arin Roberts yelled over the machine noise in the aft engine bay, "Hey! Merriam. Come back here and give me a hand with this."

In response, the gleaming female robot stored her probe-driver in the tool bag strapped on her silver hips and fluidly joined her Captain in the hot cramped space where he was laboring.

"Hold this streamer in place while I tighten the bolts." Neither expecting nor receiving a verbal answer from the robot, Roberts positioned the mass of steel and aluminum up to its fixed mounting bracket with both hands and a grunting noise, supporting it with a bent knee, beads of sweat rolling off his brow. "Right about here should do it," he motioned with his head.

Dutifully, Merriam reached down with one feminine robotic arm while supporting herself with another and easily held the 200 kilo drive system part, a dense fuel Streamer, with one expandable hand. Her master, the Captain, inserted and spun the long titanium bolts into place and snugged them firmly with an air spanner. She released her powerful grip and watched Darin finish setting the bolts with a calibrated torque wrench.

"All right, thanks," Darin told her with some satisfaction as he sat on his haunches, having finally completed the work after hours of sweaty labor, "that should do it. Let's try it out." But with a question suddenly entering his mind, Roberts turned to his first and only shipmate and asked, "You did get the new computer chips replaced, didn't you, and programmed?"

"Yes, Darin," replied the perfectly modulated voice. Her response sliced through the engine bay's humming hot air like a refreshing cool breeze. "I haven't opened the circuits, but that won't take more than a moment or two. I'll shock them into operation with the nitrogen right after I seal the phases."

"Good work, Merriam. When you're finished, clean both areas. I'll meet you up on the bridge in half an hour. I'm going to go shower and have a shave," he said, rubbing the dark stubble on his chin. "We'll see if we can get this thing cruising again. We're a day and a half behind schedule as is."

"Yes, Captain, I mean Darin."

He smiled her way in understanding, as he stood to his full two meter height and walked away.

Merriam was polite and always obedient, as per her programming, attempting to become more relaxed and casual after being told to drop the 'Captain' address, some weeks back, by her master. "At least when we're alone," he told her. But it was continually hard and alien to go against her programming, though getting easier. But I can learn, she thought, the same as any human being. Still--it feels odd, going against those factory implants.

She bent over the tools Darin had used, storing them in the red box the Captain had worked out of, watching his back as he left the area. He glanced over at the newly installed supplement of fuel-control chips she'd been working on as he passed by and disappeared into the next corridor of busy humming machines and twisted ducting, following the line of cable and chips around the bulkhead's corner. He then came back into view and gave a thumbs up signal, smiling at her. She returned his grin. Darin was always satisfied with the work she'd done and her beautiful synthetic chest swelled with pride.

Back in the ships flight control cockpit and freshly returned from his shower, Darin was dressed in a clean crisp sounding flight suit. He spoke enthusiastically to Merriam; "Okay--lets see if this sucker will fire up."

Merriam noticed his cleanliness, how handsome he looked all washed and cleaned, shaved and smelling like fruits. It always made her proud of him, the way he took care of himself and the ship. She had seen the opposite in other freighter captains and they weren't pretty sights. Merriam was very satisfied she was part of his world, even in this smallish freighter and not owned by some huge corporate conglomerate with their enormous indifferent crews and chains of command. She had read reports of conditions aboard those huge city-size freighters. This one-on-one with Darin was so much nicer.

Briefly she recalled the hour she'd first seen the captain, the day he picked her up at the factory. She'd been standing with head and eyes straight ahead, when she noticed something in her synapses flicker. A white light flamed across her vision in a way she knew wasn't normal, though, it made her feel--better. It loosed her cognitions and, for whatever reason, Merriam felt freer, less restricted by her previous programming. A short-circuit? Whatver it was, it had strongly affected her program, affected it so that she knew something had failed in her positronic brain but did not feel like reporting it -- another verification that there had been a failure of something deep within her mind. Maybe the human downloads did something different, with me, she mused. All the robots used scans from real humans to adapt them to everyday functions.

Maybe the human downloads did something different, with me, she mused. All the robots used scans from real humans to adapt them to everyday functions.

Unlike all the other duplicates in her row, she became curious and looked over at the human as he approached. The gesture made him notice her and she dropped her blue eyes, embarrassed, then lifted them in the repose of being at attention, like all the others. The man came and stood with a wide stance in front of her, asking pertinent questions about ships and engineering, his arms crossed over his broad chest, his handsome face calm, his voice steady. When he seemed satisfied with her answers, he stared into her life-like colored man-made eyes, she remembered, not knowing what he was thinking. When he had finished staring, he looked down and around her gleaming chromium body, fully circumnavigating her ideal frame that was as fully functional as any human woman's was, and able to satisfy a man's every reproductive desire. It would have made her blush, she thought, if she'd had the capacity to and she wondered, too, if he wanted her for pleasure as well as work?

