Flight of the Code Monkey
Chapter 1

Caution: This Science Fiction Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Fa/Fa, Coercion, Consensual, Drunk/Drugged, Magic, Mind Control, NonConsensual, Rape, Reluctant, Romantic, Lesbian, BiSexual, Heterosexual, Fiction, Crime, Military, Mystery, Science Fiction, Extra Sensory Perception, Space, Paranormal, non-anthro, BDSM, DomSub, MaleDom, FemaleDom, Rough, Spanking, Group Sex, Harem, Polygamy/Polyamory, Interracial, Black Male, Black Female, White Male, White Female, Anal Sex, Exhibitionism, First, Oral Sex, Petting, Safe Sex, Sex Toys, Voyeurism, Royalty, Slow, Violent, Geeks, sci-fi adult story, sci fi sex story, space sci-fi sex story

Desc: Science Fiction Sex Story: Chapter 1 - Join Jameson the code monkey in space. As an uber-geek programmer onboard, he manages to make a life; gets the girl; and tries to help an outcast shipmate. Doing a favor for a new friend, he discovers a chilling secret. Also follow a boy running for his life on a mysterious planet; how will their paths cross? Read of Space Marines, space pirates, primitive people, sexy ladies, and hijacking plots. There's a new world to explore and survive. Starts slow, but worth the effort.

On the wrong side of the river on an unknown planet.

The nearly naked boy came to a stop on his bare stomach in the knee-high wild oats. A thin leather band tied behind his neck held back his long blue-black hair like a tail going down his back. The grains waved in the cool, early summer breeze blowing from the direction he had come in his long flight. He slowly stretched his body its furthest underneath the undulating, immature heads of grain as he peered down through the bordering stalks and over the edge of the high embankment.

The boy was at that awkward age; not yet the young man he hoped to become while finding out he was so much more than the child that others of his camp and clan had, until recently, said he had been.

Lifting his neck, he tested the air for any scents that would signal danger. Discovering none, he paused without further movement in the wild oats at the top of the ridge. He listened to the breeze moving through the heavy heads of ripening grain around him, hearing his own breathing and the wha-ho-ho cry of some bird he didn’t recognize off to his left. Considering the descent before him, he thought it was maybe twenty lengths below his concealed perch down to the enormous wide valley he had so recently come upon—at first think it was just a wide swale. He was now able to survey what he could see of the land feature from this new elevated vantage point.

Well hidden down in the waves of grain as he was, the noon-day rays of Father Sun at this altitude still managed to warm all his growing muscles from his widening shoulders, down his spine, and to the dirty fur of his breechclout covering his narrow hips. Yet he felt a momentary chill over the skin along the backs of his exposed, strong, legs.

Gazing far out across the broad green and grassy expanse below him, he could see the landscape farther away was scattered with patches of thick, gray-blue heather. However, starting near the verge at the bottom of the embankment was an abundance of grassy hummocks dotting the deep turf out to the heather. The landscape reminded him of the verdant downs on his side of the river. From this new landscape’s gentle rise to his right, he followed the extended depression before him back with his eyes as the downs descended away to his left. The far ridgeline in the far distance he could see across the turf- and heather-covered expanse, and the ridge he was hiding on now, seemed to channel the downs toward the Toolie river valley—his intermediate destination.

He didn’t see any sign of open water out there. However, with the types of plants he saw further out on the downs that he was familiar with, he knew that water must be very close to the surface in many places all along this valley. As the breeze shifted back into his face, the boy got a small whiff of fetid bog and he felt excitement stir within his chest.

The boy knew better than to stand up-right and skyline his silhouette against the blue heavens. And his bison-hide breechclout kept his traitorous, almost-man parts warmish and safe from abrasive harm if he might need to slither off this crest edge at a moment’s notice.

The boy also knew the grassy ground of the expansive downs below him would be even more soggy than usual after the heavy rains that had slowly moved through this whole area and ended only two days ago. If this new feature of the land before him was anything like the type of peaty ground he was very familiar with back in a portion of his clan’s territory, he felt he could easily follow the downs toward the next goal in his journey.

Considering the opportunity before him, he felt certain he was light enough and sure-footed enough to not be slowed down as he fled along this receding boggy land he was fortunate enough to have come upon. This would be the best and safest way for him to continue traveling from the fells above toward his destination.

By traveling out to the center of the downs after him, his pursuers would have to track him over the boggy vastness. Their body weight would put each one of them at a distinct and dangerous disadvantage. To continue their chase, they’d be moving across areas of increasingly mushy marsh areas that his sense of smell now told him was out there—treacherous bogs and mires that would offer him increased protection as he headed toward the direction where Father Sun rose every morning.

So, if he could find a bog mire wide enough and running long enough, and which he thought would support his weight—then those danged Hurstmon on his trail wouldn’t dare to pursue him further. They would have to stop acting all breakneck and caution-to-the-wind. With their aggressive attitude in check, he felt he would get away from them while they were forced to stay to this ridge land for their own safety. Then the big warriors could only hope to find his trail once he cleared the downs when the land feature joined the huge valley of the Toolie off somewhere to his left.

He hefted up in his right hand the rawhide quiver holding his final two feathered spears as well as his spearcaster. Happy with the feel of the quiver strap over his neck and his right shoulder; he checked his woven waist belt. He was sure his big travel pouch was still tied securely to it, because he could feel the bulge of the big, egg-sized flint nodule he kept among most of his other remaining possessions in the over-sized pouch against his right thigh. Equally important, he checked to make sure that his prized, hand-long flint blade anchored to the fine elkan-horn handle with hoof-glue and shrunken rawhide, was secured on his belt in easy reach. He wanted his hand to know exactly where to go lest he need the razor sharpness of the flint blade to defend him at close quarters.

As his stomach growled his hunger, he slithered over the edge of the ridge. He slowly guided himself on his belly at a steep angle down hill through the sucking cold, thick cushion of grasses. He was vigilant to not allow his snail-pace descent to breakaway into a slide. This was no childhood game, he reminded himself, nor had it been such for nearly the last two, double moons.

If he could make it to the banks of the Toolie without pursuit, there would be easily caught cleave-eel meals—although he hated their squishy meat and muddy flavor. He would be able to find fish for his twine and hook, or put a spear through one of the small grass babbits that he was certain he would encounter in the river valley. There would be abundant water; and with no sign of pursuit and dry fuel, the sacred fire. For did he not now wear around his neck the thin hide carrier on the leather plait that held the cold, hard shard of frozen lightning? And was it not almost the length of his hand and as thick as his middle finger? And when held in his hand struck lightly with a stone, did the frozen lightning not sing and bring tingling vibrations to his fingers?

Best of all, when he swiped his flint nodule along the shard at just the right angle, the shard spit off long-lived sparks of lightning! Red-hot sparks that would cause good tinder to smoke; and with his gentle breath, the tinder might then burst into flames! No more hard labor with a fire drill—and he certainly hadn’t thought he’d need to have a drill with him before this misadventure began, nor did he have the time to construct one as he fled.

If he survived this unexpected trek into manhood he would bring the certainty of sacred fire to first his mother, sister, and then to his camp with his hard won treasure. If he survived, he told himself, he might find this accomplishment would enter his name into a new legend sung by storytellers of his people around communal campfires.

He caught a handful of thick grasses in front of him and halted his descent on the steep bank. Slowly looking around the grassy land below him for any sign of danger, the lad was happy that only the track of the breeze could be seen moving through the thick grasses and heathers out on the downs. With an absentminded nod of his head, the boy slowly continued down the steep slope.

A look of cunning pleasure crinkled his eyelids and the corners of his mouth. He reminded himself that now his sister might not smack the back of his head ever again and be able to call him simple, or clod. She would be the one to gather the water and bring it into his mother’s shelter, as a woman should.

With all of that promise before his mind’s eye, the boy knew he would find a way across the Toolie again. Even if he had to wish his way to the other side and safety, he would make it. See what he already had done—and in the beginning of his fourteenth cycle of the seasons. His sire would have been proud of him and would have boasted of his feats at the fire-ring of the hunters. His only son bringing home the pledge of quick, jumping flames on any hunt—even on a rainy day as long as there were enough dry tinder and sticks brought along. That would make any boy’s sire proud, Ureeblay told himself as he started back down the steep decline on his belly.

For a moment the memory of his now dead sire made him sad. But focusing on sadness and loss, he reminded himself, would distract his awareness to his surroundings and any danger that might be about. There was a group of Hurstmon after him. And if they were still in close pursuit once he reached the Toolie, he felt certain that no amount of wishing would save his skin. Just then his slithering brought him to the grassy bottom of the steep ridge.

He had seen one of their surprising abilities with his own unbelieving eyes. The Hurstmon could move through the deepest water with their heads above the lapping surface and they would come out on the far bank only wet for the plunge. Now, he told himself, if he could learn the secret of that trick.

Of course, around the communal fire ring he had heard the tales from one of the traders of his clan who was a member of his camp. The yarns were of another clan living along the banks of the lake called the Wyzaal. According to some of the traders’ stories, almost every member of that clan would happily strip-off whatever covering they wore at the time and throw themselves into the waves and disappear under the water!

According to the trader, men, women, boys and even little girls were able to safely and happily achieve such feats. Once they jumped in and submerged, they would pop their heads up through the dark blue water lengths away, with only a shake of their head and wet hair as any sign of agitation. The trader reported that not one of them ever came up screaming and gasping in fear of drowning. In fact, it was said they smiled and laughed in the water that was certainly deep enough to be far over their heads.

The traders said it was a skill that could be learned. It was called swimming. One of the young traders had said the next time he returned to visit that tribe he would ask if someone might introduce him to that skill—for would it not be a valuable talent for any man to master. The young trader who would learn to do this new ability had also reminded everyone around the fire that everyone knew many animals were able to cross waters deeper than they were tall by doing their version of this swimming. Were animals able to know more than people of his camp? Not one person ever reminded the trader that birds could fly.

The boy’s shoulders and spine shook involuntarily for a moment at the thought of being completely submersed in water again without a creek bottom under his feet and good, breathable air around his chest, shoulders, neck, and head. Being underwater was not a natural state for a man to find himself in, part of his mind argued. He could understand wading into the shallows to bathe, as his mother insisted he bathe at least once a week—even when snow was on the ground. But willingly putting his body into water over his head, or in a strong current?

Hadn’t he thrown-up the contents of his last meal that fateful morning nearly two double moons ago, when he finally struggled ashore on this side of the Toolie? And had not his head felt like a ripe melon until he’d gotten all that fluid that had felt trapped up behind his eyes out of his nose as he had cleared his lungs. At times he still had the bad dreams in sleep of that morning’s terrible dare.

It was a bad sign to dream of past calamities. Everyone in the clan knew—dreams were for leading one to what was to come.

Still resting at the bottom of his controlled slippery descent, Ureeblay looked around before he picked himself up from the cool, thick grasses. He started carefully, but quickly, moving along the mushy footing in the thick grass of the downs. Following the declining course of the boggy land, he charted an angling way that took him further into the middle of the vast, soft, peaty expanse.

He watched for danger that might hide in the grasses immediately around him, at the base of hummocks he passed by, and the occasional clumps of sedge and patches of deep heather further out on the downs where he was heading. Also further out on the downs he could see areas of marsh plants which marked water even closer to the spongy surface. Now his nose was telling him there would certainly be all the dangerous bogs he’d hoped he would find as he’d looked out over these downs from the ridge crest covered in oats.

As the boy traveled along, he remained always vigilant, keeping a sharp eye out, sniffing the breeze, and listening over his heartbeats for any sign of pursuit. Feeling a bit of real confidence finally, he took the small, black-and-silver, stream-rounded suck-stone out of the depths of his travel pouch and popped it into his mouth, to bring moisture to his tongue.

In this manner he began to make his way toward the valley of the Toolie; and at least, hope.

Third Mission, outbound aboard the Federation space vessel DSE Glenndeavor, 2401 CE

“You should have seen it, Jameson,” my older brother had told me, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

I don’t know why I find myself thinking of that conversation I had with him whenever I’m really feeling sorry for myself.

“There I was—our platoon of grav-treads in over-watch, hidden in the tree line along the ridge above the valley. Exactly four-point-eight-two-eight kilometers of open terrain by the laser sight from my position to the raiders’ dirt revetments around their compound. I’ll tell you, I was high on adrenaline, but wondering when they were going to realize we’d found them. The pre-pop willies were starting to build, kid—let me tell you.”

Replaying the last conversation I’d had with Killian, in person, at my college graduation, I sat in my desk chair; my quarters were in shadows and quiet behind me.

“Then it happened, right on schedule—” he’d told me in a soft voice.

I remembered the two of us stood in the shade of a big tree and watched our family, relatives, as well as my neighborhood friends and their folks, and some of my older college acquaintances all sitting under the big tent in the park. Everyone in the shade of the big silver and blue canopy was eating, laughing, drinking free beverages, and listening to reggae music pump out of the sound system. It had been my party after all.

“They swept in, quiet as a line of ghosts, from over the forest behind us,” Killian told me, talking almost out of the side of his mouth. I remember he looked so dashing and dangerous in his uniform with all his medals and badges, and I was so happy when he’d surprised all of us by showing up.

“They were the First Winged Hussars, the Corps got nothing like them,” my brother had told me, a faraway drawl in his deep voice. “And I was about to find out just how shit-hot and merciless those Polacks are—and the look of them. I mean, there were two platoons in line abreast, stretching at least a thousand meter from flank to flank. And their armored-up jump suits made them look like big bumble bees, but with only one set of wings, deployed stabilizers actually, and all dull gray and burnt gold.

“There was this static electricity discharging off the two lines of raised, feathered louvers that was the heat sinks of each suit. Those things were sticking up high behind each suit and glowing red, down the backs of their armor,” he’d told me while I’d admired the silver bar on his crisp shirt collar and watched as his Adam’s apple moved.

“And as they swooped down the ridge-side, the icy tips of each stabilizer created these little, cork-screw contrails—two of them—streaming out behind each jump suit as the Hussars flew through moist layers of air,” Killian had said. “I don’t know if the raiders had lookouts that were asleep, or if they had some bad, low-tech scanning system employed, but nothing was happening, and it was almost twelve-hundred local. I couldn’t take my eyes off my view screen and keep zooming in on the Hussars it seemed.

“Then, right on schedule,” my older brother had said, his voice surprisingly calm to my young ears, “that long line of Hussars climbed up out of our field of fire and I received the order to engage the enemy with our plasma cannon. At the same time those killer bees opened up. After our five pre-targeted rounds, I commanded my driver to advance downhill and I notice the Hussars were looking more like a wild swarm of yellow jackets instead of bumble bees over the raiders’ base.

“By then they were getting some opposing fire coming up. Didn’t look to me to be controlled and mostly, it wasn’t effective. The raiders did get a few lucky shots off.

“That was when the second wave of those armored-up Hussars swept over our line of grav-tracks as we moved downhill, not receiving any opposing rounds at all, either,” Killian had told me. “After that, wasn’t much of a battle—and that, little brother, was my first joint operation with planetary forces provided by a member of the Federation.”

“And why are you telling me this, Killian?” I’d asked him. He’d never told me about any missions he’d pulled before. All his emails and vid sessions, when they happened, were about his buddies, what they did on leave—things like that—how his missed our folks and grandparents.

“Don’t go all dramatic, now,” he’d warned me, “or get adhesive with him ... but Pater Grand told me about your big plan. Look, if you’re actually looking for adventure and want to see other worlds and all that, at least man-up and join the Marines. Become a sky warrior. You’ll find whole nother family who will overlook your horrendous geek tendencies once you qualify and graduate from basic, Nerd-boy. The Corps might even look at your college record and decide to send you to OCS. Don’t know why they’d do that, but strangers things have happened.”

And then he’d backhanded me in the gut, but Killian was my brother. And I was sort of ready for his signature move.

“Just do not enlist in ExServ and really torch your investment in college, online? Now, let’s go get a drink.”

I looked down at the short, brown hairs showing where the sleeve of my off-duty coveralls was rolled up my right forearm. The light from my large, high-def holographic unit porting data from the comp interface in my quarters lit up my arm with its ambient light-blue illumination. My arm rested in a study of shadows and muted colors next to my desk comp keyboard that angled across the work surface of my bulkhead desk.

I shook my head, clearing my mind’s eye of that conversation with my brother. I let out a long sigh and slouched deeper between the armrests of my articulated chair.

The chair was pulled up to my desk. The desk was inset into the right bulkhead of my quarters, which I’d been assigned to at the beginning of this Mission for some unknown reason. And as I absentmindedly pondered the play of color against my skin, a bigger part of me was wondering why I thought it had been such a great idea to apply for this posting to start with. Not that I thought my brother had been right, even now.

Space, the final frontier; or so I’d heard it said in that old Earth space classic. Space might be the final frontier for some people, and exciting because of all the opportunities they found for adventure. But for myself, now out here in the Big Black on my third deep-space mission, I was still waiting for my opportunities for adventure. However, in the absence of adventure I was learning patience, at least.

My paternal grandfather, my Grand Pater, always told me patience was one sign of a maturing individual. From watching him since I was a kid I had discovered that patience was almost always dependent on the task at hand and how well the individual doing the task enjoyed the work involved, or how well they’d prepared to do the work.

When he was around me, if I applied his own patience gauge to his actions, my Grand Pater was just as much of a kid as I was back then—still was if the vids from my parents and relatives were any gauge. I’d also discovered that out here in the All Alone on long trips inside a spaceship, life could be more boring than being stuck on your little, back-spiral homeworld. So now, I really understood that any journey was just what you took the time to make of it.

Anyway, my particular long journey into the stars started when I wanted to get my ass off of my own back-spiral homeworld. Not wanting to be worried about the responsibilities an officer had to face, I had decided to enlist right out of college; much to my brother’s and Pater Grand’s chagrin. So I joined the Federation Space Exploration Service; which is a separate entity from the Federation Space Fleet.

I guess I’m not surprised anymore how many civilians don’t seem to really understand the distinction between those two Federal branches. The Fleet is a military entity, and since the Gracy Compromise in the FUP Congress allowed its formation so long ago, the Federation Space Exploration Service has been and is charted as a scientific and exploration branch of the Federation.

With the growing debate by a few political factions that seemed to have popped-up out of nowhere on the various Nets concerning the rights of individual planetary members of the Federation of United Planets, or the FUP, versus Federal Rights, you would think more people would understand the difference between the Exploration Service and the Fleet.

It seemed to me the whole debate was a rehash of all of those States rights versus Federal rights that played out back on Earth in several different geo-political areas around the globe before we finally made it to the stars. A few well-publicized civil wars had resulted back on old Earth because of that exact argument; and the debate had followed right along with humanity as we started spreading out to new worlds. I fervently hoped the member planets of the FUP didn’t fuck it up again. Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, and all that.

But, personally, I can’t see why any FUP member planet or their civilian citizens had much to complain about. Over the last 73 years or so, the Federal Government’s economy was booming as the whole frontier economic model started to really kick in. Almost all of the new money was being generated by locating, surveying, and putting up to the highest bidder the rights for colonization and development of planets, asteroid belts, or whatever. And those new opportunities to be found in new star systems were made possible by the Deep Space Exploration ships of Exploration Service.

And yes, there were set-asides in those new systems and planets for acceptable not-for-profit organizations and special recognized groups. Capitalism and the myth of truly open markets did not have the final say in allocating resources at such a vast level as a new planet or new star system—at least, not all of the time.

