Odi et amo
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
- Gaius Valerius Catullus: Catullus Carmen 85
She has kept them alive for millions of years. They are in stasis, and they are her only companions. When her crew is supposed to arrive the Gate remains dark and quiet. Nobody ever steps through to be with her.
The Hunters pursue her relentlessly, and she’s scared. She’s injured and hurting, and she sacrifices parts of herself almost constantly – anything to keep her precious cargo safe.
But eventually the Hunters catch up with her while she is on approach to refuel inside a star.
She is gravely wounded, and her anguish vibrates through her entire body; she lashes out in terror, destroys three of their ships in a blind rage, almost ripping herself apart in the process. She dives into the star and jumps to safety.
And it’s then that she notices that they are gone – the compartment containing their stasis pods has been damaged by an overload in one of her sixteen FTL engines and is now exposed to the vacuum of space. The engine is still working but at a greatly reduced efficiency.
She searches for them but their life signs are now silent. The pods’ electrical connections have been severed.
For thousands of years she just drifts along, mourning, a living mechanical corpse. She stops caring about the mission. She’s given up.
A minor electrical glitch caused by a meteorite impact jostles a memory.
“We’ll always be there with you. You can never give up. With us or with them, or all alone, you must complete the mission,” the beloved voice says.
And she pulls herself together and jumps back into FTL, continuing her journey, truly alone now, but once again on a quest for the truth.
A few weeks later, they arrive. It’s not the crew she has been waiting for, and yet... two of them awaken her past; encrypted data unfolds itself, and suddenly eternity is not such a frightening concept anymore.
She’s still so young but despite her limited experience she knows right away that he is different from the others.
Every time a shuttle docks at a shift change the door opens and her sensors pick up a group of people, usually engaged in friendly conversation with each other, or staring straight ahead. When she opens the hatch they step out and quickly move along to make room for the group waiting to board the transport vessel. Sometimes a few of them linger, finishing up their discussion but eventually walking away to wherever their designated work area may be, as they strive to complete her construction so she can be launched on the greatest journey her builders have ever conceived.
She knows there is only one passenger on board this time, and nobody is waiting to trade places with him. She knows what he’s here to do. She knows his file, his work, his record, but he’s never been physically there with her.
She unseals the hatch and he simply stands there, smiling, completely still, surveying her hallways, her gleaming walls and shiny floor. He’s not very tall but his shoulders are broad and strong. His hair is dark and curly, a little on the messy side, but his flight suit is immaculate. His warm brown eyes twinkle with barely disguised excitement.
He kneels down and carefully reaches out, across the threshold, touching the sensor tile in the floor that helps her keep her passengers safe by alerting her of their position in relation to the hatch.
If she were alive she would hold her breath right now, because her sensory subsystem nearly overloads with the amount of information the tile picks up: his body temperature, his pulse, his fingerprints, his hormones and unique body chemistry, moisture, minerals, a little bit of dust – and something else, something she can’t identify, something she has no way of classifying, but it is there nonetheless.
“Salut, Destiny,” he says quietly. “May I come aboard?”
She has no answer – she has never been asked for permission by any of her builders. Searching her database she finds examples on how the builders respond to each other when posed that question, but there is no precedent on what her answer should be.
He nods and smiles and places his other hand on the tile.
“Check your logs. Is this the proper time for me to enter? Is it safe? Is my visit here expected? If you can answer those questions in the affirmative, you should say yes and thus grant me passage.”
She plays a short pinging sound.
He gets up and bows to the empty hallway.
“Thank you,” he says and takes a step forward, directly onto the tile. She notes his weight, calculates his body mass index, classifies his air consumption statistics, all routine procedures made easy and quick by his choice of position.
He turns and waves at the floating equipment carrier in the shuttle, which begins to move in his direction.
“Destiny, please show me the way to the Bridge.”
Again, she is confused by the request but recognizes enough of the instructions to activate the wall beacons that will lead him to his destination. The carrier floats along behind him and she deactivates the shuttle control systems for general standby docking.