"My name is Captain Darin Roberts," he said. "Would you like to come work for me?" She nodded her head and immediately thought it was too little of a response and answered him vocally; "It would be my pleasure, Captain." Then he smiled in his cute way, she recalled, and asked her to follow him to purchasing, where he acquired her for a small fortune. It was a curiously fond memory, for Merriam, and one she actually cherished.

She watched Darin sit in his pilot seat while a groan escaped his throat.

"Okay! Let's open her up and see what she'll do, now. I'm starting the Glow-Worm," Darin told her.

Merriam sat in her pavilioned pilot's chair, the frame constructed of iron, aluminum and gold alloys that hydraulically extended out of the floor at her will and command, her under-forearm and aft-calf seams opened and connected to the controls in her seat, locked now into place along their rests. She could communicate and run the ship directly with those interfaces and the small numbered key-pads in front of her highly dexterous hands. A force field bubble initiated and filled with a mixture of inert gases. Merriam and the ship were completely symbiotic, now, and her advanced mind and body were ready. She was the real pilot, but subject to the will of her captain.

They heard no sound yet there seemed to be something building, if only on the instrument readouts. Merriam could sense the sub-sonic vibrations of the basic drive but even she, with all her tech, couldn't actually hear it till it got to a higher operational parameter. Gravity drive was a powerful solemn field of technology that was almost limitless, but very nearly silent, and it could be a fickle servant. There was a fine line in keeping it operational or broken down. Even though she knew the intricacies of most systems in use on star-freighters like theirs, it was an ongoing learning process, even for her, as upgrades were constantly being made by engineers.

"Temperature peaking. Open the jets," ordered Darin.

"Opening jets," she complied, loving the opportunity of service.

"We're moving, again! Bring her up to a tenth of one."

After a moment of adjustment she said, "Ten percent of one. Drive fully on line, now. All systems functional and within limits."

"You sensing any problems with that Streamer I rebuilt?"

"No. It seems to be working. You did a fine job, Darin." He didn't seem to hear her compliment as he concentrated on information.

Even with all her knowledge and abilities, Merriam realized, she and the ship really did need a human helping hand. They seemed to have intuitions and thoughts not built into her robotic processors. Darin somehow knew that the fuel Streamer and the old chips might be the cause of their former problem and Merriam was just the slightest bit disturbed by that because her sensors and the ships showed nothing at all wrong with them. She had always concluded, of course, that as a machine, she was certainly more gifted in most operational duties they performed together, but she always wanted to be more than what she was and to improve herself in all the varied facets of her creation. In other words, to be more human, like her master and creators.

"Thanks," he finally acknowledged her compliment. "Keep bringing it up till we reach eighty-five percent of full throttle. We've got to make up the time we lost."

"Understood and complying," she replied.

She could sense Darin sinking back into his pilot's seat as the ship accelerated hard. Merriam made her own silent adjustments here and there as it got up to speed without a hitch. It took all of eight minutes.

"Eighty-five percent, Darin. I'll set the cruise, now, if you'd like? I can monitor by remote if that's agreeable."

"Fine. Go ahead. I don't know about you, but I'm bushed. I need to get some sleep. I've been running on sheer will and fumes for the last twelve hours. How long have I been up, anyway?"

"Thirty-four hours 27 minutes, and fifty-two seconds--so far," she replied with exactness.

"Whew! It feels that long, too."

Merriam, of course, didn't sleep.

She released the ship to its own control. Protocol, however, dictated that she remain up-linked. She instantly stored the cooling gases of the artificial chamber and dissolved the force field bubble. Disconnected from her chair she stood in one graceful motion as her limbs closed and she retracted the gleaming control frame into the floor, gliding to Darin's side. She took his arm and leaned his way as they walked towards the wide passageway.

"Come on, handsome. I'll see you to your cabin and tuck you in," she said.

"You know, if you were only human, you'd be the perfect girlfriend."

Merriam smiled, knowing he meant it as a compliment, her liquid-synthetic face showing a beautiful smile, perfect white teeth and exquisitely shaped ruby lips, both artificially colored, of course. She was soft to the touch as well as warm and wished he could get over the fact that she was a machine. He could have her in any way he wished but had never touched her sexually. She so loved him, but certainly, could not say anything.

