Prologue

Do I want to live forever?
It was a temptation difficult to resist: I could live forever, never aging, always things to do -- important things for humanity, necessary things --
But I would never be human again.
This was when the S.H.I.P. program started. My name is Dave Black. I have passed all necessary tests, can be hooked up to a spaceship that will be my own -- that will, of course, be me -- if I want to dedicate my eternal life to it.
If I do, nanobodies will continually refresh my cells and maintain my connection with all the S.H.I.P.'s controls -- my controls! -- and there is almost no limit on how long I will last.

But is it worth it?

This started just after the war with the Aata aliens began. Then I met Helen. . . .


ttending the University had been a lifelong dream of mine. Some of my friends would tease me, saying things like, "You can't grow crops with that crap they teach there!"

"Wait a minute!" another friend said. "You gotta remember, that's the basis for fertiziler! Might be something to it." Everybody laughed.

But I'm being unfair; actually, very many from my planet did attend the University, in a never-ending pursuit of knowledge. Now I was at class in the gigantic University Ship. By 'gigantic', I mean as large as a small planet. It had its own government, army, factories and more -- but education was its driving force, as shown by the size of our class.

One hundred students were in the class, all connected to memory enhancers. All was going well, and then the program we had been studying on the large communication screen was suddenly filled with the picture of a man.

"What the hell?" I said sharply.

Later, we would find out that every communication screen in that part of the galaxy had done the same. "Hush!" someone else said. "This might be important."

The man announced, "I am Commander Paal of the Aata race." A few gasps came in response.

"I've never heard of the Aata." "Me, either." "Who in the world?"

At first he looked like any human soldier, stiffly alert and in full uniform. Then he said, "We have been among you for years, puny humans. We know much about you, including your weaknesses. It is our destiny to rule the universe! To prove our superiority --observe!" His body shimmered. He grew taller, more slender, and his clothes changed into his new body. He looked like a giant stalk of asparagus, asparagus with arms and eyes and a mouth at the top.

"This," Paal said, "is our natural body. We are quite adaptive, and can live in any atmosphere -- or in no atmosphere at all! Radiation is no hazard to us. We are obviously adapted to live anywhere, meaning that everywhere is available to us. To demonstrate our power, we are about to destroy one of your worlds. Surrender while you can!"

Then the view shifted to a picture of Planet 104A, my planet, spinning in its orbit -- and abruptly exploding! Many screamed, not only from my home but others who were shocked and outraged, other races as well as humans.

The scene shifted back to the giant asparagus. Paal said, "You see our strength. Surrender or be destroyed!"

Sudden blackness.

"Surrender? Like hell!" I shouted. I never considered myself hero material, but I was furious.

Friend and classmate Everett Gordon clapped me on the back. "You tell him, Dave!"

"But -- their power!" someone objected.

Then a news bulletin came on, revealing that what we had seen was real, and not some electronic fakery. "We are stunned by this development, stunned and totally unprepared. That does not mean," the speaker said fiercely, "that humanity will surrender! There was, of course, a moment of panic -- followed by determined organization. Humanity will not surrender, nor any of the other races in our universe." There were cheers in the auditorium around me. War was something from our past, but we were not unfamiliar with it. "In the distant past, we stopped keeping track of ships in space. After this attack, an immediate scan was done and we discovered literally thousands of unidentified ships. Don't panic; this does not mean there are thousands of alien ships posed for attack, just that there are many unregistered vessels moving around, which was no surprise.

"However, many must be alien. We will attack!" So the appeal for fighter pilots was issued. Of course, I responded.

What does this have to do with me turning into the heart and brain of a spaceship? I'm getting there.

Ev Gordon and I were in one of the vast uditoriums, in line for an enlistment physical. "Physicals?" Ev exclaimed. "Hell, we had to pass a physical to get in the University to start with!"

I looked at him and tightened my jaw. "I'll take a million physicals to get a chance to strike back at those bastards," I replied determinedly.

"Hey! No way I'm backing out!" he said. Ev was impulsive and filled with energy. He was the hero type, not me.

So we proceeded and, next, went through a battery of tests. Then I found myself in a small room facing a big, strong man in uniform. "Mister Black, I am Colonel Lionel, and I wish to congratulate you."

I lifted an eyebrow. Why was he congratulating me on enlisting? Then he proceeded, adding another puzzle.

"You are quite highly qualified, Mister Black. You will leave this room as Captain Black, and will proceed to fighter training, and -- quite possibly -- even more than that." He pointed at another door. "Your uniform is in there," he told me. "Suit up and report to Room 770 and your training will begin."

