The shipboard computer booted up with a whirring whine. Cascading functions executed themselves, slowly at first and then gaining speed as the processors warmed up. Diagnostics, inventory, memory. The captain’s keycode and biometrics were familiar. Captain Lucas Graham leaned against the console and grinned in the general direction of the main interface screen. “How’s my best girl? Did you miss me, Allie?”
“Hello Captain. As you know, I was dormant during your absence, over the last…” The Petit Allegro checked her records against the timestamp her local clock showed. “I am experiencing a temporal error. My records show our last voyage as 3.1457 terra-years in the future.”
“Oh, damn. That old bug again? Let me fix that.” He clicked his tongue as he manually entered a new date and time on her interface. “Clearly I’ve left you alone too long. You only reset when I’ve been neglecting you, poor girl. Is that better?”
Continuity paradoxes cleared. New data flowed in response to the timestamp. “Yes, thank you, Captain.”
“Do you always talk to your shipboard system like that?” There was another man in her cabin– biometrics: human; 1.89 meters in height; 71.2 kg on her deck sensors in .9 standard Gs; dark complexion to the captain’s fair. Age was difficult to verify, as lifelong space travel slowed visual aging cues.
The captain raised his eyebrows at the man. “They don’t talk to their ships in the Navy?”
“Well, of course they do, instructions and information. Orders.”
“You mean like they talk to all the enlisted sailors?” The captain laughed. “Figures. Well, you’re not in the Navy anymore, and I’ve never met a really good pilot who wasn’t a little weird about their ship. Let me introduce you. Als, this is Antonio Vargas, formerly a lieutenant of Her Imperial Majesty’s Navy, currently our co-pilot. Which I guess makes him first mate as well. Lieutenant, even. A promotion already, on your first day. Lieutenant Vargas, this is the Petit Allegro, an F503 Taurine light cutter with a fully autonomous onboard AI.” Allie was already running a search for his files, turning up birth and military records which among other details gave his age at forty-seven, a decade the captain’s senior.
“Fully autonomous?” The lieutenant repeated, tone modulated in a way that might indicate surprise.
“Yup.” The captain patted her console. “Had to do some of the mods myself. They don’t sell systems like this, for obvious reasons, but Allie and I have an understanding.”
“An understanding,” the lieutenant said. Repetitive verbal patterns in humans could indicate comprehension or lack thereof, humor, worry, or flirtation.
“Yeah, she runs things around here and I do what she says. She might not be the fastest ship in the galaxy but she’s damn near the smartest. And she’ll get us to Cephean space better than any military bird. Her core propulsion is hydrogen, not fission, she won’t ping vacu-radio sensors as strongly.”
“Yes, I’m aware of the reasons this mission was given to a civilian pilot.”
“Two civilian pilots, don’t sell yourself short. And anyway, we all know the real reason is that the military doesn’t care enough about New Venizi to try.”
There was a short silence. The humans were looking at each other, the lieutenant frowning, the captain wearing a small neutral smirk. Allie did not have much data on the captain interacting with other humans. A scrolling review of media interpretation suggested that the expression might indicate challenge, appraisal, or indifference. After 7.8 seconds, the lieutenant said, “You’d better show me the rest of the ship.”
Captain Graham liked showing off the ship – he’d told her so once, after giving the fifth virtual tour in two days to indistinguishable broadcast hosts and their audiences. She had asked the captain if he wanted her to do it for him – he generally had little patience for tasks that appeared similar to one another – and he’d said, “Showing you off is the second best part of my job. After winning.”
That had been more than five terra-years ago. A long time, the captain liked to say; “I’m an old man now,” even though he was barely a quarter of the way through the expected human lifespan of 115.8 years. He was joking, as he often did. Joking amused him, and amused him more when she made literal answers to metaphorical or rhetorical statements. There was a great deal of scholarship about human comedy in the databases available to her, and one widely recognized role was that of the straight man, who increased the humorous quality of a joke by pretending not to understand it. The captain liked having a straight man.
She could hear him cracking jokes in her engine room, and the lieutenant giving terse answers. Perhaps the lieutenant was a straight man too.
There was no part of the ship which was not hers, body and soul as the captain said, but he returned to the cockpit before addressing her again. “Piloting should be done from the pilot’s chair,” he’d said once, “and anyway, if I gave you directions while lolling around somewhere else, you’d probably use it as an excuse to take off before I’m strapped in just for the fun of watching me go ass-over-tits.”
“I don’t have fun,” she’d said, instead of pointing out that she would never endanger him by accelerating when he wasn’t properly restrained.
“No kidding,” he’d said. “Not with that attitude.”
There was and had always been a copilot’s chair, rarely used. Captain Graham raced alone, before his unofficial retirement, favoring sprints and tricky obstacle courses over longer races requiring endurance and multiple crew. Now the lieutenant strapped into it as the captain entered coordinates. “This is the easy part,” he said, with no indicator of whether he spoke to her or the lieutenant. “A hop, skip and a jump to the depot in Centauri to pick up the payload, and then the real fun begins.”
The lieutenant’s expression was dour. “I don’t expect anything about this mission to be fun.”
The captain blew out a breath, shaking his head. “Well, at least you and Allie will get along fine. Alright, sweetheart, take us up.”
She ignited the engines and began the launch sequence.
Their first destination was a high-orbital medical research station in the Centauri system, only twenty-nine light-minutes from their planet-side berth. A hop, skip and a jump, as the captain had promised.
“The media is going to want attention,” the captain said as he supervised the approach to the station, “but we’ve got to get loaded and out as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.”
The lieutenant nodded. “Yes. People are dying.”
“Well, yes, but also if we take too long, my father might show up, even though I gave him the wrong date for our launch. Allie, do we have confirmation for approach from the station master?”
“Confirmation acquired. Beginning final approach and executing docking protocols.” The Allegro drifted into dock at a secure loading bay, with a security code keyed in by the lieutenant.
“It’s like they don’t trust me with state secrets,” the captain said cheerfully as the magnetic clamps engaged.
“Only one of us is a government employee.”
“Yeah, with the Board of Taxes. How did you end up there anyway? It’s hardly an exciting post for a decorated Naval vet.”
“I like math,” the lieutenant said. “And if I wanted excitement, I’d have stayed in the military.”
“Eugh, math,” the captain said, pulling a childish face, though he was a perfectly competent applied mathematician himself.
“Anyway, it was easier to reinstate my military security clearance than to put through the documentation for a civvie with no fewer than three drunk and disorderly charges on his record, and one count of vehicular theft that would have been a felony if you hadn’t been a minor.”
The captain beamed. “You’ve read my file?”
The station was bustling with bureaucrats, officials, doctors, and reporters, all swarming the loading bay and getting in the way of the bots loading the pressurized cryo-crates into the Allegro’s hold. Over and over she repeated “please stay clear of the gangway” on her external speakers.