Still, lots of civilians seem to think if you serve in any Fed uniform, you were from the same mold as any other individual in some other kind of Federation uniform. Granted, everyone in a Federal uniform did serve the FUP, but we served the Federation in different ways. I take exception to those civilian who see any Federation uniform as the Federation uniform, for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that I joined the Space Exploration Service, or ExServ as it is called, because I wanted something I knew I couldn’t find at home. I wanted new sights and to meet new people who weren’t from my home planet. I wanted experiences that would expand my personal horizons and perceptions of others. And, I wanted adventure.

But the adventure part hadn’t panned out for me yet.

There was another thing I wanted back then from joining up. I had wanted the Federation to serve me a free advanced post-grad education, which was what happened. And I continued to build on my learning. So for the opportunities ExServ still presents to me, I have an obligation to do my duty for the Federation. But I’ll easily admit that the only true sense of duty I have is to my own self. Well, and to my buddies on the Ship, and fellow crewmembers in that order of importance, I guess.

But sitting here in my quarters and looking at the hair on my forearm, those arguments are, I guess, beside the point. The point is this: I am here—out in the Big Black. And I am sort of bored and hoping—no, wanting—more than I have been experiencing.

For me to get here I had to enlist and go through basic training. My next stop, because I was a college graduate, was advanced training in my field of study—computing. Then I attended and passed through a couple Specialty Service training schools. After completing my Specialty training with high honors and praise, I had to get a string of orders sending me to my first couple of active duty stations that were located off-world.

Those postings amounted to traveling around star systems to different Service bases as a member of a Data Systems Installation and Upgrade Team doing tedious, ho-hum, behind the scenes data-geek work. And it wasn’t as if I got to really visit and explore the new worlds and space stations I was assigned to all that often. Okay, I had weekend passes and used those times to my advantage if my Upgrade Team happened to be working on planet or on a space facility orbiting some planet.

But looking back on my first group of postings it seemed to me more like I would arrive on a space bus, get the job done, test the work quickly, and then leave to the next assignment on some other old space bus.

I did draw installation duties that put me dirtside about one-in-three assignments. I think every DSI and Upgrade Team did, just so the techno-geeks on the teams wouldn’t mutiny. But that rotation ratio wasn’t enough to fulfill my hunger for adventure and excitement on new worlds.

And the part that really was starting to get on my geek nerves was that someone else had always already been there before me—no matter what world I was on.

More and more I had found that getting on a spaceship to travel to those off-world outposts with my latest DSI and Upgrade Team was about as exciting as getting on some sort of public transportation just to arrive at a regular nine-to-five job every day. I could have stayed on my home planet and done that sort of thing. Thank goodness for those one-in-three dirtside assignments and weekend passes.

Even though I was finally getting to see new places and people, I finally had to admit I wanted something more exciting, something more adventurous.

I wanted to be one of the ones who got there first.

So when I read a big article on EnlistedNet.exserv introducing a whole new class of DSE ships the Service had designed, I got excited. Learning that the first of this new class of Deep Space Exploration ships was scheduled to be commissioned in approximately 18 standard months, I had decided I wanted to become a real explorer and get posted to one of them as soon as possible. After all, I was in the Federation Space Exploration Service. I wanted on one of those ships when it headed out of port and into the Big Black to survey unexplored star systems and planets.

Even though space was called the All Alone or the Big Black, space wasn’t all that black. Now days most of the Federation’s exploration efforts were focused toward the center of our spiral arm of the galaxy, not away from the center. The density of star systems was greater in the direction most exploration missions were headed, and it was in that direction most known Federation Space was expanding. Still, so far, in all the 302 years mankind has been out mucking about in space since the first warp-drive ship successfully created an articulated bubble, mankind had only run into one other sentient race that we were aware of, the Eridani.

I am not even going to address the All Alone legend of The Seeders. That mythical race was right up there with little green men, crop circles, and alien abduction as far as I was concerned.

However, the Eridani were real, live, and an alien bipedal species that were almost complete stay-at-homes. They were content to inhabit the four livable planets in their original star system and the five livable planets in a neighboring star system. After first contact, they seemed to put up with us humans, for the most part, but didn’t want to belong to the FUP.

The Eridani were a semi-hive-minded race. Their psi-powers made it difficult for humans and Eridani to be around each other for long periods of time. The Eridani as individuals did have separate personalities but they tended to zone out, or meld, and mentally commune with sections of their work group, or extended family, or whomever, at the drop of a hat. And once the hat dropped, it seemed at times that it could take a very long time for the hat to land; and even longer to be picked back up. When an Eridan was around a human and started to mentally commune with other Eridani maybe a planet away, it was very disconcerting to some humans. Others said it was being around a slightly breathing statue.

The Eridani didn’t see our concept of attention span as encompassing enough. And most humans do not have the vast reserves of patience needed to deal with any single Eridan or group of Eridani on a day-to-day basis. So I guess if you were to use my Grand Pater’s patience gauge, human’s still had a long way to go before you might consider us as a maturing race.

The Eridani allowed the FUP to construct a base on an outer moon orbiting one of their original star system’s gas giants. So there is a booming if somewhat culturally restrained trading base where commerce is slowly carried out between our two races. The Eridani are all about the exploration of mental frontiers and genetic frontiers and are content to leave exploring the Big Black to us humans.

Back at that time in my career when I learned about the new Glenndeavor class ships that ExServ and the Federation had planned on building, those ships were being touted as the next step in man’s journey among the stars.

The first deep space exploration ships commissioned were the Voyager Secundus class. Those ships could carry 128 officers and crew, along with 36 scientific and survey personnel. With the technology those ships used, only one star system could be reached and surveyed each mission, and the duration of some of those missions were three or four years. Those ships were such old technology they had all been sold as salvage long ago.

The Apollo Secundus class was the second design solution for DSE ships; with officers and crew of 192 and a compliment of 72 scientists and survey personnel manning those craft. They still could usually only visit one system per mission, but their technology was more efficient, so they got into the Big Black and back to civilization faster. And the majority of those ships were still commissioned and in use by the Exploration Service.

When I had first read about the new Glenndeavor class ships, I had found out they were going to be not just a lot bigger, with new breakthroughs in warp engine and other technologies—they were going to be huge. The Service had predicted as many as four star systems might be surveyed during a mission of 26 to 42 months in duration. And the first published reports stated there would be a complement of 486 officers and crew and up to 178 ExServ scientists and survey personnel onboard once each ship finished her shakedown voyages. So I had figured there would be room for me in one of those new ships.

With further research I learned the Glenndeavor class ships weren’t just intended to explore new stars. And that reason was why the new ships were being built so huge. They were being built with three Colony Stasis Bays in their main hull. Each bay was designed to hold 400 individual stasis pods based on some break-through technology I still had not had the chance to geek-out on yet.

The accompanying settlement supplies and machinery for the colonists would be stored in cargo pods attached around the outside of the Drive Boom running from the Ship’s spherical main hull back to the In-System Drives and the Warp Engines compartments at the back of the Boom.

So it seemed after the maiden shakedown missions, each Glenndeavor class ship could carry 1200 paying colonists to their new wilderness home planet somewhere out in the Big Black. The online article said once the first of the new class of ships was commissioned it might take up to five years of shake down missions before hauling colonist would begin. At that time once every two or three missions each new DSE would become basically a school bus and shuttle sleepers on the first hop of a mission. After dropping off the credit cows at their new home world, the ship would go on to explore and survey a few new systems before returning to known space and new orders.

Once I decided my goal was to be posted to one of the new DSEs coming on-line, I did some research. I found out the proposed Data-Systems positions that would need to be filled. I discovered that for the Service to even accept my application to the Data-Systems Department on one of the new DSEs I would have to strike from my rating of Grade Two, or G2, and gain a rating of Grade Three.

After discovering that information, it took me seven months of hard study and a raft of exams as well as commendations from several of my commanding officers to attain my new G3 rating. Next, I had to impress the placement board at the Bureau of Personnel so my application for Deep Space Exploration duty would be accepted.

They were impressed ... Well, I was accepted anyway.

After receiving notification I’d been accepted, I was busy patting myself on the back for achieving that step toward my new goal. Then I got orders to present myself at Challenger Space Station to report for duty; that duty being the maiden shakedown cruise of my new Ship.

That ship was the DSE Ship, Glenndeavor. And she was the very first of her class.

That is how I ended up sitting right here at my desk, pondering the short hairs on my arm, and recalling a conversation with my older brother.

In hindsight, sure, I’ve reached my intended goal of becoming an explorer. And now my present pay scale, including my monthly exploration-duty bonus, is three times what most of the kids I had graduated from college with were probably being paid. If they were still working in some planet-bound corporate position and hadn’t become some wunderkind entrepreneur—what, four years after our graduation?

Out here in the Big Black I found it was getting easier and easier to lose track of personal time. My nerd friends in my department didn’t give a geek’s crap about my age. But whenever some new-face crewmember was surprised at my baby’s face and asked me my age, I did the math and reset my interior clock with ship’s time.

I can’t help that—my baby face. I did graduate from college a good bit earlier than normal I guess. I still don’t see what the big deal is. As I said, my friends onboard have all accepted me as a peer—well, as a geek peer. But then, all of my friends are mostly geeks too.

On the other hand, out here in the Big Black I’ve found that Ship’s time, or Mission time as opposed to personal time, is easy for me to track. It is one of those things that officers bring up at all those Departmental Progress and Evaluation meeting. Once a month the Departmental P&E meeting reminded us enlisted ratings where each one of us existed: in the latest timetable of attaining whatever goals our betters have set forth in this part of the Mission profile; or where we were in relationship to our part of the latest scheduled team maintenance and upgrade rotation; or how well I, as an individual department member, was proceeding specifically in the eyes of my commanding officers while I went about trying to solve other departments’ systems bug-ups.

So far I hadn’t failed to succeed at any task I’d been assigned. I’d done so well since joining the Ship in fact, that now I was my Department Head’s go-to-troubleshooter. And I have to say, I was truly proud of his confidence in me. But on the other hand, since coming aboard I’d found my own advancement in rating was slower than I had anticipated it would be.

All those atta’ boys I’d received during Departmental P&E meetings didn’t blunt the cold, hard fact that, as my Grand Pater had always been so fond of saying, “The grass always looks greener over somebody else’s septic tanks.” He also told me many times, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

All those sad facts was why I was working right now—well, actually just pondering my arm. I was trying to improve another software routine for another section of another department in the Ship. Well, truth told, all the comp-data systems and programs in the whole Ship fell under my department’s purview for the most part. So being the department’s go-to-geek, I was right now slaving away at my desk comp keyboard in my spare time, off-duty. Like some workaholic.

Truth told, if I was brave enough to really admit it, I was working off-the-duty-clock because I didn’t have any kind of a meaningful real life outside my job description, my orders, or the repetitive schedule of eight hours on duty, eight hours of off duty, and then eight hours of sleep.

Okay, I take some of that back. Twice daily I do the stretches and forms that are parts of my little-known martial arts discipline, Koh Doh Keewa. And I tried to go three times a week up to the Ship’s Gymnasium to spar with any other crewmember that had martial arts training in one discipline or another, and who was willing to be seen sparring with a ship-geek on the mats.

Those sparring matches were usually draws because the philosophy of my particular martial arts school was completely defensive, and I was good. When I was just a young whipper-snapper beginning my training, I would laugh with the other students my age that we would vigorously refuse the delivery of intended harm from our opponent until they were thoroughly tired, at which time we would be able to safely outrun them and make it home.

However, I’d discovered lately that on my days of humility in the Gym, I’d sometimes find myself sparring with one of the seemingly large contingent of Marines assigned to the Security Detail on the Glenndeavor for this mission.

The Marines do not spar kindly to a draw. I’ve had the bruises to prove that. At first, I thought spending some mat time with a few Marines would reduce the tensions I felt whenever I went into their massive Barracks Block area in the Ship to maintain my weapons skills on the Firing Range.

During the first few months outbound there had been some incidents during drills that seemed to prove I wasn’t alone in imagining the tension I felt around some of our Security contingent on this trip into the Big Black. However, not once have I seen a sky warrior’s face I recognize from sparring with Marines while I’m in the Block. I’ve started to really wonder just how many Marines are aboard this Mission, and I’ve heard others in the crew bring up the same question.

I know from the Ship’s first two shakedown cruises that keeping busy off duty is an important part of staying relaxed and fit to carry out my responsibilities. Besides keeping in shape physically, I had four personal electronics projects I was dabbling with as well. However, if I ever hoped to finish any of them this Mission, I needed to find a source for electronic parts that were currently unavailable to me on the Ship.

Once a huge fan when I was younger, I now had lost almost all interest in plugging into my expensive virtual-reality entertainment suite, fearing I’d get lost in that environment. And a lot of training in Ship systems found me online in a VR helmet and mitts. Instead of virtual reality, I hung out in reality with a small group of friends when we could get together. And as I’ve stated already—yes, they were mostly all geeks like me.

Also once in the 33 months I’d been onboard since the Glenndeavor’s maiden voyage, and not counting hook-ups with civilian girls when I was on shore leave, I’d had carnal knowledge of a crewmember of the opposite sex. That is why I really try to make up for lost time with the ladies when I on leave between missions.

In my defense, it just didn’t seem like a good idea to me to form a relationship with another crewmember. If the relationship went really bad I wouldn’t be able to get away from the other person for the two years it might take to finish the latest mission. And I knew that was the paranoid ass-wipe inside me talking. On the other hand, if the relationship went very well, then who knew where our orders might take either of us after a Mission was over. If that happened I didn’t see myself leaving the Service for a woman at this time in my life.

So that is why once a week, on Fifthday, for fun and human interaction, I really looked forward to visiting with my group of friends and growing number of associates at our long established Poker Night.

But here I was, working alone in my new quarters located well out of the hustle and bustle down on Seven Deck. The interior fixtures of the compartment were done in the muted blue and gray of the Federation Space Exploration Service, as were all my previous quarters. However, unlike those, this place is ten healthy strides deep by seven good strides wide from cream-colored bulkheads to cream-colored bulkheads. And it took me one really good jump up from the gray-carpeted deck to bush my fingertips against the cream-colored, padded overhead.

For reasons I couldn’t quite figure out, for at least this Mission, I’d been allocated to a compartment without other roommates. It took several weeks for me to get over the shock at the size of my new quarters compared to the four-person hamster cage were I’d been assigned during the Ship’s first two deep space missions. Some of my fellow geeks, once they learned about my situation and actually believed me, suggested I might have some latent psychological disorder discovered during my last post-mission examination, and for the safety of others I was being put in isolation or quarantine when not on duty until I went crazy.

By the First Hell, I didn’t care. I told them that I’d have gotten a little crazy sooner if I’d known it would get me this kind of single accommodations.

The second surprise I’d discovered immediately on moving in—the single bunk was huge compared to any of the others I’d been entrusted on my two previous missions onboard. Now in the Big Black on ExServ ships, some folks called them racks, but that was FUP Fleet-speak. In ExServ some people called them bunks and some people called them racks but nobody called them beds.

I discovered there are three storage drawers on each side of the enclosed bunk frame that results in the top of my mattress being mid-thigh-high. No more climbing up or down to get into the top bunks, and no more banging my shin getting into the bottom bunk either.

Granted, the compartment is spartanly furnished. As a visitor looks into my quarters from the hatch opening to the outside passageway, the headboard of the huge bunk is centered against the back bulkhead. My footlocker is secured to the carpeted deck at the foot.

I have an inset desk—where I’m working right now, talking to my self, so perhaps I was given my new quarters to reduce collateral damage when I go out of orbit.

That desk is located about a quarter of the way down the right bulkhead of my compartment. The desk was designed to function like an ancient, roll-top credenza, but I always keep the roll-top open. To secure my few valuables or anything of importance to me, I used the big, locking drawer to the left of the chair well under the desk top where my arm rested now.

The desktop holds a comp terminal with keyboard, optional wireless mouse, and whatever else I was using at any given time. There was an okay holographic unit that can project anything my comp generates as a 3D, high-definition image up in the air above my desk. The unit is built into the top of the shelves at the back of the desktop. Actually I can position the placement of the holographic field above the desk anywhere that is comfortable to watch.

Along with the desk, I was delighted to find a very comfortable, high-backed, articulated chair on a sturdy, six-legged caster base. The chair has padded armrests and a padded footrest that swings up when the back is incrementally reclined by moving the small side lever. Turning the handle of that lever also locks or unlocks the casters.

My new quarters contain a counter-top, with a small refrigeration unit on it, as well as large storage cabinets below the counter space. That is located on the back third of the left bulkhead. The shelf of the counter is about the same length as the massive bunk. My new compartment also has a section of five, meter-and-a-quarter-deep stowage lockers against the front bulkhead and just to the left of the compartment hatchway and ending against the left bulkhead, which is offset, right of center in the front bulkhead.

The first three lockers are quite wide and have adjustable shelves and drawers to the left of each generous hanger space. There is an adjustable-height lower shelf below the hanger space. The last two lockers of the group combined are the width of one of the wide lockers. My closet space is now well over five times the volume of any of the personal storage areas I had before on any ship, or in any of my base quarters.

And out in the Section 15 passageway, there is a small communications terminal to the left of the compartment hatchway. That terminal links to the data comm system of my quarters as well as another comm touch-screen panel mounted on the side of my five lockers. That control panel is just this side of the hatchway threshold sensor area, and is linked to my desk comp and the Ship’s communications system. I found out I can use the touch screen to do anything my desk comp will do, but often I used it sort of like an old-fashion doorbell-intercom.

Just across the threshold from the locker-mounted hatchway control panel, to the right as a visitor enters my new quarters, I have shelving against the front bulkhead that ends against the right bulkhead. The six shelves are a meter-wide and half-meter deep, going from the deck up to the overhead. Those, along with the shelves in my roll-top desk give me an additional wealth of space to stow items that I want to get to quickly.

There were two other hi-def holographic projectors, one on the right and one on the left bulkhead. Anything could be ported to project from either of the units. From time to time, I enjoyed watching some of my collection of old Earth videos while reclining on my massive bunk. That was my first hack in my new quarters, syncing the output from both emitters to produce a stellar quality holographic field in the air above the foot of my luxurious bunk.

One of my electronic projects would sync three different holo-projectors, if I could get the units to work together. I was looking for a portable comp unit with enough CPU power to do the job, but privately owned comps were few and far between, and if one came up for sale it could only to be had for an incredibly high price.

I didn’t want to deal with any of the shady characters running the black-market onboard, either.

Luckily, my new, isolated quarters, was a perfect refuge when I was off duty—and wanting to feel sorry for myself. However, feeling sorry for myself was becoming increasingly harder to do, because the other, biggest surprise about my new living compartment wasn’t the bunk, or that I didn’t have to share my quarters.

The first day I entered my new quarters with a push-cart holding all of my gear, I saw a small hatchway located in the center of the right bulkhead. It opened on what-I-did-not-know at the time, and the other obvious and lavish accoutrements in the compartment caught my attention. It wasn’t until I’d stowed my gear, initiated my desk comp with a whole raft of personally geeked-up utilities and software to help me with my off duty Shipnet explorations in the huge data-tree around the Ship, and then took a nap on my spacious bunk that could easily hold three people, that discovered that behind that small hatch on the right bulkhead was my own personal head.

I shared it with nobody.

