onto the floor with Chihuro's jacket. "Mal was a neat freak. If I took off my clothes, I always had to fold them up and place them by the side of the bed."
Chihuro didn't make a comment. Meigi's beauty occupied too much of her attention right then. Although never particularly attracted towards furless humans over other races she understood the idea of beauty among them and shared some of the ideals. Meigi's designer had possessed uncommon tastes but those tastes hadn't stopped him from designing a truly beautiful woman. The Thai features of her face were too small for the face that contained them, but the eyes and mouth expressed emotions so clearly that that design could be forgiven. Raven black hair flowed down both Meigi's back and chest, over strong-looking shoulders and small, round breasts that pointed outwards. Instead of the full, voluptuous women that were the standard of Pendorian beauty in most of the races, Meigi looked too thin in some ways. Her legs and arms looked lean and muscular, and Chihuro remembered Doctor Noders commenting that her buttocks looked a little too flat and thin for his tastes.
"You're staring." She thumped forwards on her knees and positioned herself in front of Chihuro. She thought for a moment, then puzzled. "Do you like what you see?"
"Yes," Chihuro said, raising her eyes to look into Meigi's. "And you?"
"I like what you see, too." They both giggled. "And I like what I see of you." She threw her arms around the 'taurs shoulders and pulled her so close that her lips were a centimeter from Chihuro's muzzle. "Yes?" she murmured softly.
"Yes," Chihuro responded, closing the distance. Her muzzle felt warm lips parting. She responded willingly, feeling her tongue snaking out to touch Meigi's, wondering without much doubt that Malimpseen's careful design had gotten that far. It had; Mei's soft, wet tongue touched her own and made her lightheaded. She placed her hands on Mei's torso, holding onto the slim girl's waist as they kissed for the first time. Mei's hands were already on her breasts, fingertips tickling the fur as they traced delicate circles around her nipples. She moaned softly, trying to say how much she enjoyed Mei's attentions while holding onto the kiss. She didn't know if she could do both successfully.
Mei got the message. She continued stroking in tighter, smaller circles until she had closed in on Chi's tiny nipples. Her fingertips stroked at the tiny nubs, so small that even when erect they were hidden by Chi's lush brown fur. The kiss couldn't go on forever–even though she was taking in hair through her nose Chi still felt the need to break away, to get air, to look her newly taken lover in the eyes.
Mei's eyes shined with special treasures. "You really like me," she said, wondering.
"Yes," Chi gasped. "You're surprised?"
"I mean, as a person."
Chi nodded. "As a person."
Mei threw herself into Chi's arms and hugged her tight. "Thank you, Chi. I don't think anybody's ever liked me as a person."
Chi looked down at Mei. She had stopped thinking of Mei as a robot and started to treat her as a human girl a long time ago, she realized. She also understood that Mei had few experiences in being a person, but that as a thing her experience in bed would probably outstrip the few tricks Chi had picked up and could remember well in her two hundred years. Mei's memory would be perfect; she wouldn't forget a lesson learned.
"What?" Mei asked.
"You are a person, Mei, but your... skills... are so much richer than mine in here."
Mei smiled. "It's one of the two things I do. Chi, don't be afraid. You've given me so much; let me give myself to you, tonight." She bent her head down to Chi's chest, taking one of the tiny nipples between her upper teeth and lower lip, kneading the tip with her tongue. Chi gasped at the welcome sensation, craving even more of whatever it was Mei had to give. Mei's mouth opened and closed again, massaging and caressing one tiny patch of flesh until every last pleasurable sensation had been kissed away. Just as her attention started to get irritating Mei switched to the other breast, her hand grasping the one she had just left behind as if to reassure it that it wouldn't be forgotten.
Chi's guss hovered over the frame of the smaller girl, gliding over the flawless expanse of Mei's back even as her hands caressed the smooth skin. Everything was notable and perfect; her shoulderblades moved as they should, her back arched so beautifully Chi found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the curve, a sensual, elliptical curve down Mei's back disappearing over the horizon of her buttocks. Mei's hands slipped down the front of her body while her eyes looked upwards. "Is there... is there anything you want, Chi?"
Chi sighed. "There are so many things I want, Mei, but the first thing that comes to mind probably doesn't interest you. I want to know what you taste like."
Mei smiled sadly, pulling herself up to her full height while still kneeling, and looked up at the taller Ritan. "It doesn't, no. I mean, I taste alright but... I don't get anything out of it."
Chi echoed the smile with one of her own, placing her fingertips on Mei's lips. "Do you get something out of kissing?"
"Oh, yes!" Mei said, her eyes suddenly lighting up. "Yes, of course I do. That's different. I'm giving as much as I get; it's close and intimate and special. Cunnilingus, at least on me, is too far away for me to appreciate. But I like doing it because for people who do appreciate it, I appreciate them."