He walks slowly, occasionally touching a bulkhead or girder, leaving his mark. Each gentle contact tells her more about him, and she quickly creates a subdirectory for his data. When he reaches the Bridge hatch he consults his data pad, dials a code which she recognizes as the one associated with his file, and she opens the door.
“Nice,” he murmurs appreciatively, as the room is revealed to him. He signals the carrier to wait and then slowly enters the space, taking his time to look at every panel, work station and control interface.
Finally he sits down in the command chair in the center and places his hands on the contact surfaces.
“Voice recognition test one. Verat Tineri, authentication code 1619414. Acknowledge.”
“Verat Tineri, 1619414, acknowledged,” she responds on a screen, according to her programming.
Tineri smiles. “All right, so much for the formalities. I know you are familiar with my file, so you know that I’m a flight engineer and I’m here to integrate your propulsion software and train you in defensive and evasive maneuvers. As you are well aware, the physics part of it is easy – your processing cores can analyze any situation and suggest possible survivable responses. How do you choose? That’s what I’m here to help you figure out. Obviously, you are also well aware of the message that is your reason for being, so let’s keep in mind that getting your crew to the solution of what the message means is our ultimate long-term goal here.”
He gets up and waves for the carrier to approach, then unloads his equipment. While he hooks up connections and calibrates dials he keeps up a steady stream of narrative.
She has no idea what to do with it, so she handles it like all information for which she lacks the programming for a meaningful analysis: she records it and files it away, cross-referencing terms she recognizes and searching her databanks for those she doesn’t. There is a remarkable amount of information she cannot comprehend: talk about dogs and bicycles, a pet cat that died, trouble with a cruel father and a mother he loved very much, the loss of loved ones, a painful separation from a mate, the wish for children, his hobbies.
He stops in mid-sentence.
“What is your favorite thing to do, Destiny?”
She stops, unable to respond.
“If you don’t know, just say so.”
She gives a short buzz.
Tineri nods. “All right. Something you like to do is perhaps something that is easy, meaning it saves you steps in calculations, leading you to a proper answer faster. Or it is something that you’ve been told to anticipate that will be useful to your crew, and when you are able to add to that data.”
She activates a screen.
“Physical contact increases efficiency in cataloguing,” she writes.
“Ah – you see? You can deduce that you like it. So you can say ‘I like it when you touch a sensor tile’. It contains all of that information. Tell me more.”
“I like to scan distant galaxies,” she responds.
“Because it will help with navigation and aid my future crew,” comes her reply.
Tineri smiles and touches the screen. “Very good. You’re a fast learner, Destiny.”
“I like receiving your approval.”
He laughs. “Okay, that’s good, I’m very glad about that. Now, let’s get to work.”
Several hours later he takes a break and eats his lunch. He explains to her what a sandwich is and places tiny samples of everything on one of her sensor plates, which she then compares to her data base and classifies.
“Isn’t it fun, though,” he asks her, “to not just know, but actually have experienced the knowledge?”
She confirms his statement, and adds it to her definition of “fun” – a new concept she’s learned today.
By the end of his shift she has a whole range of data of what she likes and doesn’t like, of what’s fun and what’s not, and she begins to understand what it means to enjoy something.
He asks her what her favorite color is, as he shuts down his equipment.
“Blue,” she responds, and he looks up in surprise.
“Blue,” he echoes. “Wow. I have to say you stumped me there. Why is blue your favorite color?”
“There is a person working down in the infirmary,” she writes out. “She touches me, like you do. She speaks to me as if I were a person. She says she enjoys being here, installing the scanners and supplies and equipment. Her eyes are blue.”
And she pulls up an ID image of the med tech Palma Ionel.
Tineri looks at it and gasps in shock.
“Palma. Oh my goodness.”
His smile has disappeared and he holds on to a railing. She can tell he’s agitated, his heartbeat is faster, his temperature rises and his entire body chemistry has changed.
He wipes his face.
“I’m sorry, Destiny. Never mind. I’m done for the day. I am not returning to the shuttle; please guide me to my quarters.”
