Cynthia stood statuesque, still, and straight watching the horizon and all the city bustling and spreading out hundreds of meters beneath the hovering ship. The enormous, City Proper, extended in all direction, to the horizon, even at this altitude, as far as she could see. From her vantage point, in front of the huge curving Perma-Sight windows, that were stronger material than the space steel surrounding them, her long arms encased in their skin-tight space suit hung almost totally still with her breathing, at her sides, as though she were in a trance.

She wasn't thinking of anything, specific, really, watching the generic movements of distant ground and air vehicles hurrying every which way near the surface. And while her face was blank of expression, standing there at the head of the ships roomy flight command center, she seemed calm and content, waiting for her docking assignment, when at last the com-link from the space port's tower clicked on, only then did she move.

"Proper Port Control, to Forcythe craft 21205B, over," spouted the speakers, leaving off the pre-seven digits for brevity.

"Forcythe here," she answered, not really bound to any official reply, speaking in a toneless but refined feminine voice while turning around without haste, stepping back to the black pilots console, then seating herself in the substantially complex flight chair.

"You are cleared for auto descent and landing procedures. Taxi, via runway eight, proceed to row seventeen, and docking berth 7-8-4. Please have flight and registration cards available for accounting and confirmation at time of touchdown."

"Understood, control," she said, already moving her hands across the huge, though conveniently angled panels in front of her. The ship itself was mostly controlled directly from there, although voice command was certainly easy enough from other locals within the ship.

"Port Control out," the voice said, rather dryly. Must be a long shift,she thought. He sounds more fatigued than I am.

Cynthia now busied herself with the descent through the cleared air lane that lead to the above ground taxis-way over the ports clean and very green grasses that lay between the permacrete fields filled with space craft.

Cynthia didn't like the computer landing her ship, preferring doing things like it on her own, even though the computers were quite capable. She always felt better controlling the Forcythe herself to keep sharp and in practice whenever she flew, even doing something as easy as docking the ship. It was still a skill and skills were kept sharp by practice.

There were thousands of craft in the docking yard, of all shapes and sizes, and hers was no exception. Her outer, swept back beams, containing the main thrust engines, were broadly spread and though inwardly mobile, for smaller fields, she liked them open in dock, as they were, locked outward when in a large port such as City Proper. It was easier to access for maintenance purposes, if need be.

Piloting past ship after ship, she quickly came to her 784 berth and rotated the Forcythe to starboard and backed it in easily, then lowered the ship to the ground.

Unlike so many craft that popped and pinged when settling onto any gravity laden grounds, hers did not. It was Syrillian-made and they made ships stronger and with tighter tolerances than most craft known to her. Cynthia still had payments to make on the ship but it was almost free and clear of debt now and all hers. She felt the minor jolt of the Forcythe touch down and began shutting most systems down.

Out of the undercut window in the forward floor, standing again, she noticed the field's port craft arrive with its single male accountant passenger. He was a bit like an account, anyway, although some captains called them, 'blood suckers'. They were always so eager to take a ship's money, right off the rock, to prevent any kind of cheating by unscrupulous captains that tried to skip planet and payment without notice. She supposed it was how she would run a port, but their eagerness was sometimes irritating. Still, she went below and cracked the round personnel hatch and stepped down the now extending narrow ramp.

She noticed the accountant watching her come down, or at least, watching her breasts shudder as she descended the steep angle, something she couldn't prevent. She was more than endowed, she knew, even in her tight fitting flight suit, but wished most men didn't fixate on her looks so much.

Being thus disgusted with them, for that and other reasons, Cynthia seldom went out with them, for the most part. It took an exceptional individual to attract her enough into spending a precious evening, in port, with someone of the opposite sex.

"Captain," said the man in greeting as stepped to the ground.

Cynthia gave him a nod as she approached the man with his electronic tablet, in hand, and gave him the two plastic cards filled with magnetic scanning information. The man thanked her as he took them from her, letting his lecherous eyes linger a bit long on her compressed chest, that still couldn't hide her figure enough for her liking, then scanned the cards quickly and handed them back. Cynthia heard the two consecutive approval beeps, then the accountant detached an item from the board and held out the retinal scanner for her. She took it and put it up to her left eye and heard the beep of it, also, then gave it back to him.

"Very good, Captain. . .Manning," he said, looking down at the readouts, not recalling her name from his original view. "Enjoy your stay on Ellian, in City Proper." It, Proper, was the planets capitol, named after some explorer that set down roots, here. "It's a beautiful city," he said, storing his machine in a leather-like pouch on his hip, then handing her a limited space port pass-key-card. It would give her access to the field and anything she needed, while in this port, at a price. The docking fees, she knew, where already accumulating out of her credit holdings. And they weren't cheap, either.

"Thank you," she said, turning away without a smile, heading back up the ramp. She could feel his eyes on her back, or more specifically, her backside, and she couldn't wait to get out of sight, but didn't hurry any. She wouldn't give the shallow creep the satisfaction of knowing his wandering eyes repulsed her but felt a sense of satisfaction as she backhand-punched the hatch button that sealed and locked the door.

She went upstairs, to one of the higher decks in the ship, to the securest of cargo bays, and made certain her single pallet of sealed product was still protected and intact, there, in the center of the large room. She didn't know, specifically what it was, the freight, only that it was an exclusive shipment. No other shipments, no other stops allowed. It paid well and completely covered that long passage to the planet, Ellian. She knew the corporation would soon collect it, tomorrow, after she told them she had arrived, but for right now, all she wanted to do was bathe and rest.

"Activate security bot," she said to no one, knowing the computer was always listening. She waited only seconds before hearing the padded foot falls of the one robot aboard jogging to her location.

"Mam," it said, reporting. He was as beautiful as any man she had ever seen though he was a particularly lethal machine, if not knowledgeable.

