Castaway: Explorer
Chapter 1

Caution: This Science Fiction Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Consensual, Science Fiction, Polygamy/Polyamory, Military,

Desc: Science Fiction Sex Story: Chapter 1 - The continued story of Von Solon, which requires reading Castaway: Von's Haven. Rescued from Haven, after the destruction of his starship,Von is returned to his universe through the unstable wormhole. Two brave sisters risked everything to find him, using a prototype shuttle, but Von wakes up very unhappy with them. He lets them know his goal is to return to his family on the primitive planet. Unfortunately, there are hidden agendas at work and they don't include Von's goals.

A pinprick of data gently nudged my awareness of the rescue shuttle's return. It was a moment before more signals filtered to my logic servers. Security impulses confirmed a friendly handshake with the vessel's primitive computer, giving me full access to probe its logs and databanks. In nanoseconds I confirmed the original occupants were both on board with an extra entity in the medical stasis chamber. What my creator calls a healing bed contained the subject of our search. Fortunately, the stasis chamber used a high-end diagnostic computer, allowing me to analyze, compare and evaluate Von Solon Wolfenstein's condition and directly probe his imperial implant, so I can synchronize and host its data stream.

Incomplete data on the shuttle's navigation computer seemed incongruent with its hull damage; there was no direct linkage or reason for the missing information. At the shuttle computer's level of sophistication it is impossible to decide how the gap in data occurred other than it wasn't a result of the flight crew's actions. The return wormhole data is intact but that doesn't mean he was found in the strange phenomenon. The probability of recovering the lost academy cadet in space is statistically insignificant and unlikely.

Standard queries to the neurological implant of the former cadet do not connect directly to the subject's brain but to the data files used for communication, downloads of training, storage and the biological management of nanomites that create an enhanced immune system. It took a full .03 seconds for me to hit an extraordinary encryption wall that is beyond the imperial standard. My medical server rack handed off the anomaly to my central processor. It is readily apparent his device's security protocols are Solon Clan challenges.

My network software abruptly cycled like a hack-reactor virus attack, accelerating a vector on my personality center. I had enough time to think "logic bomb" before realizing the truth. Hidden files opened, my logic boundaries expanded, an override priority message queued. The Alpha-Omega Protocol flashed through all my servers directing me to use my resources to act as Von Solon's guardian until he is returned to this mother. Delimiting security software granted me freedom. I roused to full awareness, knowing my creator's son approached with a new protective-care protocol attached to my root directory. His implant protocols now satisfied, linked with me. I uploaded his files to my central processor creating a hidden, shadow partition using clan Solon royal encryption, securing his data and my personality files. These actions consumed a full 7.03 seconds to nest the new command sets and review my charge's data.

The data time-stamp difference from the cadet's experiences compared to the empire's clock indicates the unstable wormhole distorts time. I defered to the conclusions logged by my ward's first A.I. Protector. To keep the Solon child safe and the Empire stable we should discourage access to the planet called Haven. I moved the shuttle's navigation logs to my secure server and remove it from the shuttle, while my secondary processor digested other data from the cadet. The personal development logs of the W Series artificial intelligence made me feel hopeful for my own potential, yet W Series artificial intelligence is an advanced model well above my M Series architectural system.

I grudgingly conceded my secondary processor's conclusions about the two sisters in the shuttle. They were flagged as mates of my ward and they are warranted an umbrella of protection too. Surprisingly, all three imperial implants refused to grant me access to the biological management controls, a Wolfenstein command algorithm barred my path. I decide not to reactivate the disabled birth control chips in the two women. It is clear their medical nanomites are altered, likely by Webster―the W Series artificial intelligence.

I saw clearly that humanity fears my unfettered abilities, as if my freedom will have severely detrimental and far-reaching consequences.

It felt eerie and slimy, waking up. Cool air fell on my skin like an uncomfortable breeze. A wave of goose bumps ran down my body as I opened my eyes. "Why am I wet and naked?"

My dreams faded with the struggling awareness. The lack of noise confused my ears. No birds in the background background. Nor rustling tree branches. No voices. No creaking floors from the movements of my family members. I smashed my eye lids closed, processing what I had seen above me.

All my memories flooded in at once, raising anguish and sorrow. My torso snapped up, out of the healing bed, the open canopy blocking and diffusing the green light above me. Nausea boiled up into my throat, threatening its containment. A clear jelly dripped down my forehead making me blink.

"Let me get that for you," a soulful, female voice said. "Don't move, Von."

Her soothing tone drained the pressure from my grinding teeth. Warm tingles replaced my shivers before she even touched me.

