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The contents of this story are fictional. Any resemblance of characters to living or lived persons is strictly coincidental. Certain characters engage in sexual acts which may or may not be legal in the state or country in which a reader may reside. Any reader with objections to graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between males who may not have reached the legal age of consent, or whose local, regional, state or national jurisprudence prohibits such descriptions, should not read further.
Chapter VIII - Repairs
Slowly, almost sadly, Graham came out of me, and I let loose with my legs, tracing down his butt, the backs of his thighs, knees and ankles with the tendons at the back of my feet, feeling the hardness of his muscles, the silky smoothness of his skin. My hands were all over his back, feeling even silkier skin, the muscles and rib bones, the well defined spine and its hollow, the taut shoulders.
I had never experienced anything like it. I had submitted to him, opened myself to him, let him into me to deposit his sperm, trying to get it into my womb that wasn't there, and I had come with him in shattering orgasms like I never experienced before in my life, all without my hand, without especially anything other than his loving.
It had hurt when he first penetrated me. I wasn't expecting it at all, never even thought of being able to make love with a guy face-to-face, figured the plumbing was all wrong for that. But Graham's cock is made for me - it has this shape that makes it perfect for moving into me before . . . well, let's just say it works. Almost too well. It rubs up against my prostate so much, I have to be careful in the future - now - that it doesn't bring me off before he gets going, before he's really ready.
That first time, I was all cramped up from the sudden intrusion, and then he started coming inside me, before the whole thing really got started, and I wanted him all the way inside me when he was coming, so I just jammed him right in there, the sharp stabs of pain almost like knives. Then he pumped his semen into me, way inside, and the throbbing of his cock set something or other off inside me, and damn! I was coming too! Just like that! Not a finger near my cock, much less a mouth or an ass. I guess it was all the loving we did beforehand, I was just so hot to be with him . . .
After, he made love to me. He caressed my face, my body, every part of me, told me how much he loved me, made me so proud to have him inside me, I couldn't believe it. We rolled on to our sides after a while, and it just got better, the loving so tender, so caring, I couldn't hold back a kind of soppy feeling, and I felt a tear slip out of my eye. Graham just kissed it away, told me how much he loved me, my strength, my love of the land, my determination, my masculinity.
I felt a fraud, like some wuss of a girl, my chest all full of happiness, and just wanting to bawl a little. And he told me it was all right, that it was okay for me to let it out, okay to have these feelings, and we just held each other while I cried out of pure pent-up but now released fear and frustration, so happy I could burst. He cried a little with me, too, and I loved him for that. No, I loved him for everything he was and did. I won't bore with all the litany, but the qualities of the man are just too fine.
Somehow, we dozed off, together like that, Graham still plugged into me, my leg under his waist just right to keep the circulation going, our chests pressed close, arms going all the way around us.
But the second time . . . that was the one that did it. I was a little tender down there. My hole, I mean. At least at first. First it was his kisses, tender, warm, loving, raising my temperature gradually, my heart getting quickly up to speed. Then he got to moving a little, slow at first, the head of his cock moving deep inside me, just under my stomach, it felt like, and my dick waking up right smart as it moved about between us.
It was still warm, the night hadn't brought much cool, and we started to perspire a little, and my dick got more and more lubrication from it, plus my come from earlier, and the lube streaming from my dick in response to all the stimulation that was going on inside me.
When we rolled so I was on my back again, our mouths pressed together, his cock now moving in and out so that Roger's head pressed up against my prostate twice in each cycle, I tried to adjust things a little so he wasn't going to make me come as quickly as he did the first time, and for a minute or two, the pillow worked, but then I moved my legs a little to make it easier for him to ram it home to me, and he pulled me even tighter to him, and the sensations were just too much for my poor abused nervous system - I exploded in a huge orgasm, like nothing I'd never felt before, every nerve in my body on "Overload!" every muscle contracting to force his semen into me, my voice making gurgling shouting noises, my arms trying to pull him inside my skin, my seed spurting out between us . . .and then I felt it.
I swear to God, I felt his dick wind up and shoot his sperm into me, felt the hugeness of his contractions, whatever they are, felt the head of his dick expand inside me as it shot his essence into me, felt the power of his emotions as he made love to me, honored me, cherished me.
He was my man, my love, the one that I had waited for. No doubt remained at all.
As the waves subsided, he did it again - he made love to me after the sex, making me feel like I was the most important person on Earth, holding me, calming me, caressing me, just as I was doing to him, bringing him down slowly, his trembling muscles only gradually relaxing.
Then he just pulled back and roared, like a lion, laughing and roaring, his dick still throbbing inside his mate, keeping his semen from moving out of the pocket where it had been deposited, making sure the egg would be fertilized, the offspring his, preserving his genes for posterity . . .
