Captain R. Chihuro shouted. "Hello? Raven?"
Chihuro followed the voice through one door, then another, until she found a lit room with wooden counters and what looked like a moderately large stove and oven. It sharply contrasted the vast square meters of stainless steel tables and specialized ovens, roasters, and stove-tops of the main kitchen. "What's this?"
Raven, a tall Ssphynx whose real name Chihuro could look up if she really desired, trotted out from behind a wood-topped island. "This is the executive kitchen. You didn't think I was using the main kitchen for all of those meals, did you?"
"Well, yes, actually, I did." Chihuro noticed that Raven once again had Pamthreat black fur. "I see you found enough fur dye."
"Mei made it for me," Raven said. "I hope you don't mind."
"I'm only a temporary captain, Raven," Chihuro said. "And personal aesthetics aren't my concern unless they represent a hazard. Does it?"
"Can the dye be hazardous?"
"I don't think so. Would Mei give me something that could be dangerous?"
"She's not a Pendorian AI, so I don't know," Chihuro said. "She might not have the same parameters as the rest of us."
"Hmm." Raven considered for a moment, then said, "I'll just have to ask her. She did say it wasn't toxic and could be eaten safely. Breathing... If I get stuck in an environment suit, I don't know." She looked up. "What brings the Captain down to my lowly mess, anyway?"
Chihuro took a deep breath. "I've been noticing a few problems among the crew, and I came down to find out if you could assist with a solution." Raven tilted her head to listen. "This ship is too big, Raven. There are eleven of us on board a ship meant to hold thousands, and do it in comfort and style for several years. I haven't seen Nantonly since he found this paper collection of written music from the last Dark Age. So I'm afraid my solution is to impose upon you once more."
Raven grinned and clutched a long-handled wooden stirring spoon in one hand. "Do you worst, Captain."
"I'm afraid my worst isn't going to be much fun. You're the most put-upon of all my crew members. This ship is automated enough that other than exercises to keep sharp my crew languishes most of the day away. But they still need to eat and most of them are still coming to you for that."
Raven pointed at a dumbwaiter set into one wall. "A lot of them are using the automatic food production systems. It's nutritious but not tasty, not like what I can cook in this little kitchen. They come for one meal, but not three or four. It's a long trek from engineering to here."
Chihuro nodded. She had heard that excuse from Heiga and Misha. "But you're the only one who sees everyone on a daily basis, even if it's just a thank you from them as they pass your mid-meal cart and grab a sandwich. So you're the one I need now. I need you to prepare one meal a week that we all sit down to, all eleven of us. I've already asked Mei and she's agreed to be the server if you'll agree to cook it and show her how."
"I'll have to serve one with her."
Chihuro took a deep breath. "I'm delegating this to you, Raven. You figure out how it's done."
"Aye, aye, Captain." She looked down at a comconsole, an old-style one complete with a keyboard, and then back to Chihuro. "Y'know, you've been a good captain."
Chihuro had the grace to be startled. "I have?"
Raven nodded. "You know when to get out of people's way."
"I have no idea how to prepare a party, Raven."
"Exactly. And you don't have the time to learn. I do. Now, if you have no other orders for me...?"
"I'll get out of your way. Right."
To Chihuro's relief, nobody complained about the Call To Dinner, as Raven had described it in her email to everyone on the ship. She had expected there to be some resistance, since Pendorians were notorious for avoiding group activities. She marvelled at how well they turned themselves into starship crews, since they all seemed to be heading off in their own directions.
She had read that teamwork for Pendorians consisted not of agreeing to all walk in the same direction, but to all walk down the same road at more or less the same pace. Ritans, in contrast, tended to walk all in the same direction. Since she was the only Ritan on board, that made doing so easy; it did not, however, make her job of leading the Pendorians comprehensible.
She looked at the invitation–paper, no less, hand-delivered by Meigi. She wondered where the fiber had come from. This ship had wonderful recycling and power management facilities for its time, or so Kennet kept telling her, but did it really have the excess necessary to run its information technologies with paper? She supposed it would have to, to have it on hand like this.
The executive dining hall was down a gray, blank hallway from the bridge, but the room itself was luxurious, with a dark wooden table meant to seat twenty with one rounded end– apparently to make sure there was no confusion between the head and the foot. She had the head. Meigi to her left, Nantonly to her right, the rest arrayed according to rank. Putting the ship's AI at her left hand had been a curious decision, but Raven had approved it.
