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Chess, Charades and the Body in the Next Room

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“But where are we going to put you?” said Alex. “That is, it. Or you?”

He was lounging on the bunk in his cabin (at least as much as one could lounge on a regulation size bunk), casually playing with Tia’s fingers. She liked it when he played with her fingers. Another new experience.

They had just gotten the call from headquarters that they had another assignment from the Institute – ferrying some sort of official delegation to a planet just a week’s travel away for a repatriation ceremony (with Tia’s fancy new Singularity Drive). After their heroics of the last mission, they were being given a calming assignment, presumably to discourage them from further heroics. Tia was alright with that – she had known when she signed up for CS that most of their assignments would be simple back-and-forths like this. And she certainly had no desire to have a repeat of their recent escapades. She wanted to be able to enjoy all of her new bodies, not destroy any of them.

“Well,” said Tia. “You know, I hadn’t really thought of that. Right now I can’t run it and the ship too – the technology simply isn’t at that stage yet – so we’ll have to put it somewhere offline while we’re in transit. You don’t want to keep it in here, do you?”

Tia could tell that Alex was not completely enthusiastic about that suggestion by the way he let go of her fingers to run his hand over the back of his neck. He shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m not sure I have the space in here.”

Tia sighed. Then she sighed again, just to experience sighing. It was very different when you could feel the rise and fall of a chest along with the sound of the sigh. She was not used to that any more. Of course, she had never been used to having distractions on her chest which would also rise and fall with her breath.

Tia found she was getting distracted a lot lately. It was good they had had this little while to get all this distraction out of her system, but she was looking forward to things getting back to normal.

“Well, we’ll just have to put this body in one of the empty cabins, then. I don’t have a stand for it or anything. I must admit I didn’t think of the storage issues when I mentioned getting another one. I really don’t know where we would put a second one!”

Tia could tell that Alex was not entirely happy with that, either, but he offered no alternatives. So, that resolved, Alex and Tia returned to their own explorations. Since they weren’t going to have an opportunity to enjoy themselves again until the next time they were safely on-planet and Tia could reduce her ship functions, Tia thought they should take advantage of the time they had. There were still a number of moves which she had seen in those old holofilms that she thought they had time to try.

**

The next morning, Tia curled her new body up on a bunk in one of the unused cabins and then closed the link and powered up the ship again. Being in her own skin again felt reassuringly familiar, in a way she had not expected. She felt expanded, larger on the inside and out. They had not been given any training on this in the shell program, since no one was expected to transition from their chosen location into anything smaller. Given the choice, would she want to go back into such a small body forever? She set the servers to tidy Alex’s cabin. It was not an option in any case and thus not even worth worrying about. If she wanted to worry about the future, she could worry about introducing Alex to her parents and their possible reactions to the news. More at hand was the delegation, which they were expecting to start arriving in a short hour or so.

Alex was seated at the main console going through the files on their forthcoming guests.

“What a ragtag group,” he said, bending over the screen and yawning. “What do you think of this Lady Veronica du Bois the Third, Tia? All of the information I can find for her is fundraising galas and fashion shows. And a few motor races. What interest would she have in Martok 57 and an archaeological repatriation ceremony?”

Tia thought back to her days following her parents around to events and dinners.

“Even a minor repatriation like this needs a representative from the Families who initially donated the items to the Institute, as well as a representative from the Institute. And usually one from the Government. If they don’t have anyone who takes a particular interest in cultural matters, then they usually send along whoever is the least essential to the running of the daily empire yet is also the least potentially embarrassing. The rest of our passengers are quite standard: an Insitute bureaucrat, a government official. And Dr. Florence Matan - he's a well-known scholar of the northern region of Martok 57.”

“And Fred!” Alex had reached the final guest’s file and recognized their companion from the unfortunate Social Darwinism adventure.