His teeth had grown back in. I knew they felt natural, not plastic. When we kissed in the Hall, I could tell they weren't his, not that that was important. Now, looking up at him, his mouth wide open in his roar, he had teeth all the way back, flush up against the gums, but real teeth. When he smiled back down at me, his eyes beaming with love, his front teeth were as white as milk, warm and glossy, much better than the paper-white plastic of before.
I laughed with him, holding him inside me, feeling the power of his dick, still hard in me, feeling it move about a little, and I wondered at his sheer magnetism, his strength, his powerful masculinity, his kindness. I couldn't believe how lucky I was, that he loved me.
He looked down at me, and there was nothing but love in his eyes, and I tried to let my love show through my eyes the same way, and . . .
"Forgive this intrusion. It is time," said Groth.
"Go away," I said loudly. "We'll be there."
Graham said exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. Groth had summoned. But it was a lonely, haunting summons. It was more a . . . he was begging us.
I asked, Groth told me, dispassionately.
The survival of the Ship was at stake. In two weeks, it could be . . . singularized . . . no, imploded into a singularity, a Black Hole no bigger than a pinhead, even smaller than the "Black Diamond" that had struck our Ship and the First Ship, the one that was supposed to handle all the maintenance for the little Fleet, just as it was preparing to . . . to "dock" into the Ship, to modify the Hrandoth backflush mechanism, make sure the Batruqan never clogged up again.
I felt bad that I had been so selfish.
Groth said some things that almost made me tear up. The Ship is the command center. Groth is not the Ship - he is the collective group, all the computers on all the ships, linked up in a sub-space network that somehow provides instantaneous communications, far faster than the speed of light, something about using the connectivity of gravity wells. If the Ship perished, the other ships would go on, but the success probability of the mission was barely above single digits.
I was doing a lot of that lately. Getting all teary. I hoped I wasn't losing my . . . maleness, becoming effeminant.
"Have no fear. Your identity is in no peril," said Groth.
It's nice to have friends, I thought to myself.
"I am deeply honored," said Groth.
I said something sharp back, but got no answer.
A minute later, we were in my shower, steam rising around us, washing each other with only a brief exploration of the parts of each other we'd never seen. Graham is big down there, even soft. Big as me - no, be honest - bigger in most ways. I wondered that he hadn't ripped me open when he went inside me. I guess the shape of the head of his cock has something to do with it.
The last tufts of his gray hair came out. His head was covered in thick, short, soft mahogany color hair, in a brush cut, sort of.
The hairs on his chest were short, dark, unbelievably sexy, as they highlighted the tight musculature of his chest. There was a trail of them pointing down to his navel, and from there down to his cock. I put my little finger in his navel, like a tiny mouth. Just to wash it out, nothing sexual or anything. But I felt a twinge in my privates. I rinsed his stomach, his front, felt his cock, flaccid but not completely soft..
I wanted to look closer at it, feel his balls, maybe kiss his cock all over, even suck on it a little, but we had to get to the Hangar, and I held back.
When I soaped his back, I realized Graham was no longer old at all. At least his body wasn't. His back was like T.J.'s but more defined. There wasn't a crease or wrinkle to be seen.
He looked young - only a tad older than me. His body was the body of a high school or college athlete, but not all gross from lifting or anything, just tight and sinewy. There was no fat that I could see, although Groth assured me later that our bodies would remain at 9.473% body fat, for maximum protection against viral and bacterial assaults. I don't pretend to understand what one has to do with the other. Graham was beautiful on the outside now, as well as on the inside. I felt so blessed, I could barely concentrate as we dried each other, quickly dressed and trotted out to Jeep. It took us no more than ten minutes from bed to those gawdawful absurdly thin seats.
The lights were still on at Tad Barrat's house, but he's so far set back from Gove that he wouldn't notice us going by. We drove the back way, up to Post Road on the road between Tad and Graham, and then over on Post, just in case somebody - like Andy, for instance - might be on the Gove road, or looking out a window in town as we passed through. The lights were out in Gil Carver's home facing Post Road on Graham's second parcel. Gary Boyce's second parcel hasn't got a house on it any more - he tore what was left of it down after the fire. Gary's place, bordered by Post and Katy, has the house facing onto Katy Road, with a big grove of oak on the North side, so there was nobody else to see us go back and forth. Graham drove fast - faster than I would at night - but I felt safe. He does that to me - makes me feel safe whenever he's at my side. Says I do that for him, too.
We got there at just the right time. The Ship was ready to extend the Cloak, in a funnel/tunnel shape as soon as Graham opened the doors. You couldn't see it as it shot out, but there was a slight feel of electricity in the air, and the stars outside the door wavered a little. The lights in the hangar dimmed down to almost nothing, I guessed so as to show as little as possible light to the outside, avoid detection as much as they could.