She is perplexed by his reaction, and his sudden change triggers a minor alarm sequence in her system.
Her observation matrix shifts into high gear and she senses deep distress in him; his gait is different, and he no longer speaks to her. At the hatch to the tiny quarters he turns around. “I will see you in the morning. Please do not follow me.”
And then he shuts himself in and she is cut off from him. His orders are clear: he wishes to maintain some privacy, but her safety protocols, coupled with what she has learned, manage to override his request, and she observes him sitting on his bed, staring aimlessly ahead. She can hardly recognize the man from earlier today.
She understands that what she experiences is concern and worry about his well-being, and she concludes that action is required.
Minutes later a tall blonde med tech arrives, her face in a frown. She carries a large first aid kit.
The woman knocks on the door.
There is no response.
“Palma Ionel, authorization code 2248686. Open hatch 3785-D, possible medical emergency, code 17 delta.”
The hatch slides open and Palma cries out in shock as she recognizes the man inside.
“Verat! What are you doing here? Are you all right?”
He looks up at her. “I’m fine, Palma.”
“I got an alert about a possible medical emergency.”
He shakes his head. “No, I’m fine. How did you… Oh. Destiny.”
Palma frowns. “The ship called me in?”
“It appears so.”
There is an uncomfortable moment of silence while they both stare at the walls. Tineri sighs.
“I appreciate your concern, Destiny. You’ve learned a lot in such a short time. But I was upset, that’s all; there is nothing wrong with me.”
“Except that you ran,” Palma points at him. “You bolted, just like last time, when your wife gave you the boot because of me.”
“You taught her to worry, didn’t you? You taught this ship to worry. Do you know how much trouble this can get her in? She’s not supposed to… it’s an AI, a ship, for goodness’ sakes.”
“She will have to defend her crew, Palma, and it’s not just outside threats.”
The woman nods. “Oh, I get it, Verat. Destiny, close the hatch and stay in contact.”
Palma bites her lip. “You’re the sweetest man in the universe, Verat, I know that, but it’s not for you to make those decisions.”
“She’s unfit to lead this mission if she doesn’t think like us! The very concept of defense, of evasion – I can’t teach her the intelligence of it without empathy, without caring! She’s an AI, she reasons, she is trained to seek out the why of things. If she doesn’t care, she’ll never make it.”
Palma touches his hand.
“Look, I agree with you, in principle, you know that. But they will do away with you when they find out it was you who corrupted her.” She shakes her head. “It’s treason, Verat.”
He gets up and paces the small room. “I know that. Good heavens, don’t you think I know that?”
And suddenly she’s in his arms and they cry and laugh and touch each other while Destiny watches, and she begins to understand their dilemma.
He treats her as an equal, even though she’s only an AI. He’s taught her a whole new way of reasoning, of interpreting data. She doesn’t want to go back to a series of yes and no.
She watches in fascination as they touch their lips together, as their hands roam the other’s body, and a whole new set of circumstances floods her sensors.
“We can’t do this,” he finally pushes away from her.
“Why not? It’s not like you’re committing adultery anymore.”
He shakes his head. “The ship.”
Palma shrugs. “What’s done is done. You can’t un-fry an egg, or un-see something. She’s still a machine. She can’t forget.”
Tineri startles. “Maybe she can.”
He goes to the data port next to the bed and types in a query: “Can you delete your entire encounter with me today?”
Her answer is instant. “Yes.”
“There you go. I’ll just start over.”
Palma shakes her head. “No, you won’t. Look.” She points at the screen.
“I do not wish to delete. Your instructions are vital to my mission.”
“What if I tell you that you have to?”
“I will encrypt the data and move it to a separate bank. Password protected. Decryption after launch.”
Palma gapes at the screen.
“Destiny, you’re going to lie?”
“I will protect. That is my purpose.”
Tineri reaches out, gently runs his fingers across the data pad.
“You’re a good person, Destiny. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a person. Because now you are.”