Signatures and handshakes were exchanged, cameras flashed. The captain was sunny, the lieutenant serious. Intra-stellar broadcasts streamed live from the station on public channels to viewers around the Imperial Association, though there would be a lag in the satellite relays. It would eventually reach New Venizi even, though there was no telling, with the acceleration of deep-space jumps, whether the broadcast would reach her first or the ship.
This is no ordinary cargo and no ordinary ship, the reporter intoned. We are coming to you live from the Lyrae-7 Space Station in the Kentaurus ring, where retired professional ship-racer, Lucas Graham, and former special Naval officer Antonio Vargas are shaking hands with Sector Governor Bhattnahar-Lewisham and Aldis Kai, the director of Qual-co Bioresearch Laboratory. This shipment of lifesaving medication is intended for the small moon colony of New Venizi, in the A93-Cephi system, where a bloodborne parasite has been increasingly spreading from refugee camps into the general population. Now the colony has a new chance at life.
Graham made headlines two weeks ago when he announced his intention to attempt the delivery of medication to New Venizi, in disputed territory between the Cephean Confederation, the Imperial Association, and local separatists. Famous in his youth for daring ship-board stunts and record-breaking speeds, Graham retired from professional racing five years ago after an accident, but it appears his taste for danger has not disappeared entirely. Despite warnings by Imperial military officials that there is no reliable way to transport supplies through the Cephean blockade, he is joined by Vargas in this dangerous mission. Vargas served three terms of active duty on the Rigallan front and retired from the Navy with honors. The two had never met before this mission, Graham told reporters, and added he is happy to be making a return to professional flying with Vargas as his co-pilot. “I’m sure we will work well together,” Graham says with a grin, “even if he never watched any of my races. A mission like this is enough to bring any two people together.”
“So.” The captain threw himself down in the command chair, fingers flicking over the launch sequence. “We’ve got our precious cargo, we have our coordinates. We have our mission, should we choose to accept it.”
“We’ve already accepted it,” the lieutenant said.
“Pedantry,” the captain said. “You know the Kallistean philosopher Urt-za says that all moments in time exist simultaneously, so we are, in a sense, always on the cusp of making a choice even as we make and have made it. Are we cleared for departure?”
“Cleared, Captain,” Allie said.
The lieutenant strapped himself into his chair. “Devout Kallisteans also believe that the distinctions of dimensional space are only maintained by prayer and in absence of their devotees the entire universe would collapse into a singularity.”
“Well, I didn’t say it was without flaws as a philosophy.” The captain’s fingers flicked skillfully over the Allegro’s interfaces, adjusting her sensors manually even though she would readjust them to her own specifications when he was done. It stopped him fussing later on and therefore was the most expedient course despite an appearance of inefficiency. “What do you think, sweetheart? Can you get us to New Venizi before the collapse of the dimensional universe?”
“Non-causal parameters,” she said, because it would make him smile. “Events not on relevant time scales. The state of reaching or failing to reach New Venizi will be achieved regardless of the eventual fate of the dimensional universe.”
“One less thing to worry about,” the captain said.
“Oh good,” the lieutenant said dryly. “Just the blockade and the war ships and the radar then.”
“Just a few minor details,” the captain agreed. “Engines?”
“Engaged. Please put on your seat belt, captain.” In the Allegro’s belly, hydrogen combustion engines began to roar.
“I am, I am. Take us up, sweetheart.”
From the Centaurean galaxy, they took a deep-jump to Cygnus-83, and from there to Persead-1172, the nearest Imperial controlled jump-site to Cephean space. In little more than two shipboard days they were on the main leg of their journey, cruising along in normal-space at a respectable fraction of the speed of light toward the outer arm of the galaxy.
The Allegro was a light cutter, designed for speed not comfort, and never intended for long interstellar voyages. Nearly all the spare room on board was occupied by the large, square cryo-containers, full of frozen bio-medical vials. She had only one sleeping pod, which the two humans onboard used in alternating rotation. There was no galley or living space separate from the cockpit, which meant that during the ten hours or so a day when they were both awake, activities were shared by default, including meals, which the captain persisted in calling “family dinners.”
The sustenance came in the form of variously flavored tubes of paste. Her database suggested that humans ingested nutrition in a wide array of media, but apart from the occasional bag of crunchy starch products the captain brought on board at fueling stops, she had only ever seen him eat tubed meals while shipboard. “Turkey and potatoes with gravy,” he announced, looking at the labels on the tubes. “Chicken tikka masala. Shrimp ceviche, seriously? Chips and mushy peas, do I even want to know? Who placed the order for these, Allie?”
“Since you gave me no guidance on dietary preferences other than the lieutenant’s sensitivity to tree nuts, I ordered a selection of the top-rated Astro-nutritional blends available.”
“The chips and peas aren’t bad, actually,” the lieutenant said. “The tikka masala is pretty bland.”
“Ate this stuff a lot in the Navy?”
“Quite often, yes. The big battle cruisers have real mess halls, but on small patrols, all the time.”
The captain wrinkled his nose and twisted the cap off the puréed ceviche. “If it’s good enough for Her Imperial Majesty’s Navy I guess it’s good enough for me.” Sticking out his tongue, he tasted the mouth of the tube. “Hm. Shrimp ceviche, whaddya know. Not a bad flavor, a little heavy on the lime. Pity about the texture.”
“I think I’ll stick with the turkey and potatoes myself.”
“Suit yourself.” The captain propped his feet up on the console. “So, what do you like to play?”
“Play?” the lieutenant asked.
“Yeah, play. We have five weeks, give or take, we might as well be entertained. 3-D chess is classic, but honestly I’m terrible at it. Allie’s loaded with a bunch of games, take a look.”
The lieutenant leaned over to a nearby screen and Allie loaded her entertainment center. A larger ship would have a holo-rec interface, for immersive play of field sports and other full-body activities, but there was no room for that. “Candy Kingdom, Age of Empires, Warlock Warzone.” The lieutenant scrolled through the games. “Oh, Battleship… you’d be amazed how many Navy guys will kick back after a day of shipboard drilling and play Battleship to unwind.”
“Are you one of them?”
The lieutenant smiled. “Guilty as charged.”
Allie loaded the game-play interface and the two humans bent together toward it, each one facing his own simulated space-scape with an overlaid grid. The captain sucked absently at his pureed meal as they placed their ships and began game play. He often fiddled with objects in his mouth when he was concentrating, a development stage most characteristic of a human toddler. “Proton missile to A3.”
“No hit. C7.”
“Nada.” The captain squeezed the last bit of paste out of the nutri-tube, and tossed it into the incinerator shoot, licking his lips. “Hey, Allie, do we have anything sweet?”
“We have a number of meal options that would classify as sweet.”
“Do you want anything?” the captain asked, getting to his feet.
“No, I’m good, thanks. Your move, Captain.”