"Correct. The landing funnel extends out only a few hundred yards," Groth told us. "It is strictly a visual cloak, as a full spectrum cloak would incinerate the Hangar from the midsection of the Ship forward. The arriving ship will move into it before decloaking, so that it will remain invisible while it moves into the Hangar, but the energy generated by the Kryst and the local drive will be briefly unmasked - uncloaked. The funnel is open at one end of course, and will be detectable by . . . astute observers.
"Why is the energy . . . ?"
"For the time between discontinuing the full-spectrum Cloak of the arriving vessel and connection to the Ship, when most surplus energy can be diverted into the Probe, the vessel's energy surplus must be radiated. Energy from the bottom of the ship will be directed towards the ground, heating it a few degrees per minute. From the top of the ship, it will be focused into as tight a laser beam as possible, aimed at a point where no satellites are proximate. But the beam itself will be detectable, as will the thermal footprint on the ground. Thus must the funnel remain in use for as short a duration as possible, the vessel moved into the Hangar and connected to the Probe speedily.
"Why not just leave the Cloak on until the Ship is inside the Hangar?" Graham asked. I was wondering the same thing.
"The Cloak around a ship can not be maintained within four meters of solid matter. The matter is gradually converted, the energy drawn into the banks. Organic matter touched by the edges is similarly . . . converted," Groth said. "But there is an instantaneous impact. Living organisms do not survive."
"You mean the Cloak would kill us if we approached it?"
"Yes. But the Ship is unable to maintain the main Cloak if you are within 2.5 meters of the outer layer. Your cellular structure has been recorded, and the Cloak would automatically be discontinued instantaneously. That is true for all the Ships."
"What about the other Cloak," I said, thinking of the moths and bats that gyrated near the little floodlights. "The visi-Cloak inside the Hangar?"
"Matter is . . . absorbed, but only when there is direct contact with the Cloak. Rather, the energy is absorbed. The residue falls as ash. It is unavoidable. The Ship has no record of individual cellular structures unless they are . . . introduced. It is why the Ship is raised when you are not present, so that no other . . . humans . . . can come to harm. Where cellular structure is identifiable, the light Cloak is adjusted so that there is a neutralized hole in the cloak around the known structure."
That explained why we had no more insects in the Hangar, why there seemed to be a little more dust hanging in the air.
"Yes," said Groth in my head. I can tell now when he doesn't use a voice we can actually hear.
"Is that what the Light does - did - when we entered?" Graham asked. "Record our structure?"
I was a little taken aback at the insight. Graham is no dumb farmer.
"Among other things, yes," said Groth. Then he continued just to me. "Do not underestimate the value of the choice you have made, Bill. Graham is far more than others realize."
I smiled inside myself and agreed, with a little shiver.
"As soon as the ship is inside the Hangar, the funnel will be switched off, so that you can unload the units," said Groth.
We could see "through" the funnel, as the other ship approached, but couldn't see the ship itself even when it was inside. We saw the energy beam, though - an otherworldly violet bar of flame leapt from inside the funnel, right at the outer edge, headed straight up into the dark sky. Our Ship's funnel widened a little, and Groth warned us to move back. The end of the funnel moved quickly into the hangar, the violet light beam suddenly disappearing just as it looked about to cut into the tracks of the doors. There was a loud, but very short "zip" sound, and the new Ship was just there, right above us, just inside the door, the nose at the same level as our Ship's fuselage, almost but not quite touching. It was smaller. A little more than two thirds the length of our Ship - a tight fit inside the Hangar. Some kind of beam or beacon appeared between the two ships, then was gone, replaced by a thin cable like the ones hooked into the Probe and the Hangar's breaker box.
"Both ships are now protected by the light Cloak," said Groth as Graham threw the lever to close the doors. "The Probe is dissipating all but 1.3% of total generated radiative energy. You are fully protected. It is time to begin."
As the doors closed, we both ran to the stairway that popped out of the rear quarter of the new arrival. It was all I could do to keep from bounding up the stairs, but I kept still, knowing it would be faster. I looked over at our Ship - there was a white cone leading down from it to the Platform, and the deep blue-purple of the destabilizer was intense, almost violet-purple-black. Then we were going up the escalator, and our Ship was hidden by the curve of the second Ship's hull.
The room at the top was much smaller than on our Ship. The Optimizer light came on only briefly, then we went through the door that opened directly in from of us. There was a short corridor, then we went through another door into what looked like a modern version of a computer room, all white, with large white cubes spaced on the far side, and a series of smaller cubes nearer the door. There were five almost blindingly white "suitcases" - which I assumed contained neural units - on the top of five of the smaller cubes, and dozens of them, much smaller, on the large cubes. It was hard to make out the borders of the cases, they emitted so much light.
"Put on the metallic gloves you see at your right," said Groth in my head. I turned right, just as Graham turned left. There was a pair of long silvery-gold gloves on a shelf that extended from the wall. "These are to ensure a totally sterile environment while you transfer the neural units to the Drive. They will not harm you in any way."