“Yes – it should be nice to see him again. I’m not sure what he’s doing on this trip – they don’t usually send graduate students along to things like this, but perhaps he’s done someone a favor. Or a disfavor.”

Alex laughed and then they went over their flight plans. It would not be a long trip, only one week there and then a week on-planet for the repatriation ceremony and then the one week return. Tia was looking forward to being on the move again. It had been nice to be on the ground for a while, but she was ready to see a new part of the universe. Her drives were beginning to get itchy.

**

The passengers had arrived with little fuss by the early afternoon. Even Lady Veronica had arrived on time and simply settled herself into her cabin with her admittedly vast amount of luggage in tow. Alex had to admire her fashion sense – she was wearing the most voluminous set of harem pants he had ever seen on a woman and she had the latest fashion in hair styles – glittery threads resembling hair woven in with what was presumably her own hair.

After Tia had taken them off, everyone assembled in the main room for dinner. Alex automatically pulled up a chair next to himself before he remembered that Tia would not be joining them for dinner. Or rather, she would, but she wouldn’t be there in person. Or rather…He ran his fingers through his hair and sat down awkwardly, trying to pretend that he had in fact been pulling out that chair for Dr. Matan.

The dining room was close quarters when they had a full ship. Alex, Dr. Matan, and Fred sat along one side of the table while the government official, the Insitute official and Lady Veronica took the other side. This was the first time Tia and Alex had ferried anyone who might be considered a dignitary and Alex wasn’t sure what kind of formality was expected of them. It must have been covered in his training, but he was fairly sure he had flunked out of the Etiquette class.

Tia had had a server set out the meals already, so the meal began with little fuss. Alex was thinking of something to say when Tia herself opened the conversation, asking Dr. Matan about a mutual acquaintance of theirs, someone that Tia had met in her shellperson training who had gone on to take control of the Archaeology Institute’s main library system. Soon, the entire table was enthusiastically discussing the latest theories on xeno-faunal remains and the Sisyphean task of cataloging them in a unified system. Alex was surprised to see that Lady Veronica was well-informed enough on the matter to participate in the conversation more than Alex himself – given what Tia had suggested, he had expected her to be simply a family figurehead, with no particular interest in archaeology. Dr. Matan’s knowledge of the subject, of course, was terrifyingly comprehensive. By the end of the meal Fred was regaling them all with his perspective on the whole “affair of the wolves” as he called it – frightening at the time, but Alex considered that Fred must now dine out on that story relentlessly.

“I have now made it a point,” Fred was saying, “to take up hand-to-hand combat. Indeed, my training is proceeding apace. Certainly I could not deal with any of the larger life-forms and hand-to-hand is of little use against hand to teeth.” There was a polite chuckle throughout the table. “But the psychological reassurance is quite significant.”

Alex then engaged Fred in a discussion about Tai Chi and its modification for those who did not have the traditional humanoid form and the dinner subsided into a pleasant series of quite specific conversations until everyone at least finished their after dinner drinks and retired to their cabins, only slightly drunk. Or, in the case of Alex, not at all drunk, since he was, after all, working. And of course, Tia, who had no cabin to retire to and never drank, simply bid everyone a good night and shifted her attention to another matter.

**

That night, Alex found himself awake and staring at the ceiling above his bunk. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he was having difficulty getting to sleep. “Tia,” he said, but there was no reply. “Tia love, are you there?”

“Of course I’m here, Alex.”

“Of course.” He turned on his side and propped himself up on one arm. He sighed.

“Well, what is it?”

“Nothing really. I just wanted to talk. I feel like we haven’t talked today. Alone that is.”

Alex felt an empty space beside him, although he could hear Tia talking to him about their passengers and the news that Fred had given her about his old supervisor and his latest dig. This was an odd feeling. Before, he had always felt that Tia was beside him, even when he was in the blizzard, farther away than he was now. But now, he felt like he was talking across a long distance to her. Like she was very far away and he was alone and lonely.