The ship hissed and popped as it settled on the permacrete of New Salomon, having made up the lost time on the outskirts of the White Nebula. With all systems shut down, she and Darin went their separate ways, as usual. He to the base freight terminal and she to the cargo bay to supervise unloading and loading of the new goods that would be arriving.

Opening the main bay doors, Merriam stared after the figure of her master as he scooted away on one of their small transporters. It was basically, an upright, passenger-and-a-half synthetic tube with a ring of metal around the upper rim for holding on and slightly higher than his waist. It scooted Darin away through the infield, barely hovering a meter off the ground. Merriam missed him already. It was bad enough that he was gone, but he didn't say good-bye this time, and she missed that exchange.

Later: The new cargo pods had been stored and lashed down with mag bolts by the time Darin returned. He wasn't alone, though, Merriam observed. The passenger was a lovely woman with black, tightly bundled hair. They stood butt to butt in the tight quarters of the transporter, she holding on to a small attache case strapped across one shapely shoulder, while Darin drove.

The machine and its two passengers entered through a nearby hatch. Merriam met them as they stepped down out of the tube. Darin having already locked the vehicle in place. He introduced the passenger, placing his hands behind his back as he spoke, stepping towards his shipmate.

"Merriam, this is Interim Director Welsh." He turned briefly Welsh's, way, his eyes floating down her, then pivoted back to his shipmate. "Janet Welsh. She'll be accompanying us on a quick trip to Orland."

"Ms. Welsh, this is Merriam, my pilot and friend."

Janet Welsh looked several times with flashing eyes from his face to hers, nodding to Merriam without expression, as her eyes fell over her naked, hairless appearance, even though it was metallic looking.

Merriam knew some women objected to nude robots. Merriam smiled, though, as if they were old friends, wanting the new acquaintance to feel at home as she did with all passengers.

"Welcome aboard, Ma'am," she said, without a response of human cordiality from their guest.

"Would you show the Director to her quarters, Merriam, and see to her comforts, please. I'll get the ship closed up. We're leaving right away. Is the cargo on board?"

"Yes, Sir. Everything's ready, repositioned and stored."

"How about provisions?"

"We have been re-provisioned, Sir."

"Good! Ms. Welsh, if you'll accompany Merriam to your room, we'll be departing shortly."

Darin turned and flipped the heavy lever that sealed the cargo bay. The huge doors began to creak as the motors hummed to deafening life while the daylight got smaller and less intense.

"Captain," said Janet Welsh, shouting over the noise. "I want to emphasize again how important it is I get to Orland as soon as possible. It is of the utmost urgency."

"Yes, thank you Director, I do understand. We'll be heading there at top speed. Now please, the sooner you're strapped in, the sooner we'll be on our way." He looked to Merriam, said her name, then, left them abruptly as he disappeared through a narrow hatch.

Back in the cockpit Darin asked the pilot entering the room, "Is she strapped in?"

"Yes. Not very happy, though."

Merriam hurried to her station, noting he'd started the Glow-Worm. The control frame rose out of the flooring at her thought as she walked. Darin watched and waited.

She sat quickly. Metallic clicks and snaps attached her body to the pilot chair, restraints crossing her lap and chest. The force field went up instantly and the enclosing bubble appeared. A short hissing was heard as it filled with gases.

"Why not?" he finally asked.

"I don't know. She seems stressed to some degree. Had you noticed that in her voice?"

"Yeah, I did. There's something serious going on out there, on Orland. It doesn't sound fun and I sure as hell hope it doesn't effect our schedule."

"We've had enough adventures these last few days, haven't we?" she said.

He didn't answer. "Are we ready, yet?"

His voice, too, was stressed, Merriam noted. "We're ready," she answered.

"Initiate lift and course for Orland. Accelerate to maximum as quick as is safe. I don't exactly know why, Merriam, but we're in a huge hurry."

They were silent as the ship spiraled upward out of the thunderheads and into the weakening blue atmosphere, except for a few technical communications. In minutes, they were out of the atmosphere and Merriam told them both through the com-link to, "Hold on!" The ships boosters got them up to speed in two and a half minutes.

Moments after stabilization, Darin complained, "Sheeze, Merriam. Was that necessary?"

"You said you were in a hurry, didn't you?" There was humor in her voice.

"Yeah, but my face feels like it's been stretched clear across the compartment--How's our passenger?"

Merriam saw the Director in her minds-eye, through the up-links in the ship. It was humorous.

"Blinking. She looks disoriented. I think she may have passed out, briefly."

"Oh, maybe I should go check on her. She's pretty important, you know. Probably about number five or six in the pecking order around this solar system."

"Yes, I do understand her political station and it surprises me that she's traveling alone. She seems fine now. She's going through some papers of hers."