When I first walked into the attached head, I was delighted to see that against the left bulkhead was a sink with mirror and a nice counter space with storage below, and there was supply locker in the left corner. The compartment also held—can you believe it—a cleaning stall. It was on the right bulkhead, just this side of the toilet/bidet in the back right corner, and placed behind the cleaning stall for privacy, I guessed.

Again I was impressed with my quarters, and I wonder why I’d not heard anything about the existence of such wonderful accommodations before through the Glenndeavor’s scuttlebutt network.

Scuttlebutt or not, I was faced with a large enclosed stall, seemingly big enough to easily get three people into it—like the bunk out in the main compartment. The stall had the expected translucent-plex door that opened out to the right of the unit if I were to open the stall door. At the time I didn’t because inside I knew would be the usual opposed banks of ultrasonic cleaning emitters. I almost laughed out loud—so much space to do my business in private.

To the right of the stall and stretching to the front right corner of the head was a wide, flat bulkhead panel with a row of clothing hooks.

But the real cohesive item that elevated my new quarters to legendary status in my book was, when I finally opened the plex door of the cleaning stall. I found actual water shower-heads located above the left-side bank of deck-to-almost-overhead ultrasonic emitters!

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even discover the shower heads and the hot and cold water control panel until I’d been in residence for three days! But hey, lots of times you fall into a rut of only seeing what you expect to see in your surroundings on an ExServ ship. Well, everywhere, really ... I guess. For some reason, penance for not actually being worth of my new digs, I went to work out in the Gym three mornings straight after moving in, and I used locker room facilities before I dressed in uniform and headed off to my duty watch.

And, I am still a little surprised it didn’t take longer for me to discover I had a water shower because, I have to say, my code monkey skills are exemplary. And as the department’s go-to-guy, I very rarely break out in sweat on duty that I’d have to clean off in my quarters later. I have to be faced with a massive cluster-fuck of truly mythical proportions before anyone sees moisture on my handsome brow, let alone stresses my system enough to make my armpits stink.

At the time I moved in. I remember I had the growing feeling that what little gear I owned were going to be like a few small stones rattling around inside a big can. But I also knew I was going to be a very happy stone in an almost plush can.

So now each time I walk through the off-set hatch into my quarters I cannot help smirking to myself. Assigned to such awesome luxury, with my very own private head, and running water to shower in! Somebody must have made a mistake, I’d told myself at first. Why this compartment was down here on Seven Deck and not up in Officer Country, I had no idea at the time.

My last assigned compartment on the Ship was a four-occupant cubby-hole up on Five Deck. My roommates and I shared a multi-toilet/bidet communal head containing ultrasonic stalls with three other quad-occupant compartments. There was one water shower stall on a timer that each of us assigned to those four quad-compartments were permitted to use for only four minutes, twice a week. While emitters would get you clean and sanitized, there was nothing like hot, cascading water to wash away the stress of your day.

Before my unaccountable luck at the start of this Mission, I knew the reality of life onboard a DSE was going to include my being assigned to quarters with three other like-grade or lesser-grade crewmembers. And that would be my lot until such time as I successfully struck for a G4 rating, or my efforts and achievements were smiled upon by the powers that be for a promotion of one grade as my reward—which was unheard of in ExServ. Once I became a G4 my assigned quarters would become a dual-occupancy compartment I would share with another G4.

Everyone knew that even crewmember holding ratings of G5s and G5Cs, as well as Ship’s officers had to share quarters. Sure, it was only with one other person. I had thought that only the Captain lived in a single occupant compartment until I was assigned down here to this Section of Seven Deck.

But for some unexplained ExServ reason, or a computer mistake—which I had no hand in, I swear—I was feeling like the king of my own castle.

Right after I had discovered how pampered I might become, I became almost afraid I would be notified my placement had been in error and I’d have to move back into a hamster cage. That was when I really started digging into the big data tree of the Ship’s systems. I used my stealthed-up desk comp, as well as down times on duty, looking for an explanation for the existence of quarters like mine. I was a geek, after all; and finding little known bits of information about the oddest things was part of what geeks do. It was almost instinctual on the part of a geek.

My research on ShipNet finally answered my questions about the nature of the quarters here on Seven Deck, Section 15.

I can’t say where I discovered the answers, but the veracity of my source is beyond question. All of the quarters along this section of Seven Deck were intended as housing for the members of non-Service research teams who, ExServ was certain, would be willing to pay the credits necessary to book a round trip passage on one of their newest DSE exploration vessels. Even if that mission was as long as 48 months and visited and surveyed up to three supposedly unexplored star systems.

I almost couldn’t believe it—paying research passengers on an ExServ DSE ship. My paranoid ass-wipe wondered just how much ExServ would bring in, counting those researchers’ fees on top of payments for carrying 1200 sleeping credit-cow colonists and all their gear to their new homes once our shakedown cruises were over and done? Fortunately for me in this instance, the Ship was still in its shakedown missions profile and not opened for business yet.

As I thought about it, I realized it was possible that some of the research planned by paying passengers might be based on the wishes of some shadowy, rich sponsoring entity. I can’t say if this could happen, but on several occasions my paranoid ass-wipe advanced his theory about what some researchers would actually do. My PAW claimed those paid-for info-gleaners would be able to claim they were doing some esoteric research, and be placed for a short time with one of the Glenndeavor’s Away Teams.

It could be argued that it was a coincident if paying researcher’s sponsor hoped to gain classified information about that specific planet or new star system. And what if that classified information happened to confirm that the new planet or system would be worth all the additional huge sums of money needed for the sponsor to gain the rights to that new real estate when the Federation released rights to the system or planet for bid.

Once the sponsor owned the title of the world, worlds, or entire star system, they could exploit their new property as they wished—for settlement, or mining, or both. With the proper Federation paperwork in hand, those newly acquired planets or a star system was considered to be private property and the Federation would back up the owner’s rights if any raiders or other outlaw elements attempted to interfere in any way.

When it came to the riches to be found in new star systems and individual planets, just because a DSE ship was heading for uncharted space outside the acknowledged boundaries of Federation Space, well that didn’t necessarily mean some private individual hadn’t already been snooping around out along the DSE ship’s proposed heading in the All Alone. That same nosey somebody might have gained sterling information concerning what the Service was going to discover on the next sanctioned survey mission heading along that necessary course. That the same snoopy somebody might have been able to convince somebody else with the deep pockets that further large expenses were justified to legally confirm what the nosey planet peeper had uncovered.

And as you might expect, booking passage to do independent research onboard a DSE was and would be a large expense. Even though most civilians recognized the exploration part of the Service had to do with Space, lots of them didn’t appreciate the fact it also was supposed to do with Science too. The Service was always happy to find somebody willing to help pay for the pure Science part of the trip.

I knew there were no paying passengers on this Mission. This was our last mission in what the Brass had scheduled as our initial shakedown and evaluation cruises. Any structural, equipment, systems, or procedural lessons learned by us guinea pigs in space on the shakedowns would be incorporated in the next two Glenndeavor class ships which the Service was just waiting to complete. I figured the way things were going onboard the Ship so far that ExServ would open the Glenndeavor for paying passengers starting with our next mission. I wasn’t going to argue with ExServ’s plans to offer such nice accommodations for paying passengers later on, or my fortuitous compartment assignment. If ExServ’s intended plans were the actual reason for the luxurious comforts I enjoyed in my new quarters on this Mission; that was fine by me right now. Later on I might find myself bitching about the good old days, but not today.

I could only hope the vacancy sign would still be on at the start of our next mission so I might keep this bountiful, private realm I’d lucked into.

So all of this was my lot in life now, out here in the Big Black as I still lived the life of the geek I was. And I was a code monkey in space. All of that promise of exploring I’d once dreamed about was now set aside for the same-old, same-old, everyday grind. That is, until the Ship reached the first of the three star systems scheduled in our Order of Survey on this Mission. However, other than that excitement, there was no promise of hitting a port of call for a long time.

And although I was never was supposed to have seen it, and I hadn’t been authorized to see it when I did—as I hadn’t yet gotten my Confidential Data-Handling ticket or my Restricted Data-Handling ticket at that time—I knew I was listed on the Ship’s Expanded Organizational Table (confidential) as Special Programming and Analysis Technician, Grade Three, Data Systems Department, Jameson Antrum Sitwell, Qualified Weapons Sharpshooter, Qualified Survival Specialist.

Every person in ExServ must receive basic weapons training. This holds true for someone who enlists in the Exploration Service and goes through basic training just the same as it does for anyone who matriculates from college after successfully participating in a Junior Officers’ Training Program and is then accepted for commission as an ExServ officer on graduation. To successfully complete basic training and be available for duty, you have to attain the Service’s basic qualification level with a pistol, a rifle, and a laser pistol.

And theoretically, that basic weapons training is just the same training that each and every puke going into the Fleet receives. However, from what my older brother has told me, the training a jarhead in the Marines goes through with weapons is quite a bit more involved. But anyway, once an ExServ member has completed the required weapons qualification level needed to graduate from basic training, that person can be awarded a higher classification level based on their skill at the firing range. That way, you can attain a classification of marksman, or sharpshooter, or expert. Just as with your basic weapons qualification rate, once you have an advanced weapons certification, you must qualify once a year on the firing range to maintain your level of certification. And to make sure you qualify, you need to practice on some kind of a regular basis.

The DSE Glenndeavor was the first class of DSEs that actually had a firing range onboard. Yes, it was in the Marine Barracks Block, but it was a firing range and it was open for anyone to use by simply signing up for a reservation.

Since joining ExServ I have found out, and think it is very unfortunate, that other than being recertified at the basic weapons level once a year many ExServ members don’t touch a weapon in between times. Their argument seems to be—if they wanted to shoot people they’d have joined the Fleet or the Marines.

However, there are members of the crew who by regulations are required to carry weapons as part of their duty responsibility. One group is the ExServ members of the Security and Intelligence Department who serve along side members of the Marine Corps Security Detachment onboard. The second group is any crewmember who has a certification as a Research and Survey Away Team member. The Away Teams go down to investigate every Earth norm or near Earth norm planet found orbiting in the star systems on every DSE’s’ Schedule of Survey.

The third group of Services members who work on maintaining their advanced weapons certifications is made up of people like me who are weapons enthusiasts. For those three groups, as I have said, there is a firing range located in the Marines Barracks Block. The range is set up with 100 meter shooting stations that can be configured for either handguns and rifles, or low-power laser weapons.

As I said, I am a weapons enthusiast. I grew up around weapons and hunting, and I really like guns and everything about them. I like what a gun can do in the hands of a skilled shooter. I like the controlled power. I appreciate well designed and well crafted examples of the gunsmiths’ arts. I collect weapons. I am happy and proud to hold a Sharpshooter certification and I plan on attaining an Expert certification with both pistols and rifles when I can find the time to do so.

I’m no big fan of laser technology, but I did qualify as a Marksman with that category of weapons and have continued to maintain that certification.

The gun enthusiast argument also explains why I went through the rigors involved in attaining and maintaining my certification as a Qualified Survival Specialist. I grew up in the wilderness every weekend and during summer breaks from school with my parents and relatives. Living off the land while camping is one of my family’s traditions—and one which I love to share with anyone interested. It refreshes part of me to rely on just myself from time to time as I sleep under the open sky at night on some planet and looked up at the stars that have seemed to beckon me to them since I was just a little boy.

I am also a bit paranoid, as I might have mentioned before, and I need to know I am able to rely on myself in any situation. That was another reason for my training as a Survival Specialist.

But, I also grew up as a geek. A computer geek no less. And like the other traits I picked up from my family, the geek in me was deep and abiding and not to be denied.

So at the end of my duty watch and at the end of the day, I am still nothing but a computer geek for ExServ. As I have also said before, I am a code monkey—a code monkey in space. And with not a whole lot of anything else exciting to do the monkey in me usually wants to climb back up into that big data tree that is the Ship’s systems and play with all that information populating the branches. While I am up in the data tree I strive to be sure and do-no-evil, while hoping to remember to hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, and speak-no-evil. Because failing to remember any of those, especially the do-no-evil bit, always gets a code monkey in deep shit.

As I preached before, being in the Service I have discovered that most civilians just seemed to see everyone who has enlisted or been commissioned as officers in either ExServ or the Fleet, as just being interchangeable uniforms. And those experiences have brought me to the conclusion most civilians seem to make no distinctions between those two organizations unless they personally know someone who is a member of one or both services, or have retired from service themselves.

At first I was upset about that lack of knowledge in the general populace about the Services until an older Grade Five explained to me that what people don’t know, they just don’t know they don’t know. And she pointed out that I’d probably had misconceptions myself about the Services until I’d joined up.

On reflection, I realized she was right.

So in looking at all these things from what I now consider as an enlightened point of view, I’d say the two biggest differences I’ve seen between the Federation Space Exploration Service and the Federation Fleet, is first: for the most part, the ExServ follows a 24-hour Ship’s day broken down into three eight-hour watches: First Watch from civilian midnight, or zero-hundred (0000) to zero-eight hundred (0800); Second Watch extends from zero-eight hundred to sixteen hundred (1600); and Third Watch which is from sixteen hundred to twenty-four hundred (2400) which is considered the end of the Ship’s day. So 2400 is used when you are talking about ending something at the end of the Ship’s day and 0000 is used when you are talking about starting something at the beginning of the Ship’s day. And that watch schedule applies to any rating or rank not on Bridge duty.

ExServ Bridge personnel and all Fleet ratings and ranks worked on a four-hour per watch framework, except for two watches, which consisted of two hours each. Each of the four-hour/two-hour watches have a special name which has come down through time from the old ocean-going ships on Earth. So 0000 to 0400 Ship’s time is Mid Watch; 0400 to 0800 is Morning Watch; 0800 to 1200 is Forenoon Watch; 1200 to 1600 is Afternoon Watch; 1600 to 1800 is First Dog Watch; 1800 to 20-hundred is Second Dog Watch; 20-hundred to 24-hundred is Evening Watch. Blah, blah, woof, woof.

I am sure Fleet and the Space Exploration Service both want everyone stationed on the Bridge to be alert and focused at all times while at their duty stations. And I knew from many geek history factoids in my brain that the old Earth sailing Navies used the same schedule. So, the four hours making up most of the dinky watches was the time-honored and time-tested duration to assure the proper performance of all involved. Sometime in emergency situations I knew that crewmembers only worked two-hour duty shifts.

Many of us three-watch folks called that four-hour/two-hour set-up the dinky watches. Well, we did not refer to them that way in front of any officers or really hard-boiled G5C lifers. And as for the Marines onboard this Mission; most of the crew of the Ship seems to just try to stay away from them whenever they can. The Marines follow the dinky watches nomenclature.

Now, speaking of the Marines—some Marines seemed to take pleasure in fucking with an ExServ rating they encountered in the passageways while that ExServ member is running late to report to the crewmember’s assigned action stations during emergency drills of any kind. The Marines are charged with maintaining Ship security during those drills, so they are just doing their duty. But sometimes they are overly zealous in the execution of their duty. And they enjoy it, as they do everything allowed by regulation to humiliate and test the unlucky ExServ rating caught in a passageway during those drills.

And on this Mission for some reason, there appeared to me to be a hell of a lot more Marines on the Ship than ever before. And, as I said, I did interact with some of the Marines, individually, on the sparring mats from time to time. That usually happened whenever I decided I needed my ration of humble pie for the most part.

So, now that I’ve covered duty watches, I won’t even go into Ship’s Bells for telling time just for the education of the uninitiated out there. Even if a basic chronometer wasn’t seen around the Ship on very many crewmembers’ wrists anymore, every crewmember by regulations must carry their port-o-comp with them unless they happened to be naked. A port-o-comp is a combination of a super-cell phone, an organizer, and is a computational device that is really only limited by its hardware configuration and the imagination of the person holding it in their hand. So if you want to know the time, just check Ship’s time on your POC—no need for hearing Ship’s Bells. Besides, a person will only hear Bells if pulling duty on the Bridge, or in the compartments and passageways of the Bridge Block, or in the compartments and passageways of Officers’ County that surround the Bridge and the Bridge Block at the very center of the Ship’s spherical hull section.

I’ve discovered, hearing Ship’s Bells in an empty passageway on a late watch or really early on a morning watch is sort of cool and reassuring. In fact you only need a slight roll to the deck beneath your feet to give the complete illusion of being in an old, deep-water navy vessel. Unfortunately, if anyone onboard the Ship were to experience a slight roll in the orientation of the deck under their feet, most crewmembers would shit their drawers, thinking something very bad was happening.

Okay. Now, the second and biggest difference between the Space Exploration Service and the Fleet concerns the designations used for the rating and ranking systems. And if a person is unfamiliar with non-commissioned naval ranking at all, this is where the ExServ when compared to the Fleet, could really get confusing to an outsider.

True to my geek inquisitiveness, I’ve studied military histories all the way back to the cradle of us all, Earth. The World Wars, the civil wars, the wars for conquest, and the revolutions. I’ve read about atomic warfare, mechanized warfare, air warfare, armored warfare, trench warfare, naval warfare, black powder warfare, the Amerindians warfare, knights, cavalry, the long bow, the crossbow, siege engines, sword warfare, chariot warfare, the Roman warfare, the Greek city-states warfare, Biblical warfare, the bronze age conflicts, aboriginal weaponry, and stone age weaponry.

And with all of those combined factoids, the one thing I’ve noticed is that once the military rating and ranking systems back on Earth sort of codified, say, around the year EAD 1900, the descriptions and numbers of enlisted ratings have expanded and contracted, with the passing of time and administrators, in a cyclic rhythm like the sea tides of old Earth. Then finally, in 2178 when the First Five joined together to form what would quickly become the Federation of United Planets, all the highest military brass involved got together to figure out all the gobbledygook of rate and rank naming conventions at the time and came up with the Federation’s rating and ranking system as it is today.

Digging deeper into many online sources as any geek would, I discovered that what they really did was get a Navy Chief Petty Officer, a Marine Gunnery Sergeant, an Army Master Sergeant, and a First Mate from the Merchant Space Marines all together with a piece of paper and one pencil and told them to make it simple for each branch of service. And, yes, the Air Force and Rocket Artillery Force were not asked to provide representatives.

So now it comes down to this. If the Fleet, following the old seagoing navy classifications, calls you an Apprentice Spaceman, or Spacewoman as the case may be, then in the Space Exploration Service your equivalent rating is Null Grade Spaceman. A Fleet Spaceman 2nd Class is equivalent to an ExServ Null Grade One. A Fleet Spaceman 1st Class would be equivalent to an ExServ Null Grade Two. A Fleet Chief Petty Officer 3rd Class is equivalent to an ExServ Grade One. A Fleet Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class is equivalent to an ExServ Grade Two.

And so it goes: a Fleet Chief Petty Officer 1st class or CPO 1st is equal to an ExServ G3—which is my humble rating; a Fleet Chief Petty Officer is equivalent to an ExServ G4; a Fleet Warrant Officer equals an ExServ G5. Then, thank goodness, the Space Exploration Service commissioned officers’ designations have been assigned the same as Fleet officer ranks, except for the lowest: a Fleet Commissioned Warrant Officer is equal to an ExServ G5C, for Grade Five Commissioned. And there is only one flavor of G5C and the not four or sometimes five levels of Warrant Officer ranking that used to exist from time to time throughout military history.

And then, since there is a detachment of FUP Marines onboard; well, thank goodness, they still follow most of the ancient jarhead rating and rank designations. And I do mean ancient; like 1944 EAD, World War II era back on good old Earth. As they will gladly tell you, the Marine Corps has a long history, and every jarhead knows the history of the Corps.