The rest of the room was equally decorous. Despite the obvious hazard, the dinnerware was china and glass, fragile and elegant, held in a wooden case behind the captain's chair. The walls were cream felt with a red runner ankle-high and brass trim about the oaken, varnished doors.
She stood behind her chair and waited while the others filed is. She took pleasure in their punctuality. She was trying to be a captain and succeeding, and they knew this event was related to that effort, and they respected her for it. The unspoken language between captain and associates flowed in a different direction for her now, and she saw how well it worked.
"Please be seated." Finding ten benches suitable for Centaurs had been one of Meigi's first tasks, and she had managed, somehow. They had actually been on board at the beginning, meant for Ssphynx and Centaur physiologies, and she had found them in something she had referred to as 'the attic.' Apparently, that was where Nantonly spent most of his time too these days.
"I know you're all a bit nervous about leaving the bridge unattended, but Meigi assures me that the state of the ship is unchanged over the past four days, we have no course corrections coming up for three more days at least, and we're all just a hop away from the bridge anyway.
"I won't belabor the point. You and I haven't passed each other in hallways, or made contact, or done much in the way of staying together. Pendorians have two qualities that I know of– they like each other's company, and they love their independence. You've all been practicing the latter. I understand that. This ship is huge, a mystery, and we are like molecules in this vacuum, flying apart as fast as possible to fill as much of the space as we can. If we collide, it's sheer probability.
"I want to put a stop to that. I want us to see more of each other. We're sixty-three days into this voyage, almost one-third of the trip. Let's see if we can't stick a little closer. So I'm hosting these meals twice a week, on Seren and Aldea. Raven and Meigi have agreed to do the cooking, but if any of you have a creative hand at the stove– and I'm sure some of you do, cooking is virtually a religion among Pendorians– feel free to submit a menu to Raven."
"So, let's eat."
Raven and Meigi did indeed serve the meal. Chihuro marvelled at the fresh fruits and vegetables, the tender "roast beast," as Meigi called it, and the rest of the meal. Only the bread disappointed, and Meigi apologized before serving it saying that she suspected she would have to cull yeast stores until she found something more functional.
"By the way, Captain," Heiga said as the dessert was passed around. "We found where Meigi's processors are."
Everyone looked up at that. "Oh?" Chihuro said, trying to sound dispassionately interested. She was, in fact, passionately interested. "Where?"
Heiga gestured. "All around us. Malimpseen's miracle appears to not be that he managed to find an additional 64K of primaries on board to run his AI, but that he wrote a communications protocol that allows all the hundreds of thousands of standard primaries on board to interact when they're down."
"Where are they all?"
"In everything. Apparently, that's the first step of Mal's plan. Meigi isn't just a pleasure 'droid. Have you ever noticed that she seems to know everything that's going on in this ship all the time? He built her to be a ship's AI."
"So she's a ship's AI with a good interface," Chihuro said. "That's not unusual."
"Actually, it is in a way," Heiga said. "You see, the difference is that our AIs are built separate from the ship and then are incorporated into their bodies; they're the only species where we've come to accept multimorphism because we've come to expect that machines change, even machines that are citizens. Meigi is different. All of the components on this ship, regardless of their need, have good standard or superstandard MAP primaries installed. Mal specified that in the design of the ship. He also wrote a protocol that allows the primaries to dedicate their idle time to giving Meigi consciousness."
Chihuro considered that momentarily. Then what Heiga was really trying to say dawned on her. She looked at Meigi, then back to Heiga, and before she could stop herself she blurted, "You mean to tell me, I'm sleeping with the ship's screensaver?"
"Something like that," Heiga said. The rest of the crew were grinning, some trying to be secretive about it. Heiga's face barely registered. She was not known for her sense of humor. "The other fact is that, when this ship is fully functional, Meigi isn't nearly as smart as she is now."
"Oh." Meigi's small voice made Chihuro look up. "I'm sorry, Chi. I didn't know. I just thought... " She linked her fingers together and twisted her hands, a gesture Chihuro already knew intimately; it indicated that she was encountering a situation with humans that she didn't understand and didn't know how to respond.