I slipped one on my left hand, and it went almost to the shoulder. The "hands" were different - only three fingers, elongated, one thumb hole, a tight fit across the palm. I slipped the other one on my right hand . . . arm, and turned back to look at Graham, and almost shit bricks.
Graham was all silvery white, unrecognizable, everything hidden under a gauzy glow, almost blindingly white. His head looked half again bigger than his real head, his limbs like skinny skeletal representations of his real body. I looked at myself, and saw . . . me.
"You okay, Bill?" Graham's voice said.
"Yeah, but you look like an Alien," I said back. This was too cool!
"All white light?"
"How come . . . "
Groth never lets me finish a question.
"It is because I know the question before you can verbalize it," he said in my head. Then he said in a voice "The suits are visible to anyone outside the fields, but not to you as long as you are in them. Touch each other, and you will understand."
Graham moved to me and put his arm, tentatively, on my shoulder. It was as if he couldn't see where it was until he actually touched, then all of a sudden, I could see him without the suit, just wearing the "gloves."
"I love you," he whispered, and gave me a quick kiss. I grabbed him back for an encore.
"There is little time," said Groth. "You will have this evening together."
I let go of Graham, and he turned back into an Alien.
All the time, there was more information coming in. Which unit would go first, the orientation each of them had to have after they were taken out the door, how to get them to move up and down - there were small gravity platforms under each of them, with a lever sort of button (Graham called it a toggle) to move up or down.
I got a surprise when we went to move the first suitcase. It was another Sterile Suit - as soon as I touched it, the unit itself became visible. The primary power board was just a slab of solid looking wood colored plastic, showing no sign of circuits that I could discern, with a manipulator handle at each corner of the slab. Each side of the slab sparkled, as if from myriad infinitely small lights.
It took forever to get the first primary board out of the ship, down to the Hangar floor. It wasn't bulky - it was massive. A little more than three feet long, a few inches wide - almost wedge-shaped, maybe six feet tall, no big deal, right? Try it when it weighs a few thousand kilos - like eight. That's something like seventeen or eighteen thousand pounds, as much as a large truck, more than an empty UPS delivery van, more like Pete's gas truck without the trailer. You couldn't dare move it fast, because you couldn't hope to stop it quickly. The gravity platform made it slide in any horizontal direction with the slightest push, but the speed of the slide was infinitely slow, because it was so massive. The blessing of the gravity platform was that it kept it stolidly vertical, and it went up and down real easy.
As long as we were both touching the unit, we looked normal to each other, but at one point when I let go to help Graham push his end into the right direction, he looked immediately like an Alien again, pushing a slab of light in front of him.
The other thing - the board was "inside" our suits as long as we were outside the Ships. It didn't have its own source of . . . aura, for want of a better word. One of us had to hold on to it at all times, no matter what, to keep it from getting contaminated. (You wouldn't believe what we breathe in the air. It's like a soup, there's so much life in it - mostly bacteria and viruses and spores. Groth showed it to me once, explaining that we actually needed it, to naturally maintain our immunity defenses in top condition. If we lived in a sterile environment, we would have to take special precautions to keep from being exposed to "real" air - wearing these suits all the time.)
The descent was a major problem. We Not the descent - the aftermath. The escalator brought us slowly down, then put us on the floor, but with the primary board still accelerated to the forward motion of the escalator. We had to hang on for our dear lives, push/pull with every ounce of our strength to get it swung out of a path that would have taken it right into the Hangar wall. Groth was "with" us the entire way, encouraging, suggesting, cautioning. Thank the gods, or we would have screwed it up beyond belief. The next time, the gravity platform would be secured to the escalator, Graham told Groth, so it wouldn't have the momentum when we released it, after it stopped. Graham actually swore, but there's no point in repeating it word for word.
Groth just responded, "Yes." No apology for not having thought of that before, nothing. I thought computers were perfect.
I didn't get a response to that either. I wondered if computers had feelings to hurt.
"Yes," Groth replied. To me.
"It is unfortunate that I did not take into consideration the momentum added by the descent," said Groth to both of us. "I am . . . sorry."
Graham shot me a look of surprise, which I probably reflected.
"S'okay Groth," Graham said. "We're all under a little stress, here. A body's got to blow off steam, get rid of it or bust."
"I agree," said Groth. "Computers . . . do not know stress."
"You know it," said Graham. "Yours is called heat - you think too much, you make heat - you have to get rid of it, or you are damaged. That's stress."
"You are a man of surprising perception," said Groth.
That's my man.
Most of the time we just grunted from pushing and pulling, breath labored, muscles in agony.
