Lord and Lady Wroxham sat in front of Admiral Croft's desk, while he read the report on them. To make it fully clear to the admiral that they were civilians, James wore his suit and Cynthia her dress. Captain Woods sat behind him and alternated between a stoic indifference and baleful glare as he thought about Cynthia.
Finally, the admiral looked up from the report and said, “This does make it difficult.”
He held up the top secret communication, printed on paper and thus only available for limited distribution, and continued, “The Cataxi have specifically asked for you, lieutenant.”
Cynthia ignored him until he said, “My Lady. The Cataxi have asked for you. Only you.”
“For what? I returned their stone and my husband paid the fines.” She squeezed James' hand.
“They want you to be the Terran ambassador. It's a several years posting.”
Cynthia looked at James and said, “I promised Alice a ride to Mars after our honeymoon flight. I’d like to keep that promise.” She turned back to the admiral and said, “As much as I'm honored, and it is a real honor, I have family commitments that must take precedence over your request. If you'll just rel-”
The admiral brought his fist down on the desk. “You gave up your rights to any family when you enlisted as a cadet.”
“No, my family sent me away. They were glad to be rid of a useless girl. James, well,” she paused, “I love him and he loves me. We're family now. His family is all the family I've got, and I intend to keep it.”
Captain Woods smirked and said, “Sir, I think I had best show her.”
“Show me what?”
He pressed a few commands on his controller and the wall behind them lit up. It showed a woman facing the camera and ready to speak. Behind her was a bright sunlit scene. Except for the sky being a little too purple and the plants a little too green, it could have been Earth. It was Zeta Cyngi 8, and the woman was Cynthia's mother.
Captain Woods said, “This is a recording, of course. It was.”
“Press play, show it!”
The woman in the picture began to speak.
“Happy 15th birthday Cynthia. I can't believe it's been five years since you left for the academy. We miss you and are so proud.”
Cynthia started crying. “I thought they didn't care.” The captain stopped the message.
“That's what you were conditioned to think.”
“Are there more messages?”
“Every year. Until, well, she died. She, they, followed your career.”
Cynthia's crying transformed into uncontrolled weeping. James hugged her and tried to comfort her as best he could. Captain Woods bluntly stated, “You gave that up, willingly when you joined.” He smirked as he added, “Shall I show you the contract?”
“No. I couldn't have. You must have tricked me. I have no.” Cynthia ran out of words, but not tears.
Both the admiral and the captain laughed. Captain Woods smirked, “I guess you're not so invincible now are you?”
Lord Wroxham gently untangled himself from Cynthia. He whispered to her, “This is more than enough.” Then he rose and grabbed the captain by the front of his uniform. Pulling him up so that the captain's face was only inches from his, he spat out, “This is ungentlemanly behavior. I'm calling you out. That is if you have the courage to face me.”
Cynthia stopped weeping and looked up at James. She said, “James, No. Don't.”
“Listen my love. There's damn all I can do in this world. You showed me enough that I can pilot your ship, in a straight line with you by my side making sure I don't blow it up. At least I can still defend your honor.”
Captain Woods was speechless. So James continued, “What do you say, or are you really a coward?”
He released the man, who crumpled back into his seat and added, “Swords or pistols?”
Captain Woods caught his breath and said, “Racerships, single seaters around the Orts. We'll see who is fastest.”
Cynthia looked at her husband, and said, “James, you can’t fly.”
“You’ll just have to show me. I presume there’s one of those blasted AR units on this craft.”
Captain Woods gasped, “Surely, Lord Wroxham, you don’t, won’t do this. It’s extremely difficult.”
“Cynthia, love,” James continued, “How does it compare to riding a horse?”
“Once you understand the controls, it’s easier, if anything. They won’t balk and dump you in a stream.”
“Just make sure I hold onto the reins?”
She laughed, “I’ll show you.”
Captain Woods looked askance. “What's this about reins?”
Cynthia replied, “The first time I tried riding a horse, I dropped the reins.” She noticed a puzzled look from both the admiral and the captain, “Those long bits of leather that go to the bit,” she paused some more, “Almost control the horse. Tell her what to do. She ran off with me on her. It was dashed embarrassing.”