Chihuro had learned how to reassure the poor girl. She reached out and put her hand on Meigi's, then smiled. "It's okay, Meigi. Now that we know, it... I imagine this presents some interesting legal complications, but since I don't have a legal officer right now I'm going to have to read up on the ramifications myself." She grimaced. Reading specifications was not her idea of recreation. "In the meantime, let's enjoy the dessert." It was simple as desserts go– ice cream and blackberries, and to Chihuro sheer decadence.
Since she was captain, Chihuro had permitted herself to schedule dinner right before her personal evening time. She had wanted Meigi's company before dinner, and right now she wanted it even more.
Meigi helped Raven clean up while Chihuro made her way back to the cabin she and Mei had agreed to share together. They kept separate rooms still along with this common space, and Mei always knew where she was at all times. She shucked her Pendorian crew shirt and coat, dropping the 'taur skirt that always brushed her crus and irritated her fell. She couldn't understand why the Pendorian space service still insisted on uncomfortable uniforms.
Naked, she curled up in bed, picked up her padd and pulled up the law regarding first millennia robotics, especially Terran designs. The law there was mostly case law and the express opinion of the AIs who had overseen the cases, but case law always hovered around two points: transparency for the AI, and safety for the organics. Both made sense to Chihuro, but she wondered how Meigi would react to demands from other AIs that her thought processes be laid bare to any other AI who should request it. She would have the reciprocal right, of course, but would she know how or why to use it? Would she care? These were all questions the AIs would want answered before they would let her persist.
Persist. The word rang hollow in Chihuro's imagination as she read it. What they really meant was "live." She read on and found other details that corresponded with something Heiga had told her at dinner.
She was so engrossed in her reading that she didn't hear the door open. Her awareness of Meigi's presence came when she felt a body move close in behind her, and then warm hands were slipping over her shoulders and down her chest, fingers curling to cup her breasts, the crux of the fingers positioned with precision to touch her nipples. The effect was as startling as ever. Before Meigi, Chihuro had never experienced her breasts as arousing. Other people had, of course, and she liked the way their natural size and shape had attracted eyes and hands and lovers, but until Mei touching them had been as effective as touching some other body part, like her belly– intimate, perhaps, but not arousing. Mei could create a conduit of lust of flow directly from her nipples to between her thighs, down the long length of her taurid body, with the most gentle of touches. Maybe that was the secret, after all, the gentleness of it.
Whatever secret Mei knew about her body, she had been good to keep it in the bedroom, or at least in private. Chihuro didn't want to reveal to her crew just how much she liked Mei, or how badly she was going to regret giving up command of the Dyaus, especially if it was true that unlike many if not most AIs Mei could not be easily disassociated from her body.
Mei was now stroking her arms, sending chills through her that reached all the way down into her tail. "Find something?" the tall femHuman robot said.
"Just research," Chihuro said.
"Chi, are you worried about me?"
"A little." She turned to look up at Mei. "There are... conditions to your legal existence."
"I'm not surprised that there would be," Mei said. "I didn't even exist when this ship was made. I came into existence after we left, when Mal completed his networking project. That's what Heiga explained to me during dinner." She leaned close, pressing her own small breasts to Chihuro's upper back, her voice soft in Chihuro's ear. "Let's put them aside. We have over a hundred days left. Do you know what those days will feel like to me? I didn't begin to understand what it meant to be smart until you brought the ship's power up to full. When Heiga started turning things on..." She kissed Chi's neck softly, working her way up until she was teasing Chi's ears. "I must have been a complete airhead when you met me."
"An armed one."
"I've never pulled a trigger. I don't know what I would have really done."
"I'm glad we didn't find out."
"Me, too," Mei murmured. "It would definitely have been a terrible way to start this relationship."
"Mmm," Chi said. She turned to face Mei and kiss her hard, muzzle to mouth, tongue slipping easily out to brush the other woman's, to touch and taste, a little whisper of coffee with mint and whiskey still hovering somewhere on Mei's breath. Mei, she realized, had already ditched her clothes and come to her naked. For a brief moment, she seized on the thought that she knew Mei's inner layout well enough to know that there were no weapons hiding in that body, and wondered why she should care. Did Mei come to her naked to reassure her that she wasn't going to fly away with her ship– but was it her ship? Was it a mere technicality? She didn't know anymore.
Then Mei's fingers worked their magic on her fur, stroking away her worries in a patter of touches across her back and down her spine that made her shiver and moan unashamedly. Mei made her happy. Mei's mouth was on the back of her neck, Mei's legs straddled her body. "Lie down."