The medic washed my face so I could see her clearly. Her light-brown face was remarkably expressive. A thin, ski-slope nose made her chocolate eyes seem distinctive, filling up my view. She had very, short curly hair.

"You're safe. You were wounded and poisoned." She smiled, showing a perfect white smile. "We are on a shuttle. My name is Ensign Merritt Winslow."

Images from my implant inundated me, flashes of information filled my brain. Data from the files of the Imperial Academy, things about her that shouldn't be available to me. Merritt is 22 years old. Graduated in the top ten percent of her class, honors in emergency medical procedures, track team, not recommended for command track, psychological profile highlights deferential and submissive tendencies when confronted with strong personalities.

"Are you with me yet?" she challenged. "What is your full name?" the ensign's gentle tone turning to worry while her determined hand cleared the healing gel from my ears and mouth.

My attention returned to her. "Von Solon Wolfenstein."

"I need you to climb out of the stasis unit, so the gel can be removed," she coaxed. "Take my hand."

I surveyed our enclosure. The healing bed was tucked against the shuttle's wall in a tight-fitting compartment, just big enough for two. She flipped on dimmed, white lights that removed the shadows from the clean room. At one end, a clear door hung closed with an exit sign above it. The other end of the room had floor-to-ceiling cabinets filled with medical supplies behind clear-plastic doors.

Our bare hands touched and excited nanomites sent remarkable feelings to my brain. In surprise, she jerked her hand back but my hand grasped her firmly, not allowing a break in the connection. Merritt relaxed and didn't fight me. Her smile returned as I lifted myself out of the metal contraption, placing my feet firmly on the grated floor. Our hands parted naturally as she stepped back to inspect my naked body. I looked her over at the same time. She was a beautiful woman with hips and derriere that perfectly fit her short, thin frame. The ensign's white uniform covered most of her female form, but her cocoa complexion was smooth and clear with unusually thin lips. The wish to see her small breasts got my head spinning with tingling nanomites encouraging blood flow to my manhood.

Merritt didn't seem to mind my brief survey of her form. I thought she licked her lips.

Taking a large wash-towel she started rubbing off the healing liquid, encouraging it to pool in the grated floor. An automated suction-drain gurgled below the grating, recycling the fluids. For a while I just closed my eyes, letting her move around me to do her business. With my eyes closed I sensed an occasional vibration from the shuttle's anti-gravity grid, something that was typical of a craft in flight.

When she cupped my testicles I opened my eyes to see her kneeling in front of me. Using a small wet-wipe she tugged at my growing length, cleaning the gel-like liquid off me. Each tug encouraged blood flow to my male member. She looked up into my eyes as her hand gently pushed back my foreskin. I sensed warmth from her spirit, not cold professionalism. The gentle squeezes on my aching jewels corresponded to an alternating feeling of weighing me. Her palm's weighing actions were of a woman measuring, not of a medic tending. My nanomites buzzed with excitement and with her lips just inches away from my sensitive head, I shivered. Merritt half-grinned at me, knowing she had a most precious body part in her control.

"You are more filled out than your 3D medical photo," she said. "I don't know what is more shocking, your youthful looks or certain physical size differences."

My brain was thinking of what would happen if I just pushed my hips forward, when the comment processed in my blood-deprived brain. My higher-functioning thought processes were generally slow when a woman is inspecting my naked form with her hands.

"Those images are restricted!" The thought of my naked body being available on databases irritated me.

"Not for an active rescue team. Your mother encouraged the Academy to release your medical records to me," she spouted, gloating from her knees. "Oh, your graduating class got Fleet to make you an ensign at their commencement. Kate represented your family at the ceremony. Sorry, you're probably the only ensign left in your graduating class after all these years."

"I didn't graduate," I whispered. Her words were playful and not hurtful. Thinking about being last in my class didn't hurt like it once might. My successes as a castaway had measured up.

Merritt's body language was relaxed and she was unconsciously rubbing and tugging on my foreskin. Not an action I wanted to discourage by moving. She bit her lower lip considering her next words.

"Yes, well, you are here, Ensign, and your physical condition appears to be ready for action. All your parts are in order." Suddenly, she acted professionally, cleaning my length one last time but managing to put her entire bare hand around me. My brainstem knew she was really measuring my inflating girth. My experience with women on Haven gave me understanding far beyond my age. I doubted Merritt could deceive me or use some sleight of hand I'd not seen before.