We were drenched with sweat, every muscle aching, by the time we got the board lined up in front of the Drive, which the Ship had lowered. It wasn't all that large - maybe a seven or eight foot diameter disk, six plus feet tall, over which hung another hollow. much larger diameter disk, about eight foot tall, with an eight foot diameter hole where the smaller disk obviously nested.. Both were encased in a "suitcase" of the white light, not quite as solid as the one around us, but masking details of what we were looking at. It seemed to reach out, sort of enveloping us as we got within a few feet of it, making everything visible again.
When finally we swung the new unit into alignment with the place it was supposed to go, this vacuum-hose-looking tube dropped down to the top of the damaged board in front of the replacement part, and the whole thing - the damaged on - just sort of turned to jelly from the top and disappeared up the hose. Like it didn't weigh anything.
It took nearly two hours, just to get the first primary board in place. Believe it or not, the move only took a little more than a half hour. Lining it up with the lasers, fitting the guide straps top and bottom so the unit wouldn't graze up against the units to left and right, removing the handles from the "front" end, then inching it into place in its socket was both delicate and heavy work. We couldn't touch the other units of the Drive except at the occasional "handle," and it was hard to gauge the speed of the forward movement as the unit went into the slot.
I don't know how, but the little gravity platform under the board was gradually just absorbed into the one under the drive. I keep thinking about mercury, how drops of it coagulate when they touch. Except there was no appreciable change in the size of the whole to reflect the sum of the two parts. I never asked Groth about that. Have to do it one of these days.
Groth gave us precise instructions on when and where to push or pull, how to position ourselves above and below the unit. At one point, Graham was standing directly over me as I lay on the ground, pulling on the bottom handle with my feet braced against the gravity platform of the Drive. He was pushing hard, trying to get it back to the vertical, as the top was scraping against the guide straps, slowing it down. His legs straddled me, and I felt a drop of his sweat on my head. I looked up, only for a second, and looked at his body. I could write a book, just about that. Slim, muscled legs almost bursting out of the jeans, his butt flexed, arms like ironwood, the muscles so well defined . . .
The image burned into my memory, I turned back to watch as the last few centimeters ticked away, as our "end" of the board ever so slowly became flush with the other boards.
"Break time," Groth said as the mushy "click" of the circuitry into the contacts came, almost no other sign that the board had slotted into position than a slight tremor. "You are doing well!" There was no indication as yet whether or not the board would function, but Groth's uncharacteristic expression of almost pleasure was a good omen.
"Tests are underway," answered Groth
I felt like a steamroller had run me over, folded me in half, and run over me again. I stunk like a horse, my muscles screamed in agony, I had no breath, and I was hungry. Graham seemed unaffected, except that he smelled really . . . desirable. His perspiration is a definite turn on for me. Big time. I had to pee. That always seems to happen after I have an orgasm - I have to pee more often for a couple or four hours, but not as much.
Ten minutes later, we bounded out to the stairs of our Ship, completely recovered after a solid night's sleep, refreshed by the food and drink we'd been . . . not injected, but something like that in the Optimizer. Just as well - I never could have chewed any food. My teeth ached - all of them at once. The front one - the one with the big chip in it - felt loose in its socket.
The second board was waiting at the bottom of the other ship's escalator. Groth had taken the criticism to heart - the board was anchored to the escalator by these extrusion things that just melted back into the escalator when we took hold of the handles. The "suitcase" was apparently maintained by a cable, which popped off the top of the board just as we took hold of the handles, and zipped back into the othe Ship.
By five, the second primary board was installed, and Groth made us stop. "We can not continue while your employees are present," he said. "And it is important that no one see anything unusual in your behavior. You must both go to do your morning homework (he meant chores) then go for food at the restaurant."
We went back into the Optimizer again, slipped off the gloves, slept ten hours in a minute or five, and awoke with our clothes clean and fresh, our muscles only slightly stiff, and our bellies screaming for food.
On the way down the stairway, my arms draped over his shoulders, I had to admit, I needed food more than loving right then. Graham took his teeth out of his pocket.
"Ain't gonna need these no more."
"Let's see," I said, turning his head.
He opened his mouth, and they were already mostly growed in, say three quarters as big as his old teeth. As long, I mean. He had big molars in back. Every tooth was as white as milk. It was teeth like the models in magazines have.
"Wow!" I said. "Perfect! You're gonna have to stop smoking . . . " I realized I hadn't had a cigarette since - two days? Three?
"Already did," he said, just before I got a long kiss. "Haven't wanted one since . . . I guess since the Ship got here. I mean, into the Hangar."
"It is singularly bad for your health to inhale the carcinogens and chemical by-products of incinerated tobacco and chemically treated cellulose, as well as those created by the burning of your matches and especially the butane and petroleum distillates used in lighters," said Groth from somewhere.
We both laughed, and walked to the door to the Shop, turning as we closed them. All we could see was the pallet jack, tool kit, jackhammer, and a very big block of solid concrete with an even bigger block on top of it.