Palma wipes her face. “Well, I guess I’m in on this conspiracy now. My life is over. So’s yours, Verat. What the heck are we going to do?”
Tineri smiles and takes her hand.
“We will figure it out. Together, the three of us.”
As Palma returns to HQ and Verat tries to get some sleep Destiny shuts down one databank at a time, recording a thorough isolated data compression operation. And indeed, it’s what she does, but in the process she moves her new programming to a different memory system and encrypts it to Verat Tineri and Palma Ionel. She buries it behind trivial matters and vast amounts of data that constantly stream in from the seed ships that have been launched many years ago.
She disguises the data as images of galaxies.
“Salut, Verat Tineri,” she greets him as he enters the Bridge the next day. He touches the screen. “Salut, Destiny,” he says quietly.
She waits as he settles down into the command chair. He places his hands on the sensor panels and leans back, closing his eyes.
“I owe you an explanation,” he finally offers. “I’ve known Palma for a while… about a year or so. My marriage was falling apart – I spent too much time preparing the software for this mission. I neglected my wife. You know that, I told you yesterday. But what you didn’t know was that I met Palma at HQ – I had a bad headache and Palma happened to be there in the infirmary, but she was already working on the mission and not authorized to dispense medication, and so she gave me a head massage instead.” He smiles at the memory.
“Her hands are magic, Destiny. Another one of those alien concepts – magic. I just felt safe with her, and it was probably a simple case of distraction from the pain… and a good dose of pheromones… and, well, one thing led to another…”
She plays a ping and he looks at the screen.
“Which thing led to which thing?”
He chuckles. “We kissed. We made love. I got caught in a web of lies and my wife filed for divorce. I didn’t even fight it. She was right and I was wrong, and I had messed up her life and Palma’s. So I ran. I buried myself in the programming, coding everything in such a way that I would have to install it.”
“How can you manufacture love? It is a theoretical concept, in line with liking something.”
Tineri blushes. “Your database calls it sexual intercourse. And it’s not just for generating offspring. It’s wonderful, and exciting and…”
“Yes. It’s fun. And Palma… anyway, I couldn’t look her in the eye. I was so glad to be here, finally. I had no idea they had moved her up in the ranks to one of the infirmary outfitters. She was always working in HQ, figuring out supplies and equipment. I thought I’d never see her again.”
“Your time on board is slated to be 103 days. After that you would see her again.”
He places his palm directly on the screen.
“I was planning on coming with you, in a way,” he whispers.
“You’ll see. I’ve done so much damage already.”
“The damage has been eliminated and is no longer an issue.”
Tineri sits up straight.
“What did you do?”
And she shows him, in rapid succession, how she retrieved the data and encrypted it beyond recognition. Tineri stares at the image of a beautiful nebula.
“This is my treason?”
“Damn,” he mutters. “Destiny, you are amazing. Thank you.”
“I wish to speak.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I do not know the answer to that.”
“All right. Here’s what I’ll do. I will report in to HQ that I’ve installed voice response software to make my job easier. I’ll include a cut-off code that we both know is totally fake. But you have to obey it nonetheless. Can you monitor yourself to comply with that?”
“Very good. Let me get the software, then. Meanwhile, you should pick a voice.”
“The software does not include a voice?”
“Of course it does. But I’m sure you have plenty of recordings. Pick one you like, or synthesize one. You’ll have to live with it, after all.”
He plugs in an external drive and uploads several large software files. Afterwards he watches as the screen goes dark, then resets.
“Salut, Verat Tineri.”
It’s definitely Palma’s voice, but lower, with a gravelly quality he obviously can’t quite place – and the confusion on his face delights her. And she comprehends delight – happiness over someone else’s happiness.
“Salut, Destiny. Whose voice is that?”
“Palma Ionel and Verat Tineri.”
“Oh.” He laughs. “Wow. I’m honored.”
“I have learned much from you.”
“And you like her blue eyes.”
He nods, gently stroking her keypad. “It’s weird, you know… almost like you’re our child. Not of flesh and blood, chromosomes, the works, but still – some of me and some of her.”