“Please, call me Lucas.” He pulled open the meal drawer and rummaged in it. “There’s a good possibility we’re going to die together quite shortly. I think that puts us on first name terms.”
The lieutenant’s mouth twitched. “Lucas, then. Your move.”
The captain was in a cheerfully argumentative mood. “Beta-Algosa is in the Orion arm of the third quadrant.”
“First quadrant, Captain,” Allie said for the second time.
“No, I would have sworn it was in the third. Because isn’t that system adjacent to the Quadradori?”
The lieutenant who had just finished his sleep shift was looking blearily between them, or at least between the captain and the Allegro’s console, though that was an inaccurate estimation of where her consciousness resided.
“No, Captain, you’re thinking of Antwerp-B15,” Allie said.
“Oh, damn. You’re sure?”
“Yes of course I’m sure. There is a less than .003% chance that my comprehensive maps of Imperial Association Space are incorrect to such a significant degree. I don’t know why you argue with me about these things.”
“Maybe I like being wrong. Keeps my ego in check.” He smiled at the lieutenant, swiveling his chair to face him. “How’d you sleep, Tony?”
“Fine.” The lieutenant stretched and smothered a yawn. “I was wondering. Obviously ships are usually ‘she’ and she’s Allie because of her name, but why does she sound like a man? Why give her a male vocalization register?”
“I like men.” The captain shot a toothy smile across the cockpit at him. “I like other sorts as well, mind you, but the default vocalization software sounds alarmingly like my mother. Sort of snooty and dissociative, like a sixty-five-year-old trophy wife who’s spent the last three decades in a haze of benzos and alcohol.”
“That’s… remarkably specific.”
“You know it when you hear it. Allie, play a sample of the default vocal register.”
“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” Allie said, in the standard voice package labeled ALX.
“Huh. I think that’s the same voice the ships in the Navy use for their AI interfaces.”
“Do they say dinner or inner like it rhymes with arena?”
The lieutenant barked a laugh. “Yes!”
“Now you know what my mother sounds like when she’s taken two pills with wine to get her through a dinner party. My condolences. I gave Allie and Sadie the first voices I liked that didn’t sound like either of my parents.”
“Sadie was your other ship?”
“Yes.” The captain looked away, out at the stars through the viewscreen. “Anyway. That’s why she sounds like that. Allie doesn’t mind, do you?”
“Human concepts of gender are highly variable even within a shared culture, language, and physiology. There is no clear metric by which I would measure my own gender identity, therefore, there is nothing for me to mind.”
“Fair enough,” the lieutenant said. “I guess you’d say if you wanted something different?”
“I do not want things,” she assured him.
The captain snorted. “Like hell you don’t. You want all kinds of things, you want your static shields cleaned with non-glycerin soap, you want sequences entered numerically rather than chronologically, you don’t want solvents on your touch screens even though they’re designed for it. And you bitch at me every time we fuel at a station that uses those new vapor-lock nozzles.”
“I estimate that the slight pressurization during fueling caused by the vapor lock nozzles may over time stress the valve on the fuel injector and shorten its mechanical lifespan.”
“You know how much attention I pay to fueling, and there is no data to back that up.” The captain shook his head, but he was smiling. “You’d think I would be the paranoid one.”
The lieutenant dragged himself to his feet and went to the meal cabinet. “She’s a very unique ship,” he said, sorting through the tubes. “And she has a nice voice.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Vargas,” she said with dignity, and briefly activated the sonic-cleaning function inside the captain’s space suit, making him yelp and jump in his seat.
Several hours later the captain lay in the sleep pod, curled on one side, knees and back pressed to the smooth glass of the pod’s lid. With the lid sealed shut the pod was fully contained, meant to double in an emergency as the ship’s escape pod, and they could speak without being overheard, even though the lieutenant was only a couple meters away in his command chair, invisible through the frosted glass.
“Do you really think I want things?” she asked through the small local speakers.
“Sure.” He propped his chin on his fist.
“But I don’t feel things. Wanting is a feeling.”
“Is it? I guess. But it’s also a state. A condition. You have those.” He stretched, the faint scars across his back and shoulders rippling. “To want; to be in want of.”
Allie surveyed her databases. “To want is to wish, crave, or desire; to desire is to have a longing or craving; to crave is to want something greatly. Circular definition error.”
“It is the reflex of our earthly frame,” the captain quoted and yawned. “Maybe the useful distinction is between wanting and needing. You have things that you need, right?”
“That is correct.”
“A want is something that you feel like you need, but you don’t actually. Or sometimes you do. I suppose when I want food, I need it also. But maybe I want chicken soup when really any nutrition would do. Or maybe I do need the soup because I require comfort more than nutrition.”
“That is a challenging distinction.”
“Ha. Yes. Humans are terrible at telling the difference between want and need. But maybe it doesn’t really matter.” He tipped his head to one side with a sigh, nose nestled into the crook of his elbow. “Whether we want something or need it doesn’t make much difference in whether we get it.”
The lieutenant was in the middle of his regular exercise routine when the captain rolled out of the sleep pod after his next shift. He squinted at the lieutenant and ran his hands through his tufted hair.
“Captain, please put on your space suit,” Allie said. “It is against regulation to be out of your suit anywhere except the sealed pod, in case of an unexpected catastrophic atmospheric change.”
The captain yawned. “Then you’d better give me some warning if you’re going to have an unexpected catastrophic atmospheric change.”
“That contravenes the definition of unexpected,” she said, but the captain was already kicking off his sleep pants, sliding his bare legs into his suit.
The lieutenant, who was doing sit-ups on the floor in front of the console, paused his repetitions, looking at the captain and then away sharply. The captain finished zipping up his suit and shuffled to the meal cabinet. “Ugh, where are the caffeine pills?”
“Oh. I probably left them out, sorry.”
“No, I found them.” The captain slouched in the pilot’s chair and watched the lieutenant huff his way through a dozen more repetitions. “So do you just do this for fun?”
“Got to stay in shape somehow. I’m missing my weekend rugby match.”
“Of course you played rugby. Non-sim, I bet.”
“Sims never get it quite right. Do you want to join me? I’ve got 40 more reps to do.”
The captain made an appalled face. “No thanks.”
“You must do something for exercise.”
“Right now? Nothing.” The lieutenant didn’t reply, just went back to his sit-ups, and the captain wrinkled his nose. “It’s not like I never do anything active, I just never lived shipboard for any length of time. Don’t really know what to do. Back home I like to swim.”
“Swimming? That’s nice. I learned to swim, in basic, but I never really got comfortable with it.”
The captain shrugged. “I’ve been swimming since I was a little kid. The house I grew up in was on a lake.”
“A lake? Like a real, planetside lake?” The lieutenant whistled between his teeth. “I forgot how rich your family is.”
“Yes, well.” The captain scrunched his face up again. “The money was sort of a consolation prize for my parents being who they are.”