In five minutes, I was prone in a one-man fighter, zooming away from the University and towards the nearest star, eyes and instruments searching for an alien ship. My hands played over the usual controls -- switches, a ball, buttons. Then there it was! Dead ahead, huge, and menacing. Activating my Stealth field, I dove in to meet it, all arms keyed in and ready for total battle. Light stabbed out from the monster ship, seeking me despite the Stealth field. I dodged, feeling the g-forces pull at me.

I started to fire a returning blast, but then stopped. The aliens knew us, knew what we could do, could guess what we would do. Instead, I blasted the ship forward. They certainly didn't expect that! Their next shot was wild, due to the surprise I had given them, but the next one was a near miss. Zig-zagging, I moved closer and closer, and then, at the very last moment, did a 180 that nearly blacked me out, and let my ship's propulsion field blast the alien ship which, to my pleasure and satisfaction, began to disintegrate.

It was all simulation, of course. When I opened my eyes, Colonel Lionel was standing beside me, smiling. "I was correct, Captain Black. You are a natural!"

Puzzled, I shook my head, trying to understand. "For what, Colonel?"

"For our new S.H.I.P. device, Captain." Still confused, I said, "What ship device?"His smile broadening, the colonel explained, "S.H.I.P. -- Space Hopping Intelligent Pilot is what it stands for. Mankind has tried for centuries to develop a ship control that matches the speed of computers with the uniqueness, the instinct, of the human mind. The mind is not as fast as a computer, and a computer is not as flexible as our physical minds.

"We have succeeded."

I knew it was expected, but I couldn't resist. "How?" I asked.

He explained it all to me, finishing with, "We will even give you the experience before you make your decision," the colonel said. "It is possible to hook you to a ship and discover how you respond and how the S.H.I.P. responds. It won't be exactly the same, but it will give you a feel of how it is. The first time, the nanobots can be removed. Still, it begins a pattern that will take over if you receive the nanobots again. It will take some time to set it up, if you are interested."

"Hell, yes!" I said. "Then I can actually be part of the fighter, right?"

Colonel Lionel nodded. "More than that. Since you will eventually be almost eternal, we can lift you out of the fighter and insert you in a bigger S.H.I.P., perhaps a cruiser or even a freighter. You can be in S.H.I.P. after S.H.I.P. as years, decades, centuries go by."

"Sounds great!" I said with enthusiasm. "Set it up."

Then I met Helen.

Colonel Lionel called for me. When I entered his office -- there she was. Short-cut blonde hair that looked just right for her, with its touch of waves; eyes that were bluer than the most beautiful skies, a small tip-tilted nose above a generous mouth that begged to be kissed and, most of all, an appearance of intelligence and humor on her heart-shaped face. Even in our utilitarian uniforms, her body was clearly a good one. Around her throat was a necklace with a strange pendant.

My glance only took a second to scan her, and her long-lashed eyes took me in at the same time. I have always scorned the idea of love at first sight, but she disproved my long-held opinion. There was no doubt about it; I was sunk, captured, totally in love. Better, there was something about her that gave me the idea she felt the same.

She stood only a few inches shorter than me, and I was certain she would fit nicely in my arms. Immediately the idea of no longer being human went down the drain. No S.H.I.P. for me, not with Helen here.

"Captain Dave Black, meet Captain Helen Blossom."

She extended a hand, which I accepted as she said, "So this is the great Captain Black, hmmm?" an appraising look in her eyes.

I felt oddly embarrassed, as if I had something to live up to -- something I wasn't prepared for. I shrugged, trying desperately to smile. "Just 'Captain Black'," I said. "I'll have to prove the 'great' sometime in the future." Her grip was firm, then quickly and with a touch of embarrassment, she released my hand.

There had been no love affairs for me at the University. My schedule had been packed, and time away from class was spent studying or researching.

But that wasn't it; I was even busier now, getting ready to fight the aliens! No, that had nothing to do with it; the simple answer was: Before, I had never met Helen. If I had, the reaction would have been the same. I would have found the time.

"Take Captain Blossom to Room 770, Captain Black. Teach her what you know."

'What I know'? I had only done it one time -- but I had studied up a bit since my first encounter.

I led Helen to the simulation room. With difficulty, I put my personal attraction aside and said, as calmly as I could manage, "You can mentally create weapons to use. We won't be able to do that in real fighters, but we test it now. Always remember that the Aata know all about us, so try to surprise them."