For the next hour, Chi luxuriated in a massage that was as expert as anything she had ever received from a Pendorian or Ritan. Mei was kind to her, avoiding any tickling at all, which Chi appreciated because she was too damned ticklish for her own good. Mei's hands pushed every last knot of stress out of her body and left her feeling like a very large, green puddle of Ritan. It was only when Mei's hands approached her backside and slid down between her thighs that Chi finally let it all go. She turned over and said, "Lick me?"
"With pleasure," Mei replied, lowering her mouth down to Chi's cunny. Chi wanted to hold her breath but she dared not. She couldn't see what was happening all the way down there, and she didn't really care to see so long as she... felt Mei's mouth touch her mound, fingers landing at the same moment to spread her further open, to expose her soft, sensitive pink insides to Mei's exploring tongue. Mei already knew where the Ritan equivalent of the clitoris was, that bundle of nerves very effectively hidden right inside that bottom well of her cunny, that spot that was visually indistinguishable from the rest of her but oh yes it worked, it worked so well. Mei's teased her, worked her way around Chi's cunt with relish, worked on those nerves as if nothing else mattered and maybe nothing else did.
Chi barely had time to register Mei's campaign of pleasure before she was already coming the first time. It was all too much even as Mei slipped one, then two fingers into her cunny, then three. That tongue was still there, prehensile in its effectiveness, pleasing her. "Fah, Mei, fah... yes!" Her body clenched with pleasure as another orgasmic wave flooded her. Mei was making her own little mewing sounds, those strange little sounds. Chi thought, Whistle while you work... until she felt a finger at her anus. She had not let anyone in there in a long time, had not enjoyed it the few times she'd tried it, but by now she trusted Mei enough to let her try, and that one slim finger slipped inside her and made her aware of her insides in a new way. Mei's thrusting fingers in her cunt send powerful waves, reports of pleasure that pulled her along, an inevitable tide of ecstasy washing over her until she screamed out Mei's name, every muscle and nerve wrapped in the release of Mei's pleasure.
Mei slipped her fingers out of Chi and thrust herself up the length of the Ritan's stretched out body. "Mmm," she sighed. "Watching you come makes me wet."
"I'm sorry I can't fuck you," Chi managed to say. She was, a bit. Mei had said she liked that. But she liked it because it made Mal happy. If it wouldn't make Chi happy, there was no point to trying it.
"Mmm. You can kiss me."
They rolled over on the bed until Chi had Mei pinned under her, Mei's legs down around her lower taurid chest. Chi peppered Mei's face with kisses before they settled into one long kiss that threatened to overflow Chi's soul. "I love you," Chi said.
"Is that a smart thing to say?"
"No," Chi said. "But it's true."
They lay snuggled together. "Mei, when you get... to Owad, the AIs there will want to examine you. Two will have to agree that you're not just not a danger to others but really a boon to organicity before they let you loose."
"If I'm not?"
"They'll destroy the Dyaus and throw the remains into the sun, I guess. They're pretty serious about AIs that aren't 'with the plan.'"
"What is the plan?"
"I don't know." Chi pushed some of Mei's black hair out of her face. "I don't want that to happen to you. I know that it's... it's having a fundamental belief about the role of... of organic beings... in the fate of the universe."
"Sounds like a religious idea."
"It might be. You'd have to talk to the AIs."
"That will have to wait until I get to Owad."
"There's one other thing. If... If Heiga's right about the relationship of your intelligence to this ship's operational condition, then your personality is affected by what's happening on the ship at any one time. Like you said, you're smart when everything's on, but nobody's using it." Mei nodded. "If that's true, then this ship is your body, and we're just guests. That conflicts with the archaeological desire Captain Kumberra expressed when we first got underway."
"It's my body, but... I'm not attached to it." Mei smiled. "Not that way. I don't mind if teams come and start exploring it, so long as they don't affect me. I mean, do you change your mind when doctors poke and prod you?"
"Only about doctors."
Mei laughed, and Chi smiled. Mei said, "You need sleep."
"I'll get some. I just want you to know. This isn't as easy as showing up and saying 'We're here.' AIs are assumed to have enormous powers and responsibilities, and your fitness will be judged on your ability to handle those."
"I'll be okay."
"The best I can," Mei said. "Go to sleep."