We took the Jeep again - I dropped Graham at his doorstep, got a wonderful, sloppy, heart-pounding kiss, then sped to my place. I fed hens, milked and mucked, brought in the eggs, fed the cats and dashed back to the Jeep. I seemed to be able to move faster - the minute hands didn't sweep so quickly.
"Your body is becoming more efficient," said Groth. "You are able to move more quickly, expend more energy, think more rapidly as the repairs progress."
I sped to Graham's, got another glorious wake-up-the-barracks Kiss from Graham, and we got to Charlene's at Graham's customary time, and took our place in the usual booth. Graham again apologized to Dan that he wasn't sitting next to him, and Dan just handed him two mugs of coffee, with a big shit-eating grin. Christ, did he know we were . . .
I got a gigantic shock when I looked in the mirror on the wall between the door and the booths. Graham was old again, homely, gray-haired, big nose, deep creases in his face. Still had the killer body, though. I turned in panic to look at him, and got another shock as he turned to me. He was my Graham, young, handsome, energetic and completely ready for anything. I looked back in the mirror in confusion, and he was the old Graham, and when I snapped back to look at him, he was new.
"Groth!" I almost said aloud. "What . . .!"
As usual, he answered before I got it all out. "He is really as he looks to you. We can not afford to have others see him as he now is, so he is wearing a . . . kind of cloak."
"It won't hurt him?"
"No. Nor will your cloak harm you or Graham in any way."
I turned to look at myself in the mirror. I looked . . . like me, that's all. Then Groth did something, and all of a sudden, I looked different. The scar on my right cheek from the scythe that fell on me last year was gone, my nose was straight, unbroken. My front tooth was still chipped from football, anyway. I looked - more mature.
"This is how you actually appear without the Cloak. Your organism is at absolute overall peak at the biological age of 23 years seven months - you have therefore aged approximately 827 days. Your first new tooth will appear in several more days," Groth said. I am afraid your teeth are being replaced. It is necessary."
"Why?" I seized on the silliest little details. What about the nose? What about my appendix scar?
"Your teeth must be rebuilt to last a much longer duration during your life span. The old teeth would have been inadequate after only several scores of your chronological years. The appendix has been restored. It is not a useless organ, but vital to long-term anti viral and anti-bacterial defenses of the human body. Your components are being replaced by the optimizer, eliminating several incorrect sequences in the genetic structure. Graham's DNA structure is being used to repair the damage, as it is intact in the areas where your sequences are not - as will yours be used to repair sequences where his were not. His semen is being used as the source of material. The life span determinants of the DNA helixes are being replaced, duplicating the ends of helixes contained in both of your sperm. It is important that you provide Graham's body with . . . "
He stopped, almost as if it was . . .
"Somewhat intimate, yes. Graham has need of your sperm cells, as have you of his."
I almost heard Groth clear his throat. "Your nose was susceptible to arthritis and polyps as the result of cracks in the cartilage and a splintering of the bone."
"You are rebuilding my body.?"
"It is the only ethical thing to do."
"Your life span must be matched to that of your mate. The bond of two beings can not be altered by us under our judicial code, save by judicial order and only in extreme circumstances, such as untreatable mental deterioration. We have had to . . . alter Graham's genetically determined potential life span to achieve its optimum performance in order to accomplish our mission. It was partially done by judicial order after the ship was first damaged, when he volunteered to help make repairs, and it was ordered to be completed when the Drive was penetrated, as a precaution. Many of the superficial repairs have been made, but I have delayed the cell replacement process until . . . the appropriate genetic material is available."
"What is your mission? Why is it so important?"
"That will be disclosed as soon as the probability calculations are completed."
"We are yet gathering information."
"On human engineering and mathematics."
"To determine if the mission will be successful."
"And you won't tell me your mission."
"In due course. I promise you that you will know, whatever the outcome."
I was getting nowhere, like walking on a Mobius strip.
"How would it have been altered? Our bond, I mean."
"It would have terminated with the death of one of the participants."
"Death is always interfering with relationships," I philosophized.
I didn't believe his response. I can be so damned bullheaded at times. I should have told him I was bull-headed, but he didn't say anything more, so I let it drop into my mental waste-basket. I should have known better. Groth never lied to us. Not about anything. If I had been a little more accepting, I would have pursued my line of questioning a lot harder and longer.
Groth assures me he did not influence my thoughts in any way, so it was entirely my fault. Not that it made any difference, really. It just postponed my understanding of the importance of Groth's mission. Our mission.
My attention snapped back to Graham as he sat down opposite me, the hot coffee wafting fragrant steam. I took my mug, and took a first sip, carefully as it was pretty hot, just as Mom came out of the kitchen.
"Morning, Mom!" I said over my mug with a big smile.
"Morning, you two!" she almost laughed back at me. "The usual?"
'You two.' I wondered again if that meant she knew . . .
"Sounds good," Graham and I said at the same time.