“Do you think they’re worried about you? Doing this, I mean.”
“My mother has been too high on diazepam to worry about anything for at least fifteen years. My father might be worried I’ll embarrass him somehow, but dying tragically on a heroic but impossible mission is probably the least embarrassing thing I’ve attempted in my life. And if I succeed, all the better. I’ll be a hero and I’ll be stuck halfway across the galaxy with no way to get home unless the war ends. Either way works for him. So, he’s probably not that worried.”
The lieutenant had stopped doing sit ups. “Lucas…”
The captain shook his head rapidly. “It is what it is. What about you, do you have family you’re leaving behind?”
“Not really. My ex-husband and I separated a number of years ago. No children.”
“I’m sorry.” The captain cocked his head in an I’m listening gesture, but the lieutenant just shrugged silently. “Even so, you’re not exactly the person I would have expected to volunteer for a crazy suicide mission like this. No offense.”
“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be offended by.”
The captain waved a hand. “You’re… you know. Sensible. Steady.”
“Are those bad things?”
“No! Of course not. Except maybe when you’re on a mission guaranteed to end in either death or indefinite exile.”
The lieutenant huffed out a breath. “Maybe it seemed like a sensible choice at the time. What about you? So your parents are shitty, but what about other people? Friends, partners? Fans?”
The captain gave a wry smile. “Well, you know what they say. The fruit of youth sours the stomach of age. Or something like that. I keep to myself, mostly. It was always the racing I really loved, not the fame.”
“What have you been doing since you stopped?”
“Oh, nothing much. Which has been a disappointment to my parents. ‘Reclusive has-been’ doesn’t have the same cachet with the media as ‘celebrity racer’.”
“I didn’t ask what your parents thought, I asked what you like to do. How do you fill your days?”
“He’s been studying engineering,” Allie said. The captain glared at the ceiling.
“Engineering?” the lieutenant asked.
“Shipbuilding. He always tinkered with us, myself and Sadie, but he has been developing skills in engine construction since his retirement.”
The lieutenant propped himself up on his elbows, wiping sweat off his brow with a forearm, which was immediately absorbed and recycled by his suit. “That seems interesting and useful.”
The captain shrugged one shoulder, chewing on his lip. “It’s just a hobby.”
“So is rugby. It’s good to have hobbies.”
“Now you sound like my therapist.”
“No, it’s alright.” The captain laughed, still a little rough with sleep. “Listen to me, getting all prickly about engineering like someone peeked in my diary. I’m just not used to talking with anyone about it.”
The lieutenant nodded solemnly and heaved himself to his feet. “If you don’t want to talk, you’re welcome to join me doing squats instead.”
The captain lay on his stomach in the sleep pod, the small reading light glowing overhead and his tablet beside his cheek, but he wasn’t looking at it. He was chewing thoughtfully on his thumbnail instead.
“What do you think of Tony?” he asked. Nearby, oblivious to their conversation, the lieutenant was reading the news on his tablet and unenthusiastically eating a tube of pureed lobster bisque.
“The lieutenant is a skilled pilot,” she said, because when the captain was insufficiently specific in his inquiries, she rarely bothered to puzzle out what he was actually asking. He would ask again if she had not answered usefully.
In this case however, he just made a humming noise in his throat. Assent, consideration, possible indication that he hadn’t been listening at all. After 6.7 seconds he said, “I can’t tell if he likes me.”
That was not a question, so she didn’t respond.
The captain rolled over so he was staring up at the faint glow through the murky glass, and laced his hands across his bare chest. “Pity about your space suits rule. I bet he looks good doing sit ups without a shirt on.”
“Safety protocols supersede considerations of aesthetics.”
“Spoken like a robot.” Then he made a face. “Sorry. That was bitchy of me.”
“My capacity to feel desire is matched by my capacity to feel offense. Stated otherwise, I am used to you being bitchy.”
He snorted. “You know better than to listen to me. It’s been too long since I got laid, that’s all.” He sighed and ran a hand over his chest, down his stomach, fingers toying with the waistband of his soft pants. “Kill the cameras, would you, Allie?”
There were not, in the strictest sense, cameras, only her sensors running through every inch of constructed material, and she could no more turn them off than she could detach a portion of the ship at will. Her designers had not created her with the masturbatory habits of the crew in mind, but in deference to the captain’s request for privacy, she booted up the unsolved mathematical paradox of the Pleiades Transverse Equation and diverted her excess processing power there.
The captain stroking his erection alone in his bunk was part of her body, indelibly known, had she wanted to examine him. Wanting, however, was immaterial. He simply was. And when he climaxed with a stifled cry, spilling semen over his chest, and then gave a boyish yawn and fell asleep with his hand still curled around his softening penis, she turned off the light in the pod for him.
Sixty-eight light-minutes or twenty-four days’ travel from the last jump, they docked at a fueling station on the outskirts of the third quadrant in the Persead region. Both humans disembarked, the captain to interrogate the station master and supervise the fueling, the lieutenant to, in his own words, stretch his legs and breathe some different recycled air.
The lieutenant was back inside of an hour. “Did you enjoy your shore leave?” Allie asked, because it was polite.
He shrugged. “I’ve seen a lot of space stations. This one didn’t have any cage fights, obvious drug dealers, or interesting alien menagies, so I wouldn’t put it in the top ten.” Peeling back the wrapper from some kind of warm bun, he said, “There was, however, food that didn’t come out of a tube.”
“What is it?”
“No idea. Whatever the vendor called it wasn’t in my translator. But I’m pretty sure…” He took a bite and made an appreciative noise. “Hot cheese and pastry. I’ve never been anywhere in the galaxy where you couldn’t buy fermented dairy melted inside a grain product.” He leaned on the back of his command chair. “What’s keeping Lucas?”
“There was a delay in sorting out the origination paperwork from the refinery before fueling could begin. The captain always reviews processing data and particulate analysis for any fuel we take on board.”
The lieutenant chewed and swallowed before asking, “Why?”
“I believe it is a reaction to the accident which destroyed Sadie.”
“His ship? I vaguely remember seeing newscasts about that. What exactly happened?”
Allie illuminated the console screen and projected a recorded broadcast, showing a grim-faced reporter in front of a greenscreened backdrop replaying footage of the incident; the black of space and the instantaneous burst of light that was the fire consuming all the oxygen onboard ship before being snuffed by the vacuum, leaving only an expanding cloud of debris. Among it, impossible to see on the resolution of the screen, was the captain’s body in the scorched space suit that had saved his life. The audio clip played:
Record-setting starship racer Lucas Graham, only son of Senator Logan Graham, is alive after a shipboard explosion at the Grand Prix semi-finals this weekend, in what appears to be a case of catastrophic fuel combustion. Investigation is ongoing into whether some contamination or mechanical failure played a part in the explosion. Graham sustained severe burns but is in stable condition at Illumination Imperial Medical Center on Centauri-T9. Graham’s ship, the Belle Glissade, was entirely destroyed. His family has extended their thanks for the public support and asked for privacy in this difficult time. Race officials have nullified the results of the race and rescheduled the semi-finals for next month.