An hour later, James was strapped into the AR unit and his tuition in racers started. Cynthia watched his progress on a monitor, nervous that he should learn, and worried that he wouldn't. It wasn't going well.
James sat, or felt like he sat, astride a warm metal tube. In the real racer, that was the engine. He held a stick in front of him and several gauges where in front of his eyes as was a cross to instruct him on where he was headed. He would push the stick forward and it would take off with a jolt, then he'd reflexively pull back and stop. It didn't help his confidence that he had crashed into a virtual planet almost as quickly as he started the first several times he tried to take off.
“James, can you hear me?”
“I've patched into the unit. It's going to feel weird for a second, but I'm going to teach you directly.” He could feel the ghostly sensation of her hands gripping his. She continued, “Put your feet in the stirrups. Toes down. Grasp the engine with your knees.”
The ghostly hands pulled his legs into position. Cynthia continued, “It really is just like riding a horse, except you use your feet on the controls.”
“I think not.”
“Yes it is. Now let’s start. Push the bar forward.” He timidly pushed it and jumped as the ship lurched. He wanted to pull it back, but the ghostly hands pushed it farther ahead.
“No. Too slow. Can’t maneuver well if you’re not moving”
“We're going to hit that thing.”
“Push your right foot back and pull the stick over.”
The hands made him do what she said, and the ship spun. He instinctively pulled the stick to the center and returned his feet to normal. The object was gone.
“Good. Now let's hump this bugger. Push the stick.”
He didn't need the hands this time. Another rock appeared in front, and Cynthia said, “Left.”
He tried, and just grazed the object.
Cynthia said, “Don’t worry, a miss is as good as a mile.”
They practiced until he was relaxed enough at the controls that he could enjoy it. “Cynthia, love?”
“This is fun.”
“I told you it was. Now for some real action. Full speed ahead.”
“There's a rock.”
Cynthia's voice said, “Watch the proximity bar. When it starts to get orange, pull back as hard as you can on the stick and put your feet forward.”
“What's going to happen?”
She was quiet. He followed her instructions, and the ship tumbled backward until it was pointing away from the rock. He automatically pushed forward and the ship accelerated.
Cynthia said in a quiet voice, “Time to try for real. Take the ship back and land. I'll meet you in the ready room.”
“Can't I just stop now?”
“You need the practice.”
Lord Wroxham flew the virtual ship back into its hanger, popped the catch and stood up. The world around him cracked apart and he was back in the AR unit. The attendant unhooked him and said, “What now,” he gave an exaggerated bow “My Lord?”
“Where's the ready room?”
“Are you serious? You can't be.”
“Of course. Can you show me?”
“No. Next level down, three lefts, a right and then back up.”
“Ah, right.” James was dubious about the directions.
“Can't miss it.”
When Lord Wroxham finally found the ready room, Cynthia was waiting for him. She was wearing a pressure suit, it fit her body snuggly, but that was not what he noticed. “You've cut your hair short.”
“I liked it the way it was.”
“I can grow it back later, but short like this is what I need for the pressure suit.” She pointed to a rack on the side of the room. “The men's are there. Get it on.”
“Take them off first. No one but me is watching, and” she blushed, “I've seen you. Besides, you'll need to be hooked up. It's rather personal, intimate as it were, and I think you'd rather I showed you how to do it than some tech you don't know.”
A quarter of an hour later, with various catheters, tubes and bags attached, James stood there. He was ready to put on his helmet. He said, “That was unusual, to say the least.”
Cynthia replied, “Once I seal you in, you'll be self-sustaining. It'll pong like all heck after a couple of days, but you won't notice.”
“Oh.” He paused, “Have you?” then stopped unsure of how to ask.
“Have I used one of these for that long?”
He nodded to her.
She paused, “I told you, or was it Alice? About fleeing Xyluberth.”
“I think so, you said you built a ship.”
“I was in one of these for a year. Not pleasant, but I made it.”
James looked a bit worried. She pulled his face into hers and kissed him. “For luck, and don't worry about it. You'll only be a couple of hours. Just drink from the tube and try not to think about where it came from.”
“The future is thoroughly disgusting.”
She put his helmet on and sealed it, then hers. “Radio check.”
James jumped, “I can hear you.”