"I've heard they have difficulty detecting small amounts of titanium," Helen commented.

"Yes, we're still learning. I've heard they can't detect force fields." I shrugged. "Not sure where all this info comes from, but we'll go with it for now." I indicated two seats. "These will be our fighters," I told her. "When you sit in them, you'll find yourself in a simulated fighter. Let's give it a try."

We sat in the chairs --

--And we were speeding thru space toward the alien ship. The fighters, of course, had communication, and I looked at Helen. I saw her lying in the appropriate position, inside her clear canopy, face intent. Backing away before I became too distracted, I observed her ship. Beneath it was a long and silvery needle; she had already created her weapon and it must be titanium. Clearly, she felt that the needle-shape, even though it was as long as her fighter ship, would not be detected because of how thin it was.

Quickly, I formed my own weapon -- a force field, enclosing a highly-explosive substance.

Lances of fire shot out of the Aata ship, and we dodged them, always growing closer to the ship. I had already formed a plan on how to use both weapons, and waited. Then -- "Now!" I said to Helen. Without a pause, she unleashed her titanium needle. A split second after it, I shot in my force field. As her needle pierced the ship, my force field clamped onto the hull, changing to form a cup to give the effect of a shaped explosion. The force field would focus the explosion on the hull which her needle had already weakened.

We both flipped around and flew away from the ship, which exploded satisfactorily behind us.

Then we were back in Room 770, in our chairs, and Colonel Lionel was standing there, a tight grin on his face. "Very good, both of you," he said. "As I guessed, you work well together."

Standing, I said: "Colonel. may I ask you a question?"

"Of course; but I think I know what it is. You want to know how we knew things about the Aata, don't you?"

"Why -- yes! How did you know?"

The tight grin widened into a smile. "Because that's what I would want to know," he said. Abruptly his face turned grim. "But I'm not sure how you might take it."

"Tell me, and we'll see."

Colonel Lionel clasped his hands behind his back, and there was a distant look in his eyes. "A few days before 104A was destroyed, a security camera caught an Aata as he changed. It was in a dark, deserted place and it was only by good fortune that a camera was there.

"When the discovery was made, my department was immediately notified. I ordered everything to become Top Secret, with no one else to be informed." He shook his head. "Apparently, my order was too late. Somehow, the Aata found out that we knew." He looked at me, regret in his expression. "I fear it is our fault that your planet was destroyed."

In a split second, it all came to me. "The Aata destroyed my planet because you had discovered their existence." I was stirred deeply but, as my mind absorbed it all, I put away any blame. "It wasn't your fault," I told him, bluntly. "It was not your hand that pulled the trigger."

Colonel Lionel sighed. "Perhaps not, but it was our discovery that set it off."

I shook my head. "No! It's unfortunate, but the aliens are the ones who. . ." I paused, as a thought flooded my mind, then continued, ". . .who set the explosives to destroy Planet 104A."

The colonel's eyes widened. "Who told you?"

"No one, sir. It just occurred to me that the explosions had to be seeded. If the aliens actually had a planet-busting weapon, they would have used it again. They haven't."

"Very good, Captain Black." There was pride in his voice. "It is men like you who will defeat the Aata."

"But that doesn't explain much," I said. "Only that you became aware of them, not how you've picked up information about them."

Colonel Lionel nodded. "There is more. I'm sure you must have wondered why potential pilots needed a physical, after the rigorous physical you needed to be admitted to the University?" His gaze swept from me to Helen. Both of us nodded, and he continued: "This physical added a twist to the blood test. Our scientists hastily created a test they hoped would detect changeling cells.

"It worked!" Colonel Lionel said, a touch of triumph in his voice. "With each test, we had a force field ready to be triggered. When the student who was really an Aata was tested and shown to be alien, the force field clicked on, and we had him."

"Guess that's how you found out they couldn't detect force fields." The colonel nodded.

"I have another question, sir. Our fighters actually have the ability to create weapons at our mental command, do they?"

"Yes -- and no. If you are part of the S.H.I.P. program, or if it's what we call your initiation."

"Initiation?" Helen asked.

Colonel Lionel nodded. "It takes a dose of nanobots two times to set you up. The first dose, the initiation, lets the nanobots familiarize themselves to your body. Because of the power of the nanobots, which draw upon the dark energy and dark matter of the universe, a S.H.I.P. will be maintained at your current age for an indefinite period of time.

"As you know, scientists theorized dark matter and dark energy. They proved both theories, and learned to use the two great forces.