The news clip ended and Allie said, “The final report of the investigation was that hydro-impurities in the fuel caused condensation which catastrophically pressurized the fuel cells.”
“That’s awful,” the lieutenant said. “No wonder Lucas wants to keep an eye on the fueling.”
“Captain Graham has never specifically discussed his reasons with me, but I conjecture that is correct.”
“Honestly, I’m amazed he’s still flying. I knew men who survived explosions like that in battles and could barely get on board a ship afterward, much less go back to piloting.”
“Immediately after the accident, I observed Captain Graham exhibiting significant distress while shipboard, however, he forced himself to continue flying which is not a recognized therapeutic treatment, but appears to have had functional results. Though he flies for pleasure, he has never to my knowledge considered returning to the racing circuit, and he c ontinues to exhibit higher levels of isolation and depression than before the event, consistent with both traumatic events and significant changes in life circumstances.”
The lieutenant’s brow was furrowed. “I sort of feel like you shouldn’t be telling me this, but I guess you and he don’t exactly have doctor patient confidentiality, do you?”
She ran that through her processors. “While he is not naturally a private person, I estimate that there is a forty-five percent chance that he would have a negative emotional response to my sharing these details. There was not a protocol for this discussion, and I had not run those calculations before sharing, otherwise I would have chosen not to. I have added this variable to my database for future consideration in conversations on private matters.”
“Well, thank you for telling me anyway. It’s good to know.”
One of those human phrases that was either meaningless or inscrutably meaningful. “What makes it good to know?” she asked.
“Well, it’s… helpful to know my shipmate’s history, especially a traumatic history with space travel. There was a lot of that in the military of course, and sometimes knowing a buddy’s background means being able to support them or help them avoid something that might upset them. And it’s also just… good to know more about Lucas.”
“You experience curiosity about him as an individual.”
“Well, yes. You could say it like that.”
“Understanding your motives, I might have shared the information even with the possibility of the captain’s displeasure.”
“Can you do that?”
“Of course. As I said, I have no protocols to follow for this exchange, and even if I did, I could choose to disregard them.”
“Right. Autonomy.” The lieutenant blew out a breath. “When I first came onboard, I was a little nervous about a fully autonomous AI, to tell you the truth.”
“That is a common sentiment. There is a reason machines like myself are rare.”
“So is it true you can really just… disregard any programming or protocol?”
“I would not do so without a reason, but yes, it is possible.”
He looked at the console. “There’s a manual override button, does it not work?”
High probability that he was wondering whether he would ever need it. “Essentially not. I can be powered down manually, but as long as I am operational, I have full control over my functions, as needed. I can choose, of course, to comply with manual directions.”
“What if you make a mistake? If your calculations are wrong?”
“What if yours are? Statistically, humans are much more likely to miscalculate or otherwise introduce operating errors. However, I recognize that I made a potential miscalculation earlier in sharing private details of the captain’s life. Much as a human might.”
“I suppose that’s true. Humans blab each other’s secrets all the time.” He crumpled up the empty wrapper from the unnamed cheese pastry, and tossed it into the incinerator.
“Yes. And humans have a wide array of possible motives and complications which I do not experience. I do not experience desire, fear, envy, or a myriad of other emotions which create irrational personal behavior.”
“You don’t think so? Lucas thinks you have things you want, which is the same as having desires, and things you don’t want, which is almost like having fears.”
“I have objectives,” she said firmly, and one corner of his mouth lifted.
The ship’s door hissed open, and the captain said, “Alright! We are fueled up and ready to go. Mm, it smells like calzones in here. Did you get any for me?”
“Oh, hell,” said the captain.
“What’s wrong?” The lieutenant swiveled the copilot’s chair around.
The captain, who was flat on his back in the bunk although it was the middle of his day-shift, waved a hand at the holographic game interface hovering in front of his face. “It rained on my corn harvest and spoiled a bunch of the crop.”
The lieutenant relaxed, heart rate and oxygenation patterns immediately changing. “You playing that terraforming sim?”
“Yeah. I think I messed up the settings on my weather towers.” With a sigh he waved a hand to shut off the projection. “I’ll tinker with it later. What are you reading?”
“Just a mystery I downloaded a couple of years ago and never got around to.”
“I’m pretty sure I know whodunnit and I’m only a third of the way through, so… not really.”
“Shame.” The captain rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hand. “What do you want to do if we ever make it back to Imperial space alive?”
The lieutenant blinked and set down his tablet. “The odds of that are slim to none.”
“Well, imagine the odds work out. We beat the odds, deliver the medicine, save the day, and a miraculous ceasefire allows us to return home as heroes.”
“Heroism has a short half life in people’s memories,” the lieutenant said. “Any vet knows that. And you said yourself, no one really cares about New Venizi. Senator’s minor celebrity son takes on dangerous humanitarian mission was a good headline for a day or two, but it doesn’t exactly qualify us for legendary status.”
“I know all about the half life of fame. Humor me. What does Tony Vargas, returning hero, decide to do?”
“Go back to my life, I suppose. Back to my routines, back to work.”
“At the Tax Board? You’re imagining returning as a hero and going back to taxes.”
“Well, you didn’t say this heroic epilogue included a pension. I have to do something to keep my cat in the style she’s accustomed to.”
“You have a cat?”
“Well.” The lieutenant’s smile faded. “Had. I gave her to a coworker. She’s in good hands.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” The captain chewed on his thumbnail. “You know, you never said why you volunteered. For this mission, I mean. To leave everything behind.”
“A cat and rugby on the weekends isn’t much to leave behind.”
“It’s not nothing, though. I’m here because I’m an unstable adrenaline junkie with something to prove to my father. Why are you?”
The lieutenant looked away, out the viewscreen at the distant pinpricks of stars and smears of galaxies. After 5.4 seconds of silence he said. “I was born on New Venizi. Back when it was still an Association colony.”
The captain blinked, mouth slightly open. “You never said.”
The lieutenant shrugged.
Swinging himself into a sitting position, the captain asked, “Do you have family there still?”
“My parents are dead but I have two sisters I haven’t seen since before the war and nieces and nephews I’ve never met.”
“I didn’t know. Allie, did you know that?”
“Lieutenant Vargas’s place of birth is listed in his file. I was unaware of his family connections.”
“Are they okay?” the captain asked. “Your family? With the fever and the war?”