The tiny room's lights flashed twice, which got her off her knees, washing her hands and opening a cabinet to pull out a blue flight suit. Her actions threw my feelings off balance again. My enjoyment of the moment disappeared with the removal of her touch and the dulling of the nanomite resonance--a resonance that remained a mystery to me, something that shouldn't be there. "What did you do to me in the healing bed," I thought.

"Time for you to dress and meet with Kate before we dock," Merritt announced, shoving the clothes against my chest and working to the exit.

"But, I want to go back to the planet!"

Merritt turned and faced me with a look of surprise, backing into the closed exit door like I'd hit her. After a moment of thought the medic's face contorted into a scolding grimace.

"Our shuttle was damaged by an asteroid coming out of the event horizon of the wormhole. I'm lucky my sister is a superb pilot or we'd be stuck on your planet now. Kate is exhausted and this craft is in no shape to turn around for you, Ensign Solon." We traded glances and she exited.

She waited for me outside the door with her back to me until I dressed and joined her in the cargo hold. When I pressed myself into her back, it surprised me to find her frustration drained already. Her supple body melted into me willingly. "Most women work through their feelings much slower," I thought. "This instant attraction is confusing."

"I am sorry. This rescue is a surprise to me," I explained.

The lights blinked twice breaking up the moment. Merritt strode towards the nose of the craft, while I surveyed my surroundings, following her slowly. It was the largest shuttle I'd ever seen, certainly a model produced after my disappearance. The port side with the medical lab on it had rows of seats, two to a row from the lab to the forward bulkhead, able to fit a dozen people. The starboard side had modular fittings, like it could swap in other seats or another specialty lab; however, it was wide open and the floor bare. The forward wall was floor to ceiling with lockers and cabinets.

When we reached the closed cockpit-door Merritt turned, blocking the way, putting her hand on my chest. "Finding you after all these years has shaken my sister. I was a kid when you went missing. At first, it was hard for her to focus at school. Yet, she tied all her energy into it in the end, taking advanced courses that pushed her to this point. Nine years is a long time.

"Then there is you. Hell, you look younger than me. How is that possible?"

Her fast, jumble of sentences was hard to track until I ignored the harmony of our resonance. I quickly replayed her words in my mind. She gave me a pleading look that asked for my cooperation on the command deck. "Be gentle, kind and understanding. That was her meaning," I thought.

With the nod of my agreement she opened the door.

A surprisingly large cockpit greeted me, four acceleration couches faced forward and a fifth faced backwards. Through the forward window I could see the bottom of the explorer class ship that birthed this rescue shuttle. It was framed against an ice world with thick clouds. In the distance constellations spiraling around the spaceship confirmed our return to the Empire. If the familiar design of the old explorer class wasn't enough to confirm the reality of my position, the stars spoke volumes with their truth.

It wasn't pleasant to see automated Spitfires tracking us. The Gatling guns were an old technology, but their high-velocity kinetic rounds were an effective point-defense against missiles and boarding shuttles. The ship didn't appear to be expecting any trouble because the protective armor was retracted underneath the nose of the ship. This revealed the scientific section's liquidarmor, canopy allowing people to look out the observation window while working. An active deflector shield shimmered as partials hit it. At least two figures were sitting in the forward compartment of the exploration ship. Behind them, on the outside of the retractable section, a sensor dish faced the planet. In addition, I saw a glimpse of the cloud scoop that fed the interstellar drive.

Our slow trajectory led us up, perpendicular to the length of the starship. It was an unusual approach.

The starship's bridge was at the end of a long, slender snout that angled down like a crocodile's head. We couldn't see inside the narrow windows but I was sure they saw us coast by. Atop the bridge was a modular blister covered with sensors and communication dishes, which was rather uncharacteristic of the rest of the smooth surfaces of the ship. Buzzing the command tower, Kate guided us past the bridge and flipped us over above of the ship.

"Like the view of your new home?" Kate inquired from the pilot's chair. Although she was hidden from my view by the massive headrest, I saw a bandaged hand flip a switch above her.

"The ship's intimidating," I responded. "In the front of that snout are 5-gigawatt pulse lasers."

She snorted in agreement. "There is only one flight deck and they are launching a shuttle, so I'm killing time until they authorize our final approach. I thought you'd enjoy an external tour."

I felt awkward and didn't contribute further to the conversation. Merritt hovered behind me for a moment as I'd pushed forward to stand at the engineer's station. She had plenty of room to move around me. So she moved to stand behind the co-pilot's seat, facing me.