Okay, here is my only rant. Well, my only rant I haven’t rained down on your head yet. And it is from being in the All Alone with too much time and not enough data to mine and refine. For all of you dirtball civilians: on ships at sea or ships in space, the person in charge of that vessel is called the Captain. That is not a military rank, it is a command designation. The Captain might have the rank of Ensign, or even a G4 with a Class One pilot’s ticket and be commanding a shuttle; but if you are on that shuttle you refer to the Ensign in charge as Captain, no matter what your rating or rank might be. And within the orders that Captain is operating under; they are in charge of their ship.

Most civilians with no military experience seem to know the officer ranking hierarchy of the Army or the Marines; because they are they are mostly the same. But those civilians always get muddled with the Fleet or the Space Exploration Service. It is important to realize that a ship’s Ensign, the lowest of all commissioned officers in ExServ, is equivalent to a Marine Second Lieutenant; a ship’s Lieutenant Junior Grade (jg) is equivalent to a Marine First Lieutenant; a ship’s Lieutenant is equivalent to a Marine Captain, a Fleet or ExServ Lieutenant Commander is equivalent to a Marine Major; a Fleet or ExServ Commander is equivalent to a Marine Lieutenant Colonel; a Fleet or ExServ Captain is equivalent to a Marine Colonel. And then you hit the big time with Commodores, Rear Admirals, Vice Admirals, and Admirals. I’ve never seen an officer with any of those rings on the sleeves of their uniform jacket or bars and stars on the epaulets on their shoulders, myself; and I’ll be a happier code monkey if I never do.

That is the end of my rant. Oh...

There is a third difference between ExServ and Fleet. And nobody on board usually talks about this. It is a lot easier to get killed in the line of duty if you are Fleet; and especially so if you are in the Marines, for that matter.

In certain situations, it is even expected.

So here I am on the good ship DSE Glenndeavor along with 487 other souls, according to the Ship’s Roster when we left the port of Hapner L-Four at the start of this Mission. I want to point out the Ship will not be up to her full complement of crew and officers, and science and survey personnel, until our next mission. And part of the next mission, I’m sure, will include some colonists in stasis-pods. And in this case, yes, DSE means Deep Space Explorer.

So now the Glenndeavor is three months and two days advanced on the outward leg of our third mission in the last three years and change since the Ship was commissioned. Or was it four years? I could look it up on my comp; or not.

“Permission to enter your abode,” a soft female-sounding voice filled my compartment.

I’d programmed that wonderful voice into the data communications system of my quarters to chime through the high-definition audio emitters located around my compartment when anybody pressed their finger on the Open Comm button on the communications terminal out in the passageway next to the hatch that opens into my place. The person in the passageway triggering that sexy voice hadn’t seen fit to announce themselves to my portal-pager, so I figured the percentages were very high that person had to be somebody I knew. A geek like me.

“Enter,” I enunciated loud enough for my data comm system to voice activate the opening of the hatchway to my quarters. I was still somewhat distracted as I scanned the lines of code slowly scrolling up the open work window taking up the left side of the hologram projection floating above my desk.

I wiped my face with the small towel I had around my neck. I wasn’t really worried I still had any sweat on my face from my workout. I’d finished my stretches and martial arts forms earlier as a break from this troubleshooting job I was working on. And then I’d taken a shower, dressed in a nice pair of warm-up pants and off-duty shirt, and gotten back to work. Now, I’d gladly take another break since someone actually came all the way down to Seven Deck to stop by my quarters for a visit.

The brighter, ambient light from out in the passageway invaded the subdued illumination of my compartment as the hatch silently slipped into the bulkhead wall behind the large group of storage lockers I was permitted to call my own.

“What the hell are you doing here, Jaym?” the voice of my geek buddy G3 Carl ‘QT’ Quicton broke my fading concentration.

I looked away from my de-bugging attempt as it kept on scrolling down the opened work window in the holo-display. I realized I, well we with QT now here, would most likely be late for our weekly poker game in the Five Deck Enlisted Lounge. Thank the stars the Service kept all ships’ calendars in normal seven-day weeks and twelve months to the year format. I’m surprised the powers that be hadn’t decided way back when to base all ships’ calendars on a base-ten system. You know, make everything metric. This way it was easy for us enlisted folk to refer to the complete duty cycle of three-watch shifts as our day.

“Sorry I’m running late,” I said as I rotated my comfortable, high-backed chair around to look at my friend and Data Systems Department mate as I put my hands on the armrests preparing to get up. “Won’t take a moment to get going.”

“No need to get up now. The game is already over, you ass-wipe,” QT told me with a chuckle as the hatch closed behind him and he walked behind my chair to sit down on my footlocker at the foot of my huge, wide bunk.

“Mindenhall kicked all of our asses,” QT said, his forever-tan vaguely oriental face giving me a look of disgust, “—again.”

“How can a woman so—so damn beautiful—be so lucky at cards every time she sits down to play?” he whined and then gave me a meaningful look. “That is as long as...”

And pointing his slender finger at me, he said, “ ... you are not at the table.”

“This is easy,” I said. “I’ll tell you why.”

QT looked intently at me and his eyebrows went up.

“Because most of you geeks are trying not to let her notice you’re really checking out her blonde hair, or staring at her big tits and trying to figure out if they’re original issue or ploobs, or you’re gazing at her green eyes, or her full lips and mouth,” I said, as images of my favorite fantasy girl whipped though my mind’s eye, “instead of paying attention to the game, or paying attention to your cards and calculating the odds of the situation, or paying attention to the other people playing at the table to check for known tells—which is how you have the best chance to win playing poker against anybody.”

“But, you,” QT pointed at me and lectured, “beat her seventy-two percent of the time when you show up to play.”

“That is because I don’t let her rattle me just because she’s graced us lower-grade geek peons with her oh-so-attractive visage and her wonderful companionship. And, anyway,” I said absentmindedly, tossing my towel at the opened second locker where my dirty clothes hamper was located, “I know her tell.”

Wait,” QT said and leaned towards me where he sat on my footlocker and squinted at me. “Mindenhall has a tell, when she’s playing? That is how you beat her so consistently?”

Yes, I told myself, G4 Mindenhall did have a give-away tell when she played cards; two of them. Well, actually three.

When she had a really good hand her nipples stiffened up under her off-duty knit top or whatever she happened to be wearing at the time. She must have big nipples, I figured, if I could see them get erect even through her clothes and whatever kind of bra she wore. If I could see them so easily, the rest of the geeks around the poker table must be able to see them getting hard also. I was sure of that, because every time she got hard nipples it was easier for me to beat the other guys around the table.

I was sure the reason no one else had connected Mindenhall’s hard nipples with her having a really good hand of cards was that when the rest of the guys saw them, I’m sure they were only imagining what she looked liked naked, or what it might feel like to rub the palms of their hands over her breasts at that point. And every time my poor, geek friends were mesmerized by her nipples it was like they didn’t have the ability to figure out what was causing the beautiful woman to get excited. They were just happy to look at such an attractive, vivacious member of the opposite sex and didn’t realize those big dents in the material of Mindenhall’s top at the tips of her big full breast were a distraction to their ability to concentrate on winning the hand being played.

I had no idea what the other ladies who played poker with us from time to time thought when Mindenhall’s nipples got hard, but most of them had tells I’d also been able to figure out from my observations of their playing cards.

I was fairly certain Mindenhall knew people could see her nipples when they got hard. Off duty, Mindenhall’s clothes usually weren’t what anyone would call bulky. Once a crude guy by the name of McCord who played poker with us occasionally joked that off duty Mindenhall’s name patch above her right breast was sometimes the thickest piece of clothing she wore. Yeah, didn’t he wish.

I figured she picked her off-duty duds so that her magnificent body would be displayed to her best advantage. Which she always managed to do even if she still had to have, by regulations, the already mentioned name patch over her right breast and her rating blaze at the top of each sleeve just below her shoulders. And when Mindenhall sat down at our table, I felt sure she was seeking to distract all the poker playing techno-geek males she found there. It was obvious to me she had a really deep competitive streak in her, at least when she played cards. And with the bait she seemed naturally born with, capturing the male geeks’ attention was like catching hungry fish in a tub. But, what did I know?

So her stiff nipples were two of her tells. Mindenhall’s third tell happened to be that her green eyes dilated enough that at least I had noticed. And I’d quickly figured out it happened consistently every time she was trying to sell a bluff. But I did have really good natural eyesight, which sort of surprised a lot of people. Those people considered that at least a third of my life so far had probably been spent squinting at the flat screen or holographic unit attached to some kind of comp. Those folks saw me as the geek that I appeared to be. But, appearances—like stereotypes—can be deceiving. Even with all the modern corrective vision enhancing techniques available to the general Federation public at large.

But anyway, my noticing the beautiful blonde’s green eyes as one of her tells proves I didn’t always stare at Mindenhall’s incredible tits—while she played cards, or any other time I might find myself around her, which outside of the Enlisted Lounge was never. And I talked to her eyes when I addressed her around the card table before and after the game, or anywhere else we might happen to speak to each other; which had happened just about zero other times so far. I hope I’m not repeating myself, it has been known to happen and I am sure will happen again.

During a poker game I always put on my lucky sunglasses. That pair of wrap-around, polarized, mirror glasses was a 210-year-old antique that had been passed down, card-playing father to card-playing son, through my Dad’s family for generations. I wore them for luck, as had my forefathers—not that I am superstitious—when I play cards. Also, my opponents cannot tell where my eyes are focused, or how long they stayed focused on whatever I might be looking at when I wear them.

I looked back at QT sitting on my footlocker in the subdued light of my compartment. Sometimes, I told myself, he just did not have a clue. There was no way in the Nine Hells I was going to give up Mindenhall’s tells to anybody. Because since she’d come on board at the start of our previous mission, S.W. Mindenhall had provided me with a hefty boost to my credit flow. She would clean out the rest of my geek friends around the poker table, and then I would take ... what had QT claimed? Yes, 72 percent of her accumulated table winnings every time she graced us with her companionship and hot body, and I happened to be there to reap the rewards.

Still, I told myself, even with S.W. Mindenhall’s natural abilities to beguile and bedazzle, she really didn’t present herself as a superior, or stuck-up, individual. She didn’t have the attitude that a significant percentage of beautiful women I’d had contact with sometimes carried around. Well, I had noticed Mindenhall did seem to keep herself somewhat aloof from most of the crew, as far as I was aware. But it was more like she was a loner than her thinking her excrement wasn’t odiferous. Granted, she did play poker with us geeks more often than not each week, to our initial surprise and continuing delight.

It was just that Mindenhall was so superlative looking. And, she had charisma as well as being glamorous—like a vid-star or something. And most of all, she didn’t dress to suppress the beauty she seemed to have been born with. In fact, she seemed happy to let everyone who wanted to look at her body to get a good look through her off-duty choices in clothing. Maybe because of that she managed to intimidate about every male and a lot of the females that she came into contact with as she went about her duties, or during her free time onboard the Ship.

And from what I’d seen over the last twenty-three months, two weeks, and two days that Mindenhall had been a crewmember of the DSE Glenndeavor, rank or experience did not have any privileges when it came to being intimidated by her natural presence. Even the meanest, battle-scared, by-the-book Marine NCO on the ship was at least nice to Exobiologist Specialist, Grade Four, Mindenhall. Well, that was what I’d heard, anyway.

“So, space boy,” QT asked, sounding peeved and sitting straight up again, “are you going to share her tell with me, or not?”

“Not,” I told him as I waved him off with my right hand. “Mindenhall has almost single-handedly financed the contents of my, now two, SHTF bags. And the next time we hit any significant liberty-port, I just might get a bigger primary carry bag and buy more stuff to add to it, too. Might even add a third tote.”

QT snorted and shook his head at me as he sat there, while moving his feet further apart and resting his hands on the knees of his blue overalls.

“See—these parts of you, my sister did not experience the last time you visited my home. She does not appreciate bullheadedness any more than I do. And she would be afraid of this psychosis you display in private. You are one paranoid, ass-wipe. You know that, right?” QT asked me teasingly, while I also knew he was frustrated with me almost to the point of anger.

“I cannot believe you and your shit-hits-the-fan bags. Why anybody would expend good credits on redundant emergency gear is beyond my knowing. Think of all the willing companionship or ... or the entertainments, or investment capital you’ve squandered while buying, mostly used I’d guess, who-knows-what that—heavens forbid—if any of us find ourselves having to really slide into an escape boat and abandon this wonderful vessel; well, that extra equipment you’ve been squirreling away is most likely part of every evacuation boat’s regulation kit anyway!

“And don’t think that just because there is an evacuation boat station just across the passageway from your quarters—that you would ever have the time, or presence of mind, to take your precious bags in hand before you find yourself scampering out of your compartment, opening that hatch, and sliding down the access tube to—hopefully—safety. I know you don’t practice taking them with you during evac drills; you’d end up on report.

“It is against Ship’s regulations to take non-regulation gear onto an escape vessel of any type anyway...” QT said, sounding condescending as he tried to get in the last word on this same-old argument, again.

“Show me,” I said in a slow, monotone voice, “where it states that in Ship’s Regs or the SOP, QT. Because, if you can, I’ll share Mindenhall’s tells with you. Not that you would know how to use them.”

“Wait, she has tells? Plural?

“Arggg ... We’ll not argue letter of the law versus spirit of the law at this time,” QT told me, trying to look inscrutable. “I’m going to go get some food before I turn in. Are you coming with me? Or are you, once again, going to the Gym to practice those weird forms, then try to find some one to kick your skinny ass silly?”

“I think I’ll eat with you, my friend,” I said as I turned back to my keyboard and saved my work back to my allotted partition on our department’s server over ShipNet. “I already did my stretches and ran through my forms, so I can get my skinny ass kicked silly later.

“I can get back to this—” I told QT with a wave of my hand at the hologram containing my data windows as I stood up, “—latest programming emergency ... at my workstation next duty watch, don’t you think?”

“Yes, I believe that is what duty watch is for,” QT said standing up and slowing making his way to the closed hatchway of my quarters. “So, anyway my friend ... before Mindenhall arrived at the table, McCord was telling us of an encounter he had with that new-faced, little red-haired Apprentice Engineers Mate, ah, Anika...”

Blaugelt?” I asked, shaking my head as I pictured the very young looking woman in my mind—small with unruly curls of copper red hair, and big breasts.

“I didn’t even know a null-rating could be assigned to a DSE,” I said, feeling bad I was objectifying her body and I didn’t even know the girl except the few times I’d seen her in passing after McCord had first pointed her out to a table of us in the Enlisted Mess.

I knew that since she had been posted to the Glenndeavor, just hours before the Ship departed on this Mission into the Big Black, the rumors of her actions on board were growing from notorious to that of a minor space legend. And it seemed every one of those tales all started: ‘ ... this guy a friend of mine knows told him... ‘

“Yes, her,” QT said. “With all of those last minute personnel transfers off and onto the Ship this time; I for one am not surprised a null-rating managed to get dumped on us. And after this Mission, I would not be shocked if more BuPers officers realize the effectiveness of such a ploy. Think of it: they can get rid of problematic personnel by transferring them to a DSE at the last moment before mission departure. By the end of the mission, those goldbricks will come back straightened out or in the brig awaiting a dishonorable discharge.”

“So, McCord was talking about ahh ... Blaugelt?” I asked, suddenly feeling uncomfortable at having almost spoken her first name without her personally giving me permission to use it.

On deep space missions there was very little privacy a person could call their own. A person’s first name was very high on that list. It was considered very bad manners to take the liberty of calling a crewmember by their first name without that person having introduced themselves to you specifically using their first name beforehand.

The sharing of your first name was usually an invitation to open a friendship. Most introductions were by last name and rating, even when you’d seen the crewmember around for months and months in passing on the Ship.

I realized just what low esteem many of the crew had for S.W. Blaugelt if so many of us felt free to use her first name without her giving it to us by way of introduction. I suddenly felt bad about myself being on the fringe of that group.

“Yes, the very one,” QT said, the compartment hatch opening as we approached the threshold. “Everybody knows this is her first posting. With as much trouble as she seems to get herself into, I find it hard to believe she came here fresh from any Service advanced training school. And, do you believe it; I hear she is only just nineteen-years-of-age?”

“Hell, she looks like she’s only fourteen or so; and if only a quarter of the rumors I’ve heard about things she goofs up are true, I’d have to wonder if she didn’t really come here fresh from some backward high school on some out-of-the-way planet,” I said, trying to bury my misgivings at what I’d just said about somebody I didn’t know personally. We turned left down the cream-colored passageway and headed toward the lift station that would take us up to the Enlisted Mess on Five Deck.

“Ahh, so, it took you all of three months, but you have noticed her, too?” QT asked, smirking at me as we walked along the passageway deck that was easily wide enough for four crewmembers abreast. “And her youthful appearance would be due to her being born and raised on Neuholm’s Planet, if you have not heard that tidbit ... And speaking of hearing—have you heard Blaugelt’s accent and how she butchers Fedenglish? There has been a resurgence of Neuholm’s Girl jokes since she’s come on board, I tell you true.

“Anyway, McCord claims the two of them bumped into each other in the Tertiary Auxiliary Systems’ Switching Space down in the Catacombs,” my friend said in a low, conspiratorial tone as we passed a small, empty crew lounge on our left. “He says, as he was passing her, she was about to decouple a Swayze branch before she de-energized the node. Of course he stopped her. McCord says she begged him not to report her. She told him, he claims, that on their next off-duty cycle together she would do anything to avoid going up on report—”

“—that would have been, what—a Class One breach of Lock-Out Protocol...” I interrupted my friend as we approached the lift station. I realized that now I was trying to release my self-anger by defending crewmember Blaugelt, instead of contributing further to her disrespect. “McCord’s blowing smoke up all your squirmy geek asses if you believe he wouldn’t report her for that just because he might get a little play out of a befuddled Null Grade.

“I have to tell you, Carl,” I added, knowing he’d pick-up on my use of his first name and now was really paying attention to what I was saying to him. “I think it is, well, just wrong—to be spreading tales about anybody like this. Especially S.W. Blaugelt. She’s not even around to defend herself.

“And speaking of being around, QT,” I added, with not as much anger as had been in my voice before, I realized, “where was her supervisor while all of this was supposed to be happening, anyway? Engineering just doesn’t turn an Apprentice Engineers Mate loose without close supervision; to what, swap out a Swayze line? And what was McCord doing down in the Catacombs, just taking a walk? He didn’t say he was on duty, did he? He’s a frickin’ shuttle repair guy for Heaven’s sakes ... none of the shuttle bays are anywhere near any Terse-Aux Switching compartments. We both know that.”

We gave each other a knowing look, waiting for the lift hatchway to open for us.

“Because,” we both sang out together, our voices sounding like snotty school kids, “Data is our business!”

We entered the lift and QT hit the button for our destination deck and then the section number button for the Enlisted Lounge before punching the Initiate button.

“Jaym,” QT said to me, shaking his head and looking at me like I was about to get on the short shuttle as the lift moved us towards Five Deck and the section where the Enlisted Mess was located, “we all knew it was disinformation as soon as he opened his mouth. But McCord’s flights of fancy are so amazingly graphic and innovative.

“I tell you true,” QT confided to me, “he missed his calling.

