It had been a little over five months since the morning when Nina put down her cup of tea and calmly announced that Pearl was pregnant. The majority of humanoid women throughout the systems affiliated with Gaea Prime use birthing centers for the prenatal development of their children. Whether conception was vaginal or in vitro, the fertilized egg is placed into an artificial womb. The development of the child is then carefully monitored and controlled within a safe environment promising a perfect birth. The Zygote Corporation owned and operated all of the birthing centers on New Hope. The same Zygote Corporation whose labs Pearl had raided to save the kidnapped Margaret Dominique. The raid and the ensuing public relations fiasco made Pearl a “persona non gratis” at all Zygote facilities. Vivian and Katie thought the denied access to a birthing center was unfortunate. Pearl didn’t seem to mind and was looking forward to carrying the baby to full term.
Nina was also changing. On the one hand, she was definitely displaying more “human” behavior, but on the other hand, she was rapidly developing phenomenal martial skills. Pearl worked with Nina in expanding Nina’s heuristics to include a better synthesis or understanding of emotional concepts.
When the linea nigra appeared during Pearl’s twenty-third week, Pearl asked Nina to marry. Pearl knew that once the baby came, they would need to be a family. She wanted that family to have full rights and protections under the law. A marriage would guarantee those rights for Nina and the baby. Nina agreed. A few weeks later, the honorable Judge Matilda “Tildee” Spurlock patiently listened as Pearl made those same arguments in her court. While Judge Spurlock empathized with Pearl and Nina, she stated that granting a marriage license to permit an android to marry would set a dangerous precedent toward giving androids legal status as persons. She then grinned and said “What the hell, it’ll probably get overturned next week by my esteemed colleague across the hall, petition granted.” That very afternoon Judge Tildee Spurlock, herself, presided over the marriage of Mesdames Kathleen and Nina Lemay.
It was actually less than a week before Judge Spurlock’s decision was reversed. It didn’t matter to Pearl and Nina. Wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and other legal documents had been drawn up. If challenged, the documents wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny, but there was a chance that if or when the time came there wouldn’t be any challenges.
The third trimester had just begun when Azumi called. She informed Pearl it was time for another installment on what Pearl owed her. Pearl wondered if she would be doing strange errands for the Xeog for the rest of her life. This time Azumi wanted Pearl to accompany her on a trip to the other side of the planet. She met Azumi at a secluded hanger at the space port where she squeezed into an orbital flight suit. It seemed odd to Pearl to have to wear a flight suit in a shuttle and then she discovered there was no shuttle. Instead of a shuttle, the hanger contained a space plane, a fighter belonging to the Xeog fleet.
“We’re going in that?” asked Pearl.
“Yes,” replied Azumi. “It’s a ‘ptharth thoris’, a fighter called the ‘scalpel’ by the Gaean Star Navy.”
“It’s a mistranslation.” said Pearl. “Ptharth thoris is the ritual dagger used by assassins.”
“You are correct.” Said Azumi.
“Wait a minute, how did I know that?” asked Pearl. “Is that part of what you put in my head?”
“Perhaps.” said Azumi. “I’m surprised it hasn’t all leaked away by now.” Pearl looked at Azumi. The Xeog was in a good mood. Azumi smiled and pointed at a slender ladder. “Let’s get you aboard, shall we?” It was a little scary climbing up the ladder and then stepping down into a cockpit.
There was not much room in the cockpit as Azumi helped Pearl strap in. “I don’t think this was designed for pregnant women.” said Pearl as she settled into the seat. After looking at the controls and switches in front of her Pearl furrowed her brows.
Azumi sensing Pearl’s discomfort said “You’re in the number two seat, the weapons seat. There are redundant controls, so if you had to, you could pilot the ship.” Azumi plugged Pearl’s sensanet into a port on the helmet and then handed the helmet to Pearl. As Pearl locked the helmet into place, Azumi plugged Pearl into the ship.
“Weapons seat?” Pearl asked in a weak voice.
“Oh, and they’re loaded, so don’t push any buttons.” replied Azumi.
“You’re enjoying this too much.” said Pearl.
A short time later the sleek fighter was taxiing across the tarmac to the runway for takeoff. “You’re awfully quiet back there, Pearl. Everything all right?”
The pilot’s seat was in front of Pearl and slightly lower. Pearl could barely see the top of Azumi’s helmet. “I’m thinking.” said Pearl.
“What are you thinking, little one?” Ever since the night at the White Rabbit, Azumi had been addressing Pearl as “little one.” It sounded condescending to Pearl.
“I’m thinking three things.” Pearl replied. “I think I should have brought a hemorrhoid cushion. Second, I’ve never seen a space fighter before, but for some reason I think I could fly this thing.”