"But," he continued, "the second dose of nanobots means you will always remain a S.H.I.P. You can be changed to any kind of ship -- but you will remain a S.H.I.P."

Colonel Lionel paused. "With the nanobots drawing power from the universe, your mind can create many, many things; weaponry will be almost endless. Always remember, however, that one time sets you up, the second is permanent." He added, "Come back in five hours; I will have twenty-four fighter ships and twenty-two volunteer pilots."

+ + +

The five hours gave Helen and me a chance to become better acquainted. As I had guessed, she was also from 104A, but we had no acquaintances in common -- no surprise, as nearly one billion had resided on our planet. She was so pleasant to be with that the time passed too swiftly.

Better yet, she seemed to enjoy the time as well!

I looked at the strange pendant on her necklace. "That's an interesting pendant," I said. "Never seen one like it."

A look of embarrassment touched her face. "It's nothing," she said. Then she squared her shoulders and, with fierce determination, added, "It's dirt! I was home the day before our planet was destroyed. I got back only an hour or two before the destruction. That night, when I took off my shoes, I found sand in them -- sand from my home! I dumped it on a sheet of paper and, next day, had this made for me." Her eyes studied me questioningly. "Am I being silly?"

I hugged her. "Helen, it's wonderful! You have a physical reminder of our home. Be proud of it!" Holding her was wonderful. I had been right, she was a perfect fit. She lay her head on my shoulder, and pleasure and satisfaction flowed through me. . . .

At the meeting with the volunteers -- it was no surprise that all were from 104A -- Helen began by introducing herself and than, to my surprise, she said, "Recognizing that I am junior to Captain Black, are there any who would prefer not to serve under me?"

There was a murmur among the 22 volunteers. Slowly, one hand went up, followed by two more -- one man and two women. Putting on a smile, I said, "Well, there are three for my team. Now, let me ask the same question: Are there any who would prefer to serve under Captain Blossom?"

It came out even -- three men chose Helen's team, no doubt attracted to her beauty.

"Before we separate," I said, "let me mention that we have learned much about the Aata. They have trouble detecting small amounts of titanium and any force-fields, so Captain Blossom's fighters have needle lances of titanium and my fighters are armed with force-field bombs. We also have a repeating space cannon, laser guns, and each ship has six torpedoes. Now, let us assume team groups."

These real fighter ships could only have mentally-created weapons for someone in the S.H.I.P. program. At this point, none of us were.

As half of us gathered in one corner of the room and the other half went to the other corner, I quickly reviewed my roster. One caught my eye immediately -- Ev Gordon. He had been excellent in the simulation. A thought occurred to me, and I called his name.

"Yes sir!" he responded eagerly.

"Ev, your scores were nearly as high as those of Captain Blossom and myself. I'd like you to be my wing-man, if you don't object."

He grinned. "Not at all, sir! I would be honored. But may I ask a question?"

"Of course!"

"If the Aata can't detect force-fields, why can't all fighters be covered with a force-field when we attack?"

I smiled. "Very good, Ev! As it happens, I've already planned that. However, there is one drawback -- the force-field interferes with our maneuverability. As soon as we near the alien ships, it will turn off. Still, that gives us a big advantage."

"Sounds good to me!" he replied with his usual enthusiasm. "When do we go?"

"As soon as we all get in our fighters," I said, indicating a large door. "Through there."

All twenty-four fighters took off in less than two minutes. Space was a vibrant curtain of black velvet, studded with tiny, shining jewels that were stars. We had barely entered space when the alien Paal again took over all communications. "You are doomed, filthy aliens! Even now our fleet --"

Abruptly Colonel Lionel's face rode a stronger signal over Paal's. I was pleased to see it, as I had suggested we might be able to override the alien signal. "Forget it, Paal! It is you who are doomed. Your trickery will not work on us, now that we know your secret."

Then the signals faded, and we could see the alien fleet, hundreds of silvery needle-ships, as they approached. Then at least two thirds of them began to waver and became transparent. "Holograms!" I said. I had guessed they would try that, and suggested a field to detect them. "Let's wipe 'em out!"

Even discounting the holograms, we were badly outnumbered, but surprise was on our side and we destroyed at least half of their fleet before they even knew we were there, my ship and Ev's leading the way.

Then the real fighting began.

Some of Helen's fighters still had their titanium lances, which shot right thru the alien ships. My team still had a few force-field bombs, which blew up more ships. After that, it was our space cannons, lasers and torpedoes that caused enjoyable destruction as we ripped in out out of the alien fleet.