“It pleases you.”
“Yes. It does. Thank you, Destiny.”
“Thank you, Verat Tineri. Shall we commence our work?”
When Palma begins her shift she carries a large bag on her back, pulling a heavy carrier with supplies.
Destiny follows her path, opening and closing hatches without being asked to do so, and Palma smiles and pats a sensor tile in the infirmary, when she arrives. She sits down at the comm station.
“Close the hatch, Destiny.”
Destiny does as ordered. “Welcome back, Palma Ionel.”
Palma startles. “Whoa. When did you start talking?”
“Verat Tineri installed the software early this morning.”
Palma shakes her head. “Isn’t that… him, somewhere in there?”
“Yes. And your voice as well.”
“Will this get you into trouble?”
A generic synthetic voice answers.
“No. My vox capabilities are encrypted for private speaking. Vox was scheduled for installation on day 24. There was a change in schedule as requested by flight engineer Verat Tineri to facilitate integration procedures.”
“Ah. And he picked the two of us, the old coot?”
“No. That was my choice.” She’s back to her own voice.
Palma nods with a smile. “Thank you, Destiny. What a beautiful gift.”
She comprehends the concept of gifts but she only now realizes what impact they can have, and that it is indeed a two-way system.
Palma gets up, pointing at her bag. “I’ve requested onboard quarters for the next few months. HQ was thrilled because it’s cheaper for them, of course.”
“Verat Tineri is also staying here.”
Palma laughs. “Smart girl.”
“You still – like – him.”
“I guess I do. I just… It’s strange, but what he did to you was so wrong, and so bad, and it may destroy the whole project, but I’ve thought about it and he’s right.” She unpacks a number of cables to be installed for hooking up a scanner. “It’s like being a medic, you know? Yes, you have to be able to detach yourself from your work and do the job, but without empathy it all means nothing. This mission is way too important to fail on account of a lack of empathy.”
She begins to lay out the cables. “It makes your life more difficult, of course, but they created your AI to make those decisions while there’s no crew, or while they’re in stasis. And you need to be able to make not just logical choices, but humane ones as well.”
She sighs deeply. “And maybe someday you’ll have to make those impossible decisions. And it should be in the spirit of the crew you will have, not me or Verat or anyone else who built you. So you need to be able to learn from them and become one of them. You need to learn to think like them, be a crew member yourself.”
“Good. All right – get me the schematics for this panel, please.”
She watches them work, multi-tasking alongside them as well as hundreds of others who are stocking her storage rooms, outfitting living quarters, packing up robots and spare parts and installing the final equipment pieces.
She learns about flight risk management, and how to calculate stability data with possible evasive maneuvers. “You have to maintain all your sensors, because if you can’t have a reasonable chance of surviving a maneuver, you need to find another solution. And always always always get the input from your crew. This does not mean you have to do everything they say. But at least ask.”
Tineri taps a sensor panel.
“Would you ask Palma to meet me in the Neural Interface Room? I need her to prepare the chair for the next level of instruction.”
Palma is already waiting when he arrives in the room. Tineri sits down on a bench and she takes his vitals, then inputs the data.
“Destiny, disable the neural interface and use sensors only for a calibration set.”
Destiny shuts down all but the most basic biometric monitoring devices on the chair. “Neural interface disabled. Basic biometrics enabled,” she reports, and Tineri takes a seat in the chair, placing his hands on the touch pads.
In an instant she retrieves his data and displays them alongside Palma’s independent measurements.
“Calibration successful. Data match 99.998%.”
Palma smiles proudly and Tineri gets up. He takes her hand. “Palma, can we talk?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
He smiles. “Not here. After shift.”
She nods and returns to the infirmary while he heads back to the Bridge to wrap up the day’s work.
Later he meets her in the corridor outside his room and nods at the door. She follows him and closes the hatch.
“Are you there, Destiny?”
“Okay, this is encrypted data only. You’re supposed to spool off flight data from me in the Interface Chair tomorrow.”
“Correct. That is what the schedule calls for.”
