She was much younger then. Only about eleven years ago but so much younger than now. Not that she feels old at 43 -- just that so much has changed since then.
Mary first met Stareem by responding to an advertisement for co-pilot on her ship Starry Dream. She'd been working as freelance neuroengineer on ships running deliveries from high Earth orbit to Moonport and the lagrangian colonies. Men still vastly outnumber women in that work and she usually worked with about 4 men on any particular job. They respected her privacy and always kept things professional. Stareem only worked with women. She loved immersing herself in male company but only on her times off. She felt that work and pleasure did not mix -- not that they shouldn't mix; just that they simply don't. And to her men were pleasure.
At first Mary thought she was that silly, glamorous sex-kitten, long on money and short on sense, that most people did initially and almost didn't sign on with her. However she soon realised that those smooth, cat-like movements weren't contrived; that was her natural poise and grace. And her relaxed, almost dozy air shrouded an alert, incredibly retentive mind.
When they first shipped out, Mary used to spend all her time alone. Even when they were working on something together Mary was always apart - it was what she was used to. Stareem's endless patience and infectious good mood gradually thawed her though. They spent months between ports and Stareem never tired, or ceased to bubble with what seemed a gentle mist of happiness.
Most people nowadays know that ships' Artificial Intelligence systems
require complex nervous systems to maintain the pilot's Virtual Reality
-- the VR being necessary to to control and communicate with the ship.
The old ones had silicon-based AI's (some still do), but now they are mostly
organics, usually with cloned nerves forming the main control ganglion.
Not many people realise it was Stareem who developed that stable interface
between organics and the nerves. She also had a lot to do with the ganglion
life-support system. You get a lot of time out there between ports, and
she was constantly designing and making things. There seemed nothing she
couldn't do. Mary asked her once, joking, if there was anything she couldn't
do. Stareem laughed, then she sighed, and replied quietly, "Have children."
A moment passed and she flashed that smile again, "But who cares -- I have
the universe," arms outstretched, turning in zero-g.
Now Mary has come almost fully awake. She opens her eyes and stares at the ceiling. Memories still drift through her mind.
Stareem was very wealthy -- owned several nickel asteroids and dozens of mining companies in the belt. She certainly didn't need to work for a living. She owned, and she and Mary ran, one of the few regular transports between the asteroid belt and civilization. They took supplies out to the miners and brought back metal and ices, mostly to the Mars orbitals. In the early days there were only five main asteroid ports and one research station that they serviced from the Mars orbital stations and occasionally Moonport. Shuttling back and forth, it would take about two years to do the lot, and begin over again. These days, closer to three years.
They ran the ship together. It was quite within her ability to operate the entire ship alone, but Stareem would insist that safety required at least two people. In time they became like sisters.
Mary never met anyone who didn't like Stareem. When in port she would head for the clubs and bars and men. She affected males the way sweetness does bees: they hovered around the golden delight, eager for her pleasure.
Mary would stay back with the ship, reading and working on things. Sometimes she would go out and see a talk on something or take herself out to a holo but mostly she just stayed on the ship. Many times Stareem had said, "Mary, it's not healthy for a girl to work all the time." Mary's answer was always that it's not work, it's pleasure, and that she didn't like crowds. She hates crowds. They've always made her so nervous. A few people at a time is all she can cope with. All the pleasant social events in her life can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Mary rubs her eyes, yawns, stretches her arms and legs, wiggling her fingers and toes. She sits up, slides her legs over the side of the bed, stands and makes her way to the adjoining bathroom. The light and fan switch themselves on as she enters. She uses the toilet then stands at the basin in front of the mirror. She looks at the short, unremarkable, brown hair and the lines appearing on her face. A face which was never pretty, even when she was a teenager, though she was never actually ugly either. Her eyes run down her naked body -- small breasts, bones too large for her physique giving her an undernourished look. Not a fashionable slender look; just gaunt. She sighs and brushes her teeth, and remembers a couple of times Stareem talked her into going out with her when in port. She frowns on the painful memory. Each time it was a complete disaster for her.
The inevitable swarm of men would gather around, lapping up Stareem's radiance. The only time one of them would notice Mary, it seemed, was when she blocked his view of Stareem. Mary would quietly intoxicate herself enough to feel really sorry for herself and make her way back to the ship where she would cry herself to sleep.
Mary growls at herself, spits out the toothpaste and rinses. I've been very lucky she thinks to herself, it is stupid to be thinking of these sorts of things.