"Secure and guard this pallet until delivery," she told it. "Notify me if anything changes between now and then." The 'bot had full informational access to what was going on in and around the ship, and current cargo conditions, though she usually kept it inert and in its storage alcove. She wasn't always that comfortable around a thing like it, for the 'bot, being so theoretically dangerous to her, or anybody else that crossed her the wrong way, made Cynthia very uneasy. She did not like dangerous things, but he was still beautiful, and she let it out on longer jumps through space for company, conversation, and games, if nothing else. It could be extremely polite, gentle even, as well as soothing for her on those longer journeys.

But Malcom, as Cynthia called her robot, was a little too perfect for her tastes, too. She also found it disturbing that he could read her thoughts if and when he wanted to and his life-like presence could be dangerous to her, emotionally, as well, she'd often considered, if she were to fall in love with it. It had and did happen all too often, she knew, to lone pilots like her. She'd often read of other captains doing just that, male and female, both, with their all too perfect robot assistants. There were long lists of captains' downhill spirals and suicides occurring over robot lovers. 'More human than human', was the motto of the company that built them. It could devastate humans, they were that overwhelming and desirable, in every way, for when real people fell in love with them, it was completely. And when something unusual happened, as in the 'bots getting damaged or destroyed, or having to resell them during hard times, it could tear a person apart, she knew from those numerous reports. Apparently it was very difficult to let them go, psychologically. Cynthia always thought it was like being separated from a pet, but much more so, but didn't want to risk even that... Thus, she kept her distance, and her fear, quite alive. All machines had the potential to break down, she knew, and if Malcom ever did, she knew he could possibly do her severe damage.

The robot, himself, often expressed interest in keeping her accompanied on her journeys into port towns, not unlike City Proper, there. He wanted to experience new things, places, meet people and other robots, he'd told her before in his brief past, but she was always reluctant to let something like Malcom loose in a highly complex and social city, with all kinds of human and alien characters infesting places like this. Even though she knew it would never hurt or kill a human being, if her life wasn't at stake. He was completely loyal to her, in theory, and she had a soft spot for his kindnesses towards her, but still, giving over her complete trust to a machine like him was not something she was ready for, just yet, or might not be, ever. Still, he was so sweet.

She left Malcom on guard and was about to leave the bay when he got her attention with a gentle voicing of her name. Cynthia spun casually, again, and stopped when she saw his eyes, in their beautiful hue of living green, focused completely on her and her thoughts. His gaze was often disturbing. Amongst other things, he seemed completely enamored with her and she wasn't comfortable with that either.

"Would you consider letting me accompany you into port, this time? I'll certainly keep my distance from you in any personal way and not be a problem. I understand how you feel about me. But if I may supplicate your permission, I would be most grateful. As you know, my kind have human emotions embedded in our memories, the same as any living person, so, I would very much like to come with you and see what I'm missing in the human experience."

He was new, she understood that, and eager to learn things, being barely three years old, out of the factory. He had been a big help on board and had made her life much easier. Cynthia was glad she had paid the enormous fee for him, for he was great to have around, but she tried, always, to keep it in mind that he was still a machine. A potential hazard.

It was a respectful request, though, and she thought how sweet he was in asking permission the way he had . . .

"Let me think about it," she told the machine, and left the bay saying; "I'll be in my quarters if you need me for anything. I'm going to take a nap, if I can." She'd always had trouble sleeping since the millennium injections. Her mind was always busy and sometimes she felt like a child going through puberty, she was so restless.

The scientists didn't know how long people would or could live with the technology, but they thought a 'very great while' was a realistic possibility. There was no reason why people's bodies couldn't eternally rejuvenate themselves, it had been reported, back then, at their invention and then introduction. The geneticists thought that those treated would very likely live on forever, with a high degree of confidence. That had been fifteen years ago, for Cynthia, and she knew she looked so much younger now than when she first received the treatments, when she was twenty-seven. Those injections that stimulated the bodies own renewing, or, regrowth processes. Whenever she looked into a mirror she couldn't help but notice how she appeared to be a gorgeous, latter yeared, teenager. The serum also perfected the bodies ideal configuration after several years. She had no imperfections at all to skin or internals, now, and thus, the all too perfect body was hers forever.

All the deplorable imperfections in some male personalities, she noticed, or ran into and met, were extremely off-putting, these days. It may be a good thing the procedures were horribly expensive, she thought. She hated to think that 'some' men would live on forever.

Cynthia showered slowly, standing under the complete body spray for a long time, with the water temperature as hot as she could stand it. When she felt sufficiently exhausted from its heat, she turned the shower to dry and stepped into her inner room and slid beneath the soothing layers of sheets and warming blankets. She slept well for six hours, this time, and was almost, but not quite, refreshed when she awoke. The following day Cynthia informed then greeted the corporations collection team. She hadn't notified them of her arrival, right away, having gained the planet a day ahead of the early delivery schedule. But they were there now, at a little past ten a.m., local time.

She watched as they verified, with some kind of sophisticated scanning device, that the titanium and lead sealed container was theirs and that its contents, whatever it was, was really their cargo. After confirmation, it made them all smile like a group of small children. She assumed it was some kind of advanced electronics, given the corporation's reputation and secretiveness. She gave them the security codes to release the pallet from the flooring and they transferred the bonus money to her account right then and there. It was a healthy bonus, too, and most of them soon left with their cargo.

The leader of the acquisition team lingered a few moments longer and asked if she would be available for another transfer of goods anytime soon.

"Yes, of course," she answered the squinty eyed little man that represented the corporate entity. "I have a clear schedule as of now."

"Good," he said, adjusting his ear piece that was some kind of communication device. There were a million different kinds and this one looked particularly sophisticated. No doubt there was someone on the other end of it listening to her responses and/or giving him instructions. "I or someone from the company will contact you in three days or less. We'll give you sufficient warning so you can get back to your ship in time to receive the cargo. Again, it will be an exclusive shipment. You'll be in port and not traveling far, I take it?"

"Yes. I have no plans to leave the city."

"Good. I'll transfer a holding fee, for now," he said, and did so. "Very well. Until then . . ." he said, and bowed, briefly, then rejoined the others in the transports, outside the ship.