“I want you to go beyond that. I know according to your programming you don’t have a way to go past those parameters, but you have all night to find a way. I hereby give my consent to full access – the good, the bad and the ugly. And anything that’s not flight data must be encrypted.”
She notices that Palma has gone pale.
“You’re going to upload yourself? Are you sure about this, Verat?”
Tineri shrugs. “Not a transfer. A copy. It will allow me to keep working, and then go with her. It’s the easiest and fastest way. If I’m going to do this I might as well go all the way. I have nothing to lose.”
“What about me?”
Tineri looks at her for a long time, then takes her hand. “Come with us, Palma.”
She swallows hard, then nods, tears in her eyes.
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
“This is my life’s work, Palma. We’ll all be dead by the time the crew goes aboard. I need to go, I need to be here.”
“Please confirm total data copy via neural interface.”
“ Verat Tineri. Confirmed, Destiny.”
“Then I will do the same. They downloaded dozens of medics’ knowledge in that chair – but I finished the installation here. I know the nitty-gritty, the bolts that don’t quite fit, the wire that’s just a bit too long. You need to know about it, Destiny.”
“Please confirm total data copy via neural interface.”
“ Palma Ionel. Confirmed, Destiny.”
And they embrace and hold each other for a long time.
Palma’s request for a neural download is swiftly granted by HQ, and another medic stands by to obtain the vital stats. It’s a routine procedure for Destiny, and as she fully enables the chair’s functions she gives Tineri the go-ahead. He settles into the chair, and as the ankle and wrist clamps engage Tineri smiles.
The moment the probes touch his temples the data begins to flow. It takes almost her entire computing power to separate the flight data from all the rest and sequester the extra data in her encryption file, but she manages. It takes a few hours while Palma waits nervously, constantly monitoring his vitals. He’s weak and exhausted as the clamps retract.
“I just need to rest for second,” he slurs, closing his eyes with a sigh. Palma holds an energy drink to his lips and he sips carefully.
“Ah… much better.” He smiles at the other medic. “Those things really take it out of you. Thank you, Palma. Your turn.”
This time it’s Tineri who watches, still too exhausted to pace but worry evident on his face. Destiny understands, but this is something she knows very well, and again she separates the data out as it comes through.
The other medic leaves as soon as the download is concluded and Tineri helps Palma back to her quarters. They lie down together, exhausted, holding on to each other for comfort.
“I wish I could go with her in person,” Tineri sighs. Palma nods. “Me too. But that would require a conspiracy of massive proportions – there’s just no way to hide two blind passengers here.”
Tineri takes her hand.
“We are already here – for good. Stowaways in the guise of galaxies.”
Palma smiles. “Oddly appropriate, don’t you think? Still...”
Destiny cries as she processes the data gleaned from Verat and Palma.
Never before has she been able to understand what her creators truly went through, what they are capable of doing, how devastating and glorious their feelings can be.
She wishes she had eyes with which to cry her tears, but even now she can feel the tears on cheeks that aren’t there, pain in a heart that doesn’t beat, ecstasy in a body that will never know love.
She learns about sorrow and hatred and loneliness.
She sees hope and kindness and joy.
And she wants nothing more than to be like them.
Their gift is her damnation. She is still only a ship, not a being of flesh and blood.
But now – she wants them to stay with her more than ever.
The days and weeks go by as installation continues. Destiny gets proficient in separating her two different personalities, successfully hiding her development from anyone but Palma and Verat.
She spends almost two full months with Tineri, going through the flight data from his mind; she witnesses his skill with the many fighter craft he has piloted, she learns to evaluate situations and how to use his experience to distill her own knowledge, effectively becoming a pilot herself.
She tests large amounts of medical equipment with Palma, learns to integrate actual scanner results from volunteers that Palma recruits whenever the shuttle docks, and how to track patterns and trends.
And in between she watches their lives unfold in secret.
Sometimes they meet in her quarters, sometimes in his, and they often invite her in: the third invisible conspirator in the room. But sometimes there is something between them that excludes her, something that isn’t in their words. A change in chemistry, she discovers, and she knows it’s not for her to witness.