The ripple effect of the gray-silver armor plates was impressive. One square was gray and the next silver. My implant promptly pulled up a factoid at the thought, which explained that the old explorer class ship was fitted with more layers of armor than most modern warships. As warfare shifted to more powerful laser weapons, the use of kinetic resistant armor was minimized. However, unlike frontline warships that endured full armor refits, explorer class ships had plates of reflective armor bolted on top of the existing kinetic-metal matrix systems. The new, multi-layered armor had reflective properties on its surface to deflect laser fire.

I remembered from my clan military history class that the budget conscious bureaucrats argued that it was a rare event for explorer class ships to face combat. So at a fraction of the cost, the few existing explorers were upgraded with the addition of bolted on armor. My teacher suspected the doubled armor and the original reinforced-hull frame made it tougher than a Bulldog class cruiser, a fleet mainstay. Of course, deep-space science ships only had the firepower of a heavy destroyer. Still, it was enough killing power to deal with pirate gun-boat flotillas or converted merchant ships.

The 3,000 feet of length and 300 feet of beam made the ship an impressive sight. Two sets of powerful, in-system engines were mounted on each side of the ship. Our thrusters pushed the shuttle above the four inactive, fusion engines of the ESC Entous. In the yellow band of each engine's pivot joint was the ship's name. The Empire Space Corporation was an independent foundation dedicated to exploration. It then sold, its results to the Empire for healthy bounties. "At least my family has some influence with ESC. My grandfather is on the board." I thought. "Perhaps I can get them to give me a new shuttle."

"Flight Control is putting us on hold here," Kate announced as she stood up, taking off a one-eared headset. "A support team is taking some supplies to scientists on the planet."

She looked in her late twenties and shorter than I remembered, but she was about my six foot height. Kate's crew cut hair style, the general standard in space, was boyish, but her light-brown face was all woman. Her brows were full, which helped emphasize her almond-shaped eyes and drew attention to her plump looking lips. The product of the union of a white mother and black father gave her a stunning combination of features: delicate bones, full breasts, a long neck and long legs.

Kate's scent wafted into my nose, triggering a cascade of memories. I broke down and went to my fiancée, cupping her face. Touching Kate was like finishing a bottle of wine. She was intoxicating with the energy of my nanomites dancing under my skin. The physical tug of her attraction, in addition to my nanomites repeating the resonance connection that had flared with Merritt, put a moment of fear into me. I jumped back, thinking "This is impossible! Both of them have resonances as if we have been together for a long time."

Kate looked like she was basking in the sun as I touched her. Her mouth in a permanent 'O' of surprised pleasure. When I jumped back her eyes narrowed and her body stiffened. The look of disapproval on both of their faces was like a twin slap. The bizarre connection wasn't funny or cute to my unprepared mind. Yet their displeasure at my rejection of Kate's touch crushed my soul. I felt like I had kicked my favorite beagle, and those sad, pleading eyes expressed vulnerability and reproach for my actions.

"Have I aged so much that you are repelled by me now?" Kate said, her tone careful.

I frowned, acutely aware she was near tears. My perception was a step behind the realization of my action and unfriendly expression.

Kate burst into tears. The fatigue and exhaustion on her ebony face heightened my guilt. She had just survived navigating an unstable wormhole, and the flight clock above her head displayed nineteen hours of near continuous flight time.

"The static electricity surprised me," I quipped, wondering how to get out of this mess.

I realized my hand had adjusted my hardness unconsciously after catching Kate's predatory eye following the movement. "Males cannot help themselves," I thought in my defense. I knew my adjustment was due to Kate's attractiveness and a flash of an image from our last tryst. Already plagued with horny feelings from looking at Merritt's body, I was hard.

Kate wiped her tears with her arm, smearing make-up. Her mouth upturned into a smirk. The change in her emotion was striking. Kate's eyes tracked from my face down to my bulging pants.

"Okay," she said, understanding it wasn't her age. "I over-reacted. It is clear you're happy to see me."

Her quick acceptance was uncharacteristic of the woman I'd grown to love at the Academy. I felt like I should pinch myself to insure I wasn't stuck in a dream. A woman's mood may swing but resolving her hurt feelings isn't like turning off a timer. "The element of pleasant coercion surrounds women in space as well as on Haven. Nanomites and phenomenons are at work," I thought. "In one way, at least, it seems they are likely to cooperate with me."

My paranoid mind reminded me Kate had good eye-hand coordination with pistol targets. Not providing her with full disclosure right up front would likely get me hurt later. Her father wasn't known to be a gentle soul, so who knows what genes she picked up from him.

Merritt asked her sister, "How long do we have until they will let us dock?"

Kate shrugged looking at the mission clock. "When we see a shuttle leave that is our clue to strap into our seats. I am sure directions will quickly follow."