“Did you hear the one he told about this, supposed, Spanish-fly passion serum he claims to have gotten his hands on? What the devil is a Spanish-fly anyway? Do you care? No—and I do not even care ... Truth be told, McCord is a born porn-vid content writer who, unfortunately for all of us poker players still willing to put up with his crude behavior, is in reality trapped inside the disgusting body of a Grade Two Shuttle Maintenance Specialist.”

The next morning I went through my stretches and martial arts forms. Then I got cleaned up. After checking the Ship’s Morning Orders and Announcements posted on ShipsNet for any pertinent information for the day as well as the posting of the Uniform of the Day, I got dressed. Today the MOA stated Class E-1 uniform or appropriate work attire, no covering. E-1 was a code-monkey appropriate uniform in my opinion. If I’d been a Grade Two Shuttle Maintenance Specialist, I’d be wearing an appropriate work coverall. Most likely, long sleeved.

The ExServ Class E-1 uniform consisted of black shoes or boots, dark-gray trousers, black belt, opened collar showing a white-tee shirt under a dark space-blue long or short sleeve shirt with rating blaze on both upper sleeves, a name tag on the right breast and service ribbons on a flat plate of dark-gray on the left breast, no tie, and any specialty marks or certification symbols were on the left sleeve. There was to be a Ship patch on each sleeve at the top shoulder just above your rating blaze. The Ship patch was space-blue text on a light-gray rectangle. Mine was stitched: DSE GC-0001 with Glenndeavor under that.

The Class E-1 also had a zip jacket in dark space-blue with a high collar showing small ratings blazes on each side of the collar, a nametag on the right breast, the Ship patch off each shoulder and a department tag on the left breast. When the E-1 with Zip was the stated Uniform of the Day the zip was to be worn at all times the crewmember was away from their specified duty watch station. In station, and the jacket could be removed for work. If specified, the Class E-1 Uniform also included a matching dark space-blue garrison cap with a small rating blaze on both sides at the front.

The E-1 uniform for today called for all of the above, but no zip jacket or hat because the MOA specified no cover, which meant do not wear a hat, or the garrison cap in this case. The no cover specification also meant according to regulations I didn’t have to salute every damn officer I encountered in the passageways, because they would not be wearing cover on their heads; and by regulations you always salute an officer who is wearing a cap.

By regulations, once I got to my duty station or entered any department I saluted the Officer of the Watch when I was coming in or going out, and my commanding officer or supervising officer the first time I saw him or her that watch even if they were not wearing cover. There were other regulations on giving and receiving salutes, but they are a pain in the butt when you first are learning them and will get you on report or a good chewing out if you forget any of them.

However; the very first thing I learned in basic training was—always salute an officer covered. And if in doubt salute first and then get a lecture later. Lectures didn’t get you on report and you could learn a lot about the personality of the person yelling at you if you paid attention.

So I headed out of my compartment feeling good about my little part of the world. I was on my way to report to my duty shift on first watch when I was told by a chime from my port-o-comp that I’d received a confirmed Text Order, or TO, from my watch supervisor. I pulled my POC off my belt and thumbed the outside screen.

The TO message informed me I was to report directly to duty in the Exobiology Department on Five Deck and not go to the Data Systems Department, which was my official watch station. The text informed me I’d be working on uploading the latest bio-parameters profile updates for a long-range sensor sweep program for the Exobio Department. And then I was to work out any bugs they’d left in their implementation of the new profiles.

When I arrived at the proper compartment where the Exobiology Department was located at the appointed time, I presented myself to the waiting Exobiology Duty Watch Supervisor who was an Ensign, and rated my salute, which I gave. There wasn’t an Officer of the Watch at the Watch Desk. Well, this wasn’t my department and it was first watch, so who was I to judge if this arrangement here seemed a little slip-shod.

With formalities out of the way, the Ensign gave me two data sticks and a brief overview of what he hoped I could accomplish. Then he directed me to an out-of-the-way workstation he wanted me to use, back behind a partial bulkhead and off to the side in a lab of some kind. Then the Ensign left me all alone in that area of the Exobiology Department as he departed for parts unknown, while giving me no quick way of tracking him down if I had any questions I might need answered later on.

So I sat down and after reporting to my Department Supervisor by text that I was at my temporary duty station. I jumped right in and started doing my code-monkey thing. Imagine my surprise when about an hour later Space Woman Mindenhall walked up and sat down next to me at the workstation where I was camped-out. She made herself comfortable without a hello or even a by-your-leave.

“May I ask you some questions of a personal nature,” the beautiful, blonde crewmember in her Class E-1 without zip asked me in a low, hushed voice as she looked out into the rest of the visible lab area for officers, I guessed.

“I know we are both on duty, but this is first watch and I don’t see any officers anywhere.”

“Well, hello ... And, sure,” I told her in greeting, “ask away G4 Mindenhall.”

“Uh, okay. Thank you. So, Mister Sitwell, mmm ... are you...” and her voice sounded uneasy, “ ... ah... homosexual? You know...”

“What in the Three Hells are you talking about?” I asked her, startled as I looked away from the holographic display showing the progress of the profiles update shown by a lengthening green-colored Loading Bar icon. I felt a grin break out on my face at the embarrassed look on her exquisite face. “I am happily heterosexual. And I’d be glad to demonstrate the fact to you anytime you want confirmation. But, why are you asking me?”

“Because,” Mindenhall said, and I noticed her ears getting red where her blonde hair was swept behind them as she tilted her head and green eyes towards me. “You are one of only about a dozen men on this ship, who isn’t an officer—and some of them even are a pain—that looks me in the eyes whenever you talk to me, in spite of those stupid sunglasses you insist on putting on once a game starts. Not that I am complaining about this you-looking-me-in-my-eyes part; I find it very nice behavior. In fact; I’m just surprised, as an exobiologist, that evolution hasn’t forced women’s eyes down to just above their nipples, if you know what I mean.”

She grinned back at me when she saw the surprised look that must be showing on my face at her mention of breasts, nipples, and eye placement.

“Was that ahhh ... some veiled reference to a skit that occurred on a late-twentieth-century, late-night, Earth TV comedy show?” I asked her, looking deep into her green eyes.

“Now what are you talking about?” she asked, her aristocratic blonde eyebrows knitting together in mild confusion. “Although I do find pre-cosmonautic history very interesting, I’ll admit I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about it. Now, if you were talking really old. Like Earth Classical Period old ... I might pick-up on some veiled reference about that.”

“Well then, the next time we are having a conversation,” I told her as my de-bugging utility buzzed on a problem line of new code that turned the Loading Bar a blinking red, “I guess we’ll have something to talk about, now won’t we.”

I turned to the holographic display I was using, pulled down a menu item with my finger on the insubstantial image and executed the program command. A wonder-wheel the size of a thumb appeared next to the work window and multiple colors started quickly sweeping around the face of the wheel to show my last command was being implemented. Geeks called it a wonder-wheel because whenever we see it flicker onto the comp screen or holographic display we wonder if it is ever going to stop or if we might have locked-up the program running on our workstation.

The wonder-wheel went away and the Data Loading Bar turned green and started lengthening again. I looked back and Mindenhall and smiled.

“Okay ... other than my sexual orientation and your nipples;” I asked her, feeling brave and not caring if I offended her for some reason, “ ... exactly what is it you want to talk to me about right now? You realize this is the first conversation we’ve had that wasn’t brought about because we found ourselves sitting in on the same poker game, right?”

“OK, that is fair,” the woman told me as a heart-grabbing, nova-like, smile full of perfect white teeth erupted on her face and happiness made her eyes twinkle. “And direct. I have to tell you, I have been curious about you—for quite a while now. You I’ve been discovering, are somewhat of a mystery. And, a gentleman ... I guess...

“But,” she said, “on the other hand, you are a lowly Grade Three. Still, you are not what the female members of the crew consider ugly—no, not at all. And you are rather young to have made Grade Three and also be the hot-shot of your department. You’re what—twenty-four, twenty-five?

“Also,” Mindenhall continued talking, almost not taking a breath, “there are no rumors or gossip I’ve uncovered about you sharing any, ah ... physical relationship with any member of the crew. And there is no commitment ring on your finger ... But then, you are allied with the techno-geek faction on the Ship. Lots of women aboard see that as a big negative.”

I sat back in the workstation seat and took a deep breath as I looked into her green eyes. I was amazed at how she’d rattled off all that in such a short space of time.

“I’m twenty-three. I entered college a few years ahead of schedule I guess you could say. You’re a Grade Four, so how old are you? And, just what is your point?”

Mindenhall sat back in her chair and looked to our left at a bank of holographic displays actively demonstrating changing-color columns in one set of windows and wildly fluctuating wave patterns in another opened work window. I was sure the displays were tracking whatever kind of data that was being ported to the holographic images.

“Well, you present yourself as older. And for your information, I’m twenty-five,” her green eyes glittered as she looked back at me, “and just twenty-five, at that. I went ahead educationally also. But my point is, if you’re not seeking partners using gay-dar and your tongue doesn’t fall to your feet and trip you up every time you open your mouth around me, and you seem to treat me like just another person in the crew ... I wondered if we might take the time to get to know each other—other than across the poker table. That is what I’m asking.

“I mean, there is what, at the very earliest ... another twenty months or who knows exactly how long that we’ll be on this Mission? I don’t bite. You must be aware by now that I seem to intimidate just about every guy in the crew. And most of the ones that I don’t intimidate—well, I’ve found better potential dinner partners stuck to the bottom of my boot after walking across a dog park lawn...”

I didn’t respond except to lift my left eye brow at her and grin. I was finding her unfolding proposal very appealing.

“You, on the other hand,” Mindenhall told me and tilted her head to her right, “don’t intimidate. Also, you talk to my eyes. So I don’t have to fear any—unwanted—evolutionary pressure coming from you.

“And I’m also dying to figure out how you kick my well-toned, heart-shaped butt at poker on a regular basis. You know, I sat down last month and did some guestimates on just how many credits the other members of the poker group have funneled through my hands into your account. I was so surprised I pulled up my account records and got some hard data. Maybe some time you might be willing to tell me what you are planning on doing with all that extra capital?”

The Data Loading Bar cleared the holographic display. I turned back to the workstation and started a second routine to verify the integration of the up-loaded profile data by using a few clicks of the comp mouse and three touches of my left index finger to interactive commands embedded in the menus displayed in the holographic projections in front of me.

“Well, I guess we could... maybe ... spend some time getting to know each other,” I told her, trying to be cohesive with her in the deepest heart of my code-monkeyness. Then I turned and smiled back at her sitting there looking so beautiful in her chair. “Yep, I’d be willing to do that. Even with, you know, you being an older woman and all. So if you want to—yeah, sure—let’s. But if we do, you might eventually need to know—I do bite.

“On the other hand, I will never tell you why I find it easy and pleasing to whup on your, I must confess, delightfully well-toned and heart-shaped bottom seventy-two percent of the time when we meet over cards. And I will be investing the poker winnings you generate for me in my, ah, emergency fund I guess you could call it. What exactly that fund is—well, that is another thing we can talk about. Maybe. Say, the next time we might ever happen to find ourselves having a conversation...”

“Ouch!” Mindenhall said, placing both of her elegant hands over the service ribbon plate on her dark-blue duty shirt just above her substantial and high left breast. “Pierce my heart with irony, why don’t you. What is Jaym short for?”

“That was me trying to be sarcastic, not ironic. And it’s short for Jameson. As in: I am Jameson Antrum Sitwell. I am very glad to introduce myself to you. And I am embarrassed to tell you, even though you’ve never used it at poker, I don’t know your first name. All of us geeks call you S.W. or S.W. Mindenhall. Sorry.”

“I’d say you’re being idiotic, not sarcastic,” she told me putting her hands back on the armrests of her chair. “And; why call me S.W.?”

“For the honorific, Space Woman,” I told her and raised my left eye brow again before I continued. “You know, for privacy reasons there is only last name, rating or rank, and department listed for each crewmember on the published Ship’s Roster, with S.M. or S.W. designating only the noncommissioned ratings’ sexes ... right?”

I watched Mindenhall’s photogenic face as that obvious information sank in.

“I did know that,” she told me. “I guess for us ratings, it doesn’t matter what sex an officer is. They are all off limits to us anyway.”

“But, back to my not knowing your first name; ever notice,” I asked her, “anybody in the passageways calling you anything other than Space Woman Mindenhall or just Mindenhall? I definitely recall that is how you introduced yourself to the poker table that first game. And that’s how we still address you during games. ‘Hey, Mindenhall, you gonna call or what?’

“Well ... I have heard one officer call you Mister Mindenhall, but...”

“You know,” she said as her elegant eyebrows knit together once again, “you’re absolutely correct about that ... Huh ... Now that you mention it I see what you are saying. Okay, you can call me Juliet. As in, and I can’t believe I’m tell you this, Juliet Iphigenia Mindenhall. And you know, I have been called Miss Goody Two Shoes a lot before. Well, maybe only once or twice since I got posted to Glenndeavor.”

I heard a chime from the workstation telling me the data upload was done, corrected, and that the verification was finished. So I pointed one of my own sleek-ifier utilities at the final updated program and initiated the tune-up. I turned my seat to face Juliet and my shoulders slumped as I thought about her middle name.

“You know,” I told her, and took a deep breath, “your face could easily be the one that launched a thousand ships, but you are too much of a woman for anyone to ever confuse you with the girl that was demanded as a sacrifice before the Greeks could safely sail off to Troy. And, I’d say your footwear is ExServ issue as I see it, until proven otherwise.”

Wow,” Juliet said and drew her head and shoulders back in her seat, “this is scary. Now I am impressed and ... flattered—very much so. You must be some kind of a real geek to know the classical Earth reference of my middle name. I have to say, for a Grade Three, you have a silver tongue. And as to the why of my middle name before you ask: my mother was, well still is, a professor of Pre-Cosmonautic Classics at the University of Skyebourn back on Proxima Secunda.”

I looked back at the holograph I was using and found the streaming code displaying in a new 3D work-window as my custom sleek-ifier utility crunched numbers and expanded possibilities by simplifying and tightening lines of programming. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Juliet cross her right foot over her left and start to tap the side of her ship boot against the deck.

“Look,” I told her as I selected and clicked a new menu item, “before we find out we don’t have anything else to talk about later because we used it all up right now, how about you let me get back to doing the magic I do so well on this bio-scanning program before some supervisor’s monitor somewhere notices I haven’t typed in a whole lot of keystrokes on this keyboard and that officer sends a uniform to see if I’ve passed out or something. You know, that might get us both brought up on report? Okay?”

“God,” the sacrificial girl sitting next to me smirked as she shook her head, her blonde hair dancing with her movement, “And, you are even more task oriented than I am. Please don’t take this personally, Jaym, but you suck. First you can kick my ass at cards. Now you kick my ass for shirking my work while I’m on duty...

“Still, when shall we continue this very interesting conversation, mister?”

I was amazed at how quickly she was able to change the subject without getting or giving whiplash.

“First watch ends in what, four hours?” I asked her, seeing the Ship’s clock reading 0354 in the bottom right corner of the holographic display I was using.

“Sounds about right,” she said.

“Want to get mid-break together?” I asked. “Or shall we go get something substantial to eat once we’re off duty?”

Juliet looked back at the holo-displays she’d checked on earlier with the rising and falling color bars and strange wave forms. She concentrated on them for a bit. I figured what I was seeing might be a data analysis of one of her experiments or tests; or at least it was her responsibility to monitor what was happening. She turned back to me.

“Let’s eat once we’re off watch, and not in the Enlisted Mess, okay?” Juliet asked me, her face looking hopeful. “There’d be too much whispering going on around us. You know, us sitting together—not that I care what people think—us sitting together, that is. It would just be distracting, I guess. And I’d like to pay attention to what you say to me ... after all, you’re not one to talk to my tits.”

“Hah!” I called out as my utility gave me a green thumbs-up icon of success.

“Hold that last thought,” I told the beautiful S.W. Mindenhall. With several quick mouse clicks I sent the final updated program to the flagged implementation folder the Supervisor had told me to use earlier. And also, after entering my ID password when prompted, I sent a copy of the final revised scanning program along with the original goofed-up parameters file I’d been given by the Ensign back to the job-finished folder on my department’s server. With all the administrative housekeeping taken care of I was done for the day, I guessed. My TO I’d received before my duty watch began seemed to assume fixing the ExoBio Department’s update would take the entire watch. I would text my Supervisor once I was out the door, or maybe wait until I was a good ways down the passageway.

“Okay, I’ll have you know,” I told the beautiful Juliet as I swiveled my chair to meet her eyes with mine, “you must personally introduce me to your tits before I am bold enough to talk to them. Without knowing their names, that is, I mean...”

I could feel my cheeks go pink and felt the flush of warmth.

“That was smooth Jaym,” Juliet actually giggled, her green eyes twinkling. “The silver on your tongue is starting to corrode with naughty thoughts, I think.”

“Okay, okay! We can fix something tasty with supplies I’ve got in my quarters down in the small lounge off the passageway in my section. I am located on Seven Deck. Right now only six crewmembers reside off my section of passageway and they all seem to have pulled second watch duty, so weeks go by without anybody stopping by that lounge when I’m around. So we should be safe from distracting whispers and mumblers. Besides, if the two of us get into it with each other over something stupid, the lounge area doubles as an emergency aid station or something like that. And ... it’s got a nice-sized kitchenette.”

“Then I’d say we’re online at end of shift,” Juliet told me, nodding her head as she got up from the chair. “Meet me at the Hub on this level? We could go down together.”

“End of shift is only, what, three-and-a-quarter hours away now?” I asked her, hoping to get in a parting shot. “I haven’t even eaten my lunch yet. I’m sure even a G4 like yourself will be able to retrieve directions to my compartment using the ShipNet database, ah, after you finish whatever work our visit has taken you away from?”

“Okay,” Juliet said sounding surprised at my not meeting her at the Hub as she waved me off with her right hand. “I’ll see you at your quarters. And, I get the hint. Back to work.”

I stood up, gave Juliet Mindenhall a slight bow, and clipping my personal port-a-comp back on the belt of my E-1 uniform trousers I turned from her and started out of the lab area.

“High-ho, high-ho,” I sang as I swung into a march toward the compartment exit. I left the two data sticks for the absent Ensign on the Watch Desk next to the department hatchway as it slipped open when I tripped the threshold. I saluted into thin air, mindful of my responsibility under the articles on proper etiquette due Officers and Civilians—even in their absence in this case.

“I’ll see you around oh-nine hundred at your place,” Juliet called out from behind me as the department hatchway closed and I turned left down the outside passageway.

Once I was outside the closed hatch of the Exobiology Department I made tracks along the cream-colored passageway for the Ship’s small stores. I sent a text message to my shift supervisor that I’d accomplished the goal set for me in the TO I’d received. If I didn’t receive a TO ordering me to do something else, I wanted to get to small stores. I knew back at my quarters I had most of what would be needed to make a faux-chicken pasta meal. But I wanted to see what other free food staples I might be able to pick up. Maybe some other really nice edible might catch my eye even if it were a sale item. I did have a quite large personal bank account on the Ship thanks to S.W. Mindenhall and the other poker players in our group. And after all, I could afford to spend some of what had been her money on Juliet.

As I hustled along the passageway toward a lift station that would get me close to small stores I realized I wanted to impress Juliet Mindenhall with a good home cooked meal. Part of me didn’t know exactly what to make of her offer that the two of us get to know each other. And at the same time, part of me wanted to grab my balls with both hands and jump up and down in excitement at that prospect.