He broke into what Tia was saying in the midst of a sentence where she was describing the work that her parents were currently doing and how they might be able to have a video conference with them once they landed. “So, you really don’t have enough power to run your body and the ship, do you?”

“Not if you want us to keep moving forward,” Tia replied. “Which I’m assuming you do.”

“Yes,” said Alex.

“Well then,” said Tia. And Alex turned over again and did his best to try to get back to sleep.

***

Everyone was asleep, except for Tia. She was monitoring their course and idly shifting through her databases. She knew why Alex had asked if she could occupy her other body. Intellectually, she knew. But she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. On the one hand, she wanted to have sex. To be close to Alex in a way that was quite different from her current closeness and to sleep with him beside her. On the other hand, she was happy to be flying again, to be back ‘in’ her ship and to have an enterprise with Alex, a project, a journey. She also, frankly, enjoyed managing a full ship of passengers – it kept her busy.

Tia realized that she did not, in fact, know how to be in a romantic relationship. Especially not one in which you literally encased the person you were in a relationship with. She had not even thought this would be an issue. After all, she and Alex had been partners for long enough for them to know each other well, to have their own rhythms and patterns. She hadn’t considered that becoming intimate in a physical way would change that. But it had. Tia had never thought she would be in a romantic relationship, not after her illness, so she had never bothered to worry about how exactly one was supposed to behave in one. She wasn’t sure that she was succeeding at it. She had watched all of those holos with the plots of soap operas growing up – she thought she would have learned something.

Well, she supposed she had learned something, as evidenced by Alex’s very enthusiastic participation in their activities of the past few weeks. But dramas about dysfunctional First Dynasty Pharaohs don’t necessarily give the best guidelines for maintaining a functional relationship. Tia would have to take action to better the situation, then. Tia resolved to do two things: read everything she could find in her resources which covered the topic of maintaining romantic relationships (well, everything that seemed reasonable) and talk to Kenny and Anna, who seemed to have worked out a relationship. And her parents, she supposed. They had a very successful relationship, from what she could tell, one which had maintained itself through a number of trials, not the least of which was her own illness.

She could only do one of those things at this moment, though, so she turned to her databases. What had been thought worthwhile to put in the selection? She scrolled through a number of unsuitable options: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (patently untrue), What Colour is Your Parachute? (presumably irrelevant as they had stopped using parachutes in ships many years ago), The Archaeology of Love (while intriguing, perhaps not well substantiated), until she settled on the prosaically titled Maintaining a Healthy Relationship in an Earth-based Culture: Tips for Beginners and Newcomers. That should offer an informative introduction to the topic.

**

Alex was bored. He had tried to engage the Institute official in a conversation about the EsKay maps, but that had only sent the official off on a long rant about the funding system of the Institute and the amount of grant writing administration that he had to do and the changes they had made in the administration of their three year grants, all without consulting him, you understand. Alex wasn’t sure he could take two and a half more weeks of that and it had only been three days. Tia was busy doing something ship-y, but didn’t need his help. The middle of a voyage was always the easiest bit.

Lady Veronica, Florence Matan and Fred were in the main room playing a game of Charades in an uproarious fashion. You have not seen Charades played until you’ve seen it played by an alien with a British accent, a socialite with glitter hair and a very serious archaeologist. Alex put down the charts he had been pretending to read and went to ask the group if he could join in their charades. Just before he put the reader down, it blinked that Tia was free to talk. But he left anyway.

Tia watched them for a while. Fred was quite an entertaining player to watch. He was the best mimer of them all – much better than Florence Matan, who seemed to think that most movies, places or people could be acted out by through a series of air drawings. From Tia’s perspective, they mostly seemed to be boxes within boxes. Yet Dr. Matan seemed sincerely disappointed in the crowd when they failed to guess that she was in fact, acting out the Carpet of Planet X (a notorious hoax from the early 22nd century). Lady Veronica seemed less mystified by most of Dr. Matan’s clues than the rest of them, but even she could not manage that one.

