Care Givers: The Best and the Brightest
A Care Givers Company story
The Best and the Brightest
by Maggie Finson
I came awake slowly, my consciousness swimming up from the darkness and gradually, reluctantly acknowledging my surroundings. Various twinges and dull pains announced themselves almost gleefully, letting me know that things weren’t right in the body I had kept in such superb condition through twenty odd years of life. Along with numbness that refused to fade; my hands and feet tingled, but refused to accept the tactile sensations they should have been getting as I gingerly shifted them to make sure they still worked. They did, but clumsily, and without the sureness of purpose that should have been there.
Sluggishly, I tried to recall where I was, and why I was there. Memories began to filter into my still muzzy consciousness as I let out a small moan of anguish. The memories flooded me with a clarity that was nearly as intense as the experience itself had been.
I was piloting a shuttle, my first command for NASA, though far from my first flight as crew in one. We were inbound to Earth when an explosive propellant leak sent us into an uncontrolled spin.
I frantically worked controls that refused to respond for a critical few seconds while the computer rebooted after the power loss and brownout from the starboard pair of fuel cells blowing. Gee force from the spin we went into had slowed my reactions and thought processes to a dangerous point. The standard automated distress call began broadcasting with the data the flight recorder was getting as the shuttle, an older model due for retirement within the month, shuddered under the stress its aged frame was being subjected to.
I almost had the tumble under control, almost had the old girl aligned with a near-proper re-entry attitude when things really went to hell.The old girl’s attitude jets weren’t functioning at all, so our spin could not be corrected as we drew perilously close to Earth’s upper atmosphere. Even if they had functioned, retro control was still off line making our uncontrolled descent pretty well unstoppable. I knew we were going to burn up in re-entry if something didn’t change fast.
Our cargo, five hundred tons of refined nickel iron had broken loose from its web work of moorings and was shifting in the hold, which only added to the unpredictable attitude of the Argonaut in relation to Earth’s gravity well. Argonaut was groaning with the stress, threatening to break up, and if that happened five hundred tons of pure nickel-iron would make an uncontrolled descent into atmosphere. Fusing into a single meteor that would impact somewhere with devastating results.
My co-pilot, Stewart McBain hit the panic button to jettison our cargo. That may sound idiotic given the information above, but it actually wasn’t. My friend, the magnificent fool, had added to the problem we were dealing with but had just managed to save the planet below from some very real, and probably catastrophic damage. He’d managed to release the remaining holding straps on the ingots in our cargo bay, so they would hit atmosphere as individual pieces of a hundred pounds or so instead of in a huge mass. What five hudred tons of high grade Nickel-iron fused into a solid mass would have done hitting the Pacific Ocean at reentry speeds didn’t, and still doesn’t, bear thinking about even today.
Argonaut’s attitude underwent another violent and unplanned change,as the ingots our cargo was made up of were ejected and fell into Earth’s gravity well. But as individual pieces instead of the solid mass they could have been. Stew shouted something about preventing a single impact through the comm then I heard nothing else from him.
Argonaut’s frame and skin hadn’t been able to take the added stress of that violent ejection. The gallant old girl shuddered as her structural members buckled and her outer hull tore like tissue paper in a high wind.
Debris spun through the control cabin in the explosive decompression of my ship’s death throes. But the badly damaged computer finally came on line enough to activate emergency systems. That provided enough power – barely – for me to fight our uncontrolled tumble into something at least resembling a hastily worked out landing approach. Truthfully, that is exactly what it was. The collective tried its best to rip my left arm off as I literally hammered at the control to gain at least a minimally survivable entry into the lower atmosphere. Controls bucking and fighting every slightest change I made in Argonaut’s final re-entry, I at last managed to at least stabilize the ship enough to allow the crew emergency pods a slim chance of ejecting without being torn to shreds during their ejection.
A jagged piece of debris spun into my view as I hit the eject command and smashed into my face plate. I heard the hissing, agonized scream of violently escaping air for an eternity of milliseconds as my ears popped, my eyes tried leaving their sockets, and my lungs vainly worked to pull in oxygen that was rushing out of the cracked face plate.
The emergency shield of my helmet slammed down to close off the breach as I felt the stomach wrenching jerk and lurch of the escape pod being blown clear of the disintegrating shuttle. I had time to wish to whatever gods were watching that I had died as my suit belatedly regained air pressure and shot pain killers and endorphins into my system. Then there was only blackness as the gee forces I was subjected to reached levels that should have been lethal.
Damn, no wonder I felt so terrible. The amazing part of things was that I was still around to feel anything at all.
I awakened to the sound of softly beeping machines and the certainty that something was not right. Not right at all.
The effort of simply noticing my surroundings had exhausted me. I gratefully slid back into the almost comfortable shroud of unconsciousness. But through some miracle, I was still alive.
“He’s coming around, Doctor.” A rare female voice announced as I began to notice my surroundings again.
“Good.” A deeper, quiet voice responded, further pulling me back into wakefulness. That same voice addressed me with a concerned note that I didn’t like at all. “Lieutenant Chartrand?”
“Where?” I questioned out of a mouth feeling as if it were full of sand.
“You’re in the Armstrong Medical complex at Orlando. I’m Dr. Allison, by the way.” He answered, leaning forward to examine my eyes, which still hadn’t managed to fully focus. “You were in pretty bad shape, Lieutenant. We’ve had you in ICU for three weeks since the accident. Your surviving that mess is nothing short of a major miracle, you know.”
“When?” They understood that as well.
“Its Tuesday, January 24th, 2102.” The doctor informed me. January 24th! The Argonaut, my first, and probably last, command, had run into the trouble that ended up with me in the hospital on January 5th.
“Damage?” I questioned.
“Well,” I wouldn’t care to go into everything you suffered at the moment...” Dr. Allison started.
“No, damage to Pacific rim, from ingots.” I corrected him.
“Ahh.” He hesitated then shrugged. “I’d prefer to wait until you’ve had some more time to rest.”
“There was no major damage to coastal areas, just some unusually large waves coming in.” He answered slowly. “Though some of the central Pacific Islands had a bad time, along with a few ships in the area. LA had an unusually high tide, and the Hawaiian Islands had a few problems. It wasn’t a major catastrophe, if that’s what you want to know.”
“But nothing, Lieutenant.” Allison firmly answered. “You aren’t in any kind of condition to worry about anything other than your own recovery. I won’t allow anything else just now. Understand?”
Doctors have a way of command that is all their own, one that brooks no argument once they have made a pronouncement. All I could do at that moment was nod in meek acquiescence and wonder how bad it had been. “All right.”
“Good.” With a nod, he made a good imitation of examining my chart. “You have a lot of problems to overcome here, Lieutenant. The G forces you went through caused bruising of the spinal cord, a blood clot to form over the left side of your brain, and significant nerve damage in your extremities. Your brief exposure to near vacuum blew out your ear drums and nearly blinded you. There was lung damage from the same thing, though not to a debilitating amount, you might find it hard to catch your breath after exertion, but oxygen exchange should be adequate for normal activities. You shouldn’t even be alive after your shuttle disintegrated like it did. You might take a little time to thank God for having His hand on your shoulder through that. It’s the only thing I can think of that let you survive the experience.”
“The rescue teams recovered enough to bury, that’s about all.”
“Yeah.” I managed a small nod. “So what am I looking at here?”
“Years of physical therapy, for one thing.” Allison told me bluntly. “You’ll never regain a lot of sensitivity in your hands or feet, and will have coordination problems for the rest of your life. We took care of the clot on the brain with some largely non-invasive surgery, replaced your ear drums, and transplanted new eyes. All of that looks good so far, no rejection at all, but the anti -rejection drugs we had to give you will make you very susceptible to just about any illness you come near. The injuries to your spinal cord will heal on their own eventually, but you could be subject to seizures as a result of those for the rest of your life.”
“Damn. Almost wish I’d died.”
“You may have been better off.” He honestly told me. “As it is, you’re never going to be fit for space again. You will walk again, and be able to handle basic functions of everyday life. I’m afraid that’s about the best you can hope for, though.”
“Space.” I shied away from that idea, memories of my last recalled moments there threatening to drown any coherent thoughts I could manage. ”I -- I Don’t even want to face possibility just now.”
“I’m sorry son, truly sorry.” Allison reached forward to lightly touch my shoulder. “You shouldn’t have survived that accident at all. You’re a billion in one chance that came through, there’s a better chance of hitting it big in the lottery. You just worry about getting yourself as healthy as possible. Going back up there is something that you’ll never have to deal with again. You’ll never be fit enough for that.”
“Just as well.” I quietly replied. “First command and that happened. I’d have a black mark against me that I’d never overcome. No matter what the official findings said about it. Even if I could go back, and wanted to, I’d never be given a command again, or even a crew position with any real responsibility.”
“Don’t dwell on it.” He advised. “It would just complicate an already difficult recovery process.”
Right. My life was over, in everything that had ever meant anything to me. I had directed my entire life since childhood with one thing and one thing only in mind: getting into space and making my life out there, where Humanity had a chance of becoming something other than an overpopulation threat and resource drain to Mother Earth. How could I not think about that?
Not getting back into space would likely kill me just as surely as trying to get back out there. I knew I didn’t want to live the way I was at that particular moment. But as things stood, I wasn’t being given a choice.
The next few weeks were a misery of sameness. Pain that never quite went away, tests to see how my nervous system was recovering, and constantly wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life once I finally got out of the medical complex.
To the last, I really didn’t know. I could probably teach at university level. I had the psych training that required, and the knowledge. But the prospect held no real appeal for me. Watching young people move on to the things I had once hoped to do would be a little too painful.
Or I could consult here on Earth. With my education and experience, there would probably be more than one company who would be happy to have me in that capacity. Doing such a thing would be hard too. I just didn’t have the mindset that grounders seemed to expect, and wanted to deal with.
Overall I was fighting a huge sense of loss and no little bitterness over the fact that I’d survived to be what I considered not much more than a useless drone. Nothing I thought of that would be doable with my health and physical abilities held the least appeal for me. Better that I had died in the accident I caught myself thinking off and on.
Those, however, were not much more than passing thoughts. I was far too busy just working to get my uncooperative arms and legs to do what I wanted them to for other concerns to bother me all that much.
At times it felt as if I was destined to go through all that alone. My parents had been gone for a long time. A freeway accident when I was still in high school working my tail off to qualify for the universities I hoped to attend. I’d been taken in by my maternal grandmother then, but she was too old and ill to make the trip from Topeka, Kansas to Orlando for avisit.
Though it turned out that I was not quite alone.
One of the duty nurses working the wing I was in had been a good friend through my university years, and she made a point of visiting every day. Hers was a friendship that I had always treasured, and was actually kind of a rare thing these days with the male to female ratio sitting around 3:1 on a world groaning under the weight of 25 billion people. But that thought led my mind into directions I still shied away from, so I snuffed it before it really had time to depress me and ruin the visit.
“Hi Eric!” Consuela Martinez greeted me as she entered my little section of the world.
“Hi Connie.” My response was more than a little listless, but I was glad to see her. Connie has always been easy on the eyes. Five feet three inches of Hispanic energy with the face of a Madonna and a disposition that was pretty close to that description unless someone really got her angry. I managed to smile for her as she sat next to my bed. “How was your day?”
“Oh, the usual.” She answered almost airily. “Nothing really special, just a day.”
“Yeah, me too.” I responded with a sigh. “I did get up and walk to the bathroom all by myself today, though.”
“That’s wonderful!” Her lovely, round face beamed at the news. “I knew you’d do it pretty soon. You just aren’t the type to lie around doing nothing.”
“There isn’t much else I can do just now, you know.” I pointed out. “Two nurses and a physical therapist were standing by just to make sure I didn’t get too frisky this time around. Not that I could. That and one of the other guys in there, waiting for a prosthetic pair of legs has been needling me about at least having all my own original equipment so I should start using it the way it was meant to be used.”
“Good for him. You’re getting there, Eric.” Her dark eyes were filled with concern as she tried to give my spirits a boost. “This isn’t going to be an easy thing, you know that. But you also know you have the determination to get through it and start living life again.”
“Life?” I shook my head. “My life ended at 150,000 feet, Connie. It just didn’t have the decency to take me with it, is all.”
“That’s not true and you know it.” She firmly answered. “You can still do things, important things, here on Earth.”
“Sure I could.” With a shrug -- I’d managed to get that gesture right the week before -- I looked directly at her. “But nothing I’ve thought of holds any appeal to me. What I was really meant to do, what I directed my whole life towards, is something I can’t even contemplate now without having nightmares. Connie, space is all I know, and anything I do down here would just remind me that I can never go back. Hell, I don’t even know if I’d want to, even if I could. Which I can’t.”
“You don’t know what the future holds any more than I do.” She said so softly I nearly didn’t hear her, the pain she felt for me clear in her large eyes. Then with more confidence she added. ”With the qualifications you have there would probably be more employment opportunities available than you’ll be able to read once you’re up and around again.”
“I appreciate the thought, Connie.” My answer sounded a little bitter, and hurtful, even to me, so I tried to soften it with a smile that faltered and fizzled out before it even got properly started. “But I trashed my first command. A thing like that will follow me for the rest of my life no matter what I do. I’ll never fly anything but a desk somewhere again, and a pilot without a craft to handle is only a shadow filled with dust and cobwebs.”
“For your sake I hope you change your mind about that, Eric.” Rising from the chair and leaning forward to place a light kiss on my cheek, she finished. “I have to go now. I’ll come to see you tomorrow, ok?”
“Sure.” I nodded and managed a smile that didn’t look too much like a rictus of agony. “I’d like to see you again. Thanks.”
Connie was good on her word, stopping in to visit, and talking what most people would have considered good sense to me in her direct, but gentle manner. There were some days when I actually came close to believing her.
But the nightmares still came every night, sometimes so vividly I would wake up convinced I was still in the disintegrating shuttle’s command cabin.
At times like that, once a worried nurse had administered yet another sedative to take the edge off, I would usually end up crying myself back to sleep. When sleep would return at all, that is.
“Lieutenant Chartrand.” A quiet male voice that I hadn’t heard before woke me from a fitful nap and I opened my eyes to see a middle aged Major standing at the side of my bed. I tried getting up, and saluting, but he waved me back with a shake of his head. “No need for that just now, son. But I appreciate the effort. I’m Major Willis Handsford, and stopped by to ask you a few questions and answer a few if you have any. The board of enquiry into your accidentwants your personal version of what happened up there, if you feel up to it just now.”
“Sure, why not, sir?” I did sit up, shakily, but on my own, and smoothed my rumpled hair -- far longer than the regulation cut I’d worn while on active service -- and nodded. “What exactly do you want to hear about?”
“Just your own version of events, and any thoughts you might have had during your convalescence here, Lieutenant.” The major answered with a tired smile before adding. I’m only tying up loose ends here, getting your testimony into the record before the investigation is closed.”
“All right.” Wondering what the verdict had been, but sure I wouldn’t hear that until I’d given the man what he wanted, I began talking. The story came out almost on its own. I’d been thinking of nothing much other than that since first regaining consciousness at the medical complex.
“ Very good, Lieutenant.” Handsford nodded with another smile that was more friendly this time, once I had finished the story that ran through most of my nights without letup. “All that is consistent with what the flight and cabin voice recorders sent out with your distress call. Is there anything else you’d like to say here, for the record, before I send your testimony in to be added to the findings?”
“Only that Stew McBain was a damned fool.” I finished slowly, tears beginning to form in my eyes. “He knew what he did would kill us, but had also worked out what a shuttle loaded with five hundred tons of metal ingots would do if we hit the Pacific in one or two pieces. Two lives weighed against millions at the least. I’d like to go on record as saying that he did the right thing in jettisoning the cargo when he did. I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t have been able to recover the approach in time.”
“Interesting that you should say that.” Handsford nodded. “The board decided the same thing. The cargo bay at least, may well have reached the surface intact, and the impact would have been catastrophic for the Pacific Rim. As it was, a few ships in the area had some excitement, some Central Pacific Islands experienced unusually high tides, and surfers around LA must have loved you for a short time. Both of your names are cleared, and McBain Has received a posthumous commendation and Presidential Medal of Honor. Yours will be presented to you later, once you’re on your feet properly again.”
“Good.” Was all I could manage to get out over that news. About Stew, any way. That I was to be receiving the same honors -- sans the military funeral was something I really didn’t feel that I deserved.
“There will be some formal paperwork coming through for you to sign off on, regarding the findings and your position with NASA now.” Handsford told me as he rose from the chair where he had taken during my description of the incident and shook my hand. “From all the records I’ve seen, you were a damned good pilot, Lieutenant. I’m sure the Agency will have something for you besides a pension if you want it.”
“Thank you, sir.” I answered quietly. The operative words there had been pilot and were. Somehow I knew there would be no facing a ground based job with NASA for me. Not after what had happened, and especially not after being a pilot. It just wouldn’t work, but I didn’t tell him that. I think he suspected as much, but refrained from mentioning it again as he made his exit from my little piece of the world.
“It’s something called ‘Survivor’s Syndrome’ in the trade.” Dr. Allen Clarke told me simply during one of our regular one on one sessions. The psychiatrist gave me a troubled look as he went on. “Accident and disaster survivors are often left with the idea that they shouldn’t have lived, and are guilty that they did. It’s nonsense, but that’s the Human psyche for you.”
“So that’s why I feel so miserable at times?” I questioned with a small shrug. Putting a name to the reasons for at least some of my depression wasn’t all that much help, really. “But why do I still have those damned nightmares? I’m pretty sure the staff around here is thinking of soundproofing my room.”
“The nightmares are pretty normal, Eric.” Clarke answered with a small frown. You’re not clear, mentally or emotionally, of that accident yet, and honestly you probably won’t ever be. But as you get back into the routines of daily living out in the world, they should fade, and become rare visits to a past that isn’t healthy for you to dwell on any longer.”
“Great, another doctor telling me to get on with my life.” I grumbled then let out a long sigh. “Sorry, doc. I just can’t see myself fitting in down here all that well if I’m healthy, which I won’t ever be again. It’s kind of tough to handle so far, and I know I’m not doing such a good job of it here.”
“I know it’s tough, Eric.”
“Yeah, and you’re doing your best to help me work through all of it, I appreciate that doc. I really do. It’s just that…” I hesitated there, not wanting to sound like a whiner, or hopeless to either him or myself. “I just can’t seem to get my head around the fact that I’ll never lift ship again, or be out there. That I’ll have to sit here on Earth and watch all of that from a distance.”
“It’s something you’ll have to accept.” Clarke shook his head slowly, the sorrow, not pity, showing in his eyes. “I’m sorry that’s the way things turned out, but it’s the way things are now.”
“So I’ll deal with it.” My answer didn’t sound all that convincing, but he let it go at that and returned to the original subject.
“That you’ll have to do largely on your own, Eric, but I can and will help you with that heavy burden of guilt you’re carrying around now.”
Let me tell you something. Digging into that was not at all pleasant, for either one of us. We both stuck it out.
“Well, I have a pretty good pension to live on.” I was telling Connie about the things in the package I had received from Major Handsford. “But I’m a civilian again. NASA retired me.”
“You could still work for them in that capacity and you know it.” She told me without hesitation. “Or go just about anywhere with a program involving space technologies or skills.”
“I know, but…”
“No buts here, Eric Chartrand.” Connie interrupted me while looking straight into my eyes. “You could. Why aren’t you considering that possibility? Or any possibility at all?”
“I just can’t.” The answer sounded lame, even to me, but it was the truth. I no longer seemed to have the heart for even thinking about anything to do with space. “Connie, I’m having enough trouble just getting to the point where I can accept -- mostly -- that I’m going to be an infection prone half-invalid for the rest of my life. I have to come to terms with all that before I can even consider any kind of employment. And I definitely don’t want anything to do with the space program once I do.”
“Bullshit.” Connie tartly responded to the clear bitterness in my voice. “You just don’t want to is all. Eric, you’re one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known. It would be a terrible waste for you to turn your back on everything you’ve lived for since you were what? Ten years old?”
“It’s turned its back on me, Connie.” I let out a ragged sigh before going on. “And I don’t think I really care for living with that all that much.”
“I think you do.” She answered softly.
“What’s the difference?” I questioned with more heat than I’d intended or expected.
“More than you’d like to admit, even to yourself.” She said quietly before leaning down to kiss my forehead. “More than you want to believe, Eric. Don’t throw your life away, please.”
Without another word, she gave me a sad, knowing smile, then left me to my muddled thoughts.
Several days later I had a visitor I’d been dreading since I regained consciousness. Claire McBain was dressed in her usual jeans and top, but her dark hair was immaculate as always, framing her oval face with smooth sweeping curves that accentuated her even features perfectly. I’d always thought that if Stewart hadn’t been married to her, I would have been interested. That was then, however. Things were different now, very different.
“Hello, Eric.” Her voice was still smooth as silk running across a polished surface, though her face, especially around her gray eyes, showed traces of the strain and grief she had been through recently.
“Hi Claire. How are you holding up?”
“All right, I suppose.” Her answer was slow, but her tone of voice was certain. “It hasn’t been an easy thing at all, but I have the kids to think about.”
“Yeah, how are Jack and Dana handling it?” Stewart and Claire had been blessed with almost perfect children. Ten year old Jack was almost the image of his father, and eight year old Dana promised to be as beautiful and intelligent as her mother.
“Well, they know Stew isn’t ever coming back, but would rather have a live father than a dead hero in the family. That’s to be expected, though. They miss him, but have been really good over the whole thing.” Claire let out a long sigh. “They both still cry at night, but then so do I. We’ll get through it, are getting through it.”
“They’re good kids, Claire.” I offered, not really knowing what else I could say to her about that situation.
“Yes, and both have been asking about their ‘Uncle’ Eric.” She smiled a bit sadly then shook her head as if to clear it. “How are you doing?”
“As well as I can be, I suppose.”
“I saw Consuela Martinez on the way in.” Claire nodded. “She told me about the nerve damage, and -- other things.”
“Yeah it’s those other things that are the killer just now.” I nodded with a halfway decent smile for a change. “I know I’ve been a difficult patient here, and am trying to mend my ways in that respect.”
“You’re alive, Eric.” She said with a wistful tone in her voice that grew tight when she went on. “I almost hated you for surviving when Stew didn’t, but knew that was stupid. God, or whatever, made that choice and I can’t or won’t gainsay it. There must have been a reason for how things turned out.”
“I just wish I could see it.” My answer was more sad than angry this time as I added. “Right now, all I can see is a lot of needless suffering for more people than just me. I don’t know what to do next.”
“You need to get as well as you can for starters.” Claire answered, practical as always. “Then get yourself out of this funk about how things turned out for you. You’re still alive, and there are so many possibilities just because of that.”
“Possibilities for an infection and seizure prone cripple?” I questioned with my now familiar bitterness. “Like what?”
“Come off it, Eric!” Her voice rose a little, and had the familiar steel I had come to associate with her when determined she was right no matter who thought otherwise in it again as she glared at me. “You could still do anything you chose to on Earth, and would be welcomed with open arms at NASA, or just about any technical university in the world. Your life isn’t over, and you’d better start realizing that right now.”
“Yes, I’ve heard it all before, Claire.”
“Eric, you and Stew shared a dream once. Of Humanity reaching for the stars and living among them. Stew always said that he really thought space exploration and colonization was mankind’s Last Great Hope. You shared that dream, and I think still do even if you won’t admit it to yourself.”
“Uh…” I started to come up with a rejoinder to that but was stopped by her raised hand and penetrating gaze.
“No, you let me finish before I break down and can’t.” She bit off the words in little chunks but was clearly determined to go on with the subject even with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Don’t you even think of letting Stew down on this! He won’t be around to help that dream become real, but you will. He’d expect you to go on with it, you know. Don’t let his only memory become something for a footnote in a damned history book, Eric. Don’t. Please think about that, Stew deserves more from you, even if it’s just his memory you’re honoring as you go on. Don’t let his dream or memory die this way. Not when you can carry it on for him like I know you are able to do. Find a way, then do it for him, for me, and most importantly, for yourself. Please.”
“I -- .” She was crying now, and damnit, so was I. It was almost too much to bear as I reached out to take her in a tight hug. “I don’t know if I can any more, Claire. I just don’t know.”
“You can, and you know it as well as I do.”
“Ok, Claire. Ok.”
“Not just ok.” She responded, pulling gently out of my hug after giving me a quick squeeze in return. “You need more than that and you know it.”
“Maybe I do.”
“You do.” She affirmed with a nod then gave me a shaky smile as I offered her the box of tissues beside my bed. “Thanks. I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said all that or made such a scene here.”
“That’s all right.” I answered with a little smile. “You needed it as much as you seem to think I did. Don’t apologize.”
“I really didn’t mean to put that kind of stress on you.”
“Stress I can handle.” I grinned and shrugged. “Crying now, I’m not so sure about.”
“You or me doing it?”
“Both, I can’t stand to see a woman cry, you know that. I always feel like I need to try and fix the problem so she’ll stop. As for me doing it… Well, let’s just say I haven’t done much of that since I was twelve and my parents died.”
“Well what are you going to do about it?”
“Whatever I can, I suppose.”
“That’s the answer I wanted to hear out of you.”
We exchanged some awkward small talk that grew more comfortable as it went on until she rose from her chair and reached into her bag to retrieve something she handed to me. “I almost forgot, Jack and Dana sent this for you.”
It was an envelope. I clumsily tore open the thing then carefully withdrew the card inside with my numb, still almost useless fingers. Claire quietly waited for me to either get it or ask for help. I managed to work the card free and just stared at it for a few moments.
“They picked that one out especially for you.” Claire smiled a little sadly as I looked at the photo of an old Apollo moon lander on the front. “They thought you’d like it. I tried to talk them into getting a different one.”
“No, this is fine.” I answered, reading the legend written on the face of the card. One Small Step… “This is a good choice.”
“Maybe you should open it?”
“Probably be a good idea, wouldn’t it?” I answered, again fumbling until the thing was open. There was a note scrawled on the inside in Jacks imprecise hand, but it was readable.
Mom says that you were hurt real bad and will take a long time to get better. She says you’ll have to take it in little steps so you can get back to being yourself. So take as many little ones as you can so you can visit us again, please. We miss you. Get well as soon as you can, ok?
Jack and Dana
“Tell them I said thanks.” I quietly told her, my vision blurring as I read it again. “That I’ll do my best, and I love them too.”
“I will, Eric.”
She quietly left me a few minutes later with a soft peck on the cheek and the promise to come again.
I just held on to that card and cried until there was nothing left in me to come out. I actually slept a night through without nightmares for the first time since the accident.
You’d think that might have been enough to motivate me into some sort of positive action to start putting a life back together. It should have, and though it shames me, I was still hesitant to even look at possibilities in my diminished physical state. I was thirty-five years old in a time and place where people routinely lived past a hundred and were still active, but my zest for it was gone and I just couldn’t find it in me to search for something that would give it back to me.
Claire’s visit, and the card from her kids had started me thinking about things I should be doing again, though. Like the note in the card had said, things got started with small steps. I guess that was one of those. I worked harder at getting myself into a semblance of acceptable condition after that, anyway.
But small steps were all I had the heart, or energy, to manage.
Shu, a voluble proponent of the controversial Protection of Women legislation being considered in both houses asked his fellow representatives to take a more hard line stance with industries that are non-Earth based and not to allow those outsiders the chance to hold our Nation for what is essentially ransom just to get easy access to resources that should rightfully belong to Humanity as a whole and not be rationed out by those who had for all intents, abandoned the Mother World.
“So, I hear you walked all the way down the hall today.” Connie grinned at me as she entered my room, still in her uniform and looking very business-like.
“Yeah, didn’t fall down once this time.” I answered with a sigh. I hated my lack of decent motor control and the idea that I’d never get much better with it than being able to walk without being in danger of stumbling to my knees, or worse, but refrained from mentioning that.
“Hey, you fall down, you have to get up and start again.” She told me, meaning far more than simply walking, I knew. “And keep getting up until you get it right.”
“I’m learning that.” I replied a bit sourly.
“Then maybe it’s about time you started acting like you were. Learning that, I mean.” She told me from beside my bed.
“I keep hearing that from everyone around here.”
“Then start listening to us, damnit!” Her voice rose and I could see the beginnings of an overflow of her usually well contained Hispanic temper in her face, posture, and flashing eyes. “You’re not going to accomplish anything at all here if you don’t get off your ass and quit feeling sorry for yourself!”
“Hey, wait a second here…”
“No, you’re going to listen to this. All the way through.” She flatly told me, hands on her hips and head tilted to the left a bit in a stance that showed just how angry she was. “So just lie there and let me finish. You’ve gotten pretty good at that, laying around and moaning, I mean. It’s not like the Eric Chartrand I used to know, and it isn’t you now. Whether you choose to accept that or not, it’s true.”
“IT IS!” She almost screamed that then visibly worked to calm herself down. “I came in here to give you another pep talk, but none of those have worked yet, not even the one you got from Claire McBain, and that was a good one. You should see yourself from someone else’s viewpoint fella. I can tell you it’s pathetic. Not your disabilities, those I won’t deny are something that you’ll have to work with to get around, but you could do that. No, the really sad thing is you sitting in here, not even trying to get to a point where you could go outside and see the sky, or green grass, or trees, or God forbid -- people! Or do something other than wallow in self pity and hatred for what you’ve become. Poor you!”
I just sat there, dumbfounded, and beginning to get angry in my turn. But that olive skinned dynamo wasn’t going to give me the chance to argue with her.
“Bullshit!” She was actually in my face, glaring and breathing hard from her building rage. “You still have a lot more going for you than most people I know do. There’s nothing wrong with your intelligence, that wasn’t impaired at all, or your ability to make use of it. You have a wealth of experience that most people on this planet, myself included, would almost sell their souls to get a chance to have. You have more education than most university professors, and the know how to make use of it.”
“I’ve watched you sit here and start to stagnate, to start a downwards spiral that will end up with you throwing all that away for no better reason than you aren’t up to the standard you once set for yourself.” Her hands were on my shoulders and I felt them clench until her grip was almost painful. “God! Sometimes I just want to take you like this and shake you until some sense works its way into your brain again!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to stand up and start living again, damnit!” She almost sobbed, and released her grip on my shoulders. “I want to see the Eric Chartrand I once knew, the one who wouldn’t give up regardless of the obstacles he ran up against. That’s what I want. And you know something else? I don’t just want that for you.”
“I’ve known you for years, Eric, since I was nineteen and you were what? Twenty? We’ve dated, we’ve made love we’ve shared things I never have shared with another man. I love you like the brother I never had, and its killing me to see you like this. If you can’t do anything for yourself, then do it for me. For Claire and those kids who worship you and call you their uncle. For anyone. Just get your lazy butt moving in some positive direction.”
I just stared at her as if she’d grown a spade tipped tail and horns, I was so dumbfounded.
“I’ve got to go on duty in a few minutes, so I’ll leave you to think about what I’ve said here. I won’t apologize for it, either.” She started to walk towards the door, her back painfully straight.
“What?” She didn’t even turn around to look at me.
“You win, I’ll do it.” I answered in a shaky voice. “The patient is going to live, ok?”
“Prove it to me.” She turned to give me one of the most entreating looks I’ve ever seen one adult give another. “Prove it to yourself. Once you’ve made some real progress I might start believing you.”
“Ok, I deserved that one.” I answered softly while wincing. “All I can tell you is that I’ll do my best. Will that do?
“But you’ll expect more, won’t you?”
“I always do, I demand it, and I get results.” She responded with a tight little smile.
“That’s why you’re so damned good at what you do.” I admitted.
“You do the same thing.”
“Not lately, it seems.” I gave a shaky laugh as I got that out.
“Oh, I’d say you’ve been achieving excellence as a royal pain in the ass.” She grinned back. “I have something else I’d like for you to do for me, too.”
“I have a good friend in town right now. I’d like for you to meet her. She might be able to help you where I can’t. Would you agree to see her?”
“A shrink?” I asked carefully, I’d been barraged with psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health practitioners over the past few weeks, all with no visible results in most cases except anger and denial from me and head shakes from them.
“Not exactly.” Connie hedged, but was smiling as she did. “I think you’ll like Naomi. She’s something special, even for a woman these days. Will you?”
“Will I what?”
“Don’t be dense, you were actually starting to act like the old Eric there for a while.” She retorted. “Will you see her?”
“Good, I’ll let her know, then.” I knew I’d been had in some way from the triumphant glint in Connie’s dark eyes, but it was too late to back out now. At least it was if I intended to keep her friendship, which was valuable to me in a way I’d never really let myself consider much until just then.
“I’ll even be polite to her when she visits.” I offered.
“Yes you will.” She answered with a tone that added an unspoken ‘If you know what’s good for you.’ to that short sentence.
“Orders received and acknowledged, Ma’am.” I sketched a brief salute, then gave her my best, winning smile. Funny, I hadn’t felt like smiling that way in a long time.
“Be a good boy, and I’ll come see you tomorrow to check on your progress with this change of attitude.”
With that, she turned, walked out the door, and quietly closed it behind her. Man, can that lady deliver an ass kicking. In this case, it was well deserved and badly needed.
I actually worked hard at getting myself able to walk without help after that, and applied myself to the simple, but difficult exercises occupational therapy put me through. I would never have believed it could be so difficult to place one square peg in a matching hole. But I did it and kept doing it, along with managing to hold a knife and fork without dropping, or throwing them across the room in frustration.
The doctors, therapists, and nurses who worked with me all voiced their pleasant surprise at my sudden turnaround. I knew they were aware of Connie’s rather loud visit with me earlier in the week, but none of them mentioned it beyond telling me I was fortunate to have such good friends.
Naturally, I agreed whole-heartedly. While thinking that I hadn’t deserved even the one with the way I’d been acting. That and vowed to myself that I would do better.
Naomi Foster was breathtaking. Take every male’s most cherished idea of feminine beauty, wrap it in unconscious and unassuming grace, give her a voice that strokes one’s ears like a soft, warm hand, and package all that in a pair of white jeans and a green silk top, and you may be able to imagine what my first impression of her was. Maybe. But I really doubt it.
A wealth of wavy, red-gold hair wreathed her oval face like a fiery halo then exuberantly tumbled down her back to tease at a bottom that was as near perfect as I’d ever seen. Her face lit with the smile on her lovely cupid’s bow mouth as I heard a silky voice in the lower soprano register with a slightly musical lilt ask. “Eric?”
“Uh, yes, that’s me.” I answered in a near daze. God, I’d never seen a woman so beautiful before in my life except in vids.
“I’m Naomi Foster.” That brilliant smile again, and I would have done absolutely anything short of commit murder to see it again. Well, maybe that last too, if someone had hurt her. “Connie Martinez asked me to come see you? Is now a good time?”
“Well…” Who was I trying to kid here? “Sure, I don’t have anything scheduled for several hours yet, and they’re kind of flexible when I have visitors. Come on in.”
“Thanks.” Moving with the lithe grace of a professional dancer or athlete, she almost glided across the room until she seated herself in a chair at an angle to the recliner I was using during the day. “Connie has been really worried about you lately, you know.”
“Yeah, I know that. She let me know just how worried a few days ago.” That last was delivered with a wry little grin. Lovely as this young woman was, she had a way of making you feel at ease in her presence, and I was actually relaxing as I basked in her beauty.
“Connie can be rather -- umm -- forceful when that Hispanic heritage of hers comes out.” She agreed with a small chuckle. “I’ve been on the receiving end of that once or twice myself.”
“Truthfully, I don’t know of anyone who knows and loves her who hasn’t.” I put in ruefully then chuckled myself. “But only when they’ve deserved it.”
“It does get one’s attention, doesn’t it?” Naomi grinned.
“Oh that it does.” I agreed. “It sure got mine. Though I can’t imagine what you could have done to deserve getting laid into that way.”
“Trust me, I deserved it and needed it.” Naomi assured me in that musical voice then went on. “Connie and I have been friends for a long time, since before she left for university, and have kept in pretty close touch since we went our separate ways.”
“That’s interesting. I don’t recall ever seeing you, but then I wasn’t close to a constant companion with her through school either.” But I was sure I’d have remembered someone that striking, even if I’d just seen her in passing.
“Oh you probably did.” She smiled and shook her head. “I’m what you might call a late bloomer. I didn’t look anything like I do now back then. You probably wouldn’t have noticed me at all, so don’t worry about it.”
“That’s difficult to believe.” I shook my head at that.
“That’s nice of you to say.” She answered with another smile. “But it’s true, and thank you. Connie was right, you are a dear.”
I think I actually blushed at that one. “Well, I haven’t been lately, up until recently, anyway. You’ve heard about what happened to me haven’t you?”
“Yes.” This time her nod was accompanied by a serious expression for a moment that faded back into her easy smile. “You’re something of a hero over at NASA, by the way, and from what I’ve heard respected by a lot of Spacers for what you and your co-pilot did. I have it on pretty good authority that few pilots could have maintained any control of their ship at all under like circumstances, and your sacrifices saved billions of lives. That isn’t something to take lightly, Eric. You did good.”
“How would you know all that? Do you work for NASA or something?”
“Something.” She agreed with a smile. “I’m home on leave for a while. I just got finished with a run out to Mars with supplies for the colony there. We even heard about your adventure out there.”
“Space.” I felt a twinge that was an odd combination of jealousy and fear at mention of that.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Reading my expression correctly, Naomi reached out and lightly touched my arm in apology. “I hadn’t meant to bring up painful memories. Really.”
“That’s all right.” I answered slowly, and began to realize that it actually was for a change. “I have to face up to them, and my new reality. It isn’t easy, I feel like my soul has been wrenched out of shape, and I both miss and fear the idea of being out there. Just something I’ll have to deal with and I will.”
“Good for you. But I’m still so sorry. I hadn’t meant to cause you any more pain.” She actually did look contrite while she said that. I believed her.
“Like I said. It’s a problem, but I can handle it.”
“All right.” Nodding she changed the subject. “Do you feel up to taking a walk outside? It’s a lovely day.”
“Sure.” Just let me get my shoes on and check with the desk.
“I’ve already spoken to the charge nurse about the possibility.” With a grin and wink that would have had the most devotedly homosexual man re-evaluating his sexual orientation, she added. “You see, I had this part planned out in advance.”
I was wearing street clothes instead of pajamas, another way for me to get used to living normally, I guess. That and relearning how to get my still clumsy hands and fingers to handle the clothing on my own. Naomi watched without a word as I fumbled the Velcro fastenings on my shoes closed then arose gracefully as I stood and offered me her arm. “Would you mind?”
“Not at all.” I responded, taking her offered arm and secretly grateful for the added balance she had offered me so casually. Her skin was warm and satiny, a real pleasure to even my stunted sense of touch, and I found myself enjoying the contact in a far different way than I would have first anticipated.
In retrospect, I know that I’d had so few human tactile contacts that weren’t professional in nature in that place, the ones that were simply touching for the sake of it were special in a sense that I can’t really describe. If you’ve been there, you understand, if you haven’t, you may never be able to, and odd as it sounds, I almost pity you.
As we walked slowly past the desk, I saw several of the staff give surreptitious thumbs up from the corner of my eye and almost grinned back at them. The ride on the lift was the first thing I’d been on that moved other than gurneys and wheel chairs in months. It was an interesting experience to say the least, especially when the thing changed direction several times. I almost lost my balance during that, but the quiet dignity of my companion instilled something of the same in me. I worked hard at not appearing too clumsy. Naomi noticed, and gave me a small approving smile while giving my arm an encouraging squeeze with her free hand.
Wow, that woman could say volumes without speaking one word. I think I was in love from that moment on, but wouldn’t embarrass her by showing it. Not too much anyway.
Once we were outside, I had to put on a pair of sunglasses against the glare of sunlight, my eyes weren’t at all used to that, but I noticed that she had been right. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, with a light breeze, and somewhere in the mid-seventies. Then, again, with my companion that day, it could have been storming, or blisteringly hot and humid and the day would have still been beautiful. Plus, it was my first time outside the hospital buildings since I’d awakened there.
“You were right.” I told her. “I hadn’t realized how much I missed this. Thanks.”
“Fresh air and sunshine are always good for the soul, and the body.” Naomi agreed softly. “Far too many people take such simple treasures for granted, or ignore them altogether. I think that’s sad, don’t you?”
“Yes I do.” Anyone who spent much time at all in space treasured time in the open air when they could get it, and rarely took it for granted.
“Would you mind if we sat for a while?” She asked, knowing that I was beginning to feel the unaccustomed exercise, but considerately bringing up the subject before I could ask and indicating a park bench nearby.
“Not at all.” I gratefully eased myself onto the bench and was surprised when she sat close beside me with a sigh of her own.
“I’ve been living in reduced Gee for the past few months.” She told me with a grin. “Full gravity takes a little getting used to after that.”
“I know.” Returning her grin and actually feeling good for the first time in recent memory, I simply sat back and enjoyed the breeze as it gently brushed my face with the scents of grass, hyacinth, and a mild salt tang from the distant Atlantic. “I sometimes almost forget just how wonderful something like this is, you know. But it never entirely leaves me.
“I do know what you meant there.” Her expressive green eyes closed as she savored the feel and scents along with me, then began talking. “At times like this I really miss Ireland. It can be such a lovely country in the spring and summer.”
“How long since you’ve been back there?” I questioned, the musical lilt in her voice explained, and I was genuinely curious.
“Years.” Was her soft answer. “I first came to this country as an exchange student, then returned on a student visa for my university education. I haven’t taken citizenship here, but it’s almost become my home since then. I had planned on going back there this trip, but other things came up.”
“I’m sorry.” I felt a pang of remorse, sure that I was at least one of those other things.
“Ah well, I have no family left there to speak of now.” She responded with a quiet sadness I knew masked a profound grief. “Ireland is still plagued with internal violence. My parents were -- killed in a bombing there, while attending church services. I was an only child and they had no living relations either, so I’ve been pretty much left on my own in that respect for a long time.”
“I really am sorry.” I found my arm had remembered how to drape itself across a beautiful woman’s shoulders and she leaned into me in response. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“That’s all right.” Her smile returned, even if it was a bit wistful. “It was a long time ago, and I’ve had time to heal.”
We talked, just talked for a long time on that bench. Oddly, what she did for a living never did come up. I didn’t ask and she didn’t volunteer the information. Not that it mattered to me. We simply shared pleasant conversation. About our lives, our educations, our mutual acquaintance with Connie, and just general things people seem to find interesting when getting to know one another. Work, hers, and my prospects in that weren’t one of the subjects we covered.
“Uh oh.” she looked at her watch and shook her head. “If I don’t get you back inside pretty soon the hospital staff is going to send out a search party and accuse me of kidnapping you.”
“I can think of worse things that could happen to me.” I answered, slowly standing up and working the kinks out of my back and legs. “I wouldn’t fight a kidnapper like you at all.”
“Oh?” With one of her infectious grins, Naomi offered me her arm once again. “I’ll remind you about saying that when I do kidnap you. And I promise you’ll enjoy the experience when I do.”
“I believe you.” A small thrill ran up and down my spine. She’d said when not if. “But maybe we should just arrange it in advance to avoid problems with the police?”
“Oh, you’re no fun.” She teased as we walked towards the doors leading to what had been, until that morning, my whole world. “What? You don’t like a bit of excitement in your life?”
“Trust me, I’ve more than enough of that for a while.” I told her then laughed, a genuinely happy sound that wiped the growing expression of unhappiness on her face at reminding me of painful things away. “Besides, you’re enough excitement for any sane man to handle.”
“You say the nicest things, Eric.” She laughed in response and squeezed my arm again. “I can see why Connie likes you.”
It was amazing. I actually felt good for a change.
I’m sure there was a little bounce in my step as we returned to my room.
More importantly, I was truly willing to try and live life again, on whatever terms it handed me. Meeting Naomi Foster was a major turning point in my life, though at the time I didn’t realize just how important that was.
“Selection for sons instead of daughters, especially in China and third world countries has become a problem that can’t be ignored any longer.” A Chinese government spokesman was quoted as saying. “Having sons assures a continuance of family names and lines. Having daughters will assure the continuance of the Chinese people.”
It is noted here that some experts have previously expressed concern that artificial selection for male babies could eventually breed Humanity to near extinction if current trends continue…
December 27th, 2102 was on a Wednesday, and was another landmark in my life. I was finally released from the hospital that day. For good. No more physical therapy, no more tests, no more of the confinement I had started to feel in the place. It was freedom of a kind that I hadn’t known for some time, and admittedly, the idea was both exhilarating and frightening all at once.
Naomi, a frequent visitor following our first meeting, and Connie were both there for me and with me on that overcast day that threatened rain from Hurricane Helga hovering just off the east coast trying to decide decide whether to move west towards the mainland or go north. Not that I was bothered about that. I was getting back to some kind of independence that day, and it felt good. Really good.
“Ready?” Connie asked as I got out of the wheelchair hospitals still insisted that even outgoing patients use and smelled the air as I picked up my cane and moved away from the doors of what had been my home for months.
“You know it.” I replied then looked at her with concern. “Me staying with you for a while won’t cause problems will it?”
“We’ve been through this conversation before and I won’t endure it again, Eric.” The Hispanic beauty told me. “I have more than enough room, even with Naomi staying there, and until you can find a place of your own it would sure beat living in a hotel. No more arguments out of you about it, ok?”
“Besides,” Naomi favored me with one of her patented ‘melt the guy at forty paces’ smiles. “I’ve gotten kind of attached to you. Having you close by is a real plus in my estimation.”
“All right, all right.” Laughing as I raised my unoccupied hand in surrender, I nodded my thanks to the orderly who had carried my scant belongings down with our little group. “You win, I won’t fight it, ladies.”
“You’re one lucky guy, Lieutenant.” The young man told me with more than a hint of envy in his expression.
“I’m retired now, Larry.” I answered with a shrug. “You can call me Eric like everyone else is going to. I may as well start getting used to that right now.”
“Ok, Eric.” He grinned. “But you’re still one of the luckiest bastards I’ve ever known. Hope you realize that.”
“Oh I do, I do.” In many more ways than being accompanied by two beautiful women. But that was something I rarely talked about in public. The nightmares still came off and on in the night, and I knew they’d never really leave me for good. But I wasn’t going to let that spoil the day. “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me, Larry.”
“Hey, just part of the service, man.”
“Take care of yourself, ok?”
“I’m supposed to be the one saying that to you, Eric.” He replied, then nodded. “But I will. You do the same, ok?”
“Will do.” I knew that would be the case. I had two angels for guardians and they would brook nothing less than that out of me. “Bye.”
There was a real surprise waiting for me at Connie’s place. Four of them to be precise. Claire McBain was waiting there, along with Jack and Dana. But the biggest surprise was seeing my grandmother seated in a comfortable chair and beaming at me. I almost broke down and cried right there, but managed to just be very pleasantly surprised. “Gran! How did they talk you into coming all this way?”
“Your friends are very persuasive, kiddo.” She answered with a wicked grin. “Besides, I haven’t seen you in ages. It’s about time. Come give me a hug.”
I did. More than one. Then did the same with Claire and the kids.
“Welcome back to the living.” Claire softly greeted me as I hugged her.
“Thanks, and you had a hand in that, too.” I replied.
“A small one, maybe, but I plead guilty to the charge.” Laughing, she disengaged herself and gave me a good looking over. “You’re looking a lot better than the last time I saw you.”
“Thanks, I think.” Lifting the intricately carved walnut cane I had been presented by the hospital staff, I asked. “What do you think of my newest fashion statement here?”
“Did you like the card we sent you Uncle Eric?” Dana pushed into the conversation as children will, and I smiled down at her while nodding my head.
“Yes I did. I still have it, and plan on keeping it with me for as long as it holds up. Thanks.”
“Cool!” With that she hugged me tightly, around the waist then turned to her brother. “Aren’t you going to hug Uncle Eric hello, too?”
“Nah.” I told her while giving the boy a wink. “Jack wants to shake hands instead, don’t you?”
“Not today.” His response was serious, and the hug from him the same way. “I’m glad you’re out of the hospital Uncle Eric. Really glad.”
“Thanks, Jack, so am I. It’s good to be out. And to see all of you. I really didn’t expect this.” Truthfully I was starting to choke up again, and you know what? It didn’t feel at all embarrassing. These people were family to me. Grandmother Ilene by blood, the others by association and deeply held friendships. There are times when a man can shed tears and not seem either stupid or maudlin. That day was one of those. A memory I will always cherish and take out for fond examination as long as I live.
It being two days after Christmas Connie’s place was still decorated for the season, with a real tree set in a prominent corner of the living room. I noted a collection of brightly wrapped packages under it in the whirl of activity and found that they were for me.
“But I don’t have anything for all of you.” I protested.
“Don’t be more of an idiot than you already are, boy.” My Grandmother admonished sternly. Then softened that with a smile I had grown up knowing meant she had been almost teasing. But a bit serious at the same time. “You’re alive and with us. That’s a gift all by itself, and more than enough for every one of us here.”
I learned a long time ago not to argue with Grandma Ilene. Doing so tended to be a no win situation at the best of times, so I only nodded in quiet agreement and seated myself in the comfortable easy chair Naomi guided me to.
I received a thick wool sweater from Connie, which got some good natured chuckles given the present climate in Orlando, but I loved it. Besides, it could get chilly even in Florida at that time of year.
There was a small portable vid player and some mini-disks from Jack, it must have set him back at least a month’s allowance to get that, and I was properly appreciative.
Dana’s gift was a simple gold chain to wear around my neck. As I moved to put it on, Claire stopped me. “You should open mine before you do that. They go together.”
“Oh god.” I breathed as I opened the small box she handed me. It was a NASA medallion, an old one from when the agency had been struggling to just survive in a political climate that allowed little room for dreams of space. I could tell from the patina on the polished bronze that it was an original.
“Do you like it?” She questioned anxiously as I stared at the antique in awe.
“Like it?” I asked then ran the chain through the small metal loop the medallion had for that purpose and fastened the chain around my neck. “I may never take it off.”
“My gift will come later.” Naomi promised with a broad and rather suggestive smile that had the kids, and adults in the room giggling.
Last but maybe most important was a heavy package from my Grandmother. I opened to find an old, leather bound book I fondly recalled from my childhood. ”The family Album! Gran, this is something I thought you’d never part with.”
“It’s time and then some that you had it, Eric.” The old lady quietly answered that and waved off any protest I might have made. “I’ve got it all up here in my head, anyway. A person should remember their roots, and carry that remembrance wherever they go. You can pass it along to your children when the time comes. Like I’m passing it to you now.”
“I don’t know what to say.” I told her while carefully paging through the book, which was at least several hundred years old, if not more, with photographs dating all the way back to the mid eighteen hundreds.
“Thank you, Gran would do quite nicely.”
“Thank you Gran.” I dutifully repeated, but I meant each of those three words with more fervor than anything I’d said to anyone in a very long time.
It had been a really good day for all of us. We ate too muchand I even risked a little wine with dinner. Claire had rented a house in Orlando, the Cape was just a little too close to things she was still dealing with, and I found that Grandmother was staying with her during the visit.
“That way we can be sure you’ll drop in for a visit once in awhile.” Claire informed me with a chuckle when I asked about it.
“Like I wouldn’t have anyway?”
“Oh don’t get that beaten puppy dog look, Eric.” She admonished with a smile. “I know you would. It’s just that I have more room for the extra person than Connie does and we aren’t that far away. You could probably walk it in half an hour or so.”
“That’s a good point.” I admitted.
“Damn right it is.”
Like all good times, that one had to end. Eventually Claire rounded up Jack and Dana, then waited for Gran to get ready, and packed them all off. More tearful hugs were exchanged, but these were good ones because we all know we’d be seeing each other again soon.
It had been, as I said, one of the better days I’d had in a long time.
The night was just as good.
Naomi and Connie exchanged little glances that were communicating things a mere man like me couldn’t begin to fathom, then Naomi took my hand and led me out of the living room. “Come on. Time for bed my dear.”
“Uh, I still don’t know which bedroom I’m sleeping in.”
“Tonight you can share mine.” She answered quietly. “If you want to.”
That was an invitation no reasonably healthy male could have turned down without cursing himself for a fool ever after. “If I want to? You had this planned, didn’t you?”
“From the time Connie invited you to stay here.” She confirmed with a wicked little grin.
“Far be it then for the likes of me to ruin such long range planning.”
“Good, I like a man who knows when he’s been outmaneuvered.” she laughed as we entered the room. “Especially when he doesn’t get upset about it.”
“Naomi, no man in his right mind would get upset over being maneuvered into your bedroom.” I affirmed.
“Thank you.” Giving me a half concerned look, she added. “You aren’t too tired for this are you? I wouldn’t want to put too much stress on your poor body the first night you’re out of the hospital, after all.”
“Well, if I am. Just shoot me and put me out of my misery, ok?”
“Oh, I think there are other things I can do. Shooting a perfectly good man is a bit on the extreme side, don’t you think?”
“Depends on what he’s done…” I trailed off as she dropped the dress she had been wearing to show that she had gotten rid of her underwear sometime between the goodbyes and taking my hand in the living room.
Naomi Foster was about the most perfectly formed woman I had ever been privileged to see unclothed. Not that I’m bragging, but I had managed to see a few in that state, given my job and the pay I received for doing it.
Her skin was smooth, shining with health and seeming made to touch. My eyes worked their way up from her small, well shaped feet, to slim ankles curving into smooth calves. Her knees were dimples between those calves and silky looking thighs that continued the wonderful landscape I was traveling. Her pubic hair was the same fiery red as the hair on her scalp and the scent of a healthy, ready female was filling the room and my nose as I just about forced myself to complete the survey. I was not disappointed at all.
Wide outward then inward curve of hip, combined with exquisitely shaped globes of buttocks slimmed into a waist that almost seemed too thin for the rest of her, and her breasts. Firm, proudly standing out from her chest and with nipples erect, they just about called for a hand to caress them. I moved up to her slim neck, then to her quizzically smiling face, and could only close my eyes for a few seconds. “I think I did die in that accident. Because I have got to be in heaven.”
“Only at the gates, love.” she replied throatily. “But I’ll do my best to get you the rest of the way there when you’re finished staring.”
I started fumbling with my clothing and she moved forward to gently pull my hands away. “Let me.”
Like I was going to argue?
Soon enough, but still too slow for me, she had me undressed and gave me a return looking over. I blushed, knowing that I’d gone soft during my months in the hospital and overly conscious of my sagging stomach and softened muscles.
“What? You can stare but get embarrassed when I do?” She questioned with a little chuckle. “A girl likes to examine the goods too, you know.”
“It isn’t that, really.” I answered. It’s just that eleven months in the hospital made me kind of flabby.”
“The part I’m interesting in just now doesn’t look flabby at all.” Naomi grinned as she moved up to press herself up against me. “Mmm. It sure doesn’t feel flabby either.”
She pulled me down on top of her, giggling like a little girl and spread her legs to allow me to explore the country behind that red-gold thatch of pubic hair. I did so slowly, repeating the track my eyes had taken, only this time doing it with my tongue and lips until mine met hers and we locked into a kiss that threatened to pull the little wind I had left out of me then returned it all in the space of a shared breath.
“My turn.” I heard her whisper and her mouth explored my body, stopping at a few interesting places that drew gasps and moans from me that I hadn’t thought were still possible. Especially in the center of my groin.
Her lips tongue and teeth played my member like it was an exotic flute, and by the time she actually allowed me to get off, my testicles hurt from the pent up need. It was incredible. That woman could probably suck a man’s brains out through his cock, then grin and ask if he wanted more.
After that… Well, she opened the gates of heaven and led me through them. Led, nothing, she literally pulled me in after her. I don’t really know how long our bit of heaven lasted that night. I got off a least three more times that I recall, and she had more Orgasms than that.
We lay there tangled in sheets, and each other for a long time after, neither one letting out so much as a whisper until I managed a hoarse. “Thank you.”
“Thank you.” She answered and pulled me over for a lingering kiss. “I’ve been waiting for this since that first day we sat on that bench in the hospital courtyard and talked, you know.”
“Glad to know I made such a good first impression.”
“It wasn’t only that, Eric.” She paused as if considering whether or not to tell me some awful secret. “There was something in you crying out for an anchor, something to hold to and get yourself back into life. I heard that, and it drew me to you as if our meeting had been preordained in some esoteric, mystical book somewhere.”
“I’m glad you listened.” My own answer was slow in coming as well.
“So am I, Eric, so am I” Came her soft response. “Now get some sleep, so I can. I’m exhausted.”
She was exhausted? I hadn’t felt so spent since my early days in trainingfor NASA. I didn’t need to be told again. I spent my first night out of the hospital snuggled with one of the most lovely -- inside as well as out -- women I’ve ever had the privilege to know.
That morning, all right, so it was almost afternoon, when I woke up, Naomi wasn’t in the room, but the sense of her presence still lingered and I contentedly breathed that in for a while before forcing myself to get out of bed.
Following my usual fumbling with my clothing, and a little cursing I’m shamed to admit, I sat on the bed and just looked around the room. It was almost like seeing it for the first time. Well, really it was. The night before I’d been intent on other things. Really intent.
There were a few mementos scattered around the room, photographs, several books, and numerous other odds and ends. One of the photos showed a red headed man who looked to be in around his mid-thirties or early forties who bore a resemblance to Naomi.
I briefly wondered who he was, then dropped the thought. If Naomi wanted me to know, she would tell me, I thought. I wouldn’t pry.
With that thought, I found my cane and left the bedroom in search of breakfast.
Connie was gone, at work for hours already as I really noticed the time. 11:00 A.M. It had been a long time since I’d slept that late. Naomi was there, and had been busy in the kitchen. I caught savory scents of bacon, eggs, and other things I couldn’t readily identify but which still had me salivating in anticipation as I headed towards the sounds coming from there.
“Good morning, sleepyhead!” Hair pulled back and in a long braid down her back, and wearing simple linen slacks and a turquoise tank top, she greeted me as I entered the kitchenthen gave me another of those nerve jangling kisses. “I gather you slept well?”
“Too well. I haven’t slept this late since I was thirteen.” I admitted with a small grin.
“You needed it.” She told me.
“That I did.” My own answer was accompanied with a grin. “I was no virgin coming to you last night, but I still get almost electrical shocks when I think about what we did.”
“Mmm, taste this.” She held out a wooden spoon half filled with steaming broth and gave me an expectant look.
I did, and the subtle combination of spices, beef juices, and something else settled very comfortably over my tongue and palate. I managed to get out a halfway garbled “Good.”
“Glad you approve of it.” Giving me a brilliant smile, she turned back to the stove. “It’s part of the sauce for tonight’s dinner. Stroganov.”
“With real beef?” I questioned, mouth already watering.
“Of course with real beef.” Came the answer with a chuckle. “And real egg noodles to put it on. Stroganov isn’t right without real beef or real egg noodles, the wide, fat ones.”
“With buttered asparagus on the side.” She told me.
“What’s the occasion?
“Does there need to be one?” She asked with a tilt of her head that caused her braid to insolently flip over her shoulder. “I just like to cook.”
“Well, by a happy circumstance I just happen to like eating good cooking.” I raised my eyebrows and leered at her. “Not to mention good cooks who happen to be redheads.”
“Men, never satisfied are you?” Shaking her head in mock despair, she gestured to the oven warmer beside the stove. “There are scrambled eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes in there waiting for you. Get going with them, they won’t keep forever, you know.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. Calling the eggs merely scrambled was a terrible disservice. There were bits of green onion, too many subtly blended spices for my palate to differentiate, small slices of ham, and what I was sure to be real cream in them. Needless to say, I tucked in and within twenty minutes there wasn’t a bit of it left. Sitting there, sated (for food) with a cup of rich, freshly ground Blue Jamaican coffee, I watched her continue to work in the kitchen with the effortless efficiency of someone who had been doing that for a long time.
“This breakfast had to have cost a small fortune.” I told her while patting my now rounded and content stomach. “Not to mention that it was great.”
“Thanks for the compliment.” Naomi gave me a warm smile then shook her head. “As for expenses, I can afford it without even causing my bank account to twitch. I’m picky about the things I use to cook with, so if those ingredients cost a little more, I spend the money to get things right.”
“Me too.” I admitted with a shrug. “I always thought that if I was going to do a meal, it should be done right. Soy and other substitutes just don’t quite make the grade for me when I’m in full ‘chef’ mode.”
“A man after my own heart.” With another of those man melting smiles, she moved to the table and leaned forward to kiss me again. “And to think that he cooks, too.”
“Ok, I deserved that one for the crack I made.” I chuckled then just sat and watched her work her own brand of magic in the kitchen while I enjoyed the marvelous coffee.
Once she was finished with her preparations, I had noticed that she even made her own noodles, she refilled her own cup of coffee, and sat at the table beside me with a very serious expression on her exquisite face. “Eric, I have to talk with you about something regarding me that I haven’t come out and told you yet.”
“Which would be?” I asked, curious, but sure that nothing I would hear could change my mind about her at all.
“Are you familiar with CGC? Care Givers Company, at all?” She asked and my stomach momentarily lurched then righted itself.
“I know that they supply women to spacers on extended voyages.” I answered slowly. “And that they are highly thought of among spacers. Other than that not much, I only did short runs for NASA. Luna was the longest I’d ever done up to the accident in Argonaut. Why?”
“That’s who I work for, Eric.”
“Just ‘oh’?” She questioned while watching me for any reaction, good or bad.
“I’m trying to get my head around that idea just now, Naomi.” I admitted with a shake of that part of my anatomy. “I’m not sure how to react to that. Give me a few minutes, could you please?”
“Take as long as you like.” She offered while studiously not watching my face and body language for reactions.
“Ok, let me put it this way.” I started after a few minutes of mulling things over in my mind. “After having known you for several months, and seeing what kind of person you are, I need to think that Care Givers is more than just a supplier of ‘good times’ for spacers. Is that right?”
“Oh we’re much more than simply those ‘good times’ for spacers, Eric.” She told me quietly. “I myself am rated expert in engineering aimed at space drives, environmental systems, and hydroponics. I also cook, as you know am a pretty good musician with tubular bells, and have a secondary rating as a medical tech. Those ‘good times’ are just part of what Care Givers offers to the spacer community. We’re companions, friends, confidants, psychologists, and capable crew members. CGC is very proud of that, and spacers from here to the orbit of Pluto respect those of us working for the company.”
“Ok, I’ve heard that from others about the company and its employees.” I told her. “What I want to know just now is were you sent to ‘salvage’ me?”
“Oh, good God no!” She retorted with fire growing in those magnificent green eyes. “I’m on leave, Eric. I gravitated to you because I happen to like you, and saw someone who had been hurt, but wasn’t a write off because of that, like so many others seemed to think, including yourself. That’s all. Really. I reluctantly agreed to meet you about the fourth time Connie dinged me about doing it, mostly just to get her off my back. Once I did meet you though, I knew you were someone special who had just caught a monumentally bad break.”
“So you decided to rehabilitate me on your own time?” I asked, with a little bitterness in my voice. “Like a hobby or something?”
“It isn’t like that at all.” She disagreed with a sad look on her face. “I care for you, Eric.”
“Well that isn’t so surprising is it?” I wanted to take that one back the moment it left my mouth, but was already going and finished the thing I had started to say. “It’s your job after all.”
“If that’s what you think.” Naomi shook her head with tears beginning to give a shine to her lovely eyes. “Then this conversation is over.”
“Ok.” With a short nod, I pushed my chair back, took my cane and headed for the front door. “I’m going to go get some exercise. A walk might do me good just now.”
“All right. You do what you need to.” She answered with a small catch in her voice. “Go on, and get your mind settled. I have things to do here, anyway.”
I didn’t even look back as I stalked to the door and slammed my palm against the identifier plate to let it know I was going out and would be back.
I don’t know how long I walked, or hobbled with my cane for support might be more accurate. It was a good length of time, I do know that. By the time I allowed myself to stop and sit on an inviting bench in a local park, I was almost worn out.
The bench, with its view of a lovingly tended flower garden, reminded me of her, and that reminder came with a pang. I’d hurt her, I knew that, and didn’t quite know what I might do to make that better, if I even wanted to.
“Who the Hell are you trying to kid?” I asked myself with more than a little heat. “You damned well know you want to make it better.”
Naomi had been nothing but kind, giving, and encouraging towards my erratic road to recovery in the time I’d know her. Mentally kicking myself for being such an ass, I forced myself to get off the bench and work my way back the way I had come from.
She was in the bedroom, and I could hear things being moved around in there. I knocked on the door and waited for a response.
“What do you want?” Her voice floated the distance between us, and through the closed door.
“Can I come in?”
“Why? So you can make me feel worse?” Her voice was tight and very controlled as it reached my ears and she finished. “Oh, what the hell. Come on in.”
“I’ve been a class A ass.” I told her once I’d entered the room.
“Yes you have.”
“What are you doing?” I could see she was packing her things and that brought a pang to my heart I didn’t really want to think too much about just then. “Is your leave over?”
“I’m packing to leave.” She turned to me with a defiant little lift of her chin. “And no, I still have a month coming to me.”
“Going to Ireland, after all?”
“I don’t know, maybe.” She replied with a shrug.
“So you don’t have any real plans for that other month yet?”
“Good.” I told her while hanging my head a bit and giving my best impression of a naughty little boy who wanted to make amends. “It might take me that long to finish apologizing. If you’ll stay here that is.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“What? The apologizing, or you staying?” I asked with a sheepish grin. “Both, ok. I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted. Provisionally.” She answered while favoring me with that enigmatic look women always seem to reserve for men who are not quite in the dog house, but are way too close for their own comfort.
“Yes, I want you to look at some literature about the Care Givers, and watch a short vid disc I have. If you do that it would explain what I do and what I am a lot more clearly than I seemed to be able to do for you.”
“Ok.” Her hard expression softened and she waved to the burnished alloy cases sitting on the floor of the room. “Those are somewhere in these. Help me unpack?”
Care Givers was founded on the Japanese concept of Geishas. Not the submissive prostitutes most westerners think of those ladies as, but the classical companions. The women trained from an early age to be erudite, well read, accomplished musicians and singers, and to be understanding and loving companions for the men who paid for their services.
Sexual favors were something left to the discretion of the individual lady, and when they decided to bestow that honor on a man, they were quite accomplished.
So it was with Care Givers. The company was founded by a retired Geisha. Specifically by a visionary woman named Mary Yotori, a classically trained, Yokohama Geisha who realized space was going to be the profession where her services would be needed most throughout the next century. She never set a toe in space, but she was a shrewd investor who had amassed a considerable fortune. She hired the best retired spacers, technicians, and corporate managers she could find and launched the company. Its success was indisputable. Care Givers was the foremost personnel supplier in the solar system for space enterprises.
The employees of Care Givers all had what could be considered at minimum, Masters degrees in at least three specialties that involved living and surviving in space. In addition to that, they were superbly trained to ease the tensions a group of males confined in a small area generate. If that easing should involve sexual encounters… well the ladies of CGC were also superbly trained for that.
But the sex was really a minor part of the whole. Care Givers were envisioned as badly needed support for the men in space, and competent backup for crew positions when that was required. The more I read, the more impressed I became. Naomi was a Care Giver, and that was a designation that the ones holding it were justifiably proud to carry.
God, how wrong can a man be and still survive?
I was lucky she hadn’t killed me, or left.
“Impressive.” I told Naomi as I handed the book I’d been reading back to her. “I couldn’t have been more wrong, or stupid. I’m really sorry now.”
“I understand.” Naomi smiled at me, a little wistfully, but it was a smile.
“I do have several questions about the company’s recruiting, if you wouldn’t mind me asking them?”
“I’m not a recruiter, but go ahead and ask.” She told me with an elegant lift of one shoulder meant to be a shrug.
“What exactly is this ‘DeCorvin Process?”
“It was originally intended as a genetic enhancement, to make the company’s employees healthier and extend their time of service, though that was put rather badly.”
“Genetic enhancement.” I nodded. “What exactly does it do?”
“Increases life spans, strengthens the immune system, enhances intelligence, and a few other things.” She hedged.
“I read about some side effects?”
“Well, yes, there are always side effects of some kind with a process like that.” She admitted.
“You’re evading the question here.”
“Yes I am.” With a frown, she stared directly into my eyes. “What are you driving at here?”
“I’m driving at what happens to a genetic male when the process is used on him.”
“Oh.” She began to appear a little uncomfortable, but shook her head, and her intellect, evidently, then nodded. “Yes, there is one major side effect if a male undergoes the process.”
“Which is?” I was being unmerciful in my turn, but this was just too good to pass up even if I would likely pay for my sense of humor later.
“A sex change.” Naomi answered without raising or lowering, her voice. “A genetic male becomes a viable, child bearing, genetic female if he undergoes the process.”
“What do you see?” She eyed me suspiciously, as if knowing she’d been had. “Specifically?”
“You weren’t always a woman, were you?”
“Does it matter that much to you?”
“No.” My answer was a surprise even to me, but on quick examination I discovered it was true. “It doesn’t. I’ve only known you as one of the warmest, most giving, most beautiful women I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. I was just wondering is all.”
“Fair enough.” With a small smile that held a little sadness, she picked up the photograph of the redheaded man I’d seen earlier. “This was me. Twenty years ago.”
“The DeCorvin process also gives the recipient back his youth.”
“Only he’s a she when it’s finished.” I put it.
“Forgive my asking this, and I know I’m already in so deep I’d need a power shovel to get deeper, but why did you do it?”
“That’s the first really good question you’ve asked up to now.” Naomi gave me a long look. “And a fair one.”
“Ok, so what’s the answer?”
“You’re losing points again, fella.”
“Don’t apologize, just listen.” At my silence to that command, she smiled and nodded. “I first met Connie when I came over as a college exchange student. I was nineteen and she was three.”
“As my studies progressed, Connie grew up into a lovely, vivacious, even if somewhat irascible teenager. We had become friends by the time she was four, and that has never changed. When I decided to extend my visa so I could teach at the University of Maryland, she was overjoyed, and wouldn’t go to any school but that for her own higher education.”
“That’s where I met her.” I nodded. “And, I think, you in your old self. Ned Foster wasn’t it? You taught ethics and literature if I recall it correctly.”
“That’s right, and we did meet several times.” Naomi agreed then gave me a nasty little grin. “I thought you were a young man too full of himself for his own good at the time and warned Connie to keep her distance if she was smart.”
“Thanks.” I was beginning to feel worse as this conversation went on, and the woman wasn’t giving me any leeway at all.
“It was the truth then, but you know it as well as I did, and do, Eric. You were unconscionably bright, determined, and much too serious to be really healthy. But Connie liked you. So I figured you had to have something going for you.”
“I appreciate that.” I wryly thanked her then gave her a direct look. “But that doesn’t cover my question, does it?”
“Patience, dear, I’m leading up to that.”
“I kind of thought so.” With another sheepish little grin -- or grimace since I knew I was really in trouble with this lovely lady -- I settled back to listen.
“I was in my early forties, had a liver condition from my lifestyle -- I was an off and on drunk, to be honest -- but had dearly wanted to get into space since I was a kid and read about the Apollo missions. The only way I was going to get there was by imagination, or vicariously through vids and books. I thought. Then I was fortunate enough to meet a very dear lady named Ryoko.”
Making sure I was paying attention, and not sneaking a nap while she talked, Naomi nodded. “Ryoko Watanbe showed me how I was wrecking a pretty good mind, got me off the bottle, loved me no matter how nasty or disagreeable I got, and finally made me an offer.”
“To work for Care Givers?”
“That, yes, but she couched it more like a challenge.” Naomi smiled at a memory I couldn’t reach, but was able to see was one she enjoyed taking out to look at off and on. “Ryoko told me that I could get into space, and even do well once I had.”
“There’s a but in that, isn’t there?”
“Yes, a big one.” Naomi acknowledged. “But to do so, I would have to get rid of my male hang-ups about women, especially women who worked in positions like Care Givers offered.”
I winced at the pointed, no barbed look she gave me on that one.
“Ryoko challenged me to rise above that kind of thing.” Naomi spoke almost dreamily then gave me the full benefit of her vivid green eyes. “And to go out there with her and do something positive for humanity instead of being a drone pouring gruel into the unappreciative mouths of the young who weren’t able to see the beauty of what I had to offer them.”
“So you did?”
“Not right away I didn’t.” The redheaded goddess I had hurt shook her head. “But it got me thinking about a lot of things. Like did I really feel as if I was doing something useful or truly meaningful by standing in front of a classroom filled with bored students taking the class because they had to, and drinking myself to death when I wasn’t doing that? Or was I wasting a life and a good mind that could possibly actually do something to benefit Humanity?”
I nodded, as she had obviously reached a point in the narration that required some acknowledgement, but for once I was bright enough to remain silent.
“I fought myself over those questions for six months.” Naomi smiled tiredly then went on softly. “But the answers I came up with were always the same. I was wasting my time, in most cases, with what I was doing. Not to mention working pretty hard at wasting a life. Mine. I took Ryoko’s challenge, finally.”
“So you went through the DeCorvin process.”
“Not right away.” She answered with a crooked little grin. “I’m Irish, and was as stupidly macho as most Irishmen have ever been. After all, I’d be giving up my precious manhood to fully accept Ryoko’s challenge.”
“So what made you decide to go ahead and do it?”
“To this day, I don’t really know.” Naomi answered honestly. “It had to have been a combination of things that I’d been through and exposed to, but what those were exactly, I still can’t say with any certainty. I just decided to do it.”
“Have you ever regretted the decision?”
“Not once.” She told me after thinking about that for a few seconds. “I’ve had a far richer life, and am happier than ever I imagined possible as a male.”
“All right.” I nodded.
“Don’t think it was easy, though.”
“What, getting used to being a woman?” I asked then winced internally at how I knew that must have sounded. “Sorry, didn’t mean that the way it had to sound.”
“I might forgive you.” Naomi gave me a halfway warm smile. “In about thirty years or so if you keep on being a nice boy, that is.”
“God, I hope so.” It occurred to me that I had all but outright called this lovely, intelligent woman a whore, and I really felt small for that.
“I’ll do my best, really.” I was sincere. I understood now how deeply I had hurt her earlier, and desired to make amends in whatever manner I was able.
“I studied, and worked very hard to become what I am now, Eric.” Naomi told me quietly. “I’m proud of what I am, of what I do, and of the company I work for. I want to make sure you understand that right now.”
“I understand that enough to realize how much I had to have hurt you earlier.” I responded slowly. “I don’t know if I can forgive myself for that, and wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.”
“I’ll keep that in mind as a provisional start for a proper apology.” Naomi let her mouth quirk in a halfway sardonic smile. “And give you the same challenge Ryoko gave me. You think about it for a while, and if you really do want to get back out into space, there is a way.”
“The DeCorvin process and Care Givers.” I whispered.
“Yes. You’d be healthy again, no nerve damage, the process would heal all that, and make you beautiful while it did.” Naomi added. “Think about it. I won’t press you any further than I have already. But when you decide, either way, please let me know.”
“I will, Naomi.” Damn, I had given up on ever getting back out into space, even as useless baggage (read passenger there) and now there was a chance that I could not only get back out there, but could make some kind of real contribution to the race’s future.
But if I did, it would be as a female.
“Umm, is the process reversible?” I questioned.
“Not so far.” She said with a shrug. “The DeCorvin Process uses a combination of nanites, and RNA loaded into a retrovirus that rewrites the genetic code from male to female, of for a female, improves her health wise and rejuvenates her. For some reason no one has been able to determine, the process won’t work at all in reverse. Research is still going on with that, of course, and with the money Care Givers is throwing at it the answer will come out eventually. So far all I’ve heard is speculation that it’s somehow easier to ad a leg to the male Y chromosome, changing it into an X, than it is to subtract that same leg from the female X.”
“Ok, thanks. Oh, one more thing before I stop with the questions here, if you don’t mind?” I watched her grin and nod in a ‘go on’ gesture. “Uhm, are all Care Givers such gorgeous ladies?”
“Those of us who started out male generally are.” Naomi answered slowly. “Like I said, the DeCorvin Process enhances the people it works on. While altering the genetic makeup from male to female it evidently decides that beauty is a desirable survival trait in human females. I’m pretty sure you can figure it out from there, can’t you?”
“Ummm, yeah. I think that’s pretty well clear.” I acknowledged. “Thanks.”
That night I slept on the foldout bed that Connie’s couch became, and was just happy that Naomi was still there, even if not sleeping with me. Given the things I had said, and the way I had acted, I couldn’t blame her at all for being more than a little cool towards me.
“So.” Connie seated herself and stared at me across the polished expanse of a coffee table that would done justice to a formal dining room if the people eating there were to sit on cushions. “What’s going on between you and Naomi? The tension is thick enough to cut with a pair of dull bandage scissors around here.”
“We had a discussion about who she works for.” I told my long time friend. She gave me look out of those expressive brown eyes that was best described as hard when I brought that up. I wasn’t going to tell her about the argument, or my initial reactions. That was something better left between Naomi and myself I thought. “And she gave me a challenge, of sorts.”
“Uh huh.” Connie stared so hard I thought she was peering into my soul for a few seconds before she went on. “Naomi is a very special person, Eric. If you’ve hurt her, I’ll never forgive you.”
That was ground I wasn’t about to cover just then. Instead, I told her what the challenge had been.
“So she wants you look at yourself, inside yourself, and see how badly you want to go back into space.” Connie nodded thoughtfully then added. “About the only that would happen now is through Care Givers, isn’t it?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, after the DeCorvin process, I’d be… I’d be a woman.” I answered.
“And would that be so bad, Eric?” Connie questioned softly. “You’d be healthy again, with a strong immune system, in demand, and attractive. Plus you would be able to make use of those skills you’ve taken so long and worked so hard to get. Truthfully, I don’t think you’re going to do well being Earthbound. Your soul is set on the stars, hon. Think really hard about the possibilities open to you then make your choice. I won’t interfere in it after this.”
“Good.” Connie got out of the chair and nodded. “You make the choice you feel is right for you. Don’t let anyone, or anything, pressure you into something you could hate for the rest of your life. Ok?”
“Connie?” I called as she began to leave the living room. “I don’t know whether I want to go back out there after…”
“Like getting back on a bicycle after you’ve fallen off.” She told me. “Either you will or you won’t do it . That just depends on how badly you want to ride that particular bike. Good night, Eric.”
I didn’t sleep much that night. I was torn between fear of something that had nearly killed me once, and the desire to look that thing in the face and tell it that I hadn’t given up and wouldn’t quit.
In the end, I decided the second case was better. I wasn’t all that thrilled about becoming a female to do it, but deep down I knew that I’d never be at peace with myself, or anyone else, if I didn’t at least try to get back out there.
Oddly, the idea that I would have to do that as a woman didn’t matter all that much in the larger scheme of things. I pretty well made my mind up that night, but decided to let it sit for a while and see if I would find a viable alternative. Not that I really expected to find one, but I needed to give that a chance, too.
Over the next few days I often seemed distracted and more than a little tired. Naomi and Connie both understood my distance, and respected it, leaving me to my own thoughts as I considered my options.
I did have those by then.
I was staring at a small sheaf of printed out mail I had received as Naomi entered the living room and gave me a quizzical look.
“Job offers.” I told her with a wan smile. “University of Maryland, and MIT for teaching positions, NASA has offered a spot as a flight and engineering consultant -- non flying, of course. Two more from news services, and one from a vid publisher wanting to ‘do my story’. I didn’t approach any of these places, they just sent their offers.”
“You are good at what you do, Eric.” The redhead told me then grinned. “Isn’t there one in there you failed to mention?”
“Yes, but I kind of thought you’d know about that one.” I nodded, holding out the one I’d received from Care Givers. “Did you do this one?”
“No, that comes from Dr. Ryoko Watanbe herself. She heads up recruitment and training for the company. She did call me to see if I thought you might be interested, but to answer your question no I didn’t approach CGC for you.”
“Dr. Watanbe’s letter specifically told me I could get back into space, on an active basis, if I took her offer. The terms are very generous, too, for an entry level job.”
“They always are.” Naomi answered with a slow smile. “Care Givers Company takes good care of its employees.”
“I take it you told this Dr. Watanbe that I would be open to the offer?”
“I told her I wasn’t sure, but it wouldn’t hurt to make the offer. You have so many skills, so much expertise, that it would be a waste for you to become a ground hugger. But I didn’t know if you would be interested.”
“Ok. That’s fair enough.” I read the offer again, easily the most lucrative of the ones I’d gotten so far, even the one from NASA that would have given me time in service towards seniority. “For what it’s worth, that is the one I’m leaning towards just now. I just don’t think I’d feel complete being stuck in a job that had me standing on the ground watching things happen in space.”
“So are you going to accept the offer?”
“I don’t know yet, to be honest.” I told her. “I’m not dismissing it, but the idea is still one I’m chewing on here.”
“I understand how that is.” Naomi told me, her green eyes filled with both understanding and sympathy. “I went through pretty much the same things years ago when I was considering the same kind of offer. It is a high price to pay for getting into space, isn’t it?”
“On the surface, yes.” I replied then shrugged. “But the price I’d pay otherwise is higher. With the nerve damage I’ve already suffered, and the stress my internal organs went through there’s a real good chance that even just going through a launch would finish the job and kill me.”
“But you’d almost risk that to get back out there, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I told her, then carefully folded the offer from CGC and put it with the others. “I’m going to give this one more day then I think I’ll be ready to make a decision one way or the other.”
“Don’t rush it, Eric.” She cautioned while placing a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Care Givers was the right choice for me, but it isn’t for everyone.”
“I won’t rush anything, Naomi.” I answered while patting her hand, still on my shoulder, gently. “Truthfully, I haven’t been thinking about much else except our argument since the other day. I said some pretty terrible things to you then, things I really regret now, but that wouldn’t determine the choice I make. I was taught that emotions cloud good judgment and decision making, and in most cases that’s true. Right now, though, I have to take a good look at how I do feel and listen to that instead of intellect.”
Her hand gave my shoulder a squeeze, and she left me to my thoughts.
That afternoon and evening, I visited Claire McBain and My grandmother.
“Well, have you decided on what you might try and do now that you’re out of that hospital?” Gran asked me point blank as we sat around the kitchen table with cups of coffee.
“Almost.” I gave her a tired smile and looked at Claire. “NASA did make me a pretty good offer.
“I knew they would.” Claire nodded thoughtfully then gave me a shrewd, thoughtful look. “But you aren’t going to accept it are you?”
“No.” Shaking my head I added a shrug. “I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself working in Houston, or especially at the Cape. I’d be way too close to the things I loved most about life, and so far away from them that every day would hurt like an open wound.”
“I heard that MIT and U of M made you offers, too.”
“They did.” I nodded. “And the European Space Agency, along with several companies in the private sector. Oh, Trans-vid productions is offering a bunch of money for the exclusive rights to do my story.”
Both women chuckled at my expression over that last one then Gran took my hand in hers and pulled my attention fully to herself. “There’s something here that you aren’t telling us, boy. I could always tell when you were holding something back, or lying. Now what is it?”
“Never could sneak anything past you, Gran.” I agreed with a chuckle of my own. “Yes, I did get another offer. One that if I take it, claims they could actually repair my injuries and get me back out into space.”
“Do you actually believe that?” Claire questioned. “No one you’ve talked with in any specialty held out any real hope for anything like that. You aren’t going to take any experimental treatments are you?”
“No, the process has been proven to work, and used quite a lot with very impressive results. I’ve checked into that already.”
“But you’re still hesitating.” Gran prodded. “Why?”
“Have you ever heard of a company called Care Givers Corporation?” I quietly questioned.
“I don’t think there are many people who haven’t.” Gran answered.
“Then you know they only hire women for their space going enterprises, Don’t you?”
“I thought that might be who you were talking about with the offer that would repair the damage your body has taken.” Claire thoughtfully watched me for a reaction. “But to do that, they’d rewrite your whole genetic makeup and you’d end up…”
“Female.” I finished for her. “Yes, I know.”
“Do you think that’s what you want to do?” Gran questioned softly.
“I’m leaning in that direction.” Was my honest answer. “I just wanted to talk things over with you first.”
“You’ll do what’s best, dear. I know that. You always have.” Smiling at me she nodded. “I could get used to having a granddaughter. Might be a pleasant change from that rambunctious grandson I’ve had to put up with for all these years.”
“I’ve met a few of these Care Givers myself.” Claire put in. “They’ve all struck me as dedicated, intelligent, and well trained people. It was also a pleasure to be around them, they always seem so warm and happy with themselves.”
“So neither of you would think I’d made a stupid decision if I go with this?”
“Face facts boy.” Gran said in firm voice. “I know you well enough by now to wonder how long it would take before you couldn’t stand being stuck on Earth and found a way to get back out there.”
“Then like you just said.” Claire added. “If the launch didn’t kill you something else out there would because of your slowed physical reactions and other internal damage.”
“So.” Gran finished succinctly. “I would much rather have a live granddaughter I could be proud of than a dead fool of a grandson to mourn. I’m too old to be burying grandchildren, Eric.”
“Point taken, Gran.” Holding out my hands in not quite mock surrender, I then gave her a hug. “Thank you.”
“I think Stewart would be happier knowing you were back doing what you always did best, Eric.” Claire softly put in. “While keeping that dream you both shared alive and moving forward. Whatever you choose, I’ll still be your friend, and you’ll still be family.”
“What about the kids?”
“What about them?” Claire asked then shrugged as she smiled. “To them you’re an uncle, I don’t think they’d have a lot of trouble accepting a pretty aunt, and if you go through with this, you would probably be more than just pretty. I’ve never seen an ugly Care Giver, if you know what I mean.”
“I know, I know.” My answer was a little distant as I thought of Naomi.
“Is that what you’re going to do then?” Gran asked point blank.
“I think so. I have a few more things to do before I make my final decision, but talking with the two of you has helped ease some of my worries.”
“You’ll still be you, hon.” Gran chuckled as she tapped my forehead. “Just packaged a little differently is all. Just so long as the you I love is going to be around somewhere and alive. Really alive, I’ll be happy. The you I’m talking about is in here, not the shape it takes.”
We spent the rest of my visit with small talk about mostly inconsequential things. Overall it was a very pleasant afternoon with my Grandmother, and Claire. Jack and Dana had gone to Disney World for the day, but I planned to come back and see them within a few days.
I walked back to Connie’s from there, taking my time and enjoying the warm January day. The sun was going down as I reached the comfortable bungalow and I went straight to the back yard, where I seated myself in a lawn chair and watched the stars come out.
“Stew, I don’t really know where you are now, but I hope it’s out there where you always wanted to be.” I spoke to the night sky and wondering why I was doing it, but knowing I needed the closure it would give me. “I have one real chance at getting back out there where you know I belong better than I do. You always did tell me I was the wanderer of our pair. I’m sorry you aren’t here for me to really talk to, and answer. I miss you buddy. A lot. I’m going to make it, and I’ll just have to hope you understand the way I’m going to do it. I just have to be out there, reaching for things people down here couldn’t begin to really understand. Take care, my friend, and rest easy. I’ll see that Claire and the kids never want for anything they need. No matter where I am.”
I almost felt as if I got an answer to that. I’d never really thought much about where people went, what happened to them when they died. But that night, I truly think my old friend was there with me. Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s what I felt at the time.
“You’re going to freeze sitting out here like that, you know.” Naomi’s voice penetrated my reveries some time later and I became aware of the gooseflesh on my exposed arms, giving a little shiver as I did. “Thought I’d bring this out to you if you’re going to insist on sitting here. Supposed to get down into the thirties tonight.”
“Thanks.” Taking the jacket she offered, I shrugged into it, then gave the night sky with its spangling of stars another look. “They’re never quite as brilliant down here, are they?”
“Atmosphere filters the real light they give.” She agreed.
“That isn’t quite what I meant.”
“I know.” Came her soft answer. “I take it you’ve reached a decision then?”
“Yeah, I have.” Standing I tilted my head to take one more look at the sky. “I belong out there, Naomi. That’s all there is to it. I belong there not here.”
“Yes you do.” Her arm went around my waist and I put mine over her shoulders without thought. Then looked at her. “Am I forgiven, then?”
“Not quite.” Her voice was again full of the warm humor I’d liked about her from the first. “But you’re getting there.”
“What’s going to happen to us when I go ahead with this?” I questioned.
“Oh, so you think there is an us to consider here?”
“I have to admit I probably don’t deserve it.” My answer came out in a whisper. “But I can still hope, can’t I?”
“Yes.” Her own voice was husky. “You can. We’ll both be damned busy out there, but I’m sure we can manage to get together if we really want to do that. Then we’ll just have to see what happens.”
“Guess that’s all I can ask, isn’t it?”
“It’s all any of us can, hon.” She replied pulling herself into my chest and placing a soft, but far from chaste kiss on my mouth. “Now will you please come back inside? Dinner is getting colder than you were.”
I slept with Naomi that night. Really slept. By the time I’d finished dinner, a wonderfully prepared meal I was too tired to really appreciate, and had been again led into the room she was using, it was all I could do just to get undressed and into the bed. I woke once in the night, to feel her arm across my chest and aware of the warmth from her body against my back.
Once my decision had been made, I felt as if some great shadow had lifted from my soul. It was easy enough to send my polite refusals to the offers I had received, along with my appreciation that the senders considered me worthy of approaching.
I called Care Givers, and made an appointment for January 8th, 2103. That gave me all of four days to change my mind about even seeing them, but I didn’t think I would.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Naomi asked once I’d disconnected from the call.
“I made the appointment, didn’t I?”
“Well, yes, but are you certain that it isn’t simply your need to avoid being Earthbound making the decision for you?” Her eyes were filled with concern as she watched me for a reaction. “They’ll ask you this when you interview, you know. If your answer isn’t satisfactory the company won’t accept you even with the qualifications you would bring in once you signed on.”
“Let me put it this way to you.” I sat down on the couch that sometimes doubled as my bed and allowed a second for my thoughts to organize themselves. “I’d noticed something lacking in my life for a while, even before the Argonaut disaster. I’d accomplished all those wonderful things, made it to full Lieutenant, was a pilot and mission commander at thirty-five, and had the respect of my peers. But I had no one to share that with, really. Oh there were my friends, like Stew and his family, and Connie, but no real opportunity to share my success with someone special.”
“All right.” Naomi nodded with a tiny smile on her face. “Go on, I’m listening.”
“Well, I met that someone special when a certain gorgeous redhead came to see me at Armstrong, and found that there were a lot more like her out there, constantly giving and working to make a stable environment for Humanity in the most hostile place imaginable. Following a really bad gaffe with this lady, I had to stop and rethink what it was that I wanted to do with my life, and how I would like to do that. The answer I came up with was a little shocking, but it makes sense in light of the emptiness I’d felt creeping up on me over the past few years.”
“All right. I think I see where this is going, but you finish before I say anything about it.” She was giving me an odd look and there was the hint of an emotion I hadn’t seen there before in those lovely emerald eyes.
“Well, you see, I realized that with Care Givers, I could not only be out there where I truly feel I belong and contributing with my extant skills, I’d also be ensuring the stability of a young culture that I strongly believe is mankind’s best hope for continuance. Being female is far from a liability in that sense, it is a wonderful gift. To not only help explore and stabilize a critical stage in the race’s development, but with the chance to be one of the mothers of a new and forward looking culture. That idea alone is mind boggling and gives me a feeling of contentment I haven’t known for a long, long time.”
“Very eloquent, Eric.” Naomi shook her head and let out a long sigh. “The question I have for you here is quite simple, and you’ll probably get that same one in your interview. Do you honestly feel that this is the right choice for you? Do you feel like you could do several hundred years at minimum with the things you’ve said here? Are you willing to make that kind of commitment knowing that it isn’t going to be close to easy on you, that you will have to make personal sacrifices in love, friendships, and ambition to achieve it?”
“My personal dream is seeing Humanity reach the stars, Naomi.” I told her quietly. “I shared that with Stew McBain, probably the closest friend I’d ever had in my life -- Hell, we had to be close with the things we were expected to do -- and either one of us would have done whatever was necessary to see that goal reached. Stew is gone now, but I’m still here, and I’ll be damned if I won’t do my absolute best to help that dream come to life and be this race’s reality.”
“It’s the only one I have just now.”
“It’s a very fine one, Eric.” Lowering her head a little then looking up at me with shining eyes, she went on. “I knew there was a reason I’d put up with your complaining, and self pity for so long. I’m glad to see that you’ve moved past that and are looking at a future that could add a lot to our efforts to live in space.”
“A person can only feel sorry for himself so long before the self loathing shows up.” I answered her very slowly, careful to get what I wished to say phrased just right. “I felt that point coming and knew that I’d reached the stage where I either did something to change it, or would die. Giving up is not something I’ve ever done before this. That I nearly did makes me feel about three inches tall, and I’ve decided that I’m not going to give up at all. I’ll fight whatever I have to, but I will not give up and let myself die.”
“You’ve convinced me.”
I’d requested that NASA forward my personnel folder to Care Givers, and was informed that would be done. I’d been involved in nothing sensitive, and information that NASA didn’t want people to have was not included in those files, anyway. I also completed the application forms, appending a concise resume, and sent that to CGC as well.
The next day, I received a call from Care Givers. A pretty young woman came on the vid screen when I answered the phone. “May I speak with Eric Chartrand?”
“Hold a moment, please, for identity confirmation.” She responded with a wry little grin. “We have to do that for the protection of prospective employees. I hope you understand.”
“Not a problem.” I watched as she received the confirmation and returned her attention to me with a warm smile.
“Thank you for sending us your application, and having NASA forward your personnel file along, Mr. Chartrand. I’m calling to confirm your appointment on Monday, January 8th at 10:00 A.M. You will be seeing Justine Sterling for your initial interview that day.”
“All right, I have that down in my calendar now, and thanks for calling.” I found myself returning her smile with more warmth than I’d really thought possible through a vid connection. “I’ll look forward to meeting with Ms. Sterling.”
“She is looking forward to meeting you, as well, sir.” The young lady responded with another of those 24 karat smiles. “You have a good day. Bye.”
As the connection closed, I got the feeling that she’d really meant that sentiment, not simply been voicing a platitude.
“I think I will, thanks.” I told the blank screen before turning away to get back to reading through the Care Giver’s literature again when the call came through.
“Are you really going to turn into a girl, Uncle Eric?” Jack questioned with a doubtful look in his eyes that I couldn’t argue with at all. I’d returned to Claire’s specifically to talk with the kids about my decision and what it might mean.
“If I go to work for Care Givers, I will.” My answer was slow, as I watched for reactions from him and Dana. “That is if I am accepted by them.”
“Why?” Was all he asked, and it was a fair question that I needed to give a decent answer to in return.
“Well, you both know that I have problems with getting in and out of chairs, and holding things at times, right?” At their nods, I went on. “That’s something that will not change for the rest of my life. I’ve gotten as much better as I’m going to here, and my physical condition won’t allow me to go back into space like I really want to do.”
“Aren’t there other things you could do here on Earth?” He asked with another dubious look at me. “You’d make a real ugly girl.”
“Thanks, I think.” I answered then added. “Yes there are things I could do down here on Earth, but I wouldn’t be happy with any of them. I’m kind of like a fish in a bowl here. I was made to swim in a lot of water and can’t be happy with myself in that bowl. Or with the bowl, no matter how well people might treat me while I’m there. And I’m told with some authority that I wouldn’t look much like I do now after the process that could heal me and let me out of that bowl.”
“But you’d be a girl?” He asked again, and Dana gave him a not so gentle nudge in the ribs that raised an involuntary smile on my face.
“That isn’t as important as Uncle Eric getting back to the kind of work he loves doing.” She told her older brother with a lot more presence and authority than people thought an eight year old should possess. Unless you knew an eight year old, that is. “You go ahead and do what you need to Uncle Eric. We’ll still love you, even if you are going to be our aunt. But only if you’ll still visit us like you always did before.”
“You know I will, when I can.” I told her honestly.
“But you’ll be all well when you come back?” Jack questioned with a contemplative expression on his ten year old face.
“Yes, I’d be all well, again.”
“Then I think its ok.” He nodded then gave me a wicked little grin. “Even if you’ll be a girl.”
Dana slugged him on the shoulder and things kind of degenerated into a general wrestling match after that. I worked my way clear of it, not wanting to risk falling on either of them and simply watched.
I loved, and love those children as if they were my own. Never more than at that moment, either.
The day of my appointment rolled around without care for any second thoughts I might have had. Not that I had any, but I was still more than a little nervous about the whole thing. Not about either my qualifications or real desire to join the company, but at the thought that something would make them reject my application.
I checked my appearance in the hallway mirror -- it was full length -- once more. My reflection looked almost dapper in the newly purchased gray business suit, with the polished walnut cane in one hand. I noted, with an internal wince, that I hadn’t gotten a haircut for some months, and my blond locks were actually creeping down my back. I gave that mop, Naomi insisted on calling it a mane one more brushing to make sure it was at least presentable, and called the taxi that would take me to the next step in my life. Or at least I hoped that was what this meeting would open up for me.
The Care Givers complex in Orlando was impressive, to put things mildly. The place was on the outskirts of the city, and set in a park like area that had to have covered several acres of ground. The taxi deposited me at the door of the administrative building, a gleaming edifice of white marble and shining glass that rose to a height of twelve floors, unless I had missed one during my initial view of it.
Giving myself a little mental shake to bolster my resolve in this, I entered the reception area and made my way to the central desk. A very pretty young woman greeted me with a wide smile you could tell was genuine. “Hello, welcome to Care Givers Company. What can I do for you, sir?”
“I’m Eric Chartrand.” I answered, returning her smile. “I have an appointment with Justine Sterling.”
“Ahh, yes, I have it right here. Ms. Sterling is expecting you. Take the elevators behind the desk here go to the fifth floor, then to your right. Her office is at the end of that hallway.”
“Thanks.” I left the desk and idly noted that the place was filled with more women in one place than I had ever recalled seeing in my life. All of them appeared quite happy, and were busy with tasks they went at with confidence and verve.
The elevator ride was just that, with the exception that I shared it with more than one lovely lady. I spent the short trip inhaling their perfumes, and just enjoying their presence in as unobtrusive manner as I could.
The fifth floor was obviously executive country. Even the hallways were decorated with an expensive elegance that spoke volumes about the company all by itself. I passed some really beautiful floral arrangements, paintings that were clearly originals from masters in the field, and comfortable looking furniture spaced at convenient intervals between the office doors.
“Wow.” I breathed once I’d reached the office at the end of the hallway. The legend on the frosted glass doors read simply.
Vice President - Recruiting
North American Division.
They were sure starting me with their top representative in the country. I was both flattered and a little surprised at that.
“Hello, may I help you?” a male secretary asked politely as I entered the office.
“Yes, Eric Chartrand to see Justine Sterling.” I answered.
“Ms. Sterling is expecting you, sir.” The young man informed me with a grin. “You can go right on back now.”
I did so, after thanking him, and entered a large, again tastefully furnished office with a superb view of Orlando from a window that occupied an entire wall. A young appearing woman rose from behind a desk where she had been reading something and moved to greet me.
“Eric, I’m so glad you came.” She greeted me with an extended hand. I noted the slenderness of her fingers and the immaculate condition of her nails as I took it. The rest of her was exquisite as well. Standing about five feet four inches, slim but nothing close to skinny, wearing an expensive business suit that did her figure, and legs a great deal of justice, she presented a picture of corporate competence while proclaiming unabashedly that she was a woman. Her oval face contained almost perfectly proportioned features, and was wreathed in a wealth of curling, chestnut hair. There was a flash of amusement in her hazel eyes as she noted my taking all that in. “I’m Justine Sterling.”
“I couldn’t imagine anyone being a no show for an appointment with you, Ms Sterling.” I answered quite honestly.
“You can just call me Justine, if that’s all right with you.” Her low range soprano soothed while it held one’s attention. “We like to keep these opening interviews informal. It’s more comfortable for everyone involved, we’ve found. Is that agreeable? And to answer your question, if that is what it was, yes, you’d be surprised at just how many prospective employees back out at the last minute. I think the grounds and ambience here scares some of them off.”
“Sure, Justine.” I nodded, grinning at the humor in her eyes and the little quirk of her mouth as she told me that. “I can understand how that might happen. Actually being here makes things a little too real, if you know what I’m trying to say.”
“I do, and agree.” Waving me to a comfortable chair then taking one to the side of it, she went on. “We manage to weed out the pure sensation seekers that way, or most of them, anyway.”
We exchanged pleasant small talk for a while and the secretary entered the office and offered coffee to me, then Justine.
“Thank you, James.” Taking a cup herself and gesturing for him to leave the tray and the silver pot that was on it, she returned her attention to me.
“It’s Blue Jamaican, I understand you have a fondness for the brew.”
“One of my favorites.” I answered following an appreciative sip from the translucent china cup.
“Excellent, we do try to make our applicants feel comfortable.” Justine nodded then picked up a thick file folder she had carried over from her desk.
“Now to the business at hand.”
“I’m ready when you are.”
“You have some very impressive credentials here, Eric, and some glowing references.” Flipping through pages in the folder she was looking at, she glanced down then back up to me. “I’m curious as to why you didn’t take the offer NASA made. Would you mind telling me?”
“No, I don’t mind.” Returning her level, intelligent gaze with one of my own that I hoped matched, I started. “First, it was a very generous offer, and truthfully, I considered it carefully. I turned it down for several reasons.
To begin with, my being associated with NASA either in Houston or at The Cape, would have made me miserable because I would be on the ground watching everything from a distance. I couldn’t do that to either myself or them with good conscience. I would want to be out there if I did that, and that’s something I can’t do safely any longer given my physical difficulties.”
“All right, that’s a good answer.” Justine offered me a smile and asked another one. “You had other offers that wouldn’t have taken you back into the aerospace industry, but you turned them down as well. Why is that?”
“You do your research, don’t you?” I ruefully responded, then shrugged. “And you don’t pull punches either. All right, I thought about all those, the teaching positions, the consultant spots in the media and none of them seemed right. To be honest, I just wouldn’t be happy with a Grounder job.”
“I see. Is that why you applied with Care Givers?” She questioned while intently watching me for subtle reactions. “Simply to get yourself back into space?”
“It would appear so on the surface, I suppose.” Framing my answer carefully, I looked directly into her hazel eyes. “But it goes deeper than that for me. I not only want to be out there, I want to be a contributor to what is happening with the emerging spacer culture. I have to honestly tell you that I was becoming restless, even at NASA. Mostly because I had no one to really share that kind of thing with and be comfortable about it. After the Argonaut incident, I discovered that sharing is a good thing, a very good thing in fact, I had a lot of people working very hard to get me back on my feet, and that was pretty intimate in a lot of cases. It had an effect on me I still can’t really define other than to show me that I fell far short of the people working with me during my recovery.”
“Good, but that still doesn’t quite explain your choice to apply with us.”
“I know that.” Frustration surfaced, and though I shoved it back down to the dark hole it belonged in, I know she saw it. “I can’t explain it in words. Not really. I met one of your Care Givers during my recovery and was greatly impressed by her caring, giving nature. It just called to me in a way that simple words can’t quite express.”
“Naomi Foster.” Justine spoke the name and gave me a soft smile of encouragement. “Did you know that she is a ship Mother? A supervisor if you wish to call it that, for other Care Givers aboard a ship?”
“No I didn’t.” With a chuckle, I added. “Though it would make sense to me now that I know more about your company. She’s a natural leader, you know. She sure supervised me.”
“Yes, we do, and value her highly.” Justine agreed with a musical laugh. “I take it our Naomi greatly impressed you?”
“That would be an understatement.” I told her bluntly. “Naomi, meeting and knowing her, showed me a way that I could not only be healed physically, but whole again, if that makes any sense at all.”
“It does, but let me ask you this, Eric.” I felt as if she was reading me as easily as she did the files in her lap. “If you were to be rejected here, what would you do?”
“I’d carry on with my life, and do my best to make whatever contribution I could to Humanity’s future, I suppose. I wouldn’t go suicidal or anything, if that was the question. I’m not that type, and never will be -- I hope.”
“You closed a lot of doors for that when you refused those offers, you know.”
“I know, but doors can be opened up again, or new ones found.”
“Very good, Eric.” Sitting back a moment and watching me, she allowed herself a very broad, warm smile. “You can keep those doors shut. Welcome to Care Givers. We’re very pleased that you chose our door, and that is the truth, dear.”
“Thank you, Justine.”
“You’re more than welcome.” Rising, she indicated that I should do so as well. “Now, would you have time to undergo the preliminary testing, or would it be more convenient for you to schedule that later?”
“Now would be fine, if that’s not a problem.” I struggled to my own feet while I told her that. “I might as well get started with all this.”
“One more question and I’ll have your escort come in. You are aware that there is no reversal of the DeCorvin Process aren’t you?”
“Yes, I’ve talked about that with Naomi at some length.”
“Would that change your mind about going through it?” She asked with a slight tilt of her head. “Now that you know it’s what you’re looking at in the immediate future?”
“Why would it?” I asked with honest puzzlement. “After going through becoming female because of it, why would I even want to go back to what I was? I understood this was something permanent when I applied, and expected that to be the case. So, no, that wouldn’t change my mind one little bit.”
“Excellent.” Leaning towards her office intercom, she called. “Please send in Mr. Chartrand’s escort, James.
You could have pushed me over with a light puff of breath when Naomi entered the office.
I won’t go into the psyche exams other than to say they were rigorous and detailed to the point of making me want to scream at times. I suppose that was part of the testing though. I didn’t find out what they would have done if I had screamed. Didn’t ask either.
Then there were aptitude tests.
“I thought my skills were already pretty well delineated.” I told the lady giving me the test.
“Oh they are.” Came the response. “But you never know. We just might find something else of note with these tests.”
Needless to say, I took the tests without further complaint. Though I won’t go so far as to say it was all that cheerfully.
“Now what?” I tiredly asked a grinning Naomi when I emerged from the testing room.
“You look like the dog that had too many bones to bury all at once, but tried to do it anyway.” She laughed then took my arm. “Nothing else. You’re finished until you come back next week for the process itself.”
“Why in a week?” I had been prepared to undergo it immediately.
“A cooling off period for applicants, so they can gracefully back out if they decide to once they’ve really thought about what being in Care Givers implies for them.” The redhead answered with a smile. “Quite a few actually do back out during that week. It’s an additional screening process for them and us.”
“Well I don’t plan on backing out of this.” My response was more than a bit abrasive, and I regretted my tone of voice at once. “Sorry, but I know what I’m signed on for.”
“Good for you.” Naomi gently led me out the door and to a waiting taxi. “But that extra week also gives us some time, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, yeah. I get it.”
The driver cast envious glances back at me and the redheaded beauty entwined in my arms, but neither of us really were paying attention to much more than each other by then.
The week went past in kind of a blur for me. I got more antsy with each day that passed. Naomi helped with calming me down most of the time, and I did all the reading I could find regarding Care Givers and their roles in the emerging spacer culture. That kept me busy for part of the days, as did visits to and from Claire’s place. The nights, though. I would almost have sworn that I’d died and gone straight to Heaven. In short, my last week as a male was far from uneventful.
Some of my reading also brought up a rather sobering item in the news. A group of Senators had put together a bill they called The Protection of Women Act, to keep the scarce females in the population (about a 7:3 ratio male to female according to the article.) from entering or performing dangerous occupations. Among the occupations listed as dangerous was work in space. Any work in space.
Worse, the PWA as the act was called appeared to have a really good chance of being passed into law. And if that happened, the U.S. would start pressuring the U.N. to make it a worldwide law.
As it was, the timing was more than a little bad for yours truly, but I had made my decision and would stay with it. Personally, I thought the PWA was a smokescreen for a more sinister plan. The newly emerging Spacer culture was showing signs of independence that Mother Earth’s governments didn’t like at all. The Protection of Women Act appeared to be a deliberate try to keep females on Earth, and that would cause problems for the Spacers. If you don’t have females, you can’t breed. Simple biology there. I was very sure the Spacers wouldn’t like that attempt to leash them so firmly to Earth one little bit. Nor would Care Givers.
The implications of that were grimmer the more I thought about them.
When questioned if that statement constituted a threat, Mr. Hastings answered. “Take it any way you like, but passage of that act into law would have repercussions that all of Humanity will feel.”
Mr. Hastings was not available for further comment.
My return to the Care Givers complex was filled with more than a few emotions for me. I was nervous, elated, and anxious to get things going while also feeling as if I was preparing to abandon things that had meant a lot to me over the years. Oh, I knew my manhood would be a thing of the past when I left the complex the next time, and oddly enough that isn’t what was really nagging at me.
My mind had been working at that Protection of Women Act, and its ramifications for several days and I had reached several conclusions that weren’t all that comfortable. First, as a female, if I went into space once the thing passed into law -- and it was pretty clear that it was going to despite the heavy lobbying against the bill by Care Givers and other Spacer concerns -- I would become an outlaw, in principle, anyway. Or I would have to renounce my U.S. Citizenship to avoid that possibility. Not that I wasn’t prepared to go that far if it became necessary, I would do so without hesitation. But if things got that far, once I left Earth for space it would be a very long time before I was able to return safely. That was if I would ever be able to return at all.
I went straight back to the elevators, using the temporary company ID I’d been given once I’d been through the formal interviews and testing, and went to the fifth floor where Naomi and Justine Sterling were waiting for me.
“Good morning, Eric.” Justine greeted me with the sunny smile I had come to believe was a prerequisite for Care Givers, and Naomi gave me an approving little nod of her head. “I’m glad you decided to go through with this.”
“I thought about calling to tell you I’d chickened out here.” I answered with a broad smile of my own. “But slapped myself for even thinking such a thing. Mentally, anyway. So what happens now?”
“Well, we have some questions for you to answer, regarding your new persona that we can go over in my office. Things like what name you’d like to be known by, which musical instrument you want to play, and the dull details of getting your new sex and name into the public records.”
In her spacious office, the three of us were seated with coffee and some very good coffeecake when Justine opened her notebook and gave me an expectant look. “Ready to get started now, Eric?”
“Have you settled on a name for yourself yet?” She questioned while bringing up that section of my file.
“Yes.” I’d considered Ilene, in honor of my Grandmother, but decided on another name that meant a lot more to me. “I’ve decided to use Persephone.”
“Persephone?” Justine typed that into her notebook then glanced up with a questioning expression on her face. “That’s an unusual name. Was it someone you knew once?”
“No, I got it from classical mythology.” My answer was slow, careful to get the whole rationale straight in my own mind as I gave it. “Persephone, Demeter’s daughter.”
“I’m familiar with it.” Justine nodded. “But why that name?”
“Because it fits what I’ve been through up till now.” I told her. “Persephone was taken by Hades for a bride, and had to live in the underworld with him. Demeter hammered out an agreement with the Lord of the Underworld to allow her beloved daughter to return to Earth for six months of the year… But she had to spend the other six in the ancient Greek’s version of Hell.”
“I’ve spent my time in Hell, lately.” I answered with a catch in my voice that almost shamed me. “It’s time I came back up to the living world, though I’ll always carry some of that other place with me no matter where I go, or how long it’s been. Persephone just seems like an appropriate name is all.”
“In that context, it does.” Justine regarded me with something like sympathy for a while then moved on. I noticed the Naomi’s eyes were shining after hearing my explanation, too, so I didn’t feel too badly about my own slightly blurred vision.
“All right, next item.” Justine blinked for a few seconds then briskly continued. “Do you play a musical instrument already? Every Care Giver is expected to know at least one.”
“No. I never really took the time to learn one.”
“Do you have a preference for what you would like to learn?”
“Yes, I do.” With a small, reminiscent smile I nodded. “My great grandmother used to play something called a glass Armonica. Are you familiar with that one?”
“Only that it was invented by Ben Franklin.” Justine told me while searching for information on her notebook. “It isn’t a very common instrument these days, is it?”
“No.” My hopes began to fall for that one, and I began to think of an alternative. “If it would be too difficult to obtain and teach me on, I can come up with another.”
“Nonsense.” Justine smiled as she read over something that had been brought up on her notebook, and the quiet, liquid tones of a glass Armonica emanated from the thing. “We can have one made for you, and find a teacher for this rather unique instrument. Its sound is very lovely, and soothing. That would be a great help in your work as a care Giver. Consider that part done, then. Glass Armonica it shall be for Persephone Chartrand.”
“Thank you.” I couldn’t bring myself to say anything more at that stage. I could still recall the almost haunting beauty of the songs Great Grandmother had called up from hers, even though I had been very young at the time. Taking it as my instrument of choice would, in a way, honor my family and that meant quite a lot to me at the time. And still does.
“Ok, I need for you to sign these consent forms, and the change of name/sex status forms the government insists upon. Then we can get you to the real thing here.”
I read the forms, signed them, filled in the appropriate lines and checked the indicated boxes on the government forms, then handed them all back to Justine. “There you go.”
“Thank you.” Justine added those to the hard copies in the folder sitting on the table, then arose. “Shall we proceed, then?”
“I’m as ready as I’m going to be.” I agreed with a shaky grin. “Is this going to hurt? Just curious is all.”
“Not at all.” Justine laughed gently as she gestured towards the door of her office. “The parts of the process you’ll be conscious for are really quite enjoyable.”
“Normally, when an applicant reaches this stage we have a little ceremony for him.” Justine told me as we progressed down the hallway towards the elevators. “It is to give the man a chance to know what having sex as a male is like before his conversion. But I understand that Mother Naomi has been holding her own ceremonies of that nature with you for some time now?”
“Uhm, yes, I suppose you could put it that way.” I blushed a little and Naomi chuckled.
“Don’t be embarrassed about it, dear.” Justine gave a chuckle of her own. “As a Care Giver, sex is part of what you’ll be doing, and is a matter of pride, not shame, or embarrassment. You’ll discover that as you progress, I’m sure.”
“Oh, I’m sure I will.” I answered with a small laugh. “So I gather that the usual welcoming ceremony is going to be waived in my case?”
“Not so much waived, as already finished.” Justine gave a small nod to Naomi, who gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, then headed off in another direction. “There is one part of it, though, that is a tradition we will not waive. It is important to us as a company to see that this is done for all incoming Personnel.”
“All right.” I followed the woman into a small waiting room, and seated myself, noting that the door leading further inside was the sliding variety, and seemed to be made of paper on thin wooden slats in the Japanese style.
Given that the company had been founded by a retired Geisha, I decided that made a particularly appropriate kind of sense.
Recalling the bits and pieces of Japanese culture that I had learned about, I removed my shoes in advance, thinking that soon, I wouldn’t have to put up with the clumsiness of numb fingers any more. Kind of a stupid thing to think of at the time, I know, but the mind does tend to wander through some rather convoluted corridors at times. I also removed my clothing, except for my shorts, and put on a white silk robe that was draped over another chair, evidently for me to put on.
Three sharp raps came from just beyond the door, and it was gently pulled open to reveal a kneeling Justine wearing a resplendent kimono of sky blue silk embroidered with silver swans and her long hair up in a complicated style and held in place by a pair of chopsticks.
“Please enter, Eric San.” She quietly invited, giving my lack of shoes and the fact that I was wearing the robe an approving look. “And be welcome in our humble house.”
“Thank you.” I quietly answered giving her what I hoped was properly respectful bow in return. “I accept your most gracious invitation with great joy and anticipation.”
Smiling in response, she arose with a rustling swish of silk and gestured for me to follow her. I did so, to find a small table with straw mats on either side of it. On the table was a delicate and very beautiful Japanese tea set, with a steaming silver pot set beside that. Without being told, I awkwardly knelt on the mat facing another door and folded my hands.
“There is one here who wishes to formalize your greeting into our family, Eric San.” Justine almost whispered. “Will you honor her with your permission to do so?”
“It would be my honor to accept her gracious greeting, Justine Sama.” I responded with a slight and sadly clumsy bow from my kneeling posture.
“Ahh, you already know something of the Japanese traditions and culture?” She questioned as she again bowed to me, deeply that time.
“Only what I have managed to read so far, Justine Sama.” I responded with a slight smile. “Enough, I hope, that I will not offend here.”
“Your politeness in the effort speaks very well of you, Eric San.” She replied with another smile. “Ignorance is easily redressed with a willing pupil. Of which I have no doubt you will be.”
“Be assured, I will bend every effort towards being worthy of this honor.” I replied, meaning every word, even if the delivery had been somewhat stilted.
“I am sure you will, Eric San.” Came the answer, then she gestured gracefully towards the door I faced. “One awaits within even now. Will you consent to see her?”
“With great joy.” I actually managed to pull off a halfway graceful half-bow of my own then. “This is a great honor you do me, Justine Sama.”
Without another word, Justine glided to the door I faced, and opened it.
What I saw on the other side made me catch my breath in pleased surprise. Naomi, almost glowing in an emerald green kimono covered with golden orchid embroidery waited on the other side. I had never seen her so beautiful, or so serene, as at that moment.
Rising from her own kneeling posture, after bowing deeply to first me, then Justine, Naomi arose as if lifted by a soft breeze and almost floated to stand at the other side of the small, low table. Standing there in silence for a moment, she gave me another deep bow and questioned. “Would it please you to allow this unworthy supplicant to join you?”
“I am the unworthy one here.” I softly told her then nodded, forgetting my manners and the ritual for a moment. Then I gave her the deepest bow I was capable of at the time and invited. “I would be greatly honored if you would, Naomi San.”
I got through the tea ceremony with subtle prompts from Naomi, and I hoped managed not to disgrace myself in the situation. Once it was finished, she gently took my hand and guided me to my feet, then wordlessly led me into the room I had been facing and closed the door.
There was low bed in the center of the room, a futon I later learned it was called, and various cabinets of lacquered wood with beautiful decorations in gold, silver, and copper.
“I would give you one more time to know the joys of being a man with a woman, if you allow it?” Naomi questioned formally. “It would do me a great honor for you to accept, Eric San.”
As I watched, she pulled at a pair of ties on the kimono and it fell away from her body with the soft hiss of silk against equally soft skin. Did I say that I’d never seen her more beautiful than when beholding her in that kimono. Well I was wrong. Standing there proudly in the nude as her hands pulled the chopsticks from her hair to let it fall around her shoulders and down her slim back, Naomi Foster possessed a beauty combined with quiet, sure majesty, that filled me with a sense of awe I hadn’t felt since the first time I’d seen Earth from orbit.
“I gratefully accept your offer, Naomi San.” I answered almost thickly. With a small, pleased smile, she gently pulled me into the low bed and gave me more joy than I’d ever recalled experiencing in my life. Then did so again. And again.
Standing in a small room with a comfortable looking couch/bed and not much else in my skivvies wasn’t all that embarrassing. I’d been through many physical examinations during my career, and even more during my convalescence from the accident.
The camera trained on me was a little different, as was the teleprompter with the disclaimer I was to make before undergoing the DeCorvin process. Naomi, wearing a pink, and skin tight suit gave me an encouraging nod, and I began reading aloud.
“I am Eric Chartrand, today undergoing the DeCorvin Process as a preliminary to accepting a position with the Care Givers Company. I understand that the DeCorvin Process will alter my body until I am a genetic female, with all of the difficulties my sisters face. I will menstruate every month, and that it will be possible for me to conceive and bear children. I further understand there is no reversal of the procedure I am about to undergo and will live the rest of my life as a woman. I make this choice of my own free will, without hindrance, coercion or threat of repercussion. I understand I can leave at any time without obligation or further consequence. I state now, for the permanent record, that I request both this procedure and my position in the Care Givers Company and I further release said Company from harm or redress of grievance as may arise from this procedure. So stated by me, Eric Chartrand, on Tuesday January 16th, 2103.”
The camera shut down, and I was allowed to sit on the couch/bed arrangement. Then Naomi handed me what appeared to be a chocolate milk shake.
“This is supposed to taste better than the one I had to drink when I underwent the process.” She told me with a quirk of her mouth that approximated a grin. “It’s full of the nanos that will change you.”
I drank it down, not in one gulp, there was lot of it there, and grimaced at the metallic understate. If it actually did taste better than previous versions, I felt a pang of sympathy for anyone who had taken them.
“Ok, now what?”
“We put in the IV feeds, one in each arm thatcontain the RNA that will instruct the nanites on what to do with you. And give you information you’ll need to have as a woman.” One of the techs answered while rolling a pair of IV stands up to the bed. “Now lie back and relax. This part of the process is the most unpleasant part of the whole thing and it isn’t bad at all.”
Having them attach the hose ending in a suction device to my genitals was more than a little embarrassing, so much so, that I barely registered the fact when the needles from the IV feeds were inserted into each arm.
“This will give you a lot of pleasure.” Naomi assured me with a small, knowing smile then added. “Plus save your seed for future use as sperm donations if those are required or requested by anyone.”
“All right. I guess.” My answer was kind of bitten off because the suction device began to work almost right after it was placed.
I can’t even begin to describe what that felt like. Beyond telling you that I went through so many orgasmic moments that I felt as if my brain was going to fry from the overload. The rest of my body was engulfed in tingling, then absolutely electrical jolts of pleasure interspersed with such contented warmth I hoped the feelings would never come to an end.
But, as with all good things… I dropped into unconsciousness with a short protest at being taken from Nirvana so abruptly cut off in mid thought.
I awakened to a familiar voice calling an unfamiliar name. “Persephone, do you hear me?”
“Yes.” Slowly swimming my way back up to a reasonable state of cognizance my eyes focused on the concerned face of Naomi hovering over me. “I hear you.”
“You have a beautiful voice.” The redhead told me with a smile as the entire room snapped back into focus for me.
“Thanks.” I murmured as I tried to move. “Can’t move, though.”
“It’s the restraints.” She offered. “To keep you still so you didn’t pull the needles out. I’ll take them off you now if you like.”
“Please.” I wanted to move, to see if I felt like a whole human being again, and the restraints brought back unpleasant memories of my awakening in Armstrong Center following the shuttle fiasco. But I didn’t tell her that.
Once those were loosened, Naomi helped me to sit up, and I endured another few moments of vertigo that rapidly faded. I looked at her, seated next to me and asked the inevitable question. “So what do I look like?”
“See for yourself.” She answered, putting a large hand mirror into a hand that was a lot slimmer, and lighter complected than I recalled it being before. “I think you’ll be pleased.”
“Oh, my god…” I breathed while staring at my reflection. “That’s me?”
“In all your dubious, at the moment, glory.” Naomi confirmed with a little chuckle.
The face I was staring at, mine, was heart shaped with a small firm chin and smoothly sweeping jaw line with a delicately upturned nose, very well defined cheeks, a cupid’s bow of a mouth, and the most intense ice blue eyes I’d ever seen. All that framed in my still shoulder length hair, though that was now much thicker, softer, and had a shine mine never achieved when I was male. The hair was also a curious shade of white blonde, like the not quite platinum you see on a lot of young children.
I thought it was a mess that would benefit from a good brushing, and that my face would look much better with the right touch of makeup. Those ideas kind of surprised me, but I was still just about arrested by the image I saw in that mirror.
“Yes, wow.” Naomi confirmed, handing me a hairbrush without being asked and smiling at my little grimace when I took it. “You’re a rare beauty, even for a Care Giver, Persephone my friend.”
I began running the brush through my hair, which wasn’t as tangled as I’d feared and then that hit me. “The first thing I thought was that my hair was a mess, then that I’d benefit from a little makeup.”
“The RNA.” She told me with a small laugh. “It gave you the information, the basics anyway, that you need to function as a female and a woman. It is kind of disconcerting right off the bat, isn’t it?”
“That’s no joke.” I answered, finished with brushing my hair and handing the brush back, feeling better about myself as I did.
“Don’t worry too much about it.” The redhead told me. “All that will eventually sink into the background of your usual activities and you won’t even think about it beyond doing what is needed for the normal grooming you’ll need.”
“That’s reassuring.” I replied, marveling at how much lighter my voice sounded even to me. “How does the rest of me look?”
I took that opportunity to have a look. I was slimmer all the way around, and my hip bones literally stuck out, wider in proportion to my body than I was used to seeing. I had small feet that were nearly delicate, just like my slender long fingered hands. I took that chance to actually run one of those hands over my chest and was jolted by the feeling. Not from touching female breasts, I didn’t have any of those yet. But at the ability to feel the softness of my own skin with my own fingers.
“I have feeling in my hands again.” And in my feet, I found as I rubbed them against the carpeted floor.
“The DeCorvin Process repaired all that nerve damage.” Naomi told me with a broad smile. “We told you it would.”
“I know, but hearing that isn’t even close to knowing. Can I stand up?” I gestured to the IV stands still putting things into my arms.
“If you want.” Naomi answered, standing herself and offering a hand to help me up. Her eyes were shining at my absolute joy in the return of sensations I had all but given up on feeling ever again. “Just be careful at first, your balance and gait won’t be the same as you’re used to.”
She was right. That first few steps were one of the biggest adventures I’d had in a long time, but after those, my body and brain seemed to adjust and it was just walking. I was also aware of the difference between my legs. I no longer had those three familiar presences swinging with each movement, and was at least subconsciously aware of a slightly different arrangement inside. Again, that passed into accepted normalcy pretty rapidly.
The full length mirror I approached rather cautiously showed a rather skinny young woman who showed promise of being a real beauty. Even if she did look more like skin and bones at that moment. But even the bones that showed were delicate, and well shaped.
“That’s what the IV drips are doing now.” Naomi told me. “Getting needed nutrients and starches into your system. The Process pretty well devoured the ones you’d had before during the change. You’ll also be eating a lot of high protein and fatty things for a while as you fill out.”
“Well, now that you mention it…” I put in a little sheepishly. “I am kind of hungry.”
“You aren’t quite ready for solid food yet, little sister.” Naomi laughed as she patted my shoulder affectionately. “Lie down, sleep some more, and let the IV feeds do what they’re supposed to.”
“You’re the one who brought up eating.” I grumbled, barely jolted at all by her calling me ‘little sister’. But the things I had done since awakening as a real female had tired me out. “Come to think of it, a nap does sound kind of good just now.”
On my second awakening, the IV needles were gone and I was ravenous.
Naomi was there again, this time with some clothing and a heated tray of food and selection of drinks that looked enormous. I couldn’t decide whether to eat, or get dressed first. Eating won.
I gave the emptied trays -- there had been two of them, one underneath the other -- and the drained cups a halfway wistful look, then sighed. “I never ate that much when I was a guy!”
“You weren’t replacing used nutrients at the rate you are now, either.” Naomi pointed out cheerfully. “You’ll be kind of a pig at mealtimes for some a while yet. Until you get filled out the way you’re supposed to be.”
“Okay, a real little piggy.” She acknowledged with a grin. “It doesn’t really last all that long. Then there’s the second puberty thing for you to experience.”
“Second Pub… oh.”
“Yes, the hormones in your body will start your breasts growing, and get your flow started, too.”
“Oh joy, oh joy.”
“You did sign on for this, you know.” She pointed out with her tongue probing at her cheek. I almost expected to see blood from where she was obviously biting her lip to keep from laughing.
Several days after I’d gone in, I left the Care Givers complex to return to Connie’s place where it was planned for me to spend the next month getting myself adjusted to my new self. The heavy eating had filled in the hollows at my cheeks, and added a cushioning layer of subcutaneous fat to soften the once jutting bones of my newly remade body. Also, my nipples had become very sensitive, and my chest itched almost all the time.
But even without breasts, in the jeans and soft top I wore out of the complex, it was clear to anyone who looked that I was a woman. With the shortage of females in relation to males on the planet I had more or less expected to garner some attention. The outright hungry stares some of the men in Orlando gave me, even in my underdeveloped state were something beyond what I’d prepared myself for, though.
“Relax and enjoy it.” Naomi advised me when I commented on that fact. “And get used to it. You’re an uncommonly lovely young woman, Persephone, even for a Care Giver. You’re going to stand out no matter where you go, and that is going to attract a lot of male attention.”
“Not what’s bothering me.” I muttered while watching yet another group of males eye me and my companion with more than a little lust in their expressions.”
“So what is?”
“Umm, well…” I tried to frame this next one as delicately as I could manage but still blurted it right out. “Some of those guys, when I see them looking at me like that… Well, I get this really warm feeling in my stomach, and my panties get a little -- umm -- damp!”
“Me too.” Naomi laughed as our cab arrived. “Some of them are pretty hot looking, aren’t they?”
“You mean I’m going to feel like this every time some man is looking me over?”
“No, dear.” Naomi soothed as we got into the taxi. “You’re just experiencing the first rush of hormones tuning your mind and body up. Like a teen aged girl first reaching puberty.”
“Oh, now that’s a relief.”
“Oh. My. God!” Connie greeted me as I entered her house.
“Well, I know I look different, and haven’t filled out much yet…”
“No, I meant you’re stunning!” Connie interrupted me then turned to Naomi. “When you said she turned out really good you didn’t mention that she’s damned gorgeous!”
“I wanted you to get the full impact.” Naomi grinned as I went through about seven different shades of blushing. “Persephone here is already turning heads.”
“With good reason.” Connie agreed then turned to face the hallway leading into her living room. “Hey everyone! Look who came home!”
I allowed myself to be led into the living room to see my grandmother, Claire, and the kids all evidently awaiting my return. Connie unnecessarily told them. “Just look at her!”
They were, every one of them, and I found myself blushing all over again. And with my new, lighter coloring, that really showed up.
My grandmother was the first to approach me, and took both my hands in hers while giving me an even more thorough looking over. “Welcome home granddaughter.”
“Thanks, Gran.” I stuttered a bit then found myself returning her wide smile. “Guess I turned out okay, huh?”
“You could use a little more meat on those pretty bones, but yes, I’d say you turned out better than just okay, dear.”
“Umm thanks.” I responded a little shyly.
“I chose a middle name, too, Gran.” I told her quietly then smiled at the expectant tilt of her head in question. “It’s going to be Elise.”
“That was your…” She faltered there a moment, and I took the opportunity to give her a tight hug while whispering. “My mother’s name. I just wanted to remember her, you know?”
“She and your father would be so proud of you, dear.” Gran unashamedly let the tears run down her cheeks while pulling back to look at me more closely. “Thank you.”
“No, I ought to be thanking you.” I told her quietly. “For putting up with me when you’d already raised your own children.”
“Family is a responsibility, dear one.” Gran told me simply. “Your mom and dad weren’t around to put up with you, and I was damned if I’d let some orphanage do that when I could.”
“I know. But thanks all the same.”
Next up was Claire, who took one close look and shook her head. “You clean up real nice, you know that, Persephone?”
“Umm, thanks. I think.”
“Oh, it’s a compliment.” Claire grinned mischievously. “I get the feeling that I’m going to end up jealous of your looks pretty soon here. As if I’m not already.”
“Oh, I don’t think you need to be jealous at all. You are gorgeous, Claire, always have been. I would have made a play for you if you hadn’t been Stew’s wife.”
“I know that. About how you felt towards me.” She added then gave me a wistful little smile. “I had kind of hoped that you would make that play once you’d gotten better, you know.”
“I’m so sorry, Claire.” I told her with more than a little pang in my heart over that. “Had things worked out a little differently, I probably would have done exactly that.”
“I know it.” She gave me a genuine smile. “You made the right choice, Persephone, for yourself, Eric, and everyone else. Don’t regret that. Please.”
“I won’t.” Giving her a hug, I added. “I will not waste this. I promise you.”
“I know you won’t.” Returning my hug and holding it for a few extra moments, she finished. “I knew you wouldn’t from the moment I met Naomi and found she was a Care Giver. You were made for this kind of thing, hon. Even when you were a male.”
“I appreciate you saying that.”
“It’s only the truth.”
Next up were the kids. That was the hardest for me. I had spent more than a little time worrying about how they would accept the new me, even with their assurances from earlier.
“You’re really pretty, Aunt ‘Sephone’.” Dana enthusiastically told me as she hugged me tightly.
“Thanks, sweetie.” I answered while holding her to me for a few seconds. “I was afraid you wouldn’t like me as I am now.”
“That’s silly!” She matter of factly told me with the assurance only an eight year old could bring to a situation. “You told us what was going to happen to you, and you really are a pretty lady. I still love you even now that you’re my aunt instead of my uncle.”
“How does your brother feel about it?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” She giggled. “Jack hasn’t taken his eyes off you since you walked in.”
“I will then.”
Jack was a bit diffident in approaching me, and I opened my arms to him in invitation. He rushed up and just about bowled me over with the impact as he ran into the offered hug.
“Whoa!” I told him with a smile. “What was that?”
“I was afraid you wouldn’t like me as much since you’re a girl now.” He confided as I gave him a harder squeeze. “Because I’m a boy and all…”
“No worries there, Jack.” I answered softly. “I still love you as much as ever. Remember the guy who helped you ride your first bicycle because your dad was off training?”
“Sure.” The boy answered a little hesitantly, then grinned for the first time since he’d seen the new me. “And was Mom ever mad when I ran over her favorite planter.”
“That’s right.” I laughed. The planter in question was wooden miniaturewheel barrow Stew had made for her just after they were married. “She just about killed both of us over that one.”
“Yeah, she was mad for days about that.” He agreed.
“Well, Jack.” I told him with a serious expression. “No matter what I look like now, that guy who got in trouble with you then is still here.
“Ummm.” He still appeared a little uncertain.
“In here.” I tapped my forehead and chest then nodded my assurance at him. “Right in here.”
“Can we play catch and soccer again?” He asked to change a subject he was still having trouble with. “Now that you’re better again?”
“I’d love to, Jack.” I responded, working to hide my tears from him and everyone else for a moment then deciding that was stupid. “Whenever I’m around we can do that for a while.”
“Great!” He responded without a lot of enthusiasm, but it was an answer that showed he was willing. “But you need to talk some more first, don’t you?”
“Yes, I’m afraid I do.” With a laugh I ruffled his hair with one hand, still marveling at the sensations I got from such a simple thing. “But I promise to do that with you later. Okay?”
“Okay.” His response was tossed back from over his shoulder while hebolted off to another part of the room. I think as much to get away from me as anything else.
“He’ll come around.” Claire promised me while watching the troubled expression on my face. “He just lost his second male role model and it’s tough for him.”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “I hadn’t gotten to thinking about that yet. I’m sorry I didn’t work that a little better.”
“You did okay, hon.”
I decided that this girl stuff was going to be harder than I’d first thought, and I was worried about it then.
I awakened that night in a cold sweat with both Naomi and Connie hovering over me with very concerned expressions on their faces.
“Are you all right?” Naomi questioned as I struggled out of the sheets I’d wrapped around myself so tightly that getting loose took more concentration than I could gather at that moment.
“I was back on the Argonaut.” Was about all I could manage to get out.
“That nightmare, again then.” Connie nodded with sympathy in her voice.
“Yes.” I felt like sobbing, with the whole thing still so vividly etched in my mind from the dream. Especially with the final image of Stew saying ‘Goodbye, buddy.’ just before the ship broke up.
Naomi simply held me until my shivering passed and I fell back into a nearly exhausted sleep.
I don’t know whether it was because of the new flux of different hormones rushing through my body, and brain, or what added to that nightmare, but I was in a fairly deep depression for the next day or so that only let go once I was chivvied out of it by Naomi and Connie.
I just about ate Connie out of house and home over the next two weeks. Fortunately, between my own money from before and the money added to my account by Care Givers, I could have quit then and there and never had to worry about money again in my life, even with the penalty fees for pulling out of Care Givers. I bought groceries several times during that period.
“You’re filling out very nicely.” Gran observed during one of her frequent visits.
I glanced down at the swell of my breasts and let out a long sigh. I had gone from nothing to an A cup then jumped to a C without much in the way of warning. “I’ve noticed.”
“Your mother did it that way, too, you know.” She grinned then added. “So did I as did my mother.”
“Developed really quickly once puberty set in.” She responded quite matter of factly, then indicated the pile of groceries I was unloading from their bags and putting away. “We all ate like horses that had gotten into the oat bin, too, while that happened.”
“Really?” I asked then frowned. “Did all of you have cravings for things too? While you were developing, I mean.”
“Yes, at least I did, and so did your mother.” She laughed. “It takes a LOT of energy to fuel what’s happening to you just now, girl. And that needs some pretty specific things off and on. Your body knows what it needs is all.”
“Things like sardines in mustard sauce?” I questioned while opening a can of those and digging in.
“Stranger stuff than that.” She agreed.
“Oh, okay.” I got busy consuming the things, which tasted like the best food I’d ever encountered. But then, everything I developed a craving for tasted that way to me. Even the sourest dill pickles I could find.
“You just eat as you need to, dear.” Gran told me with a chuckle. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“Well it bothers me.” I managed between mouthfuls of food. “I was never this ravenous as Eric.”
“Yes you were.” She laughed at my expression from that comment. “When you were a teenager I actually wondered how I was going to afford feeding you at times, you ate so much, so often.”
“I feel like a teenager right now.” I grumbled to myself.
“That isn’t surprising at all, dear, Persephone. You’re going through things that all teen aged girls do with the onset of puberty.” Gran told me simply, then with a mischievous little grin. “Have you gotten wet in the panty area from just looking at a man yet?”
I couldn’t help myself. I ended up joining in her laughter over that.
Dana’s difficulty with pronouncing my name ended up with my getting a nickname.
“Can I call you Persey?” She asked one day, pronouncing it Per - Zee.
“I suppose you can do that.” I answered with a grin. “Just so I know who it is you’re talking to, that would work fine.”
“Good.” Was her solemn response. “‘Cause I can’t say P’Sephone right.”
Soon enough the adults, including Naomi had picked that up and I resigned myself to the idea that I’d be answering to Persey for the rest of my life.
I was allowed a month following my release from the Care Giver’s complex after undergoing the DeCorvin process. That time was supposed to be for rest, recuperation, and getting my ravenous appetite under control. That last was harder than it sounds. I was always hungry during the first part of that time because my body was busily replacing nutrients, fats, and other things the conversion had used up so prolifligately. The appetite and cravings for odd things like rare liver (yuck) faded gradually and had disappeared completely about halfway through the third week. Probably just as well. Aside from being headed for blimp like proportions had I continued eating like that, I know some of the things (see above) I found myself eating came very close to making my friends and family ill just to look at.
All that eating did have some rather spectacular results, though. By the end of the third week my measurements had pretty well topped out. I turned out to be a 34C - 22 - 36 in the figure department. Which isn’t bad by any definition given my height and slender build. My face had filled out some, too. I finally believed everyone who spent so much time telling me I was beautiful after that. Had I doubted at all, simply watching the reactions of any male who set eyes on me would have erased those in a heartbeat.
“Jack?” I asked the boy one day when we were alone in a room for the first time since I’d returned as Persephone. “You’ve been avoiding me, haven’t you?”
“Oh, sort of.” He admitted quietly while glancing around to see if anyone else was close by.
“No ‘sort of’ to it, Jack.” I answered with a small smile. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know.” He told me with a shrug.
“It’s okay, Jack.” I assured him. “If you’re mad at something, or about something, you can tell me and I won’t be angry with you about it. I promise.”
“Well, it’s just that…” Checking the nearby rooms and satisfied that no one had come closer yet, he shrugged. “I was kind of hoping that you’d maybe be my new Dad…”
“And I went and did this to myself.” I finished with a wave at my changed body.
“I’m sorry, Jack.” I answered while trying to find words that would even come close to helping in this situation and coming up pretty blank. “I was a lot sicker than I looked when I first got out of the hospital, you know. I wouldn’t have been around a lot of times when you needed me because I’d have most likely been back in the hospital a lot at times.”
“I know, Mom told me and Dana that, too.” Jack answered as if he didn’t really believe it yet, but nodded. “She said that you had new eyes and ears, and the medicine to let the doctors put those things in would be making you pretty sick off and on.”
“Anti-rejection drugs.” I nodded in my turn. “Those work by holding someone’s immune system down so the foreign tissue, the eyes and ears in my case, wouldn’t be treated like a cold or the flu in my body. Without those little disease fighters in my body working properly, I would have caught just about every sickness that came along. So, yes, I would have been very ill a lot of the time.”
“And she said that you would probably be in a wheelchair, or have to have some kind of machine built on to you so you could move around later on, too.” Jack gave me a curious, halfway repelled look at that idea as he said it.
“Probably so.” I sighed. “My spinal cord was hurt very badly. You know what that is don’t you? And how it controls a lot of how a person walks uses their arms, hands, and things like that?” At his nod of understanding, I went on. “Well, the way mine was hurt would have never gotten better, and would have gotten a lot worse as time went on. So, yes I’d either have been in a wheelchair, or dependent on something that would have made me look like a half man, half machine eventually.”
“We would have still loved you.”
“I know that, Jack, and you don’t know how much that means to me.” I told him, then without thinking reached out and pulled him into a hug that he didn’t resist at all. “I would have still loved all of you, too. In fact, I still do right now.”
“So none of that bad stuff will happen to you now?”
“No, I’m perfectly healthy again, even better than I was before.”
“But you aren’t my Uncle Eric anymore.” He quietly mourned.
“No, I guess I’m not, am I?” I told him as he settled into my hug for a few moments then worked his way free to look up at me. “But your Father and Mother are still two of the best friends I’ve ever had, and so are you and Dana. That won’t change, Jack. Ever. I’ll always love you three, and miss your Dad a lot. There just isn’t much else I can say there, is there?”
“I still love you, too, even if you’re my aunt instead of my uncle now.” He finally answered, then sighed heavily as he looked up at me and shook his head. “I’ll just have to get used to you being prettier than Mom now and being a girl. I guess it’ll be okay, though. If you’re feeling better now and won’t be sick again.”
“I am feeling a lot better, and I won’t be getting sick like I was again.”
“I swear it. Cross my heart and everything.” I told him almost formally.
“You’ll still play ball, and soccer, and wrestle with me, and all that?” He questioned.
“You bet.” My answer was followed by a laughing, giggling tickle session that left both of us gasping for breath. I won’t say that ten year old Jack didn’t stay a little diffident off and on, but he at least stopped avoiding me after that talk.
Opposition voices questioned if that included keeping women ‘barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen’ but were a minority in the session.
In other news, rioting in Bangkok at the news of the Thai government’s enactment of a law prohibiting birth selection for sons, continued unabated after six days. Looting and arson are ongoing problems that the Thai military has been called in to quell. Reports indicate that rioters are being shot on sight in that city and surrounding areas.
My month was not quite up when I received an almost frantic call from Naomi on Monday February 12th. That date is important, and a black one for both Earth and Spacers.
“Persey!” Naomi closed her eyes for a moment once I’d answered. “Thank God. Get your things together now. You have to get to the complex as soon as you can.”
“The PWA?” I questioned, meaning The Protection of Women Act.
“Yes, Representative Chu pushed it through a month early. It was passed this morning and will be signed into law officially at midnight.”
“Damn them for the fools they are.” Shaking my head in mixed sorrow and anger, I told her. “I can be ready in fifteen minutes. I’m almost completely packed as it is.”
“There will be a car waiting for you.” Naomi gave me a wan smile as she nodded. “ Get to Conference room C on the eighth floor once you arrive. Also, I’m afraid that you can’t take time for goodbyes. I’m sorry.”
“I understand.” I answered. “I’ll be ready when the car gets here.”
The next ten minutes were spent making sure that I did have everything that was important to me packed. The card I’d gotten from the kids, the family album from Gran, a few other keepsakes, and my new clothes. Then I left hasty messages for Connie, Gran, Claire and the kids. By then the sound of a horn out front let me know that it was time to get moving.
I had taken the time to change into my CGC uniform as well. The skin tight pink jumpsuit attracted more than several stares as I loaded my duffle bags into the back seat and piled in after them. Even before I was completely belted in, the driver had kicked in the fans on the hovercar, left the curb and was making the legal speed limit towards the complex.
Following a false start once I’d reached the eighth floor, and was handing my bags over to a young man who promised they would be loaded for transport, I found conference room C. It adjoined a small auditorium that was clearly used for classes with the arrangement of comfortably padded seats that had small desks attached.
“Wow, that was fast.” Naomi told me as I entered the conference room to find her and Justine waiting.
“I was almost completely packed already.” With a shrug, I waved down the hall. Some guy with a cart has already relieved me of my baggage. Hope that’s okay.”
“He was supposed to do that.” Justine nodded then gave me an almost hesitant smile. “I think you’re going to have more than enough distractions as it is soon, without worrying over your bags.”
“Oh?” I looked at both of them then outright asked. “What kind of distractions?”
“Oh, about twenty students looking to you for advice, comfort, and help.” Naomi answered with a slow grin.
“What?” I must have sounded surprised because my response drew concerned looks from both the others.
“Sorry to spring it on you like this, Persephone.” Justine told me with a slightly contrite expression on her face. “We have a problem here, and not enough experienced people to deal with it is all. You have experience with being in a leadership position, dealing with free fall and the other nuances needed to get along in space, plus you’ve flown passenger shuttles with grounders for passengers. Right?”
“True. Though I was co-pilot on those shuttles.” I nodded. “But yes, I do have all those qualifications.”
“We have about forty students and recently converted girls here with US citizenship that have to be gotten off planet before midnight, so CGC won’t be literally breaking the law.” Justine shrugged at that, knowing as well as I did that even getting them off planet, me as well, would not avoid legal complications once the PWA went into effect as a real law. “We have our own small launch facility in the Gulf of Mexico. It uses a linear accelerator to propel the shuttles into low orbit. But the pair of shuttles we have ready to go are too small for the entire bunch of you ladies that we need to get up to Yotori station before midnight. So we’re going to need to break them into two groups with Naomi in charge of one and you with the other.”
“All right.” I agreed without much in the way of hesitation. “Have any of these new girls ever been in space?”
“No.” Justine admitted with a roll of her eyes that was almost comical. “Oh, they’ve been in simulations, but you know as well as I do that such things just aren’t the same as the cold, cruel reality out there.”
“So I’ll be babysitting, more or less.”
“That’s a pretty accurate description of it.” Justine agreed then gave me a concerned look. “That is if you’ll agree to do it.”
“I thought I already had.” Was my simple answer. “I know we’re in a potentially really nasty mess here, and you wouldn’t be asking me to do this if there was someone else available who could. So I’m in.”
“Thanks. This won’t be forgotten, Persephone. I promise you that.” She almost sighed with relief. “I realize that you haven’t gone through the Care Giver part of our training, but Naomi seems to think you might just be a natural for that. It’s your other experience that is prompting me to do this now and not later.”
“Promote you in rank.” She answered, then handed me a small box. “Here you go, Sister Persephone.”
“Sister?” I was dumbfounded. Rankings in Care Givers went: Applicant, Daughter, Sister, Aunt, Mother, Grand Mother, and Great Grand Mother. I’d basically been jumped two full grades, since I wouldn’t have officially been considered an applicant until I returned to begin my classes.
“Yes, that rank will give you a little more credibility with the students.” Naomi put in. “If they see someone with that rank, they will know you represent the really public face of the company, and will trust you.”
“Add to that the simple fact that with your already existing technical skills that you will most likely be out in the more public domains of the company, and also may well be tapped as an extra instructor on Yotori station.” Justine added. “You will of course, be taking the other, standard Care Giver classes, but in technical fields of your expertise, you’ll most likely be teaching others.”
“I know it’s a lot to pile on you just now, dear.” Justine sighed then gave me a halfway mischievous grin. “But I know you’re up to the challenges.”
“I appreciate your confidence.”
“You deserve it, hon.” Naomi answered, then at an affirmative nod from Justine, pushed a notepad across the table. “Have a look at that and you’ll see why we think so.”
I read the information on the pad and lifted an eyebrow at what it told me.
Persephone Chartrand: Master Pilot
Trait Based Primary Specialties:
Also has a high aptitude score for understanding social dynamics in a closed and restrictive environment.
“That’s what all those aptitude tests came up with?” I questioned in something like surprise. “My scores with NASA weren’t that high.”
“The DeCorvin process also increased your native intelligence, dear.” Naomi let me know. “That was allowed for in the original testing, and the follow-ups showed those initial estimations to be correct. Then there was your practical experience in the technical fields to consider.”
“I won’t argue with you about it.” I answered while pushing the pad back to her.
“Good.” Naomi grinned. “It wouldn’t do you any good if you tried. I’ve been a woman longer than you have.”
Well, that was true.
Wearing my Master Pilots wings, a stylized rocket in a circle of onyx and a single diamond for the star the thing was supposedly aimed for, and my Sister’s insignia, a bronze circle around an impressively sized ruby on my uniform, I stood at the front of the auditorium with Naomi and Justine as we watched the students trail in.
Justine did a rapid head count, nodded then clapped her hands together with a startling amount of noise. I nearly jumped when she did that, and it got the attention of her audience. “Ladies! Please take a seat and we can get this going.”
Her vocal projection was superb as she launched into the reasons for this meeting. “I know all of you have heard about the Protection of Women Act that was introduced into both the Senate, and the House last month. Well, I’m sorry to say that it passed in both houses, and will be signed into law by President Norton effective midnight tonight.”
“Since that is the case.” She waited a few moments for the spate of talk her announcement had caused then went on. “We need to get you girls, all U.S citizens, off planet before that deadline or you won’t get off at all.”
“Now I won’t lie to any of you about this.” Justine went on with a grim expression on her lovely face. “Those of you who decide to go off planet -- to Yotori Station -- will be just the same as renouncing your U.S. citizenship when you do, and that is something that will very likely be required later on in an official manner. The company will NOT force any of you to go, but will stand good for any and all legal fees that result from your actions should you decide to stay with the company and work in space.
I will say that each of you represents a sizable investment for the company and we can ill afford to lose any of you.” It was just about awe inspiring, the way her voice filled that auditorium, even with the wonderful acoustics. “Not for the money, though. That is really nothing but pocket change for CGC. It is potential that we’ll lose if you decide to remain on Earth and obey the law of your country.
The DeCorvin Process not only enhanced your immune systems -- as you already know each of you should remain illness free for the rest of your lives, your immune systems would eat any normal bug alive before it had the chance to propagate. You have an extended lifespan -- most of you can now look forward to at least two-hundred years of productive life. Your nervous systems have been boosted, which among other things will give you faster reactions than you used to possess. Plus your native intelligence was increased, sometimes a great deal by the process you underwent to become a Care Giver in the first place.
I’m telling you right here that you ladies sit easily in the top one percentile of the human race.” Justine drew in a breath then went on. “You are among the best and the brightest Humanity has to offer. That would be the loss CGC, and Humanity as a whole without you in space, can ill afford.”
The students shifted in their seats, and a susurrus of muted conversation reached the three of us on the stage then fell to absolute silence as the gathering intently returned its collective attention to Justine.
“As I said, we won’t force you to go, or stay. We have orbital vehicles ready to transport all of you to Yotori Station now and that facility will in turn continue your training with its very competent staff. I am going to confer with my two companions for a while here and give you all a chance to make up your minds if you haven’t already. You have about twenty minutes and I apologize sincerely for not giving you more time than that. But truthfully, more of that isn’t available just now. Those of you who chose to remain on Earth will be offered positions in the company that will not require you to leave. Think carefully here, ladies. Your choices will not only impact your own futures, but possibly that of the entire race.”
With that, she turned to leave the auditorium, with Naomi and me following.
“Wow, you could make a fortune as a motivational speaker.” I told her in admiration once the door between the auditorium and conference room was closed.
“I do.” Justine smiled. “It’s part of my everyday job here.”
“Coffee?” Naomi offered a steaming cup of the brew to Justine, then me.
“That reminds me.” Justine looked at me as she accepted one of the offered cups. “How do you feel about what I just told them out there? I know I didn’t go over all the ramifications with you earlier.”
“Like I said. I’m in.” I answered. “I don’t fit down here and know it. My entire life was aimed at one goal -- getting into space. For a while, after the Argonaut accident, I thought that had been taken away from me forever. Now that I can go back, no law, or show of force I can get past, is going to keep me from going.”
“All right, I was just making sure.” With a nod and smile she sipped at her coffee, as I did.
“No worries there.” I reassured her. “I’d go positively, certifiably nuts if I stayed on Earth when I had the chance to get back out there.”
The rest of our conference consisted of small talk, and drinking the fine coffee the complex supplied.
There were two missing faces when we returned. Those remaining had expressions of determination mixed with trepidation but none of them appeared close to bolting. I felt a surge of pride when we left the conference room twenty minutes later and I saw most of the students who had been there waiting for our return.
“Thank you all.” Justine told them. “Now, I’m going to introduce my companions. This lovely blonde to my left is Sister Persephone Chartrand. She is a Master Pilot, and is probably one of the most competent people Care Givers has at this time in space. If you are in her group and have questions, I’m sure she will be able to answer them for you, plus solve problems as they come up. When she tells you something, I expect all of you to pay attention, the lady will know what she’s talking about.”
I actually fought to keep the blush I felt starting from Happening. With my now lighter complexion one of those really showed up, to my embarrassment. Naomi’s amusement was evident as she watched my, unsuccessful, struggle.
“On my right is Ship Mother Naomi Foster.” Justine introduced the almost giggling minx. “Her own experience is just as extensive as Persephone’s, and the same caveats apply to anything she tells you. I would strongly advise all of you to NOT go against whatever either of these rather remarkable ladies tell you. They are going to be watching over, and out for, you, for some time to come.”
Justine reached to the podium and retrieved a bowl filled with numbered squares of plastic and handed it to me. “Persephone is going to start a bowl filled with numbers at the first row. Each of you take one.”
She could have just as easily told them to form into two equal groups, I thought while moving to start the bowl with a pretty little brunette in the first row. But then my boss wouldn’t have been able to accurately judge my poise in front of my peers. I managed a genuinely encouraging smile to the girl I handed the thing to, then moved to the last row to collect the emptied out bowl once it had made its passage through the assembly.
“So did I pass?” I questioned a still vastly amused Naomi once I’d returned to the stage with the empty bowl.
“You did wonderfully, sweetie.” She replied with a little grin.
“You two planned that part.” I accused.
“Of course we did.” The redhead chuckled. “You did very well, too, I should add. Very dignified, almost serene.”
“I was terrified!” I hissed back to her renewed chuckles.
“Just be yourself, and remember what you are to them.” Naomi advised after her chuckles subsided. “A big sister.”
Great. I’d been female not quite a month myself and suddenly had twenty odd little sisters who would be looking to me for guidance. “Remind me to get even with you for this.”
“You’ll do fine.”
I looked at the twenty-two anxious faces watching me after Justine had divided the group into two and sent one with Naomi and the other with me into separate conference rooms.
“Relax.” I told them all with a grin. “I am not going to eat any of you alive, or demand things from you that you don’t already know. I promise.”
Surprisingly, to me at least, they did. Relax, I mean. Giving them all the best warm smile I had in my inventory at the time, I started again. “First of all, my name is Persephone Chartrand, but you can call me Persey to make things simpler here -- my eight year old niece wasn’t quite able to pronounce my full name and shortened it to that. Needless to say, it stuck.”
My purposefully rueful expression at that brought out the laughter I’d hoped it would, further relaxing my charges. “Now we have a little more time than the other group since we’ll be leaving last, so you’ll all have time to digest the idea of leaving Earth, I know that not many of you have experienced zero G under actual conditions, but simulator time would have given you a pretty fair idea of what to expect from it. I hope that those of you who have actual experience will help those who haven’t when you can. We’re all in this together, and any assistance will be greatly appreciated. Also, please don’t forget to change your shoes once aboard the STOV.”
The provided slippers for Orbital Vehicle transport came with convenient Velcro pads on the soles to match the Velcro mats on the floor. “Unless you actually enjoy floating like a wandering spirit in the cabin.” I added with a grin.
“Do all of you have your basic kits?” I questioned. Some shook their heads in the negative, but I noted that all of those still had IV feeds trailing along with them. “Well, if you don’t, and have just undergone the DeCorvin Process, don’t worry. A basic kit will be provided for you.”
“That’s really all I have to say at the moment.” I told them while checking the chronometer on the wall. “We have about an hour before the atmospheric transport will be available to take us to the launch site. There are coffee, tea, assorted soft drinks, and lots of snacks at the rear of the room. Take advantage of them, please, but I’d advise you all to go easy on the heavier food items there. Nausea is a pretty common effect of the first few times in Zero G, and you all should know what comes with that. I’ll be here to answer questions, or just mingle as the need arises.”
Odd. The responsibility of reassuring those girls was the last thing I would have thought I needed at the time. But it helped settle my own nerves and get me into the role I had been given so suddenly. Lord, I really started feeling like a big sister while answering questions and just talking. It felt good.
Our transport was a conventional, but fast passenger VTOL aircraft that we boarded from a pad in the complex. The trip to the launch facility took less than fifteen minutes and as the VTOL (Vertical takeoff and Landing) got closer to the gravitics stabilized platform alone in the Gulf except for the long, upward curving ramp of the linear accelerator, I saw that the facility had to cover several acres with the hanger and support facilities that were on it, with slightly over twenty miles of takeoff ramp reaching towards the center of the Gulf. Privately, I wondered just what kind of facility CGC considered to be a large one as I watched through the port -- okay, in atmosphere, a window -- while the platform grew in proportion to our decreasing altitude.
As I made sure my charges were settled in an elegantly set up waiting room -- again with a surfeit of snacks and drinks, the entire platform briefly shuddered as the first STOV launched.
My private screen, a brand new notepad Naomi had presented me with before we separated, chimed and a pleasant, if synthetic female voice informed me that our STOV would be ready for boarding in an hour.
“All right, get your kits stowed in the overhead compartments and strap in.” I ordered, once my group had all boarded the STOV. (Surface to Orbit Vehicle)
Satisfied that all were doing exactly that, and feeling like a flight attendant -- which in reality for this launch, I was -- I turned to let the Captain and copilot know everyone was aboard.
“Hello.” The pilot greeted me from the left seat with a smile while he looked over the charms so obviously displayed by my uniform with an approving expression. “I take it that you’re the one shepherding these green horns through the trip?”
“That would be me.” I answered with a wide smile. I’d never really noticed how nice it felt to have a man approving of how one looked up close. Much to my internal surprise I not only liked that I enjoyed it. “Persephone Chartrand.”
“Glad to meet you.” He answered then looked towards his co-pilot, still engaged in pre-launch details. “Watch out for Jake there, though. He’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing.”
I chuckled at that and gave him a questioning look. “I’ll bear that in mind, thanks. But this sheep has a few surprises saved up for a wolf.”
“I don’t doubt that at all.” He laughed then added. “Lucky damned wolf. I’m Wilson Pritchard, and the wolf over there is Jacob Underfeldt. The last name puts the ladies off, I think they worry about how to spell it, you know.”
“Wil,” The copilot entered the conversation, his pre-launch procedures finished. “To be honest, it’s my incomparable charm and presence that scares them off. Hello, Persephone. Nice to meet you. Oh, the LA will be fully charged in fifteen minutes and our tanks are filled.”
“Not bad.” Wil acknowledged. “Giving flight status while hitting on a pretty girl.”
I knew that was true, the pretty girl part, anyway. There was still enough residual male in me to react whenever I looked in a mirror. But, still I was both embarrassed and flattered. “Thanks, Captain. I’d better get back to my kids now.”
“You could have mine any time you want.” Jake told me with a mock leer.
“I’ll keep that in mind, tiger.” I laughed, thinking that he was pretty good looking as I left the command cabin to check on my charges. Sheesh, I’d really fallen into girl mode where males of the species were concerned. Not that it really bothered me. I knew I was a healthy female of the same species, and one that the other side found very attractive. Now let me tell you, that was a rush.
“Okay, everyone.” I called as I emerged into the passenger cabin. “We’ve already had the speech part of this deal, and that’s just as well, since my delivery on that kind of thing leaves a lot to be desired. Please make sure you have your kits in the overheads and that those are securely latched. Then check to make sure you’ve changed into free fall slippers. Trust me, I forgot to check that one on my first trip out and ended up drifting around the cabin until some kind soul took mercy and pulled me back to my couch. That’s really embarrassing, so I’d advise everyone to avoid the possibility. My classmates called me Bubbles until we graduated.”
That drew some laughter from them and I could almost feel some of the tension they were experiencing with the situation fade. It was a start, anyway.
“If you have nausea during free fall, there are receptacles on the rear of the seats in front of you to take care of that. Please use them if at all possible when the need arises. It isn’t very much fun to chase globs of someone’s lunch around the cabin, believe me.” I grimaced at some of those memories, which drew more nervous laughter from my audience.
“There is the up side that if it happened we could always rag whoever did it about whether or not she’s eating healthy stuff or junk.” A well endowed brunette who’s name tag read Carstairs put in. Her comment was met with a chorus of EWWWWs, ICKs, and exaggerated gagging sounds.
“And that Ms. Carstairs.” I answered with a grin. “Is what you get for being such an optimist. Now get yourselves settled, we launch in something less than ten minutes.”
I strapped into my own acceleration couch once I’d made sure my charges were properly settled and that their luggage wouldn’t brain the people in the back of the cabin during launch. I discovered that I had a direct vid and voice link to the command cabin once I’d settled in. Now I really felt like a flight attendant.
”Captain.” I keyed the intercom. “All secure back here.”
“Roger that, Persephone.” Wil’s voice came through the speaker. “Launch in five minutes.”
Another voice, not belonging to either the shuttle crew or ground control broke into the line. “Orbital vehicle Messenger, this is Deputy Inspector Howard Randall of the U.S. Spacecraft and Launch Facility Certification Board ordering you to abort this launch.”
“Ahh, is there a problem, Deputy Inspector?” The captain questioned.
“This is the second launch from this facility within an hour.” The inspector’s voice sounded a little harassed and I could well imagine the cooperation, or lack of it he was getting from control if this wasn’t a legitimate halt for some dangerous malfunction. “That is stretching the limit imposed on LA launch platforms by section XII of the safety code, Captain.”
“We’re a privately owned facility with our own power generation plant, sir.” Pritchard calmly informed the man and I noted that the countdown hadn’t been halted. “And our timing is within compliance with that reg given the capacity of our accelerator. You should find the specs available in the office, and the inspection certificates are all up to date.”
“I was more concerned with the OV and crew.” The bureaucrat smoothly dodged that one, and it became very clear that he was simply trying to stop the launch without any real reason. “I need to go over the last inspection of Messenger and make sure crew rest regulations have been properly observed.”
“Those are on file in the maintenance building, sir. Messenger was inspected four hours ago and found to be flight worthy. All of our OV’s are inspected before and after each flight.”
“That’s all well and good, Captain.” The man went on.
“Captain?” I interrupted on the in-ship link. “This guy is full of it, and simply trying to delay our launch.”
“I know it, Persephone.” Came the response. “You got any ideas to derail him long enough for us to get aloft?”
“I think so.” With a grim chuckle I added. I’ll hit him where it hurts, in the career.”
“Jump on in, Ma’am.” He answered with a short chuckle. “I need to pay attention to the launch sequences, anyway.”
“If I may join this conversation, Deputy Inspector?” I keyed into the general comm. “I might be able to clear some of this up.”
“Who would you be, and what is your concern, Ma’am?” He sounded irritated at my interrupting him.
“I am Sister Persephone Chartrand of Care Givers, sir. And your interference here is endangering not only valuable equipment and equally valuable personnel with you distracting the flight crew, it is interfering with a delicately worked out schedule that my company is very interested in seeing carried out. May I suggest that you examine the documents you’ve been requesting after our launch?”
“I can’t in good conscience allow this launch without first going over those documents, Ms. Chartrand. I insist that you get off this circuit now and stop your attempt to block legal authority in the pursuit of its duty.”
“I see.” The weasel was trying to stop us leaving, with no good reason to back him up. “Then sir, I’m quite certain that my employers will be in contact with yours. Through their lawyers. I imagine you’ll be hearing about that given that you will be named as the chief defendant. I say again, you are jeopardizing a very delicate schedule along with property and personnel valued in the hundreds of millions. Should you continue with this unwarranted interference in a legal and previously cleared launch I will also add my own personal complaints to any my company may choose to bring forward. Now please get the HELL off this frequency and stop harassing my crewmen. Is that clear enough for you Deputy Inspector? If not I’ll be more than happy to continue this conversation from orbit. Good day.”
I closed my connection and turned quickly to my charges. “All set?”
“Launch in thirty seconds, Persephone.” Pritchard’s voice held admiration as he finished, “On my mark… Thirty seconds from -- now.”
“I’ll pass that information to the passengers.” I answered, realizing that I had become a defacto member of the crew as I said it.
“We are cleared for launch.” I announced on the general PA as I checked the countdown on my own screen. “Brace yourselves.”
Thirty seconds after I received the message from Pritchard the force of the linear accelerator pushing the OV to low orbital speeds pressed me back into my couch. I watched with a thrill of returned familiarity as the landscape below shrank into what appeared to be a very well done map, complete with clouds, until the OV’s own engines kicked in to boost our transport into escape velocity.
“Our launch was successful, ladies.” The captain’s voice came over the PA. “And allow me to welcome you to CGC Orbital Airlines. Persephone is available in the passenger cabin to give assistance as needed, and to answer questions. Enjoy your flight, and those of you on the port side have a fine view of Mother Earth clothed in all her blue and white glory. Those of you on the starboard side, feel free to go look. It’s a beautiful sight.”
There was a flurry of snaps and gasps as those on the off side of the view un-strapped and peered through the port side ports. I had to join them. No matter how often I’d seen it, the sight of Earth from space was one of the most beautiful things I have ever beheld. Or ever will. God’s hand is very evident when you see our Mother World from space. She is far more beautiful than the most perfectly formed woman, and once again looking into her real face, I felt as insignificant as I truly was in the scheme of eternity.
That moment was ruined, kind of, when one of the greenhorns didn’t quite make it to the funnel on the seatback in front of her. I, along with several giggling students, spent ten entertaining minutes corralling the globules of her stomach contents so they wouldn’t impact on some innocent victim. Believe me, catching someone’s puke in the face, even in space when it comes towards you as a multi-colored bubble floating like iridescent soap bubbles, is not fun.
“I’m sooo sorry.” The girl who had missed the extraction tube told me, pale and covered with sweat.
“Not to worry.” I assured her with a broad grin. “Your classmates and I had fun seeing what you’d had for lunch.”
At her stricken look once I’d told her that, I chuckled and gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “It happens. You’ll get past it, and laugh about it with your friends later on. I know I did.”
“You got sick?” She asked with real surprise on her delicate face.
“Oh yeah.” I grimaced. “My fellow students knew what I’d had for supper three days before I puked my guts out.”
It was the truth, too. God, I had started loving my job.
“I’m Rebecca Stevens.” She offered once she had stopped laughing. “Just call me Becky. It was my Grandmother’s name.” She told me with a slight flush of embarrassment.
“It’s a beautiful name, for a beautiful girl.” I assured her, taking in her perfect oval of a face and large brown eyes. “My middle name is my mother’s. Elise. I lost her when I was six years old.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Becky answered while giving me a tight hug.
“Thank you.” I returned her hug, thinking that I had found my true calling in life. “My grandmother took me in and I didn’t do so badly.”
“No you didn’t.” She responded then asked. “How did she feel when you joined Care Givers? You were a guy originally weren’t you?”
“Yes I was.” Nodding, I gently released the belts that held her into her couch. “My Grandmother approves, by the way. Now. Let me show you how to get around in zero G.”
She forgot all about being sick after that. I helped another few figure out how to move in free fall, and some others understand that the Velcro on the soles of their slippers would allow them to actually walk down the aisle without floating into the ceiling.
Then there were the ones who had to go to the bathroom. I won’t go into that. Suffice it to say, that a woman trying to pee in zero gee presents some pretty interesting problems for designers of space borne toilets. I’m sure that at least three of the kids I showed how to use the thing had orgasms in the OV’s restroom. Come to think of it, to be honest, I did too. Enhanced nerves… Wow!
We played in free fall for awhile. I just let them get used to the feeling and play whatever harmless pranks a floating person can on another who is still strapped to their seats for a while. They were harmless fun and I could sense my charge’s spirits rising as those went on. Truthfully, I had fun, too. And not all the pranks played were by the greenhorns.
“Persephone, would you please come forward?” The captain’s voice reached me through my intercom.
“On my way, sir.” I answered, loosening my safety belts and rising. Following a quick, last check on my flock, I glided to the command cabin.
“Here, sir.” I announced once the door had hissed closed behind me.
“Good, Master Pilot.” Wil acknowledged then grinned at me. “They should give wings for spreading BS, you really stopped that idiot inspector in his tracks.”
“But that isn’t why I called you up here.” As he gestured at his command controls. “Would you like to take her in?”
“Yes, sir, I would like that very much.” I replied while feeling my fingers and palms itch for the familiar feel of the controls.
“Then the Conn is yours, Pilot Persephone.” He told me, getting out of his seat and offering it to me.
“But the kids…” I suddenly came to my senses and realized I had responsibilities no matter what I would like to do.
“Are buttoned down and comfortable.” Wil answered with a small chuckle. “We’ve been paying attention up here. You did good with them. Now it’s time to stretch those wings of yours, if you’re willing.”
“if?” I grinned. “More like if I can hold myself back.”
“Pilots are like that.” Wil nodded with a smile. “Would you happen to be the same Chartrand who was in command of the Argonaut on her last trip?”
“Yes.” I answered, lowering my head and sure that he would take control of the shuttle back from me.
“Persephone.” His quiet voice, along with his fingertips at my chin gently forcing me to look up penetrated my misery at that admission. “Never, never, be ashamed of what you did on that flight. You and Stewart McBain did everything right, at the right times and in the right combinations. In all my career I’ve known just a handful of people who could have done what you did with that shuttle when things went bad. None of them could have done any better than you did. The telemetry and voice recordings from the command cabin of Argonaut on that last voyage are already part of regular training sims. No one else I have ever met could have brought that ship back into anything approaching a proper re-entry attitude. Your doing that gave McBain time to both unlatch your cargo of ingots and jettison it in a direction that would cause the least damage. You’re a hero, Master Pilot Chartrand, and next time someone asks if you were piloting Argonaut on that trip, you hold your head up, look them in the eye with PRIDE and tell them: Yes I was.”
I couldn’t answer. Being a girl does have its downside at times. I was crying.
“Further,” Wil went on, considerately giving me time to get control of myself. Both I and Jake would be supremely honored if you would take our ship into dock. It will be a story we can tell our grandchildren.”
“Thank you.” I finally replied. “Thank you both. It would be an honor for me, too.”
“Then get your delectable ass into that left seat and DO it.” Wil answered. “I’ll keep track of the kids while you do.”
I did. Wilson Pritchard, and Jacob Underfeldt always have and always will hold a very special place in my heart. I’ve shown them that on occasion, too. I love being a Care Giver.
There was a welcoming party at the dock when we debarked. Naomi, Justine, and the group who had gone up ahead of us were all there. Along with a distinguished Japanese lady in an elegant scarlet kimono. All of them applauded when I emerged from the shuttle.
“You knew Wil was going to do that!” I accused a hugely grinning Naomi.
“Yes we did.” She answered while giving me a tight hug. “It was his idea, but all of us thought it was a wonderful one.”
“God it felt good to be back at the controls.” I admitted.
“Once a pilot, always a pilot.” She laughed.
I got my charges formed up into at least a semblance of order. They also knew the meaning of what had just happened. Wil, damn him, had told them while I was guiding the shuttle into dock. Once that order was established, the Japanese lady stepped forward and honored all of us with a deep bow.
“Welcome to Yotori Station.” Favoring us all with a warm smile, she went on. “I am Rei Yotori, and am most pleased that all of you chose to continue your educations and training here.”
Rei Yotori. The daughter of Mary, our company’s founder, Rei was the current CEO of CGC. I was speechless. As were my charges. All of us were profoundly aware of the honor being done us with that lady’s simple greeting.
“I hope you all will find that we at this station are both eager and able to teach what you hunger to learn.” She went on. “Again, welcome, and I truly regret the circumstances that have brought all of you here at this time, fortunate though that may be for Care Givers and all Spacers.”
“As you all become more acclimated to living here on Yotori Station I am sure that the amenities here, and the teaching facilities, will both please and surprise you.” The lady continued with a smile on her face that radiated good cheer and warmth like a small, but potent sun. “You will, of course, be allowed full use of the first, and expected to make full use of the second. Welcome to our ‘little’ family.”
It suddenly occurred to me that Yotori Station operated on Tokyo time. Which meant that the lady had gotten up in the middle of the night to welcome us personally. I could see some of the others reaching the same understanding and noted the increase of respect in their eyes, faces and postures as they did. I also made a mental note of who they were, thinking they would be the thoughtful ones, just maybe the people to go to with the extra duties I was almost certain I would end up with handing out.
“I see you’re sizing up your flock.” Naomi had edged up to stand beside me and nodded with approval at what I was doing.
“Is it that obvious?” I had hoped that my observations of my fellow students would have gone unnoticed. So much for that.
“Only to someone actually looking for it.” The redhead smiled at me, then chuckled. “Oh, don’t act so disgusted. It’s a good thing, and a habit that will serve you quite well in the future.”
“I’m sure of that.” I answered with a small grimace that changed into a smaller, but genuine smile. “Starting really soon, too, I would imagine.”
“Sooner than you think.” She cheerfully agreed. “But I’ll let Justine brief you on how that will work. Your position here is something unique for us, as you already have all the technical training anyone here could give you for the specialties you’re slated for. We’re still working out what exactly to do with, and for you in that respect.”
“Or to me.” I chuckled despite the sinking feeling that I was soon going to become very, very immersed in the Caregiving side of being a Care Giver.
“Possibly so.” Naomi grinned almost evilly at me. “Come along, Justine wants a word with you in private.”
“So it starts already.” I let out an exaggerated sigh.
“It started when you agreed to shepherd the new girls during the transfer.” Naomi laughed as she gave my arm a light pat. “And you sealed it with your performance on the way up. I have it on very good authority that you made an excellent flight attendant and baby sitter for them.”
“I’ll get Wil and Jake for that. I swear I will.” I promised with mock fierceness.
“A threat I’m sure both gentlemen are greatly looking forward to seeing carried out.” My friend nudged me gently with her elbow.
I actually blushed at that. This lighter complexion of mine can be a real pain at times.
“Now let’s go so you can speak with Justine.”
“Why do I get the impression that wasn’t an honorific?” Naomi narrowed her eyes as we started walking.
“What?” I questioned innocently. “Me being sarcastic with you?”
“Thought so.” She grinned at me. “By the way, nice work with that inspector at the launch site. I can see legends growing around Persephone Chartrand now.”
“He was an idiot trying to make points with his bosses.” I shrugged. “He had no real reason to hold up the launch. I just told him that. Sort of.”
“Ah, but it’s that lovely little sort of that makes the story so good, dear.” She laughed. “I hear the weasel was scurrying around getting signatures on affidavits saying he’d done his best to stop the launch.”
“Really?” I raised an eyebrow at that.
“Really.” She chuckled. “The facility staff signed them of course, while filling out their own complaint forms to send in with the affidavits.”
“Now that, I’d pay real money to have seen.” I had to suppress a giggle, of all things. Did I mention that this girl stuff can be kind of embarrassing until you get used to it? If not, consider it done now.
Justine was waiting in an elegantly appointed room that I later learned was the sitting room/lounge area of her apartments on Yotori Station. One other was waiting with her, and both Naomi and I bowed deeply as we recognized Rei Yotori.
“Welcome to our family, Persephone-san.” She greeted me with a soft voiced confidence that made one know she was a lady who usually got what she wanted. With a smile she added. “It seems that you are already one of our firebrands, young lady.”
“First, Thank you Yotori-Sama. I am truly honored that you have taken time from your sleep to meet with me personally, and apologize for the inconvenience to you for the hour.” I answered, flushing a bit -- I felt the heat rise in my cheeks -- at the ‘firebrand’ comment.
“Apologies are not necessary, Persephone-san.” She chuckled and waved my beginning protests aside. “I have lost a night’s sleep for lesser things. Allow me to congratulate you on aiding our second SOTV to launch on Schedule. That was masterfully, if a bit rudely done.”
“That inspector was just trying to keep us from leaving.” I answered quietly. “He had no true reason but self aggrandizement for doing so. I know the business, Yotori-Sama, and knew if there had been a truly urgent reason for aborting the launch, control would have informed us. I merely suggested that he check the pertinent records at a more convenient time and stop endangering the crew, passengers, and vehicle with his self serving interference.”
“And to get the HELL off that frequency and stop annoying your crew.” Rei added with a real laugh. “I like you already Persephone-San. A truly good Care Giver must have fire and steel in her soul, as you clearly do. You did well.”
“Thank you, Yotori-Sama.” I answered with another deep bow of respect. Even in that situation, I registered how gracefully, and easily I managed such an action and my spirits soared. “I will do my best to bring honor to this company, and all Care Givers.”
“I am sure you will.” She responded softly. “These are becoming difficult times, Persephone-San. We will need Care Givers with strength and compassion in the days to come. I think you possess both in generous measure. I will take my leave of you now, an old woman does require some sleep at times. Justine-San has a few things to go over with you before you settle into your quarters and get some well deserved rest. Please forgive the inconvenient timing of this, but we feel it is necessary.”
“It is no inconvenience, Yotori-Sama.” I assured with another bow. Privately, I wondered if I would be able to keep up these good manners all the time, and a small, niggling, giggling part of me said probably not. But I was determined to try.
The Lady glided out after bows and hugs for all of us there, and I suddenly felt very privileged to have met her in that way.
Justine watched the door for a few seconds following Rei’s departure, shook her head, then turned back to me with a smile. “I think you impressed her, Persey. Would you care for some refreshment before we get to business?”
I accepted a delicately blown goblet of a very rich and heady red wine while Naomi choose a white. Justine took some of the red herself then gestured for us to take seats around a small table.
“That incident in the Gulf is probably going to become something of a legend, you know.” She told me with a teasing smile and chuckle. “I don’t believe a new Care Giver has ever made such an impression on so many in such a short time, dear.”
“I don’t wish to be a legend, Justine.” I answered slowly, knowing I was blushing again. Damn this lighter complexion! And shrugged. “I simply wish to be good at what I do.”
“An admirable goal in life.” She nodded while sipping at her wine and giving me a look that said I really should try mine. “If your performance with the new girls on the shuttle is any indication, you should manage that one without a lot of difficulty.”
“I just put them at ease.” I answered. “They had enough to worry about without me hovering like some stern, humorless creature expecting them to be something they had no experience with.”
“You have good instincts.” She answered as I finally sipped at my own wine, and gave her a surprised smile of pleasure at the smoky, tart flavor that greeted my palate. “And use them well. Your crew speaks very highly of your capabilities.”
“Oh, that.” I grimaced. “It just kind of came out when I was talking with that idiot is all.”
“Persephone.” Justine gently told me. “At that moment, Captain Pritchard and First Officer Underfeldt became your crew. Quite happily, I might add, from their preliminary reports.”
“Ok, what are you driving at?” I finally questioned after a bit of thought and another sip of that fabulous wine. “Not to be intentionally rude, but this is heading somewhere, and we may as well get there now.”
“Of course it is.” Justine chuckled, Naomi grinned, and I had the feeling that I’d been had for sure. “You are a natural leader, girl. People you come into contact with seem to look at you and expect the answers they need.”
“They would be wrong.” I told her simply. “I’m still learning about this girl stuff, and everything else involved with Care Givers.”
“That doesn’t matter at this stage.” Naomi put in quietly, but forcefully. “You project that kind of confidence and ease with what you are. People are going to respond, in a positive manner, to that. Some already have, in point of fact.”
“So what are you leading up to here?” I questioned with a lift of one eyebrow.
“We would like for you to serve as a de-facto Mother for the new recruits who came up with us today.” Justine answered.
I almost dropped my wine I was so surprised. “What? I’m not qualified to do something like that, and you know it.”
“Yes. You. Are.” Justine disagreed. “You have all the technical expertise needed to help the new girls through that part of their training. Any question they ask regarding that, you should be able to either answer immediately or find the answer in minutes.”
“That’s the tech stuff.” I pointed out with a shake of my head. “I don’t know diddly squat about Mothering.”
“You’re wrong there, dear.” Naomi interrupted again. “You handled those girls on your STOV like a pro, and they responded to your warmth and kindness.”
“Naomi, I am a pro with that kind of thing.” I answered in exasperation. “I was a co-pilot on passenger shuttles for years. Of course I would know how to handle people, especially inexperienced ones, in that sort of surroundings. This kind of thing is different.”
“How would that be?” Justine asked in a drawl that told me was amused.
“This is a Station.” I insisted. “Those girls are going to need more than someone who knows how to play host -- or hostess, now. To get them through their training.”
“It is not different, Persephone.” Justine quietly informed me. “They will be uncertain, in need of support, assistance at times, and someone they truly like to turn to in their times of difficulty. That is no different than what you did on the STOV, only for a longer term. You can do it.”
Now, maybe you can argue effectively against two determined women who have decided that there is something that needs doing and you’re the one to do it. Whoever you are, please get in touch with me. I’d love to learn how it’s done.
“What about my own training?” I asked, looking for an out that wasn’t going to come.
“You won’t be needing the tech stuff, which is the largest part of the first year or so.” Naomi answered with a grin. “I’ll give you some personal tutoring on Personal Intimacy -- something I’m sure you’re anxious to try out already from the way you looked at Wil Pritchard and Jacob Underfeldt while debarking from the STOV.”
I blushed again. This light Peaches and Cream complexion I have is a real plus in attracting guys, but it’s sure a problem when I get embarrassed or angry. “Ok. So what about my musical training?”
“Persey, you’ve chosen an instrument that no one among us plays.” Justine told me with a smug little smile. “We have an instructor coming up next week to teach you -- yes, that’s how well we think of you -- and those lessons will be one on one. Anything else you’d care to try objecting with?”
“Guess not.” I held my arms straight up and gave them both a rueful grin. “Ok, don’t shoot any more. I’ll come quietly.”
“Good.” Justine nodded while Naomi simply grinned in feminine triumph. Later I would learn to do that, too, and discover how great it felt. Then, I just wanted to strangle her. Cheerfully, but still strangle her. “There is an upside to all this you know.”
“Oh?” I sighed, ready for another whammy.
“You get a private apartment instead of having to live in the barracks.” Justine grinned. “Although it is adjacent to the barracks.”
“Look, I’ve already told you two that I surrender.”
“Good.” Naomi nodded her head in satisfaction. “But trust me, you’ll love this apartment.”
I kind of doubted that, but wasn’t about to argue the point. I’d already lost, and saw no good reason for turning that into a total rout.
President Norton formally signed the Protection of Women Act at midnight EST, bringing the often controversial bill into the status of law in the United States. Ratification is thought to be a formality as those opposing the bill are in the minority of both House and Senate.
The President announced a period of yet to be disclosed duration that will give amnesty to any U.S. female citizens in space to return home without being charged with violating the new law. A general feeling of satisfaction was expressed by members of both Houses and the Judicial branch at the almost assured passage of The PWA into law.
In a related incident, it was disclosed that Care Givers Company -- the largest single employer of Genetic Females in space -- sent over forty young women to Yotori Station, the company’s home base in space, just before the PWA was signed into law. All are said to be U.S. citizens.
In a vid interview from Yotori Station, Rei Yotori, CEO and President of Care Givers Company was quoted as telling reporters. “My company has broken no laws to this date. Any U.S. citizens in our employ will be given the options of either returning to Earth, or remaining in space. We will not coerce them into either decision. Care Givers provides a unique and greatly needed service in space and we will not compromise that by arbitrarily ordering any employees of whatever national origin to return to Earth. In compliance with the new law, our training facility in Orlando will no longer accept U.S. residents as students.”
It should be noted that Care givers also has training facilities in Tokyo and Frankfurt. When asked if those would observe the same restrictions as their sister facility in Florida, Ms. Yotori commented. “Our facilities in Tokyo, Frankfurt, and on Yotori Station will continue training as has been our practice since the company’s inception.”
When questioned further, Yotori refused more comment on the questions.
The apartment was impressive. A sitting room, a comfortably sized office area with a door leading to the barracks, and the bedroom… Well, let me just say, that I would be able to -- umm -- entertain -- without any worries over the surroundings or amenities available.
I took the time to place some calls to Earth once I’d gotten my things into the apartment.
“Are you on Yotori station?” Gran questioned after we’d exchanged hellos.
“Yes, Gran, I am.” I shrugged then gave her a sad look as I continued. ”I had to come here. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been able to leave at all. I’m sorry I won’t be able to visit in the near future.”
“I understand, dear.” The old woman nodded and grinned at me. “You just do well out there. We’ll just have to wait this insanity out for a while. It will blow over eventually.”
“I hope so.” My answer was doubtful. “Just remember that I love you, even if I can’t come home to tell you in person.”
“I love you, too, Persephone, and I’m damned proud of you for doing this.”
She threw a kiss at the screen then finished. “Claire and the kids are here too, and wanting to talk with you. Do you have time just now?
“Of course I do. I love you, Gran.
“I know.” She answered with a sad little smile. “Here’s Claire now. You take care of yourself out there, and make me prouder than I already am.”
My conversations with Claire and her children is something I would rather keep private. I’ll just say that by the time we finished, and I closed the connection, all of us were in tears.
We all knew it would be a very long time before I set foot -- willingly -- on the world of my birth again.
Once again I found myself looking at a lot of expectant faces and wondering just how I’d gotten myself into that position. Only this time there were forty-two of them instead of twenty.
“Half of you have already become acquainted with Sister Persephone.” Justine told them while waving one hand to me. “Those of you who haven’t will find that she is someone well worth knowing. She is going to be your own personal resource. If you are having difficulties with your training, or have questions regarding that, she will either have or be able to find the answers for you. I only ask you to remember, when she does tell you something, to listen to what she has to say. Persephone knows what she will be talking about, and you can trust whatever she tells you.”
I was getting in deeper without even working at it. Nuts, I’d need a power shovel to get any deeper in than I already was.
“As for other problems, do go to her with them. Our Persephone is a proven problem solver. Just don’t expect the solutions to always be gentle. I’m sure all of you have heard about her adventures at the Gulf launch facility by now. Persephone is someone who reaches the heart of a thing and tells those involved what that is. Without softening platitudes. So be warned on that account. If you’ve screwed up, she’ll tell you about it in no uncertain terms and tell you to do better. On the other hand, if you’ve done well, she’ll congratulate you and encourage you to do more.”
What a buildup. I wasn’t sure how I’d follow that one. But I had to figure it out quick because Justine moved away from the podium set up at one end of the common room and gestured for me to take her place. Oh, Thank you Justine.
“How do I follow that act?” I asked the assembly, and got some chuckles in response. “Those of you who do know me are aware that I don’t make speeches. I hate doing that. I tell people what is, what could be, and what should be done to get there. It’s as simple as that, really.”
I watched them react to my first sally and decided it was pretty favorable.
Then shook my head and grinned at all of them. “Look, we’re all in the same boat, shuttle, or whatever, here. Every one of us ran from home when the PWA was passed into law and are worried about our loved ones, and friends who we may never see again. I know I am. I can’t imagine any of you not feeling the same way. So we have to stick together here, right?”
There were nods of agreement, and a general chorus of “Yes!”
“Good.” I nodded and grinned again. “I’m not much of a public speaker, but I can talk with any of you one on one or in small groups. Please don’t hesitate to stop by my office if you have a question, or just the need to share your lost feeling up here at the moment. Trust me, I share that, and will do everything I can to help you feel better about what you are, who you are, and what it is that you’re going to be expected to do. In return, I plan to make you all help me with the same things. Deal?”
“So what all this boils down to is that we all help each other.” I told them quietly. “That makes us family. Never forget that. I won’t.”
Justine was giving me a surreptitious thumbs up and I felt a wave of relief at the response I was getting from the kids.
“Don’t hesitate to come to me with problems, no matter how trivial they might seem. We’ll share a glass of wine, a beer, tea, or whatever you prefer, and work it out. And don’t think I won’t be coming to you guys with my problems. I’m only Human after all, and am sure as Hell going to need to vent with someone. Since we’re family it only makes sense that I vent to you guys. I expect all of you to feel the same way.”
They all took a moment to look at each other, then back to me while many of them nodded and had halfway comfortable smiles on their faces.
“Just remember that we are Care Givers. That means that we care, first of all and also that we share. Whether we’re happy, sad, angry, or just confused, we share it with each other. We’re our own support network here. I expect all of you to make use of that, too.”
There were more nods of agreement there and Justine beamed at me as if I had just hit upon a basic truth of existence and shared it. Well, maybe I had.
“That’s all I have to beat you with right now.” I told them with a laugh.
“I’ll need to see the flight leaders in ten minutes, but the rest of you are free to do whatever you need to until 0930. We have an orientation meeting then. I’ll be looking forward to working with all of you.”
Oddly, that was true. Isn’t responsibility a bitch?
“I thought you didn’t do speeches?” Justine asked blandly as I stepped away from the podium.
“That wasn’t a speech.” I easily tossed back. “I was petrified when I walked up there and saw all of them watching me. That was pure blathering, nothing else.”
“Then I’ll really be impressed when you do get around to making a real speech.” She told me with a chuckle.
Being a good hostess, something new to me, but it seemed like the thing to do, I passed out beverages of choice to the group gathered in my sitting room. My office was just too crowded with eight people besides me crammed into it.
“Okay, I think this is the time where we all introduce ourselves to each other.” I told the group in general then went on with a mischievous grin. “I’m Persephone Chartrand, Persey for short, and have been given the responsibility for your well being here. Now each of you is either slated for flight or Navigation which will put you in positions where you will have to be leaders. If you have any doubts about your being chosen bring them up when you introduce yourself and I’ll handle them as best I can. Everyone okay with that, for starters?”
No one objected, so I waved to them in general. “Fine, let’s get started then.”
Becky Stevens was among them, to my surprise and pleasure. I just had a good feeling about her being a flight leader. Small framed and petite, now that she wasn’t feeling the debilitating effects of her first free-fall experience anyone could see the energy nearly bursting from every pore of her skin. That might have to be toned down a bit, I thought as she nodded to everyone in the gathering and started things off.
“I’m Rebecca Stevens, Becky to just about everyone.” Her big brown eyes were going to be a real plus for a Care Giver, I thought as she went on. “My specialty is Navigation, but I’ve never had all that much presence, either physically or personality-wise. I never was a leader before, you know and wonder if I could be one now.”
“Hon, you have presence all over the place.” Carstairs put in with a very significant look over the petite girl’s body. “I wouldn’t worry about not being able to lead.”
“Well, you have a good point there Carstairs.” I interrupted, ignoring the less than complementary observation she’d made. “Trust me the computers and staff who made the selections did so based on aptitude and from all I hear, they are very good in both cases. You’ll do fine, Becky, once you get used to the idea.”
“I’m Elaine Carstairs, from Boston.” The well endowed self proclaimed wit began after a questioning look from me. “I’m Nav, too. Sorry for the mouth, it was something that was always getting me into trouble before. I’d kind of hoped I was past that, but I guess not.”
“There’s nothing wrong with humor.” I put in with a smile. “We’ll help you get a handle on the problems you have, as I’m sure you’ll help us with ours. And yes, I do have them, too. Next?”
A slender blonde with a heart shaped face who was obviously in the first stages of her transformation simply nodded to all of us before saying. “I’m Teresa Boone, from Chattanooga, Tennessee and am slated as a pilot. I’ve flown private planes, but couldn’t make the cut for NASA or any of the big companies in space. Until now.”
Her last statement was accompanied with a slight roll of her eyes and a small grin of pure excitement. I could understand both of those, as everyone else did it seemed, from the round of chuckles and giggles her actions drew out.
“Shawna Longstreet here.” A willowy black girl spoke up with a flash of brilliant white teeth. I’m from East L.A. and tend to be kind of rough around the edges. Be up front with me and I’ll be okay with you, though. I’m a pilot trainee, too, by the way.”
“Leanne Davis here.” A tawny and rangy blonde took her turn in a voice like silk drawn over smooth skin. “I’m from Topeka, Kansas, and am Nav. I hadn’t quite expected this ‘California’ look to happen, but it’s who and what I am now. Just don’t expect me speak in Valley Girl, okay?”
That was followed by a grin filled with both mischief and warmth. It was pretty clear that Leanne would be someone very easy to warm up to in both conversation and everyday activities.
“I’m Jenna Parker.” A really stunning brunette with glossy black hair took her turn. Her almond shaped green eyes nearly gave her an Asian appearance, especially with her delicately featured face, but her complexion was a perfect Caucasian peaches and cream type. I could see that she was still a little uncomfortable with her appearance but working to come to terms with it. I’m a pilot trainee, too, and was an airline pilot before deciding to join Care Givers.”
“Good, that might give you a head start here.” I answered then added. “But piloting in space is different than in atmosphere, and I kind of doubt that any of us will be returning to Earth any time soon. But it’s good to have you with us.”
She nodded then offered a tentative smile. “As to the differences, I’ve been in a simulator already, a few times, and you’re right. I had to unlearn a few automatic responses and things like that.”
“You’ll do fine.” I answered, returning her smile with an encouraging one of my own.
“Linda Xiang here.” A delicate looking Asian girl spoke up in a startlingly strong contralto that didn’t quite match her appearance, but was pleasant once the surprise of not hearing a sweet soprano was gone. She pronounced her last name as Shang. “Pilot trainee. I’m from San Francisco.”
“I’m Alicia Cooke.” The last member of the group told us. “I’m nav, and come from Seattle. Alicia was lovely, but not in a spectacular way as some of us had turned out, and appeared to be a bit uncomfortable. “I was born a female, but have always wanted to get out into space. Care Givers was the way I took. XX Flight offered me a spot, too, but I didn’t really want to be JUST a pilot or Navigator. So here I am.”
Looking at her wholesome, clean cut ‘girl next door’ image, I nodded and simply told her. “I’m glad you chose Care Givers, Alicia, and not to worry, you don’t lose anything at all in comparison to the rest of us. Not at all.”
She didn’t seem all that reassured, but gave me a little nod of acceptance. “Well, I sure feel a little outclassed in the looks department here. But it’s something I’ll learn to deal with and besides, I have loads of personality.”
“I can see that.” My answer was so matter of fact that it drew a chuckle from her and the others. Then I told them a little more about myself. “Now I’ll warn you all in advance, I have a LOT of experience with being in space, and all the technical details that involves. But as a Care Giver, I’m as new as any of you are. I’ll probably make mistakes in handling some things and I hope that you eight will be honest enough to tell me if and when you think I’ve screwed up. Okay?”
“So you’re that Chartrand.” Elaine nodded thoughtfully. “The one from the Argonaut?”
“That’s me.” I nodded without flinching for a change. “The experience is something I still have nightmares about, and probably will have off anf on for the rest of my life. I’ll also warn you all that I’m a little prone to fits of depression after one of those. Happily, they don’t happen often any longer. But the upshot of all that is I survived it, I cope with the aftermath as best I am able, and here I am. For whatever that’s worth.”
“Then I think you were the right choice for someone to mentor us here.” She went on to a chorus of agreement from the group. “You’ve been there, done that, in both good and bad situations. I for one will be glad to have you around to throw questions at. And trust me, I’ll probably have a LOT of those.”
“Thanks.” I quietly answered, and knew I was blushing again. That was something I fervently hoped I could get under control eventually. If not, I thought I’d just have to get used to it. “Well that’s about all for this meeting. You have about an hour before your orientation meeting, so go on back out and relax. I don’t think we’ll get a lot of time for that in the near future.”
The orientation was about what you’d expect something like that to be. A general welcoming speech from Rei Yotori, followed by some others with pretty much the same bent. Trust me, no matter how good it might feel, being welcomed again and again can get tedious. Fortunately none of the speeches were very long.
Training schedules were available on the computer terminals in the barracks and in my own office shortly following that. I had Personal Intimacy with some of the others, taught by Justine. Then Advanced Psychology. Advanced? I wondered at that one. I really had little or no real knowledge on that particular subject, just practical experience from my work. I hoped I wouldn’t make a total fool of myself in that one.
There was also a message for me to meet with a Brigadier Trevor for my own assignments as a student instructor. Along with a list of times he would be available to see me. One of those was just under two hours away, and thinking that I may as well get it over with, I responded with a request to meet with him then.
“That will be acceptable.” A rich male voice with a slight British accent came over the speakers of my terminal. “I’ll look forward to meeting you Ms. Chartrand.”
I was a little stunned at the almost instant response to my request, and with real time voice messaging at that. “Thank you. I’ll look forward to it as well, Sir.”
“I’m sure you will.” His voice responded with a chuckle. “Like a case of measles or something. No one I know is ever all that eager to ‘meet the new boss.”
“Well, I do have to admit that I’m more than a bit nervous about it.” I chuckled at that myself. “What else can I say?”
“Just that you’ll be here at the correct time.” Came the reply. “I’m sending directions, with a map, to you now. If you have trouble finding my office, just ask anyone in the corridors. They can direct you, or redirect, as may be needed.”
“I’ll be there, Sir.”
“Good, see you then, Ms. Chartrand.”
The connection ended and I was left wondering why just hearing his voice had me all tingly. Shaking my head, I decided out loud. “Hormones. It has to be hormones.”
I’d found my way to Trevor’s offices, it was a suite really, through the maze of passages without real difficulty thanks to the map I’d printed out, and a few helpful hints from people who took pity on a poor, confused girl staring alternately at a map and an intersection of corridors. I even got there a few minutes early.
Brigadier Alistair Trevor was a distinguished man of middle years wearing a blue jump suit that was literally covered with NASA mission patches. He actually met me himself, though he did have a personal assistant in the outer office who stopped in mid conversation to gape at me once I’d entered. I nervously asked anyone who would answer. “Uh, did I forget to wear a bra or something?”
“Not at all, my dear lady.” Trevor assured me with a broad smile and a warning glance to his blushing assistant. “Please forgive David here. He’s new and isn’t quite used to seeing such beautiful ladies sail into the office.”
“Um, consider it forgiven.” I responded with another of those damned embarrassing blushes then laughed. “Truthfully, I’m still more than a bit stunned whenever I look in a mirror. Believe me, this is not what I’ve spent my life seeing when I’ve done that.”
“Well, you’ll get used to it.” Trevor chuckledwhile he added. “And to giving old men near heart attacks when they first set eyes on you.”
“Oh, I hope that doesn’t happen.” I answered while blushing again. “Then I’d have to do CPR and my certs on that are kind of out of date.”
“You have a sense of humor, too, I see.” Trevor approved as he waved me towards the door behind the front desk. “Please come in and we’ll get down to business here.”
“All right.” I agreed, allowing him to gallantly take my arm in his own before adding with a little glint of mischief in my eyes. “And you aren’t so old, Sir.”
“I am if you insist on calling me Sir.” He answered as we entered his private office. “But then I suppose I am a general and should expect some respect from you recruits, shouldn’t I?”
“More than just some, Sir.” My response was easy, but firm. This man had been flying missions when I was still in school, and had brought his crews home safely every time. Oh, did I mention that my arm actually tingled when he took it? And that I was disappointed when he released me? Oh, lord, I just had to get a better handle on this girl stuff.
“Sit down, Ms. Chartrand, or may I call you Persephone?” I seated myself in the comfortable chair he’d indicated and accepted the cup of coffee he offered me with a small smile.
“Persephone is fine.” I told him as he got a cup for himself and I took a sip. “If that’s too much of a mouthful, Persey works just as well.”
“Fine.” He began looking at a computer screen that I knew was displaying my personnel files and glanced up to ask. “I’m curious as to why you chose that particular name, if you wouldn’t mind talking about it?”
“Not at all, sir. You are familiar with classical Greek mythology, right?”
“Yes, and with the story of the original Persephone.” Trevor nodded.
“Sir.” I quietly answered. “I went through my own time in hell, after the Argonaut accident. I thought there should have been something else I might have done then felt guilty that I lucked out and survived when my copilot didn’t. Then there was almost a year in the hospital recovering only to discover that the nerve damage I’d sustained wouldn’t even let me walk without a cane. I still revisit those times in some of my nightmares, and the psych people say I’ll probably never completely be free of them. So not only have I spent time in Hell, I’m carrying a little of it with me and go back off and on. Hence, the choice of names just seemed right to me. That’s all.”
“You’re honest, as well.” He thoughtfully looked at me for a few seconds before going on. “No one is perfect, you know. We all have things we’d like very much to have the chance for doing differently, but there’s no going back to do it. You did everything humanly possible to avert a terrible disaster that day, and between you and McBain, largely succeeded. Guilt is something that each of us has to deal with in one form or another, Persey. How we deal with it is the measure of what we really are. You’re going to make mistakes, everyone does. How do you feel about that?”
“I don’t really know, sir.” I answered slowly. “I know that it will happen, it has before, but not really since I was a recruit at NASA. I’m a perfectionist, I know that, but I’m careful, too. I just don’t know how I’d handle screwing up now, but would tend to think I’d have the guts to shake it off and move on. Only time will give an answer to that question though, because I sure can’t just now. At least not one better than I’ve given you here.”
“Good enough.” With a nod, he continued looking through my file, then looked up again. “Just remember that no matter how bad things seem to get off and on, you have a support network here, and more than a few people who already think quite highly of you.”
“Thanks. I’ll remember that.”
“Make sure you do.” He told me with a tone of command I could tell had been honed with years of experience. “Now to what I would like to have you doing here…”
“I’m listening, sir.” I grimaced internally over that one then added. “I’ll do whatever I a can, wherever I’m needed.”
“Commendable of you.” With a nod, he keyed a notation into my file. “My own flight instructors are pretty busy as things are. This new influx of recruits is liable to overwhelm them. I’m giving you the position of Student Instructor, which means just what it sounds like. You’re still one of the students around here, but you’ll be giving instruction in the areas of your technical expertise while in training. It won’t be all that easy on you I have to tell you that. I tend to keep my instructors pretty busy, especially lately. Will you do it?”
“I’d be honored to do it, Sir.”
“Good enough.” With a quick flurry of keystrokes, he finished what he was doing and closed the file. “Welcome aboard, Persephone Chartrand.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Oh, I imagine you’ll be cursing my name pretty soon.” He chuckled while rising. “Once you get into the full rhythm of things and realize what I just conned you into doing. I’ll get in touch with the teaching Mothers and arrange to jigsaw your teaching duties into your regular training schedule.”
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But about the only thing I was really conscious of at the time was how parts of me were almost singing in his presence. I wondered about that, while part of me wished for him to touch me again. It wasn’t a one sided situation either I thought. Alistair Trevor, Brigadier Trevor was a man and a fine looking one at that. One who had noticed the currents flowing between us in that first meeting even as I had. For the first time since my transformation, I found myself actually wanting a man. Not in the teasing, speculative way I’d done with a few others, but in a deeply felt desire that went beyond simple need to scratch an itch.
I warned myself to be extra careful around my new boss. But hoped he wouldn’t be so careful around me.
Later, in the privacy -- and isolation -- of my private rooms, I worried about my ability to handle all these things at once. While I was doing that, I felt a sense of loneliness I hadn’t realized I could. It was the room of my own, without people around. For the past year and some, I’d always had someone nearby. First in the hospital, then at Connie’s, and even at the Care Giver’s complex in Orlando. I was actually wishing someone, anyone, would buzz me with a problem or just to talk. Then drifted into an uneasy sleep half thinking I’d have been a lot happier out in the general barracks with the rest of the girls.
Just to top things off, the nightmare came again that night. I awakened bathed in sweat, tangled in the sheets, crying, and vaguely aware that someone was repeatedly buzzing my door comm.
I managed to more or less wrap one of least soaked sheets around me once I got them untangled, buzzed whoever was at the door and questioned. “What is it?”
“Are you all right in there?” Becky’s worried voice reached me as I half stumbled to the door and opened it toher her and several others gathered there. “You were screaming.”
“It’s okay.” I responded with a weak smile. “Just a nightmare. I’m fine.”
“You weren’t kidding when you warned us about those, were you?” Elaine Carstairs worriedly told me with a weak grin. “That scream was blood curdling. We thought someone might be trying to… You know, rape you or something.”
“No nothing like that.” I assured her, and the others, with a small, self conscious grin. “Sorry I woke all of you up that way.”
“You look like shit, hon.” Carstairs shook her head.
“I’m fine now, really.” I answered while running a hand through hair that was nearly as tangled as I had been in the sheets. “Thanks for your concern, though. Docs all tell me these things will fade in time. Go get some rest, all of you. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, you know.”
“Sure you wouldn’t like to have one of us stay with you?” Becky questioned. “Or come out to the barracks with us? We could make room real easy, you know.”
“Thanks, but not tonight, girls.” I answered, feeling a rush of warmth for them. “Really, I’ll be just fine now. The thing’s had its night with me and won’t be back for a while now.”
“Well, if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure. Thanks again, all of you.”
After closing the door, I leaned against it and let the shakes I’d been fighting have their way for a while. Then showered, changed my bunk, and crawled back in for what little sleep I might be able to get through the rest of the night.
All the while sure I was lying to myself and them when I claimed to be okay.
I was in a halfway black mood for the next several days, though I did my best to hide it. The people who knew me best stepped softly in my presence until I emerged from the depression at last.
My glass Armonica arrived several days later. I very carefully unpacked the heavy transport crate, and gasped when I caught sight of the instrument itself nestled within the bubble wrap and Styrofoam. Four feet long, two feet wide, and two feet deep in leaf carved mahogany that shone with a finish that must have cost a fortune. Set inside that was a series of nested crystal -- not glass -- bowls that gleamed with iridescent promise on a central rod of lathe turned mahogany.
“My god, it’s beautiful!” I told Justine, and Naomi, who were watching me open the package like a child at Christmas.
“Let me help you get it the rest of the way out.” Naomi offered as she moved to one end of the crate while I worked my end of the instrument free of the packaging. Once we had it out, and seated well on the elaborate wrought iron frame made to support it, I touched the foot treadle lightly and the bowls began to turn.
There were also a small silver pitcher and bowl. Naomi asked. “What are those for?”
“To hold water so I can keep my fingertips wet.” I replied. “Otherwise, the friction from rubbing the edges of the bowls could raise blisters.”
“Are you able to play it at all?” My friend questioned.
“Not well.” I laughed. “My great grandmother showed me some basics a long time ago, but I’m not anything close to even acceptable on it.”
“Try it out, anyway.”
“Okay.” I got some water for the pitcher, then poured a bit into the bowl, then started the spindle turning and wet the fingertips of my right hand. The tones I coaxed from the series of bowls were beautiful, airy, and even a little eerie at times, but they sure weren’t anything approximating formal music.
“Told you.” I informed them with a small moue of dissatisfaction on my face. “Right now I can get it to make noise, but I’ll need formal training with it before I can make music.”
“Well, your teacher should be up here in another few days.” Justine informed me with a smile. “We’re just getting her visa, tickets and travel taxes settled now.”
I could say I didn’t touch that lovely thing until my instructor arrived. But if you’re at all smart, you’d know I was lying if I did say such a thing.
The next few weeks were a constant run of classes, teaching -- I found myself teaching the new ones about flight theory and applications, and engineering problems -- answering questions from the other newbies about technical things, and hoping that one of them wouldn’t ask me something about the intimate side of being a Care Giver. I was still working that out myself.
None of them had gone into the simulators as of yet, but I was confident that they had the basics at least, to do well once they did get into those.
Then there were my own classes. I would like to tell you that Physical Intimacy was the one that really blew my mind, but I would be lying if I told you that. True, learning how to make a man, and yourself happy in a coupling was incredible, learning how to play the Glass Armonica was better. For me, anyway.
“What do you know about this instrument?” Leigh Dunning asked me the first time I met with her.
I looked at the old (and with the advances in medical technology that meant the she had to be at least one-hundred and fifty years old -- lady who had come to Yotori station specifically to teach me how to play my instrument of choice, and answered. “It is a lovely instrument that can calm, and even heal at times.”
Leigh gave me an odd look during our introduction, and continued to watch me with a sometimes faraway look in her eyes that would switch to one so penetrating that it actually made me nervous.
“Is there something about me that bothers you, Ma’am?” I finally asked, not able to stand the covert glances I’d been catching her give me for over twenty minutes.
“Not really, dear.” She responded with a halfway sheepish little grin. “It’s just that you remind me of someone I knew long ago. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”
“Oh, well that’s all right.” I assured her with a self conscious grin of my own. “I’ve been told -- repeatedly -- that I’m more than just striking in appearance since my change. I only wanted to be sure the idea that I had been a male before wasn’t bothering you.”
“Heavens no!” She really appeared horrified by that idea. “Persephone, you’re a lovely young lady, and I have no issues at all with the idea that you had a sex change. If you looked anything at all like you do now before that, I’m sure you experienced enough difficulty for several lifetimes. Forgive me if I gave you that impression.”
“None needed, but you have it if you need it.” I told her with a grin and a shrug. “And to answer that question, no, I looked nothing at all like this before my change. Do you know anything about the DeCorvin process?”
“I’m afraid not, dear.”
“Well to put things simply, it has rewritten my entire genetic structure, along with the physical form. I was fully functionally male for the first thirty-odd years of my life, but now I’m a fully functioning female. Which my first period proved to me with no room for doubt.”
“You menstruate?” She asked with a lift of her eyebrows and a shake of her head.
“Yes, and I’m capable of bearing children if the birth control implant in my shoulder is removed. I have to admit, though, that pregnancy isn’t really something I’m looking forward to.”
“Oh, you’ll love it.” She assured me with a wide, warm smile. “There’s nothing like it in creation, feeling that new life stir and take shape right under your heart. Trust me on that one, I know from experience.”
“Well, it’s something that I’ll likely be considering at some stage in my life.” I conceded with a grin. Now do you mind me asking who it is I remind you of?”
“Not at all, dear.” Leigh answered then went on. “You bear a striking resemblance to the lady who first got me interested in this wonderful instrument I’ve come all this way to teach you. Her name was Elise Durant.”
“Durant, was she from Quebec originally?” I questioned with a small lurch in my heart as I recalled someone from my own past.
“Yes, she was.” Leigh nodded with a growing smile on her still attractive face. “May I ask where you learned about this instrument?”
“My Great Grandmother played it.” I told her then added. “She showed me how to make music on it, but there was so much she didn’t have time to teach me. I was only five years old at the time. Her name was Elise Durant and she was from Quebec. My Mother was named after her and Elise is the middle name I chose for myself.”
“Well then, it seems as I’ve come full circle now, doesn’t it?” Leigh told me with a broad grin. “As I said, your great grandmother taught me to play the Glass Armonica.”
“The Circle will be completed, then.” I agreed.
“Just looking at you, I have to agree.” She told me. “You LOOK like her when she was young.”
I was stunned. “I look like my great grandmother?”
“Yes you do, dear. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.”
“That’s something I hadn’t realized.” I told her with a pleased smile.
“I knew the changes I went through were from my own genetic heritage, but hadn’t known that. I don’t have a picture of her when she was young.”
“Oh If you have your family album, I think you do.” Leigh told me. “The resemblance would be hard to miss.”
I was more than a little surprised at that. I’d heard that my grandmother’s mother had been an extraordinary beauty, but hadn’t quite managed to equate that to myself as I was after the change brought about by the DeCorvin Process. It seems that genetics does tell.
“Now, dear, are you ready to learn how to handle this piece of heaven that you’ve chosen to learn?”
“Yes, I am.” I told her then added. “I only hope I will be able to do it justice.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will.” Leigh responded with a halfway fond grin for me.
Wow. I started with learning where the notes were and how to caress them out of my instrument. After that came simple scales, but by that time I knew I was in love. Within the first month I was past playing the simple songs and into more complex pieces.
While I learned from her, Leigh and I became good friends. She would tell me stories about my Great Grandmother, or just the times she lived in and I traded my own anecdotes regarding my family and life.
During the sixth week, I finished the halfway melancholy strains of a difficult Mozart piece and noticed my teacher’s eyes filled with tears. “Are you all right, Leigh?”
Smiling at my concern she nodded slowly then moved around the instrument to give me a tight hug. “Oh, I’m fine, Persey. You definitely have the soul for playing this instrument well, and I believe that I’ve taught you all I can. From here on, it’s your own talent that will improve what you do with this Glass Armonica. No amount of teaching would make you one whit better, only time and more practice will.”
“Thank you.” I returned her hug and that grew a little tighter a moment later.
“Your Great Grandmother is proud of you right now. I’m sure you’ve grasped the truth behind the difference between simply making sounds with your instrument and making it soar.”
Then and there, I understood that the Glass Armonica was more an expression of its player’s soul than an instrument and reveled in the ability to show that to others through my music. Nodding in my own turn, I answered. “Yes. Yes, I think I have at that.”
Leigh returned to Earth several days later. After I’d given my first official performance. I still keep in touch with her, whenever that is possible.
That six weeks wasn’t simply spent in learning to play my instrument of choice, or being with my teacher. I also spent a lot of that time working very closely with Brigadier Alistair Trevor in my capacity as a student instructor.
Something was growing between us during that period, started by such innocent things as an accidental bump against the other or quick touches that felt almost like electrical shocks to me they were so fraught with pent up desires that I wasn’t sure would be appropriate to express under the circumstances. But, oh God, how I wanted that man, whether he was one of my bosses or not.
Even better, as time went past in its blur of events, I could tell he wanted me just as badly.
“You’re getting very good with that.” A voice interrupted my practice session with the Glass Armonica during one of my all too infrequent free periods.
I looked up from the bowls, dried my fingertips on the absorbent towel I kept handy for that, and smiled in thanks. Alistair Trevor stood in the doorway I always left open with a dreamy expression on his handsome face. “Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, Persephone.” He responded with a slow smile. “I was seeing the Earth from orbit for the first time again there for a while. You have a gift with that instrument that calls visions forth from memory.”
I blushed. Damn this pale complexion! But I wasn’t embarrassed that time. I returned his smile, feeling the heat in my groin that his presence had been causing since our first meeting and noticing the return of interest from him as I did with a thrill of near fear. “I’m happy that you approve of my efforts.”
“Oh, I approve, all right.” He grinned. “Have you eaten yet?”
“Not since lunch.” I admitted, realizing that it was actually past time for being at the barracks mess for dinner.
“Then please allow me to escort you to the Officer’s Mess for dinner.”
“I’d like that, sir.” I answered with a glow inside that I was sure lit up the small cabin. “But I’m not an officer.”
“Of course you are, Persey.” Came his response. “You still hold your old NASA rank if it’s needed, and besides, it won’t matter because you’ll be with me. And I AM indisputably, an officer. Correct?”
“Yes, sir.” I answered with a lowering of my eyes.
“Glad you agree.” His reply was filled with a warm humor I’d come to know as a trademark of the man in contrast to his rather terse, and demanding command style. “Now get that wonderful dream maker put away and let’s go. I, for one, am starved.”
From the look he gave me while saying that last sentence, I got the impression that he wasn’t talking about food, necessarily. My heart lurched and sang a song of its own when I realized that. “Me, too.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” His smile would have lit the room for me if the light pads had all been darkened. This man not only wanted me as much as I wanted him, he was making it known in no uncertain terms.
“One minute and I’ll be ready.” I answered more than one thing with that response.
“Been waiting almost six weeks.” He muttered quietly as I turned to get a jacket. Parts of the station could get cold if one wasn’t prepared for them properly.
“What was that, Sir?”
“I can wait a while longer.” He answered with a grin. “And since we’re both off duty, don’t you think you could bring yourself to call me Al?”
“Sure, I’d like that. Al.” I walked up to him and very deliberately stood so close to him that our breaths mingled as I looked up into his face. “I’m ready now.”
“I noticed.” His answer was laden with heat as he replied. Come to think of it, from the response in the crotch of his uniform, it was very clear to me that he was ready,
too. Umm, more than ready.
I was thrilled by the effect he had on me.
And Gratified that I had that effect on him.
And so damned horny that I didn’t know if I would be able to sit through even a quick meal without squirming.
I managed. Mostly.
But the desert… Hoo-Wheee!
Alistair’s rooms were spacious, and quite comfortably appointed. I took a few minutes to look around the living room while he prepared us some drinks and was really impressed with the non-standard furnishings it held. I was no expert, but more than a few of the pieces appeared to be at least several hundred years old, the wood of their finishes glowing with the subtle patina that came from ages of being lovingly polished.
“Here you go, Persey.” He interrupted my admiration of the furniture, handing me a crystal goblet almost filled with a ruby red wine that smelled like it had been pressed from grapes in heaven and stored in specially blessed containers. “Do you like the place?”
“Yes.” Smiling, I took the goblet and let the bouquet of the wine fondle my nose for a few seconds. “It’s lovely. Are they all antiques?”
“Reproductions, actually.” He admitted with a shrug. “The originals have been in my family for generations, and are still at my home in Boston. Too fragile to ship up here, and the expense would have been almost prohibitive given the way they would have needed to be packaged.”
“You must have a beautiful home, then.” I answered finally allowing myself to take a sip of the wine and shivering at the pleasure it spread across my palate. Of course, his closeness probably had more than a little to do with those little shivers, too.
“Are you cold?”
“No.” I smiled. “Just really enjoying the wine, and the company.”
“I’m happy that you like them.” He chuckled, taking a sip of his own drink, what looked and smelled like a very good single malt scotch. “Would you like to see the rest of the place?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“Great, come along, then.” Taking my arm in his he led me towards a real wood door. “I’m afraid the place isn’t all that huge.”
He showed me a small, almost severe office space that contained a desk, some shelves filled with disks, and real books that I didn’t have the chance to look closely at, and a work station on the desk. Behind an ornate screen, the small kitchen gleamed with its appliances showing a precise placement that was purely military in planning. Then behind a door of real wood, was the room that I think both of us had been waiting for the nickel tour to reach.
“This is my bedroom.” Gently taking the goblet from my hand after setting his own drink on a small table, mine joining it, he reached out and pulled me into his arms with a smile. “You like?”
“I’ll like it better when you kiss me.” My voice was husky from the shocks of pleasure and excitement his arms around me were sending from my belly to every other part of my body.
“Me too.” His head tilted towards mine, and I lifted my chin to give his mouth an easier target and we were just about fused together at the lips from the heat both of us generated during that first kiss. Our tongues danced playfully with each other, exploring the other’s mouth and by the time we broke it, I admit that I was breathless.
“Ooooh.” I sighed pushing myself even tighter against his chest. Once I did catch my breath, I carefully disengaged with a playful little grin.
“Was it that bad?”
“No, that good.” I answered. “I just have something I want to show you.”
“What would that be?”
Unzipping the front of my jumpsuit, getting out of my boots, then shucking my bra and panties in something like seconds, I stood in front of him with my back straight, and my chin held proudly high. “This.”
“Oh, my god.” Was the only response I got from him, other than a drawn in breath for a short while. After frankly staring at me, without the need to mentally undress me, Al smiled in pure joy. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a long time, Persephone Chartrand.”
“Thank you.” I answered, flattered at the response I was getting from him, and not just the expression on his face or what he was saying. “I’m happy that you approve.”
He just kept watching me for another few seconds, then began getting out of his own clothing.
“Let me do that.” Giving him an arch little smile I deliberately moved forward slowly enough to give him an even better look at my anatomy while it was in motion. Once I reached him, I worked the zipper of his own jumpsuit down an inch at a time, kissing his bared chest with each inch that revealed.
His briefs, he detested boxer shorts, I learned later, were overfilled with his response to my ministrations and I grinned up at him as I worked the garment down his body with my hands. “This I’ll get back to in a minute or so.”
“Oh, God.” Was all I heard out of him as my fingers brushed his erection through the material. I got his boots off, then his socks, and pulled the jumpsuit off over his feet with a giggle. Oh, I also tickled his feet when I did that.
“Minx!” pulling his feet out of range, and laughing, he reached to embrace me again, but I danced out of his grasp and shook a finger at him in mock remonstrance.
“Ah ah. I’m not finished yet.” Then yanked his briefs down and tossed them into a corner. “Oh my, what do we have here?”
His penis was just about to brush my nose with its shiny head, and I stood, then backed away a few paces, tilted my head, and watched for a moment.
“What are you waiting for?” He gasped.
“Hey, you got to look me over.” I told him with a giggle. “It’s only fair that I get to examine ‘the goods’ isn’t it?”
“You are a cruel woman.” He gasped, but managed a weak grin as I gave his trim, well toned body a careful examination.
“Ok, you’ll do.”
“Glad I pass muster.”
“Well…” I breathlessly responded. “I think you’re gorgeous. How do you like that?”
He was much too busy devouring my body with his eyes -- again -- to manage more of an answer than, “I like. Now please come over here.”
“Polite, too.” I teased, but just about leaped over the several feet separating us. “What more could a girl ask for?”
My hand found his member, almost velvety like a sheath over a hardwood wand or baton, with veins pulsing as they kept it engorged and lightly stroked it from base to head, then back to the base where I lightly cupped his testicles and rubbed my palm against them. “I like a man who appreciates beauty.”
I leaned forward to place a light kiss on the tip of his member, then looked back up at his face with a small grin, stretching things out even though I wanted him so badly I could have swallowed him whole. “Now would you look at this. Poor one eyed snake needs some attention. Should I play with it, or take it home for later?”
“Now would be a good time, I think.” He gasped.
“To hell with take out.” I softly answered. “I’ll just eat it here.”
“Oh God!” It was a half choked exclamation and about all he could manage as my lips began to kiss, and enfold the tip of his member. I didn’t say another word for a while after that, much to my lover’s delight.
I started with the head, rolling it between my lips and teasing the opening with my tongue, then slowly -- with a few playful nips and nibbles -- worked my mouth all the way around him. My tongue kept playing with the underside of his member feeling out the throbbing veins, while my lips and teeth carefully worked their way down that shaft until I was able to kiss his scrotum.
At that stage, it got a bit faster. I gripped his hard buttocks for an anchor and started to pull my mouth away, then lunged forward to completely engulf him again. His hands reached to the back of my head, fingers entwining in my hair and urged me forward with each stroke. Soon, his own rhythm matched the bobbing of my own head and I felt his penis grow even harder.
I drew back then, just enough to keep him from shooting, kissed the tip, and started all over again. By the time his member pulsed and fired its by then heavy load into my waiting mouth, I almost choked swallowing all the salty, thick results of my work.
I licked him clean, cruelly, because that hardened him all over again, then licked my own lips and smiled up at him from my position on my knees. “Good stuff. I won’t need to eat again for a week!”
“That was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life.” Al told me, breathing heavily. “God, I thought you were going to suck my brains out through my cock!”
“I just remember what I liked.”
“My god, I know you used to be a man.” Giving me a long, adoring look, he shook his head. “But it doesn’t matter. I’ve never in my life had a woman work me as well as you just did.”
“Complement accepted.” I giggled then turned serious. “It really doesn’t bother you that I used to be male?”
“Darling, I deal with the results of the DeCorvin Process every day.” He answered with a smile and shake of his head. “I always wondered why those ladies had that knowing smile when I watched them. Now I know the reason for it. You are magnificent, Persephone. I truly envy the men on the ships you get assigned to.”
“Are you telling me that I’m the first girl from the DeCorvin Process that you’ve had this way?”
“No, that would be foolish expecting you to believe something as idiotically pure as that.” With a grin and pulling me to my feet, he finished. “Sir Galahad may have been able to use that kind of control. But if he did, he was a damned fool. I sure can’t do it.”
“What, that I’m not chaste and pure?” He chuckled as I stuck my tongue out at him.
“Damned right.” I answered. “If you were pure and platonic, I’d spend the rest of my life working to corrupt you.”
“Alistair Trevor.” My voice held determination, and a little fear as I told him. “I loved you from the second I set eyes on you. What do you think of that?”
“I think.” He punctuated that statement with another of those burning kisses, and I belatedly thought of how funny it would have been to save some of his seed and give it back when he did. “That I’m very glad you feel that way.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“Come to bed, and I’ll show you.”
“Thought you’d never ask. God, men are so slow about noticing that kind of thing.”
“Hey! I’m still in shock from what you just did to me.” He laughed. “Give me a little leeway there.”
“That’s run out.” I told him as he lifted me and laid me on the bed. “Now it’s put up or shut up time.”
“Well, never let it be said that I wasn’t up to a challenge.”
“Will you stop talking and get with it?”
He did. OH MY GOD. He did.
I was in love. Have I mentioned that I absolutely loved my job?
“No, no, no, no, no.” I shook my head and rolled my eyes at the student pilot in the simulator as she yanked the stick from side to side. “Don’t try to rip the thing out of the floor, it will respond to a touch.”
“I’m sorry.” The cute redhead closed her eyes and was almost in tears. “I just can’t get the pitch, and yaw right. I overreact.”
“Yes you do, Cindy.” I told her then came up with an idea that could very well get my teaching across with a minimum of difficulty. “You have been with a man since you arrived here haven’t you?”
“Well, haven’t we all?” She loosened up and grinned at that.
“Do you have one that’s special to you?” I questioned, returning her knowing grin.
“Well, yes. Tim Mantres has been really good in bed. But what does that have to do with piloting?”
“A lot.’” I returned with a smile. “If you handled Tim’s pride and joy the way you’re handling these sticks, what would his reaction be?”
“You mean the sudden yanking and stuff?”
“Yes, think about it.” I told her. “What would Tim do if you suddenly jerked on his cock
when you got nervous?”
“He’d holler, and not be all that cooperative.” The redhead answered thoughtfully.”
“Exactly.” I nodded. “It’s the same with this ship. You have to stroke it, caress it, and gently, to get it to do what you want. Understand?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Then I’ll restart the sim, and watch you do it right.”
You know, she did. Perfectly.
Don’t get the idea that everything went so perfectly. Trust me it didn’t even come close to that. But….
“Ok, ladies.” Justine addressed the assembled group, sitting in comfortable chairs and relaxed in a large, comfortable room filled with cushions and easy chairs. “Welcome to personal Intimacy. This class is designed to show you how to be better in bed, and in a relationship with a man. Does anyone have a problem with that idea?”
None of us did. In fact, it was pretty clear that most of us gathered there had already been with at least one man already.
“Good.” She grinned at the blushes and giggles her first question had drawn out. “Then we won’t have a problem getting down to the really good stuff, will we?”
“NO!” the answer was almost in chorus.
“Good, then we can dispense with the basic mechanics here, right?” She grinned and made a circle of her thumb and forefinger while pointing her index finger on the other hand and running it back and forth through that circle.
Most of us blushed at that, with giggles and shared glances of knowing what that meant for real.
“So tell me, just out of curiosity.” Justine asked with an overly dramatic lift of her eyebrows. “How was your first time?”
I won’t go into the responses that question got. Just believe that they were both enthusiastic and reverent all at once.
“Good.” Justine smiled warmly. “We need to enjoy sex to be what we are effectively. I can see that all of you already do that first part.”
“Oh yeah.” Someone sighed, to laughter from everyone else in the room.
“So tell me, anyone. What is the most important part of what we do as Care Givers?” She gave the assembly an expectant look.
“Sharing!” Several of us called out at once.
“Damn!” Justine grinned with a nod of her head. “I knew I had a good class here.”
So went my first Personal Intimacy class. It was fun.
The social graces Care Givers are taught and expected to adhere to are very traditional and steeped in a long history of service reaching back centuries to ancient Japan. Formal occasions for us are -- well -- really formal. Something we were expected to learn and study with as much diligence as was applied to our other lessons.
“Now to begin with, no one expects you ladies to completely adopt a culture that is probably quite different from the ones you were brought up in.” Rei Yotori herself, clad in an elegant kimono and speaking to the classroom filled with new Care Givers, smiled at us then chuckled as several girls fussed with their own kimonos. “It is however important to get the idea across to you all that we are in essence, and deed, space faring Geishas. So you will be taught the proper forms of address and behavior for formal occasions in this class to fit that image properly.”
There was a soft murmur from the assembled group and a slight rustling of silk as a few shifted position trying to get more comfortable on their knees in the classic ‘waiting posture’ that was one of the things we were expected to become comfortable with doing.
“Care Givers, as a company has more than one public face.” Rei continued almost solemnly then softened that with a warm smile. “As is the case with any woman. Something I am certain that all of you are becoming quite well aware of as you settle into being who you have become and into the roles that will demand of you.”
“Our Formal Face is the traditional one, which this class is going to cover in more detail than many of you are going to think necessary, I’m sure.” The lady went on with a slightly wicked grin on her serenely beautiful face. “However, the grace and beauty possessed by those who learn these are well worth the time spent teaching and the effort of assimilating the more formal arts of your new professions. Are there any questions at this point?”
“Are we going to need to learn to speak Japanese, Ma’am?” Questioned one girl who blushed as Rei’s attention focused on her.
“Not unless you choose to do so.” With a graceful gesture, she included the entire class. “You will all learn the proper forms of address in the language, and other important terms and responses in the polite forms. Along with the ceremonial tasks that you will find to be part of showing our Formal Face to the public.”
We all allowed that to soak in and the silence was broken only with the susurrus of silk against silk and the wooden floor for a few seconds. Rei again gave us all a warm, motherly smile and finished. “So, before I turn this class over to the capable hands of Atami - sensei, is there anything else anyone would wish to say or ask?”
I was a leader in this group again, whether I was totally comfortable with that idea or not. In my rather unique position of being someone the rest looked to for direction I bowed low, in respect and hoped I had gotten this part right in my mind. Reading about it and doing were two different things.
“I wish to thank you, Rei - Sama, for honoring us with this personal visit when we know there are other affairs of importance that require your attention, and to tell you that we will work diligently to be worthy students in this as well. Domo Arigato, Rei-Sama.”
Rei bowed to me, and the class with a twinkle in her eyes and approval of my awkward, but very real efforts showing on her face. “It is both my pleasure and honor to have done so, Persephone - San. You ladies are the future of this company, and possibly of the Spacer culture. I am certain that all of you will do well in each aspect of your training and later interactions with others on behalf of the company.”
I had the very real feeling that there was going to be a lot more than simply learning the moves for these things as Rei once again bowed to us, then made her elegant exit.
Turns out I was right, but more on that later.
“Hey, are you okay?” Al asked me one evening at dinner after I had spent a few minutes almost ranting about the lack of variety in the general mess hall.
“Yeah, I think so.” I shrugged then let out a long sigh. “I don’t know, to be honest. I think I’m just tired is all. Had that damned nightmare again last night. At least the girls don’t try pounding my door down any more when that happens. And it’s been kind of a long day.”
“I can’t do much about those nightmares, but there are people who could help you with that if you feel the need for it. You do have a lot of responsibilities for a new student.” He told me with a thoughtful expression on his distinguished face. “Maybe you need time off from some of those? I could lighten up your load a little, at least, if that would help some?”
“I don’t think I have time for time off, honey.” I replied slowly. “The way all the news from Earth is shaping up, it looks like even us new kids are going to be needed in the worst way. And soon, unless I misread the newscasts I’ve been seeing lately.”
“Things are getting a little dicey just now.” He agreed. “But that doesn’t give us the excuse to run all of you girls ragged through this accelerated training. I’ll speak with Rei about getting some off time set up for all of you. Maybe a holiday or two would do you all good.”
“That would be greatly appreciated.” I answered slowly. “If it can be done without jeopardizing our training.”
To be honest, the other girls did get their days off. Days where they could study what they liked, or just mingle and laze around. Or as much as anyone could laze around in space, anyway. I, on the other hand, never seemed to get that luxury for myself. There was always something coming up that I just had to either handle or learn. Sometimes both at once.
“Now I think you’d better get back to your quarters and get some of that rest you seem to need.” Al rose from the table and offered me his arm.
“Much as I hate to miss any of my time with you, I think you’re probably right about that.” Accepting his offered arm once I had risen from my own chair, with the attentive assistance of a waiter who held it for me, I gave him a smile I knew was a little wan. “I do need a good night’s sleep.”
“Just make sure you get one this time.” He ordered.
“I’ll sure try that.” I nodded.
“No late night study sessions with the others, no umm, extra-curricular activities, and no solving someone else’s problems for them tonight, all right?” He pressed.
“Ok, boss, you got it.” I grinned up at him as I said that while we left the officer’s mess to head for my own quarters and, hopefully, some badly needed sleep.
Things slowly got worse for me following that conversation. I always felt worn out, and was prone to flashes of anger that I barely managed to hold down. In retrospect, I probably should have just let them out and gotten it over with in small doses. But you know what the saying is about hindsight, right?
“What’s this all about?” I interrupted a rather spirited argument between two of the girls that had been loud enough to disturb my practice session with my beloved Glass Armonica. To say I was irritated by the disturbance would be like saying Mount Vesuvius was an interesting display of fireworks when it engulfed Pompeii. It didn’t help at all that both of them had a tendency to cause problems on their own and did so more often than I really cared to think about just then.
“This little puta horned in on a date I’d been working to get with Pascal Sorentz for weeks!” Imelda Marquesa, a generally sweet natured, if sometimes explosive Latina with exquisite doll-like features shot back to my question.
“He asked me to go to dinner with him!” The other involved snapped back, her green eyes flashing in her elfin face that was contorted in self righteous anger. At least that’s how it looked to me at the time.
I’d just started my third period, and was in no mood at all for this kind of thing as my stomach churned and the onset of cramps began making itself known to me.
“Can’t you two just share?” I questioned while closing my eyes to try and ease the throbbing that was beginning in my temples. “That is what we’re about after all, isn’t it?”
They both opened their mouths to argue and something in me just snapped. “God DAMN IT you two!”
That drew even more attention to the little fracas, but I was past caring at that stage of things as both the girls stared at me in near shock.
“I DO NOT believe this!” I almost raged. “Fighting over a MAN when there are more here than we could reasonably expect to even want in a lifetime!”
“And YOU!” I pointed at Imelda and glowered. “NEVER let me hear you call another sister Care Giver that again. Do you understand? We are NOT Whores, and I WILL NOT tolerate anyone here calling someone else that. If you two are going to spend time fighting over something like this then maybe you should get out of the program!”
“I spend enough time around here smoothing ruffled feathers, and answering idiot questions without needing to take time out from my own studies to referee an asinine argument that shouldn’t have started in the first place!”
Shaking I was so angry, I turned away for a moment to see the whole group watching me, which both embarrassed and further angered me.
“Shit! Why do I even bother?” I asked no one and nothing, tears starting to blur my vision. “Can’t you all just for once, LEAVE me alone?!”
Having so neatly shoved both feet in my mouth, and knowing that I’d done it, I swallowed my anger, my hurt, and my shame, turned away without another word to any of them, and returned to my quarters. Once there, I locked the door and turned off the communicator.
Then cried myself to sleep.
I was awakened some time later -- ok a lot later according to the clock beside my bed and I realized that I’d missed classes, and an instruction stint at the simulators with some of the pilot trainees who were needing extra help -- by an insistent pounding on my door.
“Leave me alone.” I mumbled, not recalling that I’d shut off the communicator that would have let whoever was there hear what I’d said. This wasn’t the first time someone had been at my door that day. I hoped it would be the last, but gave in with a sigh and forced myself to sit up.
I toggled the communicator switch back to the on position and repeated my demand to whoever was out there.
“Persey!” Naomi’s voice called back. “Open the door, dammit!”
“Why?” I asked with a heavy feeling in my spirit. “All I want is to be left in peace for awhile, Naomi.”
“Because there are people out here who are worried about you, hon.” She answered.
“Persephone.” Alistair Trevor’s voice entered the conversation and I shook at hearing it. “Please open the door and let us in. Otherwise we’ll have to break it down.”
“All right, all right.” I grumbled, stumbling to my feet and making my way out of the bedroom. “I’m coming, just don’t hurt yourselves trying to break in the door.”
Naomi, and Al were waiting when I threw open the locks and pulled the door hesitantly open. “Okay, the door’s open. Come on in.”
A glance in a nearby mirror caused me to let out a bit of a shudder. My hair was all over the place and looked as if it had last seen the ministrations of a brush fifty years ago. My eyes were puffy, bloodshot, and held a forlorn expression that I didn’t like at all. “Lord, I’m a mess.”
“Don’t worry about that just yet, please.” Naomi answered softly as first she, then Alistair gingerly worked their ways inside. Al quietly shut the door behind them.
“Now do you want to tell me what happened last evening?” Naomi questioned, concern in her voice and face as she looked at me.
“I just blew up.” I answered dully. “I was practicing my music when I heard an argument, a loud one, outside. So of course, I went to find out what it was about.”
“I don’t know.” Letting out a long, ragged sigh I slowly shook my head. “All of a sudden I’d just had enough from those two. They’ve been troublemakers since we got here, then everything else just kind of crashed down on me and I let it all out at once. I’m sorry.”
“We can deal with some of that later, dear.” Naomi soothed. “right now I really need to find out exactly what you were feeling then. We’ll get this sorted out, I promise.”
“I just got overwhelmed with everything is all.” I quietly told her. “Once I’d opened my mouth I knew it was wrong, that I was letting everyone down, and worse that I’d failed to do what was expected of me. I’ve felt terrible since then.”
“I should have made you take a break from things.” Al put in saying something for the first time since he’d followed Naomi inside. “I saw the stress you were under. You had that nightmare again, didn’t you?”
“Yes, the night before. But this isn’t your fault, Al.” I tiredly told him. “It’s mine. I didn’t hold my end of things up.”
“We can assign blame another time.” Naomi quietly, firmly, told me. “For now I think we should talk a few things through here, sanely, and without recriminations on any side. All right?”
“All right.” I answered while Alistair nodded his own agreement. “Where do you think we should start?”
“With you.” She tapped my shoulder. “Starting with this. You’ve been a woman for how long now? Three months?”
“Yes, about that long. But what does that have to do with the way I acted last night?”
“More than you might think, dear.” My redheaded friend gave Alistair one of those ‘this is girl talk here, so stay at your own risk’ looks.
“Anyone care for some coffee?” He took the hint and headed for the small kitchen alcove and the coffee maker on the counter. He was still within easy range of hearing, but had effectively removed himself from the conversation for the time being.
“That would be lovely, Alistair.” Naomi answered him with a smile. “I’m sure that Persey here could really use a cup of that about now. I certainly could.”
“So what are you getting at here? About me and being a woman for three months, I mean?” I fondly watched Al making himself busy with the coffee and pointedly NOT watching us as he did.
“What I’m getting at is simply this, my dear.” Naomi chuckled at my blank expression. “Three months as a woman so far and you’ve managed to physically adjust to that, right?”
“Well, yes, I have, though the periods are still no fun at all and I dread them.” I grimaced at that and a cramp chose that moment to remind me of just why I dreaded that monthly visitor.
“You’re on yours now, aren’t you? On top of having that damned nightmare again the night before the blowup?”
“Yes. So I’m extra cranky, and out of sorts, and all that. I admit it.” I frowned. “But that still doesn’t justify my explosion in public last night.”
“No it doesn’t.” Naomi agreed with a shake of her head. “Though it does help explain it a little.”
“I won’t let that become an excuse.”
“You shouldn’t.” She answered and looked carefully at me. “And you aren’t even allowing it to give you a bit of leeway on this are you?”
“Good, that’s a start then.” She reached out to brush a strand of hair off my face. “Well cover the dreams later. The thing to handle right now is that while you’ve adjusted physically to the change, you’re still acclimatingto it mentally and emotionally.”
“I’m telling you that your brain and body are flooded with a hormone mix that you haven’t been emotionally, or mentally prepared to deal with, Persey.”
“You mean to tell me I’m going through another puberty?” I questioned, and realized that was pretty close to the truth.
“Exactly.” Naomi grinned. “Born girls spend their whole lives being taught how to deal with these things, either through actually being told, shown, or in many cases by example because they watch their mothers and other older females for clues as to how they should behave.”
“Which I didn’t have. But neither have most of the others. None of them just about self destructed in public like I did, and I’m sure you didn’t either, did you?”
“Well, I’m sure the others here have had their problems with that.” Naomi carefully answered. “But remember, there are born women among them to help smooth the way and point out when they’re getting a bit out of hand. You, halfway isolated as you are with your training schedules and these quarters don’t have that advantage. You haven’t asked for help on this have you?”
“No. I really hadn’t thought to do that.” I told her honestly. “Besides, I’m the one who gets asked the questions in this group, it just wouldn’t have felt quite right to go out and ask about something like this to me, even if it had occurred to me.”
“That was you’re first mistake.” Patting my hand in a comforting gesture she went on. “But don’t worry, a lot of us made the same one. I know I did. It was just plain embarrassing to have to ask things like that of anyone.”
“Well, yeah, it would have been, and is, I guess.”
“The way you’re blushing here tells me that you think so, dear.” Naomi chuckled. “Which is a normal reaction, even among born girls with things like this. The point here is that you need to ask when you feel as out of balance as you have been. Someone will be there to answer you, and help you through it.”
“In other words.” Alistair returned carrying a tray holding three cups of fragrantly steaming coffee. “Quit being so damned stubborn about things and admit to yourself that no one, not even you, is perfect. You screwed up, okay, it happens. Happens to all of us, my love. Get over it, and start understanding that a single failure isn’t the measure of a life. It rarely is, anyway, and this one shouldn’t be. The real measure of a life, and the person living it, is how well they learn from their failures. Do you understand that?”
“I’m beginning to.” nodding, I bit my lip and looked up at both of them.
“I’m not used to failing, not at all. I’ve always been the best at what I do, or one of the best. I never even considered failure to be an option in my life.”
“I know that, dear.” Naomi gave me a hug. “But a considered option or not, it’s bound to happen off and on. When it does, you need to get back up and figure out why you failed, so it won’t happen again. At least not that one, anyway.”
“Another question here.” Al peered over the rim of his cup at me. “Since you’ve arrived here at Yotori Station have you taken so much as one real day off? I mean a real day off, where you don’t do anything but lounge around in your pajamas, or whatever you might do to relax?”
“I’ve taken time off.”
“Stop evading the question.” He commanded. “I don’t mean an hour here or there to do something else that other people would probably consider work. I mean a whole day, maybe two of them strung together so you have time to recharge.”
“You haven’t, have you?” He demanded with a hard look in his eyes.
“No.” I softly admitted.
“Damnit, Persey!” He almost exploded. “You’re a pilot. You know how important proper rest is! Would you trust another pilot who’d done what you have to show good judgment when the need for that came up?”
“Nuh-no, sir. I wouldn’t.”
“And rightly so.” His voice softened. “Persey, you’re special, not just to me. You are in a lot of ways to a lot of people. But for God’s sake, you have to give yourself the same allowances you make for others. You aren’t a superwoman, you know.”
“You’re exhausted, dear.” Naomi pronounced. “I’m suspending you from classes and duties for the next seven days.”
“You can’t do that!” I argued, worried about falling behind in my studies and my responsibilities.
“That’s where you’re wrong, my love.” Al shrugged then grinned at Naomi. “Ship Mother Naomi Foster is an accredited physician, psychologist, and psychiatrist. If she says she’s temporarily suspending you from classes and duties for health concerns, she means it, and has the clout to back it up.”
“No buts here, hon.” Naomi gave me a soft smile. “You need the rest, and I think that’s the only way you’re going to get it right now. Am I wrong?”
“Well, no.” I had to admit.
“Then that’s that, isn’t it?” She grinned. “I’ll put it in your records that you are officially on leave until 0600 seven standard days from now. So get yourself cleaned up, presentable, and ready for a vacation. That’s an order.”
“It’s still just Naomi to you, dear.” She answered with a chuckle. “Now go shower, brush your hair, get dressed, and get ready to relax. We’ll wait here while you do.”
It took me a while. I broke down and cried. First on Naomi’s shoulder, then into Alistair’s chest.
“Better now?” He quietly asked once my sobs had finally sunk into an occasional hitch in my breathing. I noted, happily, that he didn’t loosen his hold when I nodded and sniffled.
“God, what a mess I made of things. I’ll bet they all hate the sight of me now, don’t they?”
“Who?” He questioned again.
“The girls out there.” I sniffled again, but didn’t break into the threatened sobs that time. “I really blew it out there, Al.”
“Yes, you did.” He answered quite honestly. “But that only showed them all that you’re human, too. You can fix the damage, if there is any.”
“Oh, there is some, I’m sure of that.” I ruefully replied.
“Some hurt feelings, some people rethinking their parts in the whole thing, and a whole lot of worry out there in your barracks.” He told me with a lopsided little grin. “They’re worried about you by the way.”
“About me? After what I did out there the other night?”
“Because of what you did out there.” He corrected. “They tried getting you to answer your door earlier then did their best to cover for you when you didn’t get to your scheduled classes and duties. On top of that, they pretty much assembled as a group and asked that we go easy on you when Naomi and I showed up to find out what was going on.”
“Really.” Naomi put in. “Those girls out there may not have been showing it too well to you, or you just weren’t seeing, but they all love you.”
“Now you’re just trying to make me feel better.” I accused.
“Well, yes.” Al admitted with a halfway sheepish grin. “But it is the truth.”
I left them both for a while as I showered, did the necessary care and feeding on parts of my anatomy that were still complaining, brushed out my hair, put on some makeup, then got dressed. Truthfully, I did feel better after doing all that.
“The dead has risen!” Al announced as I emerged back into the living room.
“Very funny, General, Sir.” I punched him lightly on the shoulder and actually grinned. “Guess I did kind of look like something out of a horror vid there, didn’t I?”
“Well not quite that bad.” He temporized.
“Give it up, Alistair.” Naomi laughed. “Much more and you’ll need a shovel to get in any deeper.”
“A power shovel.” I added with a mock fierce grimace.
“So I take it you’re feeling better about things now?” Naomi questioned.
“Well, not completely, but yes I do.” I told her then added. “I have a lot of thinking to do, though.”
“Just so long as you rest while you’re doing it.” The redhead told me.
“I will, I will.” Throwing up my hands in surrender I gave each of them a long hard look. “Promise.”
“Just make sure.”
“I said it didn’t I?”
“Sure you did dear.” Al drawled. “Now if you’ll just do it.”
That week was almost as bad as my convalescence in Orlando had been. But only in the fact that Alistair and Naomi made very sure I did nothing but eat, sleep, relax, and talk through my feelings about everything in general.
“Naomi?” Setting aside a real book -- one with pages and print on them -- I looked across the room at my friend and keeper.
“Yes, Persey?” Lifting her own eyes from some kind of printed report she had been intently reading through, she gave me her whole attention.
“How do I gain their trust back after making such a spectacle of myself?”
“You know how.” Was her simple, frustrating response.
“I can’t just waltz back into those barracks as if nothing has happened.” I insisted.
“No, you can’t.”
“An apology wouldn’t get it done either.” I thought out loud, since I was getting such illuminating responses from my companion.
“It might be a start.” She acknowledged.
“Oh, so you are paying attention.” I rolled my eyes as she nodded and continued watching me.
“Okay, so I admit I screwed up, that I’m only human.” One of her eyebrows lifted marginally in an expression I’d learned long ago meant ‘and?’ with Naomi. “And apologize for flinging the shit downhill when they really couldn’t help most of the problems I was having. Is that enough?”
“Do you think it is?” Those imperturbable green eyes were waiting for something from me, something I hadn’t quite grasped but their owner wasn’t about to tell me. I had to find it for myself. But I had so many questions to ask…
“Questions to ask…” I mused out loud and noted a slight spark of interest in her vivid green regard. “Are you trying to get me to say I should ask them for help the way they’ve been asking me?”
“About time you figured that one out.” Naomi gave me a radiant smile and nodded. “That’s exactly the answer you were looking for, Persey. Life isn’t all about giving, or taking. Especially not life as a Care Giver. You have to balance the two, with everyone you encounter through life. You’ll find that a good teacher can also learn from her students. Everyone has something to teach you whether they know it or not. You in turn have something to teach them in return. Something I think you’re finally beginning to understand on a gut level and not just in your head.”
“Yes, I think that wall falling on me may have had something to do with it, though.” I grinned and lightly slapped my forehead. “Just tell me one thing, please?”
“I might do that.” Naomi chuckled. “Once or twice. What would you like to know?”
“If I’m so damned smart, why is so hard for me to see the simple answers to things like this?”
“Sometimes smart is stupid.” She answered with a broad grin as I rolled my eyes at the comment. “What I mean is that too many very bright people often look for complexities where none exist. You do have a rather regrettable tendency of doing that, by the way.”
“Well now’s a great time to tell me that.” I muttered halfway under my breath.
“You’ve just figured that out all on your own, dear.” She informed me with a serene smile on her face. “I wouldn’t have told you otherwise, after all.”
“Some teacher you are.”
“You learned it didn’t you?”
I was a woman now and so had gained the strange prerogative of that so famous and elusive last word. But Naomi had more practice at it than I did. I know when to wave the white flag and just quit while I’m at least not too far behind. “Yes, I did at that.”
“You look much happier this evening.” Alistair observed as he walked me to the central mall of the hub. “What happened?”
“Let’s just say I figured a few things out today. Finally.” I told him.
“Oh, you mean something other than duty and technical information has at last made it through that delectable, but thick skull of your’s?” He chuckled to take the sting out of the words and guided me into a restaurant before I could snap anything back at his sally.
“Have I been insulted, complemented, or an odd combination of both here?” I questioned while looking at him through narrowed eyes. “And to answer that question, yes. It might take a wall falling on me off and on to get things through to my stubborn mind, but it does happen.”
“The wall, or something getting through to you?”
“Beast.” I wrinkled my nose in a mock growl. “You’re making fun of me now, aren’t you?”
“A little.” He admitted with a laugh then pointed out. “You are taking it very well, by the way.”
“Revenge.” I thoughtfully watched the lights in the ceiling for a few seconds before returning my eyes to his face. “Is best savored after being well chilled.”
“Hmm, should I be afraid now?”
“Oh yes.” I answered while giving him my very best Three-Hundred-Fifty watt smile. “I think that would be a pretty good idea just now.”
“Do you think we could eat first?” He asked almost plaintively. “I really am kind of hungry and this place serves the best linguini in the solar system.”
“Really?” I purred. “I just happen to adore clam linguini in a good white sauce.”
“All right.” I allowed as a host seated us. “If it’s good, really good, I might just forgive you.”
“Then the gods are smiling on me tonight, dear lady.” His almost solemn reply pulled a little laugh from me. “Because I never exaggerate about good food.”
You know, if I didn’t love them both so much, the fact that Alistair Trevor and Naomi Foster were almost always so damned right would have driven me into a frenzy.
For the second time in my life I learned what a woman feels when she is with a man she loves in bed. But not right away. Following a meal that was even better than he had promised, Alistair -- bless him -- took me back to my quarters and insisted that we just sit and talk for a while. Even though my body was telling me to trip him and make it to the floor first.
“Do you understand where you went wrong?” He asked me without so much as a preamble to get me ready.
“I screwed up on a lot of levels.” I answered with a sigh. “The worst though was letting it all go downhill. A leader, an officer, doesn’t dump all the shit on her subordinates.”
“No, one doesn’t.” He agreed while giving me a very distracting hug. Not to mention a friendly grope of my breasts. I almost hit him for that one. But it felt too damned good to interrupt.
“Plus, I didn’t ask for my subordinate’sopinions or suggestions.” I told him. “Translated, that means I didn’t ask the ones in my group who would have known how to handle all the things I was wrestling with.”
“Good.” Al pulled me closer and kissed me lightly on the cheek. God that man is GOOD at giving someone distractions!
“I also learned -- again -- that simple is better in most cases.” I nuzzled his throat and used a bit of tongue. Hey! I can distract, too.
“Are you fit for duty again?” He asked between gasps as I did interesting things to his crotch with my unoccupied hand.
“Yes, and ready to get back into it.” I smiled innocently up into his face while my hands -- both of them that time -- did their best to prove to him that I was far from innocent.
“You are wicked.”
“Not yet.” I answered quite happily then added. “But I’m working on it.”
“Trust me.” He managed to get out between heavy breaths. “You have that down pat.”
“I love an honest man.” My answer was a little muffled as I lowered my face to his interestingly active crotch. Then got my fingers busy opening that treasure to my explorations.
“Oh god.” Was the only response he was able to manage. I took that as a very nice compliment.
After I had just about sucked him dry, I decided to torture him a little. I pulled away from his tight, wonderful embrace, and reached back to unzip the rose colored dress that I had worn that evening, letting it fall to my feet with a cute, seductive, little shake of my hips. Then I took off my bra and panties, tossing them negligently towards him with a smoldering smile. “Hey there. Wanna come play?”
Wow, did he ever!
I was still glowing the next morning when I selected an empty single bunk in the barracks and began empty my duffle into the nearby locker. By the time I’d finished that, a small crowd had gathered around my chosen bunk and I waited to say anything for a few moments while collecting my thoughts.
“Did you get demoted or something?” Becky Stevens opened the conversation I knew all of them wished to with a worried expression on her pretty face.
“No, I didn’t get demoted.” I answered with a quick smile for her and the others. “The truth is I just felt kind of isolated in that private apartment so thought I’d get a little closer to all you. I still have the office, and quarters, but would rather stay out here if that’s all right with everyone?”
“You know it is.” Elaine Carstairs answered with some force in her voice. “You’re one of us, after all, even if we did kind of overwhelm you there for a while. We promise to be a bit more considerate of your feelings in the future.”
“So did you get in trouble for just getting angry at us?” Another questioned. “Seems like a week suspension is a little harsh for something like that.”
“It was actually a vacation.” I answered with a shrug, then a rueful little smile. “The bosses made me take it to get some rest. I wasn’t on suspension, so no worries there. And what I was in trouble for wasn’t getting angry, but the way I got angry, and expressed it. I really screwed up there, and apologize to all of you for it. I shouldn’t have taken my own frustrations out on any of you.”
“So you screwed up.” Shawna actually grinned at me in near glee. “Like the rest of us haven’t? Recently? Come on. It happens, get over it and move on. You had a right to be angry the way we were constantly badgering you, then not even giving you peace and quiet in the off hours you were supposed to have.”
“Thanks. But I still should have handled the situation differently.” I answered with a chuckle. “Though it did let off a lot of steam I’d been bottling up. Still it was wrong to do it the way I did. Especially when I had resources right here who could have, and would have, helped me over the worst of the bumps if I’d just hadn’t been too stiff necked to ask.”
“But you’re back now, right?” Cinda Xiang gave me a hug. “With us to stay?”
“At least until our training is over with.” I answered with a little catch in my voice. “I don’t really deserve such good friends you know.”
“Hell, darlin’” Leanne drawled in an exaggerated accent. “We don’t deserve you.”
“Oh yes you do.” I grinned wickedly. “Someone has to keep you all in some sort of line, right? Now don’t we all have classes in a few minutes?”
There was a chorus of good natured boos followed with exclamations as they scattered to grab whatever class materials they needed.
Once I was back, the girls conspired to get me a real day off in every seven. They called it ‘Persey’s day off’ -- lacked originality, I thought, but it was the thought that counted there. They all made damned sure none of their number approached me with problems that weren’t emergencies on whatever day that fell on.
The flight leaders also insisted that I talk through those nightmares of mine with them. To ‘lighten the load’ Becky quite accurately called it.
“I should have died in that accident.” I quietly told them all once I’d gotten the entire story out. “Truthfully, for a long time after, I’d wished I had.”
“Why? Because of your injuries?” Elaine questioned then proved how astute she truly was by finishing. “Or because you survived and your friend didn’t?”
“Stewart McBain had a wife and two kids.” I nodded slowly. “I couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t live through that instead of me, who had no one but my Grandmother as close family. So yeah, I was blaming, and even hating myself for being alive when he wasn’t.”
“Is that what you go through when you have those awful nightmares?” Becky asked as she gave me a hug. “Do you relive all of that during one of those?”
“Just the accident.” I shrugged. “The grief and self loathing come after I wake up, and last for days sometimes, as you all know too well.”
“God, how do you handle that at all?” Shannon shook her head then brightened. “Obviously not too well. We’re going to change that, though, aren’t we?”
“Well, thanks…” I hesitantly answered, then added. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but just how in the Hell do you plan on doing that? I’ve been with the best psych people in the business and still have the problem, even if it isn’t as often as it was once.”
“The way we’re doing it now, hon.” Shannon chuckled. “By talking it through, and doing that no matter how long it may take to get there. You’re here for us all the time, no matter how awful you might feel. So we think it’s only fair for us to be here whenever you need us. Right?”
That last was spoken with a look of challenge to the others, who all agreed with no hesitation.
“What did I ever do to deserve a bunch of friends like you?” I questioned with a grin.
“No idea, honey.” Shannon shrugged then chuckled. “But look at it this way. You had to have done something really right to get a bunch as good as we are.”
“Full of yourselves, aren’t you?”
“We prefer confident.” She retorted with an even wider grin and raised eyebrows. “And who, I wonder, taught us that?”
“Get cleaned up and dressed formally.” Naomi told me with a twinkle in her eye as she met me on my way back from a self defense training session that had my exercise suit sticking in embarrassing places.
“So what’s the ocassion?” I questioned while heading for the showers and bliss hot water would be just then.
“Someone wants to meet you.” My redheaded friend answered without giving more information than that.
“Wonderful, I love mysterious meetings.” My answer was muffled as I worked my way out of the pullover top.
“This someone is special to me.” Naomi responded with another grin.
“So, are you going to keep teasing me with this unnamed ‘special person’ or actually tell me who it is?” Out of my top and shorts, the sports bra and cotton panties joined them in quick succession in the dirty clothes bin as I asked that.
“Ryoko is on station for awhile.” She answered as I moved towards the shower and began setting the temperature and jets for the levels I wanted.
“The friend who first got you into Care Givers?” I looked back over my shoulders with a grin. “I’d love to meet her.”
“I should tell you that her full name is Ryoko Watanbe.” Naomi put in making me nearly lose my grip on the soap I was lathering up with.
“Doctor Ryoko Watanbe?” I managed to get out as I recovered the soap before it fell to the tiled floor. She nodded with a mischievous grin.
Sheesh. Naomi’s friend was only the senior vice-president of the Care Givers Company.
Clean, perfumed, made up presentably and wearing my dusty rose colored Kimono with the Autumn Leaf pattern and my hair up as the formal attire demanded I stood quietly and waited for Naomi’s direction. I held my nervousness in check and carefully set my face into a composed -- I hoped -- expression and nodded to let her know I was ready.
“Relax.” Naomi chided gently then shot me a quick grin. “You’ve already personally met Rei Yotori, the CEO. This should be easy for you by now.”
“Easy she says.” I quipped more to myself then added. “Meeting one of the big bosses for the first time is always a nerve wracking experience, Naomi. At least it usually is for me.”
“You’ll do fine.” I was assured as she keyed the announcer beside the door and spoke into it. “Naomi Foster and Persephone Chartrand to see Ryoko Watanbe.”
“Enter, please.” A lilting voice responded from the announcer as the door slid open to admit us.
We both knelt just beyond the entrance and bowed in respect as a lovely Japanese lady greeted Naomi with a smile. “Foster-san you are looking lovely as always. As usual it is good to see you again.”
She turned her attention to me, with a welcoming smile. “Be welcome in my home Chartrand-san. I have heard much about you already.”
“It is an honor to meet you, Watanbe-san.” I responded to her welcome with another bow then returned her smile.
“Well, get up and let’s dispense with the heavy formality for the time being ladies.” Ryoko gestured for us to follow her into a smaller, but lavishly appointed sitting room strewn with cushions in artfully disarrayed fashion and with a low mahogany table in its center.
“Please make yourselves comfortable.” She invited, then gracefully turned to the outer door and gave a sharp clap of her hands. “Refreshments are coming.”
“Let me say that you are as remarkable looking as I have been told.” Watanbe told me then added. “I am most pleased to meet you at last. Rei and Naomi have been lavish in their praise of you, Chartrand-san.”
“I hope they haven’t given you the impression that I’m perfect, Watanbe-san.”
“Oh no, my pale, lovely rose.” She laughed gently as another person entered the room carrying a tray that held a tea and coffee service. “I have heard of the thorns you possess, and make use of at times.”
“Thank you, Temo.” Watanbe acknowledged the young woman as she set the tray on the table. “We will serve ourselves.”
“Hai Watanbe-san.” The woman, a pretty Asian, bowed to her, then us, and quietly left the room.
“I hope that serving yourselves won’t be an inconvenience?” Watanbe questioned with a humorous lift of her eyebrows and gesture to the tray. “We have much to discuss here and little time to do it.”
I waited politely as Watanbe selected tea for herself then Naomi poured a cup of coffee. As the very junior member of this little gathering it was expected that I give them precedence. I even moved to serve them myself until Wantabe waved me back down with a smile and slight shake of her head. “You are a guest, Chartrand-san. I regret that my hospitality is so scant today, but I won’t have you working on your first visit here.”
First visit. I got the idea that meant that I would be seeing quite a bit more of this woman Naomi thought so highly of. And that it would likely involve another job of some kind. And you wonder why meeting the big bosses always had me antsy?
“May I call you Persephone?” She questioned as I poured coffee into a delicately fired porcelain cup.
“Yes, Watanbe-san.” I replied quietly then added. “Most call me Persey because it isn’t quite so ponderous on the tongue.”
“Excellent.” With a grin for Naomi she waved at herself. “Then I am Ryoko, as I already know you call this redheaded male wet dream by her first name.”
I think I blushed again at her blatant, quite matter of fact, allusion to one of the better known skills of Care Givers. Which drew another chuckle from her.
“I have a question for you, Persephone.” Her eyes just about bored into me and I had the feeling she was reading my soul as she watched me. “You had a small problem with some unruly students earlier?”
“Yes, I did, much to my shame.” I admitted while lowering my face a bit to better hide the flush bringing that situation up again caused to fill my features. “I have learned better since then.”
“Ah. I see.” Ryoko nodded then delicately sipped her tea. “What is it that you have learned out of that regrettable incident?”
“First, I learned that I needed to learn how to receive help when that is required, even ask for it.” I slowly told her. “Second, that simple is usually better if it is possible to keep things that way.”
“Go on.” She gently urged.
“Also that no matter how good someone is, or thinks they are, failures are going to happen, and one should simply repair what damage may be fixed and take pains to not repeat that mistake in the future.”
“So you think you have digested that lesson?” She prodded with a soft smile for me. “The last one especially?”
“At least well enough to understand that I will work to avoid that particular mistake again.” I answered her honestly. “Though I can’t guarantee that I won’t make others in the future. Those, when they occur, will also be something to learn from. There is a wealth of experience around me to draw from and on when I need it. As I share my own knowledge and experience with others when asked.”
“I think she’ll do.” Ryoko grinned at Naomi then me with mischief sparkling in her eyes. “Thorns and all.”
“It took her long enough to get that lesson to penetrate her thick skull.” Naomi grinned back. “Kind of like someone else you know, Ryoko.”
“Indeed, and the effort there was well worth it.” Ryoko chuckled with a fond glance towards Naomi.
“Tell me something, Persephone, if you would?” Our hostess turned to me with curiosity clear on her face and in her posture.
“Don’t be so quick to agree, you may just regret that.” Her laugh was a rich musical sound that came from deep within her being. “But since you have agreed already, what do you think about this Protection of Women Act in your home country?”
“It’s dangerous.” I flatly told her. “I think the intent of that law is not so much to keep breeding age females on Earth as to keep them from Spacers. If a culture, especially one as new as the Spacers are forming, can’t breed, it will die. Which, I feel, is what the makers of that law intend.”
“Why do you think that way?”
“Because the governments on Earth are getting more and more uncomfortable with the independence Spacers are demonstrating, and with the enterprises they have formed out here. That is something you can see even in the filtered news items that have come out regarding the law. I believe the PWA is only the first move in an undeclared war against all Spacers.”
“Perceptive.” Ryoko nodded her agreement. “How do you feel about that?”
“Sad, and a little angry.” My answer was slow enough to show that I’d considered the idea before, but hadn’t quite formed that opinion until then. ”I’m afraid there are going to be some very tough times in the future, for both Spacers and Earth. Though I hope things don’t reach the point of an open war, for all our sakes.”
“And if it does?”
“Then I suppose I’ll find myself standing against the planet of my birth.” My answer was heavy, and filled with both sorrow and determination. “A viable, robust culture in space is Humanity’s last best hope. At least it is in my opinion.”
“An opinion shared by many.” Ryoko told me with a small smile and nod. “I have need of a good pilot to ferry certain people to meetings that it would be best that Earth not know about, Persephone. One who can do the job and not talk about the people she transports. Do you think you could do that?”
“The piloting or keeping my mouth shut?” I asked, then finished. “Yes to both.”
“Good.” She nodded almost to herself then turned to Naomi. “As usual, you are right, my friend. She is a rather remarkable young woman.”
I had the grace to blush at that compliment and keep my mouth closed. Conversation turned to pleasant small talk after that and our meeting broke up cordially after another fifteen minutes.
“You impressed her, Persey.” Naomi told me as we made our way back through the corridors towards my barracks.
“I only told the truth and did my best to behave myself.”
“That you did.” She chuckled. “What did you think of her?”
“I liked her.” My answer was certain then I added with a sigh. “And I just knew I was going to come away from meeting her with yet another job.”
“That is the price one pays for being good at what they do, dear.” Naomi laughed.
“I’ve noticed that.” I grumbled then chuckled myself.
Even though I’d gotten a handle on how to cope with the general things about care and feeding of a woman’s body, and was shamelessly asking the born girls in the group when the need arose, there were still problems with my schedule that I spent a lot of time working out with both my instructors and my students.
Think about it. I had to be ready to launch a shuttle, pick up passengers, and get them to where they needed to go on just about an hour notice. That interrupted a LOT of class time, not to mention free time. Then there was the insignificant detail of not being able to give anyone concerned a reasonable idea of what my schedule would be. But I’d signed on for that, and most importantly, to me, I was piloting again.
I was working my way through the forms of the tea ceremony slowly, almost dreamily, but couldn’t quite get the flowing, easy appearing but difficult to achieve moves exactly to my satisfaction.
“You seem to be having some problems with this one, Persephone-san?” A familiar voice questioned as I halted to draw in a deep breath. I looked up to see Ryoko watching me with a quizzical expression on her face. “I have heard you play that wonderful instrument of yours, and seen you pilot a ship. Tell me if you would, do you simply touch your glass armonica and hope you get it to sound as you would wish? Or just manipulate the controls of your ship to point it in the direction you intend it to go?”
“No, Ryoko-San.” I replied while thinking of what she had said. “My music comes from within, from my soul. My hands are only tools used for that to express itself. While my skills as a pilot flow from experience, knowledge, and love of what I do…”
“I see you understand, then.” Ryoko nodded in approval while showing a pleased and satisfied smile. You have the forms of this down quite well, but haven’t yet managed to make it flow from within to without. Try this tea ceremony once more with the same joy you give those other two things.”
I did. The motions, the actions seemed to move me and with a grace that I hadn’t managed to achieve before. I could have closed my eyes and performed flawlessly that time, and was confident that it would be so each time I performed the ceremony.
Finished, I bowed, the arose to face a smiling Ryoko. “Thank you. As Naomi-san has told you, at times it takes some effort to get things through my thick skull.”
“The interesting thing about thick skulls is that when they house a keen mind, once things do come clear they seldom leak out to be lost.” Ryoko answered with a grin and small chuckle. “As Naomi-San has doubtless pointed out, and as I did in our first meeting, I have some experience with thick skulls.”
“As I’ve been learning.” I answered with another bow and grin of my own. “Thank you again.”
“It is serendipitous, then, that I came to request that you be at berth 12 in one hour. Pack for a trip of several days duration, please.”
“In one hour, Ryoko-San.” I agreed. “I’ll be there.”
“Good. Until then, Master Pilot.” With a nod and smile, she turned and left me to my thoughts.
“Armstrong Control.” I spoke into the microphone attached to my headset while sending a burst of data containing my passenger list, planned length of stay, and general status. “Private Sloop Valentina requesting clearance to land.”
“Valentina. Armstrong Control.” A voice crackled in response. “You are cleared for landing on pad 17. Stand by to receive approach vectors.”
Those appeared on my screen in bright green, along with the orange tracks of other traffic in the area. None was close enough to be a concern.
“Roger that, Armstrong Control, I have them, and thanks.”
“Our pleasure, Valentina. Welcome to Luna. Armstrong Control out.”
Valentina is what pilots and crew term a sweet ship. That meant she was responsive when handled correctly, comfortable to fly and ride in, was sturdy and powerful enough for almost any foreseeable circumstance, and just felt good to be in. She was, and is, a fine lady who is a pure joy to fly. I know I fell in love the first time I set my hands to her controls.
I guided us into the assigned approach and descent, performed the fine maneuvers to place the sloop directly over the center of the pad then softly set her down with only a vague vibration to tell passengers we had landed.
“Ladies and Gentlemen.” I announced over the ship intercom. “We have arrived at Armstrong City and are on the landing pad. Debarkation tube is on its way and will be ready to use momentarily.”
Once the passengers, Rei Yotori, Ryoko Watanbe, and Justine Sterling had thanked me for a pleasant flight, then gotten off, with the crew’s assistance, I put Valentina to bed more or less, then made my own way out, headed for the pilot’s lounge my handheld showed me was within easy walking distance of the lock for pad 17 after taking a moment to give my ship an affectionate look through the port.
I heard a familiar voice as I reached the entrance to the lounge, and saw the pilot of the STOV Messenger, which I had ridden into orbit on the day I had last left Earth, Wilson Pritchard in an animated conversation with three other men. A surge of happiness filled me as I quietly entered the lounge and watched him turn to give me one of his infectious grins.
“Wil!” I greeted him with a tight hug once we’d closed the distance between each other. “Good to see you again.”
“Great to see you too, Persephone.” He responded with a chuckle. “Especially when you hand out greetings like that.”
There were three other pilots in the lounge, all giving me appraising looks and casting envious ones towards Wil. I gave them all a friendly smile then turned my attention back to my friend. “Are you going to be here long?”
“I have a 48 hour layover until my passengers are slotted to be leaving.” He responded, then gave me a questioning look. “You?”
“The same.” I told him then added quietly. “I Think our passengers are going to the same meetings here.”
“Yeah, these guys brought more high powered folks in just a little earlier, too. Come on over and meet them.” Wil pulled me towards the group, one with a patch for Apollo Freight, the largest private hauler in the solar system, another wore a ship patch for the Magnificent Molly, the largest space going ship men had ever built. The other waswearing a NASA flight suit. “Hey guys, meet the best damned pilot in this solar system, not to mention the prettiest.”
“Wil, have you always had this tendency to exaggerate?” I asked with a grin on my face.
“I never do that.” He protested then spoke to the other three. “Gentlemen, allow me to present Persephone Chartrand.”
“Glenn Hannings.” The guy in with the patch for Magnificent Molly briefly took my hand with a smile. “And if anything, Wil has been keeping secrets and downplaying just how truly lovely you are. I’m the chief pilot of Magnificent Molly.”
“Beautiful ship.” I answered while thinking that he wasn’t half bad himself. “Glad to meet you, Glenn.”
“This is Harlan Mercer from the Robert A. Heinlein.” Wil introduced the next man who took my hand.
“Hi Harlan.” I returned his broad smile and gently extracted my hand from his grasp. “You serve on a good ship, there.”
“I do at that.” Mercer nodded. “Good to finally meet the beauty who Wil swears stripped the skin off a nosey inspector trying to hold a launch up.”
“Oh, well, that tends to get a little blown out of proportion in the telling.” I assured him with a chuckle. “I only pulled out his fingernails.”
“You’re right, Wil.” Hannings put in as Mercer and the other laughed. “She’s a keeper.”
“And this gentleman, using that phrase in a general sense, is Captain Anton Neville, of NASA.” Wil turned me towards the last in the group with a grin. “Don’t let him get you into a dark room alone.”
“I’m not that bad, really.” Neville chuckled then shrugged. “I at least give a little warning when I have designs on a lady’s virtue.”
“Polite, too.” I observed as he gently took my hand and kissed its palm. That sent little tingles of pleasure running all the way up my shoulder then those gleefully charged to all points in my body. “I’ll bet you don’t have to ask any of the girls twice, either.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” He laughed. “I usually have to work on them for a while.”
“Well, I’m almost sure that’s because they like watching you work, Captain Neville.” I replied.
“Chartrand…” Giving me a speculative looking over, he asked the question I knew was going to come. “Would you be any relation to a Lieutenant Eric Chartrand who used to fly for NASA?”
“As a matter of fact.” I nodded while Wil gave him an almost stern look of approbation. “I am. That used to be me.”
“Holy shit.” His smile dropped for a moment in surprise, then returned even wider than it had been. “I’d heard that you’d gone to work for Care Givers, but hadn’t realized you’d gone all the way with them. This is really a pleasure, then. I’m very glad to meet you Ms. Chartrand, and I can tell these other two that Wil isn’t stretching the truth at all when he says you’re one Hell of a good pilot.”
“None needed, Ma’am.” Neville shook his head. “I’m only telling God’s own truth there and anyone who says different is going to have a fight on their hands, I promise you. Welcome back, Lt. Chartrand and it’s good to have you among us again.”
“It’s good to be back.” I assured him, more than a little relieved at his acceptance of who I was and who I had been.
“The Argonaut, right?” Mercer questioned while looking at me with more respect than I had ever expected to see regarding my piloting again.
“Yes, I was the pilot on her last trip.” I answered softly.
“Well Damn!” Hannings shook his head with a huge grin on his face. “I think this calls for a few drinks and some shop talk in a quiet bar somewhere.”
“Why not?” I answered with a low chuckle of my own. “I have 48 hours of liberty here and was wondering what to do with it.”
“Hold it gentlemen.” Wil held up a restraining hand for a second. “I think we need to handle this with a little more decorum than whooping our way to a sleazy bar. We are going to be with the prettiest lady on Luna after all.”
“What do you have in mind?” I questioned with a roll of my eyes.
“Whooping our way into some sleazy bar with you over my shoulder.” He answered with a straight face. “To hell with these other guys. I saw you first.”
“Umm, has possibilities.” I admitted while giving the others a wink. “But if you don’t mind, I think I can walk.”
“Have it your way then, milady.” He solemnly answered, then broke into another infectious smile that had all of us laughing as we exited the lounge.
The four of us enjoyed a long evening of seeing the sights in Armstrong City, with them as eager tour guides since it was my first time there. That was broken up by a few stops in promising looking establishments that did serve alcoholic beverages. We took care to limit our intake of those to one beer in each place, at least they did. I had one, decided it didn’t taste nearly as good as I recalled, and spent the rest of the evening sipping soft drinks.
“Ohhh.” I breathed as we reached the center of Tranquility Park and the monument that the Apollo 11 lander had become. “That is beautiful.”
“You got that right.” Wil answered quietly as he too gazed in wonder at the spindly, fragile looking thing that had brought men to the moon such a short time before. “I always come here when I’m in Armstrong City.”
“How can something so ugly, be beautiful?” I questioned in something like awe myself. “God, it is magnificent, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is.” Mercer replied as the other two simply stood there looking at the lander while lost in thoughts of their own.
“Thank you for bringing me here.” I told them. “All of you. I think this is a moment that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
“It does tend to hit us pilots that way, the first time one sees this.” Wil put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a quick squeeze.
I walked another few paces forward to read the inscription on a heavy bronze plaque with the representation of an eagle with spread wings at the top and read it slowly.
July 20, 1969
Neil A. Armstrong - Commander
Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. - Lunar Module Pilot
Michael Collins - Command Module Pilot
This Park is dedicated to all those who lived - and died -
To get us this far
The others took that time to say goodnight with promises of seeing us the next day, leaving Wil and me standing in that park lost in our own thoughts once we had said our own.
“Are you staying in the GSC facility here?” He questioned after a few minutes of comfortable silence between us.
“Not this time.” I answered with a lazy smile. “I’ve got a room reserved at the Armstrong Hilton this trip.”
“Coming up in the world, then, are we?” He asked with a twinkle in his eyes. “Or just getting tired of the simple life?”
“Oh, I could afford it.” I grinned back then shrugged. “I might even get used to that kind of thing in time, but this one is on Rei Yotori. She told me it was a gift and not to argue, just enjoy it.”
“Hey, got to keep her best pilot fat and happy.” Wil chuckled as I grimaced then beamed at that comment. “Would you mind if I escorted you that far, at least?”
“Why stop there?” I questioned while tilting my head and grinning. “If no one is expecting you, why not stay with me tonight? I may as well share the bounty, after all.”
“You don’t have to ask this old man something like that twice.” He answered with a wide smile. “Does your room have two beds?”
“It’s a suite.” I answered with a shrug. “And only the one bed, but it’s a big one from what I understand.”
“Now that’s an offer that no sane man would turn down.” Will chuckled. “I’ll accept on the condition that you let me buy dinner tomorrow.”
Wil was as much fun in bed as he was to be around in other situations. Sometimes I wonder how in creation I got any satisfaction at all before I became a Care Giver.
I also discovered that is quite easy for a woman to genuinely love more than one man that night. Besides being practical for the existing ratio of men to women in space and on Earth, that practice more than ever seemed to me as a very good incentive for group marriage. At least from the female point of view. It’s much, much easier to just say ‘Come on in!’ than having to chose between several very deserving guys.
The following day was largely uneventful, with the two of us being very lazy and not getting up till nearly 1100. Although that could have been because we’d been kind of busy until around 0500...
Going to dinner was when things began to get moderately interesting -- as in interesting like that old but fallacious Chinese curse. I wore a simple sleeveless sheathe dress in ice blue silk and matching shoes with a 3 inch heel for theoccasion. (Heels are NOT fun to wear for any length of time, believe me, but they do look sexy for the guys. Which is what I was aiming for that evening.) My makeup was minimal for an evening out, and my jewelry was tasteful, even expensive gold.
The five of us headed for an expensive restaurant that specialized in steaks and seafood. The Seafood was kept fresh on the premises, and the thought of having real crab legs made my mouth water just thinking about them. Unfortunately, the place was part of a chain that had its headquarters in the U.S. And the staff had an attitude on top of that.
“I’m sorry, sir.” The Maitre de gave me a halfway contemptuous look down his rather long nose while not sounding sorry at all. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to serve your group.”
“Why is that?” Wil asked with deceptive gentleness as the other three fellows began to take long, hard looks at the gentleman who was refusing us entrance.
“Four men in the company of one -- umm -- lady?” The man raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “It’s quite clear what kind of woman she is and we do not cater to that kind here.”
“Oh, and what kind is that?” I inquired while carefully keeping my temper from going off all over the jerk.
“Isn’t it obvious?” He cast a disdainful look in my direction and shook his head. “The lady is quite clearly one with -- shall I say -- very doubtful virtue?”
“The Lady is a Care Giver.” Wil told him flatly as his hands clenched into fists. I lightly touched his shoulder to keep him from leveling the guy. Although I was thinking of trying out my newly learned Judo and Karate skills on the supercilious ass.
“That organization is considered illegal by my company’s corporate office.” The Maitre de shook his head. “A criminal organization that employs whores who work the space lanes.”
“Listen you asshole.” Wil reached forward and grabbed his collar, pulling him close to his face while snarling. “This Lady is the best damned pilot in this part of the solar system, and I think you owe her an apology. NOW.”
Several large young men, obviously bouncers began to angle in our direction as Wil retained his grasp of the Maitre de’s collar to the point where the guy’s face had gone from red to purple. Glenn, Harlan, and Anton casually stepped in front of them wearing smiles that clearly told the newcomers that those three would really enjoy a piece of the unfolding action.
Glenn, Harlan, and Anton were the usual pilot types -- rangy and wiry, but not all that big physically. Not that it mattered to them. Anton stepped forward to tap one of the bully boys on the chest and stop his forward progress. “Listen, Bucky. We don’t want trouble with you guys, but if you’re going to insist, we’ll hand it back to you right here and now.”
“You’re going to have to leave.” The fellow blustered, clearly unsettled by the fact that none of the three were even a little worried by the presence of him and his companions.
“Oh, we will.” Anton grinned at him, and it wasn’t a nice grin, then gestured to the Maitre de still tightly in Wil’s clutches. “But first, that geek is going to make some apologies. He’s insulted a fellow pilot, and a good one. Just to make that worse, he’s also insulted a lady who didn’t deserve that from anyone. You do know what happens to guys who hurt a woman in space, right?”
“She isn’t hurt!” The man responded, a little too hastily. “And it’s illegal to space someone here on Luna. We’re civilized here.”
“Well we aren’t, friend.” Anton grinned again. “So if you and your friends here really want a piece of us, go ahead. Just remember that we’re pilots, and everybody knows that pilots are crazy. Your call.”
The three gave each other looks, then watched to make sure that Wil wasn’t really killing the Maitre De, shrugged, and walked away without a word.
“Now I don’t give a damn if you want to serve us or not.” Wil told the slowly strangling host with an evil little grin. “We don’t need to eat here, anyway. What I do give a rat’s ass about is that you’ve insulted a fine lady here and unless I hear a heartfelt apology when I let loose of you, I’m going to hurt you. Bad. Understand?”
Glenn, Harlan, and Anton were closely watching the now departing bouncers as Wil released the jerk’s collar. He let out several sharp coughs and gasped for breath, then glared back at myself appointed advocate.
“I’m waiting.” Wil grinned at the man then backed him against a wall with a nasty smile. “And my patience is kind of worn thin here if you catch my meaning.”
Maurice, or whatever his name was, swallowed, gave me a quick look, glanced away to see his bouncers intimidated by my other escorts.
“If I don’t hear a real apology within ten seconds.” Wil brought a fist up to the man’s face. “You’re going to wake up in the infirmary with lots of broken bones. Let’s hear it.”
“I’m sorry Miss.”
“Her name is Ms. Chartrand.” Wil helpfully pointed out while reaching for the man’s collar again.
“Ms. Chartrand.” The Maitre de drew in a deep breath, closed his eyes, opened them to look at me with something like the expression a trapped animal must have when the hunter closes in. “I -- uhh -- apologize most profoundly for my rudeness. I would be very pleased if you would accept my apology, with free meals, wine service, and desserts, not to mention the bar you all would have free access to. I had no intent to belittle you, it is company policy that I was following, that’s all. I’m truly sorry, Ma’am.”
“And that makes it better?” I asked with a heavy sigh. “Thanks but no thanks. We’ll find some street vendor to feed us tonight. I really hope I haven’t soiled your carpet too much by standing here.”
Ok, so it was mean. I was pissed off, and hurt. Plus glowing at the way the guys had defended me. “You can be sure that I’ll pass the word along about Care Givers not being welcome here. Maybe that way you’ll be able to avoid more unpleasantness like you’ve just had.”
Not to mention losing a TON of money. Care Givers are very well paid, and generally have enough money to actually burn if we wanted to do so.
“You can ban us, and that’s fine.” I told him with a broad smile I didn’t really feel inside. “But I can assure you that every Care Giver in the system will stop trading altogether with your parent company once I let them know about this. Have a nice evening.”
He actually flinched at that, and I simply gave him a malicious little grin in response. “Good bye. I wouldn’t dream of soiling your so-posh establishment with my presence.”
“My God.” Anton gave me an admiring and respectful look as we left the restaurant. “Now I do believe that you literally skinned that Fed alive over the comm.”
“I have a mean streak.” I shrugged with a little grin. “What can I say? Other than thank you all.”
I reinforced that with hugs and kisses all around. My God, why didn’t I ever meet a gal like me when I was a guy?
Come to think of it, I had. Naomi would probably have reacted better in the restaurant, but her thanks to her defenders would have been much the same as I quite happily passed around.
We must have been an interesting sight for people, dressed for a formal occasion but glomming hot dogs and Polish sausages from a street vendor on a park bench that evening.
“Hello ladies.” Dr. Watanbe cheerfully greeted us all in one of our personal intimacy classes. “I hope that all of you are adjusting well to your new conditions?”
That drew more than a few giggles and laughs from the assembled students. I knew that not one of us had gone without the attentions of a man, or had refused those, in the months we’d been on Yotori Station.
“Good.” The lady smiled at us, then winked. “Sharing our charms with the males of the species is one of the more enjoyable parts of what we do, isn’t it?”
There was a chorus of general, and enthusiastic, agreement to that statement.
“I am gratified that all of you are enjoying what you have now.” Ryoko chuckled. “But there is a far more serious side to all of this. Do any of you have an idea of what that may be?”
“Men will defend us, Watanbe-San.” I answered almost quietly. “They will harm other men who even so much as insult us.”
“Very good, Chartrand-San.” Watanbe nodded with a smile. “That is true. Women are a precious commodity here in space. Men will highly value you all, but more importantly, will defend you even against insults. You have great power, ladies, and should use it carefully. Men will kill at your whim, or command. I ask that you remember that at all times, and so take care of what you even may speak in jest to the men you will be taking care of. A wrong word could result in someone going through an airlock without a suit. Or at the very least, a serious beating.”
There was a collection of gasps and a murmur of talk between the assembled girls at that.
“Further, men will die to protect you.” Watanbe went on seriously. “And they would do so gladly. You mean that much to them. Do not, I implore you, abuse that power and privilege. Though they outnumber us greatly, I’m certain most, if not all, of you would heartily agree that men are precious, too. It would be a pity to waste them, wouldn’t it?”
Following those rather sobering revelations, the remainder of the class was actually fun. We got naked and shared our experiences with each other.
Let me tell you, there were a LOT of those to share.
“Did you enjoy your weekend with Wil?” Alistair asked me with a grin as we settled comfortably into his couch so close to each other that you would have thought we’d been bonded with some kind of super glue.
“Yes. I did.” I told him then gently pushed an elbow into his ribs. “You knew he was going to be there, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did.” Al chuckled and tightened his arm around my shoulders. “After all, you had promised to really make him enjoy being a man with you, right?”
“Well, not in so many words…” I trailed off then giggled. “But yes, I suppose I did.”
“All night long the first night I was on Luna.” I admitted with a little laugh before giving him a concerned look. “Does that bother you?”
“I know you can’t be exclusive, darling.” He replied while squeezing my shoulders affectionately. “For one thing it isn’t in your nature, for another Care Givers can’t do that and continue being what they are. So no, it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m actually happy for him. He’s a good man and deserved to have a good time with you.”
“Yes he did.” I answered with a happy little sigh then gave the most important man in my life a mischievous grin. “So did the other three guys. Let me tell you, that was a night all of us will remember for a long time.”
“You took on four guys in one night?”
“Well, they deserved it, and they shared, after all.” I answered with another giggle. I was actually beginning to get used to doing things like that.
“Besides, Glenn, Harlan, and Anton were ready to literally take a restaurant apart because the head waiter insulted me.”
“Would that be Glenn Hannings, Harlan Mercer, and Anton Neville?”
“Then consider yourself accepted wholeheartedly as an accredited pilot out here.” Al told me. “Those, along with Wil Pritchard, are about the best there are in space. If they defended you like that, then you are considered as one of their peers. Not to mention a good time in the sack.”
I hit him for that last one. Then showed him just how good I could be in the sack. He wasn’t all that surprised. But he was pleased.
New developments in the ongoing war in the Middle East involving reformation insurgents and established Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects came to light yesterday. Reports that reformist prisoners were being forcibly sex-changed, and having functioning wombs implanted were confirmed by an anonymous source in the Saudi government who provided vid footage of such an operation in progress. The source also was quoted as telling the Al-Aman Network “If these men are going to sin against Allah, they will pay the price in the real world, and provide a crop of new believers in our true faith as they do.”
Reactions in the Muslim nations ranged from shock, to approval to outright condemnation of the practice. Non-Muslim nations expressed outrage, but it is rumored that Chinese government officials have secretly contacted Saudi counterparts regarding the procedure.
In other news, Anti-Spacer sentiments in the industrially developed nations increased as raw material shortages for manufacturing increased over the last quarter, causing some manufacturing facilities to shut down operations until reserves of the difficult to obtain ores are replenished.
I won’t detail the events of the following year. I’ll just say that I learned more about being a Care Giver, taught more of the technical side of that, and generally settled comfortably into being what I was while still shuttling more than a few of The Powers That Be in Spacer culture to one meeting or another.
While doing that, I couldn’t help but see how relations between the Mother Planet and her Children were deteriorating.
“We have a flood of new students coming up from Tokyo.” Naomi told me almost two years to the day I had first set foot on Yotori Station. “The UN adopted the PWA as law today.”
“Then it’s started, hasn’t it?” I didn’t need an answer to that question.
“I’m afraid so, dear.” My redheaded friend and still occasional lover answered with worry in her voice. “It’s going to be war, whether we want that or not.”
“God help and forgive us.” I closed my eyes and drew in a slow breath.
“All of us.” Naomi agreed quietly.
The UN General Assembly formally adopted the Protection of Women Act as world-wide law earlier today despite vocal protests from the Japanese and Brazilian representatives to that body.
Once the vote had been confirmed, the Representatives of both those nations presented formal documents of withdrawal of their countries from that body. None of them remained for either discussion or interviews once the documents had been presented.
Sources in neither the Japanese or Brazilian governments would comment when contacted regarding their abrupt withdrawal from the UN.
I watched the new group come in and made a few personal mental notes about what I noticed.
While most, if not all of them were nervous, and obviously frightened by the sudden change in their status and events on Earth, some had quite simply taken charge and were doing their best to keep the others calm and in a reasonable semblance of order.
“Watch that one.” I quietly told Al as we looked the new group over and pointed out a petite, very pretty Asian girl -- probably Japanese, but I still wasn’t all that great at differentiating Asian nationalities at first sight -- who was shepherding a bunch of the others with both compassion and verve. “She’s going to be a good one.”
“I noticed.” He answered with a chuckle. “Reminds me of another newcomer I watched on the docking bays once.”
“Gee, I wonder who that was?” I asked with my best innocent look.
“Bio says she’s a pilot.” Al noted while looking over her stats. “Masako Yagimura, and has been aiming for space since she was in grade school.”
“Figures.” I nodded. “Is she a convert, too?”
“Yes, Born Kenneth.” Al answered then gave me a sidewise look. “What? Do you born males have some sort of radar to notice each other?”
“Kind of.” I agreed. “It’s just that a former genetic male is kind of amazed at what the female body can do and feel, and it shows to those of us who’ve been there already.”
“Well, you’ll be able to tell me about her piloting abilities.” He responded without rising to that bait. “Since I’m going to make sure that you’re her personal instructor.”
“You know?” I gave him a little dig in the ribs as I said that. “Normally I’d be giving you grief for that. But it this case, I think the young lady is going to be a really pleasant surprise. I just have that feeling.”
“Care to make a wager on that?” He asked with a raised eyebrow.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Oh, how about my special clam linguini -- with real white wine in the suace, against, oh, let’s say a week of you in the same bed with me on consecutive days?”
“Ah, that’s no bet.” I grimaced. “I’m a winner either way.”
“So am I.” Al grinned.
“You’re on, then.” I chuckled.
“Plus personal reports on Ms. Yagimura from you.” He added.
“Oh, those you’ll have.” I answered. “If she sucks as a pilot or is a good one. And I don’t think she is one who sucks at anything she decides to do, by the way, just from watching her with the others here.”
“That sounds disturbingly like someone else I know and love.” Al poked a finger into my ribs and elicited a giggle from the tickling that caused.
“You’re going to regret that.” I told him while grabbing the hand that was doing the tickling without being obvious about it in the public view. “I know your ticklish spots, and will shamelessly make use of that knowledge.”
“Like you don’t do that already.”
“I know.” I gave him a very satisfied, female to male look as I answered that one. “I’ve spent no small amount of time learning them.”
“You love it. Admit it now and avoid all the pain getting it pried out of you would involve.”
“Consider my surrender delivered.” Al grinned. “Though that was done the first day I saw you on the dock.”
“I know.” I kissed his cheek. “But I need that illusion of the chase, and allowing you to finally catch me, after all.”
“Can’t live with us, can’t stand to be without us.” I agreed.
“I suppose you would know about that”
“Damned right.” I answered while leaning into him and pressing my left breast firmly into his side. “I’ve seen both sides of the thing.”
“Gives you an unfair advantage there.”
Masako Yagimura was pretty well everything I had told Alistair she would be. With the exception of an incident where she leveled another newcomer with a single strike in the showers-- which she rather brilliantly and amusingly rectified by threatening to commit Seppuku right in the dining room in front of everyone -- kind of tame compared to my own blowup, she was an exemplary student and leader.
I had to bite my tongue when Alistair introduced me as ‘a flower’ to the new group. Right. With lots of thorns and NOT afraid to use them. I thought and knew that amusement showed in my eyes as I was presented to the class as a student flight instructor.
Though his comment about listening to me, if for no other reason than to let him listen to my beautiful voice pleased me -- for the comment about his loving my voice. I knew the bright ones among the new ones would see that I knew what I was talking about and listen.
I was not really looking forward to the next part of things, running the new students in flight through their first real tests on the simulators. That generally involved a lot more explanation time than actual sim time, and I was fully prepared to bite my tongue, hold back amusement at some of the more original mistakes they would make, and to keep from getting impatient over the inevitable questions, false starts, and restarts.
I drew Masako Yagimura, as Al had told me would happen -- the student I had pointed out to Al that first day of their arrival for a pilot, and Jill Stewart as Nav. Each greeted the other, and the news that they would be working together with happy smiles and hugs.
“I take it you two know each other, already?” I questioned needlessly with a small grin.
They confirmed that, and let me know that Jill, a stunning young lady, had been the one to really introduce Masako to Care Givers -- back when Masako had been a male. My smile for them was warm and genuine at discovering that and I let my thoughts momentarily drift to Naomi, who had left Yotori Station the day before to pick up the reins of the job she had been on leave from.
“All right.” I told them then waved the American girl forward into the simulator. “Jill, go ahead and get the systems up and ready, would you?”
As she moved inside the simulator, I turned to Masako. “Now I have a few questions for you here before we get started.”
Once I’d explained the twin stick system on the simulator, and determined that Masako was right handed, we entered and I watched the Japanese girl settle into the left seat and begin the undocking checklist in a very cool, efficient manner. Jill had things well set up and ready for her by the time we’d gotten inside. I had to admit to myself that I was beginning to be impressed. There was no hesitation at all from either one of them during preflight, and undocking which went very well.
Until an planned problem in the simulation came up once Masako had requested clearance to the Robert A. Heinlein, Apollo Freight’s flagship and her planned destination.
“Sally Ride, this is Houston, we read you. Negative on your clearance to Robert Heinlein, you are in violation of the Protection of Women Act. Alter your course to beacon NASA4127 to intercept with Washington Station for recall to Earth.”
”What do I do now?” Masako turned to ask me at that.
“I’m not here to ask.” I told her simply, interested to see how she would handle the situation. “Do what you think is right.”
“Yotori Station, this is Sally Ride.” She had chosen the best option, and was ordered back to her point of origin. The docking procedure went flawlessly the first time and I was really impressed. These two were GOOD.
“I have to tell you two that I’ve never seen anyone, myself included, who managed a near perfect docking on the first try. Good job you two.” I told them with a broad smile. “I’m looking forward to our next session to see whether this was a fluke or not. Though I kind of doubt that.”
“Oh, Masako reads a lot!” Jill Stewart giggled as the Japanese girl began to blush. “I don’t think we’ll disappoint you, Persephone-Sensei.”
“I’m pretty well sure you won’t.” I answered then gave them a malicious little smile that was tempered by the humor showing from my eyes. “But I’m going to test you both very hard. That’s what you get for doing so well the first time out. Be prepared.”
“I will do my best to make you proud, Persephone-Sensei.” Masako answered almost humbly.
“Well the first thing you can do about that is to start calling me Persey.” I told them both. It’s not quite the jawbreaker that ‘Persephone-Sensei’ is, and everyone else calls me that. We need to be comfortable with each other for you to learn everything I’m going to be teaching you here.”
“Impressive.” Al agreed as we through the Yagimura/Stewart simulation together. “You’re sure this wasn’t just a fluke arent you?”
“Very sure.” I answered while we watched Masako’s flawless work with the docking. “Masako Yagimura is a natural pilot, she has a feel for the controls that is nearly instinctive, and if today’s run was any indication she also makes good decisions when they’re needed. Paired up with Jill Stewart as Nav, I really think that pair is going to going to be a pleasant surprise for whoever gets their contract.”
“Yes, and they’ll be getting a great pilot and navigator, too.” Al chuckled as I balled one hand into a fist and shook it in mock anger.
“Do you guys ever think of anything other than that?”
“Well, only if we must.” He judiciously admitted, then grinned. “You should know, you were one of us before you changed sides, after all. Appreciating a fine looking lady is a genetic predisposition for most healthy males.”
“Right.” Rolling my eyes I turned back to the computer screen. “Would you believe that none of the new kids surrendered when they were told to divert to Washington Station?”
“Even so, they seem like a good bunch.” Al nodded then winced as the last pair I’d instructed showed on the screen. “Well, maybe with a few exceptions.”
“Hey, be fair about this, now.” I retorted then snickered. “After all it was their first time in a simulator.”
“What I’d like to know here.” He shook his head as the visuals replayed. “Is how they managed to glance off the station on the precise vector to take out that incoming supply shuttle.”
“Too much thrust, over control, then overcompensation.” I answered with a shrug. “I took them back through what happened and pointed out where they both went wrong. They’ll do better next time.”
“Oh, I’m sure of that. With you for a teacher.” Al drawled out with a lift of his eyebrows.
“They will, you watch.” I smiled up at him then added. “Now, back to that genetic predisposition you claim all healthy males are prone to…”
“We’re off duty in ten minutes.” He halfway protested as my fingers teased his short cropped hair. “Can’t it wait that long?”
Over the next several months, I ferried Rei Yotori and Ryoko Watanbe to a lot of meetings that grew longer as tensions with Earth increased. I was at the controls of Valentina, gently nudging the powerful sloop away from the Lunar Orbital Station that was still nuetral enough ground -- so to speak -- for all sides to meet and attempt to smooth events that seemed destined to break out into open warfare in the not too distant future.
“You handle her very well, Chartrand-San.” I heard from behind me as Valentina gracefully arced away from the station and I could safely turn my attention away from the controls for awhile as the automatics took over for the easy run back to Yotori Station. Rei Yotori stood there pensively watching Earth out of my view screen then turned back to me. “Valentina can be difficult to handle without a sure hand at her controls.”
“Thank you, Yotori-Sama,” I answered with a smile as I lightly patted the console in front of me. “She’s a good ship, but I could see how she might be a bit headstrong with a pilot who doesn’t understand her quirks.”
“You must have thoughts of your own regarding all these trips we have you flying us on.” She changed the subject with another thoughtful glance at Earth.
“Only an idiot wouldn’t have, Yotori-Sama.” I returned with a shrug. “Relations between Spacers in general and Mother Earth are deteriorating at a frightening pace. I know the other pilots who fly their own bosses to these meetings, and even know who those bosses are. Everyone is worried about the way things are going. It would only make sense to prepare some form of response if things get nasty between us and the Grounders. To do that, there would have to be organization at higher levels with people involved who hold positions insuring they would have their orders followed without a lot of questions being asked when the need arises.”
“Ahh.” She nodded slowly then gave me a long, measuring look. “So you think we are forming a kind of ‘Revolutionary Council’ at these meetings?”
“No, Yotori-Sama.” I replied quietly. “I think you may be hammering out the beginnings of a new government entirely in these meetings. One that isn’t tied to Earth at all. We, as a culture, will need that out here sooner than later, anyway. With the trouble looming with Earth, I am not the only one who believes that to be the case.”
“There are many of you among the students who feel that way?”
“Forgive my bluntness, Yotori-Sama, but you don’t exactly train us to be fools.” I answered with a small smile.
“Indeed we do not, Chartrand-San.” Rei Yotori agreed with a warm smile. “It is not such a difficult task when we have students like you.”
Masako’s big day had arrived. At least for her piloting it had. She was going to fly her first solo in the command seat of Sally Ride, a multi-purpose runabout used to transfer both freight and passengers. In this case the ship would be empty, but she would still be in command.
“You’ll do fine, Masako.” I assured her then turned to Jill. “You just make sure the vectors are right and your orbits will go so smoothly you’ll think you’re in your cabin here at the station.”
“Thank you, Sensei.” Masako answered almost somberly. “I will do my best to make you proud.”
“I know you will,both of you.” I responded with a smile while waving them towards the open lock. “Now get going. I’ll be watching from the Control room.”
I gave the standard speech regarding no planned glitches and that if something went wrong it was wrong and they needed to holler for help. Then I made sure they were both suited up properly -- they were -- and stood aside to let them enter the runabout.
Watching them close and seal the hatch gave me a feeling like I thought mothers must have the first day their child leaves for school on its own.
Al was waiting in Control as I entered with greetings for some of the staff that I had met before and took a spot just off to the side beside Al, where I could get a good view of what was going on.
“Very elegant.” Al Commented as Masako performed the undocking maneuvers and turned Sally Ride’s nose away from the station then headed towards her orbital vectors with an economy of motion that was lovely to see.
“Good start.” I agreed with a nod.
They were in their second orbit and looking very good, when the SOTV King’s Ransom sent out a worried call.
“This is the SOTV Kings Ransom, two on board; we have experienced primary attitude control failure. I am announcing a general distress call. Does anyone read me?”
Masako’s voice calmly came through on the distress frequency in response. “Kings Ransom, this is Runabout Sally Ride, I read you. I believe we are closest, how can we assist you?”
“This is Earth Orbit Control to all craft, hold positions and clear for emergency traffic. Sally Ride, you are confirmed closest vehicle. I paint you at two thousand miles relative.”
“Roger, Houston, I have a lock on their beacon.” Masako responded, then questioned. “ Kings Ransom, do you read me? How can we assist you?”
“Sally Ride, this is Kings Ransom, I have lost all attitude control and am tumbling on three axes, sufficient for about one quarter G in the cabin. I cannot get a fix on my position. I’m not even sure if I’ve crossed the orbit threshold. Can you assist?”
“Houston, Sally Ride, requesting permission to deviate from filed flight plan.”
“Granted Sally Ride, reset your guidance computer to receive and we’ll upload your new flight plan.”
“Are you sure they can handle this?” One of our controllers asked Al, and me. “They are on their first solo flight, so this is a lot to ask of them, don’t you think?”
“Looks like we’re about to find out, doesn’t it?” I answered while keeping my eyes nearly glued to the status screens. “But yes, of all my students, those two would have been the ones I’d have picked for something like this. They’re good.”
“Uh Yotori Station, Houston here.” Came over a different frequency, and the voice sounded concerned.
“Yotori Station, go ahead, Houston.”
“Are these kids up to this kind of thing? I see that it’s their first Solo in real space.”
“That is affirmative, Houston.” Al spoke in response. “This is Alistair Trevor and they’ve been training under me. Ready to receive their Simulator scores?”
“Ready, Yotori Station.” I’d commandeered a comp as this was going on and brought up the records on Masako and Jill, at their ok, I almost stabbed the key that sent the information to Houston, then gave Al a thumbs up as I smiled my thanks to the tech I’d displaced and allowed her to return to her station.
“Received and clear.” Houston acknowledged. “Thanks Yotori Station.”
The unfolding drama continued as Ground Control called Masako. “Sally Ride, Houston, we show you on course with an ETA of five minutes. Anticipating visual contact in two.”
“Roger, Houston.” Masako’s still calm voice responded then queried. “Kings Ransom, what is your life support status?”
“Life support is go thus far, no other systems failure,” said the voice of a young man.
“Houston to all craft, this is now a level one Emergency. Kings Ransom, you have failed orbit threshold. I say again, you have failed orbit threshold. We plot you thirty minutes to reentry.”
Well the proverbial excrement had just hit that air movement device with a vengeance. When the SOTV reentered the atmosphere in a tumble, they would either fall in too steep and burn up, or skim the atmosphere like a round stone on a pond and shoot out into space. While that was not the instant death sentence it used to be, it wasn’t easy to find a vessel moving that fast, especially if their beacons failed. Judging by the luck of whoever was on board, that seemed a distinct possibility.
Worse, Sally Ride could not enter the atmosphere after them below a certain point. She wasn’t built for re-entry and she’d fly apart. An older, somewhat distinguished voice came across the radio. There were qualities of the first to it, but there was a wealth of life experiences its tones spoke of that the first had not. “Pilot of the Sally Ride, please go to discreet four.”
We didn’t listen in to that one, but I could well imagine what the elder of the two on board King’s Ransom was saying to Masako. And also imagining with an internal smile how she was refusing to pull back.
“Houston, this is Sally Ride. I’m going to attempt to match rotation and if successful, I’ll try to dock. Can you tell me if our coupler will handle the stress of using my thrusters to null out that spin?”
“Stand by.” Things were getting very tense in the Control Room as we all waited for that answer. King’s Ransom was carrying Fred Hastings, Owner and CEO of Apollo Freight, only the biggest private corporation in the solar system. The other aboard was his son and only heir, Mike.
“Sally Ride, this is Houston, you’re a go if you can match rotation.”
“That’s absurd!” Came the simultaneously worried and calm voice of Fred. “Houston, if there is no other vessel in intercept range, so be it. I’ll not have two women killed saving me.”
“At this point, Mr. Hastings,” Respondedthe voice of the Controller. “Masako’s plan is pretty much your only shot. Let her try to match rotation. From what I’m hearing, the young lady is a natural.”
“A runabout doesn’t have the computing power to match a rotation…!” he protested.
“Mr. Hastings, Masako can line up a rotation in a runabout by eye. I’ve got her simulator records here. She’s good.”
We all spent a nearly breathless fifteen minutes watching helplessly as Masako lined Sally Ride up, then one by one matched the SOTV’s rotation.
“Go!” I breathed in a near prayer. “You’re almost there.”
As if she’d heard my whispered encouragement, Masako nosed the runabout into King’s Ransom’s docking coupler as if she did things like that every day. Al showed his own worry by muttering under his breath. Getting awful close to atmosphere there.”
“They’ve got time.” I assured him, wishing I felt as confident as I sounded.
A quiet cheer filled the room once Sally Ride had docked with King’s Ransom then I heard someone wish. “Get them aboard and get your butts out of there girls.”
I had to agree, the figures running at the bottom of the screen were showing both craft as being dangerously close to atmosphere.
“Kings Ransom, Houston, abandon ship expediently. Sally Ride does not have fuel to null your spin.” I could have told them that much without computing the thing out.
“Understood, Houston,” replied the younger voice.
“Houston, what’s our maximum ETD?” Masako asked.
“Sally Ride, you must be undocked and fire a forty second burn at twenty percent in no later than five minutes.”
“Understood. Hope you boys are packed over there.”
“Just equalizing pressure now, Miss Yagimura,” said Fred’s voice. “My dear, I am humbled. That was the finest display of flying I’ve seen in sixty years.”
“Houston, plot me a rotation for that burn please. Can you over lay it up here, or does Jill have to?”
“You’re laid in, Sally Ride. You don’t have to completely null out the tumble. Just get your nose pointed out to space and burn; we can work you back on course after.”
“Damn that was close!” I was almost shaking as I watched the ships separate, and King’s Ransom tumbled towards Earth, its skin already glowing from reentry. “Hit the Boost and get out of there, Masako.”
Sally Ride stopped rotating with a few bursts of masterfully applied attitude burns, then her main kicked in, pushing the runabout away from the deadly atmosphere and roughly towards the Moon.
“They MADE it!” Someone shouted, really shouted -- which is usually not tolerated in any Control room. As others joined in, hugging and cheering, I realized that first shout had been my own voice. Oh well, I just had to chalk that up to seeing my favorite students shine on their own in such a spectacular fashion.
We didn’t even care when Houston made a bald faced attempt to steal Masako from us over the radio. We knew where she belonged, and so did she. She was one of us, and had just proven it well enough that there would be no one who could deny it.
I looked up into Al’s face and grinned. “Told you she was good, didn’t I?”
“I never argue with a smart woman.” He grinned back.
Another thing came out pretty clearly once Sally Ride had docked and everyone unloaded. The younger Hastings and Masako were definitely very interested in each other.
That was further provenafter a performance by a number of us, Masako included with our musical instruments, and an exquisite dance done by Ryoko Watanbe, for the entertainment of our important guests. Masako and Mike Hastings were paired up for the night when we finished and neither one seemed averse to the match up.
“Excuse me.” Fred Hastings stopped on his own way out to speak with me briefly. “I believe we’ve met haven’t we?”
“Yes, Hastings-Sama.” I replied with a low bow (we were there in formal kimonos, so that was pretty well expected). “I have had that honor on several occasions, though all were short term. I am Yotori-Sama’s pilot.”
“You look different at the moment.” He nodded with a smile. “Even lovelier than you did on those other times. I understand that you are also the flight instructor for that remarkable young lady who rescued my son and me from disaster?”
“I hold that honor, Hastings-Sama.” I smiled, pleased at the compliment on my appearance and the question. “Though Yagimura-San has required only someone to guide her. She is a natural at what she does.”
“A good teacher will always say that.” He chuckled then nodded. “My thanks, for that, and your exquisite music this evening, Chartrand-San.”
“Both have been my pleasure.” I answered with a blush.
“Good night, then.” He finished with a low bow of his own for me then left the room with an amused Ryoko Watanbe on his arm.
Masako, if that man’s son is anything like he is, you’re in for a real treat tonight. I thought with an internal giggle.
I was so proud of Masako and Jill when they were presented with their astronaut’s wings, and promoted to the rank of Daughter in Care Givers. It was like watching my own children receiving honors. In a way, I guess I was.
Things were beginning to move very fast for all of us. Several days after Masako and Jill were presented with their wings, and promotions, Fred Hastings made an offer to take on their contracts. Rei Yotori pointed out that both were still in training, and the owner of Apollo Freight decided to take all of Masako’s class, plus instructors, aboard his company’s flagship the Robert A. Heinlein.
That group included myself, Al, and Ryoko Watanbe. I exchanged glances with Al then watched how Masako’s eyes positively glowed when she was looking at Mike Hastings. “Wow. Some guys will do anything to get their kids set up with a girl.”
“Behave yourself.” Al whispered back with a chuckle.
“I am behaving.” I answered him with an impish grin. “And the Heinlein is going to be one happy ship on that trip to Mars, isn’t it? With all these extra Care Givers aboard that should reduce the ratio to almost 2:1, don’t you think?”
“She’s a big ship, Persey.”
“I know, the biggest ever built by mankind until Magnificent Molly was commissioned.” I answered. “Four hundred meters long, with a crew numbering in the hundreds. It’s a good berth for a first contract, isn’t it?”
“Serving on the Heinlein is a good berth for any contract, my dear.” Al grinned. “Not to mention that you’ll be working with Naomi Foster. That should please you.”
“Well, I won’t deny that.” I responded while watching the girls from Masako’s Training flight head off to gather their things. While Masako and Michael Hasting went off to find a phone so he could make the necessary arrangements with the ship. “Naomi has been special to me since I first met her in Orlando.”
Rei Yotori gestured for Al and I to join her and the elder Hastings. As we did she was telling him. “I hope you understand that I’m giving up one of the few pilots here who can actually handle Valentina with the verve she deserves.”
“Well, I can only say that will be Heinlein’s gain, Rei.” Fred answered with a smile that held more than simply friendship for the lady then turned serious as he went on. “I wish you’d reconsider and come with us now.”
“We’ve been over this already, Fred-San.” She replied with a set to her shoulders and chin that indicated she had made her decision and was not changing it. “I will not run away and abandon my home to anyone, not even the UN. You can argue all you like about that, but my mind is made up.”
“All right, but I had to try just one more time.” With a sigh, he shrugged and turned his attention to Al and me. “Chartrand-San, it will be a pleasure to have you aboard Heinlein. Naomi Foster speaks very highly of you, as does Rei here, and Ryoko. If you’ve impressed them like that, I’m sure you’ll be a valuable addition to the crew.”
“Thank you, Hastings-Sama.” I gave him as formal a bow as one can manage when not in a Kimono, and smiled. “I look forward to being there and hope that I don’t disappoint you, or the ladies.”
“I’m sure you won’t.” Fred returned my smile as he gently took my hand and put a light kiss its palm. “Your simple presence would grace any ship or facility fortunate enough to have you posted there.”
At least I’d gotten used to that sort of thing. Mostly. I only blushed a little in response.
“Brigadier.” Fred turned to Al. “I’ll be very happy to have you and your experience aboard, too. Naomi will be pleased, too, I think.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hastings.” Al sketched a salute then held out his hand, which Fred shook. “It’s good to see you again, sir.”
“And you, Al.” Fred nodded. “Seems that my son is picking up some fine crew members with this deal, Rei.”
“Oh that you are.” Rei Yotori chuckled. “A few more than forty of them, to be specific. Care Givers takes pride in the quality of personnel we supply.”
“Mike, he told me in a quick aside. “Is Captain of the Heinlein.”
“Did I hear my name mentioned here?” The younger Hastings returned without Masako. “Arrangements have been made for quartering everyone, and the module will be ready for them in several hours.”
“Good.” Fred nodded then gestured towards me. “Mike, this is Persephone Chartrand. Your young lady’s flight instructor and a fine pilot herself.”
“So I’ve heard.” Mike turned to me with a friendly smile. “Masako, and Harlan Mercer have both told me about you. Welcome to the crew.”
“Thank you, Captain Hastings. I’ll do my best for you, I promise.”
“You ladies always do.” He replied with a pleasant smile that had me thinking I could well understand why Masako was so interested in him. “I won’t have room for you on the bridge rotation, but I’m sure Harlan, and the other shuttle pilots would be more than happy to have you added to their group.”
“I’ll look forward to joining them.” I answered.
“Oh, trust me, the feeling is mutual there.” Mike gave me a wry grin. “Harlan has been very eloquent in regards to you and your skills. I also know that you’ve more or less been working as Rei Yotori’s personal pilot, which is about the highest recommendation I can think of.”
“Hopefully I’ll live up to my advance press, sir.”
“You will do fine, Persephone-San.” Rei Yotori told me. “Your technical skills have increased and been further honed in your time here. As for your other skills… Well let’s say I have it on good authority that those are more than adequate.”
I gave Al a sidelong look and he innocently acted as if he hadn’t noticed. Bowing to Rei Yotori, I thanked her then added. “Grandmother, be careful here, please. It would cause all of us great pain to lose you.”
“Don’t worry about me, Chartrand-San.” With a gentle smile she took my hands in hers. “I will be fine. Now, shouldn’t you be getting your things together for your transfer to the Heinlein?”
“Yes, Grandmother.” With another low bow for her and Fred Hastings, I turned to leave.
“I think I will miss her playing that rather unique instrument and her lovely singing voice nearly as much as I will her piloting skills.” She commented with a sigh as I walked away.
It didn’t take all that long to get my things packed. After a few tears and lots of hugs from the girls in the barracks, I had a surplus of willing hands to help.
All too soon, I had my clothing, personal effects, and my glass armonica packed up and ready to go then was watching it being loaded into the runaboutChrista McAuliffe, while checking my vacuum suit to make sure I had everything as it should be. After that I simply watched as the other passengers arrived. Once again when I was suddenly leaving a familiar place, there were too many people for one ship to carry. Only this time I was to pilot Christa McAuliffe instead of being a passenger and impromptu hostess.
I turned to look at the familiar docks, and thought about my time on Yotori station with the heavy certainty that it was going be to a long time before I set foot on it again, if I ever did.
“Kind of hard to say goodbye to all of it.” Al had walked up to stand beside me and laid a hand on my shoulder.
“Yes it is.” I leaned into him for a few moments with a bittersweet smile on my face. “I worked my tail off here, but I love the place, and am really going to miss being here.”
“I know.” He commiserated. “But saying goodbyes is part of the job we do. It doesn’t get easier either with places you’ve gotten fond of. Not even with time and having done so more than you care to recall most of the time.”
“Yes, but still…”
“Well, woolgathering is fine for passengers.” Al gave me a pat on the shoulder.
“True enough.” I smiled and reached up to pull his face down so I could kiss him. Then let go and breathlessly finished. “I need to do the pre-flight checks on Christa now, or we’ll be chasing Heinlein once she boosts without us.”
“Good idea, my sweet.” He punctuated that with a playful slap to my bottom as I began walking away.
“You’re going to pay for that later.” I promised over my shoulder as I reached the access hatch.
“I always pay my debts.” Al answered a little smugly with a grin at my friendly one fingered salute in response.
“That’s what I’m counting on.” He threw back with a laugh. “Once we get ourselves settled on Heinlein.”
Damn, that man can be aggravating at times. Shaking my head in mock disgust I entered the access and moved into the crew cabin to get settled in for the checklist run through as my passengers boarded.
“Howdy, Skipper.” A voice I hadn’t heard in a while greeted my entrance and its owner waved to the left seat. “I recall riding right seat with you once before, Ma’am.”
I grinned in delight at as Jacob Underfeldt, the copilot and navigator of Messenger the STOV that had brought me up to Yotori station from the Gulf of Mexico saluted. “Cut the crap, Jake, and it’s good to see you too.”
“It’s always a pleasure to see you Persey.” His grin widened. “Especially since I missed you on Luna. Was visiting my wife and really wished I’d been around some when you were there, but there were things I had to get worked out with her about getting off Luna.”
“All you missed was me gawking like a tourist.” I laughed at his forlorn expression. “And giving a pompous head waiter a tongue lashing.”
“You do seem to have a knack for that kind of thing.” He agreed as I settled into the command seat and got myself strapped in.
“Well, let’s get this show on the road.” I began running a systems check to make sure that Christa was fully prepared for the short run to where Heinlein was waiting. “We can catch up some more on the way out. Are you going to Heinlein too?”
“Nope.” He answered with some regret. “Yotori station wants Christa back, so I’ll be flying her home once you nice folks get debarked.”
“Oh, well.” I watched the readouts and telltales going to green one by one. “Flight systems are go here.”
“Nav is up and running.” He added then began running through the checks item by item.
Once that was finished, I spoke into my microphone. “Yotori Control, Christa McAuliffe is a go on all systems. Soon as my passengers are settled back there, we are ready for undock.”
“Roger that, Christa McAuliffe. Sending you the vectors for rendezvous with Robert A. Heinlein now.”
“Got it.” Jake told me as the data came up on his screen.
“Received, Yotori Control.” I told them as the indicator for the access hatch being closed went from red to orange to unwavering green. “Christa McAuliffe is buttoned up and ready to go.”
“Acknowledged, Chritsa McAuliffe. Please stand by for clearance. Yotori Control out.”
“Well, now we wait for the traffic to lighten up a little.” I said while keying the intercom. “This is the Captain. We are awaiting clearance to undock, please get yourselves comfortable, strapped in, and make sure all carry ons are stowed in the overhead lockers.”
“We’re all set back here, Persey.” Al’s voice came back through the intercom. Then added with a lilt of mischief. “You forgot to wish us a pleasant flight.”
“I swear I’m going to get that man.” Shaking my head as I turned off the intercom I noticed Jake smirking. “What?”
“I thought you already had him.” He responded with a chuckle. “If not, how long are you going to let the poor guy chase you before you finally reel him in?”
“Wonderful.” I groused, but grinned back at him. “Every man I run across today wants to be difficult.”
“Gotta keep you ladies on your toes, after all.” Jake returned with an even wider grin.
“Sure you do.” I rolled my eyes then returned my full attention to the status boards.
“Christa McAuliffe, Yotori Control here. You have clearance to begin undocking maneuvers.”
“Roger, Yotori Control.” I answered while lifting the cover on the release switch for all the cables and hoses attached to Christa while she was docked and started the flight that was to take me from one stage of my life into another.
As the connections withdrew, and the clamps holding us to the station released, I once again wondered if I would see Yotori Station in the future.
Once we had gotten a safe distance from the ring, I got back on the comm. “Christa McAuliffe is clear, Yotori control. Preparing for attitude burn here.”
“Good to go, Christa McAuliffe. Have a good flight. Yotori control out.”
“Show off.” Jake grinned as I used a single quick burst to orient us on the vector to reach the Heinlein, then corrected as Christa’s nose lined up.
“I love being a pilot.” I responded with a grin. “Got those numbers put in for me?”
“Ready to go when you are, skipper.” He confirmed, reaching out to toggle the boost warning in the passenger cabin.
“All right.” I flipped the switch that uncovered the main drive, and keyed the intercom. “We’ll be doing a one minute burn in thirty seconds beginning on my mark. Thirty…”
“Zero.” I began the burn that propelled Christa away from Yotori station and towards the waiting Heinlein. Once that finished we went into freefall and started more or less coasting towards our destination.
Then I switched frequencies to contact the Heinlein. “Robert A. Heinlein, runabout Christa McAuliffe enroute to rendezvous, ETA one hour ten minutes.”
“Heinlein here, Christa McAuliffe.” The answer came back in a few seconds. “Roger that. We’ll leave the light on for you here.”
“Thanks, Heinlein.” I responded with a chuckle. “Christa McAuliffe, out.”
Jake and I caught up with each other’s doings during part of that trip. The rest was aligning to match velocities with Heinlein, so we would neither over shoot or fall short of our mark.
Talking about it, or even thinking you knew it, was not quite the same as actually seeing the Robert A. Heinlein with your own eyes. It’s one thing to talk about a ship that is four-hundred meters long, even to envision such a thing. But to actually see it growing closer in your forward view port is another thing altogether.
“Something to see, isn’t she?” Jake questioned as I watched the immense vessel grow ever larger in my view. As she did, I idly noted that there were what appeared to be extra boosters strapped on to her bulk.
“That she is, my friend.” I agreed softly then shook my head. “Time to get to business. We’ve got passengers to get safely aboard her.”
“Vectors still holding as plotted.” Jake responded with a shrug. It’s your show now, skipper.”
“Got it.” Keying the ship to ship frequency, I announced our arrival. “Robert A. Heinlein, Christa McAuliffe requesting clearance to dock.”
“Christa McAuliffe, Robert A. Heinlein here. You are cleared to dock in bay 14. Stand by for docking vectors.”
“Roger that, Heinlein.” I answered as the vectors appeared on my screen with a flashing red light where the bay was. “We have it and are preparing for final approach.”
I made the minute corrections that lined up the nose with the empty bay, and eased Christa into the waiting port without much more than a soft bump as we settled into the berth.
“Heinlein, Christa McAuliffe is in and ready for a nap.” I told the controller through the comm.
“Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen.” The response came with a tone of admiration. “Beautiful docking, if I might say that.”
“You might.” I replied with a chuckle. “Thanks, Heinlein.”
“Connections secure.” Jake informed me as the bay doors began to close and a dull clang informed us that the access tube was in place. He turned in his seat wearing a huge smile. “I have to say that it was a pleasure flying with you, skipper. And you’re a lot easier on the eyes than Wil ever thought of being.”
“Speak for yourself, on that one.” I laughed. “It was good to fly with you again, Jake. Let’s hope the next time we run into each other isn’t two years away, what do you say?”
“No arguments there, Persey.”
“We have pressure equalized for debarking.” I told him as the indicator for the hatch showed bright green. “Might as well get our passengers up and out of here.”
“You got it, skipper.” He answered, unstrapping and standing up to stretch. “I’ll get them going back there while you put Christa into standby.”
“On it, Jake.” I replied as he left the command cabin.
“Just to make it official everyone, Welcome to the Robert A. Heinlein.” I announced over the intercom. “I hope you all enjoy your stay.”
I was pretty well sure that I was going to.
Al had waited for me while I put Christa into standby and was chatting amiably with Jake once I walked back into the passenger cabin. Jake nodded to me with a grin as I joined them. “Well, no one forgot anything back here. Let’s get your stuff out so I can top up the tanks and head back.”
“Are you turning around that soon?” I questioned with a sad look on my face that I knew worked from experience with Al.
”Have to, hon.” Jake shrugged. “Captain Hastings is wanting Heinlein to boost just as soon as possible. Which means, I need to turn Christa around and head back soon as I can.”
“Who’s going to second you on the way back?” I asked with concern. It was not a real good idea to fly solo in space. Too many things could happen that required more than two hands.
“Got a pilot on rotation home to Luna going to sit left seat for me on the return trip. Don’t worry, I’m not crazy or desperate enough to try a solo run on even an easy jaunt like that.”
“Just so you do.” I answered, giving him a hug. “Otherwise, I’d use what little influence I have to add to the mass Heinlein is taking to Mars.”
“You might just manage to pull that kind of thing off, too.” He laughed.
“I would.” I answered quite seriously. “Rather than see you flying solo at all. Not that I doubt your abilities…”
“I know,I know.” He waved my protests off with another grin. “No one sane goes into space alone. Then again, there have been rumors about my mental status.”
“Mine too, for what it’s worth.” I told him then asked. “How long are you going to be aboard?”
“Just until Christa is refueled, and my second gets here.” He sighed.
“Well, you know you have a rain check on that promise I gave you, right?”
“I’ll collect another time, dear lady.” Jake solemnly promised, getting a laugh out of both me and Al. “I’ll hold that promise dear to my heart, and other parts of me, until it comes to pass.”
“You do that.” I answered with a grin.
“Not to worry, I will.” He chucked me under the chin, something that no one had ever done to me before and chuckled. “But now I need to be watching the refueling and get my second familiarized with Crhista’s little quirks. You go get settled in and let me get to business. Okay?”
“You be careful, Jake. Things are going to shit real fast around here.”
“I know it.” He answered quietly. “But someone has to be here when it hits the fan, just to give them something to shoot at, if you know what I mean.”
“Much as I hate that, yes I do.” I admitted. “Just make sure you get clear when it all comes down like a load of concrete blocks from fifty feet up, ok?”
“I hear that, loud and clear.” Jake nodded his head. “Don’t worry. I’ll be one of the people getting the other people out when it happens. That means I’ll be getting out too. Much as I would hate leaving anyone behind if it comes to that, my job is being a pilot or navigator, and that’s what I’ll do.”
“Good.” I gave him a tight hug. “There’s a reason most heroes die young, you know.”
“Yeah, they got no common sense.” He laughed.
“Right. Just take care of yourself. Promise me that?”
“You know I will.”
I had to accept that. The refueling crew had arrived, along with the pilot who was returning to Earth via Yotori station. I gave that one a friendly nod, then gave Jake a goodbye kiss. “See you again, then.”
“I’ll look forward to that.”
“You’d better.” I poked him in the ribs. “I know I will be.”
The last I saw of Jacob Underfeldt for a long time was him entering the access to Christa with another pilot in tow. All the while in animated conversation with the other.
“Welcome aboard the Heinelin.” Naomi greeted both Al and me with a hug as we supervised the men getting my things into the quarters I’d been assigned. One of the perks of being both a female and a Care Giver in space was there were always more willing hands than were needed when you ask for help with something.
“Thanks, Naomi.” I returned the hug, then stepped back and grinned. “Or should I be saying Mother Naomi?”
“No need to get formal here.” The redhead shook her head with a little chuckle. “We’ve known each other since before you even thought of joining Care Givers, Persey. Old friends don’t use all those titles when they’re just enjoying each other’s company, and you know that.”
“I know.” I answered with another grin. “But I just had to say it once, at least. You know how I am.”
“All too well, dear.” Naomi laughed then turned to Al, who had been standing quietly to the side. “Did you have a good flight out?”
“Very.” Al nodded with an amused glance at me. “Persey was our pilot.”
“Say no more.” Naomi nodded returning her attention to me. “I know you aren’t quite settled in yet, but our head pilot would really like to meet you as soon as it can be done.”
“Sure, just let me get out of this EVA suit and into something I can move around in without being so careful of the furnishings.” I responded. “I really don’t have all that much to unpack, and everything is already in here.”
“Great.” The redhead nodded. “I’ll call her and let her know.”
I got out of the suit, with Al’s help, then stripped off the utility coverall that went under it without a thought for my nudity as I pulled off the ‘diaper’ that women wore in space to take care of those little emergencies when facilities either weren’t available or you couldn’t take the time to use them.
Putting that into the disposal bin, I padded to the bathroom and did a quick splash and soap, then rinse to get rid of the inevitable aroma that hangs on a body after being in an EVA suit for any length of time. I noted with more than a little pleasure that hot water didn’t appear to be a problem at all there and made a note to take a longer, more luxurious shower later on.
Getting into my underwear, I looked up at Al, who had been watching the whole sequence of events. “What? You’ve seen this all before.”
“Well, yes.” He admitted then shot me a quick, slightly embarrassed grin. “But I’m still enthralled every time I see you nude. Can’t help it, you know.”
“Gotta be something genetic in you guys.” I laughed while pulling on my flight suit and low boots, then turned to a smiling Naomi as I started to braid my hair. “Ok, I’m ready.”
“Looks like the Brigadier is, too.” She chuckled while giving a meaningful glance to his crotch.
“Hey now!” He protested with as much dignity as he could muster -- which was quite a bit, but entirely bogus in that situation. “I do have something called discipline you know.”
“Methinks the gentleman protests too much.” Naomi chuckled while giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “But that’s okay, dear. We know you love us.”
“See you later, Al.” I gave him a quick kiss and headed for the hatch, turning to give him a sultry glance and quick grin. “You go get settled, and I’ll call you when I’m finished, okay?”
Rebecca Stevens, the head pilot aboard Heinlein was approaching middle age but doing so gracefully. There was gray in her hair, but she wore it proudly, as if she’d earned each one of them individually and considered them badges of honor. Her attractive face showed a tentative smile as her eyes showed she was considering the best way to begin the interview, which both of us knew this was.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am.” I started, with a warm smile that I hoped would thaw her some. “Persephone Chartrand reporting for duty.”
“Welcome aboard, Ms. Chartrand.” Stevens answered with a slight warming in her own expression. “What do you think of Heinlein so far?”
“I’m impressed with what I’ve seen, but that hasn’t been all that much of the inside as of yet.” I told her honestly. “From the outside, she’s awe inspiring.”
“That she is.” Rebecca nodded with a wider grin then added. “Wait till you get a look at Magnificent Molly, she’s even bigger and newer. But Heinlein is our ship.”
“Our ship.” I repeated with a bit of reverence in my voice. “I like the sound of that, you know.”
“You should, but do you mind if I ask why?”
“No, it’s no secret that a berth of any kind on the Heinlein is a real plum for any Spacer’s resume.” I told her. “But more than that, I’m just happy to be shipping out again, and glad to have the chance of working with an experienced crew on a big ship. There is a lot I can learn here, and I intend to do my best to get all of that I can while I’m aboard.”
“Would you be disappointed if you don’t get to con her?”
“I’d be lying to you if I said no to that.” I shrugged. “But I’m a pilot first. So long as I’m flying, I’ll be happy, no matter what I’m flying.”
“Good enough for me.” Rebecca held out her hand and I took it, pleased with her firm grip and working to return it without being -- well, masculine about it. “You are, by all accounts, a very good pilot, and your personnel folder has some pretty impressive things in it. Flight Instructor on Yotori Station, Personal pilot for Rei Yotori, a very high recommendation from one of my own pilots, and that Argonaut incident.”
“Thanks.” I responded, my thoughts clouding a bit at mention of the Argonaut’s disastrous final voyage.
“Does that one still bother you?”
“I wouldn’t be a pilot anyone could trust if it didn’t, Ma’am.” I answered slowly. “I lost a ship there, and my copilot and friend died in the accident.”
“Wasn’t your fault, Ms. Chartrand.” Rebecca’s voice softened as she noted my troubled expression. “I imagine you’ve heard that before, and what you and your copilot did with that wounded bird has become one of the legends Spacers pass around when they’re drinking and relaxing among themselves. I only want to know how you think you’d react when something goes wrong with the ship you’re flying, here. Didn’t mean to dredge up unpleasant memories.”
“Yes you did.” I told her with a small grin. “But that’s alright I know why you did it. To answer that question, I’d still work to take care of the people I was in command of, and to get the problem under control. I can’t give you a different answer there.”
“Good enough for me.” Rebecca nodded with a smile. “Sorry, for what that’s worth. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t have some Prima-Donna aboard who would either want special handling or pout about her postings.”
“While I’ll freely admit to having a bit of a temper.” I actually chuckled at that thought. “I’m sure as hell no Prima-Donna. There’s no room for that kind of attitude in space. You do what you have to, and don’t bitch about it. I just kind of lucked out on that ‘personal pilot thing’, is all. I don’t expect or need to get any kind of special treatment or handling, and would hope that no one thinks I would. Something like that would actually be more than a little insulting, if you think about it.”
“Yes it would.” Rebecca laughed and shook her head. “Okay, Persephone, if I may call you that, you are one of the good ones, like Harlan has been insisting since he met you on Luna. I just had to check you out for myself is all.”
“Call me Persey.” I answered with a little shrug. “Everyone does, it isn’t as awkward as my full name for most people. And you have a job to do, no need to explain that to me. I’d respect you a lot less if you hadn’t approached this the way you did, if that’s worth anything.”
“It is.” She replied with a genuine smile. “I think you and I are going to get along just fine, Persey. I value honesty in my staff as much as competence. And call me Becky. The rest of my pilots do.”
“Well, you got both of those when you got me, Becky.” I answered without overt pride or shame. “I’m generally a pretty up front person.”
“So I’ve heard.” Rebecca laughed and rose from her desk. “Well, I know Captain Hastings told you he really had no room for you on the bridge rotation, but I’m Head Pilot on this ship, so you’ll get your chance to con her, I promise. Mostly though, you’ll probably be working with the shuttles on survey work, transport, things like that.”
“Like I said, if I’m flying, I’m happy.”
“Yes, I think I’m going to like you a lot, Persey.” Becky gestured towards her office hatch. “Go ahead and get yourself settled in. I’ll be having a meeting with all the pilots, new ones included, tomorrow or the next day. Depends on how long my first interviews go on and I understand that you ladies brought a lot of pilots in when you came.”
“Oh, counting those still in training, around a dozen.” I agreed.
“Then I can see I’m going to be busy for a while.” Rebecca gave me a wry grin. Better expect that meeting either late tomorrow or the next day, then.”
I liked Rebecca Stevens almost right away. We pretty much understood each other from the start.
On my way back to my quarters I stopped by the training area to make sure there would be enough free time on one of the simulators for me to make use of the next day. Walking up to a counter at the side, I addressed the man seated behind it. “Hi, I’m Peresephone Chartrand, one of the new pilots here.”
When he turned around, I noted to my pleased surprise that it was Harlan Mercer. “I think we’ve met, you know.”
“Sorry, Harlan, I just hadn’t recognized the back of your head is all.” I answered with a grin. “I was just wanting to check on the availability of a simulator for me to work in tomorrow.”
“Wait one, please?” He asked, turning back to what he had been doing and speaking into a microphone. “S’Okay, Sev. I’ve got the one you wanted loaded and ready to go now. Have at it.”
As I watched him flip a series of switches on the console behind the counter I realized why he had missed my entrance. “Got sim duty today do you?”
“All week, to be truthful.” He shrugged. “All the senior pilots take our turns here as flight trainers. Don’t worry I expect Becky will have you enjoying yourself back here in no time at all, too. By the way, have you met Becky yet?”
“Yes I just came from her office.”
“Good.” With a nod he waved at me to sit down on a stool high enough to let me see over the counter without appearing like I was waiting in ambush for whoever was on the other side. Make yourself comfortable while I slot you in a time. How long do you think you’d want to do tomorrow?”
“I’d like to have at least an hour.” I told him. “But I’ll quite happily take what I can get.”
“Got more than enough time open after 1200 hours, if that’ll work for you.” Checking his screen he nodded. Before that, though I can only get you a half hour slot at a time. Got your new kids training up in the morning now.”
“Oh, then I’ll most likely be here with them, too.” I let out a sigh while thinking that Al hadn’t lost any time at all getting that scheduled.
“S’what I heard from the general.” Harlan agreed then looked up at me with a wide grin. “Look, if you don’t have anything planned later, I’m off duty in an hour and would be happy to give you a cook’s tour of the ship, and introduce you to some of the other flight crews here.”
“Sounds good. I’d like that.”
“Great.” He replied with another grin while shooing me away. “Now go find something else to do for an hour, please. You’re distracting me and some of the others in here just now.”
“Better get used to that.” I teased while giving the others I was ‘distracting’ a cheery little wave. “There are a lot of Care Givers in this new group who are flight, you know.”
“So I heard.”
“See you later then.” I told him as I headed out of the training area.
“Gawd! I’ve died and got into Heaven by mistake.” Someone moaned as I left. “More’n a dozen of ‘em in flight! This is gonna be one real happy trip.”
I closed my eyes, shook my head, and stifled a giggle. Then headed for my quarters to finish up my unpacking. But not before giving them all a cute little shake of my butt as I made my exit.
The Quarters I’d been assigned were spacious for a space going billet, designed for paying passengers when Heinlein was hauling people instead of freight. I was the odd numbered person there, so again, I had quarters to myself, not that I thought that would present the problem it had once before.
“One last thing here.” Harlan told me towards the end of the thumbnail tour he’d been giving me as we stopped in front of a view port and he pointed out a fairly large shuttle clamped to the hull about twenty meters away from the port. “That’s Glory Road, an all purpose bird we use a lot. I have it on pretty good authority that she’s going to more or less be your own special baby this trip. You’ll be part of the pilot rotation, but most of your time is going to spent flying this one.”
“Really?” Glory Road wasn’t pretty on the surface or sleek like an atmosphere capable craft, but there were indications that the ship was more than she first appeared. Like the larger than normal steering/cooling vanes for one thing. “She’s got a pretty good sized power plant there, doesn’t she?”
“A pair of Rolls Royce series fifteen-thousand A’s.” He agreed with a grin.
“Two of them?” I gave him, then the shuttle a longer looking over. “One of those babies would push a regular shuttle, or even a bigger ship plenty fast. What about G-compensation for crew?”
“Gee wee’s double the size of normal.” Harlan answered then pointed out a bulge just below the tip of the shuttle’s blunted nose. “That’s a high powered mining laser, we use her a lot for survey work and obtaining samples. Occasionally getting chunks of ice for water replenishment while en-route, too. Got air scrubbers, and even bunks in there. With a crew of three, she could stay out for, oh, six, seven days. A little longer if you didn’t mind stale air. Carries enough fuel to reach about fifty Gees in a pinch and keep that up for awhile.”
“Is there any room for people aboard her?” I questioned half jokingly.
“Well, the living space is kind of crammed in with the command cabin.” Harlan shrugged. Most of the space not taken up by engines, life support gear, and fuel tanks is left open for cargo or passengers in a tight spot if they don’t mind an uncomfortable ride. She also carries three sample drones for getting things back to Heinlein in a hurry.”
“All of that in a thirty meter ship.” I shook my head in wonder. “I’m going to need a shoehorn just to get in.”
“Thirty-five meters.” He corrected with a chuckle. “And it isn’t that bad. I get in and out of her with no problems.”
I thumped his chest lightly and grinned. “Yeah, but you are a little more -- umm -- compact in places than I am, you know.”
“Oh yeah, I noticed.” He leered at my chest, then my hips and bottom for a few seconds after saying that.
“A proud, card carrying member of that group, too, I might add.” Harlan joined me in laughing. “Us space rats kind of come by all that naturally, you know.”
“That has come to my attention one time or another.” I agreed.
“Ok, let’s go see the flight crew lounge, and that’ll be about it for this time out.” He adroitly changed the subject while heading away from the port.
“Right behind you.” I chuckled. “Where it’s safe to walk.”
The lounge for flight crews was really well set up, with entertainment decks, a non-alcoholic bar, comfortable seating, and even a few curtained off alcoves that held bunks for catching a nap when one was on a long duty pull but not flying. Not all the piloting and Nav people there were male, either, but all of them made me feel welcome.
The Heinlein did have strap on boosters,as I’d noticed when approaching the first time. We were doing an easy fifty Gees by the time that first burn finished up. Pretty damned impressive for a ship of that size and mass. It was pretty clear that someone was in a hurry to reach Mars, or maybe just to get us out of reach to the closer elements of Earth’s Space Forces. Maybe both, and on sober thought, I decided on the latter.
The following days were a confusion of getting everyone settled in, continued training for the girls in Masako’s group, and me getting settled into a duty rotation in Heinlein’s active crew.
Not to mention grabbing some simulator time of my own when I got the chance. But my last days as an official student were approaching quickly. There was one last Personal Intimacy class that I needed to attend and I would be officially graduated from the training roster and really be a full-fledged Care Giver. On reflection, it hadn’t seemed like all that long ago that I’d first gotten off that couch and seen a lovely, but skinny young lady in the mirror for the first time.
I caught the surprised looks from Masako, and others in her class, as they spotted me among the gathering for that last class in Personal Intimacy. I answered those with a slight shrug and a grin for their benefit. I’m sure my eyes were fairly crackling with repressed amusement when I did that.
“Settle down, ladies,” called Doctor Wantabe as she swept into the rather sizable recreation room of the Heinlein that we had co-opted into a class room. The furniture, mostly very comfortable couches and chairs had been re-arranged into a conversational grouping around a white board and dry erase markers. I also noticed several off duty male hands hanging around, whether to watch the new girls, or in hopes that this class would need volunteers for demonstration purposes. Captain Hastings was among those, beside a large, pleasantly put together fellow who seemed very close to him. Doctor Wantabe stopped by the white board to write:
Advanced Physical Intimacy Final Ethics
“Anyone care to make a guess what we’re going to talk about today?” she asked with a wry grin. Mike Hastings actually raised his hand. “Yes, Captain?”
“Is this the class where you talk about whips and chains and candle wax?” he asked, sending a ripple of laughter throughout the room.
Doctor Wantabe was consoling. “Alas, no, Captain, that was about two weeks ago. Sorry you missed it.” He blushed at her answer and the collective giggles from the assembled ladies. “Anyone else?”
“Sensei?” asked one of the girls softly. “Are you talking about Marriage and Children?”
“Yes, I am, very good Susan.” She turned and wrote that on the board as a pair of bullet items. “Let’s start with Marriage. Anyone have a thought on how marriage will affect your careers?”
“Won’t it end them?” asked another, a pretty Hispanic girl quizzically.
“I have four husbands and a sister wife, Carmen,” was the Doctors response. “I’m still here.”
“Four?” demanded another halfway astonished voice from across the room.
“And a sister wife,” corrected Ryoko. “And, this is as good a time as any to announce my engagement to my fifth husband, Commodore Fred Hastings.” There was a murmur of applause and congratulations. “Polygamy and the group marriage has become the accepted norm in space, girls. Just because you get married doesn’t mean you stop being Care Givers along with everything that the job entails.”
“And they’re ok with that?” asked another of the girls.
“Don’t assume anything about everyone,” cautioned Doctor Wantabe. “As you girls advance in your careers, you will receive marriage proposals. Make sure your betrothed understands that even if you try the monogamous model in your marries lives, exclusivity to one partner sexually is not something you have the luxury to bring to that marriage. Unless you resign your positions, with all the fines and penalties that implies. Quite simply, girls, we have too much invested in you to lose you that way. Captain? Would you care to comment on your opinion of the Spacer view of marriage?”
“Well, I guess I could, Doctor. I’m not exactly an expert.”
“Don’t be shy,” she encouraged while gesturing him to the front of the room. “We’re eager to hear your view.”
He rather hesitantly made his way there, grinning a lop sided grin that reminded me a bit of Al as he appreciatively looked out at the sea of female faces gazing expectantly at him.
“Boy, here’s a sight that will live in my fantasies for a while,” he quipped. We all giggled. “Well, I can’t talk about an entire society of people with any kind of authority, so I’ll have to rely on a personal anecdote I’m afraid. As far as my friends and the other Captain’s in my company go, the group marriage is pretty much the norm. I’m still single, but I’m a part of a relationship with my good friend and lover Todd over there.” Todd was an imposing fellow with ebony skin and the features of an idealized Tribal Chieftain. Did I mention that he was also handsome enough to draw interested looks from most of the girls there?
The room paused to exchange looks between the two and Todd’s somewhat embarrassed wave with his fingers as The Captain went on. “My mother wasn’t a Care Giver, and while she and my dad were exclusive to each other, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told how rare that was. It wasn’t that they loved each other more than some of my other friends in group marriages love their particular spouses; they were a different generation from the beginnings of civilian space flight.
“My dad was twenty when Spaceship One was launched the first time. Back then, being in a group marriage was a crime. And while the ratios weren’t 1:1, they were certainly a lot better than today.”
All the way through that part of his discussion, I couldn’t help but note the little glances he and Masako exchanged. Well, it sure looked as if someone was going to be learning about the marriage and working aspect of being a Care Giver sooner than most of us there would.
“That’s a very valid point,” interrupted Dr. Wantabe. “The ratios are one of the prime reasons why group marriage is the norm in Space and becoming accepted even on Earth. Did you have anything else, Captain?”
“Just that we’re pleased to have all of you girls joining us and we look forward to serving with you,” he said before returning to his perch with Todd.
It seemed that were going to discuss children. Not the care and feeding of same, but bearing them in this part of the discussion. I thoughtfully rubbed at my shoulder where the birth control implant had been placed and let my own thoughts wander for a moment. What would it be like, carrying another life around inside of me? Pleasant? Uncomfortable? Both or a mix that varied? I honestly had no real idea about that at the stage I had reached, but was more than certain I’d be finding out in good time. With a certain Brigadier General if I had my way…
The Doctor smiled, answering a question I’d missed during my wool gathering. “You want to know if I was born male or female, is that it? Who would like to hazard a guess?”
There was a cacophony of voices raised with one opinion or the other that lasted for a while before Ryoko, I still had to consciously make myself think Dr. about her when I thought about her, though I knew she was one. “Whoa! Quiet down here, please. Let’s have a show of hands for each choice.”
“Male?” She did a quick count and wrote the number under a new heading on the board. About half of us were guessing along that line though I had my doubts there. “All right,” she said once the votes had been tallied and marked down on the board. “That’s about fifty-fifty. I’ll answer your question at the end of our time together today.”
A generally disappointed groan filled the room from proponents of both sides before Dr. Watanbe got things under control again. “Let’s get back on topic for a few minutes. I promised you all honesty, and I meant it. I just never promised promptness. Now, you all have received your hormone restriction implants. They actually do more than restrict the hormone flow that ripens an egg for release when your monthly visitor comes calling. I would like you all to think the phrase I’m about to say. ‘Monthly status and information, kudasi.’”
I did, and was rewarded with a readout on my physical status -- Hormonally, and keyed to my peak periods of fertility -- hovering in front of my eyes. Wow. That was a surprise.
Masako, wearing a troubled look raised her hand at that stage and told her. “I must have done something wrong, Sensei. I don’t get why everyone is so astonished. Because I don’t see anything at all.”
Dr. Watanbe smiled warmly and shook her head. “That would be my fault, dear. Japanese is your native language. You need to think Monthly status and information in English, then kudasi. For those of you who don’t already know, kudasi is Japanese for please.”
“What you’re looking at, ladies,” said the doctor, “is a real time uplink of what your bodies are doing hormonally right now. Today’s date is, obviously today. Last Day to commit is the last day you can order the implant to cease its function, allowing an egg to mature for you to be fertile and impregnated.”
“Sensei?” asked Carmen. “Is this a sure thing? Are you saying we will be able to get pregnant whenever we want?”
“While the Inhibitor is active, you will not become pregnant,” she replied. “Its information will make it more likely you can conceive when you want to, but nothing is fool proof. It took me three months to conceive the first time. Now, I must make you aware of something else along this line. Alright, girls, now think Status Off, kudasi. The inhibitor also affects the Ph value of some of your bodies systems. Specifically to tend toward the alkaline in your vaginal secretions.”
That drew some shocked, and worried reactions from the gathering. One girl even asked almost plaintively if we were acidic.
“Well,” laughed Dr. Wantabe, “not to the point that anything other than litmus can detect. We don’t want to hurt our lovers. However, it is a fact that X chromosome sperm are less vulnerable to high alkaline environments than Y chromosome sperm. Who can tell me the significance of what I just said?”
“We’re much more likely to have daughters instead of sons,” said Sandy Malcolm, a lovely mixed race girl who was very hard not to notice.
“The nanites in your bodies communicate biochemically with the inhibitor,” Doctor Wantabe nodded. “Whatever Y chromosome sperm manage to survive the altered Ph of your wombs, the nanites are dispatched to dispose of.”
“So, we can only have daughters?” the same girl demanded. “Why?”
“The ratios,” said Susan suddenly. “If our daughters are born in space, they’re more likely to stay there, aren’t they? That will eventually put the Care Givers out of business,” she said.
“Our best projections put that date sometime in the next three hundred years or so,” smiled Doctor Wantabe. “No need to worry about job security here for the time being, believe me. There’s plenty of work in the meantime. However, Sandy is not entirely correct. You are not only allowed daughters. Each of you, once in your service lifetimes, can order the inhibitor to create an environment favorable to conceive a son. If an X chromosome sperm wins out, don’t fret. The chance is only used up when you have given birth to a son.” She sobered. “Choose who you will bear that son for very carefully my dears. Men, being men, will all pressure you to pick them. They’ll tell you how important it is for them to have a son to further the family name and such.”
“But,” asked Maria. “How can we find time to raise children with all that we’re expected to do?”
Now that was a good question. One I was interested in learning the answer to myself. Not that I had plans to start having babies right away or anything. A girl just likes to know these kinds of things for when it does come up. Another instance of the longer term female viewpoint on life in general, I suppose.
“That, Maria, dear, is a challenge I work through every day. In a large part, the group marriage helps. Some ships will not have the facilities to allow for children. Some do. Apollo Freight has one of the best records in this regard, so you are all very lucky there. Captain? I believe every vessel on a cruise of more than a week allows children, does it not?”
“You’re correct, Doctor,” he replied. “Although, we are considering extending that benefit to every vessel period. Once I know how the board of directors votes on that, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
She graced him with her brilliant smile. “Thank you.”
She put the marker down for a moment, watching all of us carefully and gauging individual expressions as she did. “I know I’ve given you girls quite a bit to think about. Good. You are supposed to think about these things. Talk amongst yourselves and, of course I will be available for you to answer any questions you have. Oh, and lest I forget.”
She picked up the marker and drew a large circle on the board, then drew a line straight down from it and crossed that line again. “My birth certificate reads Ryoko Wantabe, with an F on the gender line.”
“How we were born does not define who we are,” Ryoko said softly. “The choices we make do. The Right Thing is often the Smart Thing. I have spent my life and will continue doing so until I have no breath to fuel my body in service to my fellow man. It was and is The Right Thing to do. There are no further classes today, my dears. The time is yours to spend how you see fit. When we reach Mars you’ll be given the phrases to reset your inhibitor. I trust no one has a burning need to become pregnant before then?”
There was a spatter of uneasy giggling. “I thought not. Good evening girls.”
As I was leaving, a grinning Naomi moved up to stand beside Ryoko and called for attention. “Girls, there is one last thing to take care of before you all head off for whatever you plan to do with your free time, if you wouldn’t mind waiting for just another few minutes?”
I had the feeling that somehow I’d been had as Naomi smiled and gestured for me to join her and Dr. Watanbe in the front of the class. Once I’d done that, with more than a few curious glances from the gathering, Heinlein’s Ship Mother gave the entire gathering a brilliant smile.
“Now I’m sure most of you already know Persephone here, I would think.” She started and shrugged at the mixed giggles, groans and cheers the comment drew. “What many of you may not know is that she very graciously agreed to be a student instructor, and to be a defacto Mother for her own incoming flight. As such, her own training was slowed just a bit.”
I blushed, wishing I could just kind of slide out of the room without anyone noticing. Fat chance. Every eye in the room, including those of the Captain and the other men present, were firmly fixed on me.
“Well now, Sister Persephone is officially finished with her training, though she will still be an instructor, and an active pilot with us here.” Naomi reached up to remove the small pin that denoted my rank as a Sister, and put it gently in my hand. “In recognition of her graduation, and the unfailing service she has given to more than a few of you as either a mentor or simply an instructor, I’m very pleased to announce her promotion to the rank of Aunt.”
There were general hoots and cheering, along with applause as Naomi pinned the new emblem on my jumpsuit. Ryoko was smiling broadly and I swear she actually winked at me during the commotion.
To say I was speechless would be not quite the truth here. I do recall threatening to get Naomi back for this one, then hugging her. Then I got a hug from Ryoko, and the others gathered around to offer their own congratulations.
“I had wondered at your presence here, sensei.” Masako told me once she had reached me. “You never mentioned that you were doing all those things at once.”
“It just never came up when we talked.” I offered with a grin. “There was no need for telling everyone after all. It would have just complicated things more for some of you, and me, come to think of it.”
“Please accept my congratulations, Aunt Persephone.” The Japanese girl bowed to me, and I returned the gesture with pleasure.
“Happily accepted, Masako. Thank you.”
“You have the next two days off, Persey.” Naomi informed me with a rather interesting little smile. “Go have some fun, you’ve earned it.”
As to what kind of fun I found… Well I’ll leave that for you to figure out. It shouldn’t be too hard to do. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to mention that Al was ecstatic, and not just over my promotion.
Communications with Earth had become very spotty over the months since Heinlein had boosted out of orbit there. News items were deliberately censored before being sent out, that was clear from all the gaps in the on-line news services’ output to us.
I hadn’t been able to reach Connie, Claire, or my Grandmother for some time either. It seems that communications to Earth from space were carefully picked through and most of those denied without considering that many, if not most spacers had families and friends back there.
“I know it’s tough.” Al, gave me a hug after another abortive foray into the intricacies of e-mailing anyone on Earth from space. “The governments down there have interdicted most forms of communication between individuals in space and on Earth. I haven’t heard from my own family for over a month now, and I usually have enough clout to get past crap like that.”
“It really is starting to scare me, Al.” I answered quietly. “Especially with the lack of any real news from Earth about what’s going on down there.”
“You aren’t the only one it worries, or scares.” My lover let out a long sigh. “It’s as if we’re already at war with them and they’ve clamped down hard on any kind of communications going out. We can still get the unfiltered versions, with a little work, and those aren’t any more encouraging than the silence.”
“I didn’t think they would be.”
“There’s more.” Al drew in a long breath. “UN forces in space, now calling themselves the ISP -- International Space Patrol -- have been boarding ships and forcibly removing any females they find, then sending those to Earth.”
“Has anyone resisted yet?” I questioned with a lurch in the pit of my stomach.
“Not that we’ve heard of.” He replied with a slow shake of his head. “But ships are going missing out here lately. Too many of them all at once for us to comfortably chalk it up to mere coincidence or naturally occurring accidents.”
“I know.” My answer was thoughtful, and sounded worried even to me. “That subject is a pretty lively one in the pilot’s lounge most of the time.”
“Just be careful when you’re out there in Glory Road, darling.” He advised me. “If you see a ship that looks unfamiliar in type, or designation, scream bloody murder and run for all you’re worth. If I lost you to those bastards, I’d start a war all on my own.”
“I will.” My answer was soft, but I meant it then added thoughtfully. “But I’m not out there with my undefended butt hanging out if it comes to that. Glory has some teeth of her own, you know.”
“I know, and that both reassures and worries me.” Al gathered me into a tight hug. “Just promise me you won’t take any unnecessary chances when you’re out, ok?”
“What? ME look for trouble?”
“I know you don’t go looking for it, dear.” He grinned, then sobered as he finished. “But when it finds you, there is this tendency you have to give it as good as you get. In this case, that really worries me.”
“I knew I loved you for some reason other than the sex.” I lightly replied, then turned serious. “I’ll be careful. You know I always am.”
“Yeah, but sometimes careful just isn’t enough, you know what I mean there?”
“All too well.” I answered with a shrug. “Now, do you think we could get to something just a bit more pleasant here?”
“What did you have in mi… ummph!” he didn’t quite finish that question as I reached for and found the parts of his anatomy that really had my interest just then.
Glory Road was firmly on a vector to intercept some interesting looking rocks that had strayed out of the belt and inside the orbit of mars. I’d flown her a number of times, and even gotten proficient with that nose mounted laser. Heinlein was just under a month out of Mars at that point, so I’d had more than enough time to both familiarize myself with the long range shuttle and her little quirks.
It was a fairly easy run. One day out, probably a day to survey the rocks and see if there was anything valuable enough to warrant prospecting, then about a day and a half return.
Andrea Lomax, my copilot and nav, turned in her seat and called back to Christophe Puertos, our engineer who was also doubling up on comm. “Anything new from Heinlein recently Angel?”
“Not a squawk, Andie.” Christophe reported. Those rocks behaving themselves for you ladies?”
“Rocks are rocks.” I responded with a grin. “Once you establish which direction they’re going, and their relative velocity, they don’t usually surprise you short of rebounding from a collision with another rock.”
“Good point, skipper.” He acknowledged with a wide show of startlingly white teeth against his olive complexion and a twinkle in his hazel eyes. “Hang on here I’m getting something on the distress frequency.”
“Get a bearing on it and let me know where it’s coming from, I answered then added. “Get a message off to Heinlein that we may have to divert if the thing’s close enough. If not, let’s make sure someone is on the way to help whoever it is.”
I watched the star field from the front view port and wondered who was in what kind of trouble. I hoped it wasn’t something truly disastrous, but any need for a distress call from a ship in space was considered a life threatening matter.
“Got it, Boss.” Christophe announced then gave his comm unit a strange look. “That’s odd.”
“It seems to be coming from the same direction as those rocks we’re headed for. But it’s either a lot farther away, or running into some kind of interference. Fades in and out a lot. And it’s an automatic beacon, no voice message comes through with it.”
“Got an ID on the ship sending it?” Oh shit. An automatic beacon meant that either the crew was incapacitated or dead. “Get that off to Heinlein NOW.”
“Done, skipper.” He replied then added. I’m getting a faint ID here. Seems to be the Halcyon, out of Mars.”
“That’s an Apollo ship.” Andie put in with a worried note in her voice. “Fairly big gas hauler. I know the exec really well.”
“How many in the crew?”
“Two hundred.” She answered, pulling the information up on her own screen then shunting it to mine. “About thirty Care Givers aboard her, too.”
“Damn.” A ship that size, with that many crew, and all it could broadcast was a weak auto-distress beacon. That wasn’t good at all. “Christophe, get me a range on that signal.”
“Closer that you’d think.” He answered, preoccupied with the job of getting usable figures on distance and vectors from the weak signal. “Sounds as if the power’s fading in and out on the thing. It has to be working off its own battery backup.”
“Is it within our present range?”
“Given the way the signal Doppler’s on me, I’d say it is.” He responded with a worried note in his own voice. “Ballpark guess is that she’s among those rocks were headed for.”
“Get me a link to Heinlein.” I told him. “And I want it yesterday. With a continuous upload of data to them on this.”
“Done, Persey.” Christophe replied. “Control wants to talk with you. Putting it through to your comm-set.”
“Thanks. Glory Road, Heinlein.”
“Heinlein control, here Glory Road.” I heard Mike Hasting’s voice over my comm. “Be advised that we confirm your ID. It is Halcyon. She was returning from a run to Jupiter and loaded with Hydrogen and other more exotic gasses.”
“Roger that, Heinlein.” I replied. “Have you got a range and vector for me there?”
“Confirm that it is on your present vector, Glory Road.” Mike’s voice came through. “Computer enhancement of signal indicates it is coming from among those rocks. Please advise as to veracity of that.”
I’d already corrected for reaching the plane and direction that would get us to the rocks. With Heinleins’s confirmation that the distress beacon was broadcasting from the same direction, all that was left to do was go to boost. Then brake at the right time.
“We get the same thing you do, Heinlein.” I responded, getting more worried as things unfolded. “Going to emergency burn to get closer and take a real look. We’ll keep sending you the data. Talk to you when we get there.”
“Roger that, Glory Road. ETA?”
I waited a moment as Andie pulled the numbers and put them on my screen. “Uhmm, at thirty gees, max that will leave us fuel to get back, ETA would be six hours fifty-three minutes, Heinlein.”
“Authorize you to go to full burn, Glory Road.” Mike told me after a few seconds that were spent consulting with someone. “Be advised we will divert long enough to pick you up on return.
Fifty gees. This was a really bad one then if they were willing to divert the Heinlein even enough to accommodate our shortened return range. I glanced at Andie, who was already running the numbers and waited long enough for them to appear on my screen. It wouldn’t really be that much of a stretch for us to manage, Glory Road had a lot of fuel in reserve.
“Roger that, Heinlein.” I returned. It’ll be close, but we should have the fuel to get there and rendezvous with you as is.”
“Keep us advised, Glory Road.”
“Will do, Heinlein.” I answered. “Glory Road out.”
“Everyone strapped in?” I questioned needlessly as I noted Christophe just finishing that act in his own acceleration couch.
“Ready to go, skipper.” He answered with a wan smile.
“Ready.” She answered with more calm than I was feeling.
Making sure my own harness was secure, I pulled my helmet visor down. “Visors down, switch to line feed oxygen.”
“Max burn to commence in thirty seconds on my mark.” I flipped the switch that uncovered the twin monsters built by Rolls Royce that provided propulsion for Glory Road. “Thirty…”
Even with a beefed up Gee Wee, fifty gees in a shuttle isn’t a pleasant experience. Thankfully it only lasted for about a minute.
Once the massive engines shut down, we all drew in ragged breaths. “ETA now, Andie?”
“One hour Twenty minutes and seventeen seconds, Persey.” She answered.
“Okay.” I contacted Heinlein to advise them of that then grimaced. “This is not going to be pleasant. The braking maneuver is going to be hell, too, guys.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Andie replied with a weak chuckle.
“The signal is definitely coming from those rocks.” Christophe announced after doing another check. “Strange, Halcyon has a good crew. They would have known those rocks were there. I don’t like this.”
“Neither do I.” I thought about the number of ships that had gone missing recently, mostly belonging to the larger haulers that were Spacer owned and run by experienced crews, liking the conclusions I came up with even less as they ran through my mind. “Kill the running lights. Sensors on full. I want to see it if someone’s in there waiting for us.”
“Heinlein, Glory Road.” I sent out. “Be advised that we’re going in with eyes wide open and as quietly as possible. This feels bad to me.”
“Confirmed and concur, Glory Road.” Mike’s answer came through. “Be careful there, Persey.”
“I am being careful, Sir.” I answered, then finished. “Glory Road out.”
The next few minutes were among the longest I’ve ever experienced in my life.
“Beginning rotation for braking in sixty seconds.” I announced finally while preparing to bring Glory Road’s nose around so the main engines could slow us.
“If anything but rocks is in there, they’ll see this.” Andie worried.
“Can’t be helped.” I told her as I got our attitude adjusted for the second burn. “Numbers?”
“On your screen, Skipper.” As she said that the figures for matching velocity with the rocks and whatever else was with them came up and I keyed in the burn length.
”Right. Be ready for another quick turn once we’ve completed this one.” I warned. “Need to be heading in nose first when we do get there.”
“What do you think we’ll find there?” She questioned quietly.
“Damned if I know.” I replied. “Deceleration burn starting now.”
Whatever it was, I didn’t think any of us were going to like it once we got there.
I watched gauges, and the red line of our destination’s velocity climbing and the green representing ours sinking to meet it. When both lines were the same length, the burn shut down and I turned our nose into the direction of travel again.
“Heinlein, Glory Road has completed approach and is coasting again.” I spoke over my own comm link. “We’re just about there.”
“Roger, Glory Road.” The answer crackled back. “Getting some interference here.”
“Here too, Heinlein,” Another burst of static covered their return transmission. “Say again, Heinlein. We didn’t copy that last transmission.”
Nothing but static came over the comm. Christophe switched channels to try again, but nothing was getting through but the still erratic pulsing of the distress beacon.
“Well, we’re on our own for a while then.” I sighed. “What’s causing the interference, can you tell, Christophe?”
“Negative on that Skipper.” He responded, still trying to raise Heinlein. “Whatever it is blankets our frequencies pretty completely. Not a solar flare, though, I can tell you that much. Could be someone jamming signals out here.”
“Yeah. I’m liking this situation less the further into it we get.” I muttered to no one in particular. “Christophe, get that laser powered up and ready. I hope we don’t need it, but I’d rather err on the side of paranoia here just now.”
“Powering up now, Skipper.” He responded as a low hum first filled the cabin before fading into a small background vibration. “But if there’s an ambush waiting in there for us, they’ll probably know we have it from the energy signature we’ll radiate.”
“Rather have it up and ready. Get one of those drones ready for launch, too.” I ordered. “Andie, put our data feed into it.”
“Number three.” She told Christophe as he made his way back to the cargo bays.
“Got it ladies.” His answer echoed eerily from the narrow companionway along with our headphones.
“Okay, Andie.” I told my copilot. Cameras on, wide, slow sweep as we approach. I want to see everything we can in there before we so much as put our nose inside the grouping.”
“On it, boss. Low light and infrared, slow pan.” She answered, keying in the commands on her board.
“Little bird’s ready to fly.” Christophe returned to the command cabin and began activating parts of his console. “Magnetic scan is active and sweeping, Skipper.”
“All right then.” Taking in a long breath, I gave Glory Road a light push with the secondary aft thrusters and started us moving forward. “Let’s go see what’s going on in there.”
The cluster wasn’t small, or remarkably large as things like that go. We counted fifty rocks of varying sizes, covering an area of just under five hundred kilometers wheeling through their own orbits around each other as the mass orbited the sun. Getting in and out might be tricky, but the rocks weren’t moving all that fast relatively so I didn’t think that would be a problem for a shuttle. How, or why, a big gas hauler would have attempted such a thing remained to be answered.
“What was Captain Prandha thinking, taking the Halcyon in there?” Andie wondered aloud, echoing my own question.
“Could have been guidance problems.” I halfway muttered while lining up for a slow, careful approach to the slowly whirling masses of rock, ice, and whatever else it was made up of.
“I don’t think so.” She replied slowly. “Halcyon isn’t one of the newer ships out here, but she’s well maintained. There would have been backup systems for a guidance failure that would have kicked in.”
“Yeah.” I was watching the take from the cameras as we neared the cluster. “That leaves one possibility then. Halcyon deliberately went in there.”
“Could have been deliberate sabotage, I suppose.” I thought out loud. “Or she could have been trying to get away from something.”
“What could be out here that would chase a ship in there?” Andie asked.
I could see the answer form in her mind as it did in mine while I quietly voiced it. “Another ship.”
“Oh god, I hope not.” She breathed like it was real prayer. Maybe it was.
“Amen to that.” I’d been doing more than a little praying myself there.
“Got Halcyon on view.” Andie spoke quietly as the picture came up onscreen. The big gas hauler was doing a slow tumble among the rocks, but not in any imminent danger of collision with any of them. That tumble was frightening enough, especially because we could see no running lights, or interior lights at all when we looked closely.
“Got us a dead ship here.” I said quietly into the mike for the recording we were gathering to send Heinlein, while gingerly maneuvering for a closer view. “I make her tumble at -- fifteen per minute. No running lights, no interior lights. No hails from survivors either.”
“Got the aft starboard cargo tank holed.” I went on, while moving my view from bow to stern, noticing a lot of objects in the area surrounding Halcyon. “Also have a lot of debris around her. Moving to take a look at her port side now.”
“Oh my God.” Andie breathed as we worked our way around to the other side of the ship. Her expression pretty much echoed what I was thinking as I could only stare in silence for a few seconds.
“Uh, Heinlein, port side engine nacelle and steering vane are gone. There’s a rip in her side that I could park Glory Road in without worrying about bumping anything. Looks like engineering took a nasty hit.”
“Moving view to forward areas now. Maybe someone on the bridge survived.” My running commentary was punctuated with a bitten off curse. “Bridge has been holed, too. This wasn’t an accident.”
“Got EVA beepers out there.” Christophe told us.
“How many?” I questioned, still in near shock from what I was seeing. Sane people just didn’t do something like this to another ship out here.
“Twelve, no make that fifteen.”
“How long do you think they’ve been out there?” Andie asked quietly.
“Too damned long.” I told her as we exchanged bleak looks then called back to Christophe. “Get me a vector to them, and see if you can raise anyone at all.”
“No joy, Skipper.” He replied after a few moments. “Emergency suit beacons. No voice bands at all.”
“Shit!” I involuntarily squeezed my eyes shut for a moment as we neared the debris field I’d noted earlier. Andie was staring in almost horrified fascination at the bodies floating there like rings burst bubbles leave on a fluid surface. Some of them had managed to get into their EVA suits at least.
“Whatever happened didn’t give them much in the way of warning.” I spoke carefully into the mike, trying not to vomit on it and foul my face plate as my gorge rose with heat furious enough to burn my throat. ”Ahh, God, I make it about twenty, no -- more like thirty bodies in this group. There are others out here too. Too many for us to get back to Heinlein.”
“Cabrones!” Christophe spat out as he listened and caught sight of the horror we were witnessing. “Whoever did this thing will rot in Hell!”
“Uh oh.” Andie gasped. “We’ve got company.”
A black object detached from the stern of Halcyon with a flare of rockets, and sped into the darkness and shelter of the rocks.
“What the..?” Christophe was checking his instruments and not liking what they were telling him. “Don’t let them get away, Skipper.”
“Don’t have the fuel to waste chasing the bastards.” I answered with regret, “That was a small shuttle. It can’t have that much range. Someone was looting Halcyon, and ran for safety when they saw the chance.”
“Safety?” Andie questioned then went pale as understanding came.
“The ship that did this is out there, and I’m betting it’s in pretty close.” I responded with a tightening in my chest. “And now it’s going to know for sure that we’re here. Worse, I don’t think whoever is on it will want witnesses getting away from them.”
“Got something moving towards us, Skipper.” Christophe whispered then spoke louder. “Mierda! Whatever it is, it’s fast.”
“Get me a vid shot on the thing, if you can. Then strap in. This is going to get rough.” I used a few gentle pushes from the steering jets to take Glory Road to the other side of the wreck, then turned her carefully towards some likely looking rocks we might be able to hide in. The boost hurled us towards my target area and I used the steering vanes and attitude jets to work us in among the rocks. “Or at least a rough idea of the bastard’s location.
“Working on it.” Andie answered as a fuzzy picture came up on my screen. “Have it clearer in a sec here.”
“Moving in from our ten O’clock, Skipper.” Christophe supplied.
“I see it.” The thing was difficult to track visually at all since it had been painted flat black to minimize reflections.
“What kind of ship is that?” Andie asked no one in particular.
“Looking at those oversized steering/cooling vanes and the way she bulges out aft, I can tell you it isn’t any kind of hauler.” I answered while trying to get a clearer view as it began to slow with a burst of braking jets that most ships would have avoided as far too wasteful of fuel.
“If they are, they’re rich ones.” I answered gesturing at the belly of the image I had up. That kind of comm array isn’t close to cheap, and I think that bulge forward of the comm is a gravitic lasso.”
“Are those mass drivers?” Andie pointed to bulges to starboard, port, and mounted dorsally.
“That’d be my bet.” I allowed Glory Road to coast a bit, until we were well within the cluster of rocks and waited to see what the unidentified ship would do next. “They sure as Hell aren’t here to answer Halcyon’s distress beacon.”
“That’s what got Halcyon.” Andie spat out as the thing passed the derelict and the bodies as it was braking, and showing no sign of working a turn to check on the distress beacon, or for survivors.
“I’d say the chances are better than just good on that assessment.” I answered. “That thing is designed with two purposes, capturing or killing other ships.”
“Got a registry number on it.” Christophe announced. “RG921.”
“Checking that against our database now.” Andie put in then shook her head. “Says it’s a long range Belt surveyor built by the UN. That can’t be right.”
“Well, that’s no survey ship.” I agreed. “Probably listed that way to hide what it really was planned to be.”
The black ship slowed more, and oriented on the cluster of rocks I’d taken Glory Road into. I didn’t like that at all, and was ready when Christophe shouted. “Got a big EM buildup over there!”
If we hadn’t been strapped in, the sideways slewing I put us into would have thrown us all against the bulkhead when the lateral jets pushed us right behind the biggest rock I could find in the vicinity. The correction with the jets on the other side was just as bad, but at least we were holding a position with the rock between us and the black ship.
“Guess they don’t plan on taking prisoners.” Christophe quietly observed as something flashed through the area we had recently occupied and then on through the cluster. “That was a nickel iron slug.”
“Guess not.” My voice sounded grim even to me. “Get that drone out of here, Chris. Heinlein has got to know about this. And maybe it’ll give me the distraction I need to get us out of the soup.”
“Better be quick, then. “Andie announced with a calm that didn’t show in her eyes through the visor of her helmet. “I get a heavy, directional gravitic wave from about where they were.”
“Great.” I swore under my breath and hoped whoever was in command over there was overconfident enough to hold still for a few more seconds. “They must plan on grabbing us, then shooting while we can’t move.”
“All right, got me a probable plot on where they’ll be yet, Andie?”
“Up on your screen now.”
“Keep the numbers coming. This isn’t going to be fun at all, people.”
“Number three drone ready for launch.” Christophe told me as he made sure he was securely strapped in.
“Good, launch on my word, then get on that laser. Go for the lasso and comm array first, if you can, then the bridge, and pick your targets from there.”
“Might get those in the first sweep.” Came the response as he worked the controls to make sure they were functioning. “Good to go here, Skipper.”
“They’re moving in closer.” Andie reported. “Coming around on our starboard side.”
“Launch.” I ordered and as the slight shudder came from the grapples on the drone letting loose, and its engine firing much closer to us than was comfortable, I hit the laterals and scooted Glory Road hard to starboard and found myself staring right at the RG921’s nose. “Fire!”
That order was unnecessary as the white lance of the laser’s sighting beam brushed under the aggressor vessel, and held there until a burst of sparks erupted on the ship’s belly that traveled back to reach the Comm arrray. That collection of antennae and dishes crumpled as it reddened went to white and came loose from the ship.
“Lasso’s down! They were chasing the drone with it.” Andie told us with more than a note of satisfaction in her voice. Got comm, again, too.”
“Time to dodge.” I announced as the beam played across the forward view port -- more of a slit -- on the other ship.
Our Gee-wee protested as I threw Glory Road to her port on a forty degree angle. In the back ground I noted frantic calls from Heinlein for a status report while I roughly slewed the shuttle’s stern to orient our nose on the RG921.
The laser reached out again even before I had completely compensated for our slewing tail. The black ship’s portside mass driver erupted into a coruscating, pulsing glare of electrical arcs that left that section of her hull glowing a dull red.
“Got it just before they fired!” Christophe exultantly bellowed.
The sudden release of all that electrical potential back into the ship itself caused it’s interior lights to flicker then go out for a moment as the electrical systems aboard went off line to avoid being fried completely. Chris didn’t allow that opportunity to go to waste.
RG921 lurched drunkenly as atmosphere belched into space from a hole burned in her hull just aft of the bridge. The magnified picture on my screen clearly showed the blue/white flashes of electrical explosions and short circuits through their forward port and the ship slowly began to tumble. A tumble that wasn’t corrected for.
“I think the fights over, kids.” I breathed while warily watching the one time killer for the slightest sign of activity that would warrant more evasive action and/or another sweep of the laser.
“Just to make sure.” Chris took out the remaining pair of mass drivers, with far less spectacular results, then eased back in his couch as much as his webbing would allow with a long, shaky sigh.
“It’s -- they’re -- dead, Persey.” Andie quietly reported.
“Glory Road!” Captain Mike Hasting’s voice reverberated through the comm. “Report, for God’s sake!
“No need to shout, Captain. Glory Road, is okay. We’re kinda bruised up in here, and might be walking kind of funny for a while, but we’re all right.”
“What the Hell happened out there?” He demanded, either forgetting or throwing protocols aside.
“We got jumped by an unknown ship type, Heinlein.” I tiredly reported. “I repeat, Glory Road was attacked by a vessel of unknown type. We’re all right, just a bit shaken at the moment, sir.”
“Data feed up and recordings sent out.” Andie put in while still staring at the now dead ship slowly tumbling through a growing cloud of escaped atmosphere.
“Data is on the way, Heinlein.” I reported.
“Copy that, Glory Road. Receiving it now.” Mike Hastings acknowledged then added. “Salvage and recovery teams are being arranged for with Mars now. Come on home.”
A glance at our fuel status told me that wasn’t happening right away. “Negative on that, Heinlein. Fuel is too low for that trip. We’ll try refueling off Halcyon. Otherwise, we’ll be lighting a candle in the window for the recovery teams and waiting for a tow. Warn the recovery teams not to eat anything just before they arrive. It’s pretty damned ugly around here. We’ll try to tag the bodies for recovery but no promises on that one.”
“Just hit the gas station, and head home, Persey.” Hastings ordered. “You three have been through enough. The dead aren’t going anywhere in particular, are they?”
“That’s a negative, Heinlein.” I responded with a heavy sigh. “On the bodies, anyway. We’ll get back to you on the refueling once we’ve tried it.”
“Copy that, Glory Road. Good luck there.”
“Thanks, Heinlein.” I turned to Andie. “We got enough fuel left to get us to Halcyon?”
“Sure.” She answered quietly. “We used a lot with your maneuvering a while ago, but we should be able to get there with plenty to spare.”
“Great.” I answered. “Something goes right today, after all.”
“Hey, you did good, Persey.” Christophe put in softly. “We’re still alive, after all.”
“Yeah, there is that.” My answer was slow in coming. I was fighting the shakes once the adrenalin I’d been working on faded. Plus, there was no internal elation in me over the fight we’d just won. None at all.
“Good work, you two.” I managed while beginning to move Glory Road past one hulk that had been a ship full of living people, and towards another.
We did take the time to do a cursory search for survivors around the UN ship. There weren’t any. God is merciful at times, isn’t he? I couldn’t see any spacer showing a survivor of that crew the least bit of compassion, or forbearance. God help me, if we’d found any I would have been hard pressed not to kill the bastards myself.
I will not detail what we found inside what was left of Halcyon. I had the feeling that the nightmares I still had about the Argonaut were going to have company in the future, though. It was ghastly. I will only say that we managed to hook up some emergency batteries to the cargo tanks, figure out which of them held hydrogen, and rig up the couplings we’d need to transfer some of that to our own badly depleted tanks. I also retrieved the magnetic cubes that held the ship’s logs and the data from the last few days of her life for a return to Heinlein.
Just before boosting away from that graveyard, I took one last look around it. Two dead ships, hundreds of lives lost, and for what I wondered? Money and power, was all I could think of at the time. Other wars were started for less reason.
“It didn’t have to be this way you stupid asses.” I whispered in real sorrow for all of us.
But if Earth wanted a war, I knew we -- the Spacers -- would give it to them. I only prayed the outcome wouldn’t be too disastrous for either side once it was over with. As I began the boost that would take us back to a rendezvous with Heinlein, I had never been that glad to leave a place in my life.
“Heinlein.” I spoke over the comm. “Glory Road is coming home.”
END OF BOOK ONE