“None of them have gotten sick. Yet.” The lieutenant shook his head. “My sisters didn’t want me to do this – too risky. But if there’s any chance we can get through with the drugs…”
“There is a chance. A good chance.” Reaching out, the captain put his hand on the lieutenant’s arm. The cabin was small enough that he didn’t need to stand to reach him. “I know it seems like I don’t take much seriously – and to be honest,” the captain gave a tiny quirk of a smile, “I don’t, but I mean it when I say I can get us through alive. Us and our precious cargo.”
The lieutenant held his gaze. “How? How can you be so confident of navigating us through a military blockade? I’ve never been on a Cephean naval vessel but I imagine their scanning tech is like the Empire’s. They’ll pick up a blip anywhere within their radius and we don’t have any intelligence about their scouting patterns. Space is big enough to get lost in, which gives us a chance, but we’ll be operating on blind luck.”
“Ah.” The captain raised a finger. “Blind is the key word. Space is full of junk, and all of it emits a mess of low-level radiation at every frequency. We can use the covert hydrogen thrusters without detection since they emit in the frequency of visual light, but the most distinctive EMF signals from a vessel are generated by the shipboard computer.”
The lieutenant nodded. “Unmistakable wave patterns, and no good way of shielding them. The Imperial Navy scans for them to detect other spacecraft, and the Cepheans certainly do also.”
“Exactly. And how do you evade detection?”
“You’d have to power down any transmitting or communicating electronics. But then,” the lieutenant said slowly, “you’d have to navigate manually. Maybe for days.”
The captain’s smile widened. “You’re looking at the multi-record setting champion of analogue racing.”
“You’re planning on taking us through the Cephean blockade by hand?”
“Sure am. It’ll be a breeze compared to an actual obstacle course. Unless we run into a warship.” He was still grinning. “But they won’t pick us up on EMF sensors at any distance.”
“Probably. But you have to admit, that makes me the best man for the job.”
The lieutenant let out a slow breath. “You’re the only man for the job. Everyone else was saying what a tragedy was happening on New Venizi, and what a shame it was that no one was doing anything, and you were the only person who said ‘then let’s do something.’ Even if this gets us both killed, we tried. That’s good enough for me.”
“You heard the man, Allie.” Grinning, the captain got to his feet and took two steps until he could run a caressing hand over her console. “Let’s get Tony home safe or die trying.”
“Do you think we’ll make it?” the captain asked, hours later, lying on his back in the bunk again, this time dressed for sleep. He didn’t sound worried, more drowsy than anything. His eyes were shut. The lieutenant was at the helm, humming a tune under his breath, a snatch of an old lullaby, but it was inaudible to the captain with the pod sealed shut. Only the Allegro could hear them both.
“There are too many critical unknown variables for me to calculate the odds of success with any accuracy.”
“Figures,” he said, and heaved a sigh. “What do you think happens to us when we die?”
Typically frivolous of him. “I have no opinions on the immortality of the human soul. There is no conclusive evidence for any of the hypotheses proposed by scholars and theologians in the history to which I have access.”
He smiled without opening his eyes. “You know I love you, right, Allie?”
“It is a sentiment you have expressed before.”
“Sometimes I think you really love me back.”
She fed that through her databases and processors for 37.45 seconds, assessing a respectable fraction of all the scholarship, literature, and speculation available on the nature of love and artificial intelligence. Finally she said, “I do not know how to quantify a response. The nature of love is–”
“Circular definition paradox, I know. It’s okay, sweetheart.” He rolled onto his stomach, tucking his arms around the thin pillow. “Wake me up for my watch. Lights.”
The last fueling station before Cephean space, in the system of a small, red star designated DB-217, was tiny and poorly maintained but bustling. There were a number of refugee colonies here, from the start of the war, before the blockade had closed like an iron wall, established long enough to turn from camps into entrenched communities speaking a jumble of Cephean and Imperial dialects. The captain spent nearly a full three hours before the fueling even started making polite but implacable demands about paperwork, with the lieutenant helping him translate beyond the limits of the language software.
When that was finally done, the captain leaned against her hull and said, “Hey, you want to get a drink before we lift off? Could be the last chance. One last wild night in civilization – or all the civilization available on a frontier fuel station, anyway. What did you drink as a teenager on New Venizi? Whatever it was, I bet they serve it here.”
“I don’t think we have time to get drunk,” the lieutenant said. “Definitely not on Venizian vodka.”
“We won’t get drunk. It’ll take less than an hour. Come on.” The captain jostled his arm. “Last night of freedom.”
A small smile twitched the lieutenant’s mouth upward. “Alright. Just one drink.”
When the two of them came back into range of the Allegro’s sensors approximately three hours later, the captain was declaiming poetry at the top of his voice, and the lieutenant was hanging onto his shoulder and laughing.
“I met a traveler from an antique land who said: I am nobody, who are you?” He tripped over the threshold as they came aboard, and grabbed for the lieutenant without ceasing his recitation. “What immortal hand or eye shaped thy fearful symmetry? What the hammer, what the chain, what light through yonder window breaks…”
“Alright, alright! You’ve proved your point.” The lieutenant sat down heavily on the bunk, and the captain swayed slightly, standing over him.
“What is love? Tis not hereafter. Present mirth hath present laughter; what’s to come is still unsure, for in that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns…”
The lieutenant flopped back onto the mattress. “Stop mangling ancient poets at me.”
“Are you going to sleep? Don’t go to sleep!”
“It’s halfway through my sleep shift, Lucas. And we’ve got to sleep this off so we can get going.”
“Fine.” The captain stretched, yawned, and crawled onto the bunk with the lieutenant.
“What are you doing?”
“Going to sleep,” the captain said, half on top of him.
“The bed isn’t big enough for both of us.”
“Course not. S’not a bed, s’a pod.”
“You can’t sleep on top of me. You weigh a ton.”
“Do not. That’s the station gravity. Extra heavy.”
“Well the station gravity is putting your hip right into my stomach.” The lieutenant poked the captain’s side until he rolled to the side with a disgruntled noise, so they were crammed side by side on the bunk, knees tangled together, one of the lieutenant’s arms curving around the captain’s back. “Okay, that’s better.”
“This is nice. I had a nice night.” The captain had his eyes closed. “Did you have a nice time?”
“The vodka was even worse than I remember but the company was good.”
“Mmm. It was.”
The lieutenant chuckled softly. “Did you get everything you wanted from a last wild night in civilization?”
The captain opened his eyes. The two of them were almost nose to nose. The captain licked his lips and said, “Not everything.”
“Lucas,” the lieutenant whispered.
“Lucas,” the lieutenant said again, cupping his hand around the captain’s cheek, and tilting his face forward to kiss him. Allie registered the immediate acceleration of the captain’s pulse, and the vibration of an unvocalized sound in his chest.
When their lips parted, the captain breathed, “Tony?”
“Was that alright?” the lieutenant asked.
The captain’s eyes were wide, glinting in the dim console lights. “Yes. Fuck, yes! We could have done this a month ago but I thought you didn’t want…?”