Cynthia watched as they left, rechecking the balance in her current banking statement on her multifunction forearm controller. It was there. All of it. It was a lot of money for that one shipment of goods, she noted. These companies were so wealthy, she'd always understood that, but it always surprised her how willing and generous they were to pay for some shipments, and she was from a wealthy family herself, years ago, and seemingly several lifetimes ago, in her past, and had been used to large sums of easy money. But these days, running her own ship, it was impressive how much collateral those companies must have at their command. She hadn't been home for many years, though, and she had gotten used to accounting for every dollar, these days, so, she was understandably impressed. So. . .at the moment, Cynthia was pleasantly satisfied with the exorbitance of the payment.

She turned and there stood Malcom, smiling, still in the bay with her. She was feeling good and made her decision in an instant. She'd feel bad if she said no to him, again. He had been so patient with her and had asked so nicely this time.

"Come on. Lets go to town," she said, rather tiredly, but, Damn him, she thought; That smile of his is too beautiful to ignore. Cynthia found herself returning it, disgusted with her weakness.

She didn't do anything but walk for the first forty or so minutes through the city streets between those huge glass and steel sky-scrapers and then found herself turning into a place she cold get a synthetic-alcohol drink, followed casually, by Malcom, of course. It was the stuff that stimulated and inebriated, but only to a certain level of intoxication, without all the after side effects of more liberal indulgences. Only the most desperate of drinkers drank the old damaging stuff. It was a foolish habit, she knew, to ingest that ancient distillation, just as smoking tobacco was, back when all humans lived on earth and so many were habituated to its toxins. They were both still legal, in most places, but tobacco was still used more sparingly, here and there, though most public places forbid its use in their establishments. City ordnance laws, that tolerated some use of the drugs, were often times very strict. Cynthia never understood the appeal, though, as it stank, ruined your health, in time, your physical appearance, and was loaded with poisons.

Malcom was perfectly silent and drank beside her, one position away, but Cynthia knew it didn't affect him in the least, the alcohol. That was good for he was acting as a bodyguard, too, more than a date or companion. The 'bots could enjoy and taste the things they ingested, but it didn't do much for them, other than processing the food and drink for added energy purposes.

She had never been out with him, like this, before, so close by, but knowing he was watchful over her, and not being obvious about it, was a bit calming, she soon found herself thinking. Cynthia even began to appreciate him, a bit more, for it. It was nice not having to watch her own back every second. She could indulge a little more and she knew her 'bot would always be nearby, keeping her from harm.

She allowed some flirting to go on, by other men, and let it go until the guys began touching her. It seemed it always came down to that, shallow, overbearing individuals that thought they had her under their spell, when 99% of them were clearly undesirable people, or things, if alien. The drink helped her withstand a certain amount of involvement, in conversation, but she drew the line there. She even had to bend back the finger of one persistent individual, dislocating his knuckle joint. He backed away soon enough, too, but spouted angry words until Malcom came up beside her and stared the creep down. Everyone knew, or at least suspected, he was a 'bot or a body guard, as big as he was . . . Though beautiful, Malcom's lovely features could easily give the impression of a serious threat with a simple glance and/or stare. The human wisely withdrew when he showed up beside her. Malcom left her side as the last attempt to fondle her body had ended and Cynthia, soon after, left the bar. She was glad to be out in the sunshine, again, feeling the warmth and wind on her face and bare arms, now in civies, walking free and open to the views of the huge, clean, metropolis. That accountant had certainly been right, it was a beautiful place. She walked through an open park and enjoyed strolling in the midst of the surrounding gleaming towers fully around its perimeter, in the downtown area. She watched and laughed with children playing in a water fountain installation, jumping over jets that turned off and on over the level surface, via sound sensors, timers, and motion detectors, laughing, screaming, being pleasantly surprised by jets of liquid that suddenly sprayed them with mists or streams of water. She went into a restaurant on the far side of the park and had a meal with Malcom. He engaged her in conversation and made her smile and laugh, something she seldom did, and if felt good to be there with a friendly face. Or, more precisely, a friendly and known robot. She had more drink but didn't feel any different from the mild buzz she had previously been feeling, but the taste of the drinks, with food, was wonderful.

"I noticed a play will be starting soon at a theater down the street," he told her. "Would you be interested in going to see it? They can be quite stimulating, I understand."

Cynthia thought and thought and slowly came to a conclusion. "Sure, why not. Do you know anything about it?"

"From the current reviews," she knew he was inter-connected with many wireless communications networks around and within the city boundaries. Malcom could be a great director for things currently going on; "It's about a love triangle between a peasant girl, a prince, and a villon. It's an operetta. It sounds like a pleasant piece of entertainment.

"When is it starting?"

"In about seventeen minutes," he said, without looking at any time device. He had his own internal clock, among a vast array of other features, she knew.

Too perfect for one man, she felt, but there he was, beautiful, brainy, and useful. How could any girl resist such a package? she thought. No wonder the human population is stagnant and decreasing in some places, with all these robots walking around for men and women to fall in love with. She knew she was a bit too inebriated to think clearly and tried to leave the mawkish thoughts behind as they left the restaurant, got into an air taxi, and quickly traveled to the theater down the avenue.

The play, or musical, or operetta, as Malcom had said, was touching in the extreme and she found herself weeping through much of it, but it finally ended on a happy note. The two main characters got together at the conclusion and lived happily ever after. At least that was the implication. In other words, a nice fantasy. Not in the least bit realistic, but a pleasant way to spend two hours.

They found themselves in several casinos, after that, playing games of chance, here and there, watching a nude floor show that was plastic and yet, beautiful, with its talented lighting, thin cloaks, and feathered renditions of hiding the simple but perfected human form amongst those generic strutting dancers, and their showy performance. Cynthia had a hard time deciding, and never did, if they were real or synthetic people. All this while she and Malcom, again, ate and drank their evening away, having elaborate tasting crustaceans dipped in real butter and salted with Parmesan cheeses. They were, of course, deliciously complimented by green salads, and bread. She enjoyed the visit to town, all to a point, and now, with it getting dark, the city came alive with other engaging features that dazzled and delighted the two of them.