Mom went back to the grill to get it started, after cutting Pete's piece of cake.
Nobody took any notice. Of us, I mean. We talked the talk, ate like pigs, laughed with the others when Pete told the joke he heard in Salina about what Gore had really been doing in the Buddhist temple, swore when the guy on the TV news mentioned something about Monica. Tired of that mess - just throw the bums out, wipe their names off the daily scandal sheets. I think I'm a Democrat at heart - it's sort of like always wanting to support the underdog, give people as much freedom as possible to be their best - but I can't stand the way most of the bigwigs are preaching class warfare and bigger government, always more bureaucrats, more taxes, more invective about the rich, hand-wringing for the poor. Shit, I'm poor, and I don't damn well need or want help. I want help given to them what need it because they can't - not won't - do for themselves.
When we got back to the Hangar, Rob and Cory were already there, at least half an hour early, working together on a Deere, laughing a little at some joke as we came in.
"Hey, guys," Graham said. "Gettin' an early start?"
"We figure you're so busy with the other stuff, you could use a little extra," said Rob, wiping his hands on a red cloth.
I got a twinge. I wondered if they knew anything, saw anything while we were working on the Ship. No, it was only me, Graham had been with them.
"Sorry if I'm not with you enough," Graham said at once. "This should be over in a couple of weeks."
"You let us know if we can help," Rob said. Cary stood up beside Rob, with grease already on his forehead.
"Will do," Graham
Graham and I went into the Hangar, both ships coming into view as we approached, just an instant after they were not there.
"Can't we get some things done today?" I thought at Groth. "There is so much to do, so little time if we only work at night."
"We can not take the risk that others know that we are here," Groth said aloud. "The Ship is completely vulnerable until the Drive has been remounted."
"What if we give Rob and Cory the afternoon off?" I think I was the one who asked - I don't remember.
"We could get more done," said Groth. "At least finish the large boards, begin with the smaller units."
"Done," said Graham. "I'll work with them all morning, try to get the Deere tractors all done. Maybe see if we could have a couple of maintenance jobs on-site for the boys later this week."
What day was today? Wednesday. The weekend would be free. We could get a lot done.
"That has been factored into our estimates," said Groth. "If there are no significant problems, we will be able to replace all 842 neural units with at least twenty-four hours cushion."
"Cushion?" Graham asked.
"Time before the group must leave."
"Why is the time so inflexible?" I asked. "Why can't you put off departure for a day or two, just to be sure?"
"We would be destroyed." Groth replied. "That is a certainty."
"By who?" Graham jumped.
"Not by who," said Groth. "By Events."
"Is . . . are we . . . is the Earth going to be destroyed?" I managed to sputter out. Not now, not now I've found my Graham, no, please no . . .
"Not for many tens of thousands of years," Groth said.
I breathed easier. Graham did too, I could tell the way he held himself. His back straightens a little when he's tense. Not so that others would notice that much, but I do.
"What Events?" Graham said softly.
"Part of our Mission," said Groth. "I will provide a full explanation in no more than six days. It will take that long to complete our calculations."
"What now? I mean this minute?" I asked. "What can I be doing?"
"We will begin the training for connecting the neural control units, first for Bill, then for Graham, so that one of you can at all times be certain the other two do not learn of the Ships' presence.
So I went into our Ship and started absorbing directly from the Learning Center. Polarities, positioning of laser guides, use of the mini-platforms in sequence, splicing of cards - not all connections were through the core circuits, some physical links were needed, especially in the thruster control sectors - double stacking of several cards to create further redundancies, inclusion of . . . there are no technical terms made up yet that describe the processes. They are for fabricating gravitic wells that draw matter from the direction of the Ship's flight through defined entry points, into the thruster units for conversion into high-energy near-lightspeed particles, through the magnetic/gravitic concentrators and out in the opposite direction of forward acceleration. Close as I can come in simple English. Not as much as I understand, but as much as I can explain.
Groth stopped the process after what seemed like a couple of hours. Actually, it was already Dinner time, or almost. I pulled my hands off the posts, and they were stiff from grasping for so long. I had to pee, and my bowels announced an imminent delivery.
"The Optimizer will relieve you," said Graham as I went down the corridor.
A minute later, I was down the escalator, everything converted, or whatever.
"The body is unable to process material as efficiently as the Optimizer," said Groth in my head. He proceeded to give me a graphic description of what happened to the contents of my bladder and rectum, which I found a little unappetizing, but edifying nonetheless, so I pushed away any thoughts of distaste.
"Yes, I see," said Groth after his explanation was complete. "You are becoming somewhat adept at suppressing nascent and subliminal thought. I have not seen that before in you. It is . . . unexpected."
I had no idea what he was talking about.
"It is important, but not for now," Groth said as I opened the doors to the Shop, ensuring that the Ship was not visible beforehand, just in case.