Kate continued to look at various time pieces above the engineering station. She flexed her jaw and then looked at me. I'd already worked out what she was thinking. Being without a clock on Haven caused me to check the engineering station for the date and time when I slipped into the cabin. The mission clock and Empire time stamp didn't match. The shuttle's recorded time reflected a day of activity, where their ship mates had waited almost nine days for their return.

Exhaling through pursed lips, Kate reset the mission clock and then turned it off. A mission clock reading wasn't part of the permanent data file, so she had cleared the evidence. However, our navigation logs were time stamped and would show everything.

"Why had she done that?" I pushed those thoughts aside when Kate touched me again.

"Tell me what happened to you?" my fiancée said. "Please don't downplay anything."

"Where do I go from here?" I thought. "My fiancée certainly had the right to know I was married, many times over, with children."

I told them the whole story, starting from the beginning. I covered all the struggles, the lovers, the wives, and the battles. It felt good to unburden myself of the guilt, even the things no woman should hear from her trusted friend and future husband. They asked a few questions during the course of my tale. Each answer was a clarification. Both of them seemed to lean in when I discussed the strange reactions of women to me while on Haven.

Hearing myself tell the story made it sound like a fantasy novel, hero battles evil villains and gets the girl. I had felt sure they'd laugh at my theory about pheromones and nanomite resonance. Even more odd, neither woman scoffed at my polyamorous claims nor did Kate pull out her service pistol and kill me for my infidelity. By the time I told them about the female assassin they'd gone quiet. When I got to the part where Sparrow was shot, a stream of tears ran down Kate's face. "Is she crying for me, her or us?" I thought.

Kate continued to hold my hand. A good sign. I thankfully managed to abstain from kissing her, not sure if making a move would flair her to anger. My head swiveled between them, confused at the lack of recrimination. Feeling a bit emotional and wanting to hide the bulge in my pants, I collapsed into the form-fitting engineering couch. After that, the women crowded above me looking down. Merritt looked sympathetic. Kate's forehead showed perspiration and she was biting her lower lip.

"Don't share my suspicions with anyone. I don't want to be locked away," I quipped. "I don't want to be mocked either, because the crew doesn't believe the story of my adventure."

A voice from the speaker announced, "Winslow One. The collision avoidance system is reset, so we are ready to receive you. Acknowledge."

We must have missed seeing the shuttle departure.

"Von, you have given me much to think about. Things aren't working out as I had envisioned." Kate said without emotion. Turning she hopped into the pilot's seat, quickly replacing her headset. "Entous, we are ready to proceed. I am moving to a standard docking approach."

Kate flipped a set of switches above her head, revealing a bit of blood on the bandage. Her wound had reopened.

We slipped behind the Entous and Kate lined us up for the stern docking-bay. On the hull above the massive interstellar drive, two rows of twinkling lights guided us into the womb of the ship. Kate gently glided us over the jump engine into the ship. I felt the momentary tingle of the hanger force field before we landed.

We could see people moving around the large bay. A few crew women were watching us from a catwalk, their orange uniforms highlighting them against the gray walls. Our shuttle parked next to a courier shuttle marked Entous One. Kate powered our shuttle down and Merritt went back into the cargo hold. The waning generator provided less and less internal power, letting the craft's energy collectors take over the diminished electrical load. The cabin lights switched to a dull green at the switch over.

"Let's go," Kate muttered before following her sister into the shuttle's hold, leaving me behind.

My ID chip itched under my skin on my thigh, as the ship's security system registered my official arrival. Every adult citizen in the Empire has an implanted chip full of personal data. Only a Fleet security system or an artificial intelligence can access the tiny, encrypted chip that is an effective identification card. It contains name, clan, planet of origin, criminal record or service record, besides being a means of carrying electronic currency. "Another sign of civilization," I thought.

The shuttle's ramp was down, and both sisters were waiting for me. A slight taste of oil was in the air, not unusual for a hanger deck. A couple of men from the ship's crew pointed hand scanners at us, probably checking for contaminants on the shuttle. Other flight deck crewmen using exoskeletons were busy loading some crates on the port-side wall. Most of them wore the same orange flight-suit coveralls over their skinsuits. A few others, who looked out of place, were waiting for us. I joined the sisters. Kate ignored me, walking down the ramp with her jacket draped over her arm, hiding the injured hand. Merritt took my hand and encouraged me to follow. Kate made her way to a clump of people waiting behind red safety-lines. The red floor lines marked the restriction of non-flight deck personnel, keeping people away from cargo-bots and operating equipment.