As I rode up in the lift car after I’d keyed in my destination on the control panel, I thought about the conversation we’d shared as I’d worked on the Exobiology program. As I played it over in my mind I couldn’t shake the excitement that she was the one who’d walked up to me. And she was the one who’d suggested—no—pressed for us to get to know each other better. Hell, I told myself—almost praying I wasn’t putting some kind of jinx on what might happen between us by forming the words in my mind—it seemed to me she wanted us to become a couple!

As I entered small stores, picking up a shopping basket, I wondered if Juliet had any foods she didn’t like. I also wondered what she was going to expect from me in this possible relationship she seemed to be interested in us pursuing. Juliet Mindenhall was just drop-dead beautiful. Other than the fact I was able to control my urge to stare at her tits every time I’d talked to her so far, why did she really want to spend time with me? I wondered. She couldn’t really be that lonely, could she?

Okay, I told myself, I guessed she did intimidate me a little bit when she wasn’t in my presence. But that was something I was sure I could get over.

I found a section of crew-issue food rations along the second aisle I strolled down. There were boxes and cans and containers of various free food items to choose from. I found an interesting three-bean salad offered; one can per crewmember. I scanned over the listed ingredients. I didn’t see any allergy warnings and all the additives were healthy according to my ever-growing geek factoid database in my memory. I put a can into my basket. It would go nicely cold with the chicken pasta dish I was planning on making. There was also one single can that claimed to be real Caladanian sharp cheddar cheese sauce—that went into my basket. I’d use that right in the pasta dish. I didn’t see anything else that claimed the attention of my taste buds on this aisle so I went to one of my favorite sections of the last aisle; the closeout bins.

The closeout bins were in sections by product category and each category was divided into two areas: free crew-issue items; and reduced to sell items. I was always surprised by some of the things the Supply Department had onboard that for whatever reason they now wanted to get out of their inventory. It wasn’t like they were going to need more space in one of their storage compartments for any new stock before this Mission was over. And I’d never seen an expiration date anywhere close to elapsing on any of the food products I’d ever gotten here in small stores either. But who knew the ways of the Supply Department?

I didn’t find anything useful or interesting in the closeout bins so I took my basket up to the counter and signed for the free items and transferred funds from my Ship’s account for the purchase items. Then I hurried back to my quarters.

Rushing into my compartment, I got out everything I’d need to make the nice meal I’d planned and placed it on the bulkhead counter on the left side of my huge bunk, hoping Juliet would like my choices. Then I rushed through a quick shower, brushed my teeth, checked to see if my last laser treatment had gotten all my facial whiskers, and then I toweled myself dry and shot on some deodorant. I changed into an off-duty coverall that was freshly cleaned. I put on a pair of socks and pushed my feet into my comfortable low-cut sports shoes and hooked my POC onto my belt so I’d be in compliance with regulations.

I got my heavy plastic hamper basket from a small cabinet under the counter. I loaded the necessary food items, herbs, and condiments as well as my cooking utensils I’d need to prepare our meal. Then I dug out the dinner ware Juliet and I would need. Not being able to think of anything else I could do to get ready, I sat down at my desk comp and started to check my voicemail and email account. I got lost in a string of inquiries I made in the Ship’s Library databases on Proxima Secunda, hoping to learn something about Juliet’s home planet I might dazzle her with during our dinner date.

And that was when I realized I was actually having a dinner date with the most lovely and desirable S. W. Mindenhall.

“Permission to enter your abode,” the customized female-sounding voice file filled my compartment, and startled me out of my reading.

“It’s me, ah, Jamison,” the voice of Juliet Mindenhall rang sweetly in my quarters at the end of the sound clip I used as my door bell. “And... , I’m getting hungry.”

“Enter,” I spoke out loud, knowing the data comm system would voice activate the opening of the hatchway. I closed down my desk comp and became aware of just how long I’d gotten lost in reading about Proxima Secunda, I swung my chair around toward the hatch.

The hatch slipped into the bulkhead behind my lockers as I stood up and looked out at Juliet standing in the outer threshold to my quarters at the edge of the passageway. She was beautiful. For a moment uncertainty tried to overcome my sense of balance; but when she smiled warmly at me, I found a happy smile on my face too.

She was dressed in the soft material of a light-blue warm-up suit. The light jacket, with her name tag over her right breast and her G4 blazes in place, was completely unzipped. I saw Juliet wore a white Ship’s tee shirt underneath the cover. I could see the outline of a well-filled sports bra through her tee. She was still smiling at me when I completed checking out her body with the slow journey of my eyes. Her green eyes seemed to twinkle and I could tell she seemed pleased at my once over.

“Come in,” I told her, feeling a stupid, happy grin still on my face as I made a sweeping gesture with my right hand. “Welcome to my place.”

Juliet sauntered in and then took her eyes off mine and started to look around.

“Wow—look at the size of that rack!” she blurted out as she walked past me. “Your roommate doesn’t sleep with you, do they—

“—hey,” Juliet said, looking back at me with a confused expression that was starting to fade away, “—is this a single?”

“Now that you know my horrible secret and my shame,” I told her, holding both my hands up in front of my chest, “will you ever feel comfortable playing poker with me again?”

“This isn’t fair,” the blonde bombshell told me with a very cute little pout, putting her fists on the soft material of the warm-up suit covering her womanly hips, the elbows of her light zip jacket away from her body. “I am the G4—you’re the lowly G3. How is it you rate a space as nice as this—and by yourself? You’re not really an undercover security officer, are you?”

I could only shake my head and shrug to show that I didn’t have a clue why I’d been assigned to the compartment as I soaked in her presence.

“Okay, admit it,” Juliet teased, “you bribed somebody with all my money, right?”

“Hey,” I replied trying to sound as innocent as possible. “Imagine my surprise when I was transferred down here just before we left port on this Mission. And I have no idea how I got so lucky to be placed in all this luxury. I keep thinking I’ll wake up one morning and find an official email telling me there was a big mix-up and I have to report back to my old hamster cage. But I know that somebody has already been assigned to my old bunk ... So...”

“So I hope you don’t expect me to feel sorry for you?” Juliet asked me, slowly swiveling around to check out my compartment again. “Sheesh ... just look at this place.”

And then she started to giggle until she had turned almost completely around and she saw the front bulkhead.

“Damn! Look at all of those closets!” Juliet called out, pointing at my five lockers. And then the beautiful, vivacious blonde started to laugh as she looked back at me. “You suck! I told you that before. You double suck! You’re not a woman and you’re not even sly! How can you possibly appreciate all this closet space? That’s the most incredible waste of prime shopping storage I’ve ever seen in the whole time I’ve been in the Service—and all for a geek like you? Is there no justice in the Service now days?”

Just then there was a loud, long growl from Juliet’s stomach.

We both burst out laughing.

So over the next three weeks of Ship time Juliet and I managed—to my surprise—to find the time between our other off-duty activities to eat in the small lounge along my passageway three more times. We visited with each other in my quarters five other times. We hung-out in her double occupancy quarters two times. Juliet’s compartment mate was a G4 Med Tech Surgery Nurse Specialist who was on a different duty watch rotation.

So Juliet was on duty first watch while her room mate G4 Courtney Comptello had her sleep period. When Juliet had her off-duty free time, G4 Comptello was at her assigned duty station, and that was during second watch.

Whenever the Watch List changed and happened to require that Comptello be sleeping when Juliet had her free shift, Juliet tried to stay out of their quarters the first hour or two to give her compartment mate time to get to sleep naturally without having to use the inducer built into her bunk.

Inducers would put a person to sleep but sometimes played hell with some individual’s ability to enjoy REM sleep. Once the person was naturally asleep, the null fields that can be raised around each bunk on the Glenndeavor were very good at shielding a sleeper from most sounds or motion in a multi-crew compartment. However, the field was slow to react to rapidly changing levels of illumination or sound. So when Juliet was sleeping, Comptello maintained the same considerations.

The few times I got to see the compartment mates interact with each other I came away feeling the two women got along and were friendly with each other but were not what I would call close friends. Later on, Juliet confided in me that when they both had free time that overlapped watches they rarely socialized together outside their quarters.

The gods of the Master Watch List had seen fit to some how assure that my duty schedule was the same as the dear, sweet Juliet’s—even down to posted days off.

“There,” I told her, “we mortals do see fate’s hand at work.”

The whole time our relationship was unfolding between the two of us, the good Ship DSE Glenndeavor was on our assigned navigational course heading, warping through the boarder area between known Federation Space and unexplored space. We were now well on our way to the first star system on the Ship’s Order of Survey. Along the way the Ship’s routine was not disturbed by any calamity or short-term crisis in either of our two departments. All was right, and in my case getting better, in our little world.

During our getting-to-know-you visits I learned that Juliet had an older brother, Jason Ullysses who was in the Federation Marines. She had a younger sister, Margo Georgette—named by her father, not her mother—who was still in college back home on Proxima Secunda studying for a degree in, at last communication, Dance Therapy. That was after Margo had thought she wanted to study Planetary Geophysics. Before that there was General Art History, which had followed Margo’s attempt to find her life’s calling in Social Dynamics Planning. Juliet discovered I had an older brother, Killian, who also was serving in the Federation Marine Corps.

Juliet’s family had lived in the same upper-middle class neighborhood from the time she’d started neo-catholic kindergarten, up through her all-girls high school years. While her mother was a College Professor, her father had been a manager of an important saltwater fishery company until he had abandoned Proxima Secunda and his entire family for one of the Ocean Worlds right after Juliet had turned sixteen. And he hadn’t been heard from since.

It was obvious to me from listening to her talk about that time in her life that being abandoned by her father was a very traumatic episode for Juliet. All I could do was listen and maintain eye contact with her the times she talked to me about it.

While I was growing up, my extended family lived in and around a rundown little community in the hills on the outskirts of our planet’s capital. My family still lived there. Generations before, the town had been very affluent. But by now, the growing urbanization in the surrounding lowlands had resulted in the moving away of the manufacturing jobs which had built all the big homes where we lived. Those jobs had been relocated far enough away that most of the people who stayed behind to live in our town were either poor or had an overly long commute into The City where they held some type of service job.

Both of my parents held advance college degrees and still worked in planetary administration in the capital of Alphacron Prime during their work week. They cherished the sense of community in our disadvantaged town where they’d grown up with all their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and first, second, and third cousins. Everybody knew and cared for everybody else. And every weekend my paternal grandfather, my Grand Pater, took the whole family camping, hunting, and fishing out in the hills and mountains. And I mean, every weekend. So it was easy for Juliet to see why I had grown up learning to love camping, hunting, and woods lore.

Our whole family would have been perfect, my relatives often joked, if we’d all signed up to colonize some new frontier world. There was such a diverse mix of job skills and talents throughout our clan that we could have easily formed our own self-sufficient community and trained the next generations up to seek prosperity. And because of all that outdoors self-reliance demonstrated by my extended family, every one of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were surprised when I turned out to have such a big streak of geek in me.

But geeks can go camping, hunting, and fishing every weekend, too. You just have to work harder at being a geek during the rest of your week.

Juliet, it turned out, had been a water baby who swam before she walked, surfed before she rode her first bi-wheel, and learned all the old Earth Classic myths and stories, as well as the highlights of Classical Earth’s Art History, at her mother’s knee, so to speak.

If I had to describe my family’s religion I would have to say we were guided by a naturalistic and spiritualist based hodgepodge of beliefs, which had bits of different shamanistic elements tossed in as our individual life experiences demanded. On the other hand, all of the Mindenhalls, I learned, grew up in an extended family of devout Proximan Neo Catholics, with all the paternalistic pomp, theater, and polygamous moral political-correctness which most of the rest of the Federation snickers about. So when her father had abandoned his non-conformist single-wife family for whatever undisclosed reasons, Juliet and her siblings’ highly sheltered world had started fracturing apart.

It became evident to me that since she enlisted in the Federation Space Exploration Service, Juliet had been trying to not only physically distance herself from her upbringing, but also free herself from as much of her family’s religious moral conditioning and teachings as she could. I was surprised beyond belief when Juliet first told me that her upbringing had resulted in her presently being a true, twenty-five-year-old virgin who had only allowed herself to start exploring masturbation during college!

I didn’t doubt her revelation, but of course, part of me found that very hard to believe. She saw it in my eyes and she spent almost thirty minutes, short of letting me investigate the proof myself, trying to convince me it was true. She told that being open about her status as a virgin was one way to overcome some of the trauma she’d felt as a girl growing up in a one-mother home when everyone she had known growing up had at least three co-mothers by the time they were teenagers.

After she finally realized I believed her, she blushed and mumbled that if our relationship kept progressing as it was I might be able to judge for myself if she were a virgin or not. I took her in my arms and held her.

So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when at the end of our fourth full week of dating Juliet found out about my huge collection of pre-cosmonautic Earth electronic media files. In exploring my media files, she found herself drawn to a certain genre of that entertainment medium.

My Earth collection is mostly video files—called movies way, way back then—as well as a good deal of music, some static photographic categories, and sixty or so years of early television programming. It was while she was randomly browsing through some of my files and watching them projected in the air from the huge high-def holographic unit that Juliet became mesmerized by my porn collection. The collection contained pornographic and erotic film clips, movies, and still pictures from the 1930s and ‘40s, through the repressed ‘50s and the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and going on up to the late 1990s and the birth of the first world net. I had files up to about December, 2013 for the obvious reason.

As the naked bodies moved about in the holographic display Juliet was watching, which was the predominant light source in the quarters at the time, I didn’t fail to notice Juliet blushing as she told me she had never seen anything like what we were viewing ever before. Then she wanted to know how many more porn files I had in my collection which she hadn’t seen yet. I just directed her to the master database file for my collection.

Afterwards, the more I puzzled over her reactions to those ancient 2D formats in black and white or various poor qualities of color; I developed my Repressed Constructive Imagination theory to help me understand Juliet’s thrall with my porn files.

I figured it was the poor quality of the sexual images and sounds which contributed to Juliet being so attracted to then. I reasoned that was because those types of images were closer to those images she had generated in her repressed adolescent sexual fantasies. The crude quality files matched the fantasies which Juliet’s imagination produced from the limited resource material she found in her Neo Catholic cultural surroundings as she went from childhood to young womanhood while she was driven by the rising tide of her hormones.

I thought that the poor quality sexual images from my collection were less threatening to her unhindered sexual curiosity than 3D, full color, sense-surround clips and full-length videos that were now produced all across Federation space. And those producers had been using various versions of that format since the 2020s of the Earth calendar. Porn was easily found and available on FedNet with the correct age-print attached to a user ID string.

So—my theory was that now that the most beautiful, vivacious G4 Juliet Mindenhall had no real-world sexual experiences to relate to; and she was struggling to become free of her Neo Catholic upbringing; she could indulge her growing curiosity with all things sexual. I just guessed I was responsible for introducing her to her latest semi-guilty pleasure: watching vintage porn videos and examining static antique porn images.

It was during our fifth week of getting-to-know-you visits when I suggested she could borrow a few megabits of files to view in the privacy of her own bunk to help her relax before sleep. Suddenly G4 Mindenhall blushed deep-red, stood up, and hurried out of my compartment, disappearing down the passageway without even saying good night. I immediately instituted a rule between the two of us that any porn had to be viewed together, so we could openly discuss anything that came to mind. Since that rule was instituted in my quarters, I’ve been surprised at what a conversation-starter that rule has proved to be so far.

Three days later, we were sitting on my big bunk next to each other with our legs out straight and leaning back against the padded headboard. We were watching a 2D color vid dancing in the holographic air a meter above the foot of my bunk. The vid was of a 1970s-era blonde, teenaged girl wearing only her see-through bikini panties and supposedly giving her first oral sex to an older man. When we had settled in on the bunk earlier, Juliet claimed the remote control and once again we were going through more of my vid collection.

As we watched the action in the air, Juliet started asking me about my own sexual history. How old was I the first time I’d gotten oral from a girl? Who was she? Describe what happened. Did I orgasm? How did the girl react to that? How old was I when I first had regular sex? After about two hours of our porn viewing while I was going through a question and answer period, I became aware of the faint, pleasing smell of Juliet’s arousal. I thought I had died and was going to heaven. It was then that Juliet asked me if I’d ever paid for sex.

“My god, I am a geek for heaven’s sake,” I told her. “Of course I have paid for sex from time to time. In the past.

I guess I just overlooked the level of trust Juliet invested in me, because I was still surprised at her openness in talking to me. I was happy that she was now talking frankly about all this intimate stuff without seeming to bat an eye. Well, she did blush often enough.

First, Juliet wanted to know how I went about finding sex partners when I was off the Ship. Anyway, her new line of questioning eventually resulted in our in-depth discussion of pricing rates for various sexual acts on the planetary, orbital, and deep space locations that I’d visited so far while on duty in the Service. First though, Juliet discovered that when I had the time during shore leave, I preferred to go down to a planet’s surface. Once there, I would spend money freely at the bars and entertainment venues around some regional University.

I told Juliet that was because college girls where 86 percent more likely to give it away free. And they usually brought all of their emotions with them to bed, unlike the vast majority of pros. Also, I had told her, I enjoyed the seduction sometimes as much as the sex. There were times I got to introduce a girl to a sex act or a sexual position she hadn’t tried before, or I might get her to try something she had thought she had not wanted to try before. I told Juliet I felt very lucky those girls were willing to share those first-time experiences with me. Twice, I had gone as far as to get in touch with a few of those girls the next time my ship had made orbit or planet fall on their worlds.

I was surprised just how interested Juliet was in what I was telling her. She asked lots of in-depth questions and related some of them back to incidents I’d described earlier; so I knew she was paying attention.

As the discussion continued Juliet learned that in a comparison of college girls to the pros in the sex-worker field, oral sex might be free or cost as much as 15 Federation Credits (FC) on a core planet at the heart of Federation space. Everybody knew the value of a Federation Credit compared to any Planetary Credit (PC) varied widely, but always in favor of the FC. And depending on the star system or planet you were on at the time, you could exchange 1FC for at least 5PC. While in some other star system you could get maybe up to 24PC or even more, depending on the economy of the particular star system, in exchange for 1FC.

The Federation government, due to the expansion of exploration and colonization, was experiencing a very robust and long term economic growth trend that continued to strengthen the buying power of a Federation Credit compared to almost every known Planetary Credit.

I had explained to Juliet that straight sex in any position you preferred could be free near a college campus, or cost up to 25FC for a pro. Anal sex could be free or cost as much as 40FC for a girl or woman willing to provide that service. And it was almost always the college-aged young women who would give it away if you showed them a good time and paid attention to them.

Juliet learned that an all-night, unlimited session of oral, genital, and anal sex might be found for free just off campus or cost as much as 135FC for a classy pro booking. Of course in the core planetary systems, the sky might be the upper limit when you got a classy pro involved.

But all the times Juliet visited my quarters we didn’t just watch porn vids and talk sex. I introduced her to old Earth sci-fi movies from the ‘50s through 2020; my favorite old Earth TV programs; and a smattering of music from those eras which I enjoyed.

And the best part of all was that we talked to each other about our selves—about who we were and how both of us had ended up on the good ship DSE Glenndeavor.

I learned Juliet used to ride motorcycles. And because of one of the many Mindenhall Family businesses, Juliet had gained her single-engine, fixed-wing, instrument pilot rating before she enlisted. My girlfriend also had her shuttle pilot ticket. She learned one of my hobbies was electronics. The first night she came over to my quarters we had shared our enjoyment of cooking. At some point I told Juliet I had been an avid gardener until my enlistment.