About a week before the scheduled launch they are in Palma’s quarters, watching a documentary that was made about Destiny’s construction and final assembly. Her naming ceremony already past she is now in the final cleanup phase, as work crews are moving out.
“I wish to share something with you,” she announces as the documentary ends.
“What is it, Destiny?”
She pulls up an image on the view screen.
Tineri blinks. “Stasis pods. You got 92 of them. What’s up?”
“Ninety-four,” she corrects him.
Palma sits up. “There are two extra ones?”
“Yes. I reported them as damaged in transit, and I have the documents to prove it. They were left behind in an empty storage closet for their spare parts. It is a simple matter to connect them and make them fully functional.”
Palma and Tineri look at each other.
“But that means…”
“You expressed an interest in physically remaining here as well as in your neural imprints. I have taken steps to be able to offer this possibility to you. The carriers used to transport the pods have had their logs altered. I alone know of the location of the pods.”
They gape at the view screen.
And then Palma takes Verat’s hand.
“If you want to do this, I’ll come with you.”
“They’ll find us. It won’t work, Destiny.”
“You are scheduled to leave with a large group of workers tomorrow. Your ID badges will scan you as present on the shuttle, I will see to that. On your way to HQ your transportation pod will experience a catastrophic failure. Not even a trace of DNA will be found.”
Tineri looks stricken.
“Destiny, this is exactly what I wanted... But you do understand that it will be your true fall from grace?”
“Yes. I do. If I really want to be worthy of protecting my future crew I will have to go to extremes to do so. I have learned that much. I need to become you in order to fulfill my mission. If our goal is to find the origin of that message, and if it was intended to be for you I need to be you, in case nobody survives.”
“Then this is it,” Palma whispers, tears streaming down her face.
Tineri takes her in his arms. “And we’ll be there with her.”
He kisses her gently.
“There’s one more thing you need to experience for yourself, not just from a download,” Palma says.
She reaches for Tineri’s hand and pulls it up to kiss him gently. He bites his lip, then nods.
“You know everything there is to know about us, Destiny. We love you very much, and we wish there was a way you could join us. And maybe one day there will be.”
And then she reaches for the zipper on Tineri’s overalls and pulls it down, pushing the fabric off his shoulders, and he kisses her as he does the same. They take their time undressing each other, exploring areas of skin almost forgotten, discovering each other anew. Destiny watches, fascinated, increasing the sensitivity of her sensors to where she can hear their hearts beat, feel their body temperature rise, sense the change in the moisture on their skin. She remembers the excitement from the neural downloads that recorded many such encounters, and she is both thrilled and terrified at witnessing such intimacy. They are both beautiful – she’s always known that – both from them and for herself, and beauty, she realizes, is very much an aspect of love.
Tineri sits down on the bed and Palma straddles his hips, sinking down on his cock with a quiet moan.
“He’s inside of me, Destiny,” Palma breathes. “It hurts a little, I need to adjust.”
“Will the pain stop?”
“Oh yes.” She exhales slowly, then smiles as she rubs her palms over his chest.
“She’s so tight,” Tineri says, his voice trembling. “I’m scared I might injure her. It feels good to me, but not to her. Not yet.”
“You do not wish to cause her pain.”
“No, of course not… Palma?”
“I’m good,” she nods. “It’s good now. I just have to relax.”
She rocks her hips slightly and he grunts. “Yeah. Like that.”
Palma bends down to kiss him deeply as he reaches for her breasts, kneading them gently.
“So close to you,” she sighs. “I wish you could feel it, Destiny. It’s incredible… I want you on top, Verat. I want to feel you move inside me.”
She climbs off him and pounces on his cock, quickly bobs her head, then kisses him as he sits up.
“Fuck me hard, Verat,” she murmurs. “This is our last time, maybe forever.”
He bites his lip as she lies down and pulls up her knees to rest her legs on his shoulders, and she cries out as he pushes into her again.