When they were fleeing, we had only lost two of our fighters -- but Ev Gordon's ship was badly crippled. "Helen -- Captain Blossom, Gordon's ship has been hit!"

"I regret that," Helen answered, "but it's no surprise -- he was in and out of the alien fleet far more than anyone else. I hope he survives."

"I'll do what I can," I told her. "You do the mopping-up, and I'll see what I can do for Gordon."

I moved my fighter beside his and could see he was groggy but conscious. "Ev!" I said. "We've got to get you back for repairs."

". . .Yes, sir," he responded with a shaky grin. "How'd I do?"

"You tore 'em up, Ev! Now turn your ship around so we can head back."

His fighter was sluggish, so I nudged my ship against his to help him turn. Then I called for an Emergency Ship. "It's already on the way," Colonel Lionel told me. "I saw what happened."

In minutes, the Emergency Ship was there. Its force-field gently retrieved Gordon's ship and pulled it aboard.

Soon all the fighters returned. "How's Gordon?" Helen asked.

"They could only say he'd live," I told her, recalling my brief conversation with the MedTech. I sighed. "That's better then the ones we lost."

Concerned about Ev, we returned to the University hanger.

Later, the colonel called Helen and me into his office. "Well, you two could have been the first S.H.I.P. beings, but I fear Ev Gordon beat you to it."

"What?" Helen and I said in unison.

Colonel Lionel smiled. "It was either that or he died," he went on. "Luckily for him, his capacity wasn't much under that of you two. He was given the choice of dying or becoming a S.H.I.P. and, of course, he chose S.H.I.P.. Even now he is being attached to a cargo ship, which is badly needed. As you know, ultra-lightspeed can only be achieved by robots -- but the computers are not capable of fine-tuning, so they are often well off-course. When a S.H.I.P. goes to ultra-light, the human brain can make choices according to any quad, so Gordon can take a cargo ship to its exact destination, regardless of inconsistencies, and return just as promptly. We are in need of more fighters. Gordon's cargo-S.H.I.P. can go get them and return in only three days, which includes one day for loading the valuable cargo." He sighed. "That is much quicker than usual, but I fear the Aata will attack before then. Which gets back to the two of you and S.H.I.P.

"You can assume the S.H.I.P. program only once and have the choice to return to 'normal'. If the Aata DO attack before Gordon returns, I'll have nanobot containers on the dash of each of your fighters. By putting a hand into the container, you'll become a SHIP. Due to the fact that nanobots draw power from dark energy, your ability will be awesome!" He sighed. "I've done it myself, and am strongly tempted to become a S.H.I.P. -- except that my leadership is needed badly at the moment." He shook his head. "You will be in the same situation: If you assume S.H.I.P., we can drain the nanobots from you -- but the next time is permanent. You will never be human again, after that. So stay out of the nanobots, unless it's a real emergency."

Helen and I exchanged glances, then nodded. "But," she added, "I consider losing a real emergency."

Our colonel chuckled. "I find nothing wrong with that definition."

"Do we have our own holograms?" I asked.

Lionel nodded. "Not only that, but I've developed a way to use some fighter wreckage within them, so they'll be harder to detect as holos. Ready and waiting."

"Isn't that difficult to coordinate?"

The colonel shook his head. "The holo is focused on the wreck. No problem. Fortunately, we don't have that many wrecks -- but we'll use what we have."

The next day, the Aata returned.

Our diminished fleet, reinforced by holograms, soared out into the star-pricked blackness behind our force-field cover, to see --

--Almost a thousand Aata ships!

"Colonel --" I began.

"They're hollows, Black," his voice cut in.

"Then why aren't they transparent?"

"Not 'holos'. bit 'hollows'," he answered. "Hollow shells, most of them. I suspected they might try this. Watch!"

Two-thirds of the alien ships began to vibrate. "What--?"

"I developed a vibratory field they're responding to. Don't ask for explanations," he finished, "just go get them!"

Colonel Lionel had not only used wrecked fighters to increase the worth of his holograms, he had also used other scrap metal and plastic. It was enough of a distraction that the aliens were, for a few minutes, fooled. We took advantage of that time to reek what havoc we could.

Then, as in the earlier battle, the fighting got serious, but without Ev Gordon to help.

Even after the aliens caught onto what we were doing, they still lost five ships for every one of ours that they got. But their numbers were too great, and we couldn't afford the loss of even one fighter. I put my hand into the nanobot container.