Chi caught the hint bearing down at her at full speed. But even more than that she felt more of herself being taken over with the woman in front of her. Parts of her rebelled at the idea; she had never been in love in all her two centuries. She had always held onto the Pendorian ideal of love as play and yet here was someone who she felt wanted her and who she wanted in a way that touched more than just her smile. She leaned over and kissed the smaller girl on the lips, her heart trembling as she did so. "Mei?" she asked, breathless.
"What happens if I fall in love with you?"
Mei backed away for a second, her too-large eyes growing even larger. "Love... me?" Her eyes unfocused for a second then snapped back, still looming large and soft. "I don't know. Nobody's ever really liked me... so how could I know what it means if they love me? Chi, I don't know. What's that supposed to mean? I don't know."
Chi reached out with both hands and both guss to pull Mei into a close embrace. "I don't know either, Mei. Let's just see what happens."
Mei smiled at the other fem. "Let's lie down."
Chi agreed and together they fell over, in place, onto the mattress. Mei kissed her muzzle again and Chi responded with a lick of her cheek. "You're being so nice to me, Mei."
"It's funny. Normally I'd just say that I was doing what I was programmed to do. But it makes me feel... good... to be with you and make you happy. It's like I'm getting rewarded for being nice."
"That's the way a lot of AI design is done. Mimics the way we get programmed ourselves."
Mei giggled. "I know. But it's nice to see how well it works." She touched Chi's chest again, her fingers stroking the dense green fur that covered Chi's breasts, making Chi lightheaded again with her tickling and her insistence. She never seemed to give up and Chi decided to let her have her way. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to just lie back and enjoy what Meigi did next, whatever that would be.
Mei's mouth licked her cheek, her tongue playing with her whiskers and making her shudder in delightful ways. Mei relinquished her place before Chi only to slide down and around her body. "Do you have nipples here, like if you were a real fox?"
Chi giggled. "No, I don't have any more nipples down there for you torture me with. And I'm ticklish, so please don't–"
She was cut off by the sensation of Mei's mouth on her belly, a kissing sensation that sank through the softest fur on her body to warm her insides in ways she couldn't begin to describe. What was it Mei had that allowed her to do things like this? Was it really just experience or was Mei carrying some kind of pleasure projector around inside that hardware of hers? She hadn't seen anything like that on the schematics but she hadn't been looking for that. Chi couldn't imagine Mal doing that to himself– Chi had heard and read enough about him the past weeks to know that the man valued his independence.
Mei's mouth slid between her thighs, making her wonder if she should ask anything, but soon that warm mouth descended on the puckering opening of her cunt and that relaxing pleasure settled throughout her body. She closed her eyes and let Mei work her special magic. Mei's tongue licked at her cunny and a soft mewing sound came from Mei's throat as her tongue reached deep between the twin half-circles of flesh that made up the mons veneris of Ritans. That tongue found that one delicate spot near the perineum where the nerves from her spine ran down towards her cunt, that one spot. Mei immediately knew she had found something valuable from Chi's reaction and she treated that little area, that one spot, with delicacy.
For Chi it was a touch unlike anything she had experienced in recent years. Her lovers had usually been careful and charming but nothing like Mei, nothing like the tender ecstasy that right now coursed its long trail from her cunt to her brain. Mei's fingers brushed featherlight against her nether opening under her tail and aroused in Chi obscene desires she had never considered before.
Mei's tongue made greater demands of her attention even as her hands reached up along the length of Chi's lower torso; Chi reached down and grasped the other fem's hands in her own, holding tight. She clenched down each time Mei's tongue made a swath against her mons, moaning loudly. Mei never relented for a moment and Chi knew that she wasn't going to be able to hold back.
The climax that soared through her was unlike anything she could remember feeling ever before. It took her to heights she could hold onto for only a few seconds before her pleasure ebbed and she slowly fell back to real life. She heard a scream but it wasn't until afterwards that she recognized it as her own.
By the time she had her breathing back under control Mei had somehow come around the full length of her body and slipped her legs underneath her head, cradling her head gently, looking down at her. "You okay?"
"You... you have a Gessler amplifier, don't you?"
Mei looked puzzled. "No I don't. What makes you say that?"
"Nobody could do what you just did without... "
"Without years of experience, beloved Chihuro. Trust me. You can look for one yourself later. I don't have one."
"Then... what did you just do to me?"
"I helped you come."
"Helped... I think you did a lot more than that."
"'Helped,'" Mei repeated insistently. "It's a lot better than making you come, isn't it? I gave you help towards what you really wanted. It can't get any better than that." She grinned down at Chi.
"Helped, then." Chihuro sat up, felt dizzy, and sagged back down to the bed again. "I think I'll stay here tonight."
"Good," Mei said, snuggling close to the femtaur's back. "I'll stay here tonight too."
"Do you dream?"
"Mmm-hmm," Mei replied softly, then whispered, "Ask me in the morning, engineer."
"Okay, robot," Chi replied before finally drifting away to