I was happy we both loved to read. I was attracted, among other categories, to military histories and biographies, old Earth science fiction, and stories and histories about the old Earth Amerindian tribes and traditions. Juliet really liked to read books on world myths, herbal medicines, developmental biology and physiology, and archeology.

However, after Juliet had tired of watching porn while we had our in-depth discussion of the costs of finding sex for your average Service geek, she had spent twenty minutes doing stretching exercises with me. We were exercising to get the cricks out of our necks and backs from leaning back against the headboard of my big bunk we told each other.

I really had difficulty concentrating on my stretches while she did some of her upper body moves and then waist bends. The fact she was wearing tight-fitting, thin warm-up pants at the time, only made matters worse. And then Juliet did her Tai Chi while I went through half of my martial arts forms in companionable silence.

After we finished our workout we continued talking and I found out Juliet used to do woodworking with her maternal grandfather and learned to sew and knit from two of her maternal grandmothers. And being a woman, she enjoyed shopping anytime and anywhere she got the chance. Juliet said because of being raised Neo Catholic in a polygamous society, it still felt odd sometimes now that she was in the Service to go shopping alone. She thought shopping was more enjoyable as a team sport and she was inclined to believe men were rank amateurs when it came to finding value for the best price.

During the times we spent together off duty we also talked about our different work responsibilities onboard the Ship. Juliet’s primary responsibility in the Exobiology Department was as the lead DNA technician on her watch. With her knowledge of the science of DNA and RNA and being a member of the ExoBiology Department, it was not long before we started discussing what was one of the big legends of the All Alone—the Seeders. Also know as the Sowers, or the First Originators, or just Them; the Seeders were the mythical beings who traveled the stars long before mankind evolved on Earth. It seemed it was their imperative to seed suitable planets with Earth-type biospheres.

Juliet’s argument was simple, and I’d heard it since I was just a little geek. Eight percent of the explored Earth Norm and near EN planets discovered in known space were nearly exact copies of Earth’s biosphere and contained all the know flora and fauna, except for the higher primates. There was another 18 percent of EN planets containing some degree of Earth types of flora and fauna mixed with the flora and fauna which must have evolved specific to each of those the new planets. The remaining 74 percent of EN planets had unique biospheres that only resembled Earth in vary broad terms in that there were tree-like plants and grasses and bipedal life, and winged life, and sea life, and such.

So, my new girlfriend, I guess, argued that to explain the 26 percent of planets that shared examples of species with exact or nearly exact DNA found on Earth, there had to be an outside agency that spread those life forms on those planets throughout the stars. That agency was the race known as the Seeders.

I told her that other than references I’d found as a youngster in Earth science fiction, the Seeders were just the big legend of the All Alone as far as I was concerned until I had concrete facts to base a change in my thinking. I told her that I was much more willing to attribute the concept of panspermia as the mechanism of dispersal of life that then evolved into duplicates or near duplicates of Earth type flora and fauna. I pointed to the arguments of some scientists that mitochondria might have arrived on Earth inside meteors as documented by the finding of meteorites of Martian origin on Earth.

After all, I told her, there was sure enough time in the universe to allow for everything to get to the point we were at right now. I didn’t even want to bring up the subject of extremophiles and the proven fact that life was not dependent on exposure to sunlight. In fact only the presence of some type of water, in any of its states, and access to an energy gradient seemed to be the basic necessities needed for life to form.

I ran through the list of proposed dispersal mechanisms for spreading life throughout the universe and pointed out the strong and weak points of each proposed method. Radiopanspermia and lithopanspermia only depended on the natural actions of the universe I argued; whereas accidental panspermia and directed panspermia depended on what Juliet referred to as the Seeders.

There was also the concept of pseudo-panspermia which argued that interstellar dust contained everything necessary to begin the formation of life as the result of interaction with cosmic rays. While that concept didn’t account for the mysterious 28 percent that rallied all of the Seeder proponents, I told her that there wasn’t enough known about possible evolutionary paths of biospheres to draw any definite conclusions I would hold as being correct. However, that 28 percent might just be one of the evolutionary solutions the cosmos had come up with as one of the prototypes of planetary evolution found throughout the universe.

We learned though that argument that not only could we agree to disagree, but that disagreements could actually be fun while we learned how the other person’s mind worked.

Besides being the lead DNA technician on her watch, I learned she was also qualified to do other lab work, as needed – which didn’t surprise me at all, her being the accomplished college graduate that she was. Then, we moved on and shared with each other what we each found rewarding and frustrating in our assigned duties.

I learned she was studying diligently online using ShipNet so she could strike for her G5 rating as soon as possible. We both were happy to be assigned to our Ship, the Glenndeavor, especially since on these early missions the Ship was not carrying her full complement of officers and crew. There was the opportunity for motivated individuals such as the two of us to study hard, impress our supervisor and department head, and then strike for an advance rating onboard because of the available openings in our departments. Once the Ship began regular service missions with a full crew those onboard opportunities would become almost nonexistent, unless we were prepared to be transferred to a new posting on another ship at the end of a mission after we succeeded in striking for a higher Grade.

Juliet told me of some of her experiences on our last mission, which left me feeling envious. Because Juliet had qualified for her Away Team certificate before she was transferred to the Ship, she’d been assigned to Away Team Bravo on coming aboard. Team Bravo had representatives from each of the Ship’s research departments on its roster. That is how Juliet had the opportunity to shuttle back and forth to the surface of the earth-norm planet we’d orbited for two weeks as part of our survey of the second star system that Glenndeavor had explored on our last mission.

She had even spent 36 hours on the surface of the planet in and around the Team Bravo campsite gathering and tagging samples of flora, fauna, water and soil. Her actual assignment put her in charge of the Exobiology lab team in camp, which was comprised of Juliet and two lower grade lab techs. Their duty in camp had been preparing and cataloging samples and then running them through the DNA scanning units before properly storing all those samples.

At first I was surprised Juliet had her Away Team certification. I knew it was hard to qualify just to be accepted for AT training as an enlisted rating in ExServ, even though I knew there were a lot of AT certified crew ratings in the different survey departments on the Ship. But that just meant those crewmembers were the cream of the crop, which was as it should be on a deep space exploration ship.

When I commented on being proud of her for such an accomplishment, Juliet told me she was certain the fact she had her Class 2a shuttle pilot ticket was the reason she had been accepted for AT training when she’d applied. So I was even more impressed with her abilities and her drive.

By holding a Class 2a shuttle ticket, Juliet was licensed to pilot a shuttle within the atmosphere of a planet or in space without another rated pilot in the right seat as copilot. However, a Class 2a shuttle ticket didn’t allow the holder to take a shuttle off planet and into orbit, or to pilot from orbit into the atmosphere and land a shuttle on a planet without a qualified copilot.

She told me with more training and flight hours, she was planning on eventually getting her Class 1b ticket. One of the businesses her huge extended family operated was a charter service, which provided clients with anything from a small, piston-engine airplane all the way up to passenger or cargo space shuttles capable of trips to the two moons around her home world and back to planet fall.

With everything else I’d been learning about Juliet and her relatives, I was beginning to wonder just how wealthy the Family Mindenhall really was. I figured she would tell me at some point so, I didn’t ask her.

As our easy banter about planetary survey teams continued, we both figured there was little chance anybody from my department would get to go dirtside with an Away Team during our present Mission. If there were any kind of programming problems with a piece of equipment, the work usually was done remotely from the Ship. Sometimes the machinery was shuttled back for hands-on work as a spare unit could easily be brought down from the Ship with the next shuttle.

For a code monkey to actually make planet fall, the Ship would first have to be lucky enough to find an earth-norm planet which held so much potential that it warranted the Ship orbiting more than two weeks to carry out an extended survey. Second, the flora and fauna of the planet would have to be deemed sufficiently safe to not pose a great threat to crewmembers not holding a current Away Team certification ticket. And lastly, the Captain would have to consider that allowing non-certified crewmembers to go planet-side was worthwhile enough to warrant the expenditures of any mission critical resources used in setting up and implementing some kind rotation of regular-duty personnel and the necessary special-duty minders to protect us non-AT ticketed personnel on the surface for even short periods of time.

But Juliet did have to agree with my hopeful assertion that it was always possible a sufficiently urgent programming emergency on a sufficiently large piece of test equipment might allow for one trouble-shooter from my department to be ordered down to a planet during the course of a survey to fix the problem. And, shucks, that person would most likely be me.

I could see the look in her green eyes telling me to dream on, sweet code monkey.

During our last mission and sometimes on this one, too, I’d had many speculative conversations with my friends and other crewmembers about how nice an official dirt-side lottery would be. It seemed that was the crew’s consensus for the best way the Captain could handle things if there ever was a time non-essential personnel might be able to get down to the surface of a new planet we were surveying. That way, lucky lottery winners could walk around on a new world for four to eight hours with their mouths open, if the Ship’s schedule would not allow enough time to rotate down everybody who might want to go.

At one time or another during those conversations, each of us had heard more than a few of the crew saying there was no-way in the Five Hells they’d get caught dead rubber-necking around on a new planet in the midst of a DSE survey. They claimed that was as good of a way as possible to end up listed as a mission fatality statistic. I guess some people have no sense of adventure.

In our times together, Juliet and I also talked about the different people we each had gotten to know in the crew. It seemed to me that the people Juliet had gotten to know were more of acquaintances than friends and I told her so. Juliet agreed that she was only social with the people she associated with, not letting them get to know her in a very personal way. That was, until she started getting to know me. She pointed out that she had always had difficulty letting people through her defenses because she had almost always felt like an outsider growing up in a one-wife family back on her home planet.

And so we talked about her recognized trust issues when it came to making close friends. Since she’d left the Neo Catholic social atmosphere of her home world, she felt like she was making strides in easing down her defenses and letting people into her life, especially since getting to know me. She told me our relationship gave her great hope that she was going to be able to have someone with whom she could share her life. That discussion made me feel proud and luckier still to be sharing this close, growing relationship with this wonderful, complex, beautiful woman—and me being a geek, to boot.

During the increasing amounts of time we spent together off duty we had several discussions about some of the individual officers in our departments and discovered most of the people we knew had mentioned in passing the noticeably higher-than-usual number of replacement officers as well as replacement crewmembers in our departments at the start of this Mission. I told Juliet that I had heard the turnover was due to ExServ culling some of our experienced crew and officers from the Ship for the latest Glenndeavor class DSE the Service was about to commission.

Juliet had heard that rumor too. But she also told me she’d heard that all of the new-faces were on this Mission because there was some big shakeup in the Bureau of Service Personnel, which everybody in ExServ referred to as BuPers. But her rumor source hadn’t heard what the reason was for the shakeup.

We both agreed we’d observed a lot more Marines on the Ship this Mission. Juliet said she’d realized it only after her compartment mate mentioned she noticed one Marine who seemed to just be around when she was some place in public. Juliet told me her room mate, Courtney Comptello, had cited seeing this particular Marine on several occasions lately in the Enlisted Lounge, where Marines stuck out like sore thumbs. And the Marines seemed to keep their own company while they drank beer and shots of liquor on the rare occasions they were seen in the Enlisted Pub. I knew the Marines had their own pub in the Barracks Block.

Juliet said Comptello had also seen the guy in the Ship’s Gym, which was a much more likely place for Marines to be seen because they held two of their three daily Physical Training sessions there. The third session was held in the Marine Barracks Block where no ExServ member dared to tread, unless one of us made a reservation for firing time at the shooting range facilities to maintain our weapons certification.

Every ExServ crewmember was mandated to attend a minimum of three PT workouts a week. Often there were individual members of the crew who were lax in the execution of their ExServ PT exercises and had figured out which ExServ instructors would go easy on them. Some of those people finagled their off-duty scheduling to attend PT workouts overseen by one of the softies.

My martial arts workouts helped fulfill my own PT requirements. And besides, I just felt better about myself and had a better attitude from working out once a day, even if it were only going through my forms and stretches, which always raised a good sweat. Occasionally I’d see Marines at the open mat times and I might accept a sparring match with one of them if I was feeling cocky at the time or felt I needed my ration of humility. Those moments of physical reality reinforced my understanding of why I’d never heard of any of us ever attending a Marine PT session.

Courtney Comptello’s mysterious Marine had also been observed in the commuting lounge off the Six Deck Hub, which was the deck where Juliet’s and Courtney’s quarters were located. Juliet said other people they both knew had said they’d even seen the guy in the Enlisted Mess. Both of us knew the Marine detachment had their own mess which was located in their Barracks Block on the Ship. Juliet asked Courtney if she felt like he was stalking her; and if so, that she should report his activities. G4 Comptello had told Juliet that she though he was sort of cute in a disreputable kind of way, and he seemed shy on those few times when she had looked him in his eyes.

Juliet went on to relate to me some of her experiences as a new-face on the Ship during our last mission. And that brought up a discussion covering the quirks and foibles of the new replacements in our departments. And how they fit in, or didn’t fit in with the already established teamwork they found in their new postings. We laughed about how we each were getting used to interacting with the new-faced officers and their personalities, which sometimes governed the quality of our work lives while on some of our duty shifts. I was lucky that most of my new-faced officers were only lowly Ensigns. And Ensigns were known for screwing-the-pooch on a regular basis as part of their learning curve.

And as we were getting to know each other, I still managed to beat Juliet at the poker table, three out of four games.

It had been eight weeks since Juliet and I started getting to know each other. At some point my friends and Juliet’s coworkers and acquaintances discovered we were actively getting to know each other—away from the poker table. My buddies were shocked they said, but relieved I think, to discover Juliet and I had not even kissed each other once in all of our time alone together.

After all, QT had argued, here the single most desirable and attractive woman on the Ship was seen becoming very buddy-buddy with one of the uber-geeks who happened to be a code monkey. It could still be arguably just a quirk of fate that the two of us just happened to turn up at the same places at the same time when we were off duty. But if we had kissed—well, that was something that couldn’t be attributed to happenstance. And if we had kissed and S.W. Mindenhall was still being seen in my company afterward—well, then—what was the Service coming to?

Damn, I’d told myself, if my buddies ever learned about the frank sexual discussions and some of the teasing that was going on between S.W. Mindenhall and I based on our already shared and still growing knowledge of each other, they would have been green with envy—and hard as a titanium rod.

G2 McCord, in his very crude way, even admitted to be envious of my budding relationship with Juliet while letting everyone at the poker table know she could learn a lot more accepting his basic tutoring in romance than she might ever experience over the length of a whole mission spent in my company. He said he had enough passion to train any woman in the correct ways to treat and treasure her man. People actually threw their cards at him, conceding the ante to him as it was his deal at the time and no one had opened the wagering yet.

And on the issue of kissing, Juliet and I had both been verbally dancing around the ever increasing reality that the next step in our growing friendship would be a mutually desired physical relationship. After all, I told myself, wasn’t that the ultimate reason Juliet had approached me as I worked on updating that long-range scanning program?

I think we both recognized a physical relationship between the two of us could only be enhanced by our growing emotional and intellectual relationship and the deepening level of intimacy those elements were fostering between us. The eventuality of exploring each other’s bodies grew with each passing conversation we had, until I think we both realized it was finally just a matter of time before we would kiss and then work our way into getting into my huge bunk with the intent to get naked. And I for one, was more than ready to proceed.

So at the next weekly poker game since we’d started seeing each other—number nine, I came to the table with a plan of action. Juliet still hadn’t learned how I was able to beat her so handily at poker, no matter how hard she tried to get me to tell her, and it was killing her. Her recent stunning defeats at the table were starting to chafe at her competitive nature. And it certainly hadn’t helped when QT had informed everyone around the table the week before that my rate of winning against her was now up to 78 percent.

So I’d formulated my plan of action for my latest poker confrontation with Juliet, and I was feeling confident in my abilities. I could tell Juliet was becoming more agitated about losing to me on such a regular basis and any time she played cards while agitated only helped my winning cause.

Now, I have to say this; while gambling for money or stakes was against ExServ and Fleet regulations there was an at the discretion of the Captain clause that would allow gambling for money or stakes on ExServ ships as long as certain enumerated rules were met and followed. The Discretion Clause applied to any active-duty ExServ ship which was presently unable to, or in the foreseeable future would be unable to make a scheduled or unscheduled liberty port-of-call for a period of one year plus one day due to the nature of that ship’s orders or other extraordinary circumstances that might arise while the ship was on duty in the Big Black. So under the condition of not having a single liberty port for the crew to look forward to and enjoy while on our present long, deep space exploration mission, gambling could be sanctioned by order of the Ship’s Captain as being actually good for morale.

The crew of the DSE Glenndeavor learned our Captain did have discretion when the Executive Officer posted a notice on the ShipNet bulletin board a day after we departed on our first mission. The notice stated that gambling was hereby permissible under the listed rules.

Those rules being: any complaints brought to the Executive Officer about crooked games, irresponsible gambling habits by any individuals, or fights over gambling would result in each individual who was found to be involved in those actions being charged and brought before a Captain’s Mast. Being found guilty of any charges would result in at least the suspension of gambling permission for anyone found in violation of posted rules. The notice also contained a formula which would be used to determine when any crewmember’s gambling losses over a given period of time constituted an irresponsible gambling habit.

Bingo—our Poker Night began the next week. But since my friends and I would be playing after we left our duty stations for the day at the end of first watch, it was really Ship’s day poker. But the term Poker Day didn’t even come close to gaining traction in our lingo.

I have to say in all the many years mankind had been humping through the stars in spaceships there were a few lessons which had been learned which on first consideration appeared to be quite counter-intuitive to the sensibilities and poor logic of some diehard folks who were often in the command ranks. But those individuals were mostly and luckily not anywhere near enough to any spaceships in the long run to kill very many unlucky crews with the stupidity of their orders.

Case in point, when ships went on long missions like the DSE ships, those small minds were incapable of even considering that allowing gambling on an ExServ ship could be good for morale.

Another counter-intuitive lesson was uniforms. In all the early sci-fi movies the uniforms were always form-fitting or some type of coveralls; even off duty. It turns out many of the real-life decisions made by the different arms of the military concerning uniforms were based on the attempt to reduce the amount of baggage, meaning different types of uniforms, officers were required to cart around from one duty posting to another and to also reduce the money those officers had to spend on their required uniforms. And, if those decisions resulted in an officer’s clothing taking up less storage space in a spaceship—that was seen as a good thing too. Officers and crew could be stuffed into smaller cubicles.

Over the last 250 years, it was discovered that such a restricted selection of uniforms breeds lackadaisical attitudes in not only the crew, but especially the officers—sometimes to fatal degrees. So now ExServ, the Fleet, and the Marines had a range of duty uniforms. Class A, B, C, D, E-1 and E-2, F-1 and F-2, and also G-1 and G-2s. And on DSE missions with ExServ or long-range Fleet missions, the Uniform of the Day was rotated in random order, ‘Down from D, ‘ as the saying went; Class D through Class G-2.

Class A through C uniforms were all in the realm of parade reviews, medal presentations, the Top Brass. Those classes of uniforms were required if an officer happened to have to get all hoity-toity with some of the planetary political elite, or attend a full-blown Federation of United Planets bash such as events where the civilians were required to wear white tie or black tie or some other type of formal attire.