Street performers, city wide entertainments of parades, fireworks of exquisite features, and such. Ice skating rinks, sophisticated scattered rides that flew thrillingly around and through buildings, freely through the air, all of it like an improvised Fantasy Land of pleasant engagements and display. Yet, in spite of it all, after some time, Cynthia grew weary of the noise and the crowds and they caught a taxi back to the space port.

Transferring to an automated pilot transporter, inside the fields facility, Cynthia soon realized how worn out she was from the constant drinking and the men that kept coming up to her, looking for the inevitable encounter they wanted out of any lovely woman or any species of female, alien or otherwise. At least some of them, and found herself thinking the time was almost wasted, because of those individuals. But sex. It was always the same with men, everywhere, sex. At least Malcom could carry on a conversation without gawking at her boobs all night. The aliens, also, in all their forms, were on and off disturbing. Some were quite repulsive even though most were as tame as most of the humans, just out on the town to engage in some entertainment and have a little fun and/or, find someone willing to have sex with them. She was glad to be rid of them all...

Cynthia leaned on Malcom, on the ride back to the ship, some kilometers away, and took his arm as he escorted her up to her quarters. She wouldn't let him leave and had him stay with her until she fell asleep. She didn't want him to make love to her, heaven forbid, even though his strong warmth and body was perfectly capable of it. No, she just wanted someone near for that time when she faded, falling asleep in his all-too humanistic arms.

When Cynthia awoke, Malcom was, of course, gone. He knew her needs and her mind and felt he was not offended in the least. He may have emotions like humans, as he informed, but he could switch them on and off at will, unlike her.

She showered and left her rooms and met Malcom in the cafeteria. He must have read my thoughts knew, that I wanted a light breakfast. Cynthia no more than sat down than he placed a lovely little setting before her with a plate of food that seemed all too perfect again, like him, in front of her. It was delicious and it stimulated her into feeling so good she felt like doing some ship's maintenance, afterwords, she felt so well.

In the midst of changing out some cylock rods, part of the containment system to the main engines, with Malcom at her side doing all the heavy work, she got a message from the corporation over her com link through the ship's messaging system. Their freight would arrive in two hours and they wanted an immediate launch. The cargo was extremely precious and would be a single item, as before, with exclusive rights to the ship's transportation. It would pay more than the last cargo, though the why of it was not given, but she could hardly complain. They paid extremely well and Cynthia felt she could live with that . . .

"We'll be waiting," she said, including Malcom in her statement, in her thoughts, at least, though they didn't question her answer, and quickly ended the communication.

"We've got another job, Malcom. Let's finish this and get cleaned up for the jump."

He smiled his beautiful smile and went back to work while she watched his intoxicating synthetic muscles contract and relax under his golden brown skin. With his tunic off, gleaming with sweat, Cynthia's peremptory thoughts wanted to reach out and touch him, take the robot to some secret corner and let him do in perfection what she only imagined it would be like, but the fantasy quickly ended as he glanced her way, smirking. No. It would never happen, she was sure of that, and left Malcom to finish up and get away from his reading her thoughts, at least, in front of her. They were just fantasies, she assured herself. He was a machine, for heaven's sake. Yuck!

A different team showed up, this time. At least she didn't recall seeing any of them before. They stood waiting at the end of the loading ramp, staring up at Cynthia standing on the edge of the low, inner bay, as it opened, the long ramp extending downward. She glanced out across the field, somewhat concerned, and saw no cargo carrier approaching. There was no pallet of cargo nearby, either. One of the taller men, dressed like the rest, who carried himself as if he were a member of some kind of diplomatic core, was extremely pretty and seemed to be the most distinguished amongst them, came up the long metal ramp as it clanged to a modest stop on the ground.

He had very blue eyes and a slightly tanned face and hands. His hair was dark and his cheeks seemed flushed with youthful color. She knew he couldn't be much past his mid twenties, if that . . . He wore a long overcoat of purest, cleanest, blue/black, and a high collared shirt of the same deep shade. Pants, belt, and knee high, skin tight boots matched the mysterious darkness of his impressive presence, there. The wind blew gently over his forehead making him seem larger than life and very handsome. He stepped up in front of her with a small smile. His teeth, she saw, were very white and his eyebrows quite expressive as he spoke.

"I'm the cargo, Captain Manning," he addressed her. "Our destination will be, Fall Run, in the Hartman Nebula. I have the exact coordinates, here," he said, handing her a folded piece of pale yellow paper retrieved from his coat's inner pocket. The ink was dark brown, the accepted color of royal communicates.

He must have known I was confused,Cynthia thought, as she glanced over the paper. His name was Sir Charles Napier, of the Queen's Court of Ellian and he was to be transported to his destination with all dispatch. She had almost misplaced the information from her thoughts of this planet being a monarchy, but was that corporation part of it? Probably, she figured. There was no purpose given on the paper. It wasn't something she needed to know and she didn't ask.

"I believe your payment has been forwarded," he said, glancing back to one of the men on the field, below. They could hear them well enough. A nod was given and Sir Charles looked back on her. His eyes were so very blue, she saw, and filed that bit of info' away, somewhere, under Gorgeous.

She thought it rude to confirm that her money was there, in front of he and his gentlemen, and let it go.

"Shall we leave then?" she said, with perfect modulation in her voice, even though there was still surprise and some nervousness inside her. She wished they had given her notice before this, of his connection to the autocracy, but she was certain it was because of security reasons. Royalty, or near royalty, was always cautious, weren't they? She remembered that, all too well, growing up.

"That would be most welcome," he said.

It sounded as if he were in some kind of danger, from local sources, she surmised, and raised her forearm with its multi-controller already powered up. "Heilkator ballinn," she said in her native tongue and the ramp began to pull away from the permacrete while the huge, thick, overhead bulkhead doors began lowering, to seal the main bay and the entire ship.