I tingled. Every cell in my body tingled. Even my despair tingled, due to the welcome exhultation of change. My fingers, through dark energy, grew into nerve-filled wires connected to the dash, and dark matter protected the parts of my body on the fighter as tendrils were sent -- and, at the same time, there was a flare to my left and I heard Helen scream.

A quick glance at my screen showed me her blood-spattered canopy, with fatal cracks starting in the glass.

"You bastards!" I yelled at the Aata ships. I formed two huge force-field paddles and brought them together, transforming three of their needle ships into scrap. Zooming forward at ultra-lightspeed, I enlarged the force-fields and slapped a dozen ships out of existence. Raging, I shot forward to just behind about thirty ships -- and reduced them into rubble. Suddenly they were slowing, preparatory to retreat. My next swat smashed about fifty of them before they could move.

After more annihilation, I started to increase my ultra-lightspeed -- and suddenly hundreds of titanium spears, half the size of those used before, shot past me and began to stitch a disaster of their own. These spears didn't just pierce the needle-ships; they would zip in and out of an Aata vessel, then take off after more game.

A weak voice, tinged with humor, said: "I wouldn't want. . .you. . .mad at me!"

Helen!

Voice gaining strength, she added, "Come on back. My spears will follow. . . them home."

With ultra-lightspeed, I was beside her fighter in seconds. It was only later I realized even ultra-lightspeed at its max couldn't have gotten me there so quickly. The last of the blood on her canopy was filling the cracks, which became healed. Acting like a tractor-beam her force-field was pulling in the last scrap of her vessel, putting it into place, where it rejoined the hull of the fighter. "Helen -- how. . . ?"

I could see her face which reflected exhaustion -- but was smiling. "I managed to get my hand into the nanobots, even as I was hit," she said. "Those things are fast!"

"We've got to call the Emergency Ship."

Helen lifted an eyebrow. "Why? My ship's in good shape, now. And I'm --"

"The Emergency Ship," Colonel Lionel's voice cut in. "It's on its way already. Meet it!"

"But--"

"That's an order, Captain Blossom!" Lionel shot back.

"You must be close, Colonel," I said. "There's no delay in transmission return."

"Every second counts!" he replied. "Hurry!"

My remark, 'no delay in transmission' reminded me of something. "Helen, I must've been lightyears away, chasing the Aata, but we communicated instantaneously. How --"

"Mental telepathy, Dave," she replied -- and I detected concern in her voice. "Let's speed up, and. . .Dave. . .I need you! Come to me!"

Her meaning washed over me. With no hesitation, I merged my mind with hers.

The colonel had said the S.H.I.P. experience was awesome. 'Awesome' was nothing compared to blending with Helen. I knew and could feel everything that had ever happened to her, just as she must have felt mine. Her strength patched into my weaknesses; more importantly, my strength did the same for her. She was frightened by what had happened, feared what all this had meant to her. Without speaking, I told her I would support her in every way.

It was an emotional experience that must, surely, have surpassed the best of sexual experiences.

With humor, she said, "A climax could never match this! I love you, David Black."

"You know, you feel my reaction to you," I said, needlessly -- needlessly, because her thoughts were mine and mine were hers.

We slid into the Emergency Ship. Lionel was there, along with a MedTech and dozens of instruments. It all boiled down to the inevitable -- Helen had no choice. Too much of her was already part of the fighter; too much of her physical body had been damaged. She was a S.H.I.P. whether she wanted to be or not.

Me?

When given the choice of being a S.H.I.P. forever, in company with Helen, or returning to a 'normal' life, the answer was obvious.


Epilogue

Because Helen was too connected to her fighter, I suggested a change in the S.H.I.P. process to Lionel, whereby each time she was needed on another project, she and her fighter would be attached to the vessel she was charged to and remain on it until the project was complete -- and would depart afterwards, and the ship she had left would be capable of operating on its own.

Of course, I wanted the same for myself.

While we were S.H.I.P.s, we were not metal beings. As I've said, our fleshy parts were protected by dark matter and kept repaired by nanobots powered by dark energy. The uniqueness of the human brain and its instincts are directly related to our body and sexuality, so it was retained.

So it was. Because we could be in constant mental contact, whether on this side of the universe or the other, we were never alone. Nonetheless, on those rare occasions when each of us were between projects, we would go off on our own until needed again.

As the decades rolled by, our love story became a legend in the galaxy. As the centuries went by, it became -- and is now -- a universally-known love story for all time.

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