Tia watched Alex as he was attempting to act out what seemed quite clearly to her to be the famous synth-pop band Exploding Mountains but which everyone else seemed fixated on being an enactment of a volcano. Dr. Matan had begun to simply methodically list all of the well-known or famous volcanoes, while Alex frantically mimed playing the synth-xylophone and then exploding a mountain and Lady Veronica was doubled over with laughter. Tia simply couldn’t take it anymore and she blurted out “Exploding Mountains” – which startled the rest of the group, who were apt to forget that she was able to pay attention to everything that was going on in her ship (as much as her own professional respect for privacy allowed), except for Alex, who shouted “Yes, finally! Tia love, you must join my team.”

Everyone concurred and Alex suggested that perhaps she could perhaps get one of the servers to perform the charades, which she valiantly tried to do, until she gave up in disgust at its inability to enable her to enact the Battle of Waterloo properly and simply participated in the guessing. Charades was not her preferred game, Tia thought, but it was enjoyable enough, for a softperson pursuit.

**

The day before they reached Martok 57, Tia found herself possessed of a great curiosity about the artifact that was being repatriated. There had been no actual photos of it in the file, as the Institute, the government and the Family had agreed to the Northern peoples of Martok 57’s request to remove all photographic representations of the artifact. She had finally convinced Dr. Matan and the government agent, but most importantly the Institute agent, to let her and Alex see the artifact. They had finally all assembled in Dr. Matan’s cabin, which was right next to the room where Tia’s extra body was. Fred came along, because he had admitted to Tia that he had not actually had a chance to see the artifact either. And then Lady Veronica also joined them, because she seemed to go anywhere that Florence Matan did. Tia was convinced that that was the whole reason Lady Veronica was on this trip. She had become convinced of this because of the chapter she had been reading from For Beginners and Newcomers which discussed Earth-style Body Language and the Romantic Connection. Lady Veronica seemed to be trying to make a connection, and from what Tia could tell, Dr. Matan did not seem disinterested. Tia had even considered that perhaps Lady Veronica had arranged for the artifact to be repatriated by Dr. Matan in the first place, but dismissed that as reading too much into things. The government agent remained in her room, as she had for most of the journey so far, sleeping and doing paperwork.

Florence took a suitcase out from under her bunk and opened it, displaying the artifact still encased in its glass compartment. It was not what Tia had imagined. Usually objects for repatriation were remains, or ceremonial objects, historically significant artifacts or documents. Not something so everyday. While the objects of most archaeology were usually prosaic, pottery sherds seldom got repatriated.

Alex turned to Dr. Matan. “A chess set?” he said. “An old-fashioned one dimensional chess set?”

“It was believed to embody the spirits of the local fauna and was only used by the royal council in cases of emergency to maintain the balance between the northern peoples and the country just to the east of them.” She looked at it with keen interest. “In fact, it caused quite a few problems when it was removed from Martok 57 by Lady Veronica’s great-grandfather. The new leadership in Martok 57 has an interest in seeing the balance restored, so they requested a return of the chess set. Since it was taken quite illegally, the Institute was happy to comply.”

Everyone gathered around for a closer look. The chess set was small and well worn. You could tell which pieces had been favored by the northern royalty, strategically speaking, by the slight impressions in their sides. Tia wondered if the spirits still inhabited the chess set, now that it had been so far away from their home for so long. Or were they patiently waiting in a forest on Martok 57 for it to return, so they could play the games they used to play?

**

Tia was running a scan through some files while everyone else was sleeping, trying to locate another investment opportunity for the little bit of money she had left after the full refit and the takeover of Moto-Prosthetics and her new body when she heard a deafening shriek coming from the empty cabin.