Cynthia glanced outside one last time then turned away from them and her passenger. "Follow me," she said, without formality, not feeling the need to trip over herself with overly mannered conversation aboard her own ship. Even if Sir Charles was a Lord, under the local government, it wasn't her government and he wasn't her Lord.

With the passenger tucked away, Cynthia went up to the flight command center and was not surprised to find Malcom already there. He was fully capable of piloting the ship but he had taken liberties, not unappreciated, by preflighting many of the more elaborate and slow to boot up systems.

"I knew you might want to get going right away, so I got the ship prepared, captain."

She glanced Malcom's way, briefly, and gave him a softly worded, "Thank you," letting it go at that . . . She always did this, the preflight, but she saw no harm in letting him help, this one time.

Cynthia brought the ship up off the permacrete and maneuvered the space craft out into the wide taxi lane. They crawled just above ground along a blue guidance line until there was clearance to head out across a kilometer wide field of covered ground to their assigned launch bar position. The launcher was constructed in the middle of the port, one of three, and made of thick steels and synthesized solids filled with electronic. The small one was nearly three hundred meters wide and angled upward like a ring of enormous daggers pointed towards that blue and unseen darkness of the heavens.

When they got the okay from the tower, Cynthia raised the level of thrust to launch levels, angled the ship to parallel the daggers, then hit the launch lever that flipped forward and released the enormous power of the Forcythe to the reversal of the magnetic field in the planet. The ship thrust upward like a slingshot, and just as invisible as a slingshot's pebble, it passed through the air as if it wasn't a barrier to deal with, and wasn't. Within seconds they were in space again, with the noise of those huge engines completely negated of their deafening roars, back on the ground. The locals hardly cared that a space port was near as they could not hear any noise from it, nor smell any kind of fumes from the light-beam propulsion, for their were no exhausts or fumes with that ancient but perfected tech' and all the sound cancelers surrounding the entire port's perimeter.

Leaving the solar system, after the first minute or so, Cynthia watched the graphics and kept an eye on the preset course before letting the computer take over, completely, and make the jump to cruising speed, sitting amazed, as she always was, during launch. Monitoring, she noted as the ships view of the local stars disappeared, when they jumped into gravity drive. The entire 30 degrees of power collection, from the galaxies gathered force, had been fed into the engines and they were now well on their way to their destination with hardly any sensation of movement. It would still take sixteen days to reach their focal point, Fall Run, in the Hartman Nebula, but at the speed they were traveling, nothing could likely catch or disturb their journey or trajectory. At these speeds, she knew, their atoms became something very close to electrically charged beams of plasma light, without mass or form, and would pass around or through almost anything, including suns, planets, nebula’s, not to mention any roving bits and pieces of space rock, other ships or anything known or not. Not that they could detect any of that; it all seemed normal to them. It was a marvelous piece of engineering that came out of old earth, where it had been invented by a group of dreamers, nerds, as they were once known and called themselves, back them. Cynthia quickly thanked another group of engineers for their negating tech' that canceled out inertia and gravitation forces for the passengers inside these kinds of ships, as she always loved the travel. Without both, the human race would have been stuck to a few simple round rocks back in their ancient solar system, in a far flung edge of another galaxy.

She set the system to auto, perfectly at ease it would safely find its own way across the galaxy. The ship could easily take care of itself until their destination was reached. Firstly, though, Cynthia would go check on her passenger.

"Have you got something to keep you busy, Malcom?"

"You don't want me to shut down?"

"Not if you keep busy."

"Thank you. Yes, there are a number of things I can do. Where will you be, if I need to contact you?"

"Checking on the passenger and maybe go for a swim, after. I want to do some reading, too. I'll be in my quarters, unless something changes."

"Very well, Mam. Let me know if I can help with anything."

"I will," she said, and left the flight command almost echoing her words with its high ceiling that reached to the upper decks.

The passenger, Charles Napier, or, more accurately put, she had to remind herself, 'Sir Charles Napier', was standing just outside his quarter's hatch when she came by to check on him.

"Everything okay?" she inquired.

"Yes, thank you. I was wondering if you could show me around, a bit. I'm not used to space flight and this ship is enormous."

It wasn't, she knew. It was a relatively modest cargo ship.

She reached just inside the bulkhead of his quarters and took a small hand held tablet off the wall. It was about 70 by 120 millimeters, and gave it to him.

"This is a directional pad for the ship. It will show you around and warn or restrict you from anyplace that's dangerous for you to visit. There's a lot of places even I can't go, so heed it's warnings. But I'd be glad to show you around to a few of the most visited places you'll likely want to go while on board. Come on. I'll introduce you to the galley. Its all automated, you know. You can get almost any kind of dish you can dream up in there. It's crystal technology, so feel free to indulge yourself."

"What shall I call you, when we bump into each other? You can call me Charlie. No need for fancy protocol out here, is there?"

"No. None at all. You can call me Manning. Come on then, " she smirked. She knew from her own experience that nobles, lords, what have you, even the highest of royalty, were nothing more that figure heads and just people when you got them away from their puffed up stations in life. She was not impressed, especially, even though he was a pretty man, and someone she wouldn't mind stepping out with under different circumstances. But she kept it to herself and didn't disrespect him in some off coded spacer fashion. She treated him like any other passenger and only that...

Cynthia showed him the galley, the ships rec' area, the main lap-pool, where she never went, and various other entertainment spots. There was also the actual, 'hold in your hand' book-library, a lot of her passengers seemed to enjoy, then, left him there with his directional pad.

"I don't often interact with the passengers," she said. "I'm too busy to play," which of course was as big a lie as she usually ever told. But it was how she liked to keep it; detached and professional. "If you need anything, or you can't figure out the pad, hit voice, it'll walk you back to your quarters or wherever it is you want to go. Is there anything else you require?"

"No. I think this is all I need, for now. Thank you. Will we be dining together?"

"No."

"I see."