“And the third thing?” asked Azumi.
“I’m thinking that there is no way you are a wayward Xeog who has gone rogue and escaped the convent. You’re an agent for the Xeog government, or one of the sisterhoods.”
Azumi laughed and engaged the afterburner. As a loud roar filled her ears, Pearl was pushed back into her seat.
They were in orbit when Azumi finally leveled the space plane. “How are you holding up, Pearl?” she asked.
“Now that we’re weightless the pain in my ass is gone, but I swear, I think the baby threw up.” replied Pearl.
“You realize we could have found a birthing center that would have taken you. They’re not so loyal to Zygote that a little money wouldn’t have fixed things for you.” said Azumi.
Pearl shifted in her seat and looked about. Ever since she was a little girl growing up on Carston’s Station, she’d always been fascinated with the magnificent views from space. “I know, Azumi, but for some reason it seemed right to carry this one myself. I don’t know why. Do Xeogs carry their babies to term or do you also use artificial wombs?”
“All population growth is controlled on our worlds. All life begins with in vitro conception. Our word for birth is closer to your word ‘matriculate’. One is not born so much as she is added to the rolls of the sisterhood. However, there are legends that once every ten thousand years, a mother superior may carry a child in her body as part of a vision quest.” answered Azumi.
“If live birth is so rare as to have become a legend, no wonder Xeog males are but a dim memory of an ancient past.” said Pearl.
“How did you know that, little one?” Azumi asked with a bit of agitation in her voice as if Pearl had uttered a deep secret.”
“I don’t know. It just popped into my head.” said Pearl. “All kinds of weird things like that have been happening to me.” Alarms buzzed. “Oh shit, Azumi! The weapons just went hot and we have bogeys three o’clock port side!”
“I see them Pearl. Don’t touch anything.” Azumi banked the craft and then called, “This is Xeog One Niner Alpha. Do we have a problem Star Navy?”
A pair of Gaea Prime’s “Wasp” fighters were approaching very fast. “Greetings, Xeog One Niner Alpha. No problems, just checking out bound traffic.” the lead fighter replied.
“Well, you’re coming in so close that my defenses just activated and I have a ‘newbie’ in the weapons seat who just soiled her pants. So be careful.” said Azumi.
“Roger that, Xeog One Niner Alpha.” The two fighters cut their speed. “Sorry, she can send the laundry bill to my wingman. Permission to come alongside?” asked the lead fighter.
“Who am I talking to, Star Navy? I’d like to know who I’m giving permission to.” Azumi asked with laughter in her voice.
“This is Red Ball One and my wing of course is Red Ball Two.” replied the lead fighter.
“Permission to come alongside is granted Red Ball One and Red Ball Two.” said Azumi.
“Thank you, Xeog One Niner Alpha. Might I inquire as to your business up here?” inquired Red Ball One.
“Just a milk run from the Xeog Consulate to our ship, Red Ball One.” answered Azumi.
“We would be more than happy to escort you to your ship Xeog One Niner Alpha.” said the Gaean pilot.
“Thank you, Red Ball One, but that won’t be necessary. My escort should be arriving right about… now.” said Azumi as three small Sting fighters swooped in from the port side.
“Oh, shit! Where’d they come from?” exclaimed the pilot of Red Ball Two as the two Gaean Prime fighters peeled away.
“Greetings, Red Ball One and Red Ball Two. This is Xeog flight Two Seven. Two Seven Alpha, speaking.” purred the pilot of the lead Sting fighter.
“Welcome Xeog flight Two Seven. Looks like Xeog One Niner Alpha is in capable hands. We’ll visit with you ladies later.” said Red Ball One. Pearl detected a note of nervousness in his voice.
“Thank you, for your kindness Red Ball One.” cooed Azumi. “If you make it dirtside, join us for drinks at the White Rabbit.”
“Roger that, Xeog One Niner Alpha. Have a nice day.” said the Gaean pilot as the two Gaean Prime fighters sped away.
“You seem happy with that exchange. Does anything ever scare you, Azumi?” asked Pearl.
“Our culture is much older than yours and our lifespan is more than twice that of a basic humanoid. We have seen and experienced much. Perhaps that is why we do not exhibit as much fear as your kind. But we do have fears. And, yes, there are things that scare me. Take what has just happened, for example. Our weapons activated, but they did not activate theirs. Even when they came alongside they did not seem concerned that we were fully armed. When flight Two Seven approached, they did not notice until the flight was right on top of them.” replied Azumi.
“But aren’t Xeog ships known for their stealth capability?” asked Pearl.
Azumi chuckled. “Yes, Xeog stealth technology is the best in the galaxy. But that makes our ships harder to detect, not impossible to detect. Especially when so close. No, little one, my fear is that war is coming and your people are not ready for it.