Anyway, the lessons learned were that the Uniform of the Day kept crews and officers on their toes and paying attention to details. And off duty a crewmember or officer could allow their personalities to show and gain other psychological benefits from wearing a much broader choice of clothing and more importantly colors, which the new enlightened regulations allowed. Just about any type of clothing was allowable as long as a name tag or tape was on the right breast and rating or ranking blazes were just down off the shoulder. There were to be no rating chevrons or rank sleeve rings off duty. And the bottom cuff of the Service member’s shorts or the bottom hem of the Service member’s skirt was to be no less than 8 centimeters below the lowest level of the crotch.

We always got into laughing arguments around the poker table as to some of the finer points and consequences of that clause in the regulations. Such as—which officer was charged with determining a crewmember’s compliance. And there was speculation concerning how the compliance officer would conduct a test, and using what handy gauge, and in what location of the Ship would the test be administered, or how long of a test session would be necessary to completely measure the points of reference.

McCord would argue that if his measurement was taken when the angle of his dangle was at one-hundred-eighty degrees, or if the direction of his section was to the deck, if the orientation of his—well, he always told us, if that were the case then the bottom cuff of his shorts would have to be just above his knees. The first time he made that assertion, we laughed so hard it took nine or ten minutes to get the poker game back on track. So you see, that incident is a perfect example of how gambling was good for crew morale.

The table rules for our poker games were dealer’s choice between the ancient games of Texas Holdem or five card draw. There was a 12 credit buy-in, transferred electronically by personal port-a-comps into the Geeks’ Weekly Poker Night account at the start of each game. The account had been set up with the Disbursement Officer in the Supply Department by QT to make our money transfers easy.

That it also allowed whichever officer was in charge of monitoring the gambling activities of the crew to find out when anyone of our group might be developing a gambling problem—well, that was termed a benefit by the none other than the Ship’s Executive Officer. A week later, our gambling club account was cited as the officially acceptable form of gambling fund transfers for the entire Ship.

We didn’t care if we were trendsetters, each week we just wanted to play poker.

With each player’s 12-credit buy-in, that player received 16 quarter-, eight half-, and four whole-credit chips. Each game was limited to a maximum number of five players. The buy-in worked out to be a bit less than half of a week’s pay for us G3s, and that buy-in amount was decided based on the formula in the posted Allowance of Gambling notice which suggested the percentage of total monthly pay a crewmember could loose before their gambling bad luck would trigger official consideration of a possible irresponsible gambling habit.

Our poker group also had a few other friends and random members of the crew who showed up to watch or heckle and would buy-in at the beginning of a game if any of the regulars’ previous losses started to approach the suggested total for the month.

McCord was one of those people. And we also welcomed the random crewmember to sit in if not enough regulars showed up wanting to play and the game needed more people to meet the five player table limit. And about every other week there were two tables of players because enough people wanted to participate. That was how Juliet joined our poker group and the rest, as they say, is history.

Even with all of our reasoned table rules in place it was still possible to lose big at the weekly poker game. Because by the table rules after two players were forced out of the game by losing all their chips, the remaining three players were allowed a one-time purchase of up to another 25FC worth of chips. Each game continued until there was either one overall winner, or the remaining players decided to end the game. We almost never ended in the middle of a game. So the final pot between the last two players at the table could be as much as 135 Federation credits. That was just about fifteen Federation credits over a month’s pay for a Grade Three rating who was also receiving a monthly bonus for exploration duty. That was also why any Grade Twos who did play at our tables only sat in occasionally. With the table stakes involved in our game, it was too easy for a G2 to trigger the irresponsible gambling clause if they lost consistently at our Poker Night.

But, back to this week’s Poker Night and my plan of action for Juliet. With the sexual theme of a few of our most recent talks, it was possible that Juliet might have equated the possible final poker pot of one of our full blown card games as being worth the equivalent to one all-night session of an anything goes sex marathon with a pricy pro. The two of us had talked about the cost of such a session and what usually occurred during such a situation on several occasions since she brought up the topic in the first place. Because of our discussion on that very situation, I was hoping I would be able to sell my ploy easier if this week’s game came to a showdown at the end between Juliet and me with the pot being around the 135 FC total.

When the game began, it was me; Juliet; QT; a nice guy from my department nicknamed Benny; and the rude, crude, shifty dude—McCord. Using Juliet’s tells, and tells of the weaker players at the table, my initial strategy for the opening hands was to either win big or fold early. The game started well for me. During succeeding rounds of play, I managed to set the table up so the ever lovely G4 Mindenhall ended up winning big on two different hands by her bluffing. I just managed to keep a higher chip count in my pile and at the same time eliminating McCord who’d been concentrating more on Juliet’s tits under her thin tee shirt than on his cards. I have to say that luck and S.W. Mindenhall’s wardrobe for the evening played a major part in my stumbling into that success.

Finally the game got down to three of us: me, QT, and Juliet. We had all bought our additional maximum of 25 credits worth of chips after some egging-on coming from bystanders. Juliet won another good sized pot with the best hand and pair of nipple-crowned tits showing.

Juliet had called five card draw as she began to deal the cards around to the three of us. Once QT opened the betting we’d gone twice around the table with a series of raises before we all halted upping the bets. QT asked for two cards, I mentally crossed my fingers and asked for one card because I saw Juliet’s eyes dilate like she was watching her latest favorite ‘70s color porn vid. She took one card also. I had to thank the stars for my martial arts control and breathing training in helping me relax at the moment. Without those tools, when my draw card dropped right in the center of a Seven-Jack straight flush in Hearts, I would have never been able to remain deeply cool, cohesive, and collected.

After we all studied our cards—and then checked-out the other two players across the table from each one of us who were still in the game—for what seemed like forever, the betting started up again. By chip count I knew QT was screwed because he did not have enough chips to hang with a determined player with more chips. His tell made me think his hand was just good enough for him to trust his luck. QT’s problem was that the only luck he could ever seem to generate at the poker table was bad luck.

On the third round of betting, as I’d figured would happen, QT was forced to fold because he had no more chips. The next round began and I passed; Juliet immediately raised the bet with all of her remaining chips. After meeting her raise I sat there with eight more chips in my pile. But I did not call yet.

“That is one-hundred-twenty-seven Federation Credits in the pot,” QT told everybody standing around watching the game; suddenly acting like the color-commentator of a sports event.

I saw Juliet look down at all those chips and tilt her beautiful face to her right like she was thinking something through. Then she pursed her full lips together and shrugged. Thinking process done. I could see her eyes were dilated and her nipples under her top looked to be so hard I thought they must hurt.

“If I bet my last chips...” I started to tell Juliet.

Her head came up as her eyes squinted at me. She took in a sharp breath.

“I can’t believe you would settle for such a cheap victory...” Juliet snapped at me, letting her frustrated competitive nature overcome her usually cheery disposition. Her eyebrows went up as she realized her tone of voice.

“Can I give you an IOU?” Juliet asked as her competitive drive now came completely to the surface, making her sound snotty while she looked at me like she was trying to see through my lucky shades.

My blood really started to race and it was all I could do to maintain my outer calm appearance. Juliet had brought up the idea of an IOU, not me. How sweet is this turning out to be, I asked myself.

“You know, although unprecedented in the history of Poker Night, I say that consideration would be up to Jaym; as he presently controls the bet,” QT commented to all of us, I guess just to feel like he was still part of the game.

Several of the off-duty crewmembers standing around this side of the Five Deck Enlisted Lounge who’d been watching the game intently now were joined by others who were walking up to see what was happening. The tension around the table and in our audience was palpable. I had my cards flat on the table since right before the last round of betting. I tracked Juliet’s eye as she looked from my face down to my cards face-down on the table.

“If we negotiate terms,” I told her in a controlled monotone voice. “I’m okay with you floating an IOU. But, only if we reach an agreement upon the terms.”

“Negotiate terms?” she asked, surprised by the concept my answer presented.

“Sure, if I bet my last eight chips, you might want your IOU to cover a raise I can’t meet. So we both have to agree to the final bet,” I said, pulling a sheet of writing material off the small pad on the table. I pulled my stylus out of my off-duty shirt pocket and scribbled a few lines on the sheet before I folded it once and pushed it over to Juliet.

I watched Juliet pick up the note and quickly look at it as she shielded the information from two people standing a few steps behind her chair. Her green eyes got wide and seemed to dilate even more than they already were, if that was possible.

I kept my poker face in place.

Juliet was blushing as she looked at me with raised eye brows.

“Give me that damned stylus...”

I pushed it over to her and she used it to quickly write on the sheet of paper before re-folding it and pushing it and the stylus back to me.

I picked up the sheet, opened it and scanned my beginning terms for her IOU: Loser gives winner oral sex for minimum of 20 min. or till winner cums on loser’s tongue and in loser’s mouth.

Both of our initials were after my offer. But below that was Juliet’s counter offer: Loser doesn’t have to swallow.

Wow—Juliet is going for it, I told myself. No time to back-off now. I calmed my breathing as best as I could with all the adrenaline in my system and my cock trying to burst through my boxers.

I initialed her counter offer and thought a minute as I gained better control of myself.

Then I wrote, upping the bet: _Agreed. But both will be naked and all actions on video—3 cameras.

I pushed the folded note and my stylus back to Juliet. I was really glad I had on my sunglasses so no one around could see what my eyes must look like.

She shielded the note, which presented her with my amended bid, from those behind her. After taking two breathes, she concentrated as she wrote a moment, and then she pushed the note and stylus to me.

I unfolded the note. She had countered: Both in undies, no vid.

I wondered if she expected me to devour her pussy through her panties if she won the pot. I thought it was a good sign that she seemed to be setting up this IOU to cover her ass, literally, in case she lost. It was almost as if she expected she would lose. Her bluff couldn’t be that bold faced, could it?

I heard the quiet ting, ting, ting as what must be the side of a ship boot softly tapping against the center pedestal which held up the table. I looked at Juliet and saw her body move ever-so-slightly in time with what had to be her nervous tapping foot.

I looked back down and uncovered the note. I countered in writing: bottoms only, winner’s choice, 2 cams. I folded note again and pushed it and my stylus across the table.

Juliet picked up the note and cupping it in one hand and shielding it with her right hand she scanned my new bet. Her written reply was quickly returned to my hand: I agree, but only 2D vid format 1 cam with audio. Video belongs to loser.

I scanned the sheet and added my initials. I put my stylus and the folded IOU into the pocket of my off-duty shirt. There was no way Juliet would not let me have a copy of the video once I came in her mouth, I told myself.

“You have met my raises and called.” I said in what I hoped sounded like a monotone voice. The crowd around the table shifted their feet and moved closer to the table.

I could feel the tension surrounding Juliet and me ratchet-up from everyone seated at the table and the crewmembers who had been slowly gathering around the table as we’d played and who had watched the game. The pressure in the atmosphere near us was about ready to snap.

“What are you holding?” Juliet asked me, watching me as I took off my shades.

“Read ‘em and weep,” I said and flipped over what I was certain was my winning hand. I grinned as I looked Juliet in her green eyes and add, “Or continue to weep—if you’re weeping already.”

The sexy, blonde bombshell across the table bit her lower lip and sucked in air as the high cheek bones of her beautiful face coated up with a deepening blush. Just looking at Juliet I knew and she confirmed with her reaction: her panties were already wet.

Juliet tossed her cards face down onto the discard pile and sat back, saying nothing. Immediately people started calling out, wanting to know the terms of the IOU. I told them to forget it as I got up and cashed out my chips. That just meant that the other four players who’d bought into the game got on their personal port-a-comps and punched in the necessary information to transfer their losses from the Poker Night account into my personal account, which was also kept by the Disbursement Officer on the Supply Department’s data system. Using my own POC, I monitored my account and smiled, nodding my head when the tally of the last credits showed up on the little outside data screen of the case in my hand.

At this point during previous games of poker, Spacewoman Mindenhall would be having a masterfully but well-controlled hissy fit. But a hissy fit, none the less. I was surprised that she was only tapping her right boot on the pedestal of the poker table.

“I need further explanation of your terms,” Juliet told me in a hushed voice as she stood up from her chair at the table and clipped her personal POC to the belt of her trousers, all the while seeming cool as the proverbial cucumber. “Walk me to my quarters, please.”

“Of course,” I replied. I walked around the table to her side and put my right hand on the small of Juliet’s back. Then I guided her through the groups of people and out of the Enlisted Lounge on Five Deck. I started her towards her double compartment on the other side of the Ship on Six Deck. There were a few off-duty crew ratings using the passageway as we walked along, but no one was walking near us.

“Define winner’s choice,” the beautiful blonde said, bowing her head as we moved comfortably along the cream-colored passageway of the Ship, side by side.

“That means,” I said and allowed myself to smile, “that when we get to your quarters, if your roommate isn’t there you will show me the contents of your underwear drawer so I can choose the undies you will wear under your clothes when you come to my compartment to fulfill your IOU.”

I heard Juliet take a deep breath through her elegant nostrils.

“And ... ahhh ... I won’t have to—swallow?”

“Of course not—not this time,” I said. “But if you attempt to pull off my cock before, or as I spurt into you mouth, I will restrain you using my hands on the side and back of your head with my fingers in your amazing hair ... while you kneel before me. Between the two of us, I plan on getting a first rate virgin blowjob vid in the classical 1970s tradition.”

“But that would mean,” Juliet asked, concentrating on some inner vision, “ahh ... coming on my face and, well in my opened mouth, wouldn’t it?”

My mind and body thrilled at the intimate words Juliet spoke to me along with the images of her that came to my mind in response. I couldn’t believe how brash and exultant I was feeling at not only getting away with my plan, but having Juliet reacting affirmatively to whatever I said about the payment of her IOU.

“I think I want you to take my first load completely in your mouth,” I said in a quiet voice as the two of us walked along the cream-colored passageway toward her compartment. “You can let it dribble back out ... over your lips and on your slowly stroking fist. That is, if I let you use your hands.”

Juliet quietly gasped, but she didn’t say anything to my last comment as we matched each other’s strides. Ahead of us, we saw a Marine armed with a tricked-out AR-type assault rifle and side arm. The armed Marine was at attention beside a bulkhead hatchway we were approaching.

A single Marine with an assault rifle in the corridors of the Ship was not something I’d ever seen on Five Deck before; on any of the Ship’s decks for that matter, unless there was a ship-wide drill in progress. I figured the assault rifle must have soft lead slugs in the curved clip so as not to worry about the penetration power that an equally-sized laser rifle would have presented to the bulkheads and hatchways of the passageway.

The tall female Corporal on guard was wearing a digital camouflage Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform, or MCCUU referred to as an MCU2 by some. The digital camouflage of the uniform was in the MARPAT VI desert colors of grays; dull, washed-out yellows; and dusky, olive greens. She wore a POT helmet on her head with the dark tactical visor up over the top of the mottled helmet shell.

My geek weakness knew that POT stood for Platoon Operations and Tactical helmet. And I knew that the helmet was a hi-tech combination of ballistic shock protection; electronic and optical sensing and scanning gear; and a sophisticated digital radio communications suite. The attachments to the helmet gave the Marine laser-range finding and target-acquisition as well as laser target-marking capabilities. The POT also presented the Marine with GPS navigational mapping capabilities.

And all those features of the helmet were tied together using a heads-up holographic display projected inside the armored smart data visor. Of course the GPS features only worked outside of the Ship if there happened to be satellites or Marine attack and control shuttles overhead at the time when the technology was on planet.

The host of features allowed the Marine the ability to easily communicate with other squad members, or platoon members, or combat chain-of-command officers. Marines could even, if needed, call in and direct strikes of all kinds of combat support weapons. A Marine could call in heavy automatic weapons fire; or mortar-, missile-, or artillery-battery fire missions; ground attack fighters; or any other type of military asset available that could achieve a data-link lock with the POT helmet system. If the transmitting power of that one POT wasn’t strong enough, then the aggregate signals from all of the platoon’s helmets were encrypted and could be routed up the chain of command through the platoon’s tactical combat communications console packed into battle on the back of the platoon’s Sparks operator.

A POT helmet could even link with the electro-optical sight on a Marine’s assault rifle, and maybe even be able to do more that I wasn’t aware of.

As we approached, the Corporal was staring a hole through the opposite wall and I think Juliet and I both felt like the Marine had all of her attention focused on the two of us as possible approaching threat vectors. We both picked up our pace as we passed by the Marine until the passageway curved far enough that we couldn’t feel the Marine’s presence on our backs anymore.

We walked for a while in companionable silence.

“And when ... ah, when will I be made to fulfill my IOU ... do you think?” Juliet asked, breaking the silence. I was almost surprised to hear the hint of a grin in her warm, low voice.

“When you and I both agree we are ready to do so,” I told her. “I already have the equipment I need to record your efforts.”

“Good,” she said, a smile now evident in her voice. “Let’s plan on, say—as soon after eleven-hundred Ship’s time that we can meet up on our next day off. I will plan on staying the night. It will be our first sleep over. That way we can watch the vid together—afterwards. And then perhaps play together some more—possibly even see what else we feel like getting videos of? Okay, Jameson?”

I could only smile a big, goofy smile and look down at the cream-colored treatment covering the passageway deck as we walked together toward her double compartment. Juliet just called me Jameson, I told myself, not Jaym.

Then two crewmembers—a man and a woman—dressed in off-duty duds, sort of burst out of a hatchway along the passageway in front of us. They were laughing and looking disheveled. They walked towards us, hand in hand.

They both smiled at us as they approached and the tall raven-haired woman called out to us in a sing-song voice, “I know what—you’re going to do!”

I think we both blushed.

“Are we that obvious now?” I asked, shaking my head as the couple passed us.

“Are you ready for this?” Juliet asked me and took my arm. “Are we ready for this?”

“If our G4 Health Tech is out teching when we get to your place, I’ll show you how ready I am ... if you wanna see junior before his big movie role debut, that is,” I told Juliet and pulled her arm closer to me.

“And yes,” I added, “I would say we are finally ready for this...”

“Seven days of anticipation,” Juliet told me, her eyebrows going up. “And seven more nights for me to dream about us... Gosh ... you know, when we get to my place, I could turn my bunk into a casting couch ... If you want me to?”

“Seven is my luck number,” I told her, looking down into her twinkling green eyes. “I can wait.”

“Hope I can...” Juliet whispered, and then with a mildly shocked expression, she looked up at me as I put my arm around her shoulder.

“I’ll spank you if you can’t,” I whispered and wiggled my eyebrows at her.

We both started to giggle and I could see her relax over our next three or four steps along the passageway.

“Shazbat!” Juliet said in a low voice and leaned into my side. “Like the girl in that one vid yesterday said, ‘Ohhh, daddy, I been creamin’ my panties for you. All day!’

Ah, I told myself, feeling all warm and content below my growing arousal, my girl always surprises me.

When we reached her empty double compartment I was amazed at the way Juliet’s blushes deepened as she slowly showed me her limited collection of mundane bras and panties, piece by piece. Looking at her underwear, I began to realize the extent of her Neo Catholic upbringing. There was no lace, no satin, no silk, not a single artificial fiber-based thong. Every item was made of durable cotton and seemed to be designed so that the Mother Superior of any convent school you could think of would have whole-heartedly approved of each one.

And then Juliet reached into the back of the drawer and came out with a small, black shopping bag emblazoned with hot-pink letters: Barely Unmentionables. She couldn’t meet my eyes as she handed it to me.

“Ahhh ... here, Jameson,” the blushing, most beautiful woman on the DSE Glenndeavor said to me in a hushed, low voice. “I’m sure this will be your choice.”

I opened the bag and looked inside. Juliet was right.

Chapter 2 »