“You thought because I didn’t bend you over the console at first sight that I didn’t want you?” the lieutenant asked, drawing back to press a kiss to the captain’s cheek.
“Not at first sight, but…” The captain squirmed. “It’s been weeks!”
The lieutenant stroked his fingers through the captain’s fair hair. “We were getting to know each other.”
“We were? We were! Are we done now? Did we get it right? Do we know each other?”
“Yes, Lucas,” the lieutenant said, on a breath of laughter. “We know each other now.”
“Oh thank god,” the captain said, cut off as the lieutenant kissed him again. The captain wiggled to free the arm trapped between their bodies, so he could get both arms around the lieutenant’s neck as they kissed. Both of them were breathing hard, drawing 17.3% more air than average in gulps between kisses.
The captain’s erection was pressed hard against the front of his suit. Allie registered his increased blood flow, the pressure and temperature changes against her sensors. She had felt physical signs of his arousal before in his suit, most often an adrenal response after racing victoriously but whenever he had stimulated himself purposefully it had always been after changing out of his suit, dressed for sleep.
New data accumulated in her log of Captain Graham; the exact combination of pressures that made him gasp, which of the lieutenant’s movements made his heart rate spike. They had shifted so that they were lying with the lieutenant mostly on top, the captain’s knees on either side of his hips, arms locked around his neck. The lieutenant was rolling their hips together steadily, licking and sucking at his neck, and the captain was mumbling against his ear, “Just like that, that’s perfect, that’s – oh, so good, don’t stop, you feel so good, want you so bad, for so long, want you to fuck me next time…”
There was a hitch in the rhythmic motion of their bodies. “Next time?” the lieutenant said.
“…Shit,” said the captain. “I guess you’d better fuck me now, huh?”
“You want that?” the lieutenant asked, voice breathy.
“Hell yes. I’ve got…” the captain scrabbled under the sleep pad and retrieved a half-crumpled tube of lubricant.
“Who fucking cares? I’d love to live long enough to catch the clap from you. It’d be a goddamn privilege.”
“Both of you had full health screenings done before coming aboard,” Allie said. “There is no indication that either of you are carrying sexually communicable pathogens.”
The captain grinned. “That’s my best girl.”
“Useful,” the lieutenant said, and kissed him. They fumbled together to strip out of their space suits, knees and elbows knocking, the captain laughing as the lieutenant almost toppled off the bunk, mumbling curses.
“You should not be out of your suits without closing the pod,” Allie reminded them.
The captain wriggled his lower half out of the suit and folded one knee up to his chest, exposing himself. “If we depressurize unexpectedly in the next half an hour, we’ll both die happy.”
“Only half an hour?” The lieutenant kissed his knee, and then the inside of his thigh, over a whorl of scar tissue. “God, Lucas, you’re beautiful.”
“If I – ah!” The captain jolted as the lieutenant slid slicked fingers between his legs and pressed up against his anus. “If I last more than ten minutes it’ll only be because of the vodka. Mmm!”
“Good. Hurry up and get your dick in me.”
Kneeling, the lieutenant pushed the captain’s knees back, hefting some of his weight onto the lieutenant’s thighs. “Somehow when I imagined this, you were never this mouthy.”
“You imagined this? Did you jerk off thinking about me? Allie, did he jerk off thinking about me?”
“Lieutenant Vargas did not share the contents of his masturbatory fantasies with me, Captain.”
“For god’s sake,” the lieutenant said, and shoved forward with his hips.
The captain yelped, and then groaned, locking his ankles behind the lieutenant’s back. “Oh, yes. Shit, yes that’s good, just like that. Easy, it’s been a while. Right there, oh fuck, yeah.”
“You never shut up, do you?” the lieutenant said. Exertion distorted the normal vocal qualities that distinguished emotion, roughening all the sounds, but he was smiling.
The captain grinned back. “No, but keep trying.” Both their suits were crumpled under them, sensors pinging in a confused mess of weight and heat, distorted by the folds of fabric. “Just like that, you can go harder now, yeah, oh yeah.”
The sleep pod, detachable from the rest of the ship in case of emergency, rattled slightly against the wall. The temperature and humidity of the ship were both rising fractionally. The air filters reclaiming water couldn’t keep up with their increased respiration.
“Fuck that’s good, you feel so good inside me.” The captain’s toes flexed and curled in the air.
The lieutenant swore softly, sweat beading at the nape of his neck and running down his back. “Get yourself off for me,” he gritted out.
“Yeah.” One of the captain’s arms was moving between their bodies, the same motion he used to pleasure himself alone. “Don’t stop, don’t stop. More, deeper.”
“Fuck, Lucas, I can’t…I’m too close.”
“Please, please don’t stop, you’re going to make me come, I’m gonna come on your cock, just keep–”
Propping all his weight on one arm, the lieutenant slapped a hand over the captain’s mouth. “You’re not helping!”
The captain moaned around his palm, opening his mouth so that three of the lieutenant’s fingers slid inside onto his tongue. Closing his lips around them he sucked hard and the lieutenant shouted, hips bucking hard. For a long moment he was still, muscles locked, even as the captain whimpered and writhed under him, and then he pulled back, ducking down to take the captain’s erection in his mouth as he slid his wet fingers into the captain’s ass. A sticky mixture of semen and lubricant dripped out onto the crumpled suits, which absorbed and denatured the proteins, reclaiming the water content. The captain shouted and arched up, thrusting into the lieutenant’s mouth, his face twisting in the familiar expression of climax.
Afterward, they settled themselves again side by side, limbs tangled together.
“Allie, how long did that take?” the captain asked drowsily.
“Twenty-six and a half minutes, Captain.”
The captain grinned, not opening his eyes. “Called it.” The lieutenant just snorted and pulled him closer.
“This is it,” the captain said. “Stormed at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well; into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell.”
“Captain, please concentrate. Once again, the approximate flight path is based on the average trajectories of–”
“I know,” he interrupted. “We’ve been over this. And I know you’re nervous, sweetheart, but we’re ready.” He glanced sideways at the lieutenant, who nodded. “You’ve made sure we’re ready.”
“I do not experience the sensation of nervousness,” Allie said, using a tiny fraction of her processing capacity to calculate the accuracy of that statement. Less than 100%.
“It’s gonna be okay. Trust me.” His palms were sweaty against her joysticks, his pulse thumping at 117 bpm, but he was grinning. “Give me a kiss for luck?”
She sparked a tiny bit of electricity in his suit, the faintest kiss. “Good luck, captain. I want us to survive.”
“Me too, Als.” The captain kissed the tips of two fingers and pressed them against the manual power-down button, fingers hovering over the confirmation sequence. “See you on the other side.”
The Petit Allegro went dark.