“Excellent. Now for a pressure check. Make sure you're sealed.”
After the checks, they walked to the dock and boarded two racers. The dockmaster reminded them, “You don't have enough fuel or shielding to make planet, and the weapons are disabled. So don't try anything daft.”
He gave them clearance and they shot into the dark void of the Ort belt. The sun was just a slightly brighter star than the rest of them. If you didn’t look in the right place, you’d miss it.
James cautiously pushed the stick forward, with his feet in the stirrups the way Cynthia had shown him. He saw her waiting beside him, and heard, “Move it, slowpoke.”
He pushed harder and shot ahead. The real sensations weren't as jerky as the AR and he found he reacted better in real life than he had in the simulator. That is until the other ship bolted past him with what seemed centimeters to spare and Cynthia laughed at him in the radio. “Come on.”
She surged toward one of the rocks in the cloud, then pivoted and shot back at him. It looked like she was going to hit him dead on, then she did something and her ship danced around his in a corkscrew. She pivoted again and came up beside him. Waving, she said, “That was a blast. Want to try?”
“Yes you do. Flying slowly in a straight line is boring. Follow me.”
She accelerated smoothly away, slowed down to wait for him to catch up, and then wiggled the back of her racer in his face.
He muttered under his breath, “Bloody woman.” Then he pushed the stick to catch up. She kept just ahead, veering in, out, up and down around the rocks that littered their path. Then, suddenly, she was gone and there was a large rock straight ahead of him. The proximity bar went orange, then red, and finally he pulled back on the stick and controls to flip direction, then pushed hard forward to get away.
“Blimey you left that close, James.” There, ahead of him, was Cynthia.
“You're right, love,” he said, “This is fun.” He pushed the stick and caught up with her. “How did you do that corkscrew?”
“Right hand is stick all the way right, pedals the other way. Left the reverse. Shall we?”
They danced together through the darkness until their ship's fuel monitors told them it was time to return.
Admiral Croft and Captain Woods had watched them practice on the scanners. As they returned to the ship, the admiral turned to Captain Woods and said, “Silas, are you sure you want to race him? That was damned good flying. He'd easily rate first class as a pilot.”
Captain Woods remembered that it took him several embarrassing tries before he 'rated' and first class rating still eluded him. “Sir, what should I do?”
“You should apologize. It is the gentlemanly thing to do.”
“What about Cynthia and the Cataxi?”
“Persuasion, not force is called for. I may boot up her companion and talk to him.”
“He knows her as well as anyone who will talk to us.”
“If it's willing to talk to you, sir. They tend to get a little stroppy and loyal to their people.”
“We'll see. In the meantime, Captain, please try not to get into any fights with either her or that man.”
Captain Woods stood and started to salute his admiral when the Cataxi engineer called the admiral.
Admiral Croft gulped, the Cataxi being decidedly non-humanoid, and asked what was the trouble.
“Have you retrieved Cynthia?”
“What was going on with those racers? We should not stay in this time long.”
The Cataxi's carapace turned bright orange, which should have alerted Admiral Croft to his displeasure, but didn't. The creature said, “Do not tell me tales. There were two humans on that ship. Who is the second human and why were they racing around outside just now?”
“Ah.” Admiral Croft was stuck for words, but Captain Woods was able to answer.
He said, “It is somewhat my fault. Cynthia has attached herself to a male human and”
“And you argued with them. I fail to understand you humans.”
“It's just that we understood you wanted only her as an ambassador.”
“They are both on board?”
“Good.” The engineer turned away from the screen and said something in an incomprehensible series of clicks, whistles and grunts.
The ship jerked and a few moments later reappeared at the border of neutral interstellar space at the correct time.
While the admiral and his captain cleared their heads, the engineer continued. “The council specified Cynthia. I have exchanged messages with them and we agree to her mate accompanying her. Indeed, we insist on it. It seems that the Xree worked on her, as we expected. When you say 'attached' does your species physically attach like the Archex?”
“No. It's a figure of speech.”
“Figure of speech. I shall have to remember that.” The engineer clicked his mandibles together, chuckling at the thought. Then he rudely shut off the communication.
Admiral Croft glared at his captain and said, “Insufferable creatures. The sooner we're rid of them the better.”