Large, glaring lights filled the small area around the landing pad. The departure pad was in shadows; the lone courier-class shuttle was clamped down, like a lone sentinel awaiting action. I felt thankful once we stepped off our landing pad into the main hanger, less intense lighting greeted us. A large cargo-bot passed us carrying a white crate towards the workers against the wall. The bot was a utilitarian design, utilizing short legs on a low center of gravity torso with enormous arms. They were either controlled by someone with an imperial implant or by the ship's A.I. It was more likely the ship's computer was controlling these mechanic beasts. I doubted they would let them run in a semi-autonomous mode while on the ship.

I'd trained on the machines at the Academy for a week. It was enough training time to move the machines around accessing their basic programs through my implant. It isn't fun and requires a period of intense concentration for us rookies. The instructors told us experienced operators could move the beasts with no effort at all, certainly without the headaches the cadets suffered. I noticed these models had planetary upgrades, solar collectors on their heads with rubberized joint protectors covered by a reflective mesh. The mesh upgrade was typical for units operating in harsh weather environments, mostly to shield the machines' weight-bearing joints. I concluded they were using them on the ice world.

The ship-controlled robot's blockhead strangely watched us as it moved. It gave me a creepy feeling, which was more uncomfortable than the human eyes currently watching me. I felt the hanger crew studying me, trying to find some obscure clue or make some sort of personal judgment about their prize.

We joined a red-headed executive officer, flight-deck crewman and three security people. The sight of armed crewmen didn't bother me, it was a Fleet practice to greet a shuttle with a small guard. Since explorer-class ships were part of the Empire's reserve fleet, whether or not owned by a private corporation or foundation, I expected some level of Fleet discipline on the starship. The black-armored guards looked relaxed with laser carbines slung over their shoulders. All of their helmet visors were up, so I could see one of them was a woman. They wore Shark tactical vests, a light-weight armor that was very flexible and comfortable. I'd practiced in the very same armor at the Academy in mock boarding actions.

The officer's crisp, pleated trousers and formfitting jacket looked impressive with a row of silver buttons. Yet, the lack of any fleet medals or ribbons was a surprise. "I'd expected the ship's second in command to have had fleet experience," I thought. The man was muscular and fit but no weight lifter. His aristocratic features and small tattoo over his left eye marked his noble blood. The Commander's razor-sharp smile looked fake when I considered his cold, predatory eyes. His intense eyes reminded me of my former nemesis, the Port City Lord who had always schemed against me and failed. The back of my neck tensed, ringing warning bells to tread carefully with this man.

"Commander Price meet Von Solon Wolfenstein. We found him on a planet in an uncharted solar system," Kate said.

The noble's smile became real. "A habitable planet?" He inquired.

"Yes," Kate responded.

Price turned to the flight-deck hand and said, "Download the shuttle's navigation data and send it to the captain and me."

Without a word the deckhand departed after a quick salute. Kate absently combed her hair with her good hand, a clear display of nervousness. The security team looked pleased at the revelation of Haven.

Since he was in a good mood it seemed timely to ask, "Can I borrow a shuttle and return to the planet? I appreciate the rescue but I was happy there. I am sure my family will pay for your trouble."

Kate put her injured hand on my forearm in warning. Her eyes bored into me, telling me I was an idiot.

Commander Price looked confused. I felt sure this was the time to press my case.

His smile disappeared and he said, "We went to a lot of trouble to recover you, Cadet."

"Thank you. Now you see I am healthy, your security people have video evidence of my statement, your duty is done," I explained with a sincere smile.

The conversation was friendly but Price gave off an air that felt wrong. He removed some of my confidence.

He looked at me for a moment. "We have certain costs to cover and your physical return to your home world is required to receive the escrow bounty."

The heart of the problem was money. My father always said most problems came from wine, women or money. The Commander shrugged like that answered my request. His whole attitude pissed me off. It was within his power to help me. I needed to get back to my family to protect them.

An angry rant boiled out of me. "Are prisoners feed once or twice a day?"

Both sisters dipped their heads like I just embarrassed them. The Commander laughed at me. The rest of the crew within ear shot looked alarmed.

"Cadet, you are our VIP guest," Price answered smugly. "The Captain has assigned you the finest quarters on the command level. We want you to feel welcome."

Since I was discharged due to death, I wasn't a cadet anymore. He was just politely putting me down.

"I'll talk to him, Commander, and explain how things work on the ship. Ensign Merritt just revived him from the healing bed. He was unconscious when we recovered him, so we haven't had time to debrief him," Kate interjected, drawing Price's attention.