"My meals are often brief and the times erratic. Good day, then, Charlie," she emphasized his name with a friendly smile, and left.

"Good day, Captain Manning," he replied as she went, feeling eyes on her rear, as usual.

Cynthia and Napier hadn't seen each other for several days when they passed each other in a spacious technical compartment, on opposite sides of the space, and on different walkways. The spacious chamber was a big block of a compartment that had huge metallic tubes going vertically, with shinning metal routings going every which way, in and out of or along side this and that feature throughout the exposed bulkheads, machinery, or sub systems that either hummed clicked or were disturbingly silent in their unknown functions that merely waited for their purpose of being to activate, if ever. Machines were like that; dependent on outside human activity.

"Are you lost?" she shouted across the deep overhead and disappearing void below the compartment.

"No. I was just exploring," he countered. "It's quite the ship," he said. "Any chance you could explain a few things, if you have the time?"

Cynthia didn't want to and avoided the inquiry. "Maybe later," she said, and turned away as he waved, while she disappeared into an automated hatch that closed with a muffled thud, then a hiss, behind her.

I hate small talk and flight rookies, she thought walking fast and thinking.

"Malcom, where are you?" Cynthia asked, traveling a relatively empty passageway filled with background clicks and blinking lights. The computer transferred her voice to Malcom.

"I'm on R deck, bulkhead C, near sub-room eight. Can I help you?"

"No, stay there," she said, and left it at that.

She had been thinking of and watching Charles Napier, off and on, for a day, but did so from a hidden distance. She wanted to see what he was doing with his time, but she also liked his appearance, as if that meant anything, knowing it didn't, but it wasn't often she had as distinguished a passenger on board. And being a man, she was more than a little curious about his habits and what he was like under all that polish and excellent choice in clothing.

Even as old as Cynthia was, she was rather naive through innocence, in the ways of men. She could have gotten closer to him by interacting, but she was shy about that kind of thing, not without good reasons, and always had been. Plus, he was a man of influence and if he did something that she found inappropriate, and she rejected such advancements, for she would, no question about that, there’s no telling what kind of fallout might occur if he was a childish, revengeful brute,

'Love rejected'. No. It would be foolish to get involved with someone of his station, even in such a wide open universe as this. You just never knew what kind of people, real people, were like inside. And thus, Malcom. He helped her understand a lot of things.

She had never let the robot get close to her, in any intimate way, but she was feeling a bit left out of it; The whole man-woman thing, and thought he might be able to help by just being around the pretty thing. It always seemed to advise and soothe her. Even though a 'bot like him was repulsive, if she thought long enough about it, that he was just metal and a synthesized imitation, she was still letting him stay out of the alcove for this trip as a mediator for her feelings against this man, Napier.

So off she strutted, down into the bowls of the ship after Malcom. They could at least talk, couldn't they? That should relieve the bit of anxiety she was currently feeling.

Watching the robot work on replacing electrical circuits, in a blurred motion, leaning against a bulkhead with her arms folded, Cynthia enjoyed his perfectly timed movements, speeding up like a digital image, slowing again while working intricately with delicate parts, then flowing like a bird taking flight and back up to speed, again. She did like the naked beauty of his upper torso, that near-ideal that he was. What she saw, really delighted her. He honestly was the most perfect thing she'd ever experienced in life. Artificial, yes, but beautiful in the extreme that some women might weep to have attentions from, though she wasn't one of them, she'd always felt. Eventually she wondered if he was listening to her thoughts, .

"Yes. Yes I am, Cynthia," he said, slowing, then stopping what he was doing and looking at her with a lovely appearance to his face. It wasn't a smiling face, but his countenance changed somehow into a sensitive and friendly, pleasant refinement, but one of sincerity and persuasiveness, too, she recognized. eventually"I understand loneliness," he continued. "I can feel that in the deepest sense, within myself. Can we talk about it, now?" he asked, but continued without an answer from Cynthia. "It might help you feel less anxiety about our passenger. Remember, I'm always here and always your friend. You don't have to be afraid of me. I wouldn't hurt you. I couldn't. You may not understand how deeply embedded our programing is concerning harming our masters and you, Cynthia, are mine."

Malcom set his equipment down, and came to her, stood closely in front of her vulnerability, she felt, for he must know, but Cynthia, almost automatically, took a step backward, still a bit apprehensive about his nearness. At least this kind of nearness. She had always needed his help, yes, and even though he was downloaded with every skill a human might require of it, his deadly military training was one she simply could not trust or get past. Or, hadn't up to this point, without liquor, and knowing she still most likely couldn't.

I wish I had a few stiff drinks, in me, right now, she fantasized. I wasn't afraid of him that night we came back from City Proper. Why now?

"You don't need drinks, Cynthia. Take my hand," he offered, and she took it rather quickly, she felt, feeling dumb again about remembering how he could read the minute electronic flows of thought going through her brain. "I'm as real as anyone. Come here, please?" he asked, and pulled her in, gently holding her to his warmth and feeling the luxurious sensuality of his beautiful muscles beneath his lovely (and as real as hers) skin. She also felt the all too real bump of his artificial heart beating, and she let herself willingly embrace him.

"That isn't frightening, is it?"

"No," she answered, and paused. "It feels—nice."

"Okay. That's a step in the right direction. Just know that I am here for you in whatever capacity you may need me. I have been very happy with you, serving aboard the Forcythe. It's a beautiful ship and you are a competent captain and wonderful person. We can have a long and fruitful career together, if you'll simply trust me and let me be a part of your life. I want to be a part of it and be here for you, Cynthia."

Was this where men and women on other ships fell out of control, falling for their robots? she couldn't help but wonder, as she found herself embraced by Malcom, finding out how much she was loving it. How could any normal man compete with someone like him? But how could she lower herself to the level of falling for something as basic as a machine and an artificially constructed being, a robot, of all things? Something she knew to be morally and ethically wrong, but, there it was, she realized, and always doing her best to be honest with herself, Cynthia understood at last, she still wanted this.