She turned on all the lights in Alex’s cabin and sent a burst of cold air in over his face, so he would be alert to face whatever was going on. “Sorry, love,” she said. “We seem to have some sort of emergency in cabin three. It should be empty, but” -- Tia listened to what was now an ominous silence -- “Lady Veronica seems to have found her way in and had some sort of upset.”

The lights hadn’t been on in cabin three, so Tia turned them on slowly so she could get a picture of what exactly was going on in there before the room filled, as it was sure to shortly, with concerned and half-asleep beings. Lady Veronica was on the bunk, gingerly patting Tia’s body and murmuring “She’s dead?” repeatedly to herself. She didn’t seem to notice the lights going on and it was only when the door to the cabin opened and Alex entered (and a small crowd of people clustered around the doorway, unsure whether or not to enter), that she took the opportunity of the new full light to actually examine the body. With this, Lady Veronica jumped up from the bed, pointed at the bed and yelled “Who is that?”

Tia judged it wise to let Alex do the initial calming and explaining. She was experiencing a certain amount of embarrassment at the thought of explaining that that body on the bed was her, in a way, at least it was her in as much as the ship was her. But more scantily clad than the ship.

“Lady Veronica” said Alex, belting the tie of his bright green robe around his waist more tightly. “I am afraid you have stumbled into a private cabin. What you see on the bed is Tia. Or at least, a part of her.”

“But she’s dead!” Lady Veronica poked at Tia’s body again to demonstrate her lack of movement. “She’s quite clearly dead!”

“No,” said Alex. “She’s simply inactive. Turned off. She’s a prosthetic. She requires too much energy and thus cannot be run while we’re in flight. She’s never been alive, as such.”

Lady Veronica seemed only halfway convinced of this, but the government official had emerged from her cabin and approached the body on the bunk. She raised Tia’s left arm and let go (which Tia felt was perhaps a bit rude). It didn’t fall down, but simply remained upright.

“It’s a prosthetic,” she said. “I’m going back to sleep.” And then she left the room and returned to her cabin.

Spying the two other people in the doorway, Lady Veronica shook her hair out so that it regained its usual smooth shimmer and threw herself at Florence Matan, who was wearing what looked like a set of non-regulation flannel pajamas.

“Oh Florence, what a horrid experience. I am sure I shall never get to sleep tonight.”

Florence Matan put an arm around her and awkwardly patted her back.

Tia judged that to be a fine moment to intervene. “I do apologize for the confusion, everyone. This cabin should clearly have been more carefully locked. If everyone can return to their cabins, we should be reaching Martok 57 tomorrow, and I am sure everyone would like to be fully rested for our arrival. In the future, should anyone become confused as to their location at any moment, I am always available for consultation.”

The Institute official was still peering determinedly into the room, moving his eyes fixedly from the body on the bed to Alex in his bright green bathrobe and back. His eyes widened, and then he scampered back towards his cabin. Tia sighed inwardly. Well, that was a series of rumors that were going to circulate just a little more thoroughly than they had been hoping they would.

Alex ushered Florence and Lady Veronica out of the room and Tia noted with interest that they both went into Lady Veronica’s cabin. Well, if she had been wondering why exactly Lady Veronica had been wandering the corridors and attempting to get into bed with sleeping women, then that might clear that up. A triumphant end to the night for Lady Veronica, then, despite it all.

Alex shut the cabin door behind them all and threw himself down on the now quite ruffled bed. He leaned his head on Tia’s legs and looked up at the ceiling. “Well, Tia my love, I suppose we’re going to have to find somewhere else to keep this.” Then he started laughing. “Did you see the official’s face? My reputation is about to take a deep dip. Or is it climb?”

Tia gave a short laugh. “Well, you’re not the one who’s going to have to do a lot of explaining to their counselor, I’m sure.”

“You know I love you, don’t you?” Alex patted the wall next to him.

“Yes.” Tia sighed. “It’s going to take a bit of getting used to, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Alex. He paused. “Would you like to play chess?”

Tia laughed. They played chess the rest of the evening.

THE END