“Ah, we’ve arrived! There she is the ‘Lannah d’Tule’, one of our finest carracks. The Gaean Star Navy would rate her as a destroyer class, but she has a much longer range than Star Navy destroyers.”
Pearl was amazed. She had seen many ships in her youth, but not any warships. The Lannah d’Tule was sleek with smooth curves, it didn’t have the spherical front section followed by rows of box shaped cargo containers she was used to seeing on Carston’s Station. At first glance, the ship appeared to have wings, but they were actually platforms for launching weapons. Azumi circled to the ship’s stern where its flight deck was located. The ship carried two flights of fighters, a single shuttle, and a number of drones.
The gravity aboard ship was a fraction of the gravity on New Hope. Creating gravity equal to that of a planet aboard star ships and space stations required large amounts of energy, so there was usually only enough gravity to prevent absolute weightlessness. There was no time to change out of the flight suits. Pearl and Azumi were to attend a briefing where they would meet the third member of their team for their trip into the wasteland of New Hope.
They were guided to the ready room adjacent to the flight decks. The three Xeogs in the room stood when Pearl and Azumi entered. Two were wearing white uniforms and the third was wearing the same type of orbital flight suit Pearl and Azumi were wearing.
“Welcome aboard the Lannah d’Tule, Commander Azumi Taijeh. I am Commander Ryoko Jannell.” said the younger looking of the two in white uniforms. She turned to the older Xeog and said to Azumi, “May I present our Captain, Captain Yuri Xinstar.”
“Very pleased to meet you, Captain.” said Azumi with a formal bow. The Captain acknowledged her bow with a nod. “And may I present, Pearl Lemay.” continued Azumi.
The Captain’s eyes brightened and she said to Azumi as if Pearl wasn’t there. “So this is your project, Commander?”
“Among many, ma’am.” Azumi replied.
“And this is Associate Momiji Tran.” said Commander Ryoko. “She is the archeologist who discovered the area you are to explore and will be your third on this mission.” Everything done by any of the Xeog sisterhoods was done in threes. Mission teams, combat teams, fighter squadrons, and even daily life were done in multiples of three.
“I’m glad you can join our team Momiji Tran.” said Azumi. “I understand you may have found a large complex?”
“Yes, Commander Azumi, we think it lays inside of a large system of caverns in the Southern Hemisphere of the planet.” answered Momiji.
“Is it agreeable to you that a member of the team is humanoid?” asked Azumi.
“Having read her file, it is most agreeable.” replied Momiji.
Pearl bit her tongue. She did not like being referred to as a “project.” It also rankled her that there was a file on her that apparently other Xeogs could access. But she decided wait until she was alone with Azumi to confront her about it.
After viewing the target area on a holographic map, the Captain and Commander Ryoko wished them luck and left the ready room. Soon after, Azumi, Pearl, and Momiji were back aboard the heavy fighter and on their way back to the planet’s surface.
On the other side of the planet, the sun had just risen. Lieutenant Marc Probst was enjoying the cool desert air. Soon it would be unbearably hot. He was more than glad that there were only two weeks of maneuvers left and he could leave New Hope behind and rejoin his unit. He was among the Star Army officers assigned to evaluate the contingent forces from Gryphon IV. Some of the other observers thought he had a plum job. He was to evaluate an all female reconnoissance squad from “Racine’s Rangers.” General Rachel Racine had formed an elite all female regiment on Gryphon IV and she was damn proud of it. Lieutenant Probst knew that in the long run, so-called elite units rarely performed better than co-ed units. It didn’t matter if the unit was all female, all male, all of a certain nationality, or all of a certain ideological belief. The regular grunt was statistically just as good as the elite. But generals didn’t believe that. Now he was in the middle of nowhere with ten women on a mission to prove they were the most bad-assed squad of soldiers in the galaxy.
“Coffee, sir?” asked Staff Sergeant Kate Lemay.
“Thank you, Staff.” replied Lt. Probst. “Looks like another scorcher today. We okay on water?”
“Yes sir, we have enough to make it to the target and back to base with some to spare.” answered Katie.
“Whoa! Did you see that, Staff?” asked Sergeant Tanya Yates.
“What was it, Sergeant?” asked Katie.
“The sun just got brighter for a moment and then…” Sgt. Yates was interrupted by a loud series of tones from the radio.
“Alert! Alert! Alert! Echo, echo, tango! Extreme emergency transmission, all maneuvers are cancelled. The New Haven sun has just ejected a large amount of plasma. Prepare for intense radiation and loss of all electronics. Repeat, this is not a drill. Take immediate precautions for massive solar flares and possible harmful radiation. All units take cover immediately.”