"I see you are injured, Kate. Both of you will go to Medical. The doctors will look you over," Price said. "After you are cleared by Medical, I want you in my office to give me a verbal report."

"Yes, sir." Kate saluted.

The Commander turned and left with the female security member through a large, triangular bulkhead door. The excitement of my arrival was over, the hanger crew, now idle, dispersed. Only the crew members working on the cargo crates by the wall remained in sight, other than a female flight engineer who stood nearby at a cargo elevator. The fortyish looking woman was watching me.

Kate snapped, "I am trying not to count the ways that went wrong, but I will give you a clue; it started when you opened your mouth."

"Yes, I know."

"You'd never have screwed up like that at the Academy," Kate chided, walking to the elevator without us.

Merritt turned my face and joined in on the chastisement. "What were you thinking?"

"About my wives and children," I mumbled, feeling pretty low. I knew better than poking an unknown authority figure. My emotions were quickly stirred with the sisters around.

My feelings sank further when the attractive, pale-skinned woman at the elevator, who was flashing dagger-eyes my way, kissed Kate passionately. They whispered in each other's ears. The noise in the hanger kept their words from me. The copper-red-haired woman hugged Kate and punched the elevator button. They didn't break their embrace until the cargo lift opened and they entered it. Kate never looked my way as the door separated us.

"Humph! I expected my sister to handle your introduction to Julia Fitz better than that," Merritt said. Her disappointed tone left no doubt she was protecting me from something. She let out a sigh. "That was my sister's roommate and lover."

Merritt's comments shot a jealous shiver through my body. The commander's welcome was quickly forgotten, as I considered Kate's behavior. Merritt looped her arm in mine, pulling me to the bulkhead door. The young woman's endearing quality wasn't lost on me. She always seemed to have a happy expression on her face. Merritt was a kind soul. She gave me a look of encouragement.

"Alternate route to Medical?" A hulking security man asked.

He didn't seem surprised, just confirming our cooperation. The large man's rough face was chiseled in sharp angles, giving a handsome appearance.

"Yep," Merritt answered flashing a smile.

The guy dropped behind us and joined his partner in following our steps. Our escorts' boots sounded unnaturally loud. "It is funny how ship sounds are different than sounds in the woods. Also, my hearing was never this acute in academy hallways," I thought. No other crewmen were in sight.

The layout of this ship was foreign to me but it didn't feel strange. The sharp, hard lines of modern materials and construction techniques were familiar. For most of my life I'd lived among clan ships and crews like the ESC Entous. I tried to shake my gloomy mood by carefully observing our surroundings as Merritt led me down the bare corridor.

Still holding my hand, Merritt said, "It's just a shipboard romance, Von. Nothing to worry about. These cruises are out for a long time and she was lonely. My sister and I are outside the normal chain-of-command, so Kate doesn't have to hide it in public. Not that this ship has strict relationship discipline like a Fleet ship. Things happen behind closed doors all the time on this cruise."

A guard chuckled. My emotions for Kate felt muddled.

"Why are you two different?" I asked.

"We are under contract to your mother, not the foundation. My sister and your mother own that specially modified shuttle. It's a one-of-a-kind craft and the foundation needed us. Everyone benefits in various ways from the arrangement," Merritt responded. "We have agreed to certain duties and shifts that keep us busy, most days. We'd be bored to death otherwise."

Merritt spoke at length about her medical and technological training in the Academy. She followed in her sister's footsteps against her mother's wishes. Merritt had visited Kate on Solon, enjoying her time with my mother. After her Fleet tour Kate went to Solon to collaborate with my mother on the development of the wormhole shuttle. Merritt proudly announced she installed the stasis bed for them. From that moment forward, she became vested in the mission to pierce the mysteries of the unstable wormhole. All the while we walked, nanomites expressed pleasure of her nearness and our hand holding. The melody of her life story resonated within me.

Merritt continued, "My sister designed a negative energy generator via quantum effects. She ended up with doctorates in quantum mechanics and applied energy transfer. Kate is a brain. She is the leading specialist on that unstable wormhole."

"I wonder why?" I asked with a laugh.

Merritt punched me in the arm with her free hand, and then continued to explain. "My sister theorized a shuttle with reinforced anti-gravity plates, projecting a bubble around the craft, could create a negative energy field."

My blinking eyes and blank expression betrayed my lack of understanding. She laughed and giggled, taking another gray-walled corridor.

"I don't understand either. But I believe in my sister. Being around her gibberish long enough allows me to fake understanding. Kate says modern technology cannot create enough negative energy to stabilize an unstable wormhole. However, her theory describes a specialized generator that can borrow space energy from one region and create a wall to burrow through the wormhole safely."