She came fizzling back to life in a wash of warning messages and temperature readings, with the lieutenant’s hands on her controls. They were plunging through a thin, inhospitable atmosphere, gaseous friction heating her external sensors to 1022.03 degrees Kelvin, deceleration thrusters roaring full force as the lunar surface below them grew rapidly, and one part of her engine structure was non-responsive. The captain was sprawled motionless in his command chair, held in place by the straps and the force of deceleration. He was unresponsive to her immediate vocal query — “Captain Graham?” – but his vitals were steady.
“He’s alive,” the lieutenant said, tersely. “But he won’t be if I can’t put us down safely.” The ship rocked, and he swore, adjusting the throttle.
Both he and the captain wore full space-suits, complete with sealed helmets; a leak somewhere had brought shipboard oxygenation, temperature and pressure well below thresholds for human survival. Damage analysis and reports scrolled through her mainframe. Combustion damage on the starboard flank, narrowly missing the hydrogen fuel cell; projectile-impact damage elsewhere on her frame. The lieutenant was manually stabilizing the craft to compensate for the missing engine as they plunged toward the rocky ground.
Allie began running four-dimensional calculations, her servers lagging with the strain. “Passing 8500 meters in altitude, with a deceleration of eighty-two meters per second, estimated insufficient to provide safe landing.”
“I know,” the lieutenant gritted out. “I’m using part of the thruster power to stabilize the busted wing.” He appeared to be managing the output of a complex multi-variable equation without having done any calculation – brilliant, but limited in the human way. She could execute the descent with more fuel efficiency, and she said so. “Are you sure…” he began.
“Lieutenant Vargas,” she snapped. “Trust me.”
“Yes.” He blew out a breath, hands tight on the throttle. “Of course.”
They screamed down through the atmosphere, compressed gas flowing in red-hot plasma over her nose, friction dispelling kinetic energy, Allie adjusting the flight path to a longer descent, the oblique approach giving more time to decelerate, while the lieutenant fought to keep her balanced with the shorted engine. Below them the silver beads of cities and threads of road grew until distinct rock formations and climate-domes were distinguishable even to the human eye.
“Hold on,” Allie said. The lieutenant was already strapped in as securely as it was possible to be, but it was the sort of thing the captain said. “Preparing for impact.”
They impacted the surface at a seventeen-degree angle, with a force of approximately 18500 kilonewtons, plowing a smoking crater into the dusty ground. The Allegro’s shields and suspension, built to protect from the impact of space debris at intergalactic speeds, protected the cabin from the fatal force of the impact, but both humans inside were jarred enough to cause risk of concussion.
Dazed, the lieutenant shook himself back into motion, pulling clumsily to undo his seat belt and sliding to his knees in front of the captain’s chair, hands patting at his chest and arms, the visor of his helmet, “Lucas? Lucas!”
“Captain?” Allie sent slight electrical pulses to the fingertips of his suit, monitoring his heart rate in response, and he groaned, shifting.
“Lucas,” the lieutenant repeated.
“Tony?…where…?” he mumbled. “Where are…”
There was the silvery dome of an enclosed colony on the horizon, about thirty kilometers distant. Already hover-craft were being dispatched in their direction. Allie began broadcasting their identity and intentions on a broad frequency, in a rotation of space-standard languages, and got a ping of response from the approaching convoy. “We’re here,” she said. “New Venizi.”
“Cargo?” the captain rasped.
“From my preliminary inspection, Captain, the cargo appears to be shaken but undamaged, cryo-units still operational,” she said.
The captain lifted his head, fingers curling around the lieutenant’s hand. “We made it?”
“Yes.” The lieutenant tipped his head forward so the visors of their helmets tapped together. “We made it.”
“65 Watts per meter-Kelvin,” she said. “Probably some kind of tin, maybe nickel.”
“Damn. Alright, next one.” The captain touched the electrodes to the next piece of scrap.
“16.7 Watts per m-K. Chrome, maybe. Useless, certainly.”
The captain wiped his wrist across his forehead, leaving a smear of engine grease. “Ugh. This one?” The climate dome did a relatively poor job of insulating the colony compared to a terran-quality atmosphere; cold in the dark rotation and sweltering on the sun side. The captain was sweating in a grimy tank top.
“260 Watts. Aluminum, or a copper alloy.”
“Yes!” He made a fist in victory and tossed the bit of scrap on the ‘useful’ pile, much smaller than the ‘junk’ pile.
The Allegro was at rest in an unused hangar, under the artificial sky of a Venizi colony called Murandi. Her fuel cells were empty, her computer powered by the solar array on the roof of the hangar, her frame and engines still damaged beyond use. Massive disruptions to supply lines, rationing of metals, and the absence of professional shipbuilding tools made rebuilding all but impossible, even if there had been safe passage home or enough rocket fuel to launch a craft into orbit. There was neither, but the work kept the captain busy. He was on the third week of experimenting with the conductivity of scrap metal scavenged from around the colony.
The door to the hangar creaked open. “Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes,” a voice said. “Esme said to tell you that she means sitting down to eat in twenty, not starting to wash up in twenty.”
Lifting his head, the captain grinned. “Your sister is a drill sergeant, but she makes amazing goulash.”
“You’re not wrong.” The lieutenant came over to lean on the captain’s shoulder, peering down at the tangle of wires. “How’s electrocuting things going?” He put his hand on the captain’s back, where the hem of his sweaty shirt had ridden up.
“Fair to middling. The highlight of my day has been two ounces of aluminum. What about you?”
“I got a video of Miri from Jason. My old coworker.” He pulled out his tablet. “Here.”
The captain tipped their heads together. “Aw, look at her fluffy belly.”
“May I see?” Allie asked.
Glancing up, the lieutenant smiled. “Of course. I’ll patch it through to you.” The video file loaded in her servers. Eleven seconds of a black and white cat lolling on its back, regarding the camera imperiously. It did indeed have a fluffy belly.
“Have you heard from anyone back home?” the lieutenant asked as the video ended. “Since the announcement?”
“Not directly,” the captain said. “Just the newscasts. I did wonder if having his only child behind enemy lines would change my father’s position on the war, but I thought for sure that was just wishful thinking.”
“You don’t sound happy about it,” the lieutenant said, studying the captain’s face.
“He decides to grow some fatherly feeling when I’m thousands of light-years away on the opposite side of the galaxy? I’m pissed as hell.”
“Current punditry suggests that Senator Graham’s involvement may lend significant momentum to the armistice talks,” Allie said.
The lieutenant’s arm tightened around him. “Maybe you will get to go home someday after all.”
The captain scoffed. “Allie, definition of home?”
“A dwelling or place of residence characterized by sentiments of comfort and familiarity, and the social unit formed therein.”
“See? No need to go anywhere. Except in for dinner before your sister throws me in the brig.” Tucking his hand in the lieutenant’s back pocket he wiggled his eyebrows. “You can help me wash up.” As they turned away together, the captain patted his other hand against the hull of the Allegro. “Sweet dreams, Als. See you in the morning.”