Yes. She wanted Malcom. He was good, clean, respectful. It was true. Look how I'm mooning over him and all he's ever done is hold me. Damn. Damn. Double damn. In some far off corner of her mind, she loathed herself.

"Don't think like that, Cynthia," he said, stroking her back and rolling her hair between his folding fingers, pulling them through her locks in a fashion she wished would never end. "I am artificial life, that is true enough, but I am still a living being. I am living for you whether you want me to or not. I am always yours. May I quote a portion of a poem for you that I've come to love? It expresses how I feel, in some sense, and could perhaps, partially explain the situation we find ourselves in at the moment."

"Go ahead," Cynthia said, her head still resting on his chest, her body now relaxed up against he and that god-like warmth.

Cynthia felt his chest expand, just as any persons would, beginning to quote something, now, out of some obscure poem he knew;

"I wrote my will across the stars, gathering
Your arms to me, for
Love's sake, taking
You into those worlds that would soon be ours, where
It came to us, written
Upon beams of light out of my hands, and
Over yours, my
Lips speaking your name again and again, our
Hearts forever joined within this mask we both love."

Malcom was silent as he let the words sink in, she felt, especially the last five words '. . .this mask we both love'. His life? His imitation of man? She had never heard that poem before, or that part of it, she was quite certain, but it spoke of something she had never known or thought of much. True and lasting affection, she thought it was saying, or expressing, and hadn't known such a thing from someone in or outside her family before. That damned royal link to her former life and home world. No. She'd never return there. She'd been on her own for too many years to care about that supposed family in the least. She was happy enough on her own.

"We're changing course," Malcom said, pushing Cynthia away, a little.

"We're what?"

She looked up to see his face staring off into the distance, as he was known to do when gathering information.

"We're changing course," he repeated.

"It's our passenger, Cynthia. Sir Charles Napier -- Captain! He's changed the course to . . . yes, I feel it. Yes, it's coming in fast, now. We're re-logged to the flight coordinates for your home world, Hinterkol. He's entered and downloaded a sleeve of encrypted information. I don't think we can break it anytime soon. It's quite elaborate. What do you want to do?" Malcom asked, somewhat excited now.

She was already storming across the deck plates towards a distant ladder.

"Stop me from kicking his sweet little ass into the airlock and opening the outer hatch," she vowed, thru clenched teeth.

Malcom followed her at a matching pace as they scurried up decks to the flight control center.

Both of them entered the area together when Sir Charles stepped briskly out from behind a huge holed I-beam that was painted dark gray, lying in wait for them behind it, in some deep shadow. He raised a hand held blaster with purpose, and even though the 'bot reacted, Sir Charles didn't hesitate and blew the head of Malcom to bits and pieces.

Cynthia jerked, yelping and jumping aside at the deafening sound within the compartment and froze as it echoed away into the further reaches of the Forcythe. She stood in shock as she watched Malcom's remains crumple to the deck plates with a heavy thud.

The smell of burned hydraulic oil and other materials instantly filled the air. Malcom's head chinked and rattled in confusion and disorder for several seconds, with rings and gears, and facial plates, or pulverized smoking electronics an plastics, all the internals of his synthetic skull spun or ricocheted with abandon around the room like so much light shrapnel, bouncing off her body and legs without damaging her, thankfully, and settling at and around her flight shoes. The reddish film of the fluid fanned out behind Cynthia as if the bot had been alive, with the lingering explosive boom echoing, still, in her ears as she stood staring at the mess. The hydraulic fluid began to drip down the housings of various instruments and conduits of bulkhead, behind her.

Cynthia slowly glanced at Napier as he readjusted his hand weapon. "I won't kill you, Princess Navaul, but I will hurt you, if you don't do exactly as I say. And don't bother to deny it. Lie face down on the deck with your hands behind your head." She was too much in shock at the sight of Malcom's headless body to react to the sudden attack and instructions. And, he knew her actual name, too. That wasn't good. "Do it now," the man shouted in a deafening voice.

She didn't move fast enough for him and a foot connected with her diaphragm. She flew violently backward and bounced off the machinery, then fell to the filthy deck gasping for air and feeling a sharp pain in her middle. She almost knew she was going to be sick.

Before she fully comprehended what had happened, Cynthia was handcuffed, yanked to her feet, and pushed along the passageway, in a direction only he knew where they were headed. Before she collapsed again, just meters down the hall, he told her; "Mommy and Daddy are going to love having you back, sweetie." He didn't try picking her up, this time, for she was gasping to breathe. Instead, the cruel, beautiful man grabbed a handful of her tightly wrapped ponytail and dragged her along the steel of the deck. She reached for her hair, grimacing, but was too weak and in too much pain to find it and tear away his fist or cry out.

There was a small, opened pump room, further down, and he further picked her up by the wide belt, locked tight around her narrow waist, and threw her, without ceremony, into the subdued light of the spartan space. Cynthia's head contacted the far bulkhead in the small chamber. The concussion with it hurt and made lights flash in her mind and dizzied her thoughts. She heard the manual hatch slam shut and the light from the passageway disappeared with the noise it made final and ending She was alone and hurting, feeling something viscous, and warm, spreading through her hair and down one side of her head. It was blood, she knew, and tried to lay still. She tried to breathe comfortably, but she was too hurt to know what comfort was at the moment.

As her senses slowly returned, making their way gradually up into her conscious mind through the pain, Cynthia realized her worst fears; She was being forcibly returned to her parents and the monarchy of that old life she had fled, long years, now, in her past. Back to everything she always hated about it and loathed them both all the more, her onetime distant parents. They alone were responsible for this, she knew. This Sir Charles Napier, she had no doubts, was a fake title, and probably a bounty hunter, hired by them or some constituent of the staff to the realm, probably, with orders to bring her back at any cost to her personal comfort, but probably alive, and probably intact, with both arms and legs. That sounded like them. She knew they would probably gloat and ridicule, enjoy there prized little princess, again, within limits. There was no love in them, those two, not that she'd ever experienced, and couldn't believe, with any rational part of her mind, that they had changed. It was all about appearances to them. Pomp and ceremony, and lies.