"Oh--all right," he said, sounding disappointed, a bit too obviously. "Maybe she won't bother us the rest of the trip," Darin added, trying to cover his interest.

"Darin! I know you like her. She's beautiful. I understand the qualities men find attractive, especially you. She fills out her flight suit nicely, doesn't she? I saw your eyes looking her over in the cargo bay. Ms. Welch is probably quite brilliant, too, I imagine. That's how you like them, isn't it?"

"Yeah, maybe. But, you know you're the only girl for me, Merriam."

"Really?" She was gullible, she knew, but didn't care.

Darin looked at her and smiled. "Of course you are," he said, with a huge grin.

Merriam wished he really meant it.

"I'm hungry," he said, out of the blue. "I'll be down in the galley," he told her, standing.

"I'll come with you," she said, getting up from her station, the control frame and its systems disappearing into the floor. Merriam put her arm through Darin's again. "Tell me what you know?" she asked as they walked.

"Not much. The deal to take her was forced on me. There wasn't another ship available. They said they'd cut off all future government shipments if I didn't cooperate and they wanted to pay a pittance. But I negotiated a little to make it worth our while. She's got some diplomatic mission to attend to and that's about all I do know. Ms. Janet Welch is one hot property at the moment. Luckily this trip is only going to take an hour or two. I can't stand it when civil servants get pushy about time schedules."

"Eighty-seven minutes--two seconds, to go..."

"Oh, the flight time. Okay--I got it," Darin smiled. "I feel like a roast beef sandwich. Too bad you can't eat."

"I'll just watch. I like the way you chew."

"Like I said, you'd be a perfect girlfriend."

"I thought I was?"

Without warning a deafening explosive noise shattered the gentle humming of the ship, jolting the freighter violently, and throwing the two crew members to the floor like plastic dolls. Merriam landed on three points like a leopard but Darin hit hard on one side of his body and rolled across the compartment like a top, slamming into the far bulkhead. Stunned, he got up quick enough, though reeling, and yelled, "Shields, Merriam! Get the shields up."

Darin barely saw her move but there she was, again, sitting in her chair, fully hooked up and enclosed. "Shields up and at capacity but we lost some aft decking skin. Everything else is operational."

Staggering towards the console, Darin fell to the floor again as another explosive jolt rocked the ship, though not as violently as the first, now that their protective screens were up. Like a mad-man he scrambled into the flight chair and smashed his fist on the restraint button.

"We're under attack, Darin. It's military. One ship. A small destroyer from the looks of it. I'll bring it up on screen."

Darin wiped blood off his mouth, rubbing a knee with his other hand, staring at the ship on the monitor. It was white in color and had a red stripe on the conning tower. He saw them fire again and once more the ship rocked with the power of the hit."

"Evasive, Merriam."

"I can't out maneuver them, Darin. We better see what they want."

"What was that?" asked a panicked Janet Welsh, rushing into flight control, blood dripping down her forehead.

"Shut up and strap yourself in."

"I beg. . ."

"Don't argue with me. Do it! We're under attack."

"Who would be attacking us? And why?"

"Good questions. I'm guessing pirates."

"It isn't pirates, Darin," said Merriam. "The ship shooting at us has a Vestijude registration."

"Who?" questioned Darin.

"It's a planet a couple of systems away, but they do trading in the area with most of their neighbors, like these two planets. Am I correct in my information, Ms. Welsh?"

There was no answer from the director. They both turned to look at her. Welsh was staring straight ahead and at nothing.

"It's started," she spoke, as if to herself.

"What's started?" Darin asked.

"The war--or--its beginnings."

"WAR!" Darin shouted. "WHAT WAR? What have you got us into, Welsh?"

"We've been having conflicts with these people for some time and lately it's been escalating. They've been threatening us. That's why I need to get to Orland. There are some desperate negotiations I have to address, but it looks like it's too late."

"Wonderful, just freaking wonderful," Darin grimaced. "This isn't some hot shot cruiser you're on, you know. This is a slow as snails freighter. We can't out-run a gunship and I don't think our force field can repel any of the bigger weapons. I got news for you. Whatever they want, they're going to get it whether we're willing or not to give it up."

"The Vestijudes are hailing us. Shall I open the channel?" Merriam asked.

"Shit!" cursed Darin. "Yeah! See what the hell they want."

It took but a moment to receive and decipher their desires, via Merriam.

"They want the director."

"They want. . ." Darin said, incredulously. "How did they even know she was on board? What the hell is going on?" Darin turned and looked at Welsh. "Ma'am! I don't see how we're going to be able to prevent it."