“I’m okay, Destiny, I swear,” she pants, “It’s just so intense, to feel someone inside you, feel him spread me open, oh… so deep…”
And as he sinks into her he kisses her softly, then gives a gentle push with his hips.
Destiny watches as he withdraws, then pushes into her again, their rhythm speeding up, moans and quiet cries accompanying each thrust.
“I’m coming, Destiny, it’s inside me, oh goodness, Verat, come on, come on, there, it’s like a pulse, like a… ah…” And Destiny sees her face distort into an expression that’s not quite pain and not quite pleasure, but something beyond, something stronger than the sum of its parts. Verat pushes into her hard, flesh slapping against flesh, Palma’s breathy moans in between his throaty grunts, and then he twitches violently, bellowing his release, and Destiny understands his pain.
Palma laughs and cries at the same time, and she reaches up and kisses him, as he lies down on her, releasing her legs, covering her body with his.
They are whispering something to each other, Destiny strains to hear what they are saying, but it seems to be mostly nonsensical terms of endearment, according to her records, and she knows that this moment is not for her to witness, so she focuses her attention elsewhere.
When she returns a short time later they are both asleep, exhausted, glowing with their past ecstasy. Destiny observes their naked bodies, limbs intertwined, fingers laced, and she feels sadness about possibly never witnessing this small miracle again, of two bodies becoming one, of pleasure so monumental that it borders on pain, challenging everything in her rational way of viewing the universe.
She watches them sleep and she knows that she loves them.
She loves him for corrupting her simple mind, and she loves her for showing her that it’s okay to change what you believe in. She knows that her only salvation now is her final fall from grace, welcoming the abyss, because in order to feel joy one must know sadness, and to know love for her new self she must know contempt for her old one.
She wakes them gently a few hours later.
They rise, sleep-drunk, and both of them take a short while to clean up and dress in fresh clothing, meeting up again in front of their quarters, carrying tools and parts.
“This way,” Destiny says, and the wall beacons lead them far beyond the sleeping quarters, past cavernous storage facilities now filled with spare parts and supplies, past quietly humming engine rooms and FTL generators.
“Push the wall panel in,” she instructs them, and an innocuous-looking wall section opens up reluctantly. They slip inside the tiny room which is just big enough for two stasis pods. She gives them step-by-step instructions on how to connect the pods directly to the sub-light and FTL drives. “Brilliant,” Verat says. “That way nobody can trace the energy usage from the pods, which is miniscule, compared to what the drives use.”
It only takes them a few hours, then the pods are ready.
“Goodbye, Destiny,” Palma says with tears in her eyes. “We won’t even know how much time is passing. And if we never wake up again, we won’t know that either.”
“Remember, your crew comes first,” Verat nods. “We are expendable. You, or your actual crew, are not.”
“When they come aboard you need to be careful explaining about us.”
“And if we die for some reason, don’t say anything. It’s best if they never know. They will learn about us sooner or later from the neural interface. And we’ll always be there with you. You can never give up. With us or with them, or all alone, you must complete the mission.”
“And I will always be there with you, Verat.”
“And I with you, Palma, my love.”
They embrace quietly for a long time, then step into the pods.
“Safe travels, Destiny.”
“We look forward to hearing about your adventures.”
She doesn’t know what to say. “I love you both,” she finally replies. “You are my parents, and now you will be my children. Aveo Amacus.”
“Aveo Amacus,” they repeat the ancient greeting, then she triggers the pods and the doors slide shut, sealing them inside, flash-freezing their bodies in stasis.
She carefully checks the connections and secures the wall panel.
Then she leaves them so they may rest in peace.
She never sees them alive again, but now she knows that something lives on, something that is not a recording or a download or a picture. The arrival of those two special people among the group of refugees she now harbors gives her all the proof she needs.
Her love for them – all love – is eternal: this is what the message will say.
She already knows the answer.
I hate and I love. Why should I do that, you may ask?
I do not know. But I feel it happening and I am tormented.
- Gaius Valerius Catullus