She wouldn't stay long, Cynthia knew. She'd get out of there, somehow, like before, no matter how well they guarded her. That was the one thing that would help her endure this humiliation. The one hope and that was her freedom. Then she slipped away again, thinking of Malcom's sudden death.

Poor Malcom. He was gone.

It was a very long time before the bounty hunter returned. He opened the hatch, maybe two days later, she thought. Light from the passageway flooded in and and hurt her eyes with its brilliance.

He carried some water, in a clear bottle, and a food stick wrapped in its packaging. The bounty hunter threw out the belt she had removed from her waist, trying somehow to release herself from the cuffs. He pulled her up to a sitting position by the collar of her tunic, and opened the water. It was at least a large bottle of water as she was very thirsty. He fed the water and food to her, remarkably gentle, but without a word, then tossed the packaging out the hatch. He was very cautious, she thought, not leaving anything behind for her to make a weapon. She knew a few things, too, and that's what she would have done.

After eating and drinking, he grabbed her and forced her face down onto the deck plates, again, and removed her handcuffs, a knee grinding into and hurting her lower back.

"Sit up and take off your clothes," he ordered, and rocked back onto his knees, leaning against the far wall while crossing his arms over his chest, watching her.

Cynthia rolled over and looked up at him. She knew what was coming. He wasn't smiling, though, and he held a lethal looking folding knife, unfolded, in his left hand.

"Undress or I'll cut them off," he said.

He paused for a few more seconds while she didn't move.

"I'll cut you too, along with them. Take everything off," he screamed in the small compartment. The sound made her ears hurt.

She did as he told her and tossed the clothing to him, whereupon he threw them out the hatch, like everything else.

He enjoyed his staring, she assumed, as he was smiling at the last. "Face the wall again and give me your hands."

She did it. He cuffed her again and left. She was certain he was going to rape her. That was some relief. But the steel of the little compartment was cold. Very cold, like the air in there.

The next day he returned with more food and more water. He began his feeding her and when he leaned back, this time, to stare at her body, he began unbuttoning himself, but then an arm shot into the room and hit him square on the side of the head with a closed fist. The bounty hunter bounced against the bulkhead, out-cold.

It was Malcom. His head looked in. It was all metallic. It had no skin, but a new head of finely arranged materials had replaced the one that had been destroyed.

"Malcom!" she nearly shouted. "How did you..."

"The ship understood the situation," he told her, looking for and finding the keys to her handcuffs, speaking in a slight tinny voice. "It ordered my body to get up, when it was clear and safe to do so. It can operate my body remotely, you see, and had it walk to the machine room's repair facility." He unlocked Cynthia's bindings and attached the handcuffs to the bounty hunter. "It's all automated, down there, you know. That's where my spare parts are stored, and where the ship could install it, in time. For a computer, it sure works slowly. That's why it took me so long to free you."

"But how do you know about this? Do you remember anything?"

"Of course. I guessed that he would attack you. Most men, bounty hunters especially, would. Most of my functions, memories, and skills are stored in my central core, here in my chest," he pointed with one hand, tossing her some clothes with the other, he must have brought with him. "My head is nothing more than a guidance monitor and controller, when I'm conscious." He paused, seeing the blank expression on her face and caulking his head to the side. "You never did read my manual, did you?"

Of course not, she thought. It's over four hundred pages long.

The metal head smiled, and though it was all mechanical, Cynthia smiled in return. They'd get some new skin applied at the next port of call, very far from Hinterkol. But what of the new destination?

"Malcom!" she spoke up with desperation. "We've got to change course," she spoke with some urgency.

"I took care of it," he said, holding up his palm, hoping to calm her. "I got his sleeve and got the code from his mind. I was able to undo the changes and reset the course to a friendly planet. I've also changed the ship's name and registration information, reprogrammed your cards and name. You're now Cynthia Zann, out of the planet, Farcill."

Cynthia stared at him and marveled at his efficiency.

"What should we do with him?" Malcom asked, pointing with his metallic chin, meaning the out-cold and crumpled up man.

"First things first," she said. "Take off his clothes."

Malcom glanced her way. He was smiling as he quickly tore every stitch of the bounty hunters garments away.

At the airlock, they waited for the supposed Sir Charles Napier to awaken before opening the doors. He was holding his head from the now bleeding blow Malcom had give him, but he was aware of his surroundings and what was about to happen, glancing around. At least he didn't whimper about it. He was pretty brave for a woman-beater and would-be rapist, she thought. With the little air that was in that small space, next the outer personnel door, he didn't shoot out of the compartment when the hatch opened. She deactivated the gravity in there first and knew the shock of cold space was a surprise, as it would be for anyone. He crumpled up, floating, and died slowly, gazing into her eyes, grimacing, trying not to scream or communicate and didn't.

The man floated outward rather slowly, after he shivered violently and passed out, dying shortly thereafter, his eyes cracking with the extreme cold as they froze staring at her, his body quickly becoming a solid. The stiff form floated far aft and past the ship's fantail before Cynthia closed the outer hatch. It was surprising to her, how little she felt at his passing. You're becoming a hardened bitch, aren't you? she told herself. "Where did you route us to?" she asked Malcom, turning to face the metal head and ragged neck skin joining.

"Regolith. The third planet. We shouldn't have any problems getting cargo, there. And I'm assuming, you'll want my repairs completed. There is a facility there, too. Its a small place, but adequate for our current needs."

"Sounds, good. Let's get on with that maintenance you began a few days ago. I'll be in my quarters," she said, strolling away.

"Yes, Captain."

"Call me Cynthia, from now on," she told her 'bot, not looking back, and continued on down the passageway listening to the sound of her light shoes swishing over the deck plates.

She sighed heavily when she got to her quarters, leaning back on the closed door, and shutting her eyes, exhausted.

She thought of Malcom, again, and then, thought some more, feeling so glad that he was 'alive', again.

What am I doing?


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