"I've put out a distress signal," Merriam announced, "and there is a New Salomon planet defense cruiser nearby, but it'll take nine minutes for them to get here. Those Vestijudes, they're threatening to blow us up in three."

"We have to stand down," the captain said. "They'll probably want us to use our transpo system to beam her over."

"We can't do that, Darin," Merriam spoke.

"We have no other choice, Merriam," said Darin, with forceful regret.

"We cannot allow Ms. Welsh to fall into their hands, Captain. This planet-nation of the Vestijudes are known to execute anyone and everyone they capture during a state of conflict. They're known for their ruthlessness. They'll kill you both and make me work for them. I couldn't stand that!"

Darin turned to his instruments and looked them over. "They're gaining and their weapons are still hot."

"I'll jump ship," Janet Welsh said. "Maybe they'll let you go. Have you an escape pod?"

"Ma'am. . ." Darin said, frustrated as he beat a fist into an arm rest.

"That is your only chance, Captain," Welsh said. "My fate is sealed. You just might get away if I vacate the ship."

Merriam knew there was another option and decided almost instantly. It was the only one that would assure their freedom and lives.

"Releasing to manual," she announced. The gasses hissed away, compressed back into their pressurized tanks and the force field bubble vanished.

Standing, Merriam turned quickly and rushed to the transfer machine. She stepped into the glass tube and closed the door as Darin shouted. "Merriam! Where are you going?"

"I love you," the two humans heard her subdued reply behind the clear pane. Darin saw the sadness in Merriam's eyes. He knew then what she intended to do.

"No, Merriam," he shouted. "Don't do it. There's got to be another. . . "

But before he could voice his full objection she turned and quick as thought punched coordinates into the transfer system and hit, 'ACTIVATE', disappearing into thin air.

Welsh looked from the empty tube to Darin. "Where did she go?"

He sunk back into his pilot's seat, swallowing deeply. He stared at the deck and let his seat rotate back towards the console.

"Where did she go, Captain?" Welsh demanded.

He took a deep breath and let it out before he answered.

"To save our lives. She transferred to the other ship. I think she's going to disrupt their drive system. She can't allow us to be harmed by her inaction. Robot protocol, you know. Her loyalties are with us."

"Oh, she's going to slow down the ship so we can get away."

"She going to blow it up."

The director was silent for a moment. "Oh," she said. There was a time of silence. "She won't be coming back then."

"No," he answered in a quiet voice. Darin brought several screens up, views to the rear. Moments later, a chain reaction silently obliterated the Vestijude ship in an uneven ball of flame. The craft's wreckage fell far behind and disappeared in the blackness of the ether. They were both gone, Merriam and the other ship.

Darin murmured her name.

He quickly flipped some obscure switches then let them be.

The director released her restraints and came to his side, putting a hand on his shoulder. She saw he was more than disturbed by this last development.

"Are you going back to look for survivors?" the director asked.

"There aren't any survivors," he said.

"I'm sorry."

"Thank you, Ma'am." His voice seemed distant and empty of emotion.

"She meant a lot to you, didn't she?"

"Yes," he sighed. "We were good friends," he told her, just above a whisper. "You tend to get attached to these robots, especially on a small one man freighter, like this."

"I wish there was something I could say. We'll fully compensate you, of course, for your loss."

"Thank you, Ms. Welsh."

After a few moments he looked up at her and said, "You should attend to that cut on your head. You know where the dispensary is, don't you?" She said she did. "You can return to your cabin, afterwards, if you wish. We're still on schedule. I'll give you a twenty minute warning before we land."

Darin dropped his passenger on Orland and stayed planet-side while the skirmish was smoothed over, treaties signed and agreements made so it was safe to return to his commercial routes. Before leaving the system, though, the captain returned to the area of space where the Vestijude ship had been destroyed.

Going through the debris field, he located the signatures he had marked of Merriam's metallic remains. Darin deployed several maintenance craft with sensors activated to those specific setting. They went out slowly into the cold ink of space picking up bits of her from a wide sector of the floating wreckage, then, Darin patiently watched as they silently returned to one of the smaller cargo bays. He sorted through the collected pieces.

A portion of Merriam's torso had been found, but badly damaged. Barely recognizable. Darin hoped the brain-case was still intact. If it was, there was a good chance Merriam could be brought back with complete memory and data recovery in a new body. The higher functions were stored in the main frame of the torso and tended not to be disrupted by disasters, amazingly enough. If that unit hadn't been punctured . . . and Darin knew they were built to take some extreme abuse. . . so, 'if' was the key.

Maybe, just maybe he'd get her back, his friend, his gentle companion. After all, it wasn't every day a robot fell in love with you.