She steps into the shower cubicle which senses her and sprays hot water, almost too hot -- just how she likes it.
One of her happiest memories is when Stareem took her to Earth for her birthday. She hired a car with an internal combustion engine and drove them around the south-eastern corner of Australia.
God! She is a constant source of amazement; she could even operate a petroleum-powered vehicle! Mary smiles to herself, I bet she could even have fixed it if it had failed on us too.
They wound up one evening at a mountaintop called Mount Dandenong Lookout. The vehicle had a soft roof which folded back and down, and they just sat there. Darkness was gathering, helped by enormous storm clouds miles away, sheet lightning flashing inside them. Melbourne's lights stretched away below them, almost to the smeared horizon beneath the darkening sky. There was no wind and the sweetness of wattle blossom hung in the air. Birds, preparing for the night, cooed, warbled and twittered in the trees all around, and under it the shimmering sound of crickets.
They were the only people there.
They just sat there. They didn't talk.
Standing in the shower, eyes closed, water spraying over her, Mary's face flushes with the pleasure of the memory of that evening. She hardly recalled the drive back to the apartment. They slept together that night for the first time.
She steps out of the shower, which turns itself off. Grabbing her towel she rubs herself dry then runs her fingers through her hair. Returning to the bedroom, the bathroom light and fan quitting behind her, she pulls on her black coveralls (she never could see the sense in underclothes between periods).
The only decoration in her bedroom is a single picture on the wall. It is a 3D picture of Stareem reclining on the pilot's lounge. Mary stands there staring at it and, as happens so often now, feels her pleasure turning sour.
She sits on the bed, head in her hands, unable to stop the memory of the worst day of her life flooding back to her.
They were returning from Jenner Station with a load of ice -- that's what they mine there. Only a month out of Jenner, they were almost at full cruising speed when they hit a little rock. Too large to be deflected by the shield and too small to show on the radar, it must have been smaller than fist-size or it would have completely destroyed the living quarters. As it was, it disabled the main computing and control systems and wrecked the cabins and life-support. Mary had several broken ribs, a fractured arm and leg, and was unconcious. Stareem had everything below her waist crushed. Legs are not much use in zero-g anyway but after torniqueting the arteries in her legs, she somehow managed to suit up and get Mary into a suit before their air bled away. This in spite of what must have been overwhelming pain.
Stareem had re-established life-support in the ganglion room by the time Mary regained conciousness. They had air, food and water, light and heat, but the ship had no fuel for course changes -- the hydrazine tanks had exploded on impact. The emergency beacons were transmiting a continuous call for help. Using one of the backup radios (the main radio was a mess) they contacted Jenner. A small, fast rescue craft from a nearby mine would get to them in a little over a week.
When they sat back then to wait Mary realised that Stareem was dying. Mary was horrified, but Stareem, ever resouceful had even worked out the only way out of that, and she described to Mary in precise detail what must be done in those last hours.
Mary rerouted the ganglion life-support to Stareem's brain so that when her body died, her mind would remain alive.
For the eight days it took the help to get to them she couldn't know if it had worked or not. But it had.
Mary shakes her head and gets up. She leaves the little bedroom, door sliding closed behind her, makes her way to the ladder in the center of the ship and climbs easily up to the control room.
The control room is a couple of times the size of her little bedroom. It is only dimly lit, the better to see all the instruments. Mary has always felt safe in its soft, womb-like comfort. As she steps off the ladder onto the deep, wine-red carpet Stareem's gentle voice comes from the main console. "Good morning sleepy head, did you sleep well?"
Mary smiles, "OK, I guess." Out of habit she checks the instruments, though she knows Stareem has already gone over them. "How about you?"
"As well as can be expected. I'll sleep much better after liftoff. Speaking of which: final clearance came in about twenty minutes ago. We're prepped and ready to leave in 5 hours."
Mary smiles again. She's looking forward to liftoff too. She would be able to spend her days and nights in VR. She steps back to the pilot's couch and lies down. She closes her eyes and operates the mental switches to activate the links woven into her spinal chord, optic nerve and various parts of her brain. Now she is connected to the ship's ganglion.
And there, standing before her is Stareem, her happy smile beaming. Blonde hair shining in the warm sunlight. She stands in a small ferny glade ringed by white-trunked eucalypts, under a pale, blue sky streaked with high, wind-swept clouds.
In a single step they are in each other's arms.
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Copyright ©1997 Miriam English