Graham was working on the Cat that appeared from somewhere, and Rob on the same Deere as before. Cary was changing the oil on another Deere.
Graham hollered "Hey, Rob! You want to head down to Charlene's and pick up Dinner?"
"Sure thing, boss! You already order it up?"
"Should be ready in ten," Graham said over the noise of Cary's suction machine. (I actually thought that, instead of 'vacuum.' My use of words - even my vocabulary - has been changing. Groth told me later why - the optimizer was repairing faulty synapses as it replaced my cellular structures. One at a time, but millions per session.)
"I'll go with you," I said. There was nothing I could do here, anyway. I'm no mechanic, not by a mile.
Cary jumped up like a shot. "I can go!"
Graham looked at me, then at Cary. "He won't be gone long enough to get in any trouble, son."
Cary blushed. "Acourse not!" he said without thinking.
"What trouble?" I thought to myself.
"The younger of the pair is not secure," said Groth. "He doubts his own worth, and thus is fearful of losing the other."
I don't think I really wanted to know that, but I kept it to myself.
"I can not detect your response," Groth said.
"It is of no import," I said in my thoughts.
"You are masking some of your inner thoughts from me. I am capable of penetrating barriers, but I choose not to - I feel I can trust you. You are making substantial progress."
"How is Graham doing?" I thought automatically.
"His value has been confirmed beyond my expectations - as has yours. Again, I compliment you on your choice of partner. There are major hurdles you will find quite manageable together."
I was already walking towards the door. "Let's go, Rob! I'm starving!"
He trotted out to the driver's side of the pickup just as I got to the passenger door.
"Watch the junk on the floor," he said as I opened the door.
There was a pair of gallon creeping rosemary plants and a couple six-packs of bedding plants.
"Gardening, too?" I asked.
"You into it?" said Rob as he fired up the old F-150.
"I'm a farmer!" I laughed. I was proud to say that. First time I realized it. "Anything that grows from the soil has my full attention!"
"Yeah," he said. "I know how you feel."
"You want to farm?" I asked idly, as we pulled out the gate onto Katy.
"Yeah," he said. "We do."
"Just like that?"
"The 'we' part?"
"We're sort of working together," he said, looking over at me. "Thought you would . . . thought you knew that."
"I don't know from nothing," I said, but not in a bad way. "I don't think it's any of my business."
"Look," Rob said, slowing down a little, to maybe only twenty. "I know you're, uh . . . I mean, you wouldn't say anything to Cary to turn him against me, would you? Please."
I didn't have a clue what he was talking about, so I didn't say anything. Nothing to say.
"I know I did you up at the rest stop, and all, but that was before I ever met Cary, before we ever kinda, uh . . . got together. I ain't done nothing like that ever since that time with you, I swear. I almost got busted by a cop, just after you left, while I was . . . finishing myself off. I never did it again, I swear. It's true."
I was stunned. My tongue was tied. Rob was the guy behind the hole? The one that sucked me? Oh, shit.
I stumbled for words while he just looked at me. We weren't going more than a couple of miles an hour.
"I'd never tell Cary something like that," I finally spit out. "What happened was just two guys emptying out their nuts. Like beating off. No more."
His eyes got a little damp, then he turned back to the road.
"You're all right," he said. "I'll maybe tell him. Some day, but not yet. I like him too much to let him walk for the wrong reasons."
"I know what you mean," I said. "But I don't think he'd walk no matter what truth you told him. I don't think he can breathe without you."
"And how would you know?" Rob answered with a laugh. We were back up at normal speed.
"Because I couldn't breathe without Graham." There. I said it. Finally. To someone who barely knew me.
"You mean you and him . . . ?"
"Yeah," I said. "Since a couple of days. Since forever."
"I wouldn't a thought . . . I mean he's a really great guy." He was searching for his tongue. "He's a lot . . . older than I woulda . . . Shit! Sorry. None 'a my business."
"S'okay. There's a lot more than meets your eye," I said. "A lot more." I had to swallow a half-giggle.
We talked about farming the rest of the way to Mom's and back. Never talked again about the rest stop. I almost feel bad about telling it here, except that I know Cary and Rob don't consider it important any more, either.
Good thing we took the pickup - Graham had ordered more than I would have for four of us. Mom asked if Graham was feeding an army out there, but I just told her there were four growing boys out there, bustin' hump to get the Garage going, and starvation was pounding on the door all the while. But this is farm country - most folk eat a decent Dinner. Have to keep the fires stoked up. It took us two trips to get all the food into the back of the truck.
I told Graham at once, of course. About what I'd done in the rest stop. While we were setting up the food and Rob was on the pot, while Cory was scrubbing his hands. He didn't bat an eye. Said something about it not being possible to be jealous of a sock or a handkerchief or a kleenex or the past. Sealed it with a kiss. We never talked about it again, neither, except to laugh about the embarrassment I felt in telling him.
God, I love the man!