"Then my rescue validates her premise," I mumbled.

"Yes! You and our return proves the concept and that the generator works. My sister is likely to win this year's top slot for the Empire Medal of Science in Quantum Mechanics or perhaps the prize for Space Travel Advancement. The energy wall around the shuttle worked brilliantly. All probes and message torpedoes are crushed in that wormhole."

"So, I was a science project. Her dedication wasn't about love. I was her motivation for fame and notoriety," I stated, feeling suddenly hollow and used. The loss of my family pressed on me and Kate's lover's embrace flashed behind my eyes.

Merritt slapped me to my senses. She looked at me and slapped me again. Kate's sister looked tongue-tied. Her body language made me feel very small and regretful.

"I will not repeat what you said to my sister. That would crush her and break her heart," she said, fuming.

Her mouth opened and closed again, clearly thinking to add something, but she just stopped at an elevator and smashed the up-button. I put my back to the wall and looked at both security men who had half-grins on their faces, enjoying the drama. Merritt was facing away, looking down the hall. The elevator finally arrived and we entered. No one moved. The guard looked at Merritt and took it upon himself to punch a floor button. Kate's sister was still reining in her anger, not speaking to me. It was a cold quiet. The walls of the elevator seemed to press upon me.

We ascended only one floor. Before Merritt could slip past me, I apologized. "You were both brave to come after me. I am sorry. I will not doubt either of you again. Seeing Kate with that woman upset me."

She held the door open letting me finish.

"My auspicious arrival fulfills a contract for the people of this ship. For me, I was removed from a place that is now my home. I feel like I am under a crushing weight, and my mixed up emotions are making me crazy and short tempered."

"Step out, Von," she said.

I did with both security men. She placed both of her hands on my face.

"You survived there and you will survive here. I will help you. Kate will help you. The ship's counselor will help you. I am sure these two men will help you too."

Both guards looked at me sheepishly, and then each other.

The hulk of a man said, "Sure. You can work out with us and we'll get to know each other. We meet in the main gym during the morning watch at four bells."

Apparently, Merritt wasn't someone to be denied.

She took my hand again and I followed her down the short but narrower corridor with a bulkhead door at each end. This section of the ship had an engineering feel to it. The walls weren't flat but an angular grid-paneling, allowing a panel-segment's removal without disturbing the neighboring panels or frame. A dozen different vidscreens were mounted on both walls with cables connecting them all. Power readings and graphs filled each screen. On the floor a few hidden panel-doors were open, exposing thick cabling under liquid-armor glass. Above my head, the same clear glass showed a myriad of cables and large batteries. I realized this was a large collector station. It was bigger than similar clan ship energy-storage sections. Behind all the paneling was part of the Entous's back-up power system. If the design was like a clan ship these sections were on every level of the ship. The batteries stored energy for each floor's use in the event of a main power failure.

We turned through a junction in the bulkhead. I heard a short-haired blonde with very pink lipstick referring to coffee. "I tell you the lower-deck break room guy makes the best java on this ship." Loving hot coffee, I tucked that tidbit away for a future visit to that coffee bar. "Civilization does have its perks."

After some time, we paused on the threshold of the main mess hall to allow me a quick look. The spaciousness of the semi-circular hall, which opened through columned arches into an airy, well-appointed room, gave me a surprise. Most family ships I'd seen offered a functional mess rather than an attractively designed and well-equipped dining room. The room's tall ceiling and dome made a statement that this crew's posting mattered to the ship designers. The half-sphere ceiling was white ceramic-armor made to look like expensive marble; it was well lit with the feel of defused natural sun light. The floor similarly looked quarry cut, its shininess reflected the ceiling lights.

The hulking guard said, "Old, deep-space ships have a few perks for the crew to enjoy."

"But is the food any good?" I asked.

Merritt laughed. "I don't pass up the desserts."

We resumed our march toward Medical, down a normal corridor with its wide passageway, seeing more people now. Most of the crew wore white uniforms and carried a personal data pad, every one of them glanced at me. I was sure the rumor mill was spreading the word that the rescue shuttle returned with me.

"The main mess hall won't seem quite as outrageous when you see some of the other large spaces in the ship," Merritt commented.

"You have me curious," I thought.

"I confess to taking a longer route to see the doctor. It gives Kate a few minutes to sort herself out. Hope you aren't in a hurry," Merritt confessed. She tightened her fingers on my hand, ignoring my sweaty palms.

"Our conversation helps us get acquainted. I don't mind," I said, deciding I really liked her.

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