Disclaimer: This stories contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
Author's Note: See? I do listen to feedback sometimes. The name of the game is a larger font, and of course a new part to the story. Again thanks to everybody who wrote me, and here's the story:
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|A River Crossed||Part V
While Tallas retreated back to his quarters to study Dream's systems and Lirelle headed back to the surface, Sabrin and Dreamer were left uncomfortably alone in the conference room. "Lirelle's certainly something, isn't she?" Sabrin commented.
"Yup," Dreamer said, "She's exactly what we need."
"Do you know why she's really here?" Sabrin was hesitant but couldn't let the subject rest.
Dreamer bore an annoyed look, "Yeah, I know you weren't deaf when she said personal reasons and money, Sabe. Why can't you just let it go?" He restored room lighting to normal and turned away.
"It's all so perfect though," Sabrin persisted, "C'mon, don't tell me with all your mechanized brain power you haven't considered that."
"Yes I have!" Dreamer said loudly, whirling around to face Sabrin. "Contrary to your perceptions I do know a thing or two about this shit. I'm keepin' an eye on her, alright?" he snapped, black eyes livid. The black-haired man simulated a sigh and headed back down the corridor. Slightly ashamed, Sabrin trailed Dreamer into the aft section of deck one. "Where're you headed?"
"The shuttlebay. It's been offline for a while and I need to ready it before Lirelle comes back," Dreamer said without inflection.
"Can I help?"
"Knock yourself out." Can't blame him for not liking me, Sabrin thought as he watched the back of the other man. He tried to think of a way to broach the subject of their friendship as they stood outside the large hatch leading to the main deck of the shuttlebay. The hatch doors were made from a translucent alloy, permitting a view of the empty hanger beyond. The floor plan of the grand chamber was in the shape of a parabola, with the outer doors occupying almost two-thirds of the curved far wall. Sabrin knew that in addition to those metallic gates an invisible force-field guarded against the vacuum outside. Without formality Dreamer opened the hatch and walked in, his footsteps echoing in the open space.
"If you'll grab the toolkit by the door there we can get to work," the android said distantly, opening the large panel beneath the free-standing control console a few meters into the shuttlebay.
Sabrin did as he asked and walked to the man crouched in front of the console. "Dreamer, could we talk?"
"We're talkin' now," Dreamer replied neutrally, "Hand me the medium isometric calipers."
"Look man, I just wanted to apologize for earlier," Sabrin began, handing Dreamer the three-pronged instrument. The other man took the instument and peered at him through dark eyes, though didn't respond. Sabrin took that as a cue to continue, "I didn't mean what I said about you being just a machine. I never thought that, not even when I was mad."
Dreamer turned and began working on the circuitry. "Couldn't've fooled me with that whole 'let's sell the ship' bit," he said flatly.
The blue-eyed man bit back a sigh and crouched next to Dreamer to watch his work. "I wasn't trying to hurt you when I said that, I just wanted to be pragmatic about our situation."
Dreamer's head dropped a bit, and then turned to face Sabrin with a glimmer of a smile. "Tell me somethin' Sabe, if we were on...say...Dechlind, and we were three people instead of two people an' an A.I., would you've sold one of us into slavery to save the other two?" His voice held no trace of malice or condescension.
Sabrin's eyes widened in surprise. Intellectually he knew Dreamer was as sentient as any human, but was he sentient in the same way? If so then there was no way he could defend his actions to date as a reflection of that enlightened perspective. An obstinate part of him argued against Dreamer's hypothetical scenario on the grounds that the A.I. was definitely not human, at least in the physical sense. Meanwhile, another part reminded him of the humanity in Dreamer's thoughts and emotions, and posited that he was decidedly human enough to interact with in the same way...or was he? The confusion must have showed on Sabrin's face as Dreamer smiled gently.
"Yes, the conundrum of artificial intelligence...not quite human, but just how much so?" Dreamer said rhetorically. "People've been tryin' to figure out how to act around us A.I.s for centuries." He paused briefly and seemed to come to a decision. "I understand that you weren't intending to be malicious," he turned back to the panel and continued working. "I accept your apology for trying to sell me. I'll just chalk the rest of it up to PMS," he giggled.
"Hey!" Sabrin laughed and punched him playfully on the arm.
"Ouch!" Dreamer flinched away with a scowl, rubbing the affected spot. "What's with the violence?"
"You wuss, can you even feel pain?" Sabrin exclaimed, not buying Dreamer's victim act.
"That's beyond the point," Dreamer pouted a bit and then grinned, "Now make yourself useful and hand me the transoptical probe."
Three hours later, the two of them were standing in the control room the inside of the hangar, running through a second check of the atmospheric containment systems. After a token protest, Sabrin cleared out the scrap metal and empty crates littering the chamber with the assistance of the single operational anti-grav pallet, while Dreamer restored each system and backup to working order. A small maintenance drone scurried busily about the floor, walls, and ceiling, buffing the metal to a shiny luster. Gazing over the sparkling hangar, Sabrin felt better than he had in a long time.
At 1813 hours, shipboard time, Lirelle's fifth-hand Anyar-3100 shuttlecraft passed smoothly through the polarized force-field gating Dream's newly functional shuttlebay, its cargo hold loaded with her meager possessions. Dreamer was practically beaming with pride as he, Sabrin, and Tallas watched the shuttle land with three extended feet on the shuttlebay floor. The ventral hatch grated open, revealing Lirelle's slender figure. "Welcome back, m'lady," Dreamer said with a formal accent and bowed elegantly.
"I see you boys cleaned house while I was away," Lirelle responded with a smile.
"Y'know how ol' Dreamer 'ere likes to purrty h'mself up for th' ladies," Tallas commented with his own atrocious version of Dreamer's country drawl.
Dreamer had sufficient time to fire off a "fuck you city boy," before turning back to Lirelle. "Did you get everything?"
"Yes, it's in the hold." She walked around to the rear of the shuttle and opened the hatch. Sabrin pulled over the anti-grav pallet he was using earlier and the four of them began loading Lirelle's belongings onto it. "I terminated the lease on my apartment and transmitted a notice of resignation at the shop. So I suppose I'm in this for the long haul," Lirelle said.
"Great," Dreamer said, "all systems 'cept for weapons'll be operating at 80% or more by mornin'."
"Eighty percent?" Tallas questioned with a hint of trepidation.
"Relax, we'll hold together," Dreamer clapped Tallas reassuringly on the back. "We shouldn't hang around here too long or else the fact that Lirelle's here'll get out and we might draw some unwanted attention."
"I've perused the shield specifications you gave me and I believe I can complete the modifications to the generators by tonight," Lirelle said. "We can run at least one test before our departure." Dreamer placed the last trunk onto the floating pad and pulled it in the direction of the cargo lift, the other three people walking alongside.
"Um, I don't mean to interrupt work, but I'm starvin'." Tallas complained. "What's for dinner?"
"Water and ration cubes," Dreamer replied laconically.
Both Sabrin and Tallas groaned. Despite their hunger their stomachs clenched at the memory of the tastelss material with the texture of crumbly cardboard. Fortunately for their constitutions, Lirelle said "I thought that might be an issue, so I brought some insta-meals. Not exactly gourmet but better than nothing." She rummaged through a box and tossed a few plastic-sealed packages to Tallas.
"Humans," Dreamer scoffed jokingly and entered the centrally-placed elevator tube, "Y'all want food but when I give it to ya all you do is bitch."
"That," Sabrin said with emphasis, "is not food."
"I bet it was at some point," Dreamer grinned while the other three grimaced. He stopped the lift on the second deck with an internal command, "Why don't you three go on ahead and eat, and I'll put this in one of the storage lockers on deck three. You can come back for what you want in your quarters later."
"Thank you Dreamer," Lirelle said. There was a kitchen near the front of deck two, attached to the mess hall at the nose of the ship. All but a few of the chairs were missing, though the octagonal tables bolted to the floor remained. Two rows of large windows on both sides of the large room offered a spectacular view of the surrounding space. Sabrin's stomach grumbled as they pulled the tabs on the self-cooking packages and waited the appropriate five minutes. As a cadet he and Tallas had spent many credits on almost as many of the self-cooking insta-meals, a product which certainly fit its next-to-free price. Nevertheless, compared with Dreamer's ration cubes it might as well have been ambrosian chocolate, and both young men came close to second-degree burns inhaling the food in front of them.
Once their hunger had been mollified to a degree, the three of them took turns exchanging information on their backgrounds and themselves. None of them felt comfortable enough to reveal too much of their lives, so the conversation flowed lightly from topic to trivial topic. After twenty minutes Dreamer arrived and seated himself at the table. "Everythin's stowed in locker two -- that's the first one on the left outside the cargo bay -- and the lock's calibrated to your DNA and fingerprints."
"Thanks Dreamer," Lirelle said, "Tallas was just regaling me with the saga of Sabrin's first real shot at piloting."
"Hey, I was fourteen!" Sabrin protested. It was a cold summer sun under which he and Tallas had explored Mr. Ilgrehem's junkyard, not far from the orphan ward. The day before a miscellaneous party had deposited a decrepit cargo sled that was somehow still operational, and naturally he had taken it for a spin with his best friend in tow. Fourteen tons of toppled scrap, a dozen broken or fractured bones, and two months of restitutional labor later Sabrin decided that perhaps he should have asked first. He lowered his eyes from the expression in Dreamer's handsome face as Tallas told the story. Years later he would realize that Mr. Ilgrehem had actually been lenient on them in light of the harsh Orion penal codes. Both of them visited the crochety old man in his scrap yard many more times before his passing away from a stroke. Sabrin credited much of his knowledge on starship operations from the hours whiled away with Mr. Ilgrehem's old computers and jury-rigged components.
"Pretty smooth," Dreamer commented with a lopsided grin after Tallas finished the story. "I don't think I woulda let you touch me if I'd known your talent for destruction."
"Don't flatter yourself," Sabrin scowled, then smirked in self-satisfaction. "You practically begged me to."
"What're you talking about?" Tallas asked in confusion.
Before Sabrin could respond, Dreamer said "Heh, he thinks just 'cause I asked him to reactivate my avatar he could take the chance to feel me up."
"Quit makin' up shit asshole," Sabrin exclaimed.
"Wait, reactivated the avatar? Where? When?" Tallas' face was a mask of bewilderment. "I thought he was just somewhere else on the ship when we blasted out of Astral-Ishasa."
"What? This body was lyin' on the bridge before, Tal," Dreamer said, now confused himself.
"The bridge...hold on..." Tallas' eyes widened as he realized that Dreamer's size and proportions matched the brief glimpses of their plasma gun-wielding attacker. In all the time since his waking up, he hadn't once actually set foot on the bridge; and in all the excitement of the escape and the new mission, he'd completely forgotten about the shadowed man. Until now. He leapt back from the table in surprise and fear, knocking the chair back with a clatter. Immediately Sabrin and Dreamer stood up, hands held up in an attempt to calm the situation.
"I...I was going to explain the whole thing...I wasn't trying to keep anything from ya..." Sabrin stuttered, his voice catching in his throat.
"I wasn't connected to my avatar when the fuckin' slave node was latched on, it was crazy but I fixed it..." Dreamer tried to explain at the same time, waving his hands and forming what he hoped to be the most convincing expression possible. Lirelle had also stood up, but remained frozen in confusion since the others had neglected to inform her of these events.
"Why did...how can you..." Tallas took a step back, "...slave node, what does..." the thoughts in his adrenaline-flooded brain were too jumbled to resolve. He looked back and forth between Sabrin and Dreamer, feeling basal emotions surge through his mind. Anger, fear, confusion, hurt. A thousand questions rose to his lips but never quite made it through.
"Tal, please just calm down and..." Dreamer stepped forward with an earnest look.
"Stay away from me!" Tallas snapped, and then felt apologetic for his gut reaction when he saw Dreamer quickly back-pedal with an injured look in his eyes. His muscles chafed from the continued tension and suddenly he felt a need to get away and make sense of it all. Somewhat uncertainly, he staggered backwards from the mess hall and headed for his quarters. Dreamer gazed at Sabrin with a distressed look, and began towards the corridor, "I need to explain to him..."
"Wait," Sabrin's voice was raspy and moisture glistened against his blue eyes, "I think I should go first."
The tall man bit his lip and nodded. With unsteady strides, Sabrin disappeared in the direction of Tallas' quarters. Left alone with Lirelle, Dreamer sighed and leaned back against the wall, his eyes closed. He felt Lirelle's soft hand touch his arm. "I'm unsure as to what that was about, but it'll be resolved," she said soothingly.
"One fuckin' thing after another...universe needs to take a break," Dreamer muttered.
Hesitantly, Sabrin pressed his finger against the door chime. When Tallas had chosen quarters he naturally selected the one adjacent to his, even though it meant they would share a bathroom. In fact Sabrin caught himself excited at the idea of that proximity, and wondered fleetingly if Tallas did also. However, now he would be glad to just see his best friend's face. "Tal?" He asked plaintively when there was no response, "Tal it's Sabe. I fucked up and I need to explain. Let me in...please? I need to explain what happened."
Excruciatingly long seconds passed and Sabrin was almost ready to ask Dreamer to override the door when it silently slid open. The small room was dark, and when Sabrin's eyes adjusted he saw Tallas' graceful form silhouetted against the stars. The young man was sitting on the bed with his legs drawn up to his chin and his arms wrapped around them, looking out of the window. Nervously, Sabrin stepped inside and approached the unkept bed, barely noticing the door closing behind them. The room was cast in a faint blue glow, emanating from auxiliary light strips near the junction of floor and walls. "Tal?" Sabrin queried tentatively, walking to the bed and gingerly sitting on the edge. His heart wrenched painfully at the sight of his friend withdrawn from him in anger.
Bowing his head, Sabrin drew a deep sigh and began talking quietly, explaining as he had promised. "It was Dreamer's avatar who fired at us on the bridge, but he wasn't Dreamer. The A.I. we know was imprisoned by the slave node, the thing you told me to destroy. After I did Dreamer deactivated his avatar and helped us escape. After that he asked me to re-activate his avatar so that he could help us and I agreed. He told me that he has restored full control and I believe him."
"I do too," at that melodious voice Sabrin's wet eyes raised back to Tal's still form. "I had a gut reaction when I saw him and put the two and two together. But now I remember how he was and I know it wasn't the same person." His head turned to lock eyes with Sabrin, with tears glistening on his soft cheeks. The sight of Tallas' face, gently bathed in the silver of reflected starlight, was so beautiful that Sabrin's heart lurched upwards in his chest. In only that moment his mind was unchained, and all he wanted to do was to take those cheeks in his hands and gently kiss away each tear. With stilled breath he drank fully in Tallas' beauty; the deep, shimmering eyes; the silky, untamed hair; the petite, upturned nose; the rosy, full lips...
"But why didn't you tell me Sabe?" Tallas' whispered words brought Sabrin crashing to reality. Ache plunged back into his heart like the water into a collapsed cofferdam, forcing the latent tears from his eyes. "I...I didn't want to worry you with that..." he responded almost inaudibly. "After you went into shock and..." Sabrin's voice died in his throat.
"I thought y-you didn't trust me enough to tell me," Tallas' voice quavered and more tears slid from his eyes.
"Oh god, no, Tal!" Sabrin nearly choked as a needle of pain went through his chest. Tears flowed freely now, soaking into the front of his worn shirt. His body screamed for him to go forward and wrap his arms around the young man before him, but for his life he couldn't move. "Tal I'm so, so sorry. I never meant to make you feel like that," he croaked. His shame and regret became overwhelming and he bowed his head, allowing the sobs to overtake his body. "I-I just wanted to..."
Gently, Sabrin felt Tallas' soft touch on his arms, drawing him into an embrace. The universe disappeared as he rested his head on his best friend's shoulder, feeling the soft skin and the hard muscle beneath. Tallas' body heat was like an aura, enveloping both of them and swallowing the pain in his heart with its radiance. Tallas' hand slid slowly across his back, leaving calm in their wake. "Shh..." he whispered into Sabrin's ear, "it's okay..."
"You're my best friend Tal," Sabrin's desolate voice was almost inaudible. "You've always been there for me...there's nobody I trust more than you. You have to believe that."
"I believe it...I can feel it," Tallas said softly. He knew he was taking a risk, but he turned slightly and nuzzled the short hair behind Sabrin's ear, taking in the clean, masculine scent. It was all he could do to keep his body from shaking -- too much -- at the close physical contact. The sensation of Sabrin's tightly muscled body so close to his own set all his nerves ablaze. Coupled with the emotional release of the past half-hour, he was becoming light-headed. He almost lost himself when he felt Sabrin's hands responding, gliding over his back.
Orion culture was anything but tactile, and despite their close friendship they had both kept their physical expressions of it to a minimum, knowing it was deemed inappropriate for two men unrelated by blood. But now, clasped in each other's arms in the small dark room, it felt like the most natural thing in the universe. Neither of them might have been prepared for it, but their friendship would never be the same after this night.
"I'm sorry I doubted you Sabe," Tallas whispered.
"It was my fault...don't feel sorry," Sabrin returned, rubbing circles on Tallas' back. "Just...tell me we're okay."
"So much better than okay," Tallas's voice wavered. The two friends held each other in silence for a while longer, until Sabrin realized that his body's reactions to Tallas' proximity was becoming awkward. With great regret, he slowly pulled away and looked steadily into Tallas' red-rimmed eyes.
Without Sabrin's warmth against him, Tallas felt the sharp pangs of withdrawal and the familiar dull ache of isolation in his chest. He didn't know how he could survive a return to the way they were, but he would try for Sabrin. God damn he's so beautiful! If his mind had a voice it would be hoarse from that proclamation. Taking a few deep breaths to recompose himself, he said in an almost normal voice, "I uh...I should apologize to Dreamer for acting like that."
"He understands," Sabrin said weakly, his mind rebelling against Tallas' leaving. "Can...can you wait till tomorrow?" Suddenly exhausted, he pulled himself fully onto the narrow bed, stretching out his full height and positioning his head so that he could gaze up into Tallas' face. Tallas' ankles and feet were pressed against Sabrin's flat stomach, but it felt reassuring, not uncomfortable.
Tallas smiled and nodded, his heart swelling at the sight of his best friend beside him, gazing up at him completely open. He resisted the urge to reach out and touch Sabrin's chest, and instead slid down onto his back so that they were lying side by side. Tallas pushed himself against the cold metal wall to avoid pressing into Sabrin, afraid to ruin the moment with an imprudent action. He felt a hand brush against his right elbow. "Do you remember when we used to lie together on the bed at the ward, looking up at the stars through the window?" Sabrin whispered.
"Of course," Tallas remembered the nights long ago when he was afraid of the dark, and so after lights-out he would sneak into Sabrin's bunk. "We dreamed of escaping to the stars together. Living a free life away from the Empire."
"We were so naive," Sabrin's voice was disheartened, "I don't feel free."
"What do you mean?" Tallas turned to face his friend.
"We're here Tal; we've reached the stars," Sabrin's eyes betrayed his muted despair, "but I still don't have a choice...We're about to go into this battlefield that no one's ever came back from, and I...I feel so helpless against what I have to do."
"Sabe, I didn't mean to force you into--" Tallas croaked out.
"No, it's not that," Sabrin quickly countered Tallas' self-blame. "I know we need to do this, and that's the problem. Everything that's goin' on...I feel like I'm being carried along by this river, and I have to paddle with every ounce of my strength, all the time, or drown."
Tallas felt tears returning as he resumed the hug, attempting to take his friend's anguish onto himself. More than anything he wished for a way to soothe Sabrin, to reassure him that everything would be fine, but he didn't want to offer any empty platitudes. Finally, he said, "No one's totally free from responsibility Sabe. The difference in us now is that we have our own reasons for what we're about to do; no one else's. Not the Fleet, not the Empire. I know our circumstances will make it harder for us, but it'll be worth it. You'll see," he managed a smile.
"But what if it doesn't work Tal?" A tear blazed a trail town Sabrin's cheek. "What if I'm not strong enough, or smart enough? What if I let you down?"
"You've already made my life more than I ever dreamed it could be Sabe; you can't let me down," Tallas smiled and drew into the hug. "No matter what happens now, I'll always look back with--" Love... "--joy at the time we spent together."
Sabrin's body trembled with quiet tears, prompting Tallas to tighten his hold. Sabrin rarely ever revealed his vulnerable side; he was always the one in control: the natural leader and the aegis of reason and decision. Tallas had always admired and respected him for that, but it was when Sabrin exposed his fears and doubts to him that he saw the real person inside his best friend. Sabrin's trust was Tallas' most treasured possession, one which he valued more than his own life.
Eventually, Tallas felt Sabrin's breathing grow more regular. "I'm tired," Sabrin said in a small voice.
"I'll let you get some sleep," Tallas whispered and made to remove himself from the too-small bed. Instead he felt Sabrin's hand latch onto his collar. Tallas' heart skipped a beat at the glistening depths of those midnight blues.
"Stay," a single word, barely perceptible, floating through the still air like an errant phantom.
"Sure thing bud," Tallas laid back down and Sabrin immediately drew closer, laying his head carefully on Tallas' chest. Tallas slipped his right arm beneath and around his friend's side, closing his own eyes and focusing on the sensation of being so close. Please, let me live forever in this moment, his mind sent in silent prayer, knowing that it cannot be answered.
By the morning, the Dream of Dawn was cruising towards the twin suns of Seos at the healthy clip of one-quarter light speed. Their radiance cast a plane of light across the small room and the bed, though the end-spectrum filters within the farship's windows rendered it virtually bereft of warmth (and hazardous radiation). Tallas woke first, becoming aware of a well-muscled arm draped casually over his side. Idly, with barely any pressure, he lapped his fingers over the back of the hand, luxuriating in the scant transition moments where his dreams and his reality were reversed. It was hardly the first time that they had fallen asleep together from exhaustion, but usually Sabrin was the light sleeper and was gone from the bed by the time he opened his eyes. Tallas knew that the ache would return promptly when life made its rude intrusion, but that thought alone couldn't stop him from enjoying the opportunity.
As much as he dared, Tallas streched out his lithe body and pressed against the body behind him. He felt a stirring and froze, not wanting the intimacy to end. A part of him feared what would happen when Sabrin did awake. Not of Sabrin intentionally hurting him, but of the uncertainty regarding their changed friendship. Would Sabrin carry on as if last night never happened? Allow the memory of it to gnaw away at both their psyches until something snapped?
"Tal?" Sabrin's throaty voice confirmed his wakefulness. Tallas felt a twinge of disappointment when the arm withdrew from his waist. He rolled around to gaze levelly at Sabrin, now lying fully on his back and staring at the ceiling. "Sorry about fallin' asleep on ya," Sabrin rubbed his eyes and turned his head to face Tallas.
"It's alright," Tallas said quietly, "I don't mind." The two continued to look into each other's eyes, until Sabrin seemed to grow a bit uncomfortable and turned his gaze back upwards. Sighing quietly, Tallas reluctantly sat up and headed to their mutual bathroom. He tossed his rumpled clothes into the laundry chute and cleaned himself up, finishing with a long shower. He re-entered his quarters with a towel wrapped around his waist and sat on the bed, averting his eyes to avoid awkwardness. "Bathroom's all yours," he said.
"Thanks," Sabrin walked into the bathroom without further ceremony, while Tallas asked, "Dreamer, how far are we from the battlefield?"
"We're 73 minutes from the perimeter of the psionic field." Dreamer's intercom voice sounded more reserved than his bolsterous self, reminding Tallas of his obligations.
"Dreamer, about yesterday--" Tallas began.
"It's okay," Dreamer's image appeared to interrupt his apology, "I think I might've reacted the same way if I'ere in your shoes. No need to obsess over a simple misunderstandin'." He paused with a pensive expression. "You and Sabe work it out?"
"Weren't you listening?" Tallas smiled to indicate that it wasn't an accusation.
"I don't pay attention to everythin' my internal sensors hear," Dreamer said seriously, then grinned, "or see."
Tallas blushed a little. "Yeah, we worked it out," he mumbled, avoiding the A.I.'s implication.
"Cool, I'll see you guys on the bridge," Dreamer said.
"Dreamer...I know you weren't the person who attacked us back on the bridge. I don't believe you're someone who'd do that," Tallas said, needing to make clear his take.
"Thanks Tal, that means a lot," a bit of color appeared on Dreamer's pale cheeks. "Oh, by the way, I found those old uniforms I was talkin' about. If you wanna look a bit more legit I put them outside the door."
"'Legit'? Like you?" Tallas asked with a grin.
"You wish," Dreamer shot back, "B'sides if you keep on wearin' the same clothes as the night before people might get the wrong idea." He ran the tip of his tongue over his lips and leered licentiously.
"Pull your mind out of the gutter," Tallas scoffed to conceal his embarrassment. He glared at the A.I., "Don't you have anything better to do?"
"Better than makin' fun of cute boys?" Tallas glared at him. "Okay, okay, I can take a hint," Dreamer laughed and held up his hands, "I'm gone. You and your 'significant other' just remember to make it up here at some point so we can get on with the whole mission thing." The monitor went dark.
The return of their banter lightened Tallas' heart, and he felt decidedly better prepared to tackle the trials ahead than a couple minutes before. Opening the door briefly, he retrieved the two sets of crisp, folded uniforms on their doorstep. They were similar in design to Dreamer's uniform: simple and elegant, tastefully done in hues of cerulean blue and black. There was a small, gold-colored personal comlink pin on the collar, bearing a symbol Tallas didn't recognize. It was a stylized nine-rayed star, with a spiral in the center. Examining it and himself in the mirror, Tallas was about to ask Dreamer about it when Sabrin emerged from the bathroom, his torso exposed and still damp from the shower. His muscles were developed and toned from the requisite training at the Academy, though not overstated. To Tallas his friend's body was perfect, and he'd lost count of the number of times he fantasized about just once running his hands over those curves without reservation.
"Hey, where'd you get the uniform?" Sabrin asked, coming to standing directly in front of him. Tallas was certainly that his arousal was painfully obvious to his best friend, but he struggled valiantly to suppress his physical reaction.
"Uh...um, D-Dreamer delivered it," Tallas stammered, backing away a step. Nervously he cleared his throat and gestured to the other uniform, lying on the chair. "There's a set for you too."
"Oh, thanks. So you two talked about what happened?" Sabrin asked, heading to the chair.
"Yeah," Tallas felt he had himself under control now, "He's surprisingly understanding."
"I noticed," Sabrin commented, remembering his own encounter with Dreamer in the shuttlebay. He felt the fabric of the uniform in his hands, wondering if Tallas was going to stay while he dressed. It hadn't been an issue before, but now matters were more...complicated. Fortunately, Tallas turned to leave the room before he had to make a decision on whether to ask discretion of his friend. "I'm headin' to the bridge," Tallas said, "We're not far from the battlefield so come on up when you've dressed."
After fifteen minutes the four of them were gathered on the bridge rehashing the details of their expedition, the humans having forced down a few ration cubes for energy. Before them the expanse of silent derelicts and charred debris was just visible on the magnified viewscreen display on the forward windows. The brilliance of the suns on both sides cast stark shadows in odd places across the wrecks, creating jagged shapes and twisted gaps.
"Don't trust your eyes," Dreamer said of the surreal scene. A three-dimensional diagram of the battlefield gathered by long-range sensor sweeps was displayed on the large master situational display. Dreamer highlighted their approach vector and reminded them, "Keep to thrusters only; we want as much reaction time as possible. I've highlighted a couple of promising derelicts, we'll be hittin' those first. Y'all have our inventories; keep a lookout for anythin' good."
"We're not approaching Vesuvius?" Lirelle queried.
"No we're not," Dreamer said firmly, "The deeper we go in, the stronger the field gets and the farther we are from the exit. I'm more than willin' not to poke that particular bear."
Lirelle nodded in agreement. Dreamer gave a brief overview of each target ship, and ran through the checklist again. "We're ready then?" Lirelle finally asked.
"As we'll ever be," Dreamer said, "We've all looked over the specifics; time to seize the day."
With that they took their respective posts: Sabrin in the forward pilot's seat, Tallas at the starboard console, Lirelle at port, and Dreamer standing in the back. Lirelle carefully plugged the neural interface jack into the dataport behind her ear and brought up the virtual controls. "Activating interface...good I'm receiving sensor telemetry...adjusting shield harmonics." The Dream's shield generator, a chevron-shaped structure which wrapped around the bottom of the bow, soundlessly charged and projected its protective energy fields around the ship. "Shields look to be functioning normally."
"Nothin' wrong with shipboard systems," Dreamer declared.
"Alright then, I'm taking us forward. Thrusters to one-half," Sabrin said. Four of the Dream's eight maneuvering thrusters fired their directional flares, edging the small craft ahead. "...increasing thrusters to three-quarters; velocity at 4,500 kph..." Sabrin's hands were sure, though slightly slicked by sweat. His heart was pounding in his chest as he attempted to project an impression of supreme confidence.
"We're approaching the perimeter," Tallas noted, his voice barely wavering, "Five